Why we need to stop training the horses and instead work on ourselves if we want to engage with these beautiful animals
"Here’s my bottom line: It is in fact, the person that needs “training”, (or rather healing); not the horses."
Almost everything that takes place in the name of equestrianism, horse training and horsemanship has very little to do with what the horses actually need.
A multi-billion pound industry exists which tries to coerce and persuade horse lovers all around the world that they need to spend TONS of energy, time and money on finding the right approach/technique/piece of equipment/trainer/method, etc.
Let's get back to complete basics here: Horse need NONE of this.
When left to be themselves, a horse, most horses need and want a few basic but fundamentally important things:
And that is it. Left to the horse to decide, the vast majority, if not all of them, would chose NOT to come into human environments including yards, riding schools, competition yards and arenas. Most would chose NOT to strapped down under tack, leather and metal. Most if not all would certainly chose NOT to have heavy cold metal placed beneath their natural hooves. And I say with all certainty this last point: NO horse would ever chose to be subjected to pointless, meaningless exercise which involved the use of force, control and dominance, whether that is through the method the handler is using, due to their own pent-up vulnerabilities, or the use of equipment including whips.
Through over a decade of experiences of focusing on the more subtle ascepts of horse-human relationships and interactions through my Equine Facilitated Learning practice (EFL), and through paying really close attention to what my own horse/s are trying to communicate to me, I’ve discovered that the most effective form of “horsemanship” involves an almost complete abandonment of all methods, techniques, training or equipment.
Why? Because it seems to me that most horse training is for the singular benefit of the person not the horse: to help the person feel, and sometimes actually be, more in control of another creature. In order to bend that horse to their will, agenda and desires. This is not forming a partnership. No partnership is possible when the relationship is a top-down, power-driven one involving the subjugation of another being.
Through some invisible and very visible forms of coercion within this industry, thousands of horse owners and riders fall for the belief that they must train, exercise and control their horse. Whilst what is often the result, is that same person usually feels utterly out of control inside. And who suffers: that's right, the horse.
Most horse owners and riders are so fearful of losing control of themselves internally, or really accessing who they really are and what they really feel, that they instead spend vast amounts of time, energy and money on trying to control their horse instead.
The irony of all of this, in my experience, is that the horses want us to be much more authentic, much more grounded and much more in touch with our feelings. They want us to LET GO of trying to control our emotions, and ourselves, and instead flow with what we are feeling and needing, as well as what the horse is feeling and needing in each moment.
Put simply: Most horses simply want to graze, be able to move around (i.e. not be stabled or confined), and be with their companions.
When you see this clear as day and then try to reconcile that with what you regularly ask of your horse - there is a massive gap between what you have come to believe you want, and what your horse ACTUALLY wants and needs.
It is time for huge re-think where our horses are concerned.
Instead, my view is that what is simultaneously and urgently required is the raising of awareness, awakening of consciousness, and subsequent healing of people; to readdress the wounds caused through upbringing and our destructive Patriarchal culture's negative effects on us as a species.
A gigantic shift is needed away from dominance-based attitudes, and, in particular, the belief that it is humans' innate right to control nature at every level, towards love, compassion, empowerment and true freedom, to massively shift the world for our beloved horse friends.
Yes, young or unhandled horses will require some degree of training if we intend to ride and work with them, they will need to get used to our language and cues, and shown how to move safely beneath and beside us. And if our path is one of competition, then fitness will also need to be developed. However, this needs to be done without the use of force and dominance.
But quite honestly I now feel that the vast majority of so-called training methods, equipment and approaches out there are unnecessary and really more about perpetuating the dominance of the human over the horse. And, of course, are simultaneously about making money as horsemanship and horse training are BIG business.
Here’s my bottom line: It is in fact, the person that needs “training”, (or rather healing); not the horses. In equine facilitated/assisted learning and therapy this is seen over and over again: when something in the person changes; the horse changes in response to that. The focus in these sessions is on the human learning and changing; not the horse.
When we shift our patterns of emotion, thought and then behaviour, the horse shifts along with us, in a more harmonious way; happily offering to be beside us no matter what we’re asking of them.
I see this over and over again both with myself and horses and my clients' interactions with horses. I also see the opposite happen: when a person can’t shift themselves and they remain stuck, the horse remains un-engaged and reluctant to participate; if not dangerous on occasion. If that person then seeks to control their horse whilst in this state, then well, they are doing nothing short of casuing stress, imbalance, ill-health and possibly also trauma to that horse.
