Is it effective or abusive?
By Alexa Linton, Equine Sports Therapist
I remember the feeling like it was yesterday. I’m about 15 years old, and I’m riding a lesson horse in a ring. We’re jumping, or we’re trying to. It’s not going well. My instructor is screaming at me. Screaming. In hindsight, my horse is terrified. He has refused a jump, more than likely because he’s scared of it. My instructor is screaming at me over and over: “Get it done!” and “Don’t let him get away with it.” Eventually, with much kicking and whipping, my horse carries his terrified self and me over the jump. Our hearts are racing. We are both scared, bordering on traumatized, in a place where we are unable to think or be effective in any way.
Most of my early riding memories are just like this. Screaming instructor; knot of anxiety in my belly; fear of failing or making a mistake; riding unnerved or shut down horses and forcing them into all manner of potentially unsafe scenarios; all interspersed and colliding with my passion and the reason I was there in the first place — my deep and unending love of horses. Sprinkled every now and again into the mix was that necessary ingredient to keep the train on the tracks: praise. It kept my head above water when I felt like I was an abject failure.
Fast forward six years to the start of my relationship with Diva, my 16-hand Percheron-Morgan mare. She was my first horse and is my longest committed relationship at 17 years. Thankfully, my instructor by this time was lovely and some of the unwinding of my earlier conditioning in the get-it-done style of horsemanship had already begun. However, it wasn’t even close to complete, which I found out when I started employing parts of it in my work with Diva. This was a bad idea, so said the broken finger, the road rash, the leg that was almost torn off by a tree (yes, two inches is not enough space between a tree and your saddle for a leg to fit comfortably through at a canter), and my very, very bruised pride.
Horses that express their opinions about unfair treatment are often described as hard to handle, or outright dangerous. Photo: Shutterstock/Taiga
Thankfully, I had just begun my training as an Equine Sport Therapist and was seeing horses in a different light, a light which I’ll share more with you later in this article. At that point I knew I needed to do something, and I also knew that selling Diva wasn’t an option. I realized as well that I had a number of bad horsemanship habits that were hard-to-break leftovers from my earlier training. So, I began my intensive self-imposed, Diva-imposed exploration, and the complete unravelling of this type of horsemanship, along with an understanding of why it just doesn’t really work unless a few very specific and essential ingredients are present. And this we will also get into shortly, plus some excellent alternatives.
The term “get-it-done horsemanship” came to me while driving away from a client’s place a long while back. She’d shared a story, one about a horse show that she’d visited the day before. A horse in the ring was refusing a jump and was being whipped harshly by his rider. Sadly, the announcer, while sharing that the pair were disqualified for taking too long to finish the course, had also praised the rider’s continued and violent attempts to make her horse do what it was told.
Related: The Power of Play with Our Horses
My client left the show that day in an outrage, mainly because the majority of the crowd strongly supported this viewpoint. As a highly sensitive horsewoman, she could feel the panic and discomfort of the horse in the pit of her belly while sitting in the stands. Listening to her story, a story I had heard so many times in different ways, I knew I had to speak to this topic once and for all.
Is this type of horsemanship effective or abusive? And is there another way?
In your interactions with horses, you would be a rare bird indeed if you’ve never employed a get-it-done tactic somewhere along the line. A non-horse person might think this is terrible and cruel. But the fact is, sometimes you just have to. Horses are huge and powerful prey animals that are known to lose their minds in fear from time to time, which can lead to a human bug splat, and that’s not helpful for anyone. If done with fairness and with the well-being of the horse in mind, sometimes get-it-done horsemanship is essential for safety and survival. And that’s the key, to do it with fairness and the well-being of the horse in mind.
Horses that express their opinions about unfair treatment are often described as hard to handle, or outright dangerous. Photo: Shutterstock/Taiga
Let’s rewind back to the beginning of my relationship with Diva, when I was still rather clueless and conditioned to a certain way of thinking about horses and how to work with them.
Let’s refer to the particular event I call the my-leg-was-almost-ripped-off incident. At the time Diva was four years old, out on a trail by herself with me (and she didn’t trust me at all), miles from home, and I was not being loving. Her well-being was not top of my mind, nor was fairness. I just really wanted her to do as she was told “like a good horse should” and canter without protest on the trail. I had an agenda, an expectation, and I was going to do whatever it took to make it happen, despite her protests.
What I didn’t account for was Diva’s intelligence and the strength of her need for fairness and respect — and I also didn’t account for the tree she cantered my leg right into. Based on pain alone I was quite certain that my leg had been left on the trail. I limped along pathetically until I eventually dragged myself back onto Diva and rode side-saddle the rest of the way home, which was several kilometres, all the while pondering how to find this horse a new home.
