Respect or Robot?

I was sent an interesting blog recently regarding learned helplessness in horses. I recommend it as food for thought and if you read it (including the two embedded links) you may find this post easier to track.

Learned Helplesness Blog

I was pondering in recent weeks how occasionally I’ve heard horse people talk about a horse so easy going anyone can ride him in just a halter… anyone can get out on the trail… he doesn’t take a bad step… easy to catch… bombproof… etc. and I thought about my own mare.

Well, I ride her in a halter… at endurance rides where there are lots of distractions and high energy… I can reliably bring her in from the field. I can do anything I need to do with her in confidence that even if it takes a moment to sort out, once she knows what I’m asking, and once she realizes I’m not going to give up, if she can do it– it will get done.

Photo credit: Dr Birks at the Fort Valley 50 start

Yet she’s not that horse mentioned above… the horse that anyone can catch and ride. I rarely allow anyone else to handle her at all and never let anyone else ride her. Actually on a couple occasions someone has tried to approach or catch her in the field… and considering they were horse professionals it was frustrating when they had absolutely no success:

She’s just a one person horse… she has no respect or fear of humans… she’s untrained…. she only likes women….

I’m certain there are people other than me who could approach and bring her in.

Would I put another rider on her in a halter to zip around for a ride?

No way.

I have no idea what would happen. It would completely depend on the rider. There are less than a handful I’d even consider. And I would be even less likely to allow a rider to use a metal bit at all. I am not certain our relationship would recover.

I have had my share of eye rolls… of people who think I’m in left field… and that my horse is badly behaved. Honestly at times she is.

What I have noticed is a pervasive sense of horse-folk seeing success with a horse equating with this thing they call respect. Which appears defined by most of them as a kind of immediate questionless obedience to every command.

More curious to me is that as I observe this in action over time… if I were to suggest that’s what they are aiming toward many of them would say of course it’s not….

I don’t want a robot! I want a free intelligent animal to partner with me… in exactly the way I ask every time without hesitation.

Oh right sorry. I misunderstood.

The other concept I notice is that safety becomes the buzz word.

You can’t let them do that it’s unsafe.

Well yeah. Actually being around horses at all is dangerous. Once you get on one that’s definitely dangerous. Who ever says otherwise has left all logic behind.

Of course we try to mitigate danger in as many ways as possible but being around horse people I’ve noticed that once you suggest something is dangerous it’s like going nuclear. Argument over.

I have often observed that dangerous to one horse person is often a calculated risk to another – and to a third it’s just a daily routine. (Crossing a road, riding bitless, jumping a fence, trail riding alone in the wilderness, not using cross ties… almost anything can fit this).

One of my favorite photos [Hughes Photography] of Tracie Falcone going over Cougar Rock in the Tevis Cup in a Balance Saddle and neck string. I’m sure she hits a few of the dangerous categories here!!

I started my journey into that vague thing I believed was possible with an I started basically feral 4-yr old mare and had never started a horse before. I’m about as unqualified as they come when you’re looking at horse trainer credentials.

Some people were sure that was dangerous.

They may have had a point; but I knew I had to try to find the thing I was seeking. And I had to look for it on my own.

It’s not for everyone but it was the path in front of me and it seemed incredibly obvious. Best of all it’s a very long journey and I will never arrive because there’s always more to learn and room for growth. That’s what a true relationship is- and as you deepen it, both parties also change as they connect. Which gives you more complexity and more to explore together.

What an adventure!

But for all of this connection in 4 years of digging up soil where I see something I like around me- I am far from perfect and we are so far from perfect.


Sometimes she loads immediately onto the trailer. Sometimes she takes 30 seconds to ask a question… sometimes 5 minutes. It varies.


Sometimes she comes to the gate and puts her head in the halter. Sometimes I have to walk over to her a few feet. Sometimes I have to walk out and encourage them to come in and they do without lead ropes. Sometimes I have to all the way to the far corner and bring her in while she pauses every 10 feet. Sometimes she walks away and she and the mustang go running around me in protest. It varies.


