With All Due Respect

Don't let the title fool you. This is not one of those "make 'em yield columns." Respect works both ways or it doesn't work at all. It's a rule that applies double to horses. If you don't have your horse's respect, the time you spend with him might be considerably less fun than expected. While most of us understand this and are able to pull it off to varying degrees, we are less successful at returning the favor. That's our loss.

If we don't respect the horse enough to understand how he sees the world we force him to draw little lines of self-defense all across the sand. That's usually when we humans pull out our big sticks and resistance is born. Or else we come to one of those lines and turn around because we're as scared as our horse is. 

If you want to validate his fears, that'll do it.

Pretty soon the line your horse draws will be a circle that goes all the way around him and you won't be invited in.

Staying in balance with your horse takes a lot more than not falling out of the saddle, it takes some mental and emotional coordination too. Finding that balance, that place where your horse would walk through fire for you but you'd never dream of asking, requires some perspective. 

First, we have to understand what respect looks like when it's coming from a horse. To put it plainly, he's got to be willing to take your word for things. The extent that he is corresponds roughly to the amount of respect he has for you. His willingness to try is what really counts. The flip side is that we have to be willing to act like a real leader-- you know, the kind who looks for the root cause of a problem instead of taking it personally, the kind who doesn't desert his horse when there's a little trouble. Basically, we need to be somebody worth trying for. We have to figure out what respect looks like to a horse and then look like that. To me, it looks like us allowing him to have a point of view. It doesn't mean we can't try to influence that point of view but it does mean we have to try and understand it.

Because he's a horse some things that don't bother us are going to scare the daylights out of him (sometimes it works the other way, too). We need to be ready to recognize that he has some genuine concerns. He may not be capable of seeing what we see and sometimes he feels real pain and real fear. Yanks and spanks aren't going to clear those things up for him. Real, responsible leadership on our part, even when it's hard, is needed to help him clarify and overcome his troubles. I can't say it's impossible to get something done with a horse if you don't respect him. I've seen plenty of horses leap over their lines in the sand out of fear; you name it and some poor horse has been freight-trained into it. They lurch wildly around a spin or hold a "headset" even though their eyes are about to pop out. What I haven't seen is one of those horses reach their full potential. They do what they do only because they're scared of what's coming next. Sooner or later they'll fall into a hole in their training and no human is going to ride them out of it. Intimidated doesn't count as willing, not to me.

The sort of equine willingness I'm talking about gets built on success. While having a spur impaled in his shoulder can make him jump, it sure diminishes your horse's sense of accomplishment when he lands. On the other hand, stepping over a line and finding out he doesn't have to be afraid anymore enhances it. That's the key. If he keeps getting thumped over one difficulty only to find another thumping awaits him he's not going to see the up-side of
obstacle crossing. There should be a boatload of accolades waiting just over every line. That's balance. When Sir Galahad slays his dragon us damsels ought to give him an atta boy.

And it isn't always the horse who stops before the line. Sometimes horses don't get over their lines because we humans can't bring ourselves to cross them. Don't make that line in the sand into a canyon. Find some other way to get across if what you're trying now is too much for you. Go all the way back to the start if you have to, or get some help. You need to keep the safety of yourself and your horse in mind but remember, it can be just as disrespectful to a horse to not push him to grow and improve as it is to get him in over his head.

There are times when we riders would just as soon our horses only moved slowly or didn't move at all. We don't want to get going too fast, thinking, "Oh no, it'll cause a wreck!" But moving his feet is completely normal to a horse. We are anthropomorphizing, confusing our own fears with respect for the physical abilities of our horses. Yes, there is an inherent risk involved in working with them. And yes, horses are bigger, stronger, and faster than we are but those are just the natural tools they've been given. We've got a few of our own. Put them together and you really have something but if you can't look past the fact that a horse could possibly buck you off you won't be able to put those tools to use.

Don't miss the great example horses set for us. They carry on in a four-lane, motorized world that's become completely alien to their nature but they haven't allowed this new environment to change what is best about them. It's one of the things I respect most about horses. They've figured out how to survive and contribute in this modern era even though our culture is doing its best to make them obsolete. Now that will make a kindred spirit out of me. In the end I find it interesting that a society which thinks it doesn't need horses can't let them go either. I guess our collective subconscious knows better. Deep down we know we still need that exponential sense of self and ability that only comes when we are willing to combine what is biggest within us with something even bigger--a horse.

Some signs you haven't gotten your horse's respect yet:

  • He shakes his head at you when he's loose (or pins his ears)
  • He's hard to catch
  • He walks on you
  • You have to get out of his way
  • He's hard to mount, leaves before you do, decides when you'll turn, chooses gait and speed
  • He's always looking at something else
  • He negotiates with you (i:e: ask for a turn and he¹ll bend his neck but won't move his feet, ask for a stop and what you get is a temporary slow down, etc.)
  • He can't be bothered just now, he's whinnying at the mare across the fence
  • Putting out his grain is hazardous "Get out of my space, I'm eating!!!"
  • He whirls away and kicks when you turn him loose

Some signs you don't respect your horse:

  • You don't spend much time with him
  • You slap your saddle on his back like you're driving a post
  • You bring the rest of your day to the saddle with you
  • You don't spend the time it takes to get good at the basics
  • You take it out on him when he outsmarts you...
  • Then you tell a lot of stories that begin with, "My stupid horse..."
  • You don't spend much time with him
  • You expect him to fail
  • You expect him to succeed at something without bothering to prepare him for it
  • A person watching might think you're about to attack your horse
  • You have more bit in your hands than skill
  • You don't spend much time with him