Twenty-five years ago I attended a John Lyons clinic where he said something that has stayed with me throughout all of my own training, the training of horses, and my teachings to my students. He said, “There are two rules in all training of horses: one, the horse should never be hurt and two, the rider should never be hurt.”
Throughout the years I have witnessed both. Generally, if a rider gets hurt, it’s through a mistake of their own. Horses are not out to hurt us, but they are large and can be very quick when they are motivated to protect themselves. Sometimes a rider is just in the wrong place at the wrong time or we don’t read the situation properly and we get hurt. Just today I read about another knowledgeable horseman who was killed while leading a horse out to pasture. She had put the lead rope on her shoulder. The horse took off running as the rope went around her neck and she was dragged 250 ft. So very tragic. According to the article the farm where she worked did not use this practice and it was perhaps a moment of distraction where she was not focused. It cost her her life. Was it the horse’s fault? Absolutely not. He was being a horse: something startled him and he bolted. Should he be punished? Of course not! Tragic and sad, but the horse did not intentionally set out to do harm. Horses never do; they simply react.
It’s our choice to take the risk of getting hurt when we work with a horse, but the horse does not have that choice. He is under the control of the rider/handler. When someone is hurting their horse – for example, kicking the horse’s sides or yanking on their horse’s mouth, the most common thing I hear them say is, “he makes me mad!” What??? Suddenly, the horse has an agenda? No, he does not. Horses are NOT humans; they do not think like humans. They are simply responding or not responding as a result of something we are either doing or not doing. It’s really that simple. The horse may have had a previous experience that was not pleasant. They never will forget, and in a similar situation may revert back to that experience and react in self-protection.
One mistake many people make is humanizing the horse. People will say, “but he knows it’s me!” Yes, he does, but remember, horses live in the moment and are conditioned-response animals. A condition is placed upon them and in that moment they will react out of instinct unless the handler/rider is aware and reacts to assure the horse is focused on them and trusts them to guide them. Slapping, kicking, and yanking is not convincing a horse to trust you.
A young student of mine, a beginner, was trying to guide her horse around the arena. The horse was just meandering around, stopping constantly. I could see that her aids were inconsistent – she pulled and fidgeted with her reins, her legs didn’t relax after she asked the horse to move, her posture was slouched, etc. We had several discussions on how to show her horse what she needed from him, but she was still doing the exact same thing. Finally she got frustrated. She suddenly took both reins and yanked them… hard! I was in the arena and a second from making her dismount. But I realize why it happened. Frustration turns to anger. It’s also because she humanized her horse. Her horse wasn’t trying make her mad; he was probably as frustrated as she was. He was receiving so many conflicting instructions, he simply gave up on listening. Thankfully, he was gentle enough not to react violently – he could have bucked her off instead! I will not allow horses to be abused and she received the message loud and clear! She felt badly and later apologized. It was the horse who needed the apology, not me, but horses don’t understand apologies. Our mistakes will be remembered.
Horses are not machines. They cannot be programmed and left to run by themselves. Creating a partnership with a horse requires stride by stride communication and connection. Any horse would rather be out in pasture with their pasture mates than carrying a human around on their back doing what probably seems like insane movements. How many horses would volunteer to run barrels, ride circles, jump courses, go around an arena hundreds of times in an exact posture that the human requests instead of grazing and enjoying what they naturally are intended to do? I think the count would be small. That’s not to say horses do not enjoy working with us sometimes. I’ve known several horses in my life that are so very willing and seem to shine when working. I have to believe it’s because their well-being comes first in my training. It’s never how perfect something is, it’s the “try,” the “intent,” that I reward my horses for. If I myself never made a mistake, maybe I would expect perfection, but that is not a reality. Putting myself in the horse’s place, I would not appreciate someone who only criticized me for my errors without praising my accomplishments. I would rebel. I would certainly react in self-protection if I were being hurt. I would not trust that person again.
The surprising thing is, most of the people I encounter hurting their horses in frustration are truly in love with their horse. Perhaps they are displaying a flaw in their own being. Instead of reacting with anger when a horse is not responding properly, we should look at it as a learning opportunity. We should evaluate ourselves as well as the horse. I doubt any of us are free of making mistakes, so why should we expect the horse to be? You’re training your horse with every ride, and problems occur when we are not teaching properly. Please think about the harm you are doing to your horse and your relationship when you purposely hurt your horse. It’s not what you want in the end, and it definitely is not what will bring you success. If you have anger issues then as a trainer once said to a former colleague of mine, “jump off your horse and go punch a tree instead.” Good advice! Do what you have to control your anger, just please… STOP HURTING YOUR HORSE!