Not all the time; that would be sil­ly.

There’s a dog­ma among rid­ers and train­ers that a horse should move at the gait and speed that you choose, all the time, every time, and that any devi­a­tion is dis­obe­di­ence or “dis­re­spect”. Allow­ing the horse to rou­tine­ly choose gait, speed, or path is def­i­nite­ly dan­ger­ous, and a skilled rid­er should be able to clear­ly com­mu­ni­cate expec­ta­tions to the horse. But by being absolute and unyield­ing in your expec­ta­tions of the horse, you are cut­ting off one of the most use­ful ways your horse has of com­mu­ni­cat­ing to you.

At lib­er­ty, hors­es almost always choose their own gait and speed. Even a horse  run­ning with a herd is choos­ing the safe­ty of that herd. About the only excep­tions are a horse being chased by a real or imag­ined preda­tor, and a horse stuck in quick­sand. Stud­ies have shown that hors­es often choose gaits and speeds that are most effi­cient; this is hard­ly sur­pris­ing.

Adding a rid­er to the mix changes every­thing. When a horse deals with the weight and bal­ance of the rid­er, dif­fer­ent gait/​speed com­bi­na­tions become more effi­cient. Com­bi­na­tions that are not effi­cient have to be trained. Clas­si­cal west­ern hors­es have to be trained to the jog, which is slow­er than the trot they might choose them­selves, and to the lope, which is slow­er than their pre­ferred can­ter. Upper-​level com­pet­i­tive dres­sage hors­es are trained not only to slow­er speeds, such as the can­ter pirou­ette, pas­sage, and piaffe, but also extend­ed trots. It’s true that some hors­es and even breeds have con­for­ma­tion that makes these com­bi­na­tions eas­i­er, but that doesn’t mean that they are in any way effort­less.

So what might a horse be com­mu­ni­cat­ing by choos­ing a gait and speed that you didn’t ask for? The stock answer is “I’m the boss of you!” Some rid­ers and even train­ers are so inse­cure in their con­nec­tion with hors­es that they always seize that expla­na­tion. Some­times it’s even cor­rect. But what if the horse had no incli­na­tion to be the boss of you yes­ter­day, and is per­fect­ly coop­er­a­tive tomor­row?

Some oth­er things your horse might be telling you:

  • I hurt. I’m devel­op­ing an abscess, or my arthri­tis is act­ing up.
  • I’m not strong enough to do this for an extend­ed peri­od.
  • I’m scared. If you weren’t on my back, I’d run away, but I’m doing this dis­place­ment activ­i­ty instead.
  • I’m grumpy, my ovaries hurt, and I’m doing every­thing I can not to buck you off, which I’d nev­er do any­way.
  • I feel great! I want to run in the sun, pow­er through the flow­ers, and I real­ly don’t under­stand why you’re not down with that.
  • I feel great! I want to nap in the sun, munch on the flow­ers, and I real­ly don’t under­stand why you’re not down with that.
  • You’re crazy! You’re ask­ing me to risk los­ing my foot­ing and killing us both.
  • You’re throw­ing me off-​balance! I hear there are these things called “lessons”.
  • I’m sick. If you took my tem­per­a­ture, or even looked at my eyes, you’d real­ize that.

If my horse were try­ing to tell me any of these things, I’d want to know about it. Var­i­ous hors­es at var­i­ous times have told me most of these things. If I passed it all off as dis­obe­di­ence, I’d be telling my horse “You don’t mat­ter.” That’s not a good basis for a trust rela­tion­ship.

If I passed it all off as dis­obe­di­ence, I’d be telling my horse “You don’t mat­ter.”

One of the trails Bud­dy and I take away from the sta­ble has a gen­tle incline right as we leave the prop­er­ty. He always wants to trot it. If I ask him to walk, he will, but I don’t, because I can learn enough from the speed of that trot, the way his body moves, and the way his head moves to know whether there are any issues that I should address, or that might mean we shouldn’t go out at all. And the time he vol­un­teered a walk, I could tell he wasn’t well, and we turned around and went back.

And then there’s the stop.

