Horses and respect: Fact or fiction?

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I’ve heard at least a thousand times that you must gain your horse’s respect. It’s a mantra parroted off by horse people everywhere and many trainers say that respect is the first thing you must achieve. There are countless videos, articles and books on how to gain respect from your horse.

Respect is often explained as a horse giving an appropriate response when pressure is applied. But what is an appropriate response? A horse may buck or kick up when he’s ridden for the first time. This response comes from fear and from not understanding what’s wanted. It’s inconceivable to me that some trainers fob this off by saying such a horse lacks respect.

The response a horse gives may not be the one you hoped for but it’s merely what the horse sees as being best under the circumstances.
The response a horse gives may not be the one you hoped for but it’s merely what the horse sees as being best under the circumstances.

Perhaps your horse kicks up and resists when he’s asked to step over a log or up a creek bank. Your horse may resist and kick up before he canters. He may push over you when you lead him. It’s a mistake to say such responses are inappropriate or that the horse lacks respect. Whatever response a horse gives is neither good nor bad. It’s just a response. It may not be the one you hoped for but it’s not wrong or disrespectful. It’s merely the response that the horse sees as being best under the circumstances. It’s only what he’s been taught to do.

A horse doesn’t think, “I don’t respect this person, so I won’t do as he asks. I’ll push over him when he’s leading me. I’ll kick up and resist when he rides me because that’s inappropriate. I know what he wants but I’m not going to do it.” A horse has no understanding of good or bad. He doesn’t know what we think is appropriate or inappropriate. When a certain response relieves pressure once, he’ll use it next time. If it works again, it’s reinforced in his mind. If it keeps working, the horse will keep using the same response.

When a horse doesn’t respond as expected, some trainers blame the horse. They say the horse lacks respect and needs more pressure or punishment. They justify running horses to the point of exhaustion, hitting them on the head, roping or strapping their legs, chasing them with ropes or flags, jerking their head, tying them down on the ground or depriving them of food or water, by saying the horse lacks respect.

Remember, a horse’s response is just a response. It’s neither appropriate nor inappropriate. It’s never a horse’s fault if he’s not doing what you want. You don’t have an excuse to apply excessive pressure or punishment, if a horse doesn’t respond as you expect. It’s always up to the trainer to adjust the lessons to suit the situation. There’s no point blaming the horse.

 

neil-daviesNeil Davies began training horses full-time in 1977. Over the next 15 years, he started more than a thousand horses under saddle and trained thousands of so-called ‘problem’ horses. [read more]

He is the author of Fear-free Horse Training – every step of the way.

Visit Neil’s website at www.fearfreehorsetraining.com.

Neil Davies

Neil Davies began training horses full-time in 1977. Over the next fifteen years, he started more than a thousand horses under saddle and trained thousands of so-called ‘problem’ horses. From $100 backyard ponies to thoroughbreds worth millions, Neil has seen it all. » Read Neil's profile

One thought on “Horses and respect: Fact or fiction?

  • January 4, 2017 at 5:00 am
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    A PERFECT example of what I often try to explain about dog training. It seems exactly the same in horses. I’ll watch someone “training” a horse and think: That horse has got absolutely no clue what you are asking him to do, and yet the “trainer” will say that horse is being stubborn or disrespectful.
    In dogs, we often see “trainers” saying things like, “If the dog does [insert behavior here], he is being dominant over you and you must show him you are the Alpha dog.” In reality the dog is usually doing something like jumping up, which is caused by excitement and is reinforced by the owner giving attention to that dog (easiest fix ever, you just tell the dog to sit and then give him what he wants, which is attention), or pulling on the leash, which is caused by the dog learning that this is how he can get where he wants to go (slightly harder fix, but certainly not impossible. You just teach the dog that he can still get where he wants to go without dragging).
    Dogs, and I believe all animals, including humans, learn through what works. If putting his head in the garbage bin gets him nothing but walking away from it or ignoring it gets him lots of attention and a game of tug of war or a tasty treat, he’ll do that instead. I really don’t understand how people who spend so much time around animals can be so blind to how they think and learn. It does not take a course in animal behaviour to work out that animals just do whatever had worked in the past.

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