Horses are herd animals, and those herds are based on a hierarchy. Horses want to know their place in the herd. Once they figure it out, they’re pretty happy most of the time. A new member joins the herd, and everyone jockeys for a new position. They don’t view us much differently. Our job is to convince our horse that we are the boss and not them. Depending on the horse’s temperament this might be easy or hard, it may take a lot of effort or very little.
Lately I’ve been watching video and listening to audio lessons from a prominent trainer who specializes in reining and cutting horses. That’s not what Angel and I do, but this trainer has lots of good info and skills to impart to improve one’s riding and your horse’s behavior. I like what he has to say, and his methods are sound. But there’s a part of his vocabulary that is starting to grate on my nerves. He constantly talks about “respect”: bad behavior is because your horse doesn’t respect you; you have to get your horse’s respect. I’m not convinced that horses even know what that is.
Basically this trainer is talking about establishing yourself as the one in charge of your horse, and that is absolutely correct. But the concept of “respect” isn’t part of the equation for the horse. My favorite trainer, Mark Rashid, has said, “Horses don’t wake up in the morning and think, ‘Gee, I think I’ll disrespect my human today.'” They’re just negotiating their place in the herd. My other favorite trainer, Jerry Tindell, has said, “If there are 10 horses in a herd, the #10 horse wants to figure out whether or not you are going to be #11.” I’ve worked with my other favorite trainer, Rod Hernandez, for about seven years and I can probably count on one hand the number of times he used the word “respect” for the human-horse relationship. All of these trainers achieve the same thing; they just don’t have that word, “respect,” as part of their vocabulary about horses.
“Respect” is a loaded word for humans. We carry so much baggage around with that word. People have committed murder because they felt they were disrespected. Road rage happens because people feel disrespected. We know disrespect when we see it – like this afternoon at the train station, the young gentleman yelling profanities at the young lady across the parking lot was showing disrespect. Others demand respect whether or not they’ve done anything to deserve it. How often has an abusive person wailed on their spouse or child or their animal because they wanted to “teach them respect”?
Horses know none of this. They don’t shoot each other from the safety of their cars because they feel disrespected; they’re not that stupid. They figure out their place in the herd, and then go eat. Once they figure out that the human is the boss, they’re fine with that. It’s not a question of respect. It’s about us being smart and understanding how the horse sees the world and then speaking to them in a language they understand. It is we who need to respect the horse and learn how to communicate with them. That doesn’t mean we let them walk all over us. It just means that we shouldn’t impose a human concept on them.