- Lauren Fraser, MSc, CHBC
Earn Your Horse's Respect
Does your horse respect you?
Respect: admire (someone or something) deeply, as a result of their abilities, qualities, or achievements
To the best of our knowledge, respect is a human concept. Whether horses share this concept is unknowable. Despite this, people attribute all sorts of behavior from horses to be either 'respect', or a clear lack of it.
Signs your horse doesn't respect you
What is labelled disrespect usually involves things the horse does that the person does not like: crowding space, ignoring cues, barging over the person, standing too close, biting, kicking, pinning ears, rubbing his head on the person, not standing still, turning hindquarters towards the person, spooking and not staying on the line of travel, refusing to cross water etc. As you can see, 'lack of respect' becomes a convenient blanket with which to cover any and all unwanted behaviors a horse may display. A number of successful trainers have built entire trademarked training systems around this concept. This is problematic, partly because the above behaviors do not all categorically indicate a lack of respect. These behaviors could be happening for a number of reasons, including fear, pain, lack of training, or even accidental reinforcement by the person for the unwanted behavior.
When such behaviors are labelled 'respect' issues, what often follows are recommendations on how to get the horse's respect. These recommendations usually involve making the horse move in some manner: backing up, moving their feet forwards or backwards, circling in the roundpen, changing direction online until 'respect' is shown, and so on. What's unfortunate here is that such approaches may appear to work. The horse may stop doing the unwanted behavior, leading the person to believe they have gained the horse's respect. But this isn't respect.
It may appear that the horse is now 'respecting' the person, but what has happened is that the horse has learned that there are unpleasant consequences for performing a behavior, so the behavior is less likely to be repeated in the future. This isn't respect, it's punishment.
At the heart of true respect is admiration for another's qualities or actions. In any relationship, a person doesn't respect another person because they use punishment to control their behavior. They may obey them for fear of the consequences, but that is not respect. Respect can never be forced in such a manner.
How to get your horse to respect you
Using fear or unpleasant consequences to control another's behavior cannot result in true respect. So, if we were to assume that respect is a concept shared by horses how might a person gain a horse's respect?
Learn to recognize signs of fear in horses. Fearful horses will do things, such as barging over people, in an effort to put distance between themselves and the source of their fear. Punishment shouldn't be used to address fear-based behavior problems, because of the risk it will make matters worse, or create new problems such as aggression. Learning how to spot subtle signs of fear can help people avoid escalating fear in horses, which may trigger escape behaviors. Additionally, no horse will respect a person if the person repeatedly makes the horse feel fearful, or fails to recognize their fear.
Take responsibility for training the horse. When training a horse there are an endless number of things a person doesn't want the horse to do, but generally only one thing they do want them to do. Set training up so that the horse can successfully perform that 'one thing' - the desired behavior - and be rewarded for doing so.
Understand that horses may need to learn how to perform a behavior in a variety of situations. Example: just because a horse loads perfectly one time at home doesn't mean that they will load perfectly at a chaotic showground parking lot. This isn't a lack of respect, it is a training failure by the person who failed to incorporate training in new locations into their training program.
Be consistent. Be fair. Be predictable. Be mindful of one's own behavior around a horse.
Don't take a horse's behavior personally. Taking behavior personally can result in people retaliating, instead of responding. Emotions like anger or fear often accompany retaliation, and neither have a place in horse training.
If a horse behaves in ways the person doesn't like and they are tempted to label this 'disrespect', they should seek help from a qualified behavior consultant. They will get to the root cause of the behavior, and help teach the horse how to behave instead - without the use of punishment.
If horses do share our notion of respect, it is possible that they too feel that respect cannot be forced, it must be earned. The above list is just the beginning of ways we can be worthy of respect. Just in case respect does exist for horses, shouldn't we all try to start earning that respect next time we are with our horses?
Until next time, happy horse training.