‘The horse doesn’t respect you as his leader’, is a common explanation for why a horse is not cooperating, whether it be because he is standing too close, won’t be caught, won’t load, won’t pick up his feet, bucks you off etc.
Except…the problem is never that the horse doesn’t respect us as his leader, because the concept of respect is not something that horses are mentally capable of.
So why then does the common response of making the horse run around in circles to gain his respect seem to fix these problems, if it is not that the horse is respecting us more, what is it?
Well essentially, we are punishing the horse for not cooperating, by making him run around in circles. I’m using the word punishment in the scientific sense – where it is defined as being a condition added after an unwanted behaviour, which makes that behaviour less likely in future.
Let’s look at the example where my horse wont load on the horse float, so I make it run around in circles every time it backs away from the float and I let it rest in or as close to the horse float as I can. If the running around is perceived by the horse as ‘more unpleasant’ than being in the float, then the horse will stop backing away from, or off the float and I will be able to fix the loading problem. But at what cost? If my horse is scared of the float (hence not wanting to go on it), then he has had to choose to be scared in order to avoid the running around. ☹ He has also learned that when he is with me, things can be scary and unpleasant. If this happens often, my horse can start associating being with me, with feeling stressed and scared. ☹☹
If we go back to our original question of ‘if it is not that the horse is respecting us more, what is it?’, the answer is that the horse is trying to avoid being punished.
Is making the horse run around in circles a more humane punishment that beating it? Yes. Does the running around sort of punishment run the risk of damaging our relationship with our horse? Also yes. Is punishment necessary to get the behaviour change we want in the horse? Absolutely Not! In fact, other methods can be more effective AND improve our relationships, rather than running the risk of damaging them.
As humans, punishment is our go-to tool for reducing unwanted behaviour. It is familiar, and it can be effective quickly, which can make us feel good. It’s easy to feel like it’s the only option, especially when it is packaged up in such a way that we don’t realise that’s what we are doing.
So let’s flip the paradigm. If respect is a human construct, what if we applied it to ourselves? What if every time our horse did something we didn’t like, we decided to respect the horse? What would that look like?
I’m not talking about a horse-led free for all where humans get trampled and horses do nothing but eat all day.
I’m talking about learning to listen. So when our horse doesn’t load on the float, we don’t assume he doesn’t respect us, rather we try and understand why he doesn’t want to load. If our horse is scared of the float then we can help him explore it gradually, so he can learn that the float is not scary before we start training him to load.
I’m talking about learning about the different ways that horses can learn. By taking the time to understand learning theory, you will be in a position to select which methods you want to use and which methods (like punishment) you may not want to use. This will help you to select a trainer and methods that align with your values. It will also enable us to be more consistent and effective when training our horse.
I’m talking about respecting the horse’s body. By asking permission before we touch them. By allowing them to be responsible for moving their own body and training them to voluntarily adopt healthy postures that benefit their body, rather than trying to force it into a set posture.
I’m talking about spending time learning the subtleties of how horses communicate and then paying attention and listening to what our horse has to say.
I’m talking about a true cooperation between horse and handler. A real partnership, where both human and horse can communicate their opinions and suggestions and have them heard.
I’m talking about a horse who chooses to work with you, not because they are trying to avoid punishment, but because they enjoy being with you and know that you understand and respect them.
If this sounds like a fairytale, I can assure you it is possible. You can learn to communicate with your horse and have a more equal relationship where the horse chooses to work with you. It is not magical, even if it feels that way sometimes, the skills are straightforward to learn, you don’t need to be born with a special horse connection to do it.
The first step is on the journey is to turn the idea that horses need to respect us on its head. Let’s leave this outdated idea behind and practice respecting the horse instead.
© 2021 Sara Jackson