What good is obedience without understanding?

Meredith & Dirk BCHF 2004 009I was watching ‘The Miracle Worker’ the other day…the story of Anne Sullivan; the amazing woman who gave a ‘voice’ to another incredible woman – Helen Keller. During her childhood years in the late 1800s, until about aged 7, Helen (who was deaf and blind and hence mute), lived and behaved much as a wild animal. She had no way of communicating with anyone, or of having her thoughts, wants or needs met. No way of expressing herself other than through physical violence at the frustration she felt on the inside, and no way of getting feedback from others other than restraint or punishment from most and cuddles from her Mother.

Anne Sullivan was a truly remarkable woman. She was able to get through to Helen, to teach her, to listen to her and to communicate with her. At one point early on in the story, she was able to teach Helen to behave; to have some form of manners and respect and to not lash out when she felt anger or frustration. Basically, Helen now did what she was ‘told’. Helen’s Father was grateful and expressed as much to Anne. But his well-meant compliment was only met by frustration and anger from Anne. “What good”, she said, “is obedience without understanding?”

What good was it for Helen, to function and behave in the human world without her needs being met, without her feelings being understood, without her ideas being important to anyone else? It wasn’t good enough for Anne thank goodness, for what would the world be without Helen Keller? And it is not good enough for me either, when it comes to horses.

Early this year  during an interview for a German magazine, I was asked what makes me sad? It was an easy question to answer but one I think many people will find difficult to understand. But these words from Anne Sullivan come very close to my meaning. What good is an obedient horse with no real thought to understanding them?

What makes me unutterably sad, are the ‘accepted’ norms and behaviours around horses. It is so easy for anyone to be up in arms about down-right cruelty when it comes to horses. The blood rule, bits and gags that look like devices from medieval torture chambers, over-flexion, whipping, tying-up, sacking out, severing nerves….the list goes on and on. These are the easy ones and any decent human would stand up to someone doing any of these things (I hope they would at least!) and speak up for the horse. But this isn’t it. This is easy. The truly sad bits are the day to day things that everyone thinks are okay and are accepted as ‘just the way things are’ when it comes to horses.

When I was asked this question, a picture came instantly to mind. A picture of a woman, riding her horse on a grassy oval, having the time of her life, much as I’d seen thousands of others doing all over the world. I’m sure she felt she loved her horse although at the moment I was watching her, her horse was not feeling the joy. She had lunged him for 30 minutes before getting on, so the poor horse was tied in and down, with little or no option and made to go round and round in mind numbing circles in a cramped position. He didn’t put up much fuss because he was a ‘Good Boy’. So pretty soon he was ‘behaving’ himself and ‘settled’. I would say he’d given up! Then she hopped on. Immediately he was pulled into contact – which continued for the full time he was ridden – kicked almost constantly…not in a rough way but certainly unnecessarily….and pushed forward. With his rider poised over his forehand and hanging on to his head, it was a miracle he could go forward at all. Between banging away on his back as many riders do, and pulling on his head, he got a little upset for a while. He started tossing his head, chewing on the bit and refusing to go forward. A couple of cracks with the riding crop brought on a few pig roots but then he figured out the only way to get any peace was to do as he was told.

This is what makes me sad to the core. A typical horse rider, riding a typical horse, on a typical day. Nothing out of the norm, nothing stand out, just a normal days riding that so many of us have seen, and come to expect as what riding horses is all about.  No real understanding of how the horse feels or what he or she is trying to communicate.  When things don’t go well he is ‘naughty’ and when they do he’s a ‘Good-Boy’.

How many times have I seen this picture before and since. An unhappy horse who is punished for trying to communicate how he feels, the stress and anxiety building up in his body over a course of many years until one day he either just gives up and shuts down completely – and becomes the robotic shell of the magnificent creature he once was – or turns rogue and lets his human know exactly how he feels in no uncertain terms. And hence becomes labeled as naughty and dangerous…..a bastard of a horse.

The ‘naughty’ ones are easy. They are obvious, so we send them to the trainer and try to get them fixed. Or we buy more gadgets to try to control or at least curb the behaviour. But for each of these there are hundreds of the other, who just switch off, give up, withdraw and comply. You know it’s true….look at any add for horses for sale and you’ll see words like, submissive, compliant and trainable littered throughout. It seems everyone soon gives up the dream of a beautiful connection and partnership with their horse and settles for control and obedience.

But what good is obedience without understanding?

How many of us true horse lovers, really just want our horses to do as they’re told? Sadly, probably a lot! Much easier to have an obedient ‘good-boy’ horse than one who can, and is encouraged to, express his real feelings. If he did that, we might have to look in the mirror and realise that the source of all of our horses issues or problems are looking right back at us. It takes effort to change, to develop knew skills and knowledge. But it takes very little effort to care!

I sometimes ask myself why bother? Why bother trying to help people to understand horses, to listen to what their horses are trying to tell them, to realise that it doesn’t matter what they themselves think, but it does matter how their horses feel. To know that communication isn’t just getting our message across, it is just as much taking feedback from our horses also.

Horses shouldn’t chew on the bit, toss their heads, get sweaty from stress, get anxious, be nervous, shy, need to be held back, kicked to go, pulled on to stop, cross-tied, kick up their heals, paw the ground, have their heads tied in or down, need any strength to ‘control’ them, be ridden in constant contact. These and many more things are not ‘normal’, and they shouldn’t be accepted by us as standard practice. It is time we questioned all this and saw it for what it really is. Control in place of understanding.

Imagine if we swapped horses for dolphins! If we rode dolphins with spurs and a bit, in constant contact while we bounced away on their backs. And we kicked or whipped them if they didn’t do as we wanted! If we tied them into a forced position for hours on end. If we kept them in confinement and wouldn’t let them hang out with their friends. And yes….as some will remind me, they are wild animals, not domestic. So that means then that keeping an animal in captivity is an excuse to submit them to accepted abuse?

So, why bother? If, as it seems, most horse riders just want their horses to do as they’re told, to be their possession, to obey and behave, then surely it is a losing battle. But I don’t accept that. I still believe that there are many true horse lovers out there. People who really do want what is best for their horse and who, if they found a way to do it, would do better by them instead of just accepting the conventional ‘just because’ attitude we have at the moment in regard to horses.

What sort of horseman are you? Empathetic or apathetic?

What good is obedience without understanding?

Time to change!

Meredith Ransley


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