Except for in the rare situations where horses are used as a necessity for survival, we don't really NEED our horses for anything or NEED them to do anything like we used to. For the majority of us, horses are a luxury and a very expensive hobby. (fun fact; horses are a top ranked most expensive sport in the world). Which means, everything we do with them is absolutely a WANT, not a NEED. And I mean EVERYTHING. We don't NEED our horses to lead safely beside us, as WANT them to because we have chosen to have horses in our lives and have a desire to lead them around on ropes. We don't NEED our horses to safely carry a rider, we WANT them to because we find it enjoyable to race and jump and trail ride on their backs. We don't NEED our horses not to bite us, we WANT them not to because we find it unpleasant and being bitten is a mood killer when you just wanted to pet the absolutely most beautiful creature you've ever seen. These are all wants, not needs.
A NEED is something required for survival and overall well being. We NEED to eat food, we NEED to drink water, we NEED shelter, and we NEED companionship; same for the horse. We don't NEED a horse and they don't NEED us (think feral horses with a completely raw lifestyle and environment, including the presence of natural predators). We should recognize that their presence in our lives is a want of ours, they are not here by choice, and we should mindful of this.
Of course this is a broad spectrum view of our relationship with horses, but what does that mean for day to day interactions with horses that are under our care? How do we break down the large scope idea of NEED vs WANT when training, keeping, and interacting with our horses? First, we have to remember that everything we ask of our horses is a WANT and not a NEED and that should absolutely impact how we train and interact with our horses. Whether we "make" a horse do something or we "ask" them (see previous posts on this topic) should be filtered through the knowledge that we don't actually NEED them to stand still while being tied or to race faster or to be soft to the reins, BUT... we may NEED them to get in a trailer if they are dying of colic and need emergency surgery; we may have to "make" them get in to save their lives. In such a situation, it's no longer about what *we* want (nobody WANTS to have a colicing horse), but it's now what the *horse* NEEDS, and therefore, as their responsible and caring human caregivers, we now NEED. It's no longer about what *we* want or need, but what our animal needs. Even in times like that though, there's care and consideration that can be put into fulfilling the urgent *need* of the horse. You wouldn't want to jump right to blindfolding and pulling the horse into the trailer, that would be a last result in an absolutely dire situation. This is situation where you might utilize the saying "ask, tell, demand" (that is more accurately said as "tell, tell louder, punish") in order to try and use the least invasive and minimally aversive approach first and then progress from there. At the end of the day, the horse does NOT have a choice to get in to the trailer or not, he must get in to save his life, but at least we worked as humanely and patiently as possible.
For everything else though... looking at it with big picture glasses, I don't know that there's any justifiable reasons for "making" a horse do anything when we have alternative, less aversive, kinder approaches, that give the horse a choice. Even with dangerous behaviors, we have the knowledge and resources now to successfully eliminate all of those behaviors without ever having to "make" a horse do anything. I'm not going to pretend it's easy or the fastest way, it takes patience and re-learning a lot of what the horse world has come to know as "truth". I'm not going to lie and say I never fall back into the trap of "oh come on horse, just do it already!", because I do.. I'm still unlearning a lot of old bad habits and the equestrian world is not set up in a way that's supportive of force free methods. So I do the best I can and try to be a little better every day. I will say though... that it IS possible to at least make a big change, to really try and reduce the amount of times we "make" our horses do something, to work very closely to completely force free, and that the equestrian community is on the verge of a big change! I will also say that it takes baby steps. Don't get stuck with the idea that it's all or nothing, start small... build.. make efforts to give your horses more choice and to truly "ask" more often. It'll happen. Just be patient.
photo credits - natalie lynn photography