It’s true that hors­es can stop because they are lazy. Or exhaust­ed. Or wor­ried. Or con­fused. It’s hard to imag­ine a response that use­ful­ly address­es all those things (and more) with­out know­ing (or even car­ing about) the rea­son.

When I first rode Bud­dy in what I like to call “con­trived obsta­cle cours­es”, he would some­times stop dead before an obsta­cle. I was green, and there was peer pres­sure, and I even thought about get­ting spurs. But I learned that if I kept him fac­ing the obsta­cle with­out push­ing him to go for­ward, he would even­tu­al­ly fig­ure it out and go for­ward on his own, because he knew that’s what I expect­ed. And once he real­ized that he wouldn’t be kicked at every obsta­cle, he calmed down and took them more eas­i­ly.

So if your horse insists on a dif­fer­ent gait or speed from the one you request­ed, think about let­ting him take it for a few strides until you fig­ure out why. Remem­ber that hors­es live in the present. Your horse doesn’t plot dis­obe­di­ence based on your past weak­ness­es. Give him the chance to tell you what’s on his mind, now.

A num­ber of years ago, I worked for a time with a graph­ic design­er, Gun­nar Swan­son. He also taught graph­ic design stu­dents, and he told me that when a stu­dent was con­cerned that a design ele­ment was too big, he told the stu­dent to make it big­ger. The idea was that some ele­ments just “want” to be big, and they need to be released from “big, but not quite big enough”, and that in oth­er cas­es, mak­ing the ele­ment big­ger would cause the design­er to see the design in a whole new light, and come up with dif­fer­ent solu­tions.

Maybe a decade ago, I applied this idea to bits: If a bit isn’t giv­ing you enough con­trol, switch to a milder bit. For my part, it led to rid­ing in a rope hal­ter (more about that in a lat­er post). The basic idea is that, although bits are for con­trol, they are nev­er for more  con­trol, and that if a bit seems inad­e­quate in that regard, the rid­er should return to the basics of horse­man­ship and for­get about met­al gad­gets.

A sec­ond exam­ple of “make it big­ger” occurred to me recent­ly. If your horse is going too fast, ask him to go faster. “Too fast” gaits are often the result of ner­vous­ness or pain. If you ask the horse to slow down, it may very well increase the ner­vous­ness, even if it relieves the pain, because restraint nev­er made a horse less ner­vous. If you ask the horse to go faster, that can some­times relieve the ner­vous­ness, and then the horse will be able to slow down more calm­ly to the speed you want­ed in the first place.

Restraint nev­er makes a horse less ner­vous

Of course, you should only do this if you’re ordi­nar­i­ly com­fort­able rid­ing the faster speed. Many rid­ers get ner­vous when a horse speeds up, and this feeds the horse’s ner­vous­ness, but when you ask the horse to go faster, you’re not react­ing, you’re doing some­thing, and that should calm you down, as well.

Life worries: horse, food and more food; owner, a bunch of different things
Cour­tesy of Horse Net­work, for­mer­ly Horse Col­lab­o­ra­tive

And chick­ens. And moun­tain lion shad­ows, which can skulk inde­pen­dent of their lions. And miss­ing sta­ble mates...Oh! There you are! What a relief! And stallions...I’ve heard rumors. And water cross­ings, espe­cial­ly with mud. And that same tree.

 

 


This post is inspired by and ded­i­cat­ed to Veron­i­ca, a mare’s mare, who reminds us that for hors­es, safe­ty always comes before food.

1

In 1963, the Yale Uni­ver­si­ty psy­chol­o­gist Stan­ley Mil­gram pub­lished the results of a study he did to mea­sure the will­ing­ness of par­tic­i­pants to obey an author­i­ty fig­ure and per­form actions that con­flict­ed with their con­science. Par­tic­i­pants were led to believe that they were tak­ing the role of Teacher in a learn­ing exper­i­ment. Actors took the roles of Exper­i­menter and Learn­er. The Exper­i­menter instruct­ed the Teacher to ask the Learn­er ques­tions, and if the answers were incor­rect, press a but­ton to admin­is­ter an elec­tric shock to the Learn­er. The Learn­er, an actor, inten­tion­al­ly answered ques­tions incor­rect­ly, and respond­ed as if to a real shock. As the exper­i­ment pro­gressed, the Exper­i­menter asked the Teacher to increase the lev­el of shocks, even though the reac­tions of the Learn­er sug­gest­ed that he was in great dis­tress. In the first set of exper­i­ments, 65% of the par­tic­i­pants admin­is­tered the high­est lev­el of shock, which they were told was 450 volts.

