Building a Partnership With Your Horse
The stories we tell about our horses as partners may just be stories after all. We have far too many dominance expectations in our communications to ever allow for the agency of our horses to emerge to the level of partner. Maybe that’s ok, but we should at least be honest with ourselves. Most of what we accomplish, especially in competitive sport is because we reinforce our expectations of our horse’s cooperation with coercive pressure. We carry whips, wear spurs, choose bits that give us leverage when our horses express resistance or avoidance to our wishes. The vast majority of participants in sport are not being guided to attaining “self-carriage” where the horse maintains, with agency, the last request the rider has made until replaced with a new one. Even this is not a perfect test of agency, but at least it is a move in the right direction along with eliminating reliance on tools of coercion. The true measure belongs in the intimacy between horse and rider. Mastering horses is about mastering oneself which, if without integrity for self reflection, is virtually impossible.
I recently mentioned how we tend to natural habits when we have not consciously learned better habits. Riding, like living, is the pursuit of improvement, it is best done being conscious. If we think about how we have trained dolphins and killer whales to perform exciting behaviours for our pleasure, we realize nobody coerced them, everything they do was incentivized by the reward of fresh fish. We have a growing community of horse trainers who only use positive reinforcement to train, which is in itself really humane, but can’t find its way into performance riding where most of our accomplishments are results of negative reinforcement. Positive and negative mean adding something or taking something away. Reinforcement is rewarding behaviour we want. So negative reinforcement is removing something, like pressure, to reward the desired behaviour. Punishment is the dangerous thing. Positive and negative punishments, adding or taking away, to discourage behaviour we don’t want. These should be reserved for behaviour that is agonistically dangerous like biting, kicking, or running us over. When we use punishment as a means to control our horses, we are creating history that must be reconciled before we move closer to partnership. Most horses I get for retraining have history that has written itself into their bodies, neural pathways, muscle memory, habits that are hard to change, plus all the resultant pathologies caused by expectations beyond the capacity of horse or rider. The only way forward is to go back and get in front of these habits and build a trusting relationship that allows us to edit their behaviour by creating different responses to stimuli. These new responses are possible because horses ultimately seek peace, stability and safety, homeostasis.
Horses’ behaviour in the wild is scientifically classified as agonistic dominant; agonistic submissive; affiliative; inquisitive; and neutral. As a general observation only dominant stallions effectively herd (verb) the band (as in herd of horses, a noun), no other member has this capacity. Herding is moving the band by pressure, not suggestion, but dominant pressure. Another observed behaviour that moves the band is one of departure, where a horse leads and the rest follow. Usually this behaviour is lead by a dominant mare, but it can be lead by other horses that have a lot of affiliate relationships, which means a horse with a lot of friends. Following is an act of agency, being herded is an act of submission.
The status quo in riding today is to emulate the stallion by using dominant pressure to produce submission. The stallion doesn’t invoke this dominant behaviour as a normal way of interacting, it will emerge in situations such as security for his haram. The day to day governance is left up to the dominant mares which protect homeostasis if the band is unsettled. Resistance and evasion of a horse under its rider is a sign that it doesn’t want to submit or follow. Adding pressure to counteract this behaviour follows a natural inclination but only if it is to restore peace. If the pressure is used to produce results for the rider, the best behaviour that can be expected is obedience or at worst, an unrideable mount. Obedience is not required in a partnership, but it is required in a dictatorship. Since we want to control the agenda with our horses, a relationship of pure equals won’t get us there, but a relationship requiring full obedience by definition can’t be a partnership.
The key to a great partnership is to develop as much of the horse’s agency as possible. This requires that you replace your commands with dialogue so that you’re always including your horse in your ask. You’ll need to release yourself from the notion that your skill is dependent on whether your horse obeys your commands. The challenge is to be true to the relationship, knowing what you can ask, when the horse will follow, and when you need to invoke a dominant action. The deeper your relationship, the more trust equity you have. A horse that is willing to follow you will likely forgive you if you transgress once in a while. The more your horse does willingly for you, the more supple they become, their energy increases, and resistance and evasion fade away. If this appeals to you, be warned, the more agency your horse has, the more you’ll find yourself in discussions about whether your aid was appropriate.