The Ethics of Riding Horses

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.

Teaching Lateral Movements Without A Rider's leg Aids

I’m going to discuss a topic that causes a lot of confusion and quite a bit of argument whenever it comes up at clinics – which is quite a lot.


The idea I want people to think about is when introducing the concept of lateral movements into the training, that a rider does not use legs to support directing a horse.


Some of you who have attended my clinics will know the look of total confusion when I say to someone, “Now we are going to start to teach leg yielding, but don’t use your legs.” It might be any lateral movement such as hindquarter disengagement, forehand yielding, side passing, shoulder-in etc – it doesn’t matter. Whenever I begin to teach a horse these maneuvers, I do not use my legs to direct the sideways movement.


I want to be clear here. I am talking about when I first begin teaching these movements I don’t use my legs. However, when a horse is relaxed, soft and accurate with performing lateral movements without the need for a rider’s leg, then I will teach them to yield to my legs.


I’m sure this goes against what many of you have been taught and believe and you probably think I am mad or making a joke. But I believe I have good reasons why I approach the teaching of lateral movements in this way.


So what are my reasons?


The first reason is that I want to teach my horse that the reins can direct the front end and the hind end separately from each other AND in unison. It’s one of the most basic functions of the reins to be able to do this. That’s what all those hindquarter disengagements and forehand yields that people practice over and over, are all about. Their purpose to teach the horse that the reins connect to the front and back end of the body and direct their thought to carry their feet in anyway the reins indicate.


With this in mind, teaching a horse to perform a lateral movement by just following the feel of the reins reinforces this most basic function. It is something that is largely missed by most people and is one of the major causes of resistance to the reins and a lack of straightness. By ensuring that the reins alone can direct a horse in anyway we desire, we are on the road to teaching them softness.


The second reason is that reins provide clarity to a horse. When a rider first attempts to apply the inside leg in an effort to convince a horse to yield sideways, virtually every horse will want to go forward. No horse has ever been born that innately understood that pressure from just one leg means to move in the opposite direction. Yet, people are taught to apply inside leg and outside leg in order to get horses to yield away from those legs. Usually there is no preparation beforehand to teach a horse that they are to move away from the leg. It’s just expected that if the rider does it enough the horse will understand. It’s in books, magazine articles, videos and riding classes. How many times has a rider been told to use inside leg when riding a corner? How many times has a horse been taught to yield away from the inside leg as a prerequisite to telling the rider to use inside leg when riding a corner?


In all the years I trained with riding and dressage instructors, nobody ever taught me how to teach a horse to yield away from the inside leg. Despite being taught by some of the most highly regarded coaches in the country at various times, not once did somebody take the time to help me teach my horse how to move away from the inside leg. Horses seem to be just expected to know it.


I discovered a long time ago that I did not need my legs to direct a horse in lateral movements like shoulder in and shoulders fore. I found that it was possible to do this just with my reins and my legs only purpose was to ensure the horse kept moving or had energy in its feet. For this I could use my seat and both legs if necessary. Even when working on the ground, it one doesn’t need to use a whip or hand on the side of the horse to encourage lateral movement – just the feel on the lead rope or the reins when standing beside the horse is enough.


I also discovered that when it came to teach a horse to move away from my leg, it was a very simple matter to transfer my reins aids to my leg aids. I just had to first ask with my legs, then support with my reins a moment or two later. First my legs, then my reins. Again first legs, then reins. I repeat it again and again. After several repetitions, when I apply my leg, the horse yields way before I begin to support with the reins. Voila! My horse is learning to yield to my leg. In this way, by first teaching my horse to follow the feel of the reins, it takes a lot of the confusion out of learning to follow the feel of the leg.


What I also learned is that most people do it like I do, except they don’t know it. By that I mean, most horses that come to my clinics actually move laterally in response to the reins and ignore the inside leg despite the fact that riders have been taught to use their inside leg. Say they want their horse to execute a shoulder in or a side pass or just a circle. They use their reins and to shape the lateral flexion and then apply their inside leg to direct the feet. Or at least that’s what they think is happening. But in reality it rarely is like that.


