An Essay by a Reluctant Horseman - A Few More Thoughts Regarding Force

Image by Charlie Mackesy
Image by Charlie Mackesy

The teacher asks one day, in terms of lightness and freedom of movement are there any limits to what the horse can give? I quickly respond, no. The teacher corrects me, the horse is always limited by the talent and knowledge of the rider.

I think of this quick conversation often. Especially when the issue of force comes up. Force is often the result of a lack of knowledge and when it comes to horses, nothing beautiful comes from force.

We live in interesting times. It seems we work extremely hard at dividing ourselves into groups who’s main objective is to be offended by members not included in our group. When it comes to the use of force, more specifically the use of force for compliance, most groups agree to be offended by it.

Take the police for example. Entire communities can be turned upside down if there is a perception that too much force was used in an incident. People are offended when NFL players use force on their spouses. Parents are critiqued every day on their use of force when disciplining their children. Heck, I even listened to a group of dog owners as they debated whether it was appropriate to use force on an aggressive dog.

To the contrary, people are taught to use force as their primary means of communication with horses. Force is not only promoted, it’s celebrated. Horse isn’t listening, stick it with your spur. Horse runs off, use a bigger more powerful bit. Horse doesn’t turn his neck softly to the left, tie his head to his tail for an hour or two. Just the other day a student called me, she was disturbed because a “trainer” in her neighborhood was actively beating a horse out of frustration.

I know of no way to force yourself into a relationship. Living creatures simply do not respond well to being forced. Where is the outrage for the horse?

A couple of months ago I had a trainer call. She needed help with a dangerous horse. I listened to her as she told me about all of the terrible things the horse had done. Before I could offer any advice she told me she wanted to lay it down. For those unfamiliar, she wanted me to use a rope to bind and force the horse to the ground. The theory being I could overpower the horse and put it in its most vulnerable position, on the ground, on its side, unable to fight to protect itself. She wanted me to hold it there until it gave up the fight, until it gave up its will to live. Then she would let it up. In her mind the horse would recognize she was the one who saved it. Countless horses have been injured trying this and the theory has been disproved numerous times.

Of course I refused. I told her I would help her but if she was gong to be successful with dangerous horses she needed to work with, not against their nature. Horses deserve better. Funny, the idea of abusing the horse did not offend her but I suspect my words did. I have yet to hear from her again.

I want to believe most people who use abusive levels of force simply do it out of ignorance. They are simply as uneducated as the horses they are working. I recently gave a young trainer a lesson. She was a gifted rider. She had a nice way about her and the horse was comfortable with her........until she began to ride. While riding the horse became contracted and did not want to go forward. It began swishing it’s tail nonstop and it’s jaw became tight as a drum.

When I gave her some direction she tried but was unable to let go of what she thought was correct. She struggled to separate the pure mechanics of riding the horse from the way a horse naturally moved. She failed to understand that using pain and leverage to force the horse was actually preventing the horse from succeeding. Many trainers are looking for an unconditional surrender by the horse.

I was very blunt with this young ambitious rider. I explained to her that if she had not yet plateaued with her Horsemanship she soon would, not because of a lack of ability but because of a lack of knowledge.

I asked to ride the horse. As I began to move it about I spoke about the need to relax the mouth. I spoke about contact and how I wanted to teach the horse to seek the bit and maintain a very light contact with its mouth. I showed how with light contact I could relax and supple the horse. With the horse relaxed, light and supple I now had control of the shoulders and with control of the shoulders I could begin teaching the horse using its natural movement. The horse began to move forward willingly and the tail quieted.

There is an old saying, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. I hope this was the case. Too many people spend an entire lifetime working against the nature of the very animal they claim to know so well and love so much.

As always, this was not about me or my abilities. My hope is to spark a dialog and to make people curious about other ways. The horse deserves better.

Thank You to those who took the time to read and share.

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