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Hi Herd, its Ambassador, Rae.
Recently in the equestrian world a video of a well-known trainer and equestrian surfaced showing him beating a horse on the flank with a tree branch to force them into a water jump that they refused. This video has sparked outrage and also defense of said trainer, and in my opinion has really showcased a problem that we all need to change in the equestrian world: when we know better than to do something, we need to actually do better and encourage others to do the same.
Shortly after I had gotten my first horse Bug, he developed a vice of not wanting to stand at the mounting block. I was still very new to horses and learning training techniques, so I took the approach similar to what I would do with a dog: train with treats (positive reinforcement), because that’s what I was most familiar with.
I tried working with Bug in the round pen to fix this vice, and after a few days we were making improvements even with my poor timing and lack of knowledge, I was trying my best and this gentler approach was working in some way for him. We later had a lesson with my, at the time, trainer. She watched me try to be patient with him at the mounting block for all of five minutes before her own patience wore thin. She grabbed Bug from me and proceeded to beat him on his flank with a crop until the crop broke in half. I could not believe what I just saw, and I was on the brink of tears. She told me that I was “too easy on him”, and I needed to “make the wrong thing hard so the right thing made sense”. I just remember not saying a single word to her the rest of my lesson, and crying and apologizing to Bug afterwards.
I have seen this, and countless other displays border-lining abuse in my years in the equestrian world. And, to be completely honest, I think a lot of people’s reactions to situations and training techniques stem from purely a lack of knowledge and understanding of horse mentality.
Many horsemen think that you need to dominate a horse, be the boss of them, demand their respect, and if a horse “acts out” that you need to force them to submit to you. In the words of one of my favorite goofy commercials from the 2000s, “That’s not how this works! That’s not how any of this works!”
Horses quite literally lack the portion of the brain that can make decisions like “I’m going to have an attitude today!” or “I’m going to buck my rider off for no reason!” They cannot make emotional decisions. Horses live in the moment and will act and react based on what is presented to them in a given moment.
When a horse reacts to something in what we perceive to be a negative way, instead of reacting we need to ask ourselves, “Why?” Because there is always a reason why a horse is responding how they are! As equestrians and horsemen we should always strive to get to the root of the “why” and when we can give a more logical response to that, we in turn will have a happier and more willing partner.
We all got into this sport and lifestyle for the love of the horse, did we not? I think every single one of us has that in common. But as the years pass, the love of the horse may fade, and in turn be replaced with a love for money, for winning, for perfection, and the horse comes last. It’s sad, but it’s the truth even though many would never admit it.
So, if we all started this because we love the horse, let’s strive to become the owners, riders, drivers, grooms, and so on, that every horse wishes they had! Let us all be our equine’s voice, their advocate. Let’s all be better than we were yesterday and continue learning without feeling shame for not knowing it all. You only know what you know! It’s hard to break old habits, but by putting forth an effort to learn new things that will improve your horsemanship, you’ve already taken a huge leap in the right direction!
We’ve all done things that we’re not proud of in the past, I know I have for sure. I’ve acted out of frustration, exhaustion, anger, fear even, and I’m not proud of those moments. I can always see that almost instantly after I’ve acted. I’m not the most patient person in the world, and I’ll be the first to admit that. But I’m constantly trying to improve and be better for my horses. I want to learn their language and learn how to better listen to them. Since I’ve started listening instead of talking over them, I’ve been able to solve a lot of really simple problems that I might not have been able to otherwise.
I’ve been blabbering on and on here, but the point of this blog post I’ve written is that we as equestrians need to strive to be better and be open to learning and listening to our equine partners more. We need to listen for the whisper before it turns into a scream. And when we know better, we do better.
*If you’d like to do some of your own research into equine neuroscience and how horses think, I very highly recommend the book “Horse Brain, Human Brain” by Janet L. Jones*
If you want to follow my journey, you can find me on instagram @fourthtimesequestrian