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Ethical Horsemanship

by Franklin Levinson

A system of principles governing morality and acceptable conduct.

The above is a dictionary definition of an ethical code. To give this more meaning a definition of MORALITY is:

The term "MORALITY" can be used either descriptively to refer to some codes of conduct put forward by a society or, some other group, such as a religion, or accepted by an individual for her own behavior or normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.

ethical trainerI think "ACCEPTABLE CONDUCT" could be considered conduct determined to be acceptable by a majority of people.

So, given these definitions (from online dictionary sources), one might ask; how ethical is today's horsemanship in general? I think this is a difficult question as there are varying beliefs and opinions about horses and their relationships and associations with humans. Mostly horses are not given any choices in what we ask of them. Not many people would think this is ethical if we were only referring to humans. Convicts and prisoners are the only ones not given any or many choices in our societies. Taking away choices and freedoms is a way we punish law breakers. But horses have not broken any laws. We do not ask permission to ride them. We do not ask if they want to carry humans into strenuous competitions. Is this ethical? Do ethics only apply to human/human interaction?

Another area potentially lacking ethical horsemanship I think is so-called natural horsemanship. While the term certainly has sentimental appeal as implying methods of training and handling horses that are somehow more in tune with a horse's behavior in nature, this is rarely the case. Overall, I think the popularity of natural horsemanship has helped the horse/human relationship. However, humans tend to want what they want from horses and want it immediately. Resistance in horses is often judged as "bad behavior" (naughty horse) which deserves punishment. Horses are regularly judged as willful, stubborn, having their own minds (like this is a bad thing) and deliberately going against the demands of the human in defiance of their master. What a sad commentary on the compassion of humans and how little humans have really tried to understand the psychology of horses. The Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have done unto you) does not seem to apply to horses or even animals in general. We take horses from their cells/stalls and want them to perform for us when asked to. We chase them around in a circle thinking this is the way to get their attention and make them submit to our wills.

It is highly unlikely that humans will begin to ask a horse's permission to be ridden or for anything we wish them to do for us. In fact it is totally unrealistic and many would call this idea absurd. But adhering to an ethical code for treatment of horses and other animals by humans seems to me like a very good idea. I feel it would be a huge step in the right direction for our human moral evolution. Developing an ethical code for our interaction with animals would not only help the animals, but have great positive impact on our human condition as well. This new ethical code might begin with humans learning about the psychology and natural behaviors of the animals we wish to interact with. This could be accomplished simply observing the animal's interacting with each other. Mostly this is unheard of in our "modern" societies where humans assume total and complete dominion over all animals. We "farm" animals. This term refers to places where animals used as a food source are bred and raised and then sent to be slaughtered and their edible parts packaged and shipped to stores. Often the conditions that exist in these animal factories are the most deplorable and cruelest possible. We humans justify this way of handling animals because of the profit motive. Even the suggestion that these animals have a right to be treated humanely is many times greeted with contempt by those in the business of raising animals. When it comes to horses, those animals bred and intended for competitions (racing, jumping, dressage, reining and more) and shows, are often brought into training at a very young age (race horses at two years old), before their bones, tendons and joints have fully developed. The result of this is that so much damage is done to the animal that normal physical development is often halted and serious physical and medical issues arise. This is not to even mention the mental stress put on these horses by beginning strenuous training and competitions at such a young age. I wouldn't call this ethical at all. Some disciplines do have age requirements before a horse can compete and some trainers are more compassionate and kind to their horse than others. But view any modern competition and it will be obvious that not all horses are trained in an ethically kind manner.

So it would seem like a good place to begin an ethical code for the treatment of animals would be to learn about the animals themselves. In our acquiring knowledge of the animal we might then devise ways of raising and treating the animals that are more compassionate and in harmony with its natural psychology and way of existence apart from man. When humans have the desire to understand the animals in their care great strides in the ethical treatment of the animals are made. This, in itself, would elevate how we humans treat each other. In the case of horses, learning about the mind, psychology, natural lives, needs and language of these animals cannot help but produce advances in training, physical and mental health and overall performance of all horses. Animals treated, handled and trained consciously, compassionately and appropriately though an understanding of their natural psychology and behavior cannot help but promote and support a better life for the humans involved as well as the animals. An additional benefit is that these horses may just win more and for longer periods of time.

There is a rather large movement gaining momentum that endorses abolishing bits, equine competitions/sport and even some are advocating no more riding of horses due to damage done to their backs. I just don't see this as goals that are realistic. I think it boils down to training and conditioning, along with the attitudes and beliefs of the humans involved. I have said many times before that bits, spurs, whips, crops, etc. are merely tools. They are neither good nor bad. It is the hands/body of the person using the tools that make them abusive or not. They can either fine tune communication or totally work against effective communication. It is all up to the human using the tool. Additionally, I think horses need to be conditioned to carry a rider. It should not be assumed that a horse can painlessly carry any rider. Be thoughtful and compassionate in the treatment of horses and gain as much wisdom about them as possible before attempting to do anything with them. I also suggest humans develop their ability to listen to their horse's communications. This means having the desire and knowledge to read the animal's body language, to become empathetic with the horse and allow the agenda to be the well-being and feelings of trust and safety held by the horse. This I think would help humans to develop practical and realistic ethical horsemanship.