When you are with your horse, do you demand his/her complete attention? I don’t.
In the worlds of traditional and natural horsemanship, there is a lot of talk about what constitutes respect. Determining the nature of respect can help you get it from your horse. Commanding his or her full attention while together is an element of respect. Last week I had a conversation with a trainer who was called in to help a horse owner who was having trouble getting the respect of her horse. Here was the problem:
When standing at the end of the lead rope, the horse would twitch an ear away from the owner on occasion. The owner wanted both eyes, and both ears, and a horse at full attention, rather like a soldier in an inspection line. I imagined this owner standing stamping in rage before the horse like a little Hitler. Lots of people want this. I was taught to demand it of my horses early on. But I don’t ask for it anymore, and I hope the trainer succeeds in convincing the horse owner that it’s neither necessary nor desirable to get it.
In horses, attention is not always evidence of respect. Insisting that full attention is evidence of respect is disrespectful of the horse. Watch any clinician who insists on it and you will notice subtle signs of stress in the horses during sessions. When allowed to rest, they really rest. Is this what we really want?
The human nervous system, because we are predators, is capable of complete focus, excluding all stimuli thought to be extraneous to the task at hand. Remember the last time you were trying hard to do something important? You didn’t notice the fact that time was passing, that you were growing hungry, the weather, etc. A horse’s nervous system, because it is a prey animal, is set up differently. In many ways, its perception system is superior because it is capable of multiprocessing. After millennia necessitating attention to all the stimuli in its surroundings, the horse is an expert at dividing its attention. Just because it is aware of what you are asking and the sound of other potential predators in the woods does not mean it is disrespectful.
I would argue that we commit a grievous sin against them in demanding such attention. It is the dark side of anthropomorphism. With our narrower range of processing skills, we move directly to aggression (shaking the lead rope to bring their heads up in momentary alarm, etc.) to get their full attention to try to force them to our way of processing instead of trying to see the world from their point of view: a vastly superior way of looking at the world, especially when it comes to riding and working in partnership. We as predators are too quick to attribute fight to their potential for flight because after thousands of years together, we still do not understand the nature of these large and inscrutable animals.
Demanding a horse’s full attention is a misguided assertion of dominance that disresepectfully discounts their very neurological nature.