I watched a video yesterday which was about breaking in yearlings for the race industry and I heard a very common saying, “Horses are big animals and you can’t get them to do something unless they want to.”
This remark is not only archaic but it has the potential to be extremely damaging. This comment may seem extreme but when you look at what that mindset could cause, you might start to agree with me.
If you believe that horses are ‘choosing’ rather than resigning then you set the scene for your entire relationship to be seen through rose tinted glasses. This view may serve your purposes but certainly will not serve in the best interests of the horse.
Horses will do what they don’t want to do, not at least because we as humans have spent many, many years learning how to get them to submit to our needs and wants. Although this is changing and people are now seeking another way with horses, one that speaks of partnership and respect, we still have a long way to go before we are really working with horses that are choosing their own lives.
Most people have heard about learned helplessness and I read only this week about something that whilst it was not horse related, it is relevant for what we sometimes see in horses. In orphanages where the babies do not have enough care givers, it takes them about seven days to stop crying. Eventually, they learn that crying does not get their needs seen to and so they give up and stop crying. Their needs do not disappear and in fact may increase over time because they are now suppressing them and thus create stress. If we relate this back to horses, how many times do you think they show someone that they are in distress, do not like your training or handling, or indeed their life, before they simply give up? How much discomfort would they put up with before just give you the behavior that you are seeking?
If it takes as little as seven days for babies to stop crying, how quickly can psychological damage be done to a horse? Bearing in mind that a lot of people will miss the silent language of the horse and the subtle signs that something is wrong or they are not comfortable, the possibilities of negative affects is overwhelming.
You also have to think about the fact that much of what we are doing with our horses is about our pleasure and our desires. Most often, it is not the horses that want to do what we ask them to. Based on this alone, it becomes very difficult to create a relationship based on love and respect.
Things are changing but it’s us that need to change and not the horses. We need to look at our motives and make sure that we learn about the horses we are with. We need to work to understand when they are saying no and when they are not comfortable or confident with what we are doing. We need to ensure that we understand the basis for the relationship we are creating. Whilst I am sure that there are some people out there who won’t care what the horse wants, I'm confident that most people do and that they want their horses to choose to be with them.