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Respect: A Eulogy


Photo: Crissi McDonald

There is a phrase that is used in the horse world  I hope soon dies a quiet and peaceful death. I’ve been inviting it over for tea and taking it for walks to discuss other points of view. Helping get its affairs in order. But this phrase, I discovered, was born without ears.

It needs a funeral. A quiet affair with no gathering of friends and family afterward. Let’s bid farewell to:

“My horse needs to respect me.”  

While I have been a grateful witness to an evolution in horsemanship (for example, I much more often hear about horses being “started,” rather than “broken.”), our need for our horses to respect us has its feet glued to the floor of our collective unconscious. 

Even without hearing it from well-meaning horse people, the internet is littered with videos and articles, chat rooms and equipment to “make your horse respect you.” To me, that phrase tastes like a rotten meal that came back up.

“Your horse’s respect for you isn’t automatic; you have to earn it. The best way to do this is by moving his feet forward, backward, left and right. The more you can move his feet, the more control you have.”

“A horse who understands that you, as the herd leader, own the space in which he lives, will respect your asserted authority.”

“Without respect, you have nothing; no relationship, no trust, and ultimately, no communication.”

The way I see it, respect is a concept that is only understandable by humans. To enforce it on a different species without regard for their own needs, social structure or intelligence is ill-informed at best and abusive at worst.

Our brain structure, more specifically, the newest comer to the evolutionary party, the neocortex, is the part that lets us form and use abstract concepts like “the day after tomorrow,” “robbing a bank is wrong,” and “my horse needs to respect me.” Respect is part of the human-to-human complex social interaction, and one of the ways we get along with each other.

It may be a fairly large deductive leap, but I’m going to make it: since the neocortex in the horse isn’t well developed, it’s difficult for me to believe they have the ability to form abstract concepts.  I also don’t feel it’s any coincidence that what is called a horse being “respectful,” also looks a lot like a horse who is afraid.  Though that might not be the intentions of the handler, what we teach, and what horses learn, can be vastly different things.


Photo: Stefan Angele

If we absolutely have fallen in love with the word respect, let’s respect that:

Horses are thinking, feeling, living beings who feel both mental and physical pain. 

Horses will hide pain and discomfort as long as they can.

Horses form powerful friendships and rely on the safety of the herd as primary to their being alive.

Horses are hardwired to survive and get along. They will cooperate, even at the risk of their own well-being.

Horses have rich inner lives, and ways of perceiving the world that are wildly different from ours.

Horses don’t owe us anything. As horse owners and riders, we are not entitled to their power or skill or courage, just because we house and feed them.

I’ve seen horses who understand boundaries once they know where they are. Horses who rely on consistency. Horses who have a job and are happy to perform it with us. Horses who need direction. Horses who are disoriented. Horses who rely on the relationship they have with a person. Confused horses. But I’ve never seen a respectful horse, or a disrespectful one, for that matter. 

It makes as much sense to say that whales can climb mountains.

“My horse needs to respect me,” can open the door for us to commit grave errors. It sets up a mentality of competition, of winners and losers, and at it’s worst, legitimizes fighting.

Because between a human and a horse, it is far less about the horse giving us what we need, than it is about us figuring out how to encourage that great big heart to come out of hiding.

If there’s any respecting to be done, my vote is that we respect ourselves and our horses and become as educated and skilled as we can. We can then work with them in ways that allow them to trust themselves in our hands, and on their backs.


Photo: Bo Reich