Ethics, should horses have a say?

How good do I need to be for my horse? Aren’t horses there for human pleasure? Should horses have a say in their care? Do I have the right to ride a horse?

This is the first part of a series of blogs looking at my personal ethos and methods.

Trudi Dempsey Equine Behaviourist
Chapiro rolling in the sand

I’m sure as a child, captivated by the aura of a pony, that I wouldn’t have asked myself these questions. I was born in an era where ponies were still at work underground hauling coal and racing horses was considered the sport of kings. In those fifty odd years so much has changed especially on my own ethical radar. Today I think we should ask these questions of ourselves.

The latest buzz is all about giving choice to horses. Asking, rather than demanding, that a horse presents itself for care; cooperation rather than enforcement. Watching for subtle signs of agreement from a horse that it is ready to continue with a task. Engaging willing partners in our training mission; spotting predictors of unease.

Am I alone in resetting my ethical stance? You have to believe I’m not but as I write there are still many more not yet even aware of these new paradigms. It is for them and those yet to come to caring for horses that I write.

Full disclosure

If horses are a mirror to us why do we so often choose not to look too closely at our reflection? Horses are exposers. They tell the truth about us, full disclosure. Horses are heart-breaking in their honesty. Our selves, some say souls, are bared in our interactions with them but we can choose to look away, control what the mirror reflects of us. When we choose to see the truth it is an instant from which we can’t turn back, a moment of time that leads us on the most incredible path. It’s a tough road and one which I have often wished I hadn’t embarked upon. It was so much easier when the reflections were blurred and my moral compass not yet aligned.

Mirror, mirror

The joy of sharing

Being a pragmatist I look for evidence in solutions and right now my solution is to train horses as ethically as I can using the most up to date science of learning. As a teacher of people and their horses I have many levels of approach but the goal is always the same – through clarifying ‘why’ to teach an understanding of ‘how’. Both the why and the how have strong ethical connections. If we choose to ride a horse the answer to ‘why’ might be ‘because it gives us pleasure’ and then the importance of ‘how’ becomes crystal clear. If we refuse to offer the choice of being ridden to the horse are we refusing to look in the mirror?

If training is the ‘how’ then ‘why’ is a moral question for the individual, being no philosopher I’ll leave that for the individual to wrestle with.

Training for the modern day

What is training? In its simplest definition it is the acquisition of a skill or behaviour. If we choose to live close to domestic animals then training gives us a system of communication that enables us to care for them and hang out with them safely. Beyond basic care giving training leads us into the domain of relationship building but only if the training works both ways.

Acquiring behaviour using models that apply to all living organisms, including horses and humans, can at first appear mechanical and soulless. As with all models or methods of training the more you understand them the better you begin to apply them. That’s when the magic starts to happen, digging down to understand what makes a horse tick, why they behave in a certain way and how that behaviour can be encouraged or changed.

Making mistakes

Trudi Dempsey Equine Behaviourist
Chapiro keeps a close eye

Is there anyone that looks back at their training progression without at least a hint of ‘I wish I’d known that back then‘? It is a constant shift of knowledge between horse and human that sometimes leaves you feeling (sometimes, who am I kidding?) that your life is way too short to complete your understanding. We owe huge thanks to others in the field that share information to shorten the time spent in this direction.

The incredibly affiliative nature of horses allows us to build relationships that can be harmonious and balanced. Willingness to associate can lead horses to be overpowered and stripped of their true character by us, we look to our reflection to know our true value to a horse.

With so many seemingly different methods of training available to the modern day human how do we choose the best for our horses? In my next post I’ll explore some of these methods and explain how my own methods have grown into what they are today.

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