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We don't know who we are until we see what we can do.
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Martha Grimes


Just because we can..


I suspect there has never been a time in the human relationship with equines that we have pushed so far or learnt so much about what we can do to equines as a species. Over the last twenty years trainers have pushed the boundaries of what was perceived possible.  I almost  wonder is there anything left to invent that we can physically make do to horses, donkeys and mules.

I mean, can we start horses at 18 months of age and have them racing at 2? We can. Can we get a young horse to tolerate their first set of tack and rider in under 27 minutes? We can. Can we take a horse that hasn’t loaded willingly into a trailer for years due to fear and in a strange environment, with a unfamiliar trainer and in less than 30 minutes have them run up and down the ramp into the box? We can.  Can we use gadgets and force enough to pull a horse’s head into such unnatural positions that their tongues turn blue? We can. Can we make a horse so compliant that it will run endless circles around the trainer with minimal reinforcement and no benefits to the animal themselves? We can. Can we train a donkey we don’t know in front of a crowd of people to have tack on for the first time and the get on for the first time and not have a train wreck? We can. Can we train frustrated, angry even aggressive animal to put their ears forward when every natural instinct of the animal is to pin them back, and do so using just food rewards? We can. Can we teach them to sit on balls, allow us to stand on their backs, make them lie down with them on us, roll them over on to their backs while we stand astride them and all manner of other tricks? We can. Can we ask more and more of animal regardless of whether they have already given their best? We can.

I could go on and on and on but I am sure you get the picture. If we can imagine it then someone will create a way to get it done. We have truly mastered the species. As far as I can see there is nothing that the horse is not physically capable of doing that we have not found a way to make them do. In 6000 years we have learnt to control, manipulate, dominate, and train so many different ways, to get faster, more predictable results, be more positive and understand their behaviour more. We have learn to market and sell solutions to every manner of horse human problem and human aspiration. At this stage of our species relationship with horses, donkeys and mules, are we not the most benevolent, smart, productive, clever and imaginative we have ever been?

All of the things we can do and yet there are still so many equines with behaviour problems, so many owners who feel bullied, horses that are shut down and suffer environmental stress, horses developing learned helplessness and becoming aggressive, frustrated and confused by the countless methods they endure. Horsemanship must still in evolution, or surely we would have solved these problems and we are prevented from evolving further by the lack of one simple question.

Should we?

It seems to me that if we spent more time asking should we, instead of can we, then we might behave differently towards our equine partners. I am not claiming to be the only upholder of ethical values, there are many good people out there, guided by this simple question “Just because we can does it mean we should?” and I salute them all because it is harder to put aside what we can do and replace it with what we should do. After all, what we should do, most often doesn’t make for great showmanship, or lightning fast results, programmed packages that fit all horses and all handlers regardless of age, ability or experience and it does not make lots of money selling gadgets and equipment to the owners desperate to help their equine.

As trainers, “should we?” Causes us to question not only what we do to equines but asks us to look at what we tell others to do.  “Should we?” means we might not demonstrate our amazing powers of horsemanship on every occasion, instead settling for showing only what the audience needs to see in order to increase their own skills and abilities while building their confidence.

This one question is what is needed to guide us in our relationship with horses, donkeys and mules after all we use it in other areas of life’s challenging dilemmas. Should we have factory farming? Should we experiment on animals? Should we cut down the rainforest?

The direction of our relationship with equines will be determined by the use of this simple question and those brave souls who are prepared currently to be ridiculed, side-lined, laughed at, written off as weird because they refuse just do what can be done, but instead are guided by what should be done in favour of the animal.

As we choose a trainer, attend a demonstration, by a book, read the article, are tempted to buy the equipment, decide on a behaviour to train or choose the management, environment, or method for our interaction with equines a simple question should be ringing in our ears “I know we can, but should we?” 

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