This phrase, often attributed to the Hippocratic oath, should be at the heart of everything we do with horses. (Side note – it is not actually in the Hippocratic oath.) It is this, rather than technique, by which I judge all riding and training that I see. There can be many paths to the same goal – though I know more than a few who would argue with me on that point. It matters little to me what methods you use or what activity you choose, as long as you develop a horse with fluid movement, easily carrying the rider and responding to light aids. Now, in that context, let me be clear as to what I consider harmful.
- Coercive training or riding methods that put the horse under physical, mental, or emotional distress
- Anything that causes pain – and welts or blood should get you yanked off a horse, in my book!
- Any method that causes a horse to disengage or shut down (e.g., “sacking out”)
- Auxiliary aids or devices that force the horse into an unnatural gait or position
- Riding or training styles that negatively effect the horse’s natural conformation or movement
All of those may sound rather obvious – but detecting them can be more challenging that you think. I will be occasionally writing about these issues and trying to help increase awareness of how to discern something harmful from something not. Horses generally suffer in silence, so it is incumbent upon us to be vigilant on their behalf.
Keep in mind that learning inherently is challenging and has its uncomfortable moments. That is true for humans (especially adults) and horses. Learning requires change – in your mind and/or your body – and it requires effort to understand and absorb whatever is being taught. Even if you love learning, as I do, there will be times when it is frustrating and/or difficult. This holds true for our horses, as well. There will be moments when something new challenges them; or maybe they just are not in the mood for learning something that day. Their reaction can seem dramatic – from facial expressions to dramatic reaction. Those moments are not causing harm if, and this is a very big if, the human involved reacts appropriately.
Appropriate action, in a case like that, is to stop. Do not push through in the way that you are. Go back to something the horse knows, is comfortable with, and preferably you know they enjoy. Take that time to reflect on what might have caused the reaction, then modify your approach. If you cannot get past the issue on that day, leave it alone. Contrary to what many will tell you, the horse does not ‘win’ in that scenario. Nothing is lost in stopping – just make sure you stop on a positive note, doing something familiar. Come back the next day, try a slightly different approach, and you will be surprised the difference it makes.
For additional clarity on the issue of harm, here is a list of things that I do not consider harmful, save when they are used in aid of one or more items on the harmful list:
- Bits – the mere presence or use of a bit does not cause harm. Sadly, the way most people ride now, and with the nightmare variety of bits designed to solve training issues, they aid in a lot of harm.
- Shoes – I have a mix of shod and unshod horses; I always have. After forty-five years, and numerous horses of mine and my clients, I can tell you that the presence of shoes does not cause harm. I have seen lameness and hoof issues in equal measure between shod and unshod horses.
- Whips – lunge whips, Dressage whips, and crops can be very useful tools. They can be used coercively, but they can also be used as a simple, even visual, aid.
- Saddles – shockingly I have read many who condemn saddles for doing harm. Certainly a poorly fitted saddle can, but the mere presence of a saddle tree can actually benefit the horse by distributing the riders weight.
All of these items are simply tools, which can be used well or poorly. Their use or avoidance should first be determined by what is best for the individual horse, then by your personal preference, then by the requirements of any activity you choose to pursue. No one should ever be judged by their choice to use, or not use, any of those items – only by any harm they may be actually causing to the horse through the use, misuse, or lack of use of a given tool.