About a decade ago, I went to the Scottsdale All Arabian Horse show. I was excited to revisit a place I had happy childhood and early adulthood memories of. I sat in the stands, watching an English class, feeling a sense of unease washing over me. As the class went on, all I could see were dull eyes, forced movement, and in a class of close to forty horses, one horse actually looked as though she was enjoying herself. Her ears were forward, her eyes bright, and her movements both correct and floating. Even the rider was smiling. Showing at that level being what it is, that mare didn’t even place. But as they walked out of the ring, the rider loosened the rein and patted her horse’s sweaty neck. The mare’s eyes still gleamed as she carried her neck and head down and relaxed.
It doesn’t take a lifetime of being around horses to recognize when they feel good and when they don’t. Because we love horses, we spend a lot of time watching them. We can spot the difference between a bright eye and a dull eye. Tension and relaxation. Regular and deep breathing, or the opposite. These different states give us clues into how our horse is feeling. When we realize that horses can only act the way they feel, seeing a horse in such a state of disconnection is, for me, disturbing.
I stayed for another half hour, watching the classes, and then watching what was going on in the warm-up arena. Not everyone was being hard on their horse, but there were a lot of folks who were. I turned away, realizing that the old adage “Ignorance is Bliss” had never felt more bittersweet than that moment. As a child, I was thrilled to see, smell, and hear the horses as they flew by. My favorite birthday present was going to a full day of this show when I was thirteen.
I doubt anything had changed in the intervening years between my childhood dreams of horses and the rainbow lenses I saw them through. I’m sure that back then, the warm-up pen and show ring were still places of stress for horses. I’m sure some riders were kind, and others, not so much. What had changed were my eyes. The rainbow lenses, I doubt, will ever disappear when it comes to horses. But the colors are tempered by decades of learning and experience. After focusing on softness, connection, and relaxation with horses for decades, I found precious little of it at that show.
One word I heard a lot then, and I still hear and see it today, seems to be the highest praise. The top dollar was charged for a horse when they could be sold as “pushbutton.” I flashed back to a memory of the dull-eyed horses going around in circles, separated from their environment by walls and lights and noise. It occurs to me that a horse who is doing something in a mindless and repetitive state is a horse who has been forced to tame their wild beauty. One of my very favorite sights and sounds is that of a group of horses galloping. Even one horse indulging in that race against the wind lights my own heart on fire. In the relationship between a horse and a human, we are consistently walking the knife-edge of allowing a horse to be who they are, and trusting in us enough to not move as fast or in unexpected directions when we are with or on them. It’s a big ask for an animal that has evolved to flee.
There’s the key: we ask our horses. A horse who can be in this crazy human world with confidence and level-headedness isn’t an accident. It’s the result of a lifetime of being educated, instead of being “trained.” There isn’t anything wrong with training; horses and humans (dogs too), benefit from the learning of skills. But when training is coupled with domination practices, and/or the threat of pain, this is when the horse will find another way to survive that which they cannot flee. They disconnect from themselves, and the world around them. A horse’s natural state, and ability to survive threats, is intimately woven into their DNA. Their species is over 55 million years old. They didn’t get this far by not knowing what is going on around them, or within their herd.
One of the ways to put greater distance between us and outdated horsemanship ideas is to be fiercely curious. It is a state of mind I’ve come to realize that I need to nurture. Curiosity will pull us away from accepting and striving for a “push button” horse, and question why this, and the practices it takes to get a horse into that dull state, is preferable. The more of us who learn how to be with horses in ways that allow for their differences, the less common (is my wish) the “training” practices will be used. When we educate ourselves about who the horse is and what they need to be healthy inside and out, we will begin to discover — as many of us are in the process of doing — that a willing, aware, and trusting partner is light years away from a forced and submissive robot.