Mil­gram devised his psy­cho­log­i­cal study to answer the pop­u­lar ques­tion at that par­tic­u­lar time: “Could it be that Eich­mann and his mil­lion accom­plices in the Holo­caust were just fol­low­ing orders? Could we call them all accom­plices?”   —Wikipedia

Oth­ers have repeat­ed the exper­i­ment in the years since; I was remind­ed of it by read­ing about a recent rep­e­ti­tion in Poland. And I thought of the ear­ly edu­ca­tion of many rid­ers.

Kick, kick, kick!” The stac­ca­to music of a les­son barn.

There are rea­sons to kick a horse. There are many more rea­sons not to. Most kicks admin­is­tered by rid­ers to hors­es are giv­en out of frus­tra­tion, and almost always before oth­er meth­ods of com­mu­ni­ca­tion have been exhaust­ed. For­tu­nate­ly the kicks of an eight-​year-​old don’t do much dam­age to a horse, and most les­son hors­es have expe­ri­enced worse. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the stu­dent is nev­er taught how to rec­og­nize when a kick is nec­es­sary, but rather that it’s always nec­es­sary when a horse isn’t “obey­ing”.

And the expec­ta­tion has been cre­at­ed. Force is always an option. Pain com­pli­ance is nev­er­the­less com­pli­ance. And by the time that eight-​year-​old becomes an adult, with spurs, or a crop, or a twisted-​wire snaf­fle, or draw reins, “Kick, kick, kick!” has been inter­nal­ized. When oth­er “author­i­ty fig­ures” chime in with “Show him who’s boss,” “Hors­es don’t feel pain the way we do,” “Make him yield at the poll,” the mes­sage is rein­forced. We’re teach­ing the hors­es, so it must be okay.

Where do we go to find the evil here? We all came through the same sys­tem. We learned the same lessons. Some of us real­ized what we were doing and said, “No! I won’t do this any more.” Oth­ers con­tin­ue to go along, because of igno­rance, social pres­sure, or expe­di­ence. Kick him. Push the but­ton. You have no oth­er choice, you must go on.

Chaps for the head

Chaps, or cha­pare­jos, are cov­er­ings for the legs, orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed to pro­tect rid­ers going through thick­ets of shrubs. But shrubs come in all heights, even here in south­ern Cal­i­for­nia in the land of chap­ar­ral, and a hel­met pro­tects you from the high­er ones.

leaves and acorns
Leaves and acorns of coast live oak

This is coast live oak, a tree with stiff branch­es and leath­ery, spiny leaves. Hors­es gen­er­al­ly know how tall they are, but don’t have a good sense of how much high­er you are when you’re in the sad­dle, and so you learn to duck. And it’s nice to know that your hel­met pro­tects you from all the stray branch­es.

Sure, you could wear a cow­boy hat—oh, and use the chin­strap to make sure it’s not ripped off your head (it does have a chin­strap, right?)—but hats cost about the same as hel­mets, they don’t pro­tect your head as well, and they tend to get ripped up a lot faster.

Trust

There are plen­ty of rid­ers and train­ers who demand blind obe­di­ence from hors­es. (For the hors­es’ sake, it would prob­a­bly be bet­ter if these folks didn’t wear hel­mets.) For the rest of us, an impor­tant part of our rela­tion­ship with hors­es is trust, and peo­ple will tell you that they don’t wear a hel­met because they trust their horse.

A friend once wrote of her horse, “My life is in his hands.” That’s cer­tain­ly true, and most peo­ple who work with hors­es under­stand this. But I respond­ed, “It is also cor­rect to say that his life is in your hands.” We all know many ways our hors­es could kill us. But it turns out that our hors­es have mis­con­cep­tions about how we could kill them.

