Before condemning bits, spurs and other devices as cruel, consider this: tools are neither good nor bad. It’s how they’re used that makes the difference.
What’s the root cause of abuse in the horse industry today? It’s a horse owner who lacks knowledge of the horse’s true nature, leaving an animal whose dignity and spirit have been taken away. If you’re like me, you have a difficult time enjoying events that don’t put the horse’s noble nature first. What you see is not harmonious or beautiful, and it’s not about adhering to one’s core values – it’s more about competition and winning.
This quote from Xenophon, an ancient Greek general, statesman, philosopher, horseman and author of The Art of Horsemanship, is often used to describe this type of human behavior: “Anything forced and misunderstood can never be beautiful.”
When you seek true unity with your horse, it should be beautiful, magical and filled with understanding – it should be a dance between two willing partners.
But where do you start? And how can it become a dance? How can it materialize into something beautiful where communication is clear and without force? This transformation doesn’t appear out of thin air, nor does it happen overnight. We are humans; they are horses. There are many differences between the two.
Understanding equine behavior comes into play here, but you must also choose and use tools that line up with your core values. These tools must result in a level of communication between you and your equine companion that’s beautiful, clear, precise and easy to understand.
Are Training Devices Cruel?
Horse guardians often shun certain equine training devices. This is a valid reaction because many of these devices are used in a cruel manner – and some are intended to be cruel by design. However, if you understand the horse’s true nature, you know these artificial devices are usually not needed.
True horsemanship is about simplicity, and understanding a horse from her point of view first. It shouldn’t be based on winning a blue ribbon or futurity money. The real horseman knows most training devices are simply a way to make up for poor feel and timing, bad hands and lack of knowledge.
I’m not implying you should never use training tools. Some are needed so you can more effectively communicate with your horse, and stay safe. Safety is number one.
Sticks, Bits and Spurs
As you know, a horse’s body is shaped differently from yours – hers is long, and yours isn’t. This means you may need to use tools to extend your body so you can communicate as if you were like another horse. For example:
You may prefer to use a fiberglass stick or dressage whip to help you more effectively communicate your message. The length of either tool can allow you to extend your body.
When riding, most spurs are usually unnecessary and perceived as cruel. You can still achieve high level maneuvers without them. But what if they could refine your communication and help it become more accurate and precise? Your horse would understand more quickly and be less resistