By Stefanie Mazer
Where did we come up with this notion that horses are being intentionally badly behaved?
“He was just being a jerk”
“He was being rude”
“Get after him”
“Show him who is boss”
“He dogged you”
“What a little donkey”
These are common attitudes and beliefs about how riders or trainers are supposed to react when ponies and horses are misbehaving. These attitudes and beliefs are oppressive; they do not take into consideration the unique perceptions of the horse. The horse is a prey animal, and does not behave like a predator or like a man. They don’t think, “ How can I be a jerk?” They think, “Do I have an opportunity to protect myself? Can I take that opportunity?”
Great horseman and legendary natural horsemanship pioneer, Ray Hunt, believed that horses did things for 2 reasons. 1. Because that is what they are supposed to do. 2. Because that is what they need to do to feel comfortable, safe, and survive.
Perhaps if we started changing our attitudes about why horses behave “badly” and approach them from a place of compassion and empathy, we can find effective ways to be confident leaders and curious investigators, instead of oppressive adversaries. We need to understand their motivations when they display fear, pain, or negative behavior.
I had a small pony that would misbehave all the time. I never knew what was wrong with her and will never know. And maybe there was nothing wrong. Maybe, she was just lazy. She would jump the jumps all day with me, but if I put a little child on her, she would misbehave and not jump. No one ever fell off, so she wasn’t mean as I often hear people say. She would take advantage of the opportunity to not have to work because it was more comfortable for her. We can’t make them do a job they don’t want to do for a child they don’t want to do it for. Or can we? I guess we can try and sometimes they will work for the child and sometimes they won’t. But, let’s at least be accurate in understanding their worldview, and let’s at least be honest about what we are doing. Was she a jerk for not wanting to jump the jumps? Or was I a jerk for trying to make her jump the jumps anyway? She is the prey animal. I am the human, a predator. We need to look at these relationship dynamics to better understand and take responsibility for what it is we are doing. This will only enable us to be better people and better horseman.
The next time you feel like you need to be an oppressor to your horse, instead think how can I give my horse the gift of being confident leader? That is something he would truly appreciate. If your horse misbehaves and looks fearful, help to desensitize him. Once he takes a deep breath and relaxes, pat him on the forehead, look at the ground, and wait for him to drop his head. Then, walk confidently away as he follows behind. This is a great first step in building a different kind of relationship with your horse.As prey animals, horses want to feel safe. What being doesn’t feel safe with a strong leader they can trust and respect?
Maybe if this pony had a rider who could have built a different relationship on the ground with her over a long period of time things could have gone differently. I don’t know and I will never know. This type of relationship can take time and patience to build, but I think it is worth it and very important. It is something that is central to my program for riders who have their own horses and who ride consistently.
If we become more empathetic and compassionate toward our horse’s behavior, can we mirror this in our attitudes toward people?
Let us build relationships with our horses. Part of great horsemanship is understanding the animal- how it works and why it works. Empathy, knowledge, and time are essential. Riding is not a race to competition; it is not a results-based endeavor. Take your time, enjoy the process, build understanding.