What will hap­pen to your horse if you are killed or severe­ly impaired by a trau­mat­ic brain injury? Yes, there are sport hors­es that could be eas­i­ly sold and con­tin­ue their careers with new own­ers. There are own­ers whose fam­i­lies have the resources to take care of a horse when the own­er is unable to. But the major­i­ty of hors­es are one sale away from the kill buy­er. It doesn’t mat­ter that we don’t play the preda­tor and kill and eat them. The com­mon­est way we kill our hors­es is by not being there when they need us.

The major­i­ty of hors­es are one sale away from the kill buy­er.

When I ride Bud­dy, I know that he goes out of his way to avoid killing me, and there are times when he has believed him­self to be in great dan­ger that he clear­ly want­ed to take me to safe­ty with him. I trust him. But I know that he can make bad deci­sions.

Bud­dy doesn’t expect me to kill him (even when I squirt med­i­cine into his eye). He trusts me. He may not real­ize that I, too, can make bad deci­sions, but I know it.

When I wear a hel­met, I am acknowl­edg­ing that he can make bad deci­sions. When I don’t wear a hel­met, I am mak­ing a bad deci­sion, a deci­sion that in the worst case will result in his death. I owe him more than that.

 

1

In their herds, hors­es main­tain a social frame­work of friend­ship, dom­i­nance, and lead­er­ship. Much has been writ­ten about this. But that’s not what this post is about.

Mark Rashid has writ­ten about hors­es want­i­ng to fit into “our” herd. Left unstat­ed is that the result­ing herd con­sists of both humans and hors­es.

I think it’s impor­tant to note that I am a firm believ­er that hors­es prob­a­bly don’t, nor will they ever, see us as a mem­ber of their herd. Rather, I believe it is just the oppo­site. I think hors­es do every­thing they can to fit into “our” herd.
—Mark Rashid

Just as we can mis­in­ter­pret hors­es as oth­er humans, hors­es in the com­bined “our herd” inter­pret us as hors­es. Some horses/​people are dom­i­nant, and some are sub­mis­sive. Some are lead­ers, and some are fol­low­ers. Humans can act kind of screwy some­times, but real­ly there’s no oth­er way to see them than as real­ly strange hors­es (or as real­ly gnarly preda­tors, but that’s not where we’re going with this).

Vir­tu­al­ly every eques­tri­an agrees that humans need to be the lead­ers. Most hors­es are look­ing for lead­ers, and it ill suits them or the peo­ple around them when they think they have to be in charge to stay safe. A very few hors­es are nat­ur­al lead­ers, and it ill suits the peo­ple around them to allow them to take this role with humans. And it’s part of the train­ing of every eques­tri­an to be a leader of hors­es.

We humans also have social hier­ar­chies, and we don’t put those away when we are around hors­es. And a use­ful instructor–student rela­tion­ship requires that the stu­dent defer to the instruc­tor, at least dur­ing the les­son.

The prob­lem comes when an assertive instruc­tor dom­i­nates a sub­mis­sive stu­dent, and the horse decides the stu­dent is of low­er rank than he is. We’ve all seen hors­es in lessons defer to the instruc­tor rather than the rid­er, and this is only natural—the horse is look­ing for the per­son in charge, and that’s the instruc­tor. But if the instruc­tor should leave the are­na, the horse should always look to the rid­er. If the instruc­tor so thor­ough­ly dom­i­nates the stu­dent as to low­er the student’s sta­tus to less than that of the horse, the instruc­tor has failed, no mat­ter how much teach­ing or ego grat­i­fi­ca­tion might have gone on.

It’s easy to watch for this, and for many instruc­tors it’s easy to cor­rect the prob­lem, by build­ing up the dif­fi­dent stu­dent in the eyes of the horse. For instruc­tors with­out that abil­i­ty, or who are chal­lenged by the dif­fi­dence of a par­tic­u­lar stu­dent, the solu­tion is to help the stu­dent find an instruc­tor who can work with them.

Putting peo­ple below hors­es, inten­tion­al­ly or inad­ver­tent­ly, has no place in horse­man­ship.

 

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.