Respect: A Eulogy

Photo: Crissi McDonald


There is a phrase that is used in the horse world  I hope soon dies a quiet and peaceful death. I’ve been inviting it over for tea and taking it for walks to discuss other points of view. Helping get its affairs in order. But this phrase, I discovered, was born without ears.

It needs a funeral. A quiet affair with no gathering of friends and family afterward. Let’s bid farewell to:

“My horse needs to respect me.”  

While I have been a grateful witness to an evolution in horsemanship (for example, I much more often hear about horses being “started,” rather than “broken.”), our need for our horses to respect us has its feet glued to the floor of our collective unconscious. 

Even without hearing it from well-meaning horse people, the internet is littered with videos and articles, chat rooms and equipment to “make your horse respect you.” To me, that phrase tastes like a rotten meal that came back up.

“Your horse’s respect for you isn’t automatic; you have to earn it. The best way to do this is by moving his feet forward, backward, left and right. The more you can move his feet, the more control you have.”

“A horse who understands that you, as the herd leader, own the space in which he lives, will respect your asserted authority.”

“Without respect, you have nothing; no relationship, no trust, and ultimately, no communication.”

The way I see it, respect is a concept that is only understandable by humans. To enforce it on a different species without regard for their own needs, social structure or intelligence is ill-informed at best and abusive at worst.

Our brain structure, more specifically, the newest comer to the evolutionary party, the neocortex, is the part that lets us form and use abstract concepts like “the day after tomorrow,” “robbing a bank is wrong,” and “my horse needs to respect me.” Respect is part of the human-to-human complex social interaction, and one of the ways we get along with each other.

It may be a fairly large deductive leap, but I’m going to make it: since the neocortex in the horse isn’t well developed, it’s difficult for me to believe they have the ability to form abstract concepts.  I also don’t feel it’s any coincidence that what is called a horse being “respectful,” also looks a lot like a horse who is afraid.  Though that might not be the intentions of the handler, what we teach, and what horses learn, can be vastly different things.

Photo: Stefan Angele


If we absolutely have fallen in love with the word respect, let’s respect that:

Horses are thinking, feeling, living beings who feel both mental and physical pain. 

Horses will hide pain and discomfort as long as they can.

Horses form powerful friendships and rely on the safety of the herd as primary to their being alive.

Horses are hardwired to survive and get along. They will cooperate, even at the risk of their own well-being.

Horses have rich inner lives, and ways of perceiving the world that are wildly different from ours.

Horses don’t owe us anything. As horse owners and riders, we are not entitled to their power or skill or courage, just because we house and feed them.

I’ve seen horses who understand boundaries once they know where they are. Horses who rely on consistency. Horses who have a job and are happy to perform it with us. Horses who need direction. Horses who are disoriented. Horses who rely on the relationship they have with a person. Confused horses. But I’ve never seen a respectful horse, or a disrespectful one, for that matter. 

It makes as much sense to say that whales can climb mountains.

“My horse needs to respect me,” can open the door for us to commit grave errors. It sets up a mentality of competition, of winners and losers, and at it’s worst, legitimizes fighting.

Because between a human and a horse, it is far less about the horse giving us what we need, than it is about us figuring out how to encourage that great big heart to come out of hiding.

If there’s any respecting to be done, my vote is that we respect ourselves and our horses and become as educated and skilled as we can. We can then work with them in ways that allow them to trust themselves in our hands, and on their backs.

Photo: Bo Reich






64 responses to “Respect: A Eulogy”

  1. Kudos and AMEN to that!
    My thoughts have run alongside what you expressed
    for decades. I was so blessed to have been introduced
    to horses by a wonderful couple almost 50 years ago.
    They raised and trained Clydesdales and owned a feed store, in a remote town in northern CA. They taught me that mutual trust and mutual reciprocal communication must go both ways. I had to learn to respect the horse, not the other way around. The horse is born perfect. If it is messed up, it is due to human error.
    When I left the area and went my own way I geared away
    from the main stream horse training standards
    of the days back then. I was fortunate to not have to deal much with boarding stables and all the sad and bad vibes I witnessed there, I stuck to what I had as a foundation.
    Occasionally I overlooked well meaning but unsolicited advice from those people who had strong views and wanted to preach to whomever they could get to stand still and listen. I listened to the horse, and we worked together to make us both feel safe with each other.

    1. Well said, Donna. And I agree: if we listen to our horses, we tend to get farther along than listening to folks, how ever well meaning. While we all need help understanding our horses, I believe that we live in a fortunate time of having all kinds of help from which to choose from, so we can find what resonates for us and our horse.

