So often I hear equestrians labeling their horses “bratty, pushy, dominant, naughty, etc” when in fact their horses are trying to speak through their actions in order to get us to understand. I cringe a little every time I hear complex, valid behavior disregarded simply as “naughty”. Labeling may not seem like a big deal, but the consequences of so simply writing off the horse’s behavior and disregarding the true meaning behind it can have detrimental effects on our relationship and the horse’s overall quality of life.
We need to be more specific with our language if we are going to be fair to the horse. Instead of saying “he is a pushy horse” or labeling a horse “dominant/a brat/etc”, describe the actions that make you uncomfortable; “he crowded my space today and it made me feel uncomfortable”. This way we are not simply blaming the horse in a manner that allows us to act out of anger/fear – instead it gives us a clear vision of what we want to communicate to the horse. Instead of saying “he is a pushy horse that must be put in his place”, allowing us to justify a good whack to the face or some other cruel form of “correction”, we can work to understand. We can work through clear communication to replace the behavior rather than blindly punishing.
Example: It makes me uncomfortable when the horse stands too close to me – it makes me feel overwhelmed.
Firstly we must question “why is the horse crowding me?” Have I accidentally rewarded this before? Is he trying to tell me something? Am I in his space?
Once we get to the bottom of the behavior and understand where the horse is coming from, we can go about replacing the behavior. Instead of punishing and focusing on what you don’t want to happen, focus on what you would *like* to happen.
When we focus on what positive outcome we would like to see rather than focusing on what is “wrong”, we can very effectively work alongside the horse to make a better situation for both horse and human (in a way that doesn’t involve cruelty or breaking the trust in our relationships).
If a horse is coming too close into my space for comfort, I am going to make a “backup” cue so that when I get uncomfortable I can easily and kindly ask the horse to give me room without breaking our trust. This backup cue is not a punishment – it is treated like all other cues, fun and mutual. Now when the horse approaches me in a way I feel iffy about, I have a simple way to make some space around me. Pretty soon, the horse will see where you are comfortable and naturally choose to give you the space you need. This is real communication between horse and human, no need for anger, misunderstanding, or force.
When we focus on the behavior we don’t like, we actually put a lot of energy on it. For instance, we tend to think “don’t crowd!” when a horse comes into our space in a way we feel uncomfortable about. “Don’t crowd, don’t crowd, don’t crowd”… when we think or speak these words, we put our intention on the crowding. We are thinking and picturing the horse barging into our space. This doesn’t help end the behavior – in fact, because we end up putting so much energy into crowding when we think “don’t crowd”, the behavior tends to escalate and persist. For this reason, thinking about what we want to see rather than what we don’t want is far more productive and clear.
Instead of stating something very general like “this horse is a brat”, we can say “the horse bucks when I ride her”. This changes our perspective from one of judgment to one of understanding. To see the behavior for what it is without an emotional attachment allows us to examine the true cause and understand the horse on a deeper level without judgement.
When we change this perspective, we can no longer just blame it all on the horse but rather must ask ourselves “why does the horse buck?” Is riding hurting his back? Is he in pain? Does he not want me on his back? Does he not enjoy the riding? Does the saddle pinch? What is the horse trying to tell me?
If we simply label the horse a “brat”, we treat her without understanding and completely miss what she is trying to communicate to us. If we want to be great horsewoman/men who understand the horse, we must listen to what they are trying to say. If we simply write off their behaviors and label them “naughty, bratty, pushy, etc”, we close off that communication.
When we look at the horse with understanding and aim to solve “issues” with two way communication, our relationships have the potential to grow deeper than we ever imagined!