Updated: Feb 28, 2021
Are our horses out to get us? Or do we just setting them up for failure and blame them when they do?
A couple of weeks ago I read something, from a professional trainer, that all horse should be treated like killers for the first thirty rides. I honestly couldn't believe what I was reading. This trainer was actually advocating for using more extreme methods of subduing horses during the starting period BECAUSE, in her words, "unbroke" horses are out to kill us.
Run them, chase them, hit them, yank them, spur them, sack them out, tie them up, flood them, force lay them down.... It's like we are dealing with monsters or prehistoric man eating predators here. Like we are trying to tame a Tyrannosaur Rex to be rideable and not eat us. Are we? Is that REALLY the type of animal we are dealing with?
Question... If you approach a herd of feral horses in an open space, what do they do? They run away. When you watch feral horses accepting a first touch what are they trying to do? What does their body language tell us about how they are feeling? It's usually fear (sometimes extreme), and they try and get away, but sometimes they have no place to run so they defend themselves.
Horses are notoriously sensitive, skittish, fearful animals that take time to trust people and it's harder for them to trust people when they haven't been exposed to them from an early age. They run at the first sight of danger, they are sensitive to the slightest of body language changes, and they are really very peaceful when left alone.
Fights and bickering in a truly feral herd without barriers and stresses from a man made world, rarely happen... Every once in awhile there's an altercation between stallions or or rough play, but they are not killers by nature.¹ If anyone is the killer by nature in the horse-human relationship, it's the human. Horses have every reason to treat us like killers, but we don't have any reason to treat them so.
Just today I read two comments from equestrians that stated that horses were psychopaths. That a horse would kick a nine year old girl in the face on purpose and never think twice about it, and this made them psychopaths deserving of punishment and harsh treatment. It also completely excuses the use of the cruelest of training and handling techniques as well.
Statements like these make me wonder why we own or love horses at all. If horses are psychopaths, why do we have them in our lives? Why do we get on their backs and claim we love them so much if they are constantly out to kill us?⁸
Horses ARE however, very large animals and we do have expectations of them to behave safely around us. We DO handle them a lot, we demand they carry us on their back, and we trust them with our lives.
We expect them not to kick us, bite us, throw us at the jump, flip over on us, rear, bolt, step on our feet, rip the lead rope out of our hands, run us over... And the list goes on. We also expect them to lead nicely beside us, stand quietly, jump jumps, run barrels, load into trailers, go to shows, get shoes nailed into their feet, accept medical care, tie to trailers, accept a bit and saddle, allow things to be tightened onto them, carry riders of all sizes and experience levels, tolerate yapping dogs, never blink an eye at a car driving by too fast, stay in shape, go faster and slower when asked and only when asked, halters on their heads, blankets, restricted meals, confinement of various sizes and for various lengths of time, not to eat grass unless told to, win ribbons, carry us to the tops of mountains, get along with other horses they didn't choose, tolerate being alone.. and I could go on FOREVER. I think you get the point though.
Even still, with all the potential they have to harm us...
Maybe horses aren't the problem. Maybe our expectations of them and the way we go about achieving those are the problem.
Maybe we aren't dealing with killer horses, but horses that are communicating they are confused and scared and frustrated ... And when that doesn't work they are defending themselves in the only way they know how.⁷
Maybe WE are the problem, not them.
Maybe when your horse rears or dances around on the end of the lead, they are not coping well with their environment or they are scared. So instead of punishing them and claiming it's a lack of respect.... help them out and prepare them better using a low stress, minimally aversive, humane approach to educating the horse.⁵
When a horse hurts you, or acts out towards you, it won't help long term to correct the symptom or blame the horse, and if fact it could make things worse.⁹ They are NOT doing it for fun or to be vindictive or because of a lack of respect. It's not funny, a blooper, or a green horse still learning it's place. When a horse kicks out, bites, rears, bolts, and all those other dangerous behaviors, they are responding how they've been taught, or according to the emotion they are experiencing; fear, panic, rage, lust, play, seeking, care.⁶ It's our job to teach them in a patient and humane way how to cope and respond accordingly to the environment we put them in, the emotions they are born with, and the expectations we have of them. Not to treat them like they are killers and psychopaths.
Killer Horses Part II (What if my horse kicks or bites me?)
Killer Horses Part III (Emergencies Do Happen)