A Matter of Respect



There is a great deal of discussion these days about the importance of gaining a horse’s respect during training. The idea has gained a tremendous amount of traction over the years due to the fact that many trainers – regardless of discipline – use the term as a way to describe either desired behavior (respectful) or undesired behavior (disrespectful) in the horse. Students of these trainers often unquestioningly use both the word, and the “attitude” depicted by the trainer in regard to the word when working with their own horses.

Unfortunately, there are a couple of problems with using the concept of respect in relation to horses. The first, and I suppose most important, is the fact that the concept itself is one that was conceived by humans, and concocted in the part of our brain known as the neocortex. The neocortex is the section of the human brain designed to handle the most complex of mental activity associated specifically with being human. It’s the section of the brain that allows for reasoning, extrapolation and conceptual thinking, among other functions. It is also the part of the brain that horses don’t have.

What I mean by that is if you compare a map of the human brain with the various parts labeled, and a map of a horse’s brain with it’s various parts labeled, you will simply not find a neocortex in the horse’s brain. So when I say they don’t have one, it literally means that that part of the brain, with all of its functions, does not exist in the horse. As a result, a human concept as complex as respect is not something that a horse even has the capacity of understanding.

The second problem with using the concept of respect with horses is the fact that the behavior horses exhibit around humans is always behavior that has been taught to them, at one time or another, by a human. Sometimes that behavior was taught to the horse intentionally, other times it was taught unintentionally. Either way, the result is the same…a horse that believes the behavior he or she is offering is correct.

Here’s an example. If we intentionally teach a horse a certain behavior – for instance, staying out of the human’s personal space by establishing clear and consistent boundaries, and then adhering to them – and the horse consistently stays out of our space; we look at the horse as being respectful. Yet if we unintentionally teach a horse how to invade our space by not being mindful and allowing the horse to bump into us, put their mouth on us, push on us, etc., we automatically see the horse as being disrespectful.

But in both cases the horse is repeating behavior that had been taught to them by a human. He will not distinguish between whether we meant to teach him one behavior and didn’t mean to teach him the other. Again, he literally doesn’t have the (brain) capacity to understand the difference. To him, it is all the same…we taught, he learned, end of story. You see, horses don’t just learn from us when we are giving direction. The also learn from us in the absence of direction.

So, if we really take an honest look at the concept of respect – as we understand it – and we see a horse that consistently repeats behavior that we have taught them as being respectful, then by definition, any learned behavior that we teach, and that the horse repeats, is the horse being respectful! And that is regardless of if we meant to teach the behavior or we didn’t mean to teach it. We can’t have our cake and eat it too.

This idea of the horse not understanding the difference between intentional teaching/learning and unintentional teaching/learning can be very difficult for humans to understand because we have the capacity to understand the difference. It is one of the functions available to us in the higher thinking part of our brain – again, the part of the brain the horse doesn’t possess.

This difference in our respective brains is also the reason why we often can’t understand why a horse will spook at some innocuous item on a trail, such as a rock or a bush. Our brain has the capacity to almost immediately determine whether something we see is a danger to us or not. The horse’s brain, on the other hand, does not.

The horse is a prey animal, and as such has evolved with a flight instinct that tells them to flee from anything that doesn’t look, smell or sound familiar. To the horse, an unfamiliar-looking rock or bush on the side of the trail has exactly the same importance as a real predator. They don’t need to know what the scary thing is; they only need to know whether or not they should run from it. And if it doesn’t look right to them, they will run from it, or at the very least, get ready to run (spook). So, when we see a rock on the side of the trail, they simply see something that, for whatever reason, doesn’t look right. They will not take the time to stop and figure out what the unfamiliar thing is because in their world, that kind of delay could be the difference between life and death.

Again, that way of looking at the world is very foreign to us because of the differences between the ways our respective brains work. As a result, when a horse spooks unexpectedly, and we don’t understand why, we sometimes will have a tendency to take it personally – as if the horse did it as a way to get us off his back, or because he doesn’t trust or like us or because we believe he’s being disrespectful. When in reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

When it comes to training, this idea that a horse’s inherent and/or learned behavior is a somehow a “personal” attack on a person’s character (disrespect) is one of the biggest causes for creating the very disconnect that most horse people are trying to avoid in the first place! By being taught, or even just assuming that horses have the capacity for being disrespectful, the vast majority of normally reasonable people suddenly become extremely unreasonable anytime they see or experience unwanted horse behavior. After all, it is very difficult for the average person to remain reasonable when they believe their character is being attacked.

