Acquiescence or Agreement: Parallels Between the Business World and Horse Training

Might our experiences on the job shape our working relationships with horses?


Part IDominance + Submission does not = Partnership

Much is written by contemporary horse trainers touting the importance of riders establishing partnerships with their horses and suggesting all kinds of methods for relationship-building. Some of the writers are surely gifted horsemen and horsewomen, and their methods have certainly opened up possibilities for horse owners around the world. But still, in all disciplines, there are horses being callously subjected to crude training methods, being worked into discomfort and lameness, being exploited physically and emotionally in all kinds of settings from the showring to “therapeutic” programs. From such talented trainers and such enlightened intentions, how does such abuse result? How do worthy concepts produce faulty practices?

What if the problem isn’t in the concept of creating a good working relationship, but instead lies in people’s understanding of what that means? What exactly are the essential elements of a true productive partnership? How is respect earned and granted on both sides?

Most horse owners have spent at least a part of their lives operating in a dominance/submission relationship. Parent/child. Employer/employee. One person is the boss, who makes the rules and enforces them. The other is subject to those rules and enforcement actions, often with no input and little choice. It’s not surprising, then, that so many people buy into those same ideas when trying to develop a working relationship with their horses. I think that’s what makes dominance-based training “systems” so popular – the concepts feel familiar, so we tell ourselves the approach makes sense. It’s obvious that a horse, as a herd animal, just wants a leader to tell him or her what to do. Right?

  "I believe
a better approach to partnership lies not in the obvious, but instead in the very subtle."

I don’t think so. I believe a better approach to partnership lies not in the obvious, but instead in the very subtle. For example, consider the difference in meaning between these two words: acquiescence, agreement. Agreement is, well, agreement. Seeing eye to eye. But acquiescence really means agreeing to disagree. It’s what we do when we choose to go along with someone or something even though we don’t actually share the same vision, ideals, ethics or desires. In short, we don’t actually agree. We only pretend to do so in the moment. People do this all the time in their human interactions without even thinking; we call it “choosing our battles” or “doing what we have to do.” Acquiescing to our peers means people will like us. Submitting to our employers means we stay on the payroll. Stifling ourselves in romantic relationships keeps us from living lonely.

Yet many of the same people who acquiesce to other humans take a much more aggressive approach with their horses. Their actions say, “I’m the boss and you, my horse, must do what I tell you to regardless of your opinion on the matter.” I taught you to walk across a puddle, so you should cross this creek without balking. You’re old enough to learn flying changes, so you should learn them today. You have been a jumper for years, so you should attempt whatever I point you at. Your last owner said he had ridden you on trails, so you should carry me quietly where I want to go.

And what about all those trainers who say their methods are about building partnership? If you look beyond the marketing message, what do you actually see happening? What is the trainer doing and what is the result in the horses? When we’re dealing with animals who speak and read body language more fluently than we humans ever will, actions are the key. It’s easy to say we’re creating good relationships with our horses; but just putting different words to a dominance-based system isn’t innovative. Lucrative? Apparently. Paradigm-shifting? Not so much.

Many a training guru tells us all we have to do is understand the rudiments of herd behavior to become the herd leader and we’ll be able to make the horse to do whatever we want. But that approach can only result, at best, in acquiescence; how do we get from there to agreement, to a more equal and rewarding form of working relationship?

What Relationship Do You Want With Your Boss?

If you’re having a hard time understanding the limited view most people have of the working relationship between human and horse, just consider how humans experience the relationship challenge of trying to work with each other. In my diverse career, I have been employed in a number of organizations in fields including publishing, insurance, investments and higher education. I’ve been fortunate a couple of times to work for really wonderful, talented, ethical and highly emotionally aware bosses who valued and made the most of my knowledge, creativity and willingness to work hard for a good cause. On the other side, I’ve had some real nightmare work scenarios overseen by people ranging from the merely unpleasant to the mentally unbalanced. And my history is entirely ordinary; the same types of stories are told by men and women from all income levels and professional backgrounds.

How many of us have been relieved to be hired by a boss who professes an intention to assemble a talented team of professionals whose individual skills are valued, nurtured and considered equally essential to the success of the organization? And how disappointing was it to find out that in practice this boss only wants her staff to agree with every word she utters. Whatever the organizational chart looks like on paper, every “team member” knows just who makes the rules and controls everyone else’s livelihoods. And everyone learns that being considered a good team member means always going along with the group and never daring to disagree with the desires of the leader, however uninformed, unsafe or unethical.