And let's be honest here: that NEVER feels good or right. Deep down we know when we've gone too far and dominated another being - animal or human. Can we truly believe that we can create a "partnership" let alone a good relationship with our horse if we are overriding their needs, preferences and desires...? Do we honestly believe that controlling a highly social, intelligent and loving animal because we have access to equipment, tools, stables, arenas or round-pens is the right and humane thing to do...?
These are truly soul-searching questions to ask ourselves to discover just what kind of relationship am I trying to create with my horse. And fundamentally, what sort of person am I, really...?
In the book, Way of the Horse: Equine Archetypes for Self-Discovery, Linda Kohanov describes the brutal origins of all horse training and handling used today throughout the world. Kohanov also cites the fact that the origins of horse training, in particular dressage, stem from horses historically being used as war horses and therefore the military approach of control and dominance is central within much equestrian training and handling.
This "conquest mentality" has infiltrated all corners of equestrianism to the point that we don’t even notice it’s operating in our behaviour. All aspects of equestrianism from breeding and gelding, to horse management and competing, to the ordinary horse owner just out for a hack, sadly still stem from this mind-set.
That a horse should “stand" stock-still and not dare to move, when held or tied, being shod or when being mounted, rather than be allowed to move if they feel the need to, is nothing short of dominance heavily covered up in politeness or more recently insidiously veiled as “manners!" Give me a break...
I strongly recommend reading Alice Miller's books, The Drama of Being a Child and For Your Own Good to really understand my premise here. In a nutshell, Miller describes vividly and painfully honestly how we are ALL brought up in Western Europe in particular, in a society that applauds being "good" and disproves of being in any sense: wild and free. Free to feel, move our body, express our Spirit or emotions. And that this "doctrine" is perpetuated throughout society - most notably by parents, because that is how they were brought up themselves; in schools by teachers and rules; in the workplace (think of bossy managers) and in the media where compliance and fitting in is everything.
A person’s control and power over another being, and a large and very powerful one at that, is nothing short of food for the Ego.
And where horses are concerned, this is not “horsemanship”; it’s revenge. - Finally we get another being to be powerful over, one we dictate to in every sense as we decide where and who they live with, how they live, move, socialise, eat, breed and exercise. Finally all of our unconscious rage at our parents starts to come out, finally we get to release our anger, plus pain and grief, on another soul.
The horse has become, in this sense then, the perfect scapegoat for human pain.
Here’s what I mean: another unconscious layer is being played out in the dynamic between most people and horses.
Our experiences as young children usually involved substantial periods of feeling utterly powerless and vulnerable. The deeply buried memories of these experiences which remain in our emotional system and body often get triggered when around horses. Finally we have another living creature we can feel powerful over and we can (or rather think we can), try to control them.
The majority of horse owners decide when their horses eat, where they live and how much movement they can have, whether they live alone or with other horses, and when and how they are exercised.
I've received consistent messages time and time again from horses: That when I slip into these old-fashioned and outdated dominance-based behaviours I’m ignoring or stifling the horse and their needs.
When I came off my mare Connie five years ago and fractured my coccyx, I was exercising her because that’s what I thought she needed and that’s what horse owners should do; not because I wanted to have fun together in the saddle with her on that particular day. The truth was I was subtlely making her move due to the "shoulds" in my head, which is control and dominance. To this day I continue to be reminded of error of action with back pain and immobility.
Sound familiar? Are there deep recesses in your psyche being touched as you read these scenarios?
As a small child how many hundreds of times are we told what to do and what not to do and how; what we need; what we don’t need and what the rest of society thinks is acceptable, and therefore how we should behave to comply with this view?
How often were you simply playing when a parent told you to stop, do something else or to play quietly?
As we evolve as humans, surely this involves us re-learning how to allow our own inner-horse, as well as our outer ones, to be free to follow their needs, to be wild and instinctual, autonomous, powerful and full of life?
After all, isn’t that exactly what wasn’t allowed to happen when we were little instinctual creatures; full of life and energy?
It's time for a new and fresher approach to horsemanship, one where the focus is on us the human learning and letting horses be horses.
© Angela Dunning, 2 April 2011, subsequent updates: 2 May 2015; 19 April 2017; 18 June 2017.