When a rider indicates their skepticism at my claim their horse does not listen to their inside leg, I ask them to drop the reins on the horse’s neck and fold their arms. I then tell them to use either the right leg to ask their horse to move to the left or the left leg to have the horse move to the right. In almost 100% of cases the horse just moves forward and not to the side. I can think of only 2 instances where the horse yielded away from the rider’s leg. This surprises most people because they were convinced their horse did yield to inside leg. But the truth is that the horse’s leg yield or shoulder in or haunches in etc were actually due to the horse following what the reins were telling it, not the legs.


So how do you use the reins to direct lateral movement? It depends on what sort of side ways movement you want. But for example if I was to ask for movement away from the bend (eg leg yield), in brief a rider should use the inside rein to create the lateral bend and the outside rein (and outside seat) to guide the direction of movement and to regulate the forward movement. It is virtually no different to what most people anyway, but just take out the pressure from the rider’s leg.


It is important that the forward movement be slowed down when teaching so that the energy can be directed laterally. In the beginning, the more the forward is slowed down the easier it will be for a horse to understand that his energy is to go to the side.


In the photo I am working on teaching a softer leg yield to a horse at a clinic. My inside rein is bending the horse to the right and my outside rein is directing his feet to the left. Notice I am not applying my right leg.


It’s important that a horse learn to yield to a rider’s leg because it adds refinement to the communication between horse and rider. However, I believe it is best taught by first teaching a horse to follow the feel of the reins. Once the horse is clear and soft to the reins, it is then time to add directing with the rider’s legs.


Photo is courtesy of Leonie Kable.

Why I Don't Teach in Groups

Since I got home a week ago, Michèle and I are faced with an avalanche of expected and unexpected bills. I go away and make some money and then find somebody has their hand out even before the money has cooled in the bank. I know it’s like this for a lot of people, but it had me thinking about how I can make more money. One of the ideas has been to switch my clinic format from teaching individual sessions to teaching groups.


This idea really got started because a woman contacted me a couple of weeks ago inquiring about hosting a clinic in her area. I thanked her for her interest and forwarded her the general information that I send everybody who expresses interest in hosting a clinic for me for the first time.


In her reply, she said everything appeared fine except she wanted to know if I would change the format of my clinic from individual sessions with each participant to working in groups of between 4 and 8 people at a time. I thanked her for the suggestion but told her that I will only teach one-on-one sessions. I then outlined my reasons.


I have written about this before, so I will only briefly mention why I haven’t return to teaching groups. There are two basic reasons.


The first reason is that in a group format I find it difficult (other clinicians may not) to make sure everybody gets what they need. Generally, at a clinic there are horses and riders that have a variety if issues that need addressing. I find it more than a challenge to give each of them what they really need when they are all working at the same time. I struggle to help somebody who may need assistance with a bolting horses, while at the same time supporting another rider who wants to work on collection and then another horse that won’t go forward. I feel that everybody gets cheated because splitting my time and attention means each person is only get a fraction from me of what they need.


The second reason I give for no longer teaching groups is that there are always some people who get more attention than the others. And there are others who come along and hide in the background hoping to avoid being the centre of attention (those people often don’t like individual sessions at first). Usually the people in the most trouble consume most of the clinician’s time and those that are getting along okay get a few moments as time permits. Yet, everybody has paid the same amount and in my view everybody deserves an equal proportion of a clinician’s time, whether they need more or not.


I have often found at clinics where people work in a group with their horse for 4 or 5 hrs that in reality they only get 15 or 30 mins of actual personal attention. At least in a clinic where people get an individual session, they are guaranteed a minimum 60 mins of a clinicians 100% attention.


I certainly know that if I taught group sessions I would go home with a lot more money at the end of each clinic – maybe twice as much in some cases. But I choose not to for the reasons already mentioned.


However, something occurred to me recently that just reinforced in my mind one of the best reasons for not re-modelling my clinic format into group sessions.


I realized how many young children show up at my clinics to learn horsemanship. I mean kids under 10 years old. I remember how much fun they are to work with and how difficult it would be for these very young riders to fit into a group of adult riders. They are often shy and nervous enough just of me, that it would only be made worse by being part of a group of much older riders. So many of them would hide away in the far corner of the arena to avoid attention.

