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Can You Earn Respect

Whilst discussing the important elements of working with behaviour with a group of students, one of them challenged the idea that the trainer had to earn respect.  She felt that if you showed respect to the animal, in most cases, you could expect it to be returned.  A discussion followed with other students beginning to question what actually is "respect", examining whether a horse is capable of the act or emotion of respect.  Consequently, I felt compelled to visit the college library and search out a Thesaurus, which led me to the following thoughts.

 

Many trainers talk about the horse respecting the handler.  There are, however, a few, including myself, who believe that you cannot make an equine respect you, any more than you can make a person respect you – you can only be the type of person a horse or human will respect.  It seems to me, as with all words in the English language, that "respect" has several meanings and the individual's interpretation of respect greatly changes the behaviour or actions which lead from giving respect.  My initial investigations into the Oxford Thesaurus led me to discover that respect of course, has several meanings: primarily, "the act of admiration for another – to hold one in high esteem; high regard or high opinion; popularity; recognition; veneration; awe; reverence; honour; praise or homage".  I am sure that most of us would respond instantly that we don't want our horses to "pay us homage"….or do we?  When trainers say the horse must respect you, are they meaning the horse must see you as superior, as dominant, must they place you above themselves and act with admiration and homage at your position, at your leadership? 

 

There is alternative definition of respect: "He speaks to the old lady with respect" meaning due regard, consideration, thoughtfulness, attentiveness, politeness, courtesy, civility and deference.  There are other variations, but I think this second description certainly begins to define the respect that I personally wish to show an equine and, I hope, that the equine would choose to show me.  If we take this a step further, recognising that "respect" can become a verb - a "doing" word, a word that names actions, it can mean: to show regard for, to take into consideration, to take account of, make allowances for, observe, pay heed/attention to, bear in mind, be mindful of, remember - this definition clarifies what I believe to be the correct use of the term "respect" in horsemanship.  Perhaps, too often, when working with equines, trainers use the word "respect" with the following intentions, meaning: to comply with, to follow, to adhere to, conform from, act in accordance with, acquiesce to, consent to, yield to, submit to, defer to, bow to, obey.

 

Clearly, every individual has his own particular connotation for "respect".  However, being forced by the students to examine this word more carefully, I discovered that I had not clearly defined in my own mind what was actually meant by "acting with respect".  Researching the word has enabled me to define my action and behaviours more efficiently and with greater regard to the equine/human relationship.  Had I not respected my students enough to listen to their comments, to consider their points of view, to pay heed to and pay attention to their thoughts, I would have missed the opportunity to further my own education.  So, I am extremely grateful to the students who made me open my mind to a greater knowledge and understanding that we must define the words we use carefully in order to use the words correctly and to ensure that the actions that emanate from them are what we intend. 

 

Having respect without requiring the equine to hold us in high esteem means that we treat the equine as a partner - to be listened to and treated with politeness and courtesy.  By acting with respect, not only towards the equine, but towards oneself, the trainer can earn the respect of any person or any equine - by respecting oneself the trainer does not allow himself to be treated as inferior or without worth, but rather with a gentle belief in an equal partnership in which both should consider each other for their mutual benefit. 

 

In practical terms, what I mean when I use "respect" in the training of an equine is that I would prefer it to act with politeness and consideration for the vulnerabilities and frailties of its human trainers.  However, the equine is not innately born with the ability to understand these human weaknesses but must come to learn them through consistent, quiet respectful handling that allows the equine to understand boundaries and behaviours that are acceptable/unacceptable for safety's sake. In doing this the trainer must act with an understanding for the equine's position. It's lack of knowledge of how to interact with a different species and its innate behaviours we see performed with other equines that when performed upon a human trainer can be and dangerous or dominating. 

 

If we respect the equine's natural behaviour; if we have understanding of the learning process; if we are consistent through our knowledge of the equine behaviour, then our own behaviour will become respectful.  This, in turn, will lead the equine to be considerate, careful and act with thoughtfulness around its human companion.

 

So, can you make an equine respect you?  Well, clearly, if you choose to define respect as: complying with, adhering to, yielding to, or submitting, then yes you can make an equine respect the trainer.  Sheer force, punishment, and determination can make almost any equine yield or act in accordance with its trainer's wishes.  However, if you wish to define respect a different way - as I have discussed - in terms of: consideration, making allowances for, observing, paying attention to, bearing in mind, then perhaps it becomes more difficult to insist upon respect and it must indeed be earned after all.

 

 

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