      1. I completely agree with this opinion on the use of the concept of “respect” in the horse world …I think it too easily sets up the dangerous dynamic of “dominance” and “submission”. I think we need to earn the horse’s respect by being fair and clear with our requests and expectations…

        1. You and I are reading from the same book. 🙂

  2. Well said – the ‘respect’ equines show each other is always earned, and when they choose to relate to us we are privileged!! and that is speaking as someone who walks amongst free living natives and has learned from them hugely

    1. In its true sense the word “respect” isn´t negative. If I respect someone, it´s because they are consistent, fair ad trustworthy and have earned my respect. I would like my horse (and my other animals) to “respect” me in that sense, because I earned it through consistent, fair and trustworthy behavior. Respect, unfortunately has become a synonym for dominance and force of will and is often demanded where it has not been earned.

      1. Thank you for your thoughts, Victoria. 🙂

  3. Great article Crissi, I really respect you for writing it….LOL!!! Seriously, I get what you are saying and I will endeavor to change my language and my thoughts which will hopefully help my horses.

    1. Morag, you’re the bomb. I so appreciate the good feedback from a fellow writer. xoxo

  4. Of course your horse needs to respect you, just like it needs to (and will) respect any other living being near it. Horses are very respectful animals. It respects you more or less just by you being there.

    What people usually mean when they say this, though, is, “Your horse needs to be too scared of you to dare have its own opinion”, and that’s despicable.

    1. Thank you for your perspective.

    2. I told my horse we were friends. If that doesn’t include respect between both parties for each other then it is not friendship. And damn right he had his own opinions and I wanted to know what they were. He wasn’t to shy to tell me either. My awesome boy.

      1. If we all had horses like that, people would give up bullying and start communicating!

  5. Yes! And I’m so glad you mentioned consistency. I know that in my case, the key to ease, engagement and progress with horses is reminding myself over and over again to be consistent. Recognizing and working on your own weaknesses goes a long way to creating a working environment which others might call a ‘respectful’ one.

    1. A great big yes! back to you!

  6. Wow, that’s brilliant Crissi. When I hear people referring to respect when talking about horses, it makes me cringe. What automatic right does any human have to demand that from any Horse? The arrogance of it is astounding. Well said. Let’s bury that word worldwide. For the Horse. Xx

    1. Thank you! I’ll bring the shovel, if you bring the pick. We can even give it a nice coffin.

  7. well said. thank you.

    1. Thank you for commenting, Deb.

  8. Interesting take on the subject.

    1. Thank you for saying so. 🙂

  9. Thank you Crissi, this is a beautiful way to look at it. I have always had immense respect for horses. Look at them!! Gorgeous strong big-hearted beings! And I grew up in a training world where it was true, if your horse didn’t “respect” (trust) you, you got longer spurs and whip or a stronger bit. I hated it… It’s a big part of the reason I left the hunter/ jumper world.
    I am soooooo incredibly grateful to have been introduced to your and Mark and the wok you do and way of relating to horses. It has been a lovely, much more peaceful adventure and I feel so much better about how I am working with horses, and the results show too!
    Thank you, again, and much love to you!

    1. Thank you, Mariah! I appreciate your kind words, but I appreciate even more that you have examined what you had been doing (I grew up in a similar horse world, by the way) and decided you wanted something different. xoxo

  10. Respect is a human idea I agree but horses do have a neocortex – it is not as large as ours. The neocortex is involved in learning and the processing of sensory information.

    1. Thank you for helping me broaden my knowledge. 🙂

  11. wow! wow! Wow! thank you so much for this! An excellent commentary on the word “respect”. Beautiful writing Thank you again! Sincerely, Linda Linda Mannix – Coordinator Durango Cowboy Poetry Gathering PO Box 2571 Durango, CO 81302

    “Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.” – Betsy Shirley

    1. Your welcome, Linda. Thank you!

  12. Well Done! I always enjoy your blogs when they come out..

    1. Thank you for saying so!

  13. Beautifully expressed, as all your columns seem to be. You’re absolutely right to point out the connection between human fears and many of the common methodologies of horse training. I feel quite lucky that most of my instincts and reflexes concerning horses were established before I ever heard of some of the themes that have come to dominate much of the horsemanship conversation. My horses and I seem to get a lot more out of mutual trust. I’m enjoying the opportunity that I have now to raise my filly, now two years old, without exposure to fear, at least coming from me. In part, she’s just a really confident, curious, and steady soul, but I’ve made it a point never to pull on her or chase her, and it’s remarkable how easily she’ll settle down in response to a verbal cue, or at most a steadying hand against her neck. I won’t start her under saddle for another couple of years, but we’re both enjoying a lot of loose play in the arena and a lot of walks in hand. I’m pretty certain that starting her under saddle will be easy and undramatic. I haven’t focused at all on her feet as a method of control, really just tried to connect with her mind, which is easy and a pleasure. I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of happy relationships of this kind with other horses, but this is the first one I’ve been able to work with entirely as I want, starting with a completely unhandled weanling.

