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Buddy’s Razor

No, not for shav­ing whiskers.

In phi­los­o­phy, a razor is a prin­ci­ple or rule of thumb that allows you to elim­i­nate (“shave off”) unlike­ly expla­na­tions for a phe­nom­e­non. Per­haps the most famous is Occam’s Razor: “Among com­pet­ing hypothe­ses, the one with the fewest assump­tions should be select­ed.” But one of my favorites is Hanlon’s razor: “Nev­er attribute to mal­ice that which can be ade­quate­ly explained by stu­pid­i­ty.”

Bud­dy taught me Buddy’s Razor the hard way, for both of us. I regret a lot of the mis­takes I made along the way, but he says he’s just glad that I final­ly fig­ured it out.

Nev­er attribute to defi­ance any­thing that can be ade­quate­ly explained by pain, fear, or mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion.
—Buddy’s Razor

If I had a dol­lar for every time some­one told me “He’s not respect­ing you! Don’t let him get away with that!”, I still wouldn’t have quite enough for all the vet bills, but it sure would make a dent. There are two big things wrong with that atti­tude. First, hors­es are inca­pable of respect—it requires a lev­el of abstract thought that they don’t have. Peo­ple load a lot onto the term “dis­re­spect” when they apply it to hors­es, but the part I’m refer­ring to here is bet­ter called “defi­ance”. The sec­ond prob­lem with the state­ment is that cor­rect­ing a horse for “defi­ance” is only use­ful it you have cor­rect­ly iden­ti­fied it, and in most oth­er cas­es is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive.

It’s true that hors­es are some­times tru­ly defi­ant, most often for one very spe­cif­ic reason—a horse may judge your posi­tion in the over­all social hier­ar­chy of humans and hors­es to be low­er than his (more about this in anoth­er post), and so feel no need to fol­low your direc­tion. But more often, the appear­ance of defi­ance is a result of pain, fear, or mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Pain

Most hors­es are bet­ter than most peo­ple at not show­ing pain. This is adap­tive for a prey ani­mal, since a preda­tor is more like­ly to attack you if you appear inca­pac­i­tat­ed in any way. But it caus­es us to miss signs of pain, and in many cas­es we inter­pret as “defi­ance” the reac­tion to pain.

When I was learn­ing the basics of equi­tation with Bud­dy, one of the exer­cis­es was the 20 m cir­cle. He did well in a cir­cle to the left, so it was puz­zling that he would fall to the out­side on the cir­cle to the right. The instruc­tor had me try the tra­di­tion­al cor­rec­tions, but they didn’t have the “tra­di­tion­al effect”. It turned out that he had an arthrit­ic right hock, so it caused pain for him to reach under his body with the right hind on the cir­cle, and he respond­ed by falling to the out­side. When his arthri­tis was treat­ed, the prob­lem went away.

Fear

Hors­es sur­vive by fear and flight. It’s a won­der that they work with humans at all. There are plen­ty of jokes about hors­es being “afraid of sil­ly lit­tle things”, but when you ask a horse for some­thing and he says “No way!”, it’s not so sil­ly, and it’s not defi­ance. Forc­ing a horse against fear works often enough that peo­ple still do it, but it has long-​term dis­ad­van­tages.

You can nev­er rely on a horse that is edu­cat­ed by fear. There will always be some­thing that he fears more than you. But, when he trusts you, he will ask you what to do when he is afraid.   —Antoine de Plu­vinel

Miscommunication

As much trou­ble as peo­ple can have com­mu­ni­cat­ing with one anoth­er, you’d think that they’d expect even more mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion with a dif­fer­ent species. But just as the stereo­typ­ic Amer­i­can tourist shouts Eng­lish at peo­ple who don’t under­stand it, to make it more com­pre­hen­si­ble, many rid­ers respond to a horse not under­stand­ing by “shouting”—increasing the force of the aids, or mov­ing on to pun­ish­ment.

The order of Buddy’s Razor is impor­tant. First, rule out pain. If that’s not the prob­lem, rule out fear (and pain can cause fear, since a painful horse can­not escape dan­ger as eas­i­ly). With both those ruled out, check to make sure you’re com­mu­ni­cat­ing. If the horse is not in pain, not afraid, and is being asked for some­thing he has already shown he knows how to do, only then should you assume defi­ance.

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