I See You: Thoughts on Respect
Esperanza, the first time I swing a leg over her back. We are aware of each other, but we're calm.
Some horse people don’t make earning their horse’s respect a priority in their pursuit of good horsemanship because they equate respect with fear. But if you really think about it, there should be no confusion. The two concepts are opposites of each other: a horse who fears you can’t respect you. Both fear and respect produce an obedient horse, but only obedience based on respect creates a horse that works with joy and expression. Intimidated horses do what their rider asks them to do because they fear what might happen to them if they don’t. This works - but only until the horse faces something he fears more than his rider. In scary situations, a horse trained through fear will take off, or shut down. Fear-based obedience has its limits.
Cami sees the scary umbrella, but she checks in with me instead of running away.
Obedience based on respect goes deeper. A horse who respects his rider will look to his rider for reassurance that everything is ok before he runs away from the scary plasic bag, or the terrifying judge’s stand. He will check in with his rider in dicey situations. He will listen to what his rider says, not because doing anything else will be painful, but because it seems like a good idea. These horses trust their riders. They know their riders would not ask them for anything they’re not ready for. They know their riders will forgive misunderstandings and mistakes.
Houston was always worried about judge's stands and competition arenas, but usually didn't spook. We respected each other
So, how do horses learn to respect a rider? No, making a horse run backwards won’t get you there. No, using a certain type of whip, or carrot stick, or flag, or other gadget won’t get you there, either. No, you can’t buy respect through feeding treats. No, your horse won’t respect you because he’s grateful to you for adopting or rescuing him.
There are no shortcuts. Respect is earned. If you want your horse to respect you, you will have to become a rider who deserves respect—a calm, consistent kind of rider. A rider who treats her horse fairly at all times. Respect is a mutual skill: horses respect riders who respect them in return. We know how a horse shows he respects his rider. But how does a rider show her respect to her horse?
The word “respect” comes from the participle of the Latin verb “respicere” which means, literally, “to look again, to look often, to look back at.”
I think of respect as telling a horse: “I see you.” This means:
“I see you. I don’t look at you through the narrow lens of my own agenda - my competitive ambitions, my need to prove how tough I am, my desire to come across as an expert rider. I don’t look at you through the rose-colored glasses of romantic ideas. You are a horse, not a unicorn. I do not look at you through the distorting kaleidoscope of my own ego. I see you as the magnificent animal you are. That’s enough. You are not here to fulfill my expectations. You owe me nothing.”
“I see you. You are a powerful creature. You weigh 1000 pounds, give or take. Your power does not intimidate me, but I am aware of it whenever I am with you. If you wanted to, you could get rid of my presence on your back any time you choose, but most of the time, you don’t. I am in awe of this state of affairs, and I am grateful for it.”
Naji and I, paying attention to each other.
Cami, a mare with a strong personality and some conformational challenges, on her way to becoming a willing horse with a bright future.
3. “I see you. I see your talents and your shortcomings, your strong points and your weaker ones. I see your training history. I see your conformation - your back that’s a bit too long, your throatlatch that’s a little too thick. I see your character, its original parts and the human-made components (sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference). I don’t want to pick you apart, or criticize you, or to find an excuse for not doing my best when I work with you. I see these things because I want to help you be the best possible version of yourself. I want you to be fit, supple, balanced. I want you to find joy in your work. I want you to be happy.”
4. “Lastly, I see you as a beautiful, elegant being. I feel honored and proud to work with you. I hope I can do right by you. Whether you are a rescued grade pony or a sport horse bred to perform dressage movements, I see you as worthy of my time, worthy of my skills, worthy of by best training effort.”
Molly, rescued from the horse shelter and doing beautiful work.
Respect goes both ways. Let’s do our part, so our horses have an easier time doing theirs.