Friday, May 27, 2016

Humanity, Evolving

I apologize for the language in this article. I chose not to edit or filter it for the purpose of authenticity.

Sometimes I think the real purpose of teaching other people is to deepen your own learning. There is no better way to understand yourself than to have to explain your own knowledge to someone else. Even though I am known in some circles as a biomechanics riding teacher, I frequently get to explore the core of my own beliefs when I teach, mostly because riding is seldom just a mechanical, technical experience. Horses tend to steadily bring us to the threshold of our own humanity and as a coach and teacher I believe these are the opportunities for the real learning to start.

Recently I was helping a student, whom I will call Laura, understand her horse. She wanted to know why he was behaving in a certain way.

"Is he doing this just to be an asshole?" She asked sincerely.

This question is very, very common among equestrians. Often it's not even a question, but rather a statement: he is an asshole.

I calmly explained to Laura that horses did not know how to "be assholes."

Okay, I can see some of my readers rolling their eyes now. A few may even be thinking that if I'd met their particular asshole horse, I would not be making such bold statements. But I do believe that no horse could change my opinion about this. Seriously. As I told my student, horses are not out to annoy us or upset us deliberately, they are merely trying to communicate. Perhaps they are in pain. Or they don't like what we are doing. Or they know our emotional landscape and don't like the fact that we are actively working to hide it. Or something else. But there is always a reason and it's not "being an asshole".

In general horses tend to choose the behavior that is the most profitable for them. If you are leading your horse to the arena and he drags you over to a patch of grass, he's not doing it to be mean, but because eating grass is rewarding the behavior. And when something is rewarding, the horse will continue to do it. The same applies to many, many other scenarios.

I admit, I could see why Laura felt tempted to call her horse an asshole, she was stuck in a vicious cycle with him. She used most of her energy to correct and reprimand him for his "bad" behavior. I am deliberately using quotes with the word bad, because using this kind of terminology always comes with the assumption that we as humans make the rules. Meaning that we decide what is good or bad behavior. Because from the horse's point of view it is all just behavior for which it either is getting rewarded or not.

"Stop it!" "Don't!" "No, no!"

Laura was trying to tack up her horse. Her verbal cues were accompanied with slapping and pushing, which seemed to only augment matters, leading to a whole new host of problems such as nipping and biting. After observing all this for a moment I suggested that instead of focusing all the attention on the horse's unwanted behavior, Laura should look for the behavior she desired and find a way to reward the horse for that. Because, as I said previously, horses will choose the behavior that is the most rewarding.

I briefly explained the principles of negative and positive reinforcement to Laura. It is always interesting to discover how little people really know about operant and classical conditioning even though they have operated in the world of horses for decades. On the other hand, I was in the same boat some ten years ago. Perhaps I had a bit more knowledge than your average Jeo, but I definitely could not put that knowledge into words and explain why I did what I did with horses, which was mostly negative reinforcement in those days. (if you are not familiar with operant or classical conditioning, please google them!)

"In principle I do understand what you are saying," my student said. "With children it's the same idea, using the carrot is more effective than spanking. But this is a horse. I tend to think that there are moments when it's best to just smack it to get the point across quickly."

"Like take my seven year old daughter and her pony," my student continued before I could comment. "The pony is constantly going for grass when my daughter is leading him. Isn't it better to teach my daughter to smack the pony in the face to prevent him from doing that? Not only should the pony not go for the grass, I hate watching my daughter yank and pull to get him off it. I mean, there are some moments when smacking the horse is just better for the horse, too, right?"

You have perhaps guessed that I don't believe in using violence with horses. But how do we define violence? Because truth told, sometimes it really seems to be a matter of interpretation. My Webster dictionary says it is "physical force used so as to injure, damage or destroy; extreme roughness of action." It is also an "unjust or callous use of force and power, as in violating another's rights, sensibilities etc."

