I received an email from a friend who has been reading my book, “The Essence Of Good Horsemanship.” She wrote, “…. the most frustrating thing about it is, the more I read of it, the more I question the ethics of riding which goes against everything I see on a daily basis.”
It was never my intention for the book to make people feel bad for riding horses. We all have our own reasons for riding and working with horses and I hope nothing in the book makes people they are being judged for what they do.
However, I believe that anybody who loves horses questions the ethics of how they approach working with these amazing animals from time to time. I mean personal ethics to a large degree, form the basis of which training methods people will use or won’t use when deciding a philosophy of training to follow.
It is healthy and even desirable to be guided by ones ethics when training any animal. Our personal moral compass not only allows us to sleep soundly at night, but it sets the boundaries of what we believe are acceptable limits to training methods. In addition, the moral compass ensures we constantly question if something is in a horse’s best interest and we use it to judge the work of others.
However, there is a problem that should be considered.
The problem is that if we choose to work within the limits of the best interests of a horse and refuse to use methods or participate in practices that are outside those parameters, how do we determine the dividing line between acceptable and unacceptable training? To me, it seems that the line is very arbitrary and not something that can be located with certainty.
The reason why there is no distinct boundary between what it ethical and what is not, is that ethics are personal. There is no objective measure of these things that a person can turn to and use to assess if the horse’s best interest is being cared for. People will judge these things from their personal perspective and assume that a horse will feel the same – “what’s good for me, is good for my horse.” But I bet that if horses were less compliant, we would discover that what we often think is in a horse’s best interest would put a lot more people in hospital a lot more often. But horses are very compliant and I believe that is the crux we need to consider when asking if riding horses is ethical. I’ll try to explain further.
Trainers often talk about the primary motivator for shaping behaviour is safety and comfort. We try to avoid compromising a horse’s sense of safety, because when their survival instinct kicks in they become less teachable. However, we spend our entire working lives compromising their comfort. We use discomfort to lead them into choosing a behaviour that we desire by showing them that’s where the comfort is found. Nevertheless, we are the ones that apply the discomfort. Even though we try to lead them to comfort, we can’t be patting ourselves on the back for being nice people when we cause the discomfort in the first place. It’s part of the moral dilemma.
So the question is, in our efforts to train a horse, how badly off are they? Is the very fact that we impose our desire on a horse – even if using “kind” methods – morally justified?
Of course, nobody knows the answer, but since you are reading my page you are going to get my guesses.
I believe horses need a few things in order to be okay (I avoid using the term ‘happy’ because I think that is too difficult to think about, so I am substituting okay-ness). I think they need companionship, health, an absence of a perceived threat to survival, and emotional comfort.
I should elaborate on those parameters. Health includes enough food to sustain good health, soundness and physical comfort (no skin irritations, parasites, aches and pains etc). When I say an absence of perceived threats to survival, the word perceived is important because if a horse doesn’t know its life is in jeopardy there is no reason to suppose it is not emotionally okay. And emotional comfort encompasses both physical and psychological comfort. For example, when a foal is being weaned it maybe physically comfortable, but emotionally uncomfortable. However, a horse with a sore back will be both physically and emotionally uncomfortable.
To go back to the training issue, the one thing we are always compromising is the emotional comfort of a horse. Personally, I believe that companionship, health and safety are a must for a horse to feel ok. However, the variable that is somewhat more flexible is emotional comfort, in my opinion. I’m not convinced that a horse MUST be always emotionally comfortable to have an okay life.
People constantly put pressure to cause emotional discomfort to a horse and shape behaviour. That’s how training works – even positive reinforcement training works on this principle. I believe it is possible to impose a level of emotional discomfort on a horse and still be working within the best interests of the horse (if we assume that horses have to get along with people). However, there are two provisos. First, we must not push the limits of discomfort to where a horse begins to feel its survival is threatened. And secondly, we have to ensure that the horse finds emotional comfort once again through the training (as opposed to comfort being found because the training has stopped). If these conditions are met I believe a horse can have a comfortable life and feel okay (maybe even happy, although I dare not say it) about working with people.
So the last question that comes to my mind is what about horses that live a life where emotional comfort is questionable. For example, riding school horses or high level competition horses or circus horses or horses pulling carriages loaded with tourists through large cities or movie stunt horses or pit ponies? Can those horses feel okay? Is it ethical?
I believe I have seen examples of all those types of horses where life was okay. But the thing that I have learned about horses is that they are not like most people. Horses tend to accept their lot in life a lot easier than most people do. Horses don’t mull over about how woeful their life is. Horses just do it. That’s one reason horses are so amazing, so giving. If they have to take a novice rider through the hills day after day while being jabbed in the mouth and thumped on their back, they learn to be okay with it – they may not love it, but they don’t have to hate it either. And when it’s over, it’s over.
So to my friend who is questioning the ethics of riding that she sees on a daily basis, I say the fact that you are questioning is wonderful. We should all question what we do and its affects on our horses. It’s not for me to preach to anyone what their ethics should be, but it is important that we all think about our horsemanship not just in terms of how to be effective, but also in terms of how to be kind to our horses.