Sunday, June 19, 2011


When it comes to horses, what does it mean? I looked it up, but it wasn't until I reached the fourth use of "respect" as a noun that I found anything remotely applicable:  ...deference to a right, privilege, privileged position, or someone or something considered to have certain rights or privileges; proper acceptance or courtesy; acknowledgment.

But what, really, does any of that mean for a horse? I'm asking because I'm thinking about it.

The horse must respect the handler, the rider, stand for the farrier, stand for the vet...
"Respect" is a human definition of a human value, something humans feel entitled to demand. I don't know if horses comprehend anything close to what we mean when we talk about respect. Perhaps they mirror something like respect in how they seem to manage herd dynamics. Perhaps it is "respect" that keeps one horse moving out of the way of another, but what if it is just fear? Perhaps it is "respect" that brings a horse to obey a rider, but what if it is just learned helplessness, the horse on auto-pilot, only and always seeking the path of least resistance?

The difference between fear and respect (and whether there is any) is what I'm chewing on right now. The topic of respect has recently appeared in some of the horse blogs I follow. It's also been a subject of sorts at the new barn and come up in regard to Scout. I don't have peace with this topic. That's because I haven't yet gripped it at a primal level, as though it were an impulse of instinct. Understanding things at the gut level is what makes them become bedrock for me, turns them into actual knowledge that I can apply. I'm not there with "respect" yet. Respect was nothing I grew up with, unless it lurked behind its heavier handed cousin, fear, so I don't have an inherent default setting in me that's about respect.

Stay out of my space, don't barge, don't bite, don't kick, stand quietly, lead calmly, listen to my aids, wait for my cues...
I understand what people mean when they are speaking about the need for respect from their horses. I mean I understand the word. I didn't really have to look it up. Still, a word is just where we park an idea, a concept, or a notion; that's all. Communication begins as accord is reached, when the speaker and listener more or less agree on the meaning of a particular word. Accord can't really happen that way between a horse and its handler, can it? Not in so many words.

People will say that it happens in other ways. And it does; I know that. But the fine line is what I'm wondering about now. If "respect," for humans, is just fear managed and done up right, with civility and social grace, how is it any different for horses? Both constructs are about consequences, the whole respect-me-or-else thing. Obey me or else. My way or the highway. Right now I'm wondering what choice the horse ever has.

Another blogger, June, asked me the other day, "Well, what does Scout want?" What a tough question. I addressed it once before, here, but it was a joking kind of thing, even if  accurate. When I began to think about June's question, blam! I ran right into this "respect" question.


June said...

I'm glad you're grappling with this question, as it's an issue that has given/gives me much cause for thought too, and I'll be interested in your thoughts as they emerge.

I pricked up my ears in your example of standing for the farrier as a time when a horse should show respect. I'm finding that horses will let me have their feet out of an innate desire to cooperate - rather than out of "respect" - unless respect means good will and kindness.

There's two senses of respect in our language - one is like "respect for authority" - which is akin to fear, and I think this is the way the horse world largely uses the word. The other is the sense in which, say, you might respect a friend for his or her integrity and honesty. I think we need to have our horses respect us in the latter way.

I do think that what is taken for respect in horse interactions is in fact fear - and the "respectful" horses often don't actually respect the dominant horse very much at all. The one they respect is Mark Rashid's "passive leader."

June said...

Plus also we have to respect them.

Story said...

Really good question. I think it does get complicated when we try to impose our human perspective on horses. I find myself often asking myself how my horse sees what we do and how I really fit into her life. Sometimes I think my human mind makes it a lot more complicated than it is. For her it's probably very simple. If only they could talk!

Breathe said...

I often wonder if respect is the right word. I've been working with Lily to be good for the farrier and to take the bit. Nothing really worked with her until I used a combination of more work, more riding and clicker training with horse treats.

Is she now unbelievably willing and soft because she respects me? No, it's an element, but it's more of a issue of trust. With Lily it has to be a conversation.

With Smokey it has to be an order, it seems. It's not trust, it's more like respect and discipline. No room for interpretation and little in terms of "partnership." Maybe it's an age thing.

It would sure as heck be easier if they were all the same horse, wouldn't it?

Carol said...

Interesting post. I think about this too, in relation to what it means to / with our horses.

Kate said...

I did a post on this a while back - it's called something like "On Respect, Obedience and Submission" and it's in my Favorite Posts sidebar.

smazourek said...

This is exactly what I was grappling with: "What right do I have to impose my will on this horse?"

What I finally decided was that enforcing ground rules was not the same as imposing my will. The closest parallel I could think of was parenting (I'm not a parent). Good parents make rules and then enforce them, it's how they enforce the rules that makes the difference.

Calm, Forward, Straight said...

Good food for thought!

I wonder if respect - if that is the right word - needs to have some basis in equality.

Shouldn't our requests to our horse come from a place of consideration and fairness... that our horse deserves to be treated as an individual with their own mind, will and consciousness... not the same as that a human's, but deserving to be recognized and listened to none the less.

I believe our horses know when we are dealing with them from a place of "respect", and willingly give the same back to us.

Sort of "golden rule-ish"... ;)

Wolfie said...