So is smacking a pony an act of violence? Are we violating against the pony's sensibilities, causing it injury? I believe the answer to that question is deeply personal, particularly in the equestrian world where the line between violence and schooling is sometimes blurred. The evolution of my own answer to this question is a good example of that. There was a time when I would not have considered smacking a pony a violent act, although in my own defense I must state that it also never crossed my mind to even question the act or it's justification. Which in hindsight is not only proof of my ignorance, but also my sense of entitlement.

Psychiatrist James Gilligan who has written a series of books on the subject of violence, claims that "all violence is an attempt to replace shame with self-esteem." I certainly think this was often true in my case. I hit horses because I desperately needed to control them. And why did I need to control them? Because if I didn't, I looked bad.

Okay, perhaps it was a bit more complex than that. It usually is as we are complex human beings. I was taught at a young age that violence was the answer with horses in certain situations. The power trip came much later. I do, however, believe there is a lot of truth in what Gilligan says even though he is talking about violence between humans. But I did not bring this up in my conversation with Laura, because complex matters such as these take a while to unravel. And although my own story resonates with Gilligan's words, perhaps hers doesn't. It is always good to start with the aforementioned operant conditioning and how positive punishment as a training method does not work long term. But once the learning theory is covered, we are left with deeper issues. Especially because in Laura's case, this involved her young daughter as well.

"Laura", I said after thinking about it for a moment. "I believe the answer to your question depends not only on the way you want to train your horse, but on your parenting philosophy as well. Do you want to teach your seven year old daughter that violence is a justified method of solving a problem with her pony? Or do you want to help her find a non-violent way to communicate with the animal?"
It was interesting to follow to the expression on my students face as she took in what I said. I realize that although helping horses is definitely one of the reasons I am an equestrian coach, more importantly I want to help humans find their way to connect with personal questions such as this one. Finding answers may not be in the cards immediately, but awareness is a start. I'm not sure yet which direction Laura will take with her horse or her daughter, but I know that our lesson gave her a lot to think about. Which is my main goal. Heck, it gave me a lot to think about, which means killing two birds with one stone (ugh,what a horribly violent metaphor, wish I could recall another, more positive one!)

Understanding is one of my core values in life: I want to understand rather than judge. Therefore I can honestly say I'm not judging Laura or anyone else who struggles with these questions. Quite the contrary, I commend them for finding their way to a place of struggle. If you are struggling with it, you are perhaps ready to question what you are doing. And we need to continue to question, that is how we evolve has human beings, that is how we cultivate our humanity.

Horses have been my teachers, but so have my students. I feel that I am constantly challenged to find a novel way to navigate these important issues and just as often I am learning new ways to read the road map. It is clear that although my starting point may be to teach people how to sit on their horses correctly, it is often just that, a starting point. What happens then, is out of my hands and mostly up to the horse and his person. I merely hope I am taken along for the ride towards kindness and compassion.

"The next evolutionary step for humankind is to move from human to kind."  - author unknown


  1. Excellent way to explain using the daughter as an example. Our actions affect more than us when there are children around. My mom used to say, monkey see monkey do- and I know that a lot of what I learned over the years with horses was directly form copying what other people did; also from the desire to seem in control. I am unravelling all of that as the years go by, and I wish I could go back and offer a better life to the horses who had to put up with me.

  2. Great post!
    I'm so sorry to hear about Little Love. :-( She was a very lucky horse to have had you in her life ♡.
    Reading this post made me think a little about one of my own pet peeves...that is people who manhandle & slap their horses around -- and do it even more so when others are watching because they think it makes them look tough (and therefore cool).....and even when they don't have a horse in hand, bragging about how they don't let their horses "get away with anything.." seems to suffice.
    I usually have to bite my tongue to keep from saying that I don't think they look cool. I think they look like an ass and I wouldn't let them within a foot of any of my horses....

  3. Oh, I missed the news about Little Love... I feel that you were both lucky to have each other.

    I enjoyed reading your insightful post, it resonates very much with my thoughts at the moment.
    I wrote some more about the topic in my blog, feel free to read & comment: