Is It My Horse, or Is it Me?

Urraca knows what she’s doing. The champion Lusitano dressage horse responds quickly and expertly to the precise cues of her rider and trainer, Barbara Clément Klinger of Boissière Ecole, France. A shift of the hip here, a lift of the reins there, and touch of the spur, and the massive gray mare reacts with lightness and—dare we say it?—willingness. They exhibit a partnership that blurs the line between horse and rider as two separate beings.

Now, enter Christa. Yes, me. It’s my turn to ride the Iberian horse. This won’t be so hard. I’ve been studying and writing about and practicing learning theory on horses for years. I can ride a fancy Lusitano dressage horse, right?

But I swing my leg over Urraca, and that striking unison of rider and horse is gone. I’m definitely a rider who’s sitting on a horse and trying to communicate clearly and subtly … and not getting very far. Urraca’s confused; I’m frustrated. The ride is a real workout and, frankly, it’s not very fun for either of us. It’s awfully tempting to just drop the reins and my head and say, “She’s not listening!” or “She doesn’t want to work for me!” or even, “She’s just trying to see what she can get away with.”

These are all interesting arguments that might apply to certain species (or a single species actually: humans). But not, experts say, to the horse. Horses aren’t trying to be good or bad; they aren’t out to show appreciation by pleasing us; and they don’t come with a built-in work ethic.

Pointing at the horse when things go wrong seems like the easy way out. But if we want to be fair—and want to improve our horsemanship and our horses’ welfare—we should be asking ourselves, “Is it my horse … or is it me?” A good honest look, combined with a skilled understanding of equine behavior and learning, will most likely make us notice the three fingers pointing back toward ourselves.

Clipping horse

The Horse Isn’t Wrong

We tend to consider a lot of the things our horses do “problems.” They won’t load into the trailer. They won’t stand still for the fly spray or clippers. They won’t move forward from our leg pressure. They buck when we ask for a gallop.

For our horses, though, these aren’t problems. They’re solutions. And, most of the time, humans have taught them these solutions. “What we see as a problem is very often a normal horse response as a result of some event or interaction, whether we knew about it, or understood it, or not,” says Natalie Waran, PhD, equine behavior and welfare researcher and professor at Eastern Institute of Technology, in Napier, New Zealand, and co-founder of the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES).

Trailer-loading is a classic example, she says. Horses naturally prefer to avoid dark, enclosed spaces. And our own training mistakes—such as poor timing in releasing pressure when the horse moves, or “reassuring” the horse when it refuses—accentuate the problem. Add to that a bad memory of a trailer trip where the driver might not have been careful enough around turns and at stops, and you have a horse who’s smartly decided that it makes more sense to stay outside that trailer.

“We pet them and give them carrots while they’re standing in front of the trailer, and when they step back, we let go and reassure them some more,” Waran says. “So of course the horse has learned that there’s no reason to go inside that trailer.”

For us, it’s the wrong choice. But for the horse it’s the right one.

“The horse couldn’t be wrong,” says science-based horse trainer Andy Booth, an Australian who lives and teaches learning theory in practice in Southwest France. It’s one of Booth’s standard sayings, repeated at every clinic he leads.

“I hear it all the time—the horse is disrespectful or lazy or naughty, or he wants to do this or try that with me, or he’s got a lot of character,” he says. “I don’t even really know what that means. What I do know is that the horse isn’t any of these things. He’s just being a horse. And the responses he gives are the ones that work for him.”

First Step: Looking Inward

The fact that we’re willing to ask ourselves this question—ready to place the blame on ourselves for problems—is a good sign, our sources say. Throughout the history of equitation, trainers were conscious of what makes a horse a horse and how that fits into our training methods, says Waran. But the past 30 to 40 years have changed things in the horse world, she says. And that’s made for a shift in understanding and, hence, blame.

“People started buying into the horse world without any real background or knowledge about what horses are about, not coming from a traditional ‘horsey’ background,” Waran says. “And then we moved into a throwaway culture, where people just wanted quick fixes. So that made this concept of, ‘It can’t possibly be me; I have all the right equipment and training.’ ”

In the past few years there’s been a new shift, she says. Owners and high-profile trainers “have started putting horses’ natural behavior back on the agenda.” Meanwhile, researchers established the field of equitation science and it has grown, shedding light on what’s really going on in horses’ minds. “Now it’s become kind of fashionable, really, to be interested in natural horse behavior,” says Waran.

It’s My Horse—and Me

The truth of it is that it’s very rarely just the horse or just the human.

