Respect is a word commonly used in horsemanship circles and the goal of this article is to give you some more perspectives on what this means to me.
Respect is something that is earned and given freely. It can’t be bought and it doesn’t come via force, we cannot demand it. Respect has no fear in it. It means to admire, hold in high regard and show courtesy toward. If we wish horses to respect us then we first must respect them, because respect needs to be mutual. When our horse admires us and holds us in high regard, that is when he will have a smile on his face when interacting with us.
When horses can feel that our core intention is to do something ‘for’ them and ‘with’ them rather than ‘to’ them and we are not just using them for our own financial or egotistical advancement they will respect us. Horses can always read what our innermost motivation is – they are masters of truth, both reading it and displaying it. Respect is further developed when we show them, through everything that we do, that we are listening, understanding and compassionate to their needs, as we work together towards achieving a goal rather than just using them for our own selfish desires.
Respect involves a high level of understanding, so for us to respect the horse and meet their needs we must understand the many facets of horses.
Understanding how they think – Just like people every horse is an individual and so they can think very differently from each other and they definitely think differently from humans. Many things that are important to humans are definitely not important to horses. For example, Keeping our show clothes clean – if horses need to touch us to get our attention they will, being clean is not important to them.
Having the most prestigious looking horse float – they just want it to be safe and comfortable, sturdy with a non slip floor, ventilated, not too noisy and smoothly driven. Having our garden looking nice – they just want to eat it –it could be good nutritious food. They care about what really matters not the facades.
Horses are highly intelligent even though their brain works very differently to ours. Their frontal lobe, the thinking, planning and strategizing part is less developed than ours, which is why when scientists do experiments with horses, like finding their way through mazes, horses don’t appear particularly high on the intelligence scale. But don’t let that fool you, because some horses are very calculating thinkers and the more emotionally calm they are the more they are thinking. In general for horses and it is the case for all animals, it is other parts of their brain, the intuiting, feeling and emotional areas that are much more highly developed than ours. They are operating at a different and much higher level vibration and consciousness than most humans.
Horses respect us when we are calm and clear with our thoughts and when we are congruent with our thoughts, emotions, body language and energy. We need to have a powerful focus but with absolute softness in our bodies. Stillness, quiteness and an inner strength, not an outer strength is what gains the respect and attention of horses.
Understanding how they feel – Horses are very sensitive to the energy around them, sensing and being affected by the thoughts, attitudes and emotions of everything around them. Thoughts, feelings and emotions are all energetic frequencies that affect and influence everything they come in contact with, so horses are very much affected by our thoughts and emotions.
Horses themselves experience the full range of emotions that humans have. Just like humans they can feel jealous, lonely, sad, taken for granted, angry, resentful, anxious, fearful, confused, playful, joyful, happy and they feel love. The only thing they don’t experience is the ego, even though they experience and often suffer from the affects of human egos.
Understanding their physical body-
Knowing how horses are feeling physically and only asking them to do what they can, with their level of fitness, physical energy or soundness and not pushing them beyond these physical thresholds leads to horses becoming confident to trust a rider’s judgment and follow their directions. When horses are fatigued, sore or feeling off colour and trainers push and pressure them, they emotionally and physically start to shut down, leading to a long term decrease in performance. They will lose respect for the rider and give up trying – they will have lost their ‘heart’. They will never offer more because the more they give the more the rider takes. They can’t trust the rider’s judgment of when is enough, so they start to protect themselves. ‘Heart’ is that special extra try that horses will give because they like us and they like the job, and then on that special occasion when we really need them to they will go the extra mile.
Stopping when horses have done the best they can do for now, even though they may not have met the expectations that we had, will gain a horse’s respect because we noticed how they felt and responded with compassion. If we are unhappy with that level of performance then we need to think about what we need to do to help bring the horse up to the level that we would like him to be at. What areas do we need to address ? Soundness, nutrition, understanding of the task, saddle fit, does he just need a break mentally and physically or is it our own balance, aids, feel, timing, emotions ?
When horses are lethargic, unmotivated or termed lazy, often they just don’t have the physical energy to do the things we are asking. Even though they might look fat and shiny many horses are often stiff, tight and congested in their bodies. This is where we need to look into their health, nutrition and soundness. The opposite can also be true, that health, nutritional and soundness issues can cause horses to be scattered, hyperactive, over reactive and unable to think. If we want our horses to be active and energetic and able to think calmly they need to feel good inside themselves.
The physical energy I am speaking of is not a nervous energy like when on adrenalin but a playful, calm energy. When horses are feeling good physically and are mentally stimulated they can really enjoy playing with humans and being ridden.
Having good balance, riding dynamics and understanding how horses move. Have you ever thought about what it really means to ride a horse? We are asking them to turn loose completely to us with their mind, their balance and the physical control of their body. When we saddle them and sit on their backs we interfere with their balance and how they move and then we ask them to be athletic. We tell them how to flex, how to hold their head, where to put their feet, when to change leads or when to take off for a jump. So it is imperative that we know how the horse’s body best works.
When a rider takes hold of the reins they can completely interfere with the horse’s balance, as the head and neck are the horse’s balancing system and used to counterbalance the rest of his body. Jammed up necks and throats interfere with breathing and completely compromise the horse’s freedom of movement and athletic ability. Freedom of movement to the horse is one of the ultimate experiences of joy and exhilaration for them, which is why watching horses playing together galloping and bucking is so awe inspiring. Most of us are just not good enough to ride athleticism and exuberance of that degree, but we do need to allow horses to move in the most unrestricted and free way possible. That is after all the real reason that we choose to ride them, to share in their energy, power, freedom and spirit. When many people ride they completely take that away from the horse. Add to this that the reins are often attached to a piece of metal in the horse’s mouth, one of the most sensitive places of the horse’s body, so as well as interfering with balance and freedom there can be pain involved.
When a rider asks for a maneuver or transition and the horse or rider’s balance and body positioning are not optimally set up for that, the horse can be physically unable to respond easily or correctly. For example all the weight is still on the front end when you want the front end to sweep over. Then out come the spurs or a stick to reinforce because the horse was judged as lazy or disrespectful. I don’t believe that we should use spurs at all and a stick should only be used as an extension of our arm and of our energy, which is very different to hitting the horse.
Even a simple thing such as not allowing enough room to turn, so that the horse loses his rhythm, stride and balance is enough to cause the horse not to respect our judgments and be unwilling to follow our directions. We just showed them that we didn’t understand their body and how it works, so why would they want to turn loose and let us ‘drive’.
We need to understand the true biomechanics and not just follow the ‘fashion and fad’ of different sports. The fundamental biomechanics remain the same for all disciplines because the anatomy of the horse is the same no matter what the horse is doing or what breed it is. This facet is a huge component of the teaching and learning in my courses. If we are going to ride horses we need to be developing ourselves so that we ride them in a way that is comfortable, healthy and enjoyable for them. How can they respect us if we do not? Fortunately horses are very tolerant and forgiving while we are developing our balance, coordination and skills.
Respect is earned when we have the best interests of the horse equal to our goals. Horses need to feel that they are equals in the partnership with their perspectives and feelings considered. This of course means that we need to understand the many facets of horses. Earning a horse’s respect is a combination of assertive, clear communication equally combined with compassionate understanding of the horse. Horsemanship is undoubtedly a never ending quest for knowledge combined with practical experiences and while it can be one of the most challenging things you could ever undertake it can also be one of the most rewarding when our horse becomes a willing partner.