I find this topic very interesting. Respect, in my mind, is a combination of politeness, some level of braveness, acknowledgment and acceptance of uniqueness and appreciation of abilities. I do try to think like a dog or horse; I think that’s only fair. I believe in kindness first, but I do think that sometimes you need to make yourself “big” or your voice has to have a loud stern tone to it to make a point. But this is to break a thought pattern or provide guidelines to stop what I consider rudeness. I don’t consider this to be respect through fear, but just pointing out what is not acceptable in our relationship. You know, if you think about it, our companions remind us if we are being rude to them, too. :-) As I have said before, I want my four-legged friends to really want to be in my company, not to feel like they have to endure it.

Katie said...

Beloved Nemesis? Ok, I will live with that for now but you will have to change it again in time. Sorry.

I guess I am a little perplexed about your struggle with the difference of respect vs will (or fear). They are 2 very distinctive relationships. Not to humanize it but merely for explanation purposes... not getting involved in politics either but ask yourself these 2 questions:

(1) do you respect every stranger you meet OR (2) do you respect every police officer you meet? Depending on your answer would tell me exactly where you are with you and your horse's relationship.

Respect is earned by both the horse and handler, not a right nor inherited. Respect in intertwined will all aspects of training, handling ground manners and of course in the saddle. Respect works BOTH ways. You as a horse owner have a duty to request of your horse, in a respectful manner, how to ask and teach them to behave. Respect is about boundaries, trust, fairness and working together as a team. A friendship and a solid relationship.

Think of your friends whom you do not respect. Why do you not respect them? Was it due to their mannerism and actions towards something? How a situation was handled. As we know, horses are not that cognitive thinkers. But I believe they can sense and understand more than most people give them credit for.

In a new friendship, all the excitement of being together is so new, you want to make that friend happy by doing various things, to show you can listen and care about them, then as the friendship becomes deeper, the true relationship begins to blossom. You understand each other. You respect each other but not pushing the boundaries, especially towards fear. You enjoy being around each other and have fun. You have a solid friendship. You have built respect for each other.

Since Muddy K is my true friend, I would never push the boundaries of our friendship by saying," come on Muddy K, let's go for a hard core balls out ride tomorrow and see which of our horses will win the gallop race." I could be teasing her BUT I would not be respecting her if I requested this of her. Same goes for the equine. If I asked Scout to stand quietly next to a loud noisy Harley motorcycle would be respectful of me to ask such a request? God no. I could train her to do so but when she is not given a fair chance to succeed, how can there be respect? I could beat her until she stood there quietly which would be very harsh, cruel and unfair. I would never travel down such a path. I could beg her and coddle her with carrots or treats and tell her how much I love her if she would just please stand quietly. And how far do you think that avenue would last? How about I take her 20 feet back of the motorcycle and ask her to stand quietly or as far back as it takes until she was ready to take that next step forward.

I am a true believer in having respect and a friendship between my horse and I. Friends have good and bad days, but at the end of the day, you should never lose respect for one or the other. If you do, you have to start back a few steps to repair the respect. Respect is all about a positive feelings.

If you tolerate your horses behavior, or your horse tolerates you, you do not have respect between you too. I have tolerated Scout's behavior until Muddy K gave me the green light this week to begin building a stronger friendship on respect. If this happens (cause it takes 2 to be friends), we will be unstoppable. I can promise you that.

Muddy K asked me to answer the question from another blogger about what Scout needs/wants. In my humble opinion, what Scout needs/wants is a human friendship and an equine companion to balance out her needs/wants. A friendship and companion sums it all up.

horsemom said...

I think we need to look at the horse as what he is; a horse. Not look at respect in terms of how we as humans earn, require, develop respect. If we are going to do that then watch two pasture mates in a field; they pick on each other occassionally, one gets too close the other swings his heaed and bares his teeth, but at the end of the day they still whinny for each other when one is taken away, they are still "friends." would we be friends with each other after things like that? They speak to each other in another language, and they accept different things from each other than they expect from us. You hit a horse in the face, he becomes head shy, sometimes permanently, but he gets nipped from another horse and he doesn't fear them forever. What they want from us is to feel safe and know what to expect and for us to be there confident leader.

June said...

This is an interesting conversation.

I used to not have much of a struggle with the issue of respect - it seemed pretty straightforward - and I flatter myself that my horses felt safe and trusting, while at the same time respecting boundaries.

And then I discovered Imke Spilker, and all of a sudden it wasn't enough. I mean it wasn't enough for me any more.

So I've been deconstructing the whole thing, and in the process allowing things I never would have allowed. It has taken me (so far) two years to begin to re-discover how boundaries work under the new scenario, to re-discover how to ask the horse for things, and for the fog to clear so that I fancy perhaps I can see more than a few yards down the road. Having said that, I feel I'm still only just setting out as a beginner.

Máire said...

This is an interesting post. I mistrust the word "respect" as used by us, be it in relation to horses or to humans. Too often we act defensively out of fear and, I think, dress up our defenses with the term "respect".

And then I think of Ali G and "respec" and it has a different connotation.

(I came here from Sandra's blog by the way.)