Sometimes we ride in complete sync like she reads my mind. Sometimes I have to work a little harder to keep her attention. Sometimes I have to use a tool to remind her I’m still there. Sometimes she insists on turning around or not going my way. It varies.

Ack! The first time K saw a ride photographer… now great friend Becky Pearman. First LD ride: Iron Mountain 2015.

Beginning to ride with neck rope- no halter or bridle.


Since it seems to be a widespread belief that a horse that basically does whatever you ask when you ask it is the measure of success – my slow left field methods are probably suspect.

Yet I still do my best to avoid using brute force to get my way- while still patiently (some days more patiently than others) asking until I do… all the while continuing to ask

…what is force? And does it sometimes have a place in the process? And are there real safety issues that I’m not paying enough attention to? Am I as some have suggested reckless and dangerous? How much of her opinion do I really want? How much of a say can she have in the process without her becoming the leader? How much can I tell her to get over it and just comply before I’m just like those who think they want a partner but really want a robot?

The Learned Helplessness blog tied in with these questions and thoughts I’ve had because I realized my horses are completely awake. And I didn’t realize it at the time, but that’s exactly what I was seeking and why I looked for a young horse not yet started, because I’d been seeing various levels of what the writer calls learned helplessness and I didn’t really know what I wanted – but I knew it wasn’t that.

A term many people throw around is respect and conversely disrespect. But to quote the Princess Bride character Inigo Montoya:

I am pretty certain my horse respects me more often than not. She communicates with me and works together with me – she still asks me questions. [In other words respect does not equal immediate robot obedience to me] Though sometimes she actually does whatever I ask basically when I ask to, she may suggest she doesn’t want to comply for various reasons, and she may try to tell my why she cannot fulfill a request (pain, location, confusion, even in rare cases fear).

The better our communication gets, and the more I act like a leader she can trust which is a whole year of blogs… the better this process gets. The sooner she does what I’m asking or can explain to me why I might want to re-think a questionable or dangerous request.

I reflect back and see many cases where a horse trying to communicate confusion or fear has been called disrespectful.

That is likely to follow though: if you misunderstand the horse and/or ignore its attempts to communicate very long you are likely to earn disrespect soon enough. Then the fight that ensues is likely to take you to shut down… robot… or in the case of that problem horse so and so had to get ride of… fight.

Photo of Khaleesi on the first day of muzzleloader season 2018. The neighbors were shooting repeatedly (sighting? Target?) and she was for the most part not with me that day. She had deep concerns for the herds on the property and did not like being ‘tied up’ having to work with me while what she perceived as potential danger was so near. I made the choice to work with what I had that day and stayed flexible with my plans. I have never seen her so anxious. And no: it was not being read from me. I was not worried. But that did little to help her that day. I did some work with her but significantly different from the plan I’d laid out in advance.

There are arguments for the safety of the ‘respectful’ robot horse. The one who will go where you point when you point without question.

I’ve also seen some wrecks come from those horses. I’ve personally watched a rider repeatedly berate a horse and punish it for checking terrain and taking time on a new trail going over natural obstacles – then later on the same ride end up on the ground because the horse finally learned to stop checking in and ended up having to maneuver an obstacle the rider wasn’t ready for an couldn’t stay on through.

Remember the saying about “if your friends all jump off the bridge are you going to follow?” Well yeah. That’s the extreme case of the robot horse. A horse that is going to do whatever the rider asks without question or hesitation. And once in a while… the human might be wrong.

I want my horse to tell me if she knows or senses something I haven’t noticed or sensed. Horses are extremely aware of their environments. Much more than I am still though I constantly work on this actually. She senses the bear cubs, the turkey gang, often knows where the hole is… check the muck puddle… pause before crashing over the downed tree.

I’ve had my mare ‘save’ me from tripping through a rock ditch that was hard to see one day leading her in from a part of the field I didn’t often venture. It had washed out in some hard rain a while back and was overgrown with tall grasses. She kept planting her feet until I adjusted course. It was unusual behavior so instead of forcing her on I tried to slow down and sort out why she might be stalling. As we got closer I saw the ditch and thanked her for letting me know. We walked in with no trouble after that.

