Changing the Narrative: Your Horse, YOUR Problem

When it comes to horsemanship, where do you draw the line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’? When does a method cross the line between being ‘firm’ or ‘strict’, into being ‘forceful’ or ‘abusive’? When you ride, train, or look after your horse, which practices would you deem acceptable or unacceptable? How far should we be allowed to go in our quest for obedience, for submission, for ‘leadership’?

It seems to me that everyone has their own idea of what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to horses. In the competition world there are many aspects that could be looked upon unfavourably – cranked nosebands, tight martingales and tie-downs, spurs worn by those yet to master a stable leg, whips wielded like weapons rather than aids of precision.

There are some practices that I believe should be judged – the more people that speak out against violence towards horses, barbaric traditions, or torturous devices the better, in my opinion. For those who work their horses in a constant state of hyperflexion or rollkur, those that sore and stack their Tennessee Walking Horses, or those who drug or beat their horses into submission, we should not hesitate in denouncing it for what it so clearly is – abuse.

But at the other end of the scale, are we too quick to judge? I might not personally choose to shoe my horses, ride them in martingales, stable them or pull their manes, but I would not go as far, as some people might, to insinuate that people who do are perpetuating abuse. I also believe that there is an important distinction to be made between those who choose to intentionally cause a horse pain or suffering in order to force him to do what they want him to do, and those who do so unintentionally out of ignorance, inexperience, or impatience.

That doesn’t necessarily mean I think it’s ok or that I would choose to do the same with my own horses. But I believe the most important thing is to change the narrative of how we view our horse’s ‘problems’ and how we use this to justify the methods and tools that we use to deal with them. Let’s start with this sentence in itself: ‘our horse’s problems’. We have likely all said this at some point. “My horse has a problem picking up the left canter lead’, ‘my horse has a loading problem’, ‘my horse’s biggest problem is that he always falls in on the right rein’. But does your horse have a problem or do you? Because let’s be honest, unless we are talking about an injury or physical ailment, it’s likely that your horse’s problems only exist when you want to ride him.

But the point of this blog isn’t to pretend that these problems don’t exist, nor to vilify the owner or rider for being at fault. Rather it’s about understanding where the responsibility lies for ‘fixing’ them.

I believe one of the most important steps to doing this is to change the narrative. We need to feel responsible for the choices we make regarding how we treat our horses, rather than falling back on the same old excuses. We need to understand that it is our desire to ride or train our horses that creates these challenges and often our lack of knowledge/skill/understanding/patience that then exasperates the problem. We need to accept responsibility for this instead of shifting blame onto the horse or searching for shortcuts.

This narrative shift is important because I think, as humans, we need to feel justified in our use of force or violence, and when we don’t, it can completely change our outlook.

The way I see it, there are only ever three real reasons why we encounter problems in our training:

1. Your horse is not able to do it

2. You do not have the necessary skill level or experience to do it

3. You do not have the time

Let’s take a popular choice such as using a tie-down or other training aid to put your horse ‘on the bit’. Check out one of the many online forum discussions on this subject and you’ll find a million reasons why this might be justifiable: ‘my horse needs it because he doesn’t respect the bit’ ‘I have to put it on otherwise he’s out of control’ ‘he’s disobedient/resistant/difficult’ ‘he hates the bit’ or perhaps one of the worst ‘It’s for his own good, because otherwise he’ll throw his head up and get a sore back’. (Just FYI: a horse working through force and tension can get a sore back even if he has his head strapped down). Anyway, my point isn’t about whether these excuses are right or wrong, it’s simply about shifting the responsibility back to the rider.

I believe every single one of these excuses would actually fit into the three categories above, if you think of it from a different point of view. For example:

 1. Your horse is not able to do it: 

Your horse does not understand the bit, has not learnt to accept a contact, is not at a level of fitness and training where they are physically capable of working on the bit, or has some kind of physical or mental issue which is preventing him from doing what you ask 

2. You do not have the necessary skill level or experience to do it:

You do not have the necessary skills as a rider or trainer to maintain a steady contact, ride your horse on the bit, or teach your horse to ride on the bit

3. You do not have the time to spend:

a. to properly train your horse or get someone else to do so 

b. to learn to ride better or more effectively 

c. to figure out potential other reasons for this lack of ‘obedience’ – such as pain, conformation, fear, lack of understanding, etc. 

Now in general, I don’t think any of these are worthy excuses, but might there be occasional times when you could justify it? Careful use of a training aid to speed up the process when helping a horse recover from injury? Maybe. I don’t like to say never, but the important thing is that we shift the narrative and take responsibility for our actions. In this case, it could still only be justified because we lack the knowledge of or the time to search for a  non-forceful alternative. I guess what I’m saying is that if you are going to make a choice that is not in your horse’s interest (and if we are completely honest, even riding a horse isn’t in their interest!), you should be willing to accept responsibility for why you are making it. You need to accept that any problem you have is YOUR problem, not your horse’s.

On the whole, as long as we are talking about undesirable rather than abusive training methods, I accept that – as we are not all perfect riders and trainers – sometimes this might be the best decision available at the time. I do not judge those friends of mine who shoe their horses because they do not have the time to devote to a proper barefoot regime (after all, I was one of them only a year ago!), nor do I judge fellow riders who feel ‘safer’ riding with a martingale or a stronger bit. I do not judge those friends of mine who work in the competitive arena and (in my opinion) cut a lot of corners in order to get their horses on the scoreboard. But I will not allow them to make the excuse that their horse is at fault or that their way is the only way.

The bottom line is this: I understand that different riders have different agendas and we can respectively agree to disagree. Just stop telling me about ‘your horse’s problems’ and let’s start talking about ‘the problems that you have with your horse’ instead.


Photo courtesy of via Flickr.


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