Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Problem with "Respect"

Okay, let's start with some pretty common statements people sometimes make about their horses:

"My horse doesn't respect me."

"My horse bucked me off."

"My horse stepped on my foot."

"My horse ran away with me."

Now, let's look at those statements a bit more closely - look carefully at the underlined words:

"My horse doesn't respect me."

"My horse bucked me off."

"My horse stepped on my foot."

"My horse ran away with me."

Do you see any common themes?

What all these statements have in common is that the speaker is the victim of some deliberate action by the horse - the horse did these negative things to me.  All these statements, either directly or implicitly, attribute ill intent to the horse - the horse intended to do these things to me.

Now, let's try restating those statements:

"My horse moved into a space close to my body - closer than I wanted/didn't do what I asked/thought I'd asked.  I was upset by that."

"My horse bucked.  I fell off."

"My horse moved his foot over.  My foot ended up underneath his foot."

"My horse ran very fast while I was riding, even though I didn't ask him to."  [Mark Rashid's reformulation of this would likely be: "My horse spooked, I spooked and we ran off together."]

This is the problem with the statement: "My horse doesn't respect me." It's a statement which describes nothing, overgeneralizes and attributes ill intent to the horse.  As Mark Rashid frequently points out, horses don't understand the concept of "respect" - this is a primate concept housed in our particular brain capabilities.  Horses don't have a concept of "respect", just as they don't plan or scheme or concoct devious plans to thwart our wishes.  They have their own needs, and their behavior expresses their needs and emotions pretty directly.  And thinking about horses as having ill intent puts us into an oppositional position to them, which gives the relationship a negative dynamic.

There are two types of anthropomorphism - one is correct in that it draws appropriate analogies from human experience, and one that goes too far.  It is correct that horses, like all mammals, have emotions and feelings, and anyone who denies this or ignores this is, well, to state it plainly, ignorant.  But horses don't have human emotions and feelings - they have horse emotions and feelings.

Attributing human thoughts and emotions to horses is just as bad an error as assuming horses have no thoughts or emotions.  But a brief detour into so-called "natural" theories of horsemanship and horse behavior.  A lot of modern "natural" horsemanship is based on theories of horse behavior that are extrapolated from dominance-based human thought, and these theories have little or nothing to do with actual horse behavior, whether with people or other horses.

As Mark has pointed out, the true leaders in a horse herd are not the horses that push other horses around ("move their feet"), but the horses who have knowledge and exert quiet leadership and direction to take the herd to water and good grazing - typically an older mare.  These are the leaders, not the "dominant" horses.  I fear that much of "natural" horsemanship is contaminated by male human dominance thinking (which has been adopted by many females working with horses) - sorry to any male readers out there (and I understand that there are many men who work with horses who don't hold these views) - that has little to really do with horse behavior.

Horses always have a reason for what they do, and it is found in horse emotions and feelings, not human "theories" of dominance or "respect", neither of which have much to do with real horses.  If we can look at the behaviors of our horses as just that - just behaviors - without attributing "intent" that isn't really there, we'll be way ahead in terms of offering our horses help to learn ways to behave that meet our needs as well as ours - that is the true meaning of partnership.  Remember that, if you do not have in mind exactly the behavior you want your horse to perform and each step to build that behavior - you won't get it - it's necessary to be that specific - horses deal in specifics.  Focusing on the negative behavior and wanting that to go away is pretty useless from a training point of view.  "I want my horse to not spook/fall in/fall out of canter" is way too vague.  And break it down into pieces and build a chain of desired behaviors, slowly and letting the horse figure out the answers (more on this later).

And one other note - there is nothing you can do to the outside of a horse - groundwork, manipulation of the horse's head/neck/body, constraining the horse into a particular posture - that will give you softness or connection - that has to come from the inside of you first.


  1. Oh Kate, your words are just so on point! Loved this post...

    "horses don't have human emotions and feelings - they have horse emotions and feelings"

    In a way I think it's natural that humans try to frame and understand responses from their horses in ways that make sense to them. In the beginning, we can't be blamed for this anymore than we can blame the horses for reacting in ways that they understand. However, truly good horsemanship requires that we stop thinking like a human and start recognizing that horse see and understand, and therefore react, differently.

    The other big thing to note about those opening statements (that too often come out of the mouth's of horse owners) is that the blame is always assigned to the horse. Very rarely do humans take responsibility, when often we have a whole lot more to do with a given reaction/response than we care to admit.

  2. Mare - your point about our responsibility is so important - if there's a problem, 99% of the time the human is at the root of it.

  3. well said, I have phrased it differently in the past, but a similar subject."its not personal" they do what they do and our reactions and actions are what follows

  4. Fantastic post, I agree with everything you said here. The part you wrote thst really put into words some things I've been thinking about is that the leader in the horse herd is not the one who pushes the other horses around. And often, you hear from trainers-famous or not- that the leader moves the horses feet. I haven't ever quite agreed with that, just from observing my own herd.

    In my herd, the horse that chases the other horse is a bit of a bully and 2nd from bottom ranking and desperately trying to keep that precious position. As a human, I don't want my horse to perceive me as a bully :) there are better ways of doing things that are meaningful and polite to the horse and they respond with much more willingness I have found.

  5. I agree that most all of the time it is human error or the human's fault when something goes wrong and not the horse's negative attitude. I'm sure they don't sit up at night plotting how to get back at us for some behavior of ours they don't agree with.

    When interacting with our horses we try to show them what we want very specifically. Most of the time they will get the concept and act accordingly. When they don't we take a step back and figure out another way to put the proposition to them. l think this is the only sensible way to solve problems and form a mutual relationship with the horse that benefits both of us. Good post.

  6. When I think of respect it brings to mind the pecking order and the lead mare. The others "respect" the leader and will move away if the leader challenges their space. As cognizant beings, the horse is aware when he enters your space and steps on your toe. Normally he will avoid it or step off immediately.

    1. You're talking about the control of space, which isn't really the same thing, I think, as the human concept of "respect". Also, the mare who the herd will trust and follow often isn't the one who's chasing other horses around, but rather the quiet, older mare who has the herd's knowledge.

      But all that said, making sure you have control of your personal space when working around or with horses is very important from a safety point of view, but a horse that's intruding into your personal space usually does so because you the human have failed to consistently define your boundaries.

      Thanks for commenting.

  7. Well said Kate! I so agree, but it's always nice to have refreshers.


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