The Value of Communication Over Compliance

My problem child. Photo by Nicole Patenaude.

I heard a great quote the other day that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. “The most honest person in the room is the problem child.” When it comes to horses, they are naturally designed to be good liars. From a prey perspective, they’re supposed to lie to predators about their physical and mental weaknesses, because their very survival depends upon it.

“Good” horses are good liars. They’re stoic about physical ailments, they tolerate mistakes, and they can perform their duties without needing to be heard by their human handler, or requiring a lot of skill from a rider. These are horses we value a lot in our equestrian society, and they’re great for many reasons.

“Problem” horses are very bad liars. They cannot just go on with life when they are hurt, or upset, or feeling like their needs are not acknowledged or met.

They either find somebody who understands that, or they are sent to a trainer whose main job is to teach them to learn to suppress this urge to constantly communicate their emotions and needs, effectively becoming better liars. Some horses can learn this, but the ones that cannot are labelled permanent problems, and often find themselves shuffled around.

But what happens if we begin to value communication over compliance? What if we prioritize the relationship before our egos, and trust before our human goals? This seems to be particularly a particularly difficult paradigm shift for the competitive equestrian, but I firmly believe that going slowly and intentionally on a daily basis will benefit competitive goals instead of thwarting them.

Many of us have been told that we need to move the horse’s feet in order to get their mind. However, if you get the mind first, the feet follow willingly. Even better, through understanding and relaxation, the horse is working alongside you instead of just exhibiting behaviors they don’t understand in order to avoid pressures. If they feel seen, heard, and felt, they relax and the parasympathetic nervous system is engaged, which is ideal for learning. If a “problem horse” is nothing else, he is not relaxed, so we should always prioritize that if we wish to help them learn to thrive in our world.

Photo by Kate Samuels.

We can all agree that we would prefer to be in a meaningful human relationship that values empathy to a different perspective/reality. Why wouldn’t we consciously cultivate the same relationships with our equine partners? Would that not be beneficial for everyone?

I like to imagine my relationship with my horses in a similar manner to the ideal of a close human relationship. Think about the person you trust most in the world, whether it be your significant other, your best friend, or your parent. The person who you feel comfortable revealing your innermost secrets, worries, and passions.

If you went to this person to express a deep fear, and they immediately dismissed it, and topped it off by calling you and your fear stupid. Then they proceeded to use physical or emotional pressure to force you to do the thing you are deeply afraid of. How would this make you feel? Not safe, that’s for sure. It would ruin your trust with that person, and make you question future interactions. You would probably become less vulnerable around this person, and develop strange coping behaviors to avoid both the person and the subject of fear.

Now imagine the next time your horse spooks at a stump, a rock, or that jump filler that they’ve seen a million times before. Most of us immediately react with an eye roll and we close our legs and tell the horse to just get on with life. Sometimes we use greater force, after all, we have things to accomplish today! The thing is, if punishing or pushing a spooky horse worked, wouldn’t it have worked already? What if you just took 30 seconds when your horse first expresses anxiety, and let them stop, assess, and resolve the issue in their mind? What if you followed that up with a cookie, a pet, and a verbal affirmation?

I think this is simple association. The next time your horse is afraid of the stump, he realizes that you will acknowledge his perspective/reality, and you will be a source of comfort. More importantly, they will realize that the feelings of fear will fade, and good things will come. Your horse will feel that you understand their mind, and the trust will build. You don’t have to think that fear of a stump is legitimate to have empathy for their perspective.

Photo by Nicole Patenaude.

The human ego is a funny thing, and our world view is largely centered around how we navigate the world. This is mostly because we assume that we are the smartest species, and in theory we run the world. But just because horses can’t speak English doesn’t make them stupid, and it certainly doesn’t mean that they don’t lead a rich inner life with a wide arrange of emotions. They don’t have random behaviors, and they aren’t “just like that.” Those behaviors are all a form of communication, and it’s not their fault if you, the human, are too stupid to translate it.

“Problem” horses reveal an uncomfortable reality about us as riders and trainers. Honesty with ourselves is difficult at the best of times, and often exhausting. To be vulnerable enough and honest enough to admit that you aren’t the smartest person in the partnership is a complex moment in time, but in order to become a better horseman, it is a process you must go through.

The next time you find yourself making a binary judgement about your horse’s behavior, pause for a moment instead and consider the root cause of it. What are they trying to communicate? How can you help meet their needs and build trust instead of prioritizing your ego in that moment and demanding compliance because you’ve arbitrarily decided you deserve it?