How you see respect
So much of the horse training world is built on respect. Your horse has to respect you, because if he doesn’t he will walk all over you, push through you, or not do what you tell him to. That is frustrating and even dangerous.
The concept of respect also puts a lot of pressure on you. How? Well, if your horse doesn’t respect you, it must be because of something you’ve done (or not done), right? That is stressful! Or maybe he’s just a bad horse. That’s even worse—I love horses and can’t stand discounting one as being ‘just bad’.
How your horse sees respect
This is going to sound strange.
Your horse doesn’t look at you and think, ‘I respect this person, I’ll do what she says,’ or even, ‘I don’t respect this person, I won’t do what she says.’
Yet, it is still true that sometimes your horse does what you say and sometimes he doesn’t. So, if this isn’t caused by respect, what causes it?
Your horse is acting on what he has learned. If he is rewarded in some way for performing a behaviour you like, he is going to do it again so he can feel that reward again. That behaviour worked for him, got him something he wanted.
In the same way, if he is rewarded for performing a behaviour you don’t like, he is also going to do it again. The reward is teaching him what he should do.
What this means for your relationship
Well, if so much pressure is put on your relationship with your horse when you think about it in terms of respect, and if your horse doesn’t actually use the concept of respect in his own mind, it makes sense to try to think about your relationship in a different way.
You won’t need to take his actions personally anymore. When he does something you don’t like, it isn’t a personal affront of him denying your right to lead him. Instead, you get to think, “My horse learned to do this. What rewarded him for it? How can I remove that reward so doing this isn’t as nice anymore?”
Isn’t that freeing?! I love this aspect of equitation science. It has freed me to enjoy horses without the burden of wondering if they will respect me in front of my friends. Instead, I know they will do what I ask if I have trained them well.
Practical Next Steps
You’ve got an annoying behaviour your horse does in mind right now, I’m sure. Take a moment to step back from your traditional idea of what is motivating this behaviour and see if you can find what has been rewarding it.
It is so hard to admit, but I have unintentionally trained horses to do many things I didn’t want (the ridden cue to walk, for example, became touching the base of the horse’s neck instead of using leg pressure!). I wasn’t paying enough attention to what behaviour I was rewarding.
Now, investigate further how your horse picks up new behaviour or modifies old behaviour with the principles of equitation science. I’ve written them in everyday language in two blog posts here and here.