Just for fun, lets play the “What if a spaceship landed in your backyard” game. Out of the spaceship floated a little green alien. It said, “I am a peaceful visitor to your planet and I want to know about this creature called ‘horse.’”
What would this green visitor glean from its experience with you?
I happened to observe a training scenario with a fancy, well-bred young horse, with a knowledgeable, experienced trainer and loving horse owner. The horse was a lovely blank slate with groundwork in place and a handful of rides under saddle.
The horse was fitted with a mild bit which was clipped to a lunge line that was run through a surcingle in an effort to teach the horse balance and frame. Then the horse was brought to a big arena accompanied by a lunge whip with a leather popper that, when popped, sounded like a gunshot.
The horse was asked to move out on a big circle. When it didn’t comply immediately, a gunshot was heard (the leather popping). When it spooked away from the sound of the loud pop, its mouth gaped open because it was attached to the bit which was attached to the surcingle which was attached to the lunge line. This caused the horse to stumble while in the frame of an equine pretzel.
When the horse continued to dance in place instead of move back out on to the circle, more force was applied via the leather popper making contact with the horse’s hind end. The contact was not hard but a typical flick of a lunge whip. Once the horse unpretzeled and was moving nicely out on a big circle, the popping and smacking stopped. Eventually the horse was moving like a seasoned pro. The training session would have been considered textbook perfect.
The trainer was pleased. The owner was pleased. I felt like I was the little green alien hovering over the scene trying to make sense of what it just saw. Keep in mind the alien doesn’t have centuries of horsemanship advice telling him, “This is how it’s done. This is an acceptable use of force.”
All the alien saw was a creature, bound, gagged and taunted by loud sounds and whacked until it ran rhythmically around in circles attached to a rope. In that moment, after watching the horse’s face during all this activity, I had an epiphany and here it was in all my eloquence:
It sucks to be a horse.
If that were me on the end of that lunge line, no doubt I would have felt both physical and mental pain to have pressure, force, restraint, fear and violence to be the language or mode in which that communication took place. This horse clearly had no choice, no voice. If it expressed any confusion (spooking from the loud pop), it got more forceful communication.
For the following two days I felt as if I had been punched in the gut. For one, I couldn’t forget the look of what I considered confusion and fear on the horse’s face. And two, the fact that trainer and owner did not see that look. All they saw was a horse learning to be obedient. It’s as if stress and forceful communication is justified because it produces obedience and a ‘purty’ horse.
It made me feel that to be born a horse means you will be taught everything through a series of whacks, loud sounds, shushes and ropes to shape you. You will be forcefully molded like a non-sentient piece of clay, a lump of lifeless dirt, into an object fitting for what the human wants.
For a split second, it made me feel that if this is what it means to be a trainer, or to be a horse, I don’t want horses, nor do I want to train if this is what it’s supposed to look like. In that same second, I stepped back, realizing that this moment in time was just a result or a representation of living in a punishment-based society.
Fortunately, I have a choice for my horses, in my backyard society. I don’t have to operate on a punishment-based system, nor use fear, force, threat or pressure as a means of communication. I don’t want obedience out of fear. I want my horses to decide to accept my invitation (request for a particular behavior) because upon acceptance (performing the behavior) something meaningful and wonderful happens.
My heart ached for everyone that day. I know it didn’t feel good for the trainer to have to speak to the horse with pressure and force. I wouldn’t doubt that the owner wished there was a friendlier way to train her horse, or possibly do it herself.
But it’s the look on this horse’s face that made my heart ache the most. This ache, however, has renewed my resolve and exploration more than ever to pursue methods of training and communication that feels food for both horse and handler.
Here’s what I have in mind. I’d like to propose ‘A Declaration of Equine Rights.’ We have a declaration of rights for humans, why shouldn’t horses have one too (and all animals for that matter)?
For starters, I’ve taken the first sentence from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights preamble and substituted a few of my own words in bold.
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the horse family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the horses’ world…
Notice, that the very first words are to recognize the inherent dignity and inalienable rights of the being. What does that look like to us to recognize the inherent dignity of our horses? What are their unalienable rights?
I don’t have all the answers because I’ve just started asking these questions. My experimenting has been my attempt to recognize my horses’ inherent dignity by communicating with them in an invitation and reward-based system. It’s been an exploration of attraction-versus-pressure and choice-versus-force. The more I train this way, the more I’m understanding the awe inspiring feeling of freedom, and peace and beauty in way I never thought I’d see in my lifetime.
The contrast between pressure-based communication and attraction-based is continuing to sharpen for me simply by how I feel when employing either method. Even more is the contrast of my horses’ behavior as a result of each. I think pressure and force carry a much different energy than attraction. Unfortunately pressure and force get visible results. How it affects the brain or the psyche is another matter.
I think another reason humans think force-based communication with horses is acceptable is because of the stoic nature of the horse. It’s often difficult to tell when the horse is suffering, just as it’s difficult to tell when a horse is happy. It’s so different with dogs and cats. A dog will wag its tale or a cat will purr when happy. When unhappy, a dog will yelp or cower, and cat will hiss or yowl. We don’t have these easily observable, physical reactions with our horses.
Just because they don’t react to stimuli like our dogs or cats does not mean they are not reacting. It’s quite possible they’re even more sensitive and therefore much more subtle with their emotions.
Until we can recognize with absolute clarity how a horse is feeling, I think all we have to do is think about how we would like to be treated. I don’t think it should matter if we arrived on earth in a dog body, a cat body or a human body. I don’t think any being in any body likes to be communicated with through force or pressure.
Jacques Cousteau, the famous undersea explorer, ecologist, filmmaker, innovator, scientist, photographer, author and researcher has two quotes that seem very fitting. In all of his work, he expresses a deep recognition of the inherent dignity of the sea and all the creatures in it. Although he speaks of all things underwater, I think they apply equally above the water with our horses. His words are in italics, mine are in brackets.
A lot of people attack the sea [horses], I make love to it.
Farming [horse training] as we do it is hunting, and in the sea [round pens, arenas, lunge lines] we act like barbarians.
I wouldn’t doubt that if the little green martian were with me that day observing the training session, he could have had the same conclusion about horse training that Cousteau had about farming. Could the collective horse world have explained to the martian that smacking a horse with a stick or threatening it with loud sounds or chasing it while it’s confined in a small space is not barbaric?
I feel if we start thinking in terms of what it means to recognize any living entity’s inherent dignity, our communication and actions will harmonize to bring forth a foundation of freedom, justice and peace on earth (and in paddocks and under saddle and under water)…
PS This post is not intended as a judgment or criticism of any particular training methods. I used this example because lunging or round penning a horse is one of the most widely accepted tools for training. My focus is not to point fingers, because God knows I’ll have three pointing back at me, but simply to look at our common practices and determine if they honor our horse’s inherent dignity.