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Opinion: Having a horse respect you is perfectly ok and not cruel.

I regularly see posts on social media about the idea of horses needing to respect you as wrong and old fashioned. I understand the point they are trying to make. For some people, saying a horse needs to respect you brings images of Alpha Males asserting their dominance over the horse by using force and/or scaring them. Then there is the argument that horses are not capable of of understanding the concept of respect. But I just feel that both these points of view are too black and white.

A horse should respect you

When I say a horse should respect you, I mean that they should understand what behaviour is and isn’t acceptable in your space. This is vital for keeping safe. I also feel like this respect should also mean that when you ask them to do something, they attempt to do it. I say attempt as they might not always do the “right” thing. But at least if they do something, they have given you a response and you can work with that.

Respect shouldn’t be earnt by force

Respect is not earnt by forcing or scaring a horse. It is a trained behaviour. There are lots of arguments about if horses have their own version of respect in their own herds or not. I personally think there is a level of understanding between them, similar to respect. But when it comes to the horse and human relationship, horses “learn” respect through training.

You teach a horse to respect your personal space by rewarding good behaviour and correcting bad. When a horse is calm in your personal space you might give them treats or scratches or maybe just leave them be. If a horse is pushing in your personal space, you might back them up or move them around you. This is hard work. So with repetition they learn that “good” behaviour is better.

Occasionally the correcting this behaviour will require telling them off. That is ok! If a horse bites a more dominant horse, what do you think would happen? The more dominant horse will tell them off! They might return the bite or might drive them out of their space. I think if you have a nippy horse, you can give them a quick slap to let them know that it isn’t ok!

Sometimes we have to get our horses to do things they don’t want to do. They probably don’t want to stand still for the farrier or load on to a lorry. Especially with loading, sometimes it doesn’t matter how much training you do with your horse, if they don’t like it, they are always going to have days where they will be reluctant to do it. Respect is also a form of trust.

Scottie is a great example of this. He’s fine once he is on, but isn’t the best at loading. We can practice 100 times without going anywhere, but next time he will still be unsure. He knows he doesn’t want to do it and might be a bit scared. But he trusts me enough to do it, eventually. He gets 2 attempts to walk on nicely. Each time he has time to sniff the ramp, look around the space and see the treats and hay onboard. Then on the 3rd attempt we have someone stand behind him, usually holding a schooling whip. They don’t need to move or chase him or bully him. Them being there is enough encouragement to get on and I think this is another example of respecting what we are asking him to do. He understands the question and understands we will up the pressure until he decides to load. I don’t think that is nasty or cruel as he is given the time to understand the question make the decision.

Are horses capable of understanding respect?

The current research suggests that horses are not capable of understanding more compex thoughts such as respect as we understand it. However, this research is largely based on assumptions. I think these assumpts are probably correct. But I think it’s important to understand that we just don’t know for sure yet. The area of the human brain responsible for these complex thoughts is very small in horses, suggesting they cannot have these complex thoughts. But we do not know at what size these thoughts are capable or if these thoughts would exist in this area of the brain in other animals.

Last Updated on 26/05/2023

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