The Devolution of the Pushbutton Horse


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.

53 responses to “The Devolution of the Pushbutton Horse”

  1. “To be fiercely curious”! AMEN!! At this stage in my life I plainly see, we need to be this in all areas. Health: do you just accept without question what the dr tells you to do to handle your precious life or do u take charge of looking for possibly much better life sustaining answers? Education: were you taught to question and seek your own answer or drilled in thoughtless ideas by someone else? Man, it just goes on and on. I am pledging till my last breath to be “fiercely curious” in all of life. Thank you Crissy for reminding us of our fortunate option that not everyone in this world is able to have.

  2. Crissi, I so agree. We lose our way if we aren’t fiercely curious. Worst of all, we never learn the depths within these miraculous creatures. We cheat ourselves as much as the horse. Thanks, perceptive words. Here’s to horses.

  3. Thank you for spreading these important truths for the sake of the horse and the many who love them and look for more clarity and ways to do/be better with horses.

  4. All very good and curious observations about horses and humans; especially at horse shows, and not just Arabian shows. I have seen this in the dressage arena, at eventing shows; you get my point I am sure.

    One of the problems is, I don’t know too many humans who are willing to “get curious” about their fear. Fear is what drives all of this need to control.

    I have tremendous respect for the equine who does not run away from this situation, but stays. That horse, wherever they are, is making a statement. And you heard it loud and clear.

  5. Wonderful post Crissi!

    Some decades ago a friend of a friend was competing at the National Horse Show and I was invited to help out as a volunteer groom. As you know, this show is the pinnacle of competition in the hunter, jumper and saddle seat world. When I arrived at the show grounds I found out that my sole duty was to lead the horse to and from the arena. What an easy task!

    For some reason that year the event was held at the Meadowlands instead of Madison Square Garden. So I led this horse to and from the arena a couple of times, walked past saddle seat competitor William Shatner on the ramp into the arena, and watched the classes. After my duties were done learned that my leading partner had a habit of rearing with handlers and had reared coming out of the trailer on arrival. At the time I was still in the military and I think the expectation was that I would be strong enough to hold on if the horse reared.

    Your description of the push-button horses at Scottsdale made me think of this perfectly-behaved, pushbutton horse in the National Horse Show arena and a feared rearing horse outside the arena. What am I working for right now with my horses? That “willing, aware and trusting partner” is my goal.

    Thanks for this post!

  6. Crissi, this blog hit me right between the eyes: it speaks to exactly where I am with my 18 yo QH mare, who early on “flunked” her lineage-based career expectations, and was sold, because she won’t get into that shlumpy show horse lope. I’m going schizo from the conflict between what trainers tell me and what my mare tells me.

    The contradictions are heightened because we’re in the middle of an EHV-1 endemic. The horses not fortunate enough to live in pasture are getting very little exercise due to the quarantine. Only 1/2 hour arena time per horse per day. Can’t even go out on the trail. Some horses have needed to be ACEd, (Not mine.) All are showing altered behaviors, needing to run! This comes out in spades where you say “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.” Rita S-P (Rashid-McDonald-style trainer at our ranch), are you reading this? I am going to reach out to you.

    • Hi Rita – I can hear how witnessing horses kept in stalls is causing stress for all of you. And I will add (though I’m sure you’re aware of this too): When in doubt, listen to your horse. You know her best.

      Wishing you all a release from quarantine as soon as possible!

  7. You’ve nailed it Crissi! Having bred and shown Arabians for 30+ years, your term “devolving” is sadly correct. This years show as no different. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and philosophy, I believe you and Mark ARE making a difference in horses’ lives.

  8. Thank you for this wonderful article! I first saw one of Mark’s clinic more than 20 years ago , not long after I got my first horse and I was fortunate to have friends who helped me and used the exact same philosophy that Mark spoke about at his clinic. It was a tremendous help to me and my horses. My granddaughter now has her own pony and I am trying to instill the same in her, especially when she asks her pony to do something and she does it right and seems to understand, stop asking! Don’t keep drilling the same thing over and over. I think that’s what happens to these “push button” horses! I have been an admirer of Mark since the first time I saw him and you are a perfect partner.

  9. We have two Arabians. They were trained by a show trainer and showed at Nationals only once. One of them won his futurity show, in Working Cow Horse competition. The other took a double-take at something right after coming in the gate, the result of “insufficient training” we were told. It was OK with us, she still brought tears to our eyes with her beauty. We couldn’t afford to go on with this show training, nor did we want to. We had seen too many quarter horses with terrible joints due to too much training. Our two were well trained for our needs at that point and we did not want their eyes to become dull, as you put it. We have had them now for 18 years and they are still so lively and happy. I think what you see at every horse show is a result of just going way too far. At least Arabians can’t show as early in their lives as quarter horses. Our “cow horse” was four when he showed in the futurity class. And Arabians have qualities that make them difficult to be rough with in training. But they can certainly be abused by too much repetition, as most of these “top” show horses are. Your description of the process was so fine – trained to a state of “disconnection”.