Then I realized that I’ve had a fair share of people with physical and mental disabilities ride at my clinics. Off the top of my head I can recall people with hearing loss, multiple schlerosis, cerebral palsy, autism, ataxia (loss of muscle control) and down syndrome. It has been an absolute privilege to teach all of them. It’s been so much fun and such a kick for me to bring some of the joy of horsemanship to them.


I doubt I could help or even entice many people who need a little more time or a change in my teaching style, to come along to a clinic where everybody rode together in a large group. Maybe some other clinicians are able to do this, but I know I don’t have the teaching skill to make this work.


I’m so happy that I get young kids coming to a clinic. I’m so happy that people with physical and mental difficulties come along too. I’m pretty sure I get more out of it than they do. If teaching people individually is part of the attraction for them to come along, I’m not going to change my clinic format no matter how much more money I could make. Michèle and I will manage just fine.


Ten year old Grace showed us all how it should be done at a clinic last year.

The Family Tree Of Training Problems

At every clinic there are people who come along to have a problem addressed that is not actually the problem they need to address. It is a very long list of behaviours that fall into this category – saddling problems, float (trailer) loading, mounting, tying up, catching, bridling, separation issues, crookedness and so on.


People struggle with solving these problems because they get in the way of moving on in the training. Each little problem has a wider impact on the quality of the rest of the training. This is because when we have resistance and an argument with our horse, it affects our relationship, which has implications on how much try a horse will have for the next thing we ask. When a horse repeatedly sees us as the source of the trouble, it sets us up for more trouble in the future.


This means that no problem should be overlooked or ignored. It means that every little issue is important. And it means that no training is ever finished.


However, there is an easier way to trouble shoot a lot of the problems we commonly face with a horse. A person doesn’t have to always tick off each resistance one by one as they come across them.


The problems we come across with our horses are like a family tree. By that I mean each person has a heritage. We all came from someone else. Likewise, with regard to problems with horses, they all came from something else. In other words, the way things were working before we noticed the problem is where the problem began. In fact, it is a basic fact that most times the problems we see are no more than symptoms of something else. Often the root cause lay somewhere else. We tend to focus on fixing the symptom because the real cause went unnoticed.


Again let’s look at the family tree. Two people come together and produced several children (you didn’t know this was going to be a birds and bees post, did you?). Then those children all produce several children. In a short time, there is population the size of a village that stem from just two people. Each person can be traced back to the two people who started it all in the beginning.


Horse training can be like that too.


For example, say your horse is a little sluggish on the lead rope. He doesn’t follow the feel of the rope very well. This leads to problems with tying him up or pawing in the float or lunging. So you work on these problems and one by one they get a little better. However, you also notice he doesn’t stand quietly for the farrier, he sometimes stops to graze when you lead him from his paddock, he drifts to the gate of the arena when you ride him. So you work at addressing each of these problems. Then you discover that he is sluggish to ride down the road, he shies at ghosts and is terribly upside down in his top line. So once again you spend time fixing those problems.


One by one you tick off these training issues so that you can move on to the more advanced stages of your horse’s education.


But what if you had a crazy idea and decided to take your horse to a horsemanship clinic just to get another opinion and some ideas on where to go next?


What if you the clinician were a brilliantly insightful Aussie horseman (who shall remain nameless but with initials RJ J ) who told you that your horse has separation problems and all the difficulties you had been working on actually stem from a lack of focus? You were working on tying up, lunging, straightness etc and hadn’t given a thought to focus and separation anxiety.


Kapow!! It would be like a lightning bolt of clarity.


How much easier life would have been if instead of addressing each symptom, we addressed the root cause. By giving priority to our horse’s focus and quiet emotions, perhaps the things like tying up and shying would have been much smaller training hurdles to overcome. In fact, each hiccup along the way is a reminder that the issues that came before are not yet good enough. Any trouble in our training tells us that what came before needs to be better.


When I’m helping people with problems like saddling or float loading or whatever, I urge them to think that their job is not to get the horse saddled or loading into the float. Rather their job is to get the horse ready to be saddled or led into the float. When the horse is ready, the rest will happen. People get fixated on getting the job done, instead of getting the horse ready for the job.


When the fundamentals are all in place, it is amazing how many of the routine problems that other people have, are bypassed. People will see how well your horse is going and curse you for being luck enough to own such an easy horse. But few people will think to ask you how your horse came to be that way.