Now for the moral of the story.
Horses, in general, think get-it-done horsemanship, when it’s laced with agenda, fear-mongering, unnecessary force, no release or give-or-take, unrealistic expectations, and the need to look good for others, is scary and disconnecting. I know some of you think the moral of the story is that Diva was a bad egg, a spoilt rotten mare with a definite mean streak. Now 17 years later, I can tell you that she is anything but. In fact, she is one of the handiest horses I know, great under saddle, kind, solid, versatile, and fancy when she needs to be. I can put any three-year-old or ninety-year-old on her and she takes perfect care, doesn’t put a foot wrong. She turned out to be the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Because of Diva, here I sit writing this article.
Get-it-done horsemanship does not account for the fact that some horses object to doing the job you want them to do because of physical pain or discomfort. Photo: Shutterstock/Liza Myalovskaya
So, what really happened that day? Let’s start with a few of the assumptions that are made with get-it-done horsemanship.
The first assumption is that if you give a horse an inch, they will always take a mile. If you give even a little, they will have you over a barrel. They have already taken over your partnership, and will continue on until they run the planet, and have taken control of the universe. Okay, slight exaggeration. But seriously, what do we think they’re going to do if we just stop, breathe, and sort ourselves out before continuing? Why is it that we think picking a fight and getting something done regardless of the cost to the sanity of both horse and rider is actually a good idea?
The second assumption is that our horses are innately bad and malicious characters, out to take advantage of our kindness at every turn. It sounds totally ridiculous but this, along with the belief that our horses are lesser beings than humans, is where the give-an-inch-take-a-mile thing actually comes from.
The truth is quite opposite. This huge survival-oriented being, wired for flight-or-fight, allows us little humans/predators to ride on top exactly where a cougar would land during a hunt, sitting on the hide of a dead animal (saddle), and inhibiting their ability to flee in various ways. That is mighty generous stuff right there.
Proponents of get-it-done horsemanship consider horses to be essentially mean and vengeful, always looking to take advantage of humans. Photo: Shutterstock/Ory Photography
The reality is that the horse is a prey animal, and his view of the world is very different from ours. If your horse doesn’t want to jump a jump, he’s probably scared, or at least a little concerned about the idea. If he doesn’t want to get into a trailer, he’s probably scared. And how can we blame him? We’re asking a prey animal to get into a metal, moving deathtrap.
When they feel safe, horses are actually incredibly generous. They trust humans, sometimes more than they should, and take comfort in fairness, consistency, release, and kindness. Their main priorities are just like ours: safety, comfort, and connection. And being beaten and kicked to get over a jump they’re scared of does nothing for their confidence or their trust in us. In fact, you’re going to pay a much higher price for forcing them over the jump, than by giving them the release and comfort they seek because they’re scared and really need a minute to figure out whether they are about to be eaten by said jump.
So, take a breath, relax, and start again from a place where you can both move forward together. This consideration of the horse will build trust and a sense of partnership. This honours your relationship with your horse, while the get-it-done attitude puts the emphasis on winning, performing, and succeeding at all costs. The latter is never worth it.
The third assumption is that horses are gymnastically capable of things that, frankly, they aren’t. As an Equine Sport Therapist, I have seen horses put up with all sorts of things — poor riding, badly-fitting saddles, terrible bits, and most commonly, body pain caused by all these things, and more. I’ve not worked on a horse in 12 years that didn’t have some kind of structural issue, fascial or muscle imbalance, or physical discomfort. Not one in thousands.
Horses carry all sorts of things in their musculoskeletal system. A horse refusing a jump could be saying, I can’t do this — my body cannot physically do this without consequences. Yes, some horses can be evasive, but most are honest about the fact that they are having a hard time with what you’re asking them to do. Get-it-done horsemanship doesn’t always account for this fact — the hard-to-swallow reality that the horse you spent your hard-earned money and precious time on is currently unable to do the job it was purchased for. But once you accept this, you can actually find solutions that work for both of you. You can discover ways to build strength and straightness and suppleness over time, and create a foundation where you will both feel good. Check out my resources at the end of this article for more on this.
The fourth assumption is that horses are non-feeling machines. Many horse people still think of them this way. The old paradigm still exists that these hugely sensitive beings are empty inside, lesser beings in many ways. They are working animals that need to earn their keep or else — animals that need to be controlled and managed so they work for us. Openly expressive horses are often labelled “bad.” Horses that share their opinions about disrespectful, unfair treatment are often passed from home to home, described as impossible or dangerous, or the worst thing of all, unrideable.