    There is one class that seems like a pretty happy class, the Liberty class. The breeder from whom we purchased our horses was instrumental in developing this class because she knew there needed to be a showing of the breed’s beauty at liberty. Too bad horse shows otherwise are just too SAD to watch!

    • Hi Jane – thank you for chiming in. I didn’t mean to pick on Arabians – I’m a huge fan of them, and truly all horses. I’ve never had much exposure to the QH show world, except working with horses who show or ex show horses. Every discipline has its dark side, so to speak. I try to only speak from my own direct experience and the Arabian shows are what I’m familiar with.

      Glad to hear your horses are bright eyed and happy!

  10. Oh my sweet friend, I so love reading everything you write and share. Almost as much as I love hearing every word you speak. Fiercely curious…..perfect! I have to admit, I had not given much thought to human “fiercely curious”, but being blessed to own a “fiercely curious” horse has definitely shed a new perspective on my horse/human relationships. I find it so important to encourage and support that curiosity versus seeing people who attempt to shut it down. Finding ways to support and encourage that curiosity have definitely been a key step in my horse and I building a stronger and closer bond. Once again, thank you for sharing your wisdom. Sending you love and hugs.

  11. All so very true! When I was younger I did not see anything but the beautiful horses I so loved. As I have gotten older and more experienced, I find it hard to watch some horse shows because now I am aware. Once you see it you can’t unsee it. It is sad to see a horse that is shutdown and unhappy obediently doing what their rider asks without the rider seeming to be aware of their horse’s emotional state.

  12. All so very true! When I was younger I did not see anything but the beautiful horses I so loved. As I have gotten older and more experienced, I find it hard to watch some horse shows because now I am aware. Once you see it you can’t unsee it. It is sad to see a horse that is shutdown and unhappy obediently doing what their rider asks without the rider seeming to be aware of their horse’s emotional state.

  13. I haven’t yet made it to that show. I doubt that I will ever go, even if it is an easy enough drive. My Arabian is enjoying his life out on a beautiful pasture, and barring a worsening of his health condiction, I can continue to watch him race the wind there. Thanks, Crissi.

  14. Oh Crissi, I couldn’t agree more. I love the concept of education vs training. I have been challenged for the past almost 4 years with figuring out how to reach the peaceful side of 2 complicated horses that I adopted from our local rescue. What a long strange ( but rewarding) trip it’s been! Bottom line? Less is more.

    • Laurie, it’s always so wonderful for me when I see your name pop up! Thank you for your kind words, and I hope you and your horses are doing great. 💜

  15. Dearest Crissi. You hit this one out of the park, as they say. Words are inadequate to express my gratitude to you and Mark for all I’ve learned from you both. I am so honored when my horses entrust me with our connected way of being in our daily life and in our work together. Thanks for helping us on our continued journey to that place. Thank you for writing so beautifully.

  16. Beautifully written and ever so pertinent! I prefer the minute-by-minute exchange of perceptions and sensations that keep me and my horse ever connected and always alive to what’s happening around us-thanks to the lessons with you that still ring true!

  17. Thank you Crissi, I can so relate!!!

    As a child, I too, went to all the rodeos, the Scottsdale Arabian horse show, all breed shows in the Phx area, and loved them all.
    The last show I saw was at West World, and was a dressage show a friend had her horse in. He was an old campaigner, showing the ropes to a young rider, she rode well, he was relaxed and was clearly strutting his stuff. I couldn’t look around much, though, without my stomach turning, so I focused on the happy horses.
    I bring my mare to local shows in Chino, so she can get around the hub bub, we have fun and we don’t compete. She feels safe enough to have opinions, is curious and engaged. Sometimes, I see a happy horse, and they are slowly increasing in numbers.

    • Hi Peg – that sounds like a wonderful way to experience the shows. And thank you for your observations that happy horses are increasing. That makes me smile! 🙂

  18. Awesome post – loved it – our awareness is constantly changing – i think we are so lucky being with horses – thank you

  19. Your thoughts and deep insight into the nature of “being” is always an inspiration. It reminds me to be soft in myself…for all aspects of my life. Thank you. D

  20. New to your blog. Currently reading “Getting Along With Horses” and loving this journey. Thank you.

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