“Once pain has been ruled out (as a cause of problems), it’s always both you and the horse,” says Paul McGreevy, BVSc, PhD, MRCVS, MACVS (Animal Welfare), professor of animal behavior and animal welfare science at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

“Riders affect horses, and horses affect riders; thus has it always been, and thus shall it ever be,” he says. “Effectively determining the relative contribution of either the horse or the rider and assessing the roles of cause-and-effect over time are currently the domain of the best instructors. But they will soon be decipherable by scientifically valid measures.”

Waran agrees. “It’s always both,” she says. “We’ve each had our experiences that have shaped us, as horse and as rider, and we both have our fair share of ‘baggage’ that’s going to come into play in the decisions we make. Plus, we’re two different species, each trying to communicate and interact, coming from two very different worlds and ways of experiencing what happens around us.”

Our goal, then, must be to try to understand what’s going on, she says. We can’t just let problems continue; we have to stop what we’re doing immediately and “deconstruct.”

In other words, “we need to use our brains and ask ourselves what’s happened,” she says. “Think it through, and know that we can’t control everything the horse might be thinking or might have learned in its previous life. But we can control what we’re doing. So what did we do that might have caused this problem to happen, and what could we do differently to prevent it from happening again?”

While it might sound simple, retraining horses to correct a problem can be complicated, she adds, as it means teaching them to replace old responses with new ones. So, to use our earlier scenario as an example, horses need to learn that it’s getting in the trailer that leads to rewards, not simply standing in front of the trailer. But with patience and a practical understanding of the science of how horses learn, it’s possible to be successful with retraining.

Your Horse is Not Out to Get You

If we put blame where blame is due, we should also be putting credit where credit is due. Booth points out that we hear all too often how a winning competition horse “really wanted to win.” Even the riders themselves might say afterward that the horse “was trying to make me happy,” he says.

“I’m not sure to what extent horses are capable of affection, but a lot of people like to think their horses do things to make them happy,” he says. “That’s a lovely concept, but the problem with it is how betrayed they feel when things go wrong.”

If we believe horses are capable of wanting to please us, then we must also believe that they’re capable of wanting to displease us, Booth says. Not only is that hard for our own egos, but it also presents challenges for equine welfare. A rider who feels betrayed by his or her own horse might not make the right efforts to fix problems—believing the horse just wants to do wrong—which could lead to confusion, frustration, and a generally dissatisfied horse-rider team.

“Horses aren’t thinking things through to this extent; they’re just out to take care of themselves mostly,” Booth says. “They’re not trying to upset us or please us. And they certainly don’t feel like they owe us anything, no matter how much we spend on their food, stables, and veterinary care.”

It’s a hard concept for many owners to accept, he adds, because it can deflate the dream of a mutually loving interspecies relationship with common goals.

Sometimes It’s Physical

Behavior issues aren’t the only quandaries that can affect performance in equestrian sport. Horses can also develop biomechanical problems, such as lameness or asymmetry. But our researchers say even these can sometimes be attributed to the rider.

For example, our own asymmetry in the saddle can cause horses to move asymetrically. And even rising at the trot improperly can cause asymmetry that’s comparable to lameness, says Emma Persson Sjödin, PhD, of the Department of Clinical Sciences at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, in Uppsala.

Even so, owners should address any performance problem—whether biomechanical or behavioral—with a veterinary visit to rule out pain, our sources say. Back pain, mouth pain, and leg/foot pain are common causes of poor performance, conflict behavior, and lameness.

Taking the Horse Out of the Equation

What better way to know if it’s the human or the horse than to take the horse out of the situation altogether? In this high-tech 21st century, and with the help of equitation scientists, assessing rider and training skill without the use of a horse is becoming easier.

Agnès Olivier, PhD candidate at the University of South Paris Saclay, in Orsay, France, has been testing riders using simulator horses placed in front of video screens. Simulator training helps novice riders become more aware of their body placement and balance, she says. That way, when they get on the horse they’ll be able to better control their own motion and move more symetrically with the animal. As a result, they’re less likely to have a negative biomechanical influence on the horse’s health and performance.

There are also ways to brush up on training skills without a horse. Waran’s research team uses a sort of video game in which individuals train a virtual animal to press a panel using negative or positive reinforcement, which they provide by tapping the space bar. “People are really all over the place with their timing,” Waran says. “Those who understand timing and use it well are able to train ‘Sniffy’ very quickly. But those who can’t soon find that Sniffy is running around with no sense whatsoever.”

While Sniffy is currently a rat, Waran says the software could easily be adapted to present the animal as a horse.

Take-Home Message

Your equitation setbacks and achievements are the result of a combination of factors—and rarely, if ever, is your horse alone to blame (or credit). He brings into the relationship a host of unique experiences, as do you. But if you’re asking yourself, “Is it my horse, or is it me?” you’re already thinking like a science-based horseman. Taking the time to reflect on how we influence our horses is critical to ensuring good health, performance, and welfare and a satisfying interspecies relationship for both partners.