Your horse cannot advocate for themselves, they have to live in our world and rely on us to care for them.
Unfortunately in the horse industry pain/stress behaviours are normalised and seen as quirks/personality/behavioural problems. Many horses are managed in a way that is so far removed from their basic needs that we are used to seeing incredibly stressed and compromised horses, it has become the norm. Behaviour we should find alarming isn’t even noticed. People are taught to ignore the horse’s subtle communication and then when they shout louder it is seen as a problem behaviour that needs to be fixed.
I remember being a horse-obsessed child at the riding school and being told to smack and shout at ponies who were nipping at me when being tacked up, “show them who’s boss.” These ponies stood all day tied up in stalls with no food, unable to turn around or see their friends, this was a BHS approved yard to the highest standard, as a ten year old child this was my introduction to horses and who was I to question these qualified professionals? I was told that horses were lazy, grumpy, naughty, bad-tempered, “just trying to get out of work”, cheeky, stupid etc. I’m sure we all have similar stories.
It is only natural to inadvertently attach human emotions to horse behaviour, it is easier for us to understand and it can sound very convincing. This is where we need to be careful. A horse is horse, they do not experience the world like we do and they cannot plot/plan, they’re doing the best they can with the information we have provided them. A horse showing “problem” behaviour is stressed.
We now all have access to so much information online, it can be confusing and overwhelming when you are presented with conflicting advice. There is plenty of evidence-based and peer-reviewed research on pain and conflict behaviour. In the last decade there has been a huge amount of research done to develop the horse pain ethogram. Because horses are prey animals they are very good at hiding emotional states such as pain and discomfort. Thanks to this research we can now recognise these conflict behaviours for what they are and do better by our horses.
It takes a humble person to reflect and be open-minded to change when presented with new information. Unfortunately much of the horse industry is stuck in ego and tradition. It is absolutely possible to bully a horse in pain into compliance and to the uneducated eye the horse can seem “fixed”. And to some people as long as the horse is doing what they want perhaps they don’t really care how the horse feels about it, but I think most of us don’t want that sort of relationship with our horses.
Certain ideas play on peoples’ emotions and nerves and use the idea that horses are dangerous because they’re stronger than us, therefore we have to be rough with them to train them to be safe. This sounds logical when said with confidence but, whilst boundaries are important, you do not need to be a drill sergeant to have a horse that is safe to be around. I want a horse that is relaxed around me, not a horse that stands to attention worried about what happens if they don’t.
It can be incredibly difficult to go against the grain, especially when you don’t really know what to do and everyone around you is pressuring you to do things you aren’t comfortable with. I often have owners call me desperately wanting help and to train in a more ethical way but so worried to go against what their instructor/yard owner/experienced friend is saying. I have even stood there on the yard with a client and their incredibly compromised, stressed out horse as their yard owner tells me how they’ve “done it this way for 40 years and our horses have always been fine” when I’m suggesting to the owner that 30 minutes solitary turnout a day isn’t enough and their horse is struggling. You often see the argument that “my horse is fine”, says who? Did anyone ask the horse? Just because a horse has become conditioned to put up with something doesn’t mean they’re fine. And 9 times out of 10 you see their horses and they’re showing obvious conflict behaviours., which takes us right back to the issue of conflict behaviour being normalised.
We need to be the change, you can’t help every horse but you can help your horse and you never know the seeds you will plant for others. We ask so much of horses, they are such incredible, forgiving creatures and I think a lot of them have a really hard life. There’s a lot of talk around making sure your horse “respects” you, but I think we’d get a lot further along if people were taught to have respect for the horse and what a privilege it is to be around them. 🐴