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  • Writer's pictureLouise Stobbs

Do you want a horse or a robot?

The goal of training in the horse industry is centred around achieving compliance no matter what, control the feet, control the brain, control the behaviour. The whole industry is geared towards our enjoyment and what we want to do, which seems deeply unfair when the other party is unable to consent. Any sign of non-compliance is thrown up as “problem” behaviour and we’re encouraged to get it “fixed” quickly so we can continue to use them as we wish.

Trainers who genuinely understand horse behaviour and take the horse’s feelings into account are few and far between and much of it feels akin to taking your car into a garage and having it fixed, if you get results fast then you’re an amazing horseman. Even better if you make it sound like the horse loves it too.

It is extremely hard to navigate as owners who want to do the best by our horses. There is so much nuance around these conversations and I don’t want to sound like I’m attacking anyone. So as someone who used to drill the hell out of my horses and think it was good training, I’ll leave you with some things to think about.

Interacting with horses is so much more complex than having control of their feet. Moving a horse’s feet until they comply isn’t “speaking to them in their language”, it isn’t good communication when one side isn’t even listening. “Do this or I’m going to make life horrible for you” isn’t a conversation.

How valuable do you think a relationship is when it is largely judged on the compliance and obedience of one party to the other’s wishes?

We are almost intimidated into treating our horses harshly. Being told that if we don’t dominate and control their every move around us we aren’t being a “good leader” and we’re going to ruin our horses and make them dangerous. I promise you aren’t going to ruin your horse by considering his feelings. You are going to help him feel so much better about you.

I remember the first time I actually allowed my horse to say no to something after years of being a drill sergeant, I think he felt as weird about it as I did. Allowing him to show me how he really felt about me and the things I’d been making him do didn’t feel good for my ego, but I am so glad we went down this path and I am now able to enjoy my relationship with him on a deeper level, rather than the artificial one where I felt good and he felt intimidated.

Now if I get a “no”, I make the question easier, or if its appropriate stop altogether for the day. There is too much nuance in different situations to be specific here, but you do not need to get a perfect behaviour to end a session. Maybe its a behaviour you’ve trained before but its a really windy day or your horse is just feeling tired. If the horse is struggling that day we just do something the horse finds easy and finish for the day, instead of refusing to take no for an answer and creating conflict. The more you consider your horse’s feelings and act accordingly, the more he will feel relaxed around you, instead of feeling shut down and worried to make a mistake.

Putting a horse in unnecessarily high-stress situations and drilling him, so much that he never even bothers to try to say no anymore because he knows you’ll never listen, then calling it “trust” and “a good bond” is ridiculous once you understand the behavioural science.

I’m sure we all want to think our horse likes us and enjoys our company and its uncomfortable to think otherwise, but instead of using our energy to be defensive, how about we put the effort into making positive changes in how we are around our horses. The more we educate ourselves and question the status-quo, the more these out-dated training methods will die out.

It is so frustrating that well-meaning owners are being pulled into this rhetoric and encouraged to bulldoze through their relationship with their much-loved horses when what they’re really seeking is being drowned out by good marketing and pseudoscience.

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