Obedience or Trust?

There are far too many training methods, past and present, that aim at absolute obedience from the horse. It can be disguised in many ways. ‘The horse must accept you as the leader!’ is one very common phrase that you’ll hear. It appears even in some classical works – Steinbrecht referred to the “absolute obedience to the spur” in The Gymnasium of the Horse. Whatever the discipline, I have found such reference to unquestioned, immediate, and absolute obedience. The first, and most obvious issue is that this completely negates the concept of the horse as a partner – even a junior partner gets to participate rather than just be ordered around. However, I would argue there is an even larger problem with this approach – it can actually be dangerous.

Believe me, the fantasy of a horse who does everything that I ask, without question or expressed opinion, crosses my mind now and then. When I am short on time, and Coffee wants to debate whether he should really do any work or maybe we should just go out to graze, I can get a bit annoyed (it’s more amusing when I have plenty of time). But in the balance, I have learned that far more is gained by a relationship that is not centered on obedience from the horse.

If not obedience, then what is the alternative? We want our horses do the things we ask them to do, right? Of course! But I prefer to have a horse that is attentive and responsive to my requests. That response might not always be exactly as I preferred or as I planned – but the idea is that I have asked something, and they have responded to it. This makes it more of a two-way communication, with the unexpected reaction usually telling me something I need to know. In order to make that a collaborative, rather than unilateral or conflicting, relationship you need one more key ingredient: trust.

Win thy horse’s heart first, then speaketh to his brain; thou willst then be able to exploit his strength.

Arab Proverb as related in The Way to Perfect Horsemanship, Udo Burger

My first experience of the danger of absolute obedience was when I was a youngster on my first horse, Wicki. I was riding home with some friends, when we came upon a creek. We decided to go through the creek to cool us all down. The other two horses were more green, so I boldly took the lead – except that Wicki stopped at the edge. Since I’d been taught not to let the horse ‘win’, I pushed my case – and I finally got the obedience I was after. The result was my horse now belly deep in the muddy bottom of the creek! I dropped my reins, grabbed his mane, and said, “Okay, get us out of here!” Trooper that he was, he managed to do just that. I learned my lesson to trust that my horse has a good reason when he says “No”.

The first reason that obedience can be dangerous is it demands that the horse ignore its instincts in order to comply with our demands, as in my forcing Wicki into the creek. This can seem a tall order with a large animal whose brain is wired for survival, but they have also been bred for millennia to be compliant. Many of those training methods I mentioned at the beginning can also lead to a horse who is mentally and emotionally shut down. Coffee came to us as a very obedient automaton around people – no physical reaction to the people around him, no interaction, but complete and absolute obedience. He would stand outside the tackroom, no halter on, never moving except exactly as directed. Sounds great, right? Yet, he never flicked an ear, always staring blankly ahead. It was a marked, and spooky, contrast to the playful joker I saw when turned out with his brothers. Today he will still stand in the cross-ties with no halter – but he’ll check on what we’re doing, tell us where he prefers we scratch, or browse the shelf in front of him.

Coffee is now much more conversant than the horse I brought home

Of course even absolute obedience cannot completely override a horse’s instinct, which brings me to the second reason why it is a dangerous focus. Earlier this week, the vet was out to look at Noble’s swollen leg. I suspected a hoof abscess, which was the eventual diagnosis. Although I have poulticed many a hoof in my lifetime, this was a first for Noble and I knew it would not be easy as his patience is a work in progress. The vet did a masterful job, with Noble largely behaving himself. Then it came time to set his foot down – and he went into all out panic! He could not figure out what had a hold of his hoof, and sought a fast way to escape it.

In my cross-ties there is only one open avenue of escape – and that would take him either over the top of me, or the top of the vet. Ever had a 17.1 hand, 1500 pound powder keg in your hands?! As he went off, first at me, then toward the vet, then back at me, I found myself rather calm. He was clearly at code red panic – but each time he surged forward, I put my hand on his chest and told him whoa. By the third try, he stopped, shook, allowed the vet to stroke him, and finally calmed.

There is absolutely no possible way that I could have trained him for obedience in such a moment of panic. I certainly could have practiced poulticing his foot from the time he was a foal – but in fifty years I’d never seen a horse panic like that over a poultice. One can never anticipate what might cause an individual to panic. What saved me in the situation with Noble was our mutual trust – his to hear me through the panic and believe I wouldn’t let him be hurt; mine so I could remain calm and direct him to a more comfortable reaction for all of us.

The poultice that caused a panic

Responsiveness was also critical in the situation with Noble – a light push on his chest means to stop and/or back-up (depending upon duration). The best defense in almost any situation is to have your horse understand what pressure on any part of their body means – come forward (halter pull), move over (push on shoulder, barrel, or haunches), or stop/back-up (push on chest). Trained cues and responsiveness are critical – but that is not the same as absolute obedience. Under normal conditions the responsive horse has the option to let you know if something is wrong in your request – the absolute obedient horse does not. It is a sad truth that many horses viewed as ‘well broke’ are often shut down mentally and have been trained for absolute obedience.

