Humans have been riding horses for thousands of years and have forgotten more than we’ve learned. Where once we relied on and laboured with horses, we now only recreate with them. Yet a new trend I loosely call natural horsemanship, is inexorably making its way into top sport. It’s new because it challenges how we have traditionally operated our relationships with our horses. As a society, we are moving forward from hierarchical relationships, to more egalitarian ones. (Although, we’re not quite there yet.) Our history and our history with horses mirror perfectly where we’re coming from and where we’re heading.
This new trend begs us to understand how the horse sees us and the actions we use to communicate with them. It demonstrates a kinder, fairer way to teach a horse to accept our will. It also teaches us how to enjoy our horses for what they are and to avoid the trauma we inadvertently inflict because of what they’re not. It holds us to account, just like we do with each other, that we operate with empathy and respect for our horses. Healthy society rejects the objectification of others, and so too will equestrianism follow in time.
Both humans and horses are autonomous creatures, the difference between us is that we adapt the world, while horses adapt to the world. We have the unique capacity for collective action, while horses stay individualistic. Each horse acts in accordance with their unique relationships with their human partners. Whether they participate freely, obediently, or not at all, has everything to do with how we behave, and our behaviour is a function of both our conscious and subconscious. Many of our motivations are below the surface, in the subconscious. When we value achievement based on our ability to make a horse do our bidding, we subconsciously act on our horse as an object and our incentive is to have it obedient. This is the status quo in equestrianism today and throughout its history. Incidentally, it is also the goal of authoritarian regimes today and throughout history. When we relate with one another, we push back when we’ve had enough being taken for granted or trespassed upon. So do our horses, except our relationship is not one of equals so we say they’re resisting, or evading. They say nothing, they just behave in a way to protect their autonomy or at least until we break them and make them obedient.
If you’ve ever witnessed liberty demonstrations, we see that horses genuinely enjoy their relationships with their partners and show an enthusiastic willingness to participate in what is clearly their human’s agenda. These horses show no resistance or evasion. They have not learned helplessness, a term animal behavioural scientists have coined when an animal has given up trying to avoid an existential threat and defeatedly accepts their condition. A willing relationship with our horse can exist whether we’re working on the ground or from their back, and it can exist at the highest level of the sport. Few riders achieve it, mostly because few riders value it.
Societies are prone to entropy, humans are prone to estrangement. Our default social condition is hierarchal relationships where the strong rule the weak. We evolve by being conscious, by creating new habits (habits are sub-conscious routines) for existing in new relationships. Riding well requires an enormous amount of skill and many evolved habits. Which habits we develop depend on what guides our goals, both conscious and subconscious. We don’t develop new habits when the ones we have are good enough to achieve our goals. It’s the habits we form in sub-conscious learning that limit our skill. Since our default relational behaviour is hierarchal, we naturally exploit the weakness in our horse to achieve our goals when we haven’t consciously created habits that don’t.
Willingness is easy to achieve, what’s hard is overcoming our tendency to assert obedience. Until we’re conscious that we do this, we won’t change a thing. Since most top equestrian sports require more horse capacity than rider skill, there is less incentive for skill development than procuring capacity. We all want to believe that our horses “love” to perform for us, we tell ourselves this without recognizing the truth of it. Yet we treat resistance and evasions as dis-obediences and put more bit, more spur, and carry whips into competitions, unconscious of this disconnect. When we perceive the horse’s behaviour as unwilling instead of dis-obedient, we consciously adjust our behaviour to seek willingness instead of obedience. Anybody can be the boss of their horse, but to be a leader requires the horse chooses to follow.