The photo is from last week’s clinic in Bathurst. Bonnie is a 26 yo mare that has always been difficult to float load. Previously people had take 8hrs to load her without success. But it took about 30min of working on her leading for Bonnie to walk into the trailer. Bonnie’s problem was not float loading, but leading.

Horses Don't Make The Best Trainers

I read recently a discussion on clarity and horses. A point that was repeatedly made during the discussion was that horses in a herd are always consistently clear when dealing with other horses. A few people made the argument that once a horse knows its place in the herd, that place is reinforced over and over by the behaviour of horses above and below. It was emphasized that the alpha horse quickly established its role as leader and there was no confusion among the herd as to who was boss.


I have used this analogy myself when trying to explain to people the role of leadership and how horses are ok with their place in the pecking order as long as it is clear to them what their role is. But I have to confess that I have never believed it to be that simple. I lied for the convenience of teaching a principle.


I believe the truth is that horses are not always clear with each other. We see a horse put another horse in its place with a lot of kicking, charging and biting, and we believe that is what is required to establish hierarchy. We assume that it’s okay to be firm with a horse because that’s what horses to do to each other in the name of clarity.


I’m not saying this is wrong either. Plenty of times I will use quite a bit of pressure for the sake of presenting clarity. It does help, when done well. However, I believe it is a mistake to turn to how horses behave with each other in a herd to justify this approach to training. I’m not saying being firm to establish boundaries is wrong. I’m just saying that horses are not as good at it as we often believe. Horses are not always the best trainers of other horses. They often lack clarity in their communication with others. I believe it is a myth to believe horses are good trainers of other horses.


For example, dominance is a peculiar thing. Take some of the horses we have at home. Birch dominates Teddy. Teddy dominates Riley. Riley dominates Birch. So who is the alpha in that micro herd? One would expect that if Birch could beat up Teddy and Teddy could beat up Riley, that Birch could also be the boss of Riley. But that is not what happens. How can Teddy dominate Riley, yet Riley dominate Birch when Birch is the boss of Teddy? Somewhere in their discussions of who bosses whom, the horses have their signals crossed.


This example suggests that much more is going on between the horses than we would first assume. If dominance was determined by putting the horses in order of which was the strongest and toughest, then we might expect that dominance would be linear, such as Birch is alpha, then Teddy in the middle and Riley at the bottom. But since this is not the case, then dominance can’t be just about which horse is stronger and tougher than the other horse. Something more subtle and secretive must be happening that determines the clarity of the pecking order.


A clearer example of horses being inconsistent and as clear as mud can also be observed in the horses I have at home. If I feed Riley and Six in the paddock together, Riley always pushes Six off the feed. He dominates her with just a look out of the corner of his eye, a snaky expression and a twitch of the ear. Six moves off and goes to her food. When Six has finished the her bucket and licked the bowl clean she begins to eye Riley’s (who is a much slower eater). When she approaches him while he eats, she gets chased away without hesitation. She comes back several times and gets chased away each time. However, within 2-5 mins both horses have their head in Riley’s feed bucket sharing the prize as if Six had been invited to join Riley for a Christmas feast.


Riley had asserted his dominance over Six very quickly at the start. Yet within minutes Six had worn down his resolve to not share his meal. He started out being very clear and in only a short time became very fuzzy. If Riley had kept up being consistent that Six was not to encroach on his dinner, she would not keep trying the same approach day after day. She would have given up trying after 2 or 3 days. But Riley’s lack of clarity had taught Six that persistence pays off and she repeats the behaviour every day. Our other two geldings, LJ and Guy behave in a very similar way in that LJ starts out being very clear that Guy is to keep away. Then eventually succumbs to Guy’s charms and allows him to share the food.


I believe there are lessons for us to learn by watching horses interact and communicate with each other. However, I think the lessons are not always about what to do. Sometimes the lessons are what not to do.


We hear all the time about how horses are so clear and consistent in the herd and we should take that as an example of how we should always try to be clear and consistent in our training. However, I think the truth is that horses do not always set the best example. They can be just as guilty of the same mistakes humans make in being inconsistent and not very clear.


Here I am hanging out with a few of the guys at home.