Social Justice and Horse Training
I admit that I was enthralled when I first saw the natural horsemanship trainers turn frightened horses into willing mounts. As I worked with more and more horses, however, I found that there were gaps in what was being taught by these trainers, but more specifically it seemed that there was an imbalance in the level of power between the horse and the trainer. This seemed paradoxical- natural horsemanship assumes that there will be a friendship if not a relationship created between the horse and human. The underlying assumption, however, is the insistence that the horse will, eventually, do the “thing” that the trainer is pushing onto the horse. This means that, if you have an exceptional relationship with the horse, one in which he trusts you implicitly, the horse will get into the trailer, he will stand still under a tarp, he will go through water. And he will do it willingly and without fail.
As a teacher of humans as well as horses, I started to question this concept. Some of my students would go along with the program and complete their work; some would not. Some had mental or emotional issues to explain their reluctance; some just did not want to do the work. I had wonderful relationships with some students who just did not do what was required. There was more to teaching people than just relationships, and there is more to training horses as well.
When I started incorporating social justice into my horse training philosophy, I realized that I had to allow the horse to be able to have a voice in the training session. Most specifically, the horse has to be able to, in some way, say “no.”
In order to change that “no” into an affirmative, however, one has to understand why the horse is saying no. We cannot fall into the natural horsemanship trap and believe that every refusal is mental. We also cannot believe that a horse will, in one or two sessions, suddenly overcome years of abuse or lack of training and somehow understand exactly what we mean. Training is a process- and every single interaction with the horse should, on some level, be considered to be a training session.
After working with horses, I have classified the Nos into four different categories. Under each are concepts that are related to each category, and how they relate.
If a horse refuses to do something, the human needs to stop and analyze why the horse is saying no, and respond accordingly. A trainer should not, for example, react the same way to a horse who is refusing because of fear than she would to a horse who is refusing because he doesn’t understand.
No- I am afraid
Understanding equine fear and philosophy
Different breeds= different reactions
No- I don’t understand
When to teach/reteach
When to return to the basics/When to move forward
Interpreting and understanding human body language
No- it hurts
Recognizing and understanding pain
No- I don’t want to
Determining the alpha in the relationship
Learned behavior versus ignorant behavior
How to improve your relationship and encourage the horse to enjoy work