I was browsing the local facebook equestrian page this morning and I came across a post where an inexperienced horse owning mother was asking advice about her daughter and their recently purchased pony.
I’ll leave out the details because they are irrelevant but overwhelmingly the advice that came back was that the pony did not respect the little girl.
I struggle with the fact that “respect” or lack there of is such a common theme within the horse community. Respect is a human concept. It means nothing to a horse. In my opinion horses learn behaviors. Some behaviors work for them and some do not. It is up to us to help them figure out which behaviors are desirable and which are not. It is not a matter of respect.
Let’s take biting for example. A horse that bites is often accused of being disrespectful. What I think is really happening, is that the horse has learned that when it bites, people go away or stop doing whatever it is they are doing that the horse wants to stop. So we reinforced the biting and gave the horse a positive result for it’s behavior. Horses explore behavior, not really out of respect but more out survival instinct and nature to figure out what works. As humans we teach them that a certain behavior works for them and then we turn around and label them disrespectful.
I realize I may be splitting hairs over terminology. At the end of the day the biting has to stop if we term it disrespect or if we term it behavior. The reason I think the terms are important is because of how we will approach extinguishing the behavior. If I view an animal as disrespecting me, I am most likely going to have a certain mental attitude towards that horse and therefore use a different approach than if I view an animal as needing to unlearn a behavior.