I’ve been doing a lot of reading outside the horse world recently - specifically on the topics of leadership and organization structure. It’s slowly becoming apparent that we don’t really have a rider problem in this sport we so love - we have a leader problem.
Leaders, at the core of what they do, create a space in which those who follow them can feel safe in their abilities. While sometimes this means encouraging them through times of difficulty, it also means setting them up for success. This is why the Clinton Andersons and Pat Parellis and Monty Roberts of the world are successful - they build a structure of horsemanship within which their students feel safe and confident in their own abilities.
The problem arises from the foundation, and is why I think so many people end up “adrift” after working in these programs - unsure of where to go next. The problem arises from the fact that at our core, humans don’t like hurting things when it’s unnecessary. We just don’t. So when confronted with situations where we’re clearly stressing or overwhelming or hurting the horse, those structures constantly demand we expand our definition of what is necessary. While we may be able to make this expansion superficially, at our core that boundary doesn’t really change.
This causes deep conflict in the people and horses around me, and even in my own horsemanship. I see my students struggle to understand that they don’t HAVE to be defensive, they don’t HAVE to “move their feet” every time, they don’t HAVE to fear rewarding too much over too little. This struggle happens because hurt people hurt people. When horsemen, like any person, feel deeply hurt by the demand that they betray the partnership they are developing with violence, they turn around and perpetuate that violence. That’s simply how it is.
I’m here to let you in on a secret: it’s okay to love your horse. And it’s okay to stand up to your trainer. If your trainer shuts you down, find a new one who is willing to hear out your concerns.
This problem we have of violence against horses isn’t truly because of misguided ideals about horsemanship. If it were, it would change instantly as soon as we are presented with conflicting and better evidence. Instead, it arises from the culture we teach riders in. We teach them to shut up and just do it when they feel they’ve crossed a line with their horse. We scold young riders for giving treats or being reluctant to carry a crop. We force riders to ignore their basic, fundamental ideals about the world the second they step into the arena. I’ve seen the quietest, gentlest people on the planet walk into an arena and beat the snot out of their horse. Not simply because they had been taught to. But because that teaching had hurt them on a fundamental level, and the leaders in their life were not showing them how to heal before trying to get their heels down.
We can do better, trainers of the world. I am not perfect. None of us are. Sometimes I get frustrated, or confused, or overwhelmed. But part of being a great leader and teacher is not allowing those emotions to force your students to feel unsafe. Challenged? Yes. Like they have an open door to try something new? Absolutely. But unsafe? No. We can do better. We can stop perpetuating the emotional violence that carries over to our horses. We have to.