The horse: your experiencing self

The purpose of this article is to help those of us who:

  • Struggle to stay motivated to do what we've set out to do, or
  • Want to stop ourselves from giving in to time-wasting, regret-inducing temptations.

This is part of a series about a new way to see ourselves.  In a previous article, I quoted philosopher Christine Korsgaard, who wrote:

It is important to remember that we each have an animal identity as well as our more specifically human identity and that some of the most important problems of personal integration come from this fact.... The animal is the subject of experiences in the sense of being immediately conscious of them when they are present.

We're not horsing around here

A metaphor works well when it corresponds to reality on several dimensions.  This article will discuss the many ways in which a horse and rider metaphor can help us get more control over our choices in the short term.  Other articles in the series explain how we can live a life with minimal regrets in the long term.

In the article Choose Your Own Adventure I introduced the hedonic principle.  All our decisions are based, directly or indirectly, on whether something rewards us or causes anxiety.  Horses are a good metaphor for the hedonic principle because horses categorize most of their experiences in one of two ways:

  • Something to fear, so they flee.  
  • Something not to fear, so they ignore it or explore it.

Horses are prey animals rather than predators, so they react swiftly when faced with the possibility of a threat.  Horses can be easily dominated by humans if done respectfully and carefully. Horses also manifest their emotions openly and visibly.

Why the horse metaphor is helpful

  • It helps us manage our instincts better.
  • It helps us manage our emotions.
  • It helps us treat ourselves better.
  • It helps us realize why we make often change our minds.
  • It helps us learn how to motivate ourselves more effectively.

Let's examine each of these. 

It helps us manage our instincts better

Bayard Fox, who has ridden horses for 80 years, tells a story about a time when his horse's instincts may have saved his life:

That horse refused to take the trail which was totally out of character for him, but I was adamant and impatiently got off to lead him up the first part of the trail and get him started. There was an inch of fresh snow on the ground and when I had gone a few feet up I looked down and saw the biggest grizzly track I had ever seen. It was a very fresh track as yet still clear despite the falling snow. I took one look, turned my horse around, jumped in the saddle and headed quickly for home. Ever since that time I have paid careful attention when a horse didn’t want to do something.

Horses don't use spoken communication, of course, but they give clear signals with their bodies. The way they move their ears, snouts, tails, and the postures they adopt all express the way they feel.  Just like a rider needs to learn his horse's signals.  A savvy rider can save herself injury by reading the "warning flags" and getting off the horse before getting thrown off.

Our instincts may not be as keen as a horse's, but we need to learn to read our body's signals.  Reading a book such as What Every Body is Saying by Joe Navarro can sharpen our senses to be more aware of what we and others are experiencing.

It helps us manage our emotions

In Mastery, Robert Greene writes, "The emotions we experience at any time have an inordinate influence on how we perceive the world."

In The Three-Step Method to Emotional Intelligence, I pointed out, "While many of us were raised believing that our emotions are automatic responses to the actions of others, we can learn to stop and reflect on how to react, or even whether to react at all."  When experiencing strong emotions, try to think of yourself as riding a horse that's in the strong grip of emotions.  It wants to gallop away with you.  Will you let it?  Next time you experience a strong emotion, first name it, then try to picture yourself as a rider on an emotional horse.  What lesson will the horse learn if you let it take over?

It helps us treat ourselves better

Sometimes we can be hard on ourselves.  Beating ourselves up mentally doesn't fix the problem.

If the horse got out of hand and brought you where you don't want to be, what should you do?  First, you need to calm the horse.  

Horses are "distinguished by being docile and friendly," says "What really matters is the bond created between them and humans."  A rider needs to treat the horse with compassion. Judging the horse makes no sense. You need to figure out what the horse is going through to comfort the horse.  Likewise, we need to learn to practice self-compassion, that is, to give ourselves permission to own our thoughts, emotions, and actions, without necessarily approving of them.