It should probably be pointed out here, that in order for a human to respect something or someone, we must not only understand the meaning of the word, but we must also have to have the capacity to develop an understanding for the background, history or meaning of the thing or person deserving our respect. Then we not only need to be able to identify with that history or background, but also have to have an appreciation for it. And finally (in order to truly respect that person or thing) we must actually feel a certain level of reverence, if you will, toward that individual or thing.

Not surprisingly, all of the above functions, the very ones that allow for us to understand the concept of respect in the first place, take place in the human neocortex. Not the least of these is reverence. Without the ability to experience reverence, or empathy, the concept of respect would be just as foreign to us as it is to the horse.

Now, some folks may read this and want to argue that horses do understand the concept of respect. And that their respect is evident when dealing with say, the “alpha” horse in the herd, or that they will respect an electric fence. But in both cases, the horse is actually responding more in fear than with respect…just as many of us would respond in fear to an aggressive horse, or in how we wouldn’t want to receive an electric shock.

Of course in the case of the latter, humans actually understand the principle of electricity. We know that it can either cook a man’s food, or that it can cook the man. We’ve been taught from an early age that touching a bare wire that is plugged into an electrical outlet is a bad thing…something that would be painful and should be avoided. The horse, on the other hand, has no concept of electricity and only knows that they get hurt when the wire is touched. Because of that, the wire should be avoided…just as the alpha, which also causes pain, should be avoided.

Along these same lines, I think it is important for us to understand that to a horse, behavior has no value. To him, his actions are neither good nor bad. Not having the capacity to understand the concepts of “good” or “bad,” much less the difference between the two, he is simply responding the best way he knows how, given the circumstances, and how those circumstances make him feel. In other words, if he is uncomfortable, his behavior will reflect that discomfort with confusion, defensiveness or worry, if he is comfortable, he will be relaxed and willing.

When we stop and really give this subject some thought, we might see that the biggest issue with all of this is that the term “respect” actually has more to do with how we feel about the horse’s behavior than it does how the horse feels about his behavior. And therein lies the rub.

Here is another way of looking at it. During a conversation with one of my martial arts instructors some time back, he made the point that when someone attacks us, we need to remember that the attack itself seldom, if ever, has anything to do with us personally. Instead, the attack is almost always the culmination of what is currently going on in the attacker’s life. If, as martial artists, we take the attack personally, we will have trouble thinking our way through what needs to be done at the time, and as a result we will struggle with bringing the situation to a productive outcome.

If, on the other hand, we take the situation as face value and deal only with the behavior as it appears in front of us, we can then remove the emotional element from ourselves. This, in turn, allows us to become the calm in the storm (instead of part of the storm) and ultimately gain control of the situation, before it controls us.

There is an old saying in the horse world: “In order for man to control the horse, he must first control himself.” And it is this self-control part of horsemanship that can be the most difficult for even the most experienced of horse people. It is for that reason that I think it is important that we do what we can to remove those aspects that could have a tendency to feed into the loss of that self-control.

So the next time someone tells us that our horse is being disrespectful, or that we think our horse is being disrespectful, or that we want to punish our horse for being disrespectful, lets take a second and do a quick internal inventory. In that moment, when we hear, feel or see something that we have been taught is disrespect, lets check and see what emotion comes up inside us. Is it one of anger, fear or defensiveness? If so, we will almost surely end up being part of the problem, as opposed to part of the solution.

On the other hand, if we just eliminate the word respect, simply take the behavior in front of us at face value and deal with it in a calm, thoughtful and appropriate manner, we can almost certainly become the leader that the horse is looking for to help them out of, or through, their worrisome situation.

And after all, who among us (horses included) wouldn’t prefer calm guidance in a stressful situation to behavior that is erratic, fearful and defensive?

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