    1. Hi Tracey – what a wonderful journey to be on with your filly. Thank you for your comments!

  14. Interesting blog and good food for thought. I don’t use the word “respect” the same way, and I had to go and look it up, to make sure I wasn’t out in left field.

    noun 1. a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements.
    synonyms: esteem, regard, high opinion, admiration, reverence, deference, honor
    verb 1. admire (someone or something) deeply, as a result of their abilities, qualities, or achievements.

    Respect seems to have taken on a different meaning to many people who are training children or horses. This meaning, seems to conflate “respect” with a “fear” . This is the version of “respect” that I agree needs a eulogy.

    Then, there is the true definition of respect, which is the way I use the word.

    When I respect someone, I am not afraid of them, I look to them for their guidance and judgement. I do not fear discipline from them, in fact, if I fear discipline, odds are good I do not respect them.

    So, I do want my horses to respect me in having deference to my wishes, accepting my leadership role in the relationship. I don’t want my horses scared of me, but I also don’t allow them to walk on top of me, but that is less about respect, and more about consistent handling.

    Respect may not be the best word, given that horses don’t seem to deeply admire much beyond grass and other horses. But, the word is also abused when people talk about discipline and children.

    Respectfully 😉

    1. Thank you Mel – I enjoyed reading your thoughts, and agree with you. Especially the part about horses admiring grass and other horses. 😉

  15. Thanks for a great article with much to think about.

    I teach a Leadership program with the help of horses and the concept of “respect” is core – because corporate leaders also demand respect and get very critical of staff who do not respect them immediately just based on their title.

    One of the key lessons I learned thinking about some of the stories Mark shares and his article on Passive Leadership was to not focus on demanding or really even asking for respect, instead to challenge myself to become someone who earn the respect of others. When I act in a way a horse interprets as dependable, confident, compassionate, trustworthy, calm only then will I have earned my horses respect – and if I lose it then I must look to myself to see what needs changed – and often the problem is that my actions are not aligned with my intentions in the way a horse interprets them.

    Each horse is different but only by looking at the world through his perspective do I have a chance at earning respect.

    Simple things matter – most people reach in and pet a horse between the eyes to say hello yet many horses on first meeting find that very intrusive and show it with their body language. If I am demanding respect then I would keep petting until the horse yielded but if I want to be respected i will listen to their cues and shift until I find a spot or a distance the horse feels comfortable.

    So yes I do want respect but what I want is to earn respect by demonstrating to my horse that I am someone he can depend on enough to relax and let me take care of him without diminishing him in any way.

    This is the same challenge we give leaders – who do you need to be for others to want to follow you?

    1. Great thoughts – thanks for sharing them!

  16. Invite it for tea? I’d rather drive a stake through its heart. Not that I’m a violent person, but I’m doing it for the horses. 🙂

    A minor quibble: Horses do have a neocortex, although not as developed as ours relative to the other parts of the brain. To me the issue is that horses are vastly less capable of abstract thought than we are, and respect is a really abstract idea, to the extent that humans use the term to mean different things, and can’t always agree on whether another human (much less a horse) is exhibiting it to the “proper” degree.

    1. Thank you Curtis. I admittedly have violent thoughts when I hear rhetoric about “my horse should/needs to/better respect me.” I am working, however, on being able to dialogue with people who don’t share our viewpoint, and so am searching for a softer way to talk about respect. And thanks for the clarification about the horse’s neocortex! I’ll do more research and correct that little blip.

  17. I have struggled with this concept for awhile. In fact been told that certain behaviors show a lack of respect & following instructors rather than my gut, committed acts that I am so ashamed of, not that horrible, but did not feel right about doing & damaged what ever part of that horses regard towards me. I try to look @ behavior, all behavior by humans & animals as communication. I have to learn to trust my gut more before I act. Even in humans, I see what people call respect is more fear than true respect, especially in children. Differentiating between respect & discipline, I am not sure how to define these concepts even in human terms.

    1. I get it. Me too.

      There are rules we all need to follow, to stay safe, whether you are a child or an animal. I guess these days I tend to look at it (with regard to horses) as they are big and fast, and we are small and slow. 😉 It makes sense to me to help the horse understand that in order for everyone to stay safe and unharmed, there are boundaries and ways of behaving that support this. And I am always always imparting that information with the intent to keep us both safe, as opposed to the horse needing to respect, or obey or remain in my control.

      I guess it boils down to what semantics we are comfortable with, and how that gets translated to our horses.

      Here’s to listening to our guts, and our horses more!