If you were trying to calm an anxious horse, you would likely use the horse's name.  Studies show that using our own names to talk to ourselves can reduce our own anxiety.Examples are Kross, E., & Ayduk, O. (2017). Self-Distancing. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 81–136. doi:10.1016/bs.aesp.2016.10.002 and Moser, J. S., Dougherty, A., Mattson, W. I., Katz, B., Moran, T. P., Guevarra, D., … Kross, E. (2017). Third-person self-talk facilitates emotion regulation without engaging cognitive control: Converging evidence from ERP and fMRI. Scientific Reports, 7(1). doi:10.1038/s41598-017-04047-3  which concluded, "Together, these results suggest that third-person self-talk may constitute a relatively effortless form of self-control." Try it!

It helps us realize why we make often change our mind

Several popular writers have used the many selves concept to explain why we often change our minds.  This can happen in two ways:

  • We make a decision, a resolution for example, and then fail to carry it out.
  • We make a decision that we would not have made in an earlier place and time because we discount our prior self's wishes.

Failing to carry out a decision

The first scenario is more familiar to most of us.  In the last article, I quoted a Seinfeld bit where Jerry tells his audience how his "night guy" self stays up too late and makes it hard for his "morning guy" self.  In his book Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari talks about this way we change our minds:

Furthermore, the experiencing self is often strong enough to sabotage the best-laid plans of the narrating self. I might, for instance, make a New Year’s resolution to start a diet and go to the gym every day. Such grand decisions are the monopoly of the narrating self. But the following week when it’s gym time, the experiencing self takes over. I don’t feel like going to the gym, and instead I order pizza, sit on the sofa and turn on the TV.Notice he uses "narrating self" as a foil for "experiencing self," while I would substitute "planning self" for "narrating self".

Making a decision that a past self would not have made

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman devotes an entire section of the book to "Two selves." Here are two examples illustrating just how little we value our experiencing self when we make decisions:

Psychologist Ed Diener and his team asked students who went on vacation to keep a diary describing the experiences they had during the vacation.  Then they were asked if they would go to the same place again.  After analyzing the results statistically, Diener found that their decisions were based entirely on their memories of the experience.  (Our memories of events are subject to the Peak/End Effect, which means we assign a much higher weight to the quality of peak experiences and experiences toward the end of an episode.)  Kahneman reports, their "intentions for future vacations were entirely determined by the final evaluation - even when that score did not accurately represent the quality of the experience they described in the diaries."

Think about what that means.  If the students had polled their past selves on each day of the vacation about whether they wanted to go back, the majority of days the response would be positive.  But when they had completed the vacation their decision about whether to return was based only on the last day self's and the peak experience self's experiences.  That's not a very democratic way to make decisions!

Both Harari and Kahneman refer to a study of colonoscopy patients who underwent colonoscopies, some long and some short, that were all equally painful in the beginning.  However, the longer colonoscopies were less painful at the end.  The study found that the patients would prefer the longer one.  Harari concludes, "From the viewpoint of the narrating self, the doctor should add a few completely superfluous minutes of dull aches at the very end of the test, because it would make the entire memory far less traumatic."

Kahneman proposes a disturbing thought experiment:

Imagine that you face a painful operation during which you will remain conscious. You are told you will scream in pain and beg the surgeon to stop. However, you are promised an amnesia-inducing drug that will completely wipe out any memory of the episode. How do you feel about such a prospect?

Here again, my informal observation is that most people are remarkably indifferent to the pains of their experiencing self. Some say they don't care at all. Others share my feeling, which is that I feel pity for my suffering self but not more than I would feel for a stranger in pain. Odd as it may seem, I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.

Considering these facts, doesn't it make sense to compare the relationship between the agent self and the experiencing self to a rider with a horse?

It helps us learn how to motivate ourselves more effectively

Morten Storgaard writes, "Balking, or refusing to move forward, is a normal behavior for horses."  We can get frustrated with ourselves when we lack motivation.  But we can learn lessons from horse training that can help us motivate ourselves.

Lisa Rack, in her very comprehensive Resource Guide for Horseback Riding, encourages trainers to "go at the horse's pace."  

