Before people are actively involved in horses as a culture, when they have still only ridden once or twice or just admired horses from afar, if you ask them what draws them in about these animals, most of the answers are quite uniform : beauty, strength/grace and freedom. The answers are so standard they border on cliche, but it doesn’t make them any less true. Horses ARE beautiful, powerful and often symbolic of freedom, as in the mustang of the west. But what has caught my attention lately, is how traditional horse culture and traditional training systems undermine or destroy the very qualities that draw humans to horses in the first place.
I am saddened to see another generation of young riders already indoctrinated into the language of the dominant horse culture, phrases such as : “he’s such an idiot!”, “you stupid cow!”, ” if he had a brain…” . These are phrases that openly name horses as stupid and they are so familiar to me from years and years of hanging around different riding schools that I don’t usually even hear them. Except now that I am training with a clicker and constantly looking for beautiful, balanced, correct responses, I find myself saying : “Aren’t you brilliant?”, “What a gorgeous horse!”, and “Beautiful!” while I train. In an arena full of people, I had a (somewhat uncomfortable) realization that I was the only one speaking this foreign language to my horse. For a moment I was self conscious, but rather immediately that feeling shifted to shock over how mean everyone sounds when they are actively working with their horses. These are people who would profess to love their horses, who do love their horses. These are nice, normal people who don’t speak to other humans this way, you can be sure. The fact that this language is standard in the horse industry means there is a problem on a very base level in the way we are taught to interact with these lovely animals.
I believe that when training is compulsory (the animal has no choice but to participate, or risk mental or physical punishment), it opens the door to see the animal as dangerous and “stupid”. Force/threat always increases stress, and as we know, stress inhibits learning. So, for many horses, their learning is compromised just by the presence of their “trainer” who has come to be associated with punishment. A stressed horse is a more emotional, more dangerous animal. This in turn, stresses the human, who ups the punishment/consequences. It’s a lose/lose situation and it pits people as adversaries against their horses. It is so much better to be an ally.
No horse-crazy child dreams of tying their horses head to his chest so they can control them. No horse-crazy child dreams of whacking their horse in the chin with a heavy metal snap to teach them to back up. What we initially feel about a horse is reverence.
Wive’s tale says horses are too dangerous to feed by hand, too dumb to be trusted to make their own decisions, too lazy to offer beautiful work without compulsion. Clicker training shows the opposite.
Training should open the door to an enhanced relationship, mutual appreciation and trust, and sometimes, on great days, awe/intimacy. Why shouldn’t we use a training system that teaches us how to shape and appreciate beauty and to respect but collaborate with horses’ strength and power? A training system that understands horses as intelligent, sentient creatures.
Anything less is a failure, both of relationship and imagination. We all deserve to thrive.