On the contrary, horses are the opposite of machines — they are expressive, emotional, loving beings with one of the biggest capacities for connection in the animal kingdom. And what’s really cool is that through connection, through trust, and with a horse that’s into what you’re into, you’ll clean up in the show ring purely as an excellent side benefit.
After our initial attempt at trail riding together and my almost-torn-off leg, who would have guessed that one of Diva’s favourite things would be trail riding? She turned out to be a superstar on the trail, and we’ve travelled all over Western Canada to lead rides, sort cattle, and gallop the countryside. It is so much fun to connect with her out on the open range and in the forest. Remember, not every horse wants to be a show horse; not every horse wants to be a lesson horse; not every horse wants to be ridden; and not every horse wants to stand around all day doing nothing. A part of this whole relationship thing is the two of you figuring out what cool stuff you’d like to do together, and then going and doing that together as a team!
Where’s the balance between too soft and too firm?
I believe the answer always lies in your unique relationship with your horse. Is what you’re doing driving you and your horse apart or bringing you closer? Is the way you’re working with your horse building connection, softness and feel, or tearing it down? I believe that’s how you can tell the difference between effective or harmful.
Here are some ways to tell if your horse is actually enjoying your style of horsemanship:
- Is the horse relaxed under saddle and on the ground? Are her muscles relaxed, her eyes happy, her ears attentive?
- Are her eyes soft and is her mouth relaxed when she’s with you?
- Is she happy to see you when you come out to the paddock, or does she race away to the other corner?
- Does she willingly stand for her saddle, or does she move or flinch?
- Does she seem to want to connect with you on the ground (not just at feeding time)?
- Is she open to going forward under saddle without tail swishing or teeth grinding?
- Is she learning what you want her to learn?
- Does she respect your leadership or resist it?
- Does your horse seem to trust you in new situations?
These tell-tale signs of a happy partner are definitely worth noting, especially if you want an actual relationship and not a robo-horse that does exactly what is asked of her, and wears the pressure until she implodes into a stress-fueled mess. And I’ve worked with enough robo-horses to know that what they don’t express on the outside is eating them up on the inside.
Firm boundaries have been one of the greatest connectors in my relationship with Diva, but they are always fair and delivered with love. I will be very firm if necessary, because at the end of the day, my safety means her safety and is of the utmost importance to both of us. She is 1300 pounds after all and I am, well, little. Right after setting a boundary and being firm, I will get as soft as I can, taking a deep breath and fully releasing any tension that might have gathered. And then I might need to get a little firm again, but more than likely, not quite as firm. Your horse needs to know this one thing — that you will always, always get soft even right after fair firmness, and that the firmness will prioritize connection and lead to release.
Yes, sometimes you will do the wrong thing and break down some of that hard-earned trust. Yes, you will lose your temper because you are human, but thankfully, horses are about as forgiving as they come. Say sorry to your horse (I’m over here talking to my horse too). Be accountable for your actions. Wait for the lick and chew of integration and understanding. Take time and space for yourself, as much as it takes to get back to your centre. Remember that you are not losing ground with your horse by taking some space and cooling off. Then, when you’re ready, take a deep breath and start again with the clear intention of connection and fairness in mind.
That’s the thing about relationships. You’re going to screw up and do the wrong thing. Just be willing to admit that you made a mistake. Your humility is a beautiful courageous thing, as is your willingness to be the best partner to your horse that you can be, despite what you’ve been taught and despite what the rest of the world thinks.
Shutterstock/Custom Photography Designs
- If you think your horse is protesting or resisting because she is in pain, consider booking a bodywork session to get a baseline on where your horse is at and to start the healing process. If you’d like a practitioner recommendation in your area, contact me and I’ll do my best to find someone awesome. If you’re on Vancouver Island, I’d be happy to support you and your horse in this way.
- My friend Heather Nelson is training me in the Academic Art of Riding combined with clicker training, and I am pretty excited about it. It’s a step-by-step groundwork-focused process to build up strength, suppleness, evenness, and straightness in the horse. This helps the horse to be capable of all the things you’d like her to do. I love working in positive reinforcement training, and I’m so encouraged by the shifts in willingness, enthusiasm, and self-carriage in my horses.
- Heather Nelson’s liberty video series is awesome! Working at liberty allows the horse to choose how they’d like to participate — it takes the make right out of things and puts horse and human on level ground. Check out one of her videos on YouTube.
- And finally, the Whole Horse Podcast has some excellent episodes outlining all of this, in detail, from the many different viewpoints of the talented and forward-thinking equine professionals I interviewed. My recommended episodes on this topic are with Elsa Sinclair, Nahshon Cook, Heather Nelson, Sarah Schlote, and Hannah Weston. You can listen on iTunes, Spotify, or at www.wholehorse.ca.
Main Photo: iStock/Chris VanLennep