May I? The Role of Consent and Permission with Horses
By Alexa Linton, Equine Sports Therapist
I decided to veer off my geeky track for this article, partially because of the rising awareness around consent in human beings and where the line is, and partially because very little has been shared about this subject when it comes to horses. Writing this article was not easy. The world of consent, defined as the permission to do something, is nuanced, subjective, and can feel very personal. In an industry where our beliefs can vary extensively, this article felt important, albeit scary to write! So here goes, an attempt to unpack a tricky, sensitive subject, to shed light on some shadowy spaces of the horse world, and to open up some possibilities for growth.
In an effort to narrow down the conversation, as the topic of consent applies to countless aspects of our horse-human relationship, I decided to focus on consent around touch, because horses are one of our most-touched domesticated animals. This is a fascinating thing, given that in a feral or wild setting, horses might rarely ever touch each other, and would typically not do so without first either giving or receiving permission in the form of behavioural cues. In domestication, we touch horses to halter, groom, saddle, bridle, ride, train, bathe, treat, and often just to feed them. For most horses this happens numerous times every day and is often combined with a restraint of some kind, like a halter, meaning they are not able to move away from this touch.
Most of our touching and grooming sessions with our horses include a halter or some type of restraint to keep the horse with us. Yet when the horse is allowed to move away if he is uncomfortable with your closeness or touch, there is a noticeable change in his relaxation and participation. Photo: Shutterstock/Roger Costa Morera
Years ago, with my mare Diva, when she would shy away from me touching her head and face, I forced her into accepting touch, deciding that I should be able to touch every part of my horse. I would do this while she was restrained with a halter, because she would never have stayed with me if she hadn’t been held, convincing myself that this was a required part of “building a strong relationship,” an irony not lost on me today. The reality is, like many of us, I was conditioned to force touch, riding, and work on horses without thinking of asking for their permission, since my journey with horses began as a young girl. Thinking back over my 30 years of interaction with horses, there have been countless times when I did not ask or even think of permission or consent, and when I received a “no” or resistance from a horse, I met that answer with harshness and dominance.
I see now that this action was driven by beliefs and conditioning learned at a young age. Only after I started my work as an Equine Sport Therapist at age 23 did I learn that horses could and should have an opinion about what happens with their bodies, and about how they like to be touched, or not touched. I learned that a horse is not “bad” or “disrespectful” because they express a no. When no is received with grace, you can work with the feedback that is being offered in a way that makes your relationship far stronger, to change the touch or the training strategy for the better. When I began to ask permission to work with every horse, I noticed a considerable change in willingness and involvement from the horse, and in the effectiveness of the session.
I now ask Diva’s permission to halter her, to groom (listening to which brushes she would prefer), to ride, and to do healing work. Not surprisingly, she is happier and more relaxed when I take the time to make sure she’s on board. If I take a moment to ask her permission, her entire body posture and mood changes. Here’s what’s cool about this process: She almost never expresses a no, and when she does, it’s usually because she needs assistance with saddle fit, or she is in pain and requires support.
Trust is earned — it takes time and commitment to build rapport and a sense of safety in our horses. Permission and consent are an integral part of trust-building, as foundational as fairness, consistency, and communication. If our horse is forced into touch and expresses a strong no, in the form of externalized flight/fight behaviour, physical tension, or internalized stress behaviours, we can unknowingly push them into a state of learned helplessness where their nervous system causes them to shut down as a survival mechanism.
Many of us, and consequently our horses, live within a horsemanship culture based in negative reinforcement training, and our horses often experience punishment for attempts to resist this kind of training and the high levels of non-consensual touch it involves. For many people, it has not been well received to say no to others who come into our space or touch us, so we stop sharing early on, usually in childhood, that we feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Horses are the same — early on, many experience the conditioning that if they don’t allow touch or if they resist human contact or requests, there will be consequences. This can cause, as it does in many people, a shutdown of natural expression.
Without a voice, our horses rely on us to be advocates for them, and to learn ways to work with them that allow them to feel safe and relaxed. That kind of rapport takes a long while to build, especially with certain horses, my mare Diva being one of them. Rapport is earned with her, just like trust, taking time and a sense that she is being listened to and understood. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not have a dull-eyed robot as my equine partner, as easy as they might be to deal with. So, when random people ask if they can ride my horse, I say no. Diva has a big space bubble with strangers, and I often joke that she is working on the rejection wounds of my friends and clients as she walks away from their failed attempts at touch and connection. With me, she is very clear — some days she craves touch and even backs up into me for a bum rub, other days she’s just not interested. The way I approach her is important — the days I come to her with a strong agenda or strict expectations, she often resists being haltered, while the days I come with a sense of curiosity and a relational focus, she is happy to connect and a joy to work with.
Photo: Shutterstock/Laura Battiato
I have found that most horses very much enjoy connection and time with their humans, Diva included, especially when it is paired with mutual respect, consent, carrots, and bum rubs. Within my partnership and yours, there are some easy ways to begin thinking about and practicing consent with our horses. Thankfully, this doesn’t require you to be an animal communicator. Most horse people have a sense of what their horse needs and can feel the yes or no of consent, whether through body language, physical tension levels, facial expressions, behaviour, or intuition. I watch for signs of stress or tension in their face (the Horse Grimace Scale is a great resource for this) and body, and work with horses to make sure their experience of touch is a good one. I’ll often place a hand on their neck (if their body language expresses that they are good with me touching them), share my intention (e.g., to go for a ride), and then ask them to give me a strong blink if they are on board. Horses are socially-minded animals, which means you know you are on the right track if they are relaxed, playful, and willing to engage. Often the biggest keys are to slow down and take your time to listen, and to make sure to leave your agenda at the gate. Dedicate time to getting to know your horse at liberty so they can move away if they are not comfortable with your touch or closeness. Be okay with them moving away, and practice being engaging and interesting, doing less, releasing expectations, and not forcing them into closeness. I’ve been loving reading the book Connection Training, The Heart and Science of Positive Horse Training, by Hannah Weston and Rachel Bedingfield, for some simple, positive training strategies that take into consideration equine emotional states and that optimal learning happens when a horse feels relaxed and safe.
When it comes to consent and horses, like many of us I’ve got a long way to go. It’s a constant process of questioning why we do certain things, being honest with ourselves, and trying again differently. As one of my dearest friends says, it’s all a bit of experiment because we’re paving new ground when it comes to horses, and we’re likely to make mistakes.
Asking permission doesn’t mean that you need to stop doing what you love to do. It just means that you take the time to gain consent from your equine partner before you move forward, just as you would with any human. I look forward to hearing about the difference you notice in your horse when you make this one simple step a part of your daily ritual together!
This article was originally published in Canada’s Equine Guide 2020, a special January/February issue of Canadian Horse Journal.