A Declaration of Equine Rights

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.


11 thoughts on “A Declaration of Equine Rights

  1. Great post! I’ve ben trying to get some kind of movement like this off the ground for a long time. If you care to, mosey on over to EHTT and check out the tag equine bill of rights. I’d love to collaborate!

    • Me too. I think that there’s plenty of neuroscience research available to confirm that animals do indeed react emotionally in ways similar to humans when exposed to similar stimuli. I don’t see why we can’t begin by taking a look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and bring that into our paddocks.

      So much of what I’m finding is pointing toward your work in line with mindful communication especially through touch. Somehow our culture has evolved to a common acceptance of forceful touch and loud demonstrative communication with horses is normal, necessary and encouraged and taught. If we start asking questions like, “How does my horse feel about this? How is he reacting to my communication?”, I think this will encourage being present in the moment. I think too often we get caught up in the goal of an obedient horse, but IMHO, that comes moment by moment as well. Why not make those moments enjoyable for both?

      The Five Freedoms on your blog is a great. I think if we can define, or show clearly, from a horse’s perspective what fear and distress or expression of normal behavior looks like, it may bring a common understanding. I think for starters, obedience is confused with happiness. Most horses I see are obedient out of fear. This, I believe is not normal behavior nor a fair way to communicate.

      I think a good place to start is your specialty and ask the question “What type of touch is fair to a horse?”…..

  2. Excellent ideas!
    Your post comes at a time when I am ready to make a change, and this is a project I can get behind.
    I’m ready when you are, although I suspect you know much more about the fields needed to be explored than I.
    I’m going to start some researching, and will begin posting what I find. If you’ll do the same, perhaps we can come up with something.

    • Sounds like fun. I think another good place to start is to start is to identify the types of communication. For example, I think anytime we activate a horse’s flight mechanism, as in sending it away, or any action that causes the horse to react as if pursued by a predator, we could define as Predatorial Communication. If we activate the seeking mechanism in a horse where it is moving towards something with curiosity or peaked interest then perhaps that would could be called something like Invitation Communication. I think we could start by identifying the types of communication we have with our horses and all of our animals and then closely examine the animal’s reaction and how they feel about it.

      It’s the energy and intent behind our communication and touch that I think will be a good spring board…..

      What type of touch is fair and generative? What type of touch causes fear or prey reaction? I think the more questions we start asking the more answers we’ll get. I can’t wait!


  3. Hi Cheryl, I very much enjoyed your post. Many people love their horses and they really don’t know what emotional, mental and/or physical pain they are causing their equine partners. I appreciate that you are not pointing fingers but looking for answers and better ways. Horses are prey animals, we humans are predators. ONLY if people understand that the horse is truly afraid for its life when forced with unnecessary and/or aggressive pressure, and then they need to CARE, will they change… Let’s lead by being a good example. Once people say WOW, maybe they will follow up with HOW?

    I absolutely adore your blog picture… Keep up the good play!

    Petra Christensen
    Parelli 1Star Junior Instructor
    In business to make this world a better place – for horses and humans 🙂

    • Thank you so much for your comment.

      Great point about the HOW. Horses don’t have too many choices about being prey animals, but I feel as humans we can totally choose how we represent ourselves based on our communication. I like being able to morph my communication based on the situation, do I need to be more predatorial or more invitational? I think the more we can define ‘how’ we are representing ourselves to our horses and ‘how’ they respond we can hopefully avoid creating scenarios where the horse is truly afraid for it’s life. (Neuroscience research is showing that traumatic episodes of fear actually kills brain cells)

      I like the idea of finding ways to get the behavior we want, without creating a huge ‘don’t want’ for our horses.

      As for another personal ‘don’t want’, (as you noted), I don’t want to create an atmosphere of judgment. It’s often difficult to appear non-judgmental especially when comparing and contrasting. I believe we’re all just to keep afloat and become strong swimmers in a sea of of often conflicting information.

      My solace is that our horses are the best source of information. They will answer our questions honestly.

      Thank you too about the comment on the blog picture. That’s Raleigh, my Clyde, in the photo. Somehow each day he manages to steal my heart even more than the day before.

  4. Pingback: Winding Down…For Good Reasons | enlightened horsemanship through touch

  5. This is an outstanding post, and I love your header. I wish all people who own horses could read this. “Training” can be so cruel. Think about what people do when they are trying to load horses on a trailer! I have seen horrible things. Thank you for being so thoughtful and putting your words out to us.

    I got to you through Kim.

  6. I also agree with what people are saying. I see where you come from with this. Perhaps there is many other ways of training a horse, without being so physical. Perhaps without being so physical the horse may respond better begin to enjoy work ?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s