If we do something with a horse without their consent, what are we doing? What does that mean? Is that then a master/slave relationship? This reality permeates the horse world. I have worked in the equine industry most of my life and have been exposed to it often. Seeing the extreme behaviours horses exhibit to avoid doing something, or alternatively those that give up and shut down, has made me question what we are doing with horses in this world many times. When a horse consents, it opens up a totally new way to train.
If a horse gives their consent, they are a willing partner in whatever we do together. I think horses can enjoy doing things with us, including riding. Sometimes this means slowing down and taking a bit longer with things. I wonder if it’s our human trait of wanting things to happen ‘now’ that has caused the problem in the first place. Horses are incredibly willing and have a huge number of yeses in them when asked the right way.
Probably even more important, I’ve come to accept when a horse says no. In my own life, I want to be able to say no to things I don’t want to do, and yet I have struggled with this for some time with horses. I was raised in a horse world where if you were a good horseperson, the horse will do whatever you want. It’s portrayed as a lacking or fault in the human’s horsemanship skills if a horse doesn’t do as you say. Finding a middle road has worked for me, where I hear the horses no and let them know I’ve heard it, then open a discussion on how it might be possible for this to be a yes. Sometimes the no remains and I accept that, and other times the horse says yes when I explain in detail each element of what I’m asking.
Here’s an example. If we want to mount a horse, we can hold the reins short so they don’t move while we mount, this is standard practice. Or, we could have a long loose rein in the middle of an open space. In the first scenario we can usually get on the horse immediately. In the second we may have to do a bit more. First, we’d need to teach the horse park, standing still with them, not asking anything, until they relax and stand. Then we would need to repeat this beside the mounting block. Then with us standing on the mounting block. Then leaning over, putting a foot in the stirrup, playing with the saddle, picking up the reins, all the things we do before mounting, and waiting until the horses says yes to each element. The final test is if we can mount without rein contact and the horse doesn’t walk off. This can take time, but at the end your horse is relaxed and ok with you getting on. If a horse says no to mounting, should we just go ahead and do it anyway? In my opinion this is not only wrong by the horse, but also potentially dangerous.
Practically everything we do with horses can be broken down into individual progressive steps. By taking the time to explain each step and waiting until the horse says yes to it, we end up with a very happy horse. But also, a horse who trusts us hugely. In the horses’ eyes we are extremely trustworthy as we never place them in a position where they have their fight, flight, or freeze mechanisms activated. Instead of being slightly afraid or concerned when we start doing things with them, they are open, interested to try the next thing. There are no defence mechanisms. They are mentally and emotionally healthy.
And asking consent shows respect. People often say they want the horse to respect them. I can’t really expect a horse to respect me if I’m not respecting them. Consent is important, it changes everything about your relationship with your horse.
Suzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc.Dip.Couns.
Happy Horses Bitless
Lismore, NSW, Australia
Ph: 0401 249 263