  18. So very true…could we add “control” I hate hearing it used!

    1. I know what you mean. I think the spirit behind the words is what gets me frustrated. When working around horses, we do need some semblance of consistency, awareness, skill, and clarity to let them know how to stay safe. Control in the sense of “you will not take a breath unless I say so and don’t even think about moving your feet!” feels to me more like asking a horse to be afraid when they are around us. I would much rather they understand, and feel peaceful about their job and us.

  19. I agree with you Crissi. Respect should be replaced with how can I improve my relationship with my horse. When I stopped trying to gain respect , I started to understand it is a conversation that develops a relationship and as I learn their language and understand our relationship improves.

  20. Wow!! Yeah!

    Sent from my iPhone

  21. Partnership and trust, From just leading them from the field without pulling or demanding there is no joy in being with your horse if they are fearful or not willing .There is nothing more rewarding than when you finish a ride and your horse still stays with you and dosent rush back to the herd I really respect and admire him for that. Thank you for a wonderful blog .

    1. Thank you for taking the time to write and let me know your thoughts. 🙂

  22. Thanks for your thoughts! It was a pleasure to read, as always 🙂
    I think “respect” is a human thing, which many folks would like to get, but are not willing to give. Because of that, many want to get that respect-thing from their horses (or dogs), which seems much easier, because there is no discussion about 😉
    And I think, “respect” as a human concept, helps sometimes to blame the horse for things, the owner did wrong and got therefore the wrong reaction from his horse.
    If we treat our horses as partners, if we are fair and if we are working on our skills to get better in riding and understanding, then we don’t need “respect” from our horses, because everything is teamwork.

    1. Exactly! Well said.

  23. First I have to work on myself, my approach and breathing, than once I am OK and I am not wearing a mask, of confident I am not feeling, we will able(the horse and me)
    to work for the safety of both and consistency in my working with him on given
    bounderis , like with children ,what behaviour is acceptable for him and me.
    I have to be in the present to be able to adjuste my riding and to be sure what I am asking for. Thanks for your article , it helps having an open heart and mind.

    1. Thank you, Eva!

  24. The issue of “respect” or “disrespect” affects ego. I used to throw those terms around too, didn’t know any better, but I’ve arrived at a place where I’m concerned about how much pressure is necessary. I believe that it’s hard for the horse to learn when tense and since pressure can create tension, I’d rather go soft and slow. I have 5 horses who range from uber-alert, always on the verge of needing to flee to uber-confident, gonna do it in my own way/my own time. If I brought “disrespect” into the equation, I’d lose sight of their differences. I’m not some incredible horse trainer; I don’t always or even often know what to do in a particular situation with a particular horse but I feel more successful when I see their reactions as completely honest and try to understand the *why*.

    1. Exactly. I think that’s a wonderful way to look at it.

  25. Thanks for this post! I stopped riding as I felt getting a horse’s “respect” didn’t really seem within reach. This gives me something to think about.

    1. I get it. I think gaining a horse’s trust is entirely within reach though. Glad to hear you’re giving the whole respect thing some thought. 😊

  26. Horses don’t have a Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortext… this is the link to my blog on the subject.

    However in short it is attributed our abilities to reflect, think etc… so yes you are right horses can’t fathom complex notion like respect – their brains aren’t wired in a way to accomodate such rational.

    Love your words… the notion of respect does have to go.

    1. Thank you Sandra – I’m always looking for good solid information. I appreciate your help expanding my knowledge.

  27. Respect can be build on different emotions.
    Fear, like the people in Germany had for Hitler or greatfullnes bases on the care that Nelson Mandela gave the people in the world.
    What kind of respect do you want to get from your horse?

    1. None. I’d rather build a partnership based on understanding. Thank you for your comments!

  28. Wow, a powerful piece on the concept that can be applied to all relationships. Thank you.

    1. Thank you for letting me know – and I agree with you. 🙂

  29. I see learned helplessness in horses that is a direct consequence of the handlers behavioural repertoire associated with the concept of respect. In this context respect is really about power and control and comes from the mainstream ideology that humans have the right to dominion over all creatures. Thanks for your educational blog and opinion. It’s wearisome listening to the same popular rhetoric over and over.

    1. Exactly. I wrote this blog in response to my own weariness (and frustration) of hearing that tired old false statement ” My horse needs to respect me.” No, your horse needs to eat and sleep and drink, but respect you? It won’t happen.

      Thank you for your beautifully written response.

  30. beautiful!

    On Mon, Apr 24, 2017 at 5:15 PM, Reflections on Horsemanship wrote:

    > heartlinehorse posted: ” There is a phrase that is used in the horse > world I hope soon dies a quiet and peaceful death. I’ve been inviting it > over for tea and taking it for walks to discuss other points of view. > Helping get its affairs in order. But this phrase, I d” >

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