What are your criteria for measuring the quality of your relationship with a horse?

By , June 6, 2015 11:04 am

I saw this post on facebook by Ross Jacobs had I had to write it here so I wouldn’t lose it. Its so powerful.

What are your criteria for measuring the quality of your relationship with a horse? How do you know?
I hear and read so many people describe themselves as having a good relationship with their horse. But I never know for sure what they mean.

Generally, claims of a good relationship with a horse come from looking at it from the human perspective. But a relationship has two or more interested parties. A relationship cannot be judged from just how one party sees it. A marriage cannot be judged as good or bad just from asking one partner if they are happy or not. It can only be judged when the views of all the parties are considered.

It’s easy to ask a person how they feel about their horses. They’ll readily tell you how much love their horse or hate it or feel apathetic towards it or fear it or feel burdened by the responsibility etc. But that’s just one side and it alone doesn’t sum up the relationship. We have to ask the horse. Their opinion is as important as the humans.

I recently saw a video of a rider who described her relationship with her horse as being “fantastic”, yet her horse was showing all the signs of being tense and anxious in his work.

A trainer in the USA sent me a video clip of his horse in work. He wanted suggestions for improving the horse’s performance. Again, the horse was described as happy, relaxed and they had a good relationship. But what I saw was a pretty shut down animal.

In fact I rarely come across anybody who describes the relationship with their horse as being ‘crap.’ Nobody has yet come to a clinic and asked me to help their horse to be happier.

So what are people looking at in order to judge the quality of their relationship with a horse?
I think for most people a good relationship is defined by how much they can get their horse to do without a huge amount of trouble. If the horse does pretty much everything asked of it and doesn’t buck, kick, bite, rear, bolt and walks up to a person in the paddock, that counts as a good relationship. That’s as much as a lot people want or expect, so in their minds the relationship is good. Therefore, basically a good relationship for many people equates to a good level of obedience.

Horses don’t really think of relationships as being good or bad. They are just interactions with people that either trouble them or don’t. Yet horses do share their opinions about us with the world. Instead of boasting about their partnerships on Facebook, like people do, horses express their feelings about their human by how much emotional trouble they show.

Note I used the word emotional. It’s the emotional side of a horse that tells us their opinion of us. It’s not the physical side. This is why obedience is not a good indicator of our relationship with a horse. Obedience alone tells us very little about what a horse is feeling. Obedience is a part of having a good relationship, but only in so much that the obedience we achieve comes from emotional comfort. If we have a high level of obedience with a low level of emotional comfort, we probably do not have a good relationship. A good example of this can be seen watching a lot of liberty training. It takes a considerable degree of obedience to work a horse with no gear. Yet most horses performing liberty work have a low level of emotional comfort.

The reason some people misjudge the relationship they have with their horse is because they either don’t know or find it difficult to know how to judge the emotional comfort of a horse. Unless a horse displays its true feelings with dramatic displays like bucking or biting, many people tend to assume everything is okay. They missed the fact that their horse turned its head away when they approached to pat it. They failed to notice the breathing change from slow and deep to fast and shallow. They were unaware of the tightening of the topline or the mouth or the change in the flare of the nostrils or the floppy ears or the busy ears or the eyes looking somewhere other than where it was going or the rope walking etc.

All these things (and a lot more) can be happening in secret to a human that was not looking for signs of their horse’s emotional wellbeing.

So here is a tip for gauging your relationship with your highly obedient horse. When working with your horse, interrupt what it is doing. The stronger the relationship between you and your horse the more your horse works with you rather than for you. Therefore, when you interrupt your horse’s thoughts you’ll be able to get an indication how much your horse is with you. If your horse feels like an employee, interrupting its thought will cause an increase in resistance, ill feeling and emotional discomfort. On the other hand, if your horse feels more like a partner, then interrupting its thoughts will be less of an emotional burden with minimum change the degree of softness.

In all honesty, I believe achieving a good relationship is probably the hardest thing we will ever try to accomplish with a horse. I further believe very few people ever get there. Despite how well things are going with our training, the vast majority of horses will always feel like unpaid employees working on a car assembly line or worse. A good relationship or partnership is a very rare thing to achieve. But being a good horse person means we never stop trying. If one of the reasons we have a horse is because we love them, then we owe it to them to always be traveling the path towards our horse’s emotional comfort.

One Response to “What are your criteria for measuring the quality of your relationship with a horse?”

  1. Isabelle says:

    absolutely love this post! So true and so hard to face! we all want great partnership and yet to start achieving this we need to be able to listen to what our horses tell us and accept it even if it is not flattering. letting go of our ego, of our training program and putting ourselves at the service of our equine friends and not the other way around is such a difficult thing to do for us human. Considering that we still need to be able to keep ourselves and our horses safe, so having some level of control and respect is important. Ah well, never stop trying!

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