In this blog I continue with my philosophical pondering on the influence on horse's personality through interactions with humans.
I have previously written that I believe I can see a change in my horse's personality as a result of the way I train and interact with him.
I think that these changes can be positive but where is the line between using and abusing a horse?
Animal Rights Sweden have a visions for a future where horses are not used as tools in competition. They say “it is neither the nature nor the interest of the horse to push it self to the limit during a competition so that humans can be entertained or make money”. This vision currently concern racing and trotting horses, but I think it is important that all of us who chose to ride and train horses discuss the impact we have on our horses too. What is OK, what is not and what might even be desired? Where do we draw the line?
So the ethical discussion should not only be about competition or nor, or what kind of management practice that is used, it should also include what it means to see and treat horses as horses and not as humans. I do believe horses have feelings, a soul if you wish, and it seems that when we interact with horses we affect the horse's self image, it's sense of self. There are no easy answerers here, but this only makes the question more important. What can, and should I ask of my horse and how should I go about explaining to my horse what I want from him or her?
In my job as a riding instructor I sometimes hear my students say things like “my horse don't think this is fun”, or “I don't want to get into a fight with my horse”, or “I don't want to take the life out of my horse”. Under certain circumstances I would agree with all these statements but not when it comes to teaching the horse basic cues as move forward when asked to, to soften it's neck or to not push on me with any part of his/her body.
Maybe part of the answer is in the how I ask my horse to do something. I believe that as the rider it is my responsibility to give my horse everything I can in order for the horse to figure out what I ask. In short this included being mentally present and focused on the horse, choosing the right tools (no side reins or draw reins) and break down any new task into understandable pieces for the horse.
There is also the important aspect of safety for humans that interact with horses. Like one of the comments said “Horses are big animals that more or less do everything we ask of them. Our horses are amazing!”. Yes, this is true, but horses are also horses and one aspect of that is that are hard wired to flee from danger and they react 6-7 times faster than humans. So when out on the trails yesterday in the company with my mother who is a very experienced rider but now approaching the respectable age of 75 and her horse was starting to take of with her I didn't hesitated for one second but quit harshly stopped my horse even though he wanted to go for a fast canter in the snow. If there is a choice of protecting my mother by helping her gain control over her horse, and being light in my aids, for me there is no choice. I will do whatever it takes to stop my horse. And boy was I glad in that instance that I done my home work so we both reacted as we should: my horse by listening to me (even though he wanted to do something else), my horse softening his neck (even though I had to get much firmer than I would have preferred), me by turning my wrist and raising my hand (instead of pulling back) and me by staying calm (instead of getting all emotional and scared that something bad might have happened).
I don't want to give up riding so I will continue to do so but I will also continue to question what I can and should ask of my horse and how I should ask it. I will continue to search for the balance between letting my horse be a horse and having a good time but at the same time a safe horse to ride as well as my partner in search for the highest levels of collection. Will I sometimes stumble and loose this balance? You bet, but my horse will forgive me because horses are truly amazing!
Thanks to Mark Stanton of Horsemanship Magazine for checking my spelling and grammar! All other errors are my own.