I have a passion for looking beyond the surface, questioning the status quo and seeking a deeper understanding. This mindset is not the norm in the horse industry. Which means it’s usually an uphill battle.
Part of what makes questioning the status quo in the horse industry so challenging is that a mammoth chasm has grown between our understanding of what horses evolved to be (peaceful, intuitive, highly intelligent herd animals) and what we prefer to think of them as (supreme athletes and voluntary beasts of burden or entertainment).
In today’s world, the only opportunities most people have to interact with horses involve riding lessons, trail/pony rides, carriage rides, petting zoos, or shows and competitions. Those who own or lease horses often keep them at boarding facilities. Only a very small percentage of humans actually live with horses anymore. And even fewer get to witness or experience horses living in the wild.
The ramification of this knowledge/exposure gap is that our human perception of what is “normal” for horses has gotten royally skewed. I mean skewed to the point that even our basicconcept of what a horse is has little resemblance at all to what a horse actually is!
Growing up, the lesson programs and summer camps I participated in felt like a dream come true to me – simply because they provided the only opportunity I had to engage directly with horses. Unfortunately, at the time, I just didn’t know what I didn’t know. And because I grew up a suburban kid, no one around me had any direct knowledge of horses. So I never had any reason to question what I was being taught. We all simply assumed that the professionals in the industry knew everything there was to know about horses.
In all likelihood, their knowledge had simply been passed down from their own riding instructors and mentors, whose knowledge was likely passed down from their riding instructors and mentors, and so on. The horse industry is deeply steeped in tradition like that. Equestrians have essentially been doing and teaching similar things, in similar ways, for thousands of years. Never mind the fact that our relationship to horses (namely our dependence on them for locomotion, warfare and power) has changed dramatically in the last 125 years.
While my childhood riding lessons may have satisfied my youthful obsession with horses, they also engrained in me an outdated and very self-serving view of living in relationship with horses. Looking back I can see very clearly that almost everything I was taught was designed to enhance or fine-tune my ability to control a horse’s movements. Had we been living in times when humans relied on horses to lead a charge into battle, I could see how this approach would be necessary (regardless of how I personally feel about the ethics of using horses in warfare). Likewise, had we been living in an age when my life or livelihood (or those of my family members) literally depended on the use of horses for transportation, farming or hunting, the need to be in control of a horses’ every move would have been paramount.
But we do not live in those times anymore. Not even close. Today, horses are largely dispensable to the human race (except for our ongoing obsession with breeding, training and riding them for sport), and most people have no interest in learning how to ride a horse.
So why is it still considered acceptable to teach horse-lovers (including children) that the primary goals of living in relationship with horses are to ride, control and use them as beasts of burden?
The arguments I consistently hear from within the industry (where almost everyone supports the continuation of these traditions) are:
that horses need to be ridden for exercise, and
that horses need a job to do in order to be happy.
And, of course, if we choose to believe that horses need to be ridden and given a job, then of course we will also believe that we need to be able to control them when riding and training them (so we can stay safe).
But is it really true that horses need to be ridden or given a job to do? About five years ago I decided I wanted to get a definitive answer to this question for myself. The first things I did were to stop riding and start asking (my horses, not horse people!) if they felt that something important was missing from their lives.
The answer I’ve gotten back – through their behaviors and choices as well as the positive changes in their physical and emotional health – is a definitive, collective and resounding “No”.
But it’s what my horses have shown me is true that’s the most striking. Time and again, they demonstrate that when they are afforded full freedom to make their own choices and to be in control of their own bodies, they are much more likely to voluntarily cooperate and socialize. In fact, there are many times when I feel like my horses can literally read my mind because they are that good at anticipating what I’m going to do, ask or think next. Many times, they are already “on board” and eager to help before I even think about asking.
As for formal exercise, this is a complete no-go as far as my herd is concerned. They much prefer to peacefully graze and mosey all day, maybe play just a little, and nap. This is how they evolved to survive – by intentionally preserving their energy for those occasional instances when it’s really needed.
The truth is, horses are one of the most naturally peaceful, calm, communal and cooperative animals on the planet. Forging relationships and working in partnership with them is really easy. We don’t have to use physical force, or tools or become experienced trainers or rely on traditional methods to control them. Horses are instinctively driven (in both a ‘live and let live’ and ‘we’re all in this together’ sort of way) to harmonize with every other living being in their environment.
Control itself is actually what makes horses crazy… either when it’s taken away from them or when it’s exerted over them. In other words, it’s the very mentality and approach I was taught as a child to embrace and embody around horses that actually makes them unsafe to be around.
My sincere hope is that we (as an outgoing generation of industry leaders) can succeed in breaking free from the traditions of the past to find new and creative ways to teach children how to honor and respect the autonomy of horses. If we start today, we just must might live long enough to catch a glimpse of how this new era of voluntary partnership between humans and horses might manifest.
Kim Hallin is the founder and lead facilitator at Unbridled, LLC, a unique experiential learning program in South Carolina that brings horses and humans together, to heal together.
Thanks for posting on the website’s blog, Kim!