I arrived at the barn to meet a new client after a blustery ferry ride across Puget Sound and a wet drive. She’d found me through an article I’d published, and wanted me to do a bodywork session with her horse. After falling in love with and buying an under-nourished gelding, she had more horse than she could handle once she got him to a healthier weight. She wanted help from a trainer, too, and after an internet search, selected a natural horsemanship trainer to ‘restart’ him for 30 days.

I walk into the barn and meet my client who introduces me to the trainer. He is working with her horse in the arena on a short lead flapping a yellow plastic flag around the horse while talking about the colt-starting championships he’d won. I saw no connection between this man and the horse besides a lead rope.

His big hat framed a young face; jeans covered slim hips, just reaching his cowboy boots.

I was not impressed.

The horse was sweating and stressed. The trainer been working with the horse for an hour, and planned to work with him for another hour. Since our client had scheduled the bodywork session, he stopped, said he had another horse to work, so he guessed it would work out.

I was concerned.

While I did bodywork with my client’s sweet gelding, the trainer worked with another horse. For two hours! From the cross ties I witnessed the horse being tied to a ring in the corner of the arena while being continually flapped at with the yellow plastic flag. The horse was rearing and trying to avoid the yellow flag. Later I saw the same horse and trainer making their way around the perimeter of the arena—flag still flapping—this time with hobbles on his front legs. Drenched in sweat, the horse was breathing heavily, and the whites of its eyes were showing.

This was abuse. I was horrified and furious, and unsure of what to do. How does one intervene in a case like this?

In talking with my client, we agreed that the trainer had no connection (heart or any other) with her horse while they worked. Later I wrote to her and explained why I saw the treatment as abuse.

Right here I need to state very clearly that I have nothing against natural horsemanship or any other approach to training horses when it is done with respect for the horse. I have seen many benefits of natural horsemanship methods for horses and people.

But I wish I had known how to interrupt that trainer that day. Wish I knew how to engage him in a way that might open his mind to explore kinder approaches to training that work with horses’ natures. As I consider this, I also wonder if interrupting him would have helped the horse long term, or created more stress than the yellow flag had already done.

I don’t actually imagine that this young trainer thought he was doing anything wrong. Likely he believed in the good he could produce with his methods. He’d won championships, after all. And that points to the other side of this: he gets positive recognition and makes his living by training this way. Most of us have our ego and sense of self worth involved in what we know and how we work. It’s human nature. Yet, I would have dearly loved to offer him some information that he could use even more effectively with the horses he works with.

I also recognize that there is great riding and training that works with the horse in every discipline, and in every discipline there is abuse that runs from the highest levels where it is driven by money and fame, to first time horse owners who don’t know better. And, of course, there are many in between.

In many professions, it is considered very bad form to call someone out in front of their clients. I worked in one for 20 years. That training runs deep, too.

I write this post for that horse, for all those horses, whose owners and trainers didn’t know better, or wouldn’t do better. Whose owners didn’t know there were alternatives or who didn’t know that they could give voice to the feeling in their bellies that this wasn’t right and stop it from happening to their horse. The trainer is often seen as an authority figure, and many people aren’t confident in disagreeing with them. I write this to encourage us all to find our voices to advocate on behalf of our horses. I write this post in an effort to educate more people about how horses’ bodies, minds, and emotions work, and how we can work with these beautiful, intelligent beings we adore to have more fun, better results, and longer, healthier lives together. Isn’t that what we all want?

There are physiological reasons why the young trainer’s methods work against horses’ natures. But maybe we should start by looking at why they appear to work, and so help to sell the services of trainers, seats in clinics, and DVDs by the score. The training I witnessed that stormy January day was based on domination, and in ‘desensitizing’ the horse, it was teaching him to shut down. That training teaches the horse that its voice does not count and will not be heard. We’ve all seen shut down horses. Their eyes are dull. They comply, but do not shine or engage. And yes, there are degrees of shut down. Many riders are more comfortable with shut down horses because they are compliant, and it takes more skill to handle a livelier one. The great majority of horse owners are amateurs, so there is a market for these services. I understand all this, and I know we can do better. We can work with respect for the horse and it’s nature.

Why don’t these methods work? There are several; let’s take a look.

  • If the horse is stressed, as demonstrated by sweating, shallow rapid breathing, whites of the eyes, head held high, it is in the place of fight/flight/freeze aka the Sympathetic Nervous System. The horse’s body is in survival mode. It physically cannot learn in this place because its body is ready to run away or fight whatever it perceives as a threat. Who can focus on learning something when we feel threatened—when our body is flooded with stress and fear? And just because we don’t understand why a horse feels afraid does not mean it is not real. It is very real for the horse, and the horse’s biology. Remember, horses survive by running away.
  • Horses (and humans) learn and heal when we are in the place of rest/digest/relax aka the Parasympathetic Nervous System. Our bodies’ attention and energy is available to learn, to heal, to eat, to procreate because it does not perceive immediate danger.
  • Like humans, horses are emotional, social beings, yet their emotions are activated by different things than ours. Horses suffer more from fear than from pain, while humans tend to fear pain more than fear. Horses are wired to be horses, and ‘desensitizing’ a horse in this case meant flooding the horse with fear until it shut down and became submissive. Understanding these differences can show us better ways to train and communicate with our horses.

What can we do? Learn to speak better Horse. Work with and respect horses natures.

  • I believe that horses like having jobs, and most don’t mind being ridden if they haven’t been mistreated or are in pain. But they already know how to be horses. Training is a human agenda to teach them how we would like them to work with us. How do we get a 1,000 lb animal to do a job? Horses want to interact with others (including us.) It’s their social nature.
  • Horses are incredibly efficient and subtle with their body language. Less is always more. By the time their efforts have escalated to a snap of the teeth or a threat with a foot, they’ve already told us in a dozen quieter ways—that we didn’t notice—so the horse’s communication escalated. Speaking better Horse means going slower and quieter. It means pausing more often to breathe and listen, to step outside their space. Speaking better Horse would help us to know when to quit to maximize the effectiveness of training the horse, or when they have had enough bodywork.
  • Working with horse nature treats the horse with respect as a conscious being who is our partner, and so much bigger and so many times more sensitive than we are. Horses live in the present, and evolved to be outside with their herd grazing. If we work with horse nature, it is easier and happier for both the horse and the human.
  • Training means showing a horse what you’d like it to do and rewarding its smallest effort with something they appreciate—exhale, step out of their space, release the pressure, a walk break. Over time, with growing trust and understanding on both sides, we can refine what we do and how the horse responds. This builds a true partnership. The smaller the effort you reward, the more horse-like, and therefore safe, you become to the horse.
  • Horses’ brains work differently than ours. They have long memories, yet they live in the present. Body language is horse language, and everything they do is communication. Any difficulty is usually due to lack of clarity coming from the person, or trying to do too much at one time.

The moral of this story is to listen to your horse. They do not lie, ever. They will tell us what we need to know. We just need to get better and better at listening. The better we listen to our horses, the more they will tell us, and the better we will listen to ourselves. We also need to advocate for our horses well being as we choose trainers, vets, farriers/trimmers, bodyworkers, barns, and so on. It is a good road to travel, and has more and more fellow travelers, too. See you there!

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