When I first mounted a pony in Chile  57 years ago I was NEVER invited to consider the horse.  At most there was a small consideration for the horse’s mouth, but in 99.999% of the cases it was assumed that the horse had earned whatever abuse it had to suffer.  I also ran into the same assumptions in Uruguay, and in the USA when I returned to this country in 1963.  I found this assumption in riders, riding stables, instructors and trainers, both in person and from books and magazine articles,  and in just about every riding system.  Horses were usually considered TOOLS and were expected to be as obedient as and have the personality of a hammer or screwdriver.  When a horse did not obey or rebelled, that horse faced severe punishment which continued as long as the horse persisted in not obeying the human.  In fact humans were usually told to continue the abuse until the horse “gave in”, and to escalate the punishment until the horse obeyed.  Punishment was worshipped as the ONLY way to train the horse to do something.  Kindness to a horse was considered totally wimpy and unproductive, leading to disrespect from the horse toward the human.  Anybody who thought differently was considered whacko and possibly insane.

At least some of the more advanced level riders back then often recommended, for a sudden out of the blue disobedience, that the horse get checked out by a veterinarian.  Of course this was before equine ulcers were acknowledged and before sophisticated soft tissue imaging (nothing more than X-rays), so there were many a “missed” diagnosis.  If the veterinarian cleared the horse physically the punishments began and often continued until the horse gave up (often “breaking his spirit”), broke down totally, or died--either under the rider or by being sold to meat buyers as a hopeless case.

There were a few top horsemen who did not buy into these assumptions totally, I remember being really impressed in the 1960’s with Vladimir Littauer’s and Alois Podhajsky’s greater kindness toward the horse, and there were some others that counseled giving the horse the benefit of the doubt, up to a certain point.  But beyond that certain point ALL of them recommended increasing levels of punishment until the “habit” of obedience was established.  The less exalted horsemen and horsewomen often recommended harsher bits and hands, whippings (from a good whack to outright flogging), and harsher spurs.  After all that was the way they had been taught, that was the way humans had interacted with horses through the ages, and they had never considered that there may be another way.  The horses were expected to obey any and all commands by humans, it did not matter at all that the horse might be in pain, that the horse might not even have been trained to the command, that the rider might be totally incompetent and unable to give the horse clear aids, or that the horse’s tack might not fit the horse, if the horse did not promptly and perfectly obey any aid that horse was willfully defying the human and DESERVED to be punished, even to death.

I remember being on rental horses, on lesson horses, and on my first horse and hearing the owner &/or instructor yelling at me to MAKE THE HORSE OBEY ME.  When I got my first horse, a 5 year old just gelded green broke Anglo-Arab gelding with just three weeks of training, I rebelled after a few months of owning the most wonderful, angelic horse in the history of the universe.  After all, it was not my horse’s fault that I was not a good rider!  It was not my horse’s fault that he had only minimal training.  It was not my horse’s fault that he did not have perfect conformation.  I decided to follow the most humane system of training I had found (the Forward Seat) and learn how to get WILLING obedience from my wonderful horse.  Of course everyone else confidently predicted that I would totally ruin my horse through being “too kind”.  (I didn’t.)

At least it is somewhat better today.  There are now laws against physically torturing animals and non-horsy people now get upset when they see blood running down a horse’s body instead of assuming the horse deserves it.  The people who ride or try to ride at a higher level are now quite aware of how a badly fitting saddle can badly affect a horse’s performance, and of the damage a badly fitting &/or badly used bit can cause.  Veterinarians now know a LOT MORE about equine medicine, the modern imaging systems can even see soft tissue injuries, and we now know about equine ulcers.  Effective and non-abusive bitless bridles are now available, saving many pleasure horses from their riders’ lack of good hands.  Things are still somewhat dicey for show horses (especially the Big Lick TWH, but horses suffer in every discipline) and race horses because many humans will do ANYTHING to win even if it is abusive or hurts the horse.  Rodeo can be pretty bad too, though the USA’s version has improved.  Even some of the most abusive horse people now try to whitewash their abuse, insisting until their death beds that they NEVER meant to hurt the horse (often ignoring the bleeding mouths and ribcages of their mounts.)  Overtly sadistic horse people are no longer admired by the general public (except maybe for horse shows and rodeos.)  Even the Western trainers (the most abusive in my youth) now expect to have to train the horse a LONG time (25,000 repetitions of an aid ?) to get a “dead broke” riding horse.  Horses never had it so good.

