There has been a lively conversation on the 3R Friends group page that has inspired me to weigh in with this blog post. The question up for discussion wondered if a horse’s ability to shut down and internalize their worry can sometimes be a good thing, or if it is inherently a negative. I think this is a really important thing to talk about because all of the ideas I tend to practice and preach revolve around waking a horse up and it is important to take a critical eye to this work to ensure it doesn’t become a bunch of empty words.
When thinking about this post I realized how difficult it would be to write something thoughtful and critical on the subject because it requires me to think about the difference between what I believe to be right for horses and what I think to be the best option. I really wish I could say that these two things were always perfectly integrated but I really don’t think that it is as simple as that. This is one of my longer and less positive posts because it is one of the more complicated questions there is when it comes to horses.
I will start by saying that I completely believe that an engaged and awake equine partner is the way the horse feels best. In my experience horses are masters at internalizing and compartmentalizing their feelings and I believe that any being is less satisfied, comfortable and happy when they are not fully present for their lives and experiences. I do not believe that horses are here on Earth simply to work for humans. It is my belief that horses have intrinsic value as individual beings whether or not they ever interact with a person and so I think that they are as entitled to emotional and physical comfort as we are as people.
This in and of itself is a problematic notion because horses are domesticated animals. Without humans most horses in their current state of genetics and in this developed world we live in, would not survive. All of the qualities that a wild animal would need to survive and breed are incredibly difficult to manage when in captivity and through selective breeding we have created a huge range of job specific horses that do not have the bodies or the minds of a wild animal. Even if they did, there is simply not enough undeveloped grassland to turn every horse loose if we suddenly decided that domesticating animals was not in their best interest. So, no matter what, horses are stuck with us.
Because of this I am forced to consider horses not only as both individuals with intrinsic value, but also as companion animals that exist in relation to humans. This is not easy to rectify, at least not in my mind, knowing what I do about people. The rest of this conversation gets a little dicey.
With every horse I work I try to wake them up as much as possible so that they engage, but I rarely have the luxury of working a horse for more than a few months, and the work I do with these horses in training is basically therapy. It is to get them feeling better so they behave better. I don’t have to compete or do a job outside of that. I have had plenty of jobs in my life where the horses were a vehicle to get a job done for my boss and the reason I started the business I have now is because I realized quickly that I was not able to fully pursue the sort of horsemanship I believe is right if I had a boss or a goal beyond making the horse feel better because that always required me to make concessions for the sake of employment and completing a task.
I know that the skills I have now would make me better able to sort out trouble when it came my way, but to say that I could have a fully engaged horse one hundred percent of the time and also be a part of the more typical world of horses that involves bosses, timed events, judges and schedules would be an audacious statement I am in no way able to make. This typical horse world is completely structured around obedience not engagement. I don’t know anyone that I know for sure can keep a horse completely happy, engaged and perfectly awake while doing a job that is beyond the horse for an extended period of time. I have no idea if someone like this exists. Most of the people I know that are good at waking a horse up do this in a clinic format or a training format and have no need to actually maintain this beyond showing the owners what is possible with their horse. I know those of us with some skills in this department might be able to make the lives of our horses a little better in the more traditional horsey settings like competition and ranch work, but I doubt we could fit such a round peg in a square hole perfectly.
What I do know is that people are going to do all of these things and a lot more with there horses in order to justify having them around. I know a lot of really great horse owners, but almost every single one of them has an expectation for their horse that goes beyond that of a domesticated cat because we want to sit on them and have some sort of performance at a certain time, even if that just means going for a trail ride when our friend is in town. A cat might be fulfilling its role as long as it uses the litter box and occasionally allows their person to touch them (on the cat’s terms, of course), but to most people a horse better do more than that to be considered a good partner.
Since I’m not convinced that even those of us that work at this niche type of horsemanship professionally can truly keep a horse engaged and happy without ever sacrificing its feelings AND do a job that is beyond the horse, I sure don’t think most horse owners can, and I think even less are interested in doing so. I also think that a lot of the things people think are fun to do with horses really stink if you are the horse. They are a lot of physical and mental work and often in really unsettling environments toting around a person that is speaking a foreign language and doesn’t even notice that the world is falling apart. And when the horse tries to tell them that they don’t understand what is being asked, or that something scary is happening, more humans than not will simply see this as incorrect or bad behavior and something punitive happens to the horse.
In my life with horses I would never ask a horse to not respond accordingly when they think I am being unclear or they perceive their lives as in danger. But when it comes to the best interest of the horse with the general public I think the horse is better off shutting up and shutting down. Do your job and get home safely. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t worry, in fact there is probably more. The worry is just not on display for their human and most likely they will do better at their job and live to see another day without a spur in the gut or worse.
Do I want my horses to live lives that are about appeasing me enough that I don’t sell them? No. But I also think that there are a lot of horses and not a lot of homes and if a horse finds one that feeds them well and cares even a little it is probably best they hold onto that. A horse that shuts down and is well behaved enough by internalizing its worry will probably avoid a worse home and when it is considered the “good” horse it will be treated accordingly.
Don’t confuse this with me endorsing the way humans see horses. I think it’s wrong and I don’t like it one bit. But I think quality of life is a real issue. So if I am asked the question that was asked on the 3R Friends group page, is there value in a horse shutting down sometimes, I have to say yes. Not because I think it’s what the horses would prefer or what is ethically the right way of engaging with another species, but because I live in the world every day and know that most love is conditional. When it comes to horses, that condition is performance and more often than not obedience is the horse’s best option for survival.
There is no way to sugar coat this and that is why I have chosen not to. With all of this being said, every horse that comes to training with me I work on waking up and engaging. This is what people hire me for and this is what I believe passionately is the best way to be with an animal. I work with my personal horses and often work towards riding them if they are physically and emotionally able, but if not, that’s okay. If I woke up tomorrow and could never ride again I would absolutely still have horses. I also believe that I have clients and friends who will make huge differences in the lives of their horses, both those who stay in their chosen discipline and those that forsake discipline for horsemanship. There is nothing black or white about this issue, but it is so very important to take a critical eye to everything out there and always consider the reality of the horse first. Since they don’t have any say in any of this.