If individuals dare to question the “party line,” they are chastised for having bad attitudes and accused of the ultimate organizational sin – not being a “team player.” These disgruntled idealists often are the best and the brightest of employees, but they often leave in frustration and anger after too many hours of being forced to curb their creativity and bury their knowledge so as not to attract the boss’ misguided wrath.

So, let’s draw the parallel to our relationships with our horses. First, we seek out and find a horse who has talents and skills (or the potential to learn skills) we deem desirable. We want the best and the brightest, of course, and we want to forge a close connection with this extraordinary animal. Then, following conventional wisdom, we set out to become the herd leader, whatever that takes. We’re told the horse must respect us, and the way we win this respect is by controlling the horse’s natural flight response.

Now consider the difference between respect and fear. If I wave a stick in your face until you run away, does that mean you respect me? How about if I force you to stand still while I wave a stick in your face? Have you agreed with me that having a stick waved in your face is a good thing, or have you just chosen to give in to the apparent fact that I think it is? Can’t you just visualize a horse reacting like a teenager, rolling his eyes and shrugging his shoulders while saying “whatEVER” in a disgusted tone? That teenager isn’t agreeing with us, he’s just appeasing us in the hope we’ll go away and leave him alone. We’re trying to dominate him, and he reacts by blowing us off. He knows very well he is not being respected as an equal, and he’s sure not about to respect us.

Forced to Acquiesce, Horses and Humans Shut Down

Horses do that, too, and the choice to acquiesce can manifest in two general and apparently divergent types of behavior. One is to shut down emotionally, becoming unresponsive to any but the most over-the-top stimulus. This equates to the employee whose practical ideas are repeatedly rebuffed by her boss. Eventually, she may just stop trying to introduce improvements, choosing to secure her paycheck by passively going along with whatever her boss dictates. We all know these people and we’ve all wondered why they stay in such dead-end jobs. They’re unfulfilled, often subject to chronic illness and certainly not performing up to their potential.

shut-down horses can be the good, patient saints of the horse world, but at what cost to them?"

The same can be true for horses whose owners insist on dominating them and give them no opportunity to respond without fear of reprisal. Eventually they just stop trying. The unlucky ones are subject to more aggressive riding tactics: they get poked with bigger and bigger spurs until they either give up and get chronically ill or lame or they blow up and become labeled dangerous rogues. The lucky ones find their way to owners who at least prize their lack of responsiveness. You’ll see them marching head-to-tail on dude strings, packing small children at horse shows and dutifully circling the ring with bouncing beginners at riding schools. These shut-down horses can be the good, patient saints of the horse world, but at what cost to them? Is there a way to create these paragons or tame the rogues without stripping away their personalities, without employing dominance techniques that cause them to retreat? I’m sure there is.

I had a marvelous Welsh gelding when I was starting out in 4-H, a horse who had pretty much been everywhere and done everything. He was handed down to me by a family whose five children had learned from him; he was the horse we graduated to after the really quiet, mellow smaller pony who was his teaching partner. Dandy had won hundreds of ribbons in the show ring, was a great mount on a cattle drive, became a fancy driving horse for special events, and could outrun all the horses in the county pole-bending at a gymkhana. He had impeccable ground manners – no biting, kicking, pulling back – and really took good care of all the kids who rode him.

Yet, in no way was he shut down. He was a very engaging individual, with definite ideas about his job and the type of relationship he required with his rider. He commanded the respect of all the kids, teaching us that the crude direct-reining method we’d used on the smaller pony was not acceptable to him and we would have to learn to neck-rein properly to gain his cooperation. He’d unflinchingly let us ride sideways and backward and double, triple, quadruple, but don’t even think about getting on with a pair of spurs. We’d be eating dirt, gently but very firmly bucked off; then he’d stand waiting patiently while we picked ourselves up, removed the offending spurs, and remounted to resume our ride. In his role as teacher, he was sometimes the boss.

Dandy’s original owners told me once that he had been a real challenge to start. He was smart and confident and opinionated; yet, whomever worked with him as a youngster managed to create a truly generous working partner without driving him to either shut down or rebel. This horse required agreement; he was unlikely to have succeeded with a rider who only understood acquiescence. And a total of seven children learned important lessons about horses and life because this horse came to us a willing working partner. Thanks to that early relationship with a wonderfully liberated pony, I know partnership is possible. Stacey Kollman



© 2011 Desert Horse Services/Stacey Kollman



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