There are even a few of us now who do not assume that horses were put on this earth solely to serve us.  Some of us have even started to LISTEN to the horse and admit that the horse should have some input on how it is treated and trained.  Many of us refuse to torment our horses just because a riding instructor or trainer insists it is the only way to go.  Just about every training system now emphasizes how humane the system is (even if it is abusive to the horse, fooling many, many beginners who just want to treat their horses right.)  Many riders with bad hands have switched to bitless bridles just to make their horses happy.  There are a lot of people now who want to ride happy responsive horses, not broken down slaves.

Around 35 years ago, long before this cultural shift, I decided to see how my wonderful first horse would react when I reduced the strength of my contact with his mouth.  My horse immediately developed a lighter mouth and became more responsive (and my riding teacher pooh-poohed me and my results.)  Around 20 years ago I finally learned how to correctly time my aids and my first horse started giving me things that I had never gotten before, things that he had never been trained for (though a few people had tried unsuccessfully the one time I leased him out.)  Even my super green horses that I had trained completely by myself started giving me things (like soft, prompt halts flexing at the poll) that I had expected to fail at for years.  After I re-started riding a decade ago on other people’s often ruined but reasonably safe horses, I decided to start listening to these horses and give them the right to comment on my riding.  In return these horses take care of me 99% of the time and while the horses may take advantage of my handicaps they have never done it in a way to hurt me, in fact they will go out of their way not to hurt me.  My riding teachers LIKE to see me ride their horses because their horses will do stuff for me that the teachers had never seen them do before (nothing real fancy mind you, just soft willing obedience to my aids.)

This last decade I have been greatly pleased to realize that I am no longer the only horse person around that thinks horses are much more than just a tool. 

Now for the horse’s side of this issue.

Horses think that we humans are really dumb.  Really, really, really dumb.  From birth horses are actively communicating with other horses and with the people around them.  After a while they seem to come to the conclusion that we humans do not have the mental capability to understand their language (except for the natural born or really good horse people) and sort of put people into the category of hopeless and helpless imbeciles.  Most horses do not punish us when we abuse them or cause them pain, and when, in desperation, they finally do punish us they usually do not use as much force as they would with another horse.  My angelic first horse treated me like this until I learned to ride somewhat competently and I learned to be polite to him while I was on the ground.  Back then my horse was considered highly unusual and very gentle for a horse, but now I see a lot more horses treating their beginning/elementary riders the same way.  We changed our horse culture from one of total domination based on painful punishment to one of consideration and listening, and the horses in return stopped being so dangerous.  Many horses even LIKE their riders now even if their riders are beginners who totally lack the physical ability to become good riders, and they forgive us when we accidentally abuse them.  Many horses now think that their imperfect humans are reasonably smart and teachable instead of hopeless morons, probably for the first time in history. 

There is still a lot of severe abuse out there today.  There are many horses who don’t look abused that live lives of quiet desperation.  But things are so much better for many horses because many humans have quit thinking that horses are dumb tools and have started to actually LISTEN to what their horses are saying.  More humane training methods have spread even among some of the horse people who would never think that any horse’s opinion was worthy of consideration.  This revolution is spreading among all breeds and disciplines.  Nothing is perfect and the spread is slow, but the horses appreciate any and all improvements toward less abusive horsemanship.  In return we get safer horses and often they willingly cooperate with us of their own free will.  This is truly a deep cultural change, both for humans and for their horses.  I’m glad it happened in my lifetime.

May the winter storms be merciful to you and your animals up here in North America.

Have a great ride when the weather finally cooperates!

Jackie Cochran                               

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Comment by Mary Barrett on February 21, 2014 at 5:34pm


You might be interested in this approach to building relationship with horses.

Comment by Jackie Cochran on February 16, 2014 at 1:53pm

I am very fortunate that the ladies I ride with value light hands.  In fact this was one of my "I'll never compromise on this" issues when I looked for a teacher.  Of course my arms are quite weak so I am totally unable to do the super-strong contact. 

I too have learned a lot from the 'new' style trainers, but I am very, very picky about what I try.

One reason I write my blog here is that I could have used all that I write about way back when I was trying to learn to ride well AND train horses just from a few books.  With horses there is always something new to learn!

Comment by B. G. Hearns on February 16, 2014 at 2:22am

I do love reading your writings on recent trends in horse training. I keep contrasting the gentle, light hands I was taught to ride with 30 ago with the heavy hands everyone insisted I use in schooling horses when I started again 7 years ago. That never sat well with me.
Fortunately, there are a lot of 'new' style trainers from whom one can learn to train your own horse (several seem to be in competition to be "most gentle training method"). I now know know a huge amount about horses and training and teaching and I sure wish they'd been available way back then.

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