The reality of the horse industry is that the sort of work that I am interested in is in the minority. This is the work that centers the horse’s experience and focuses on the pursuit of the horse’s willing engagement with both the moment and with the human. There are very few models for this sort of horsemanship in the horse industry, and even within the few people doing it there is enormous variation. There are even fewer horse owners who are interested in working with a trainer that prioritizes the horse over goals such as competition, trail rides or another activity. It seems it is the general consensus that for those who focus on the human experience of horsemanship (meaning, the enjoyment by the person of a ride or time spent with the horse, whatever that looks like) is that an obedient horse is the ideal. Obedience allows the rider to have fun, relax, win or work with the least amount of human stress.
What obedience doesn’t automatically include is a connection between the horse and the person. Sometimes obedience comes with engagement, and the horse is present and willing for the task. But, obedience does not necessarily mean that a horse is willing and engaged. In fact, often a horse must not be engaged in order to perform, because the horse feels so poorly about the situation that were they to truly engage the obedient performance would be impossible due to the stress.
This is so curious to me, that we as humans would engage the partnership of another living critter, but then not strive for the connection. I can reflect back on the time before I was consciously cultivating this engagement and what is striking to me is that many of the moments that stand out to me are the moments that now, with my current vocabulary and understanding, are the great moments where engagement happened without that being the goal.
Why do we choose to work with a living breathing animal like the horse, if all we want is the automated and consistent responses of a machine? What does it look like to love a horse that is simply being obedient to avoid conflict..is that even love? I’m really not sure. Most of us are uncomfortable with the idea that love would get wrapped up in a relationship where only one party is becoming happier through it. It seems to cheapen the concept of love when it is part of a literal transaction where one party has the power and the other is subservient. Yet, I don’t know how often I hear the phrase “well they really do love their animals” evoked to qualify poor treatment of an animal, or to shift the blame from the human to a horse that doesn’t feel the need to cooperate in a raw deal.
Would the majority of horsemanship look that different if we replaced real horses with an excellent artificial intelligence called iHorse that we could manipulate and develop a (training) protocol with and compete on? I honestly don’t think so. I think as long as the person could feel the illusion of progress with the robot, so that they could take credit and feel successful with the task, and we made the robot warm and furry and made it smell like a horse, most people wouldn’t miss the real thing.
What I get from working horses is a fascination and addiction to establishing connection with another creature that is a raw, dynamic and true. It is finding moments where the horse, who is a prisoner and lost so much of their agency in life, decides to offer something willingly. One of the greatest moments of autonomy a horse has in a life where we dictate literally every major thing in their lives, from where they exist to when they eat, is whether or not the participate willingly. They may not have a true choice in coming to the party, but they can choose how they feel about being there.
I would miss this if I was working with an iHorse. I would miss that moment of agency and autonomy, even if the robot was developing and smelling and behaving exactly as I hope a horse will, letting me practice my skills and even if I were having the fun of the motion of a horse and the power and movement so many of us find amazingly exciting, refreshing, soothing or entertaining. It is that little bit of agency that makes all the difference to me and why I participate in the sort of horsemanship I do. But it is a challenge and with that little moment of agency from the horse comes an honesty that many people don’t want to see. If obedience is the goal there is always something to hide behind even if the horse’s feedback is not particularly positive.
The irony is that in centering the horse and de-centering the person the way that I try to, we see so many things about ourselves we may have never seen before because it points out the moments where we are not worth the horse’s engagement, and often these are the same qualities we struggle with in other parts of our lives. This is the true pain and exhilaration of working with horse. This would disappear with a robot horse and is eliminated when we work only towards a task with a horse, whatever that task may be, as so much of the horse industry does today. I know that we as humans will do a lot to avoid honesty like this, but for me this is worth more than a million blue ribbons that my horse doesn’t care at all about. After all, you can’t even eat them.