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The Horse-Human Relationship (for Horsemanship Magazine)

I find it reassuring that so many of us are keen to develop a relationship with our horses and treat them as the sentient beings we believe them to be. This is clear from the questions we ask, the books we read, the supplements we buy, the marketing to which we are attracted and the language used by trainers trying to woo us.

But when we look beneath the language, it seems that we all desire different outcomes. To some, a positive relationship means that the horse does everything we ask without resistance, the implicit assumption being that if the horse does not object then he must be happy with our request. To others there might be the added caveat that our requests must be trained via positive reinforcement. To others there may be such a strong desire not to risk upsetting the horse that they have decided not to make non-essential requests at all.

While all of these possibilities have their attractions, they are still lacking. If we have horses in domestication then, before developing a relationship, we have certain fundamental responsibilities to meet their needs - including enriching their life in order to compensate for the restrictions we impose. Consequently I believe that we should do things with our horses. Hacking or walks out in-hand can expand their home range. Regular handling means that the 6-weekly trimmer/farrier visit is not the hardest thing they have to face. Leaving them to "just be" in a field might sound lovely but doesn't help them cope with a vet visit.

If we are to make requests of our horses then I think we need ask ourselves some big questions. Which tasks are appropriate? Why do we feel the need to make those requests? Most tasks asked of horses are done so because that's what we have always done, however inappropriate. Some tasks are performed in the - often misguided - belief that they are somehow beneficial to the horse. A personal example is doing hours of dressage, hoping to keep my then young but arthritic horse supple - yet it made him miserable and less supple than full-time turn-out and hacking on a loose rein ultimately achieved.

For me, the most telling indicator of the relationship an owner has with her horse is how free the horse feels to say "no". We condition horses into compliance and then often delude ourselves into believing that they could leave our so-called "liberty work". Any true relationship has mutual choice, give and take, permission for your partner to make decisions with which you disagree. Yet these elements are lacking from the vast majority of horse-human relationships. When we condition a horse always to say "yes" without resistance, even via so-called positive methods, we erode his autonomy and reduce his ability to make true choices. When we give a horse his autonomy we give him the freedom to be himself, the freedom to engage in a relationship and the freedom to choose to say "yes".

Copyright Catherine Bell 2015