Take it slow and try not to make him feel wrong if he makes a mistake. Be gentle but as firm as it takes to get the desired response. Remember to quit when he gives just one positive reaction and then build on that. That way he will try harder for you next time.

This advice works if we are trying to train ourselves to do something new as well.  We've got to nurture our inner horse in order to succeed.

Other experienced horse trainers suggest asking why? if the horse isn't cooperating.  The reasons horses don't cooperate are the same reasons we often don't follow through on our intentions:

  • They might be tired.
  • They might need to warm up.
  • They might need more practice.
  • They might not be receiving the right cues.

Let's address these, one at a time:

They might be tired

Sometimes we push ourselves but can't make ourselves do what we've planned.  Horses and humans both need a proper diet to give them the energy they need.

As we tire our muscles become less responsive and our attention begins to wander.  Horses and people are both more inclined to trip or fall if they are too tired. 

Horses think in terms of comfort and discomfort. The right clothes and shoes can make all the difference for a runner. Likewise, horses are more cooperative when they are comfortable physically. 

They might need to warm up

Exercise should start out gradually. Likewise, when starting a new habit or taking on a new identity, we need to start gradually and not expect too much at once.

"The most common mistake trail riders make is overestimating their horse’s physical conditioning," says Storgaard. "Avoid doing this by knowing your horse’s fitness level in order to help you determine what length of trail ride he can comfortably do and what degree of difficulty he is up for." Humans often overestimate their own physical, mental, and psychological conditioning when setting goals.

They might need more practice

We often set goals that require more ability than we currently have to meet the goal.  The solution, for animals and humans, is practice.

"Repetition," Storgaard continues, "is a great way to teach anything, whether it is to horses, pets, children, or even yourself."

Lack of training, lack of faith in their rider, and fear of the unknown are all reasons why horses sometimes refuse to move forward.  Likewise, we need to reassure ourselves.  Making continual forward progress, at a slow pace, can give us the confidence we need to keep going.  That's how horses are trained.  They need time to adapt to a new experience, and then they need a break before being exposed again.  We shouldn't expect more out of our (experiencing) selves.  Also, the horse trainer, the narrating self, can help the horse by reassuring him that we are competent to handle the task.

According to Storgaard, "If you do not consistently train your horse, you can lose all the progress that you have made."  That applies to humans too.  A horse trainer needs to keep a schedule to make sure the training stays on track. 

They might not be receiving the right cues

A horse won't move forward unless it gets a clear, consistent cue asking it to move forward.  Likewise, we need to provide ourselves cues that will establish a good pattern of behavior.  A future article will discuss this in-depth.  "Training a horse to go forward, even when he doesn’t want to can help to cure his stubbornness."

According to Rack, "The basic horse training principle in natural horsemanship is to release pressure when he has done the RIGHT thing. If you don’t release the pressure, he won’t learn that he got the answer right. That may mean you reward his TRY to do something right."  So often we berate ourselves for not succeeding instead of rewarding ourselves for trying!  The latter is a much more effective method of making a decision stick.

Does this make (horse) sense?

Philosophers and psychologists have been comparing our inner nature to an animal for many decades, even centuries.  I hope I've convinced you that this concept has more than philosophical value.  Recognizing our nature can help us train ourselves to make better decisions in the short term and follow through more consistently.

In the next article, we'll discuss how our rider self can take control of the horse.


  • A horse metaphor can help us make decisions and follow through more consistently.
    • It can help us realize why we make often change our minds.
    • It can help us manage our emotions.
    • It can help us treat ourselves better.
    • It can help us manage our instincts better.
    • It can help us learn how to motivate ourselves more effectively.
      • We might be tired.
      • We might need to warm up.
      • We might need more practice.
      • We might not be giving ourselves the right cues.

Article series

  1. A New Way to See Your Self - Take a Trail Ride to a New Identity
  2. The Map: Who Are You? Where Are You Going?
  3. The Horse Trainer: Narrate Your Life Like There's No Yesterday
  4. The Guide: Keep Your Future Out of the Trash Can (and Vice Versa)

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