Home : Horsemanship Essays by Franklin Levinson : The Empathetic Horseman

The Empathetic Horseman


I had a lovely experience today of doing a podcast for another trainer I respect quite a lot. We had a lively one hour discussion/interview about many aspects of horsemanship. Several specifics came up that pushed a few 'buttons' I found I had. One concerned complaints about someone's horse that the animal didn't have a very good work ethic and the rider had to use a lot of energy to move the horse. Also, that the horse would stop working when it wanted to and not when allowed to. Statements were made that the horse was stubborn, thick headed, willful and other negative adjectives.

Horses tend to be naturally somewhat lazy to conserve their energies in case they are chased by a predator and need to get away. However, I think horses often have a great work ethic, if the work is appropriate and they are in condition for it and have the right attitude. This 'right attitude' and conditioning, etc. will come from the animal's training. I have known draft horses that pull either farm machinery or a cart as their job, and will do it even though they are in obvious pain. Horses in the wild horse herd all have a role and a job within the community of their herd. They do their jobs willingly and readily.

So, what's the problem with the horse owned by this person? I think the problem is the life the animal has had with humans regarding its initial training and inconsistency of handling and environment. Humans with a good work ethic generally develop this as youngsters. It comes from the parents, their environment and upbringing. Why should it be any different with a horse? But because the horse is in an artificial environment and relying on humans mostly for its education, maintenance and comfort (or lack of), the life of that horse is often uncertain, containing confusing communication and filled with doubts about trusting humans and such basic things as survival. Developing a great work ethic would be the least thing that horse would be dealing with as its focus is upon survival.

Then I was reminded about an article I read by a very high level dressage rider that was in a leading equine magazine in the UK. She was saying how it was just fine to 'sting' a horse with the dressage whip to motivate it. Her justification was that whatever discomfort the horse felt from the sting of the whip, it was nothing compared to the pain horses can and do occasionally inflict upon each other. This infuriated me when I read it. We are not horses. We are supposed to actually be able to develop ways of communication and asking for what we want that do not involved brute force, pain or coercion. We should be able to do this with other humans and with horses as well. I am against torture as a way to extract information and compliance. So, for me the problem the horse had was the humans training and riding it. This award winning dressage rider was a huge part of the problems the horse was having in developing a good work ethic.

Horses need to be rewarded for their effort which helps them to know they are on the right track with their human. If we always only go to trying to correct behavior, the horse never gets the signals that it has done the right behavior. This is also called negative reinforcement. In other words, the removal of the pain of the whip is used as the reward for what the human wants the horse to do. This may work in the short run. But over time, negative reinforcement involving pain will become to feel like punishment and dulls the horse's responses. We can all get used to pain actually and if we receive enough of it we can become callus to it. This is not good.

Feeling what others are feeling is called empathy. Horses are naturally and always empathetic. The members of the herd feel what is going on for the other members of the herd. This is why the horses often move as one unit when in the herd. Empathetic responses help the animals to become bonded, develop trust, respect and create loyalties. A relationship that has involved empathy will be deeper and more compelling than one that has not. If we have empathetic relationships with our horses they truly become our trusted companions and we become that to them as well. If this sort of relationship is established, generally the horse will really try as hard as it can to comply with the wishes of the human. This is partly because the human has stepped up as the empathetic great leader for the horse. That person has become the great leader of the herd.

Of course, our requests for work have to be appropriate for the condition, training and understanding of the horse. If any of these aspects of the communication and relationship are absent, it should not be expected that the horse will try to comply. Punishment and use of force to motivate the animal will be futile and only cause abuse to happen on the horse. Horses should never be accused of doing anything personally to a human. It's only a horse, an innocent animal and does not think to intentionally cause a human to have problems, spoil a human's day, make a human look bad or ever have any such inclination to personally do something to a human. All behavior we see in our horses that we call bad or stubborn is born out of fear within the horse. Horses will never act against their good leader. After all, it is the leader of the herd that, more than any other herd member, helps assure the survival of the herd. She goes, they follow without question. She moves and they get out of her way. Some herd members sleep and others stand guard. Then they switch. All their interaction goes on with a harmony brought about through empathy.

“Nobody makes anybody do anything. Bullying does exist, but it is isolated..”

Humans mostly 'make' their horses go into competitions. True some horses enjoy competition. Some horses love to jump and some horses love to race each other. Some horses also really enjoy carrying their riders around without bridles or saddles and do so brilliantly and gracefully without being controlled or restrained. But, unfortunately we generally only see this sort of horsemanship in Equitana expositions or Horse Expo shows. What we see a lot of in competition is making our horses comply using over flexion, severe bits, heavy hands, aggressive use of spurs and whips and unnecessary draw reins in order to force our agendas on them. The relaxed form of classical dressage seems to have been overtaken by over collection. The physical and emotional damage done to our horses through hyper and forced collection are only now beginning to be understood. Judges are finally learning to not reward such riders and performances.

I think an answer is to better horsemanship either on the ground or in the saddle is our willingness to become empathetic with our horses. Humans wanting to improve show performance, or any activity with their horses, need to somehow tune into the emotional lives of their equines and feel what the animal is feeling and then make adjustments accordingly as to how they are training and handling their mounts. I am asked often how to tune into the feelings of horses. The thing I tell people to do first is to have a sincere and honest desire to join with the animal's feelings. The next thing would be for the human to, for a little while at least, let go of their agenda. Being fixated on a big agenda causes humans to have narrow vision and limited ability for being flexible, tolerant and patient. Not being fixated on a specific agenda allows humans to be open and more able to adjust to variations in whatever a particular situation produces. Giving up agenda gives the human a better view of the bigger picture. It removes limitations and blocks to progress and allows more opportunity for success. Giving up our agenda offers a rare glimpse of freedom to the horse and the human. Empathy is a huge key and essential element to successful relationships of all types, including with our beloved horses.

An empathetic horseman was what Robert Redford's character was in the movie The Horse Whisperer. His character was able to empathize with the injured and fearful horse as well as the young rider who lost her leg. His ability to be empathetic was part of what made his character a great horseman and a great man. I suppose looking like and being Robert Redford didn't hurt either. But the point is, greatness in humanity seems in part to always contain the quality of empathy. When empathy is combined with compassion and kindness huge strides are made towards a better existence for all. With our horses, if we can add the ingredients of great equestrian skills, wisdom of the mind of the horse and excellent leadership, then high levels of success are assured. Think about becoming an empathetic horseman and, at least attempting to feel what your horse is feeling. You will be amazed at how much closer you will become with your horse and how much closer that horse will become with you.