As a guide, you are in a position to allay the fear that drives so much equine behavior. A horse who trusts will hold back his natural reaction to fear until his human guide weighs in.

Horse Brain, Human Brain, page 241

Finally, relying on absolute obedience could find you in a situation where you need your horse to save you, but he’s waiting for your cue. Horses often are best equipped to get us out of a bad situation – as Wicki got us out of that creek – but they have to have the trust of the rider, and they have to be allowed enough independence to act in those situations. As humans we have a tendency to want to take control; but I could not feel the conditions under Wicki’s feet, so I could not pick a path for him. In some instances we do not have time to react such that we can convey a message to the horse.

I once galloped Ben down to a stone wall, seeing only as we took off that the ground on the landing side was littered with stones that had been displaced. In midair there was no time for me to signal him to make a bigger effort. However, he somehow must have seen the hazard himself. I felt an unusual surge in his body, midair, and we landed safely past the litter of melon sized rocks, far out from a normal landing distance. My mother, a witness to the event, said that he made a clear effort to thrust his front legs well forward to clear the obstacles. Independent action, not obedience, saved us both from injury.

I was once told, by Pat Parelli, that Ben would eventually hurt or even kill me. The reason? Because “he thinks for himself.” Therein lies the clear difference between needing absolute obedience, and developing trust between two partners. There were many times in our twenty eight years together where I was ever so grateful that Ben could think for himself!

Ben and me in the middle of a long relationship marked by mutual trust

We prove our devotion over time, becoming worthy of the horse’s trust through 10,000 positive experiences.

Horse Brain, Human Brain, page 241

Trust is perhaps the most important element in any healthy relationship. It is something that is earned – not something you can impose. Doubly true with horses, to whom you cannot even say “Trust me!” The conundrum in the process of developing trust is that you do have to put yourselves in occasional situations where you and/or the horse may feel uncomfortable. You can have a good relationship without that – but true trust comes through situations where each of the partners learns they can rely upon the other to be there for them.

This is not an exercise in throwing them into the deep end of the pool, metaphorically speaking. You build trust through a thousand little things you do, from teaching them to pick up their feet, to fording a small stream. Anything that mildly challenges your horse without scaring him is an opportunity to build trust, and to show that you will not allow him to come to harm. Perhaps you have an issue with leaving the property. Go down the driveway until you feel the least bit of tension. Stop at that spot. Here is where you need to know your horse, and the situation you are in.

In some cases, I would take that moment to ask for some very simple response, maybe moving the haunches slightly, first one way then the other – any response that is reliable and easy. Take it slowly, rest between each ask. I would use this for a horse who focuses easily and well. For that type of horse, giving them something to focus on other than their fear will help them.

Other horses would only increase in tension if you start to ask them something while they are concerned. For that type of horse I would stand, speak quietly, and wait for them to relax in that spot. If your horse likes an itch, as Noble does, that is also a very good way to release some of the tension. If there is a grassy spot, grazing can help with calming.

As soon as your horse has relaxed on that spot, turn around and walk back to the yard or barn. If you repeat this process over time, you will find that it gets easier to go a bit further each time. Always stop at the point where tension starts – never push past that. Some trainers will tell you this approach will never make progress – but I have always found that this approach yields far richer rewards than directly pushing the issue. This approach also works if you are the one having concerns over venturing out.

It takes only a minute to break a horse’s trust but months to rebuild it. Don’t make the horse do something that scares him. Instead, break the task down into easy pieces, and allow as much time as the horse needs to master each piece.

Horse Brain, Human Brain, page 241

There have certainly been times, in our history with horses, when absolute obedience was a necessary path – a cavalryman who needed to charge into scenes that instinct would drive any normal horse rapidly in the opposite direction required absolute obedience. Even then, I suspect that those military men who were most admired by their contemporaries for their horsemanship likely developed a relationship that went beyond absolute obedience. There are so many wartime tales of horses staying with their fallen riders, or taking action upon themselves to get their injured rider to safety when dumping them would seem the more instinctual action. It is hard for me to imagine that these tales come from horse/rider relationships built upon absolute obedience alone.

In this modern era, where we no longer need the horse for our survival, there is no need for any training method built upon absolute obedience. In spite of what many misguided trainers will tell you, your horse will not kill you if you don’t get absolute obedience. You can have a partnership with your horse, in which both partners have a voice. But like any good relationship, it does take work and compromise to develop the understanding, responsiveness, and trust that makes it strong and healthy for both partners. So the next time someone tries to push obedience as the focus, or talks about the horse in terms that sound mechanical (usually beginning with “He must …”), turn away and find some activities that can help build a foundation of trust!

Reading recommendations:

  • Horse Brain, Human Brain (Janet L Jones) – lots of great information on how to build a relationship with your horse
  • What Every Horse Should Know (Cherry Hill) – filled with activities and learning you and your horse can do that will help build trust (a few pressure based activities, but they can easily be adapted to be reward based)

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