SHEEP! Sometimes I have to work her through a concern she has that is not really a danger.

A horse that is awake and communicating might have more to say than most riders want to deal with. They are after all a prey animal and have learned to be better safe than sorry over many genetic generations.

It also takes a long time (for me at least) to get even basically proficient in their subtle language.

I’ve been wrong many times, what I assumed she was saying is not always what she is in fact trying to say. You sort this out by trial and error… which brings me to the the fact that she often doesn’t make me look good to the causal observer- who is often impressed by immediate obedience.

Recently I had a horse-woman friend over and showed her some of the things Khaleesi and I had been working on. Backing into a stall… some groundwork ‘dancing’… and riding her bareback with a neckrope in the yard. It was a good day. She was so with me.

Impressed my friend said: wow!! That is so beautiful!! I bet when you go to your endurance rides everyone is just blown away.

After a good laugh I assured her … first most people are focused on their own horses and what they need to do… second this kind of thing isn’t exactly flashy… and third… she’s not always this focused- ride camp has lots of energy and distraction. So.

It varies.

Then there’s the whole self carriage thing…. but that’s an entirely separate post.

8 thoughts on “Respect or Robot?

  1. AHHHHHH. Love this so much!!! We’ve owned over 30 Arabians the past decade. Wow, what a lot of mis handled horses there are out there. Mostly caused by the routine training attempts to make them “safely” robotic. Did our best to “rescue” them and re-home them or keep and enjoy them for our passion of endurance. I’m always surprised at how much a horse will still offer after being treated like a “robot” so strongly for so long. My husband says they’ve been “micro-managed.” My rehabbing of several mares was based on hand grazing: TEACHING them how to eat grass on a lead line and R E L A X. Our Happy Half-Hours consisted of me drinking a beer and taking the mare to the best nibbles all over the farm and letting her figure out life with a human on the end of her rope could be pleasant. I did this for six months with a couple of mares and they were able to be ridden again and became good trail partners for calm women. Endurance travel and camping were just too much for them, although the trail part they LOVED! I could parallel your story in so many ways. Thank you for sharing it all! I’ll part by adding that I love the WAY the horse is being ridden over Cougar Rock, but I abhor the whole Cougar Rock Photo “thing.” WHY would ANYONE take their horse that route when there is an easier/allowable route on the tough 100 miles of Tevis. For a photo. Really? Ask your horse which way she’d choose. She’s no dummy and definitely NOT a robot. Thank goodness!!! 🙂

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    1. I do think horses choose disrespect but I also believe that they don’t do it without a human creating it.

      I believe that they will move toward disrespect out of human ignorance and ego.

      Ignorance creates it when we prove to them we don’t understand so often they see us a seriously deficient leaders. Incapable.

      Ego creates it when we are so about how we look and our own goals we demand them to comply regardless of their needs and ability. Also proving we make a bad leader not worth following.

      I believe that disrespect is when the horse chooses to fight. Not all horses chose to fight. So shut down instead.

      I also believe that many people mistake fear for disrespect. Fear is not the same as fight (at first. Humans can turn fear into fight… see ignorance) 🙂

      That’s what I observe.

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      1. Ill have to read it again and do a little more digging. Most of it makes observable sense to me- however I don’t think from what I’ve seen that horses specifically can be limited to quite that simple of input-reaction only learned behavior.

        I have seen horses have opinions and preferences about people, equipment, and other horses.

        Now… some of that is based on comfort. But I don’t believe that herd hierarchy is solely based on fear. Good herd leaders run a herd well with least amount of violence. Though as humans we’ve created artificial herds that sometimes don’t actually have a true herd leader- and those horses when forced to lead out of no one truly being a leader often are more violent in their behavior…….

        Hm. I’ll dig a little more into some of the science the article seems to suggest as a basis that horses are less complex than I believe they are.

        Overall many of the points seem very helpful and I agree that horse people anthropomorphize on the whole way more than is helpful! And it creates many problems (ignorance)

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