The Human-Horse Relationship

In another article (Horsemanship – Is It Natural?) I noted that, in the purest sense of the word, having any kind of relationship with a human isn’t at all natural for the horse. The only way to be 100% natural with a horse is to turn him loose.

However, if you are reading this article, you likely want to have a relationship with horses. So, once we have admitted that the human-horse relationship is not natural for the horse, we really need to figure out how we are going to relate to the horse.

Words to Describe the Human-Horse Relationship

One of the most contested categories of words, in the world of horsemanship, is how to define the relationship of the human to the horse. Words such as control, alpha, dominance, leader, partner, feel, and many others are all used to describe this relationship. They are all useful but no single one is perfectly complete. If we focus on a single word and exclude all others we risk missing the whole picture.

Different Species

In trying to figure our how I need to understand the human-horse relationship, I came across this article:
What’s an ‘Alpha’ Horse?
I was particularly challenged by this statement:
“I don’t feel it’s appropriate to talk about a human as part of the social structure of another species.”
While I didn’t agree with everything in this article, I do believe this is a valid statement and needs to be talked about more amongst horsemen.

I will never be accepted by a horse as another “horse”. In fact, I am simply not capable of truly behaving like a horse. The other side of this is also true: I will never accept a horse as another “human”. They will never understand human feelings and thinking and we cannot think that our human behaviors can ever be fully understood by a horse. We are different species and have to acknowledge this fundamental truth.

Dominion Not Domination

Humans are supposed to be the “superior” species (although being around some humans makes me wonder about this). In evolutionary terms (survival of the fittest), this would mean that humans have the right to do whatever they please with “inferior”species. However, my world view is that all living things are created (not evolved) and we all have purpose and design. Humans are the pinnacle of Creation and have a privilege as well as a responsibility that no other creatures do.

Our Creator gave us dominion over the animals. Dominion means “sovereignty or control”. How one goes about exercising dominion is the crucial thing to this discussion in relationship to our horses. There are two ways to exercise dominion: as a benefactor or as a dictator. A benefactor is concerned for the benefit of all and exercises his sovereignty to that end. A dictator is concerned only for the benefit of himself and exercises his sovereignty to that end. 

I choose to pursue the beneficial sovereign route. The dictatorial route is, sadly, the route many people choose to relate to their horses. This is domination, in the sense of “I will do whatever it takes to make you do what I want you to do.”

My Take On the Human-Horse Relationship

Here’s is how I want to apply my understanding of my God-granted dominion to my relationship with horses:
In my relationship with horses, I have the responsibility to be the supreme authority and exercise control of my horse in a way that is beneficial to both of us, utilizing the most natural approach that the horse can understand.

I am not perfect (complete) in my ability to do this. But, it is my goal.

Describing the Human-Horse Relationship

There are many words that people use to describe the human-horse relationship. It is impossible for a single word to fully capture the complete picture of any relationship. Unfortunately, some people get really hung up on using a single word they think is “best” and disparage the use of other words as being “wrong”. 

Many of the words used have some validity and can be used as long as the user does not make a religion out of one word and dismiss all the other words. Here is how I view some of these words that are used to describe the human-horse relationship:

  1. alpha – I need to understand how horses perceive and react to the herd pecking order and leverage this knowledge to relate to a horse in a way that he intuitively understands.
  2. dominance – I need to understand dominance is one of the herd behaviors that horses understand and I need to demonstrate appropriate dominance when necessary. NOTE: This is not the same thing as domination. Domination is an ego-trip. It’s all about the person dominating the horse in order to suit their own needs. Dominance is a leadership behavior that “insists” on the other yielding and following. It is exercised for the good of both the leader and the follower.
  3. leader – I need to understand that horses sometimes choose to follow certain other horses. I need to figure out why they do this and use this knowledge to get them to choose to follow me. I need to demonstrate behavior that shows the horse I am a leader that they can trust and follow. 
  4. partner – I have observed partner-like behavior between horses (e.g. when the scratch each other’s backs) and I need to apply this knowledge to get them to partner up with me.
  5. feel – I recognizing the amazing physical sensitivity and perception of body language in horses and I need to develop my ability to use these in my relationship with horses.

Training the Human

In the opening section above, I made this statement: “having any kind of relationship with a human isn’t at all natural for the horse.” The opposite is true. Having a relationship with a horse isn’t “natural” for the human. 

In our discussions about horses we frequently refer to horse training. I believe that “training” horses is not actually the hardest part in developing the human-horse relationship. Training the human (myself) is actually the hard part. Notice that in the description of words used to describe the human-horse relationship in the previous section that there is a responsibility on my part. It is my job to learn and change in order to be what the horse needs me to be and to communicate to the horse in his language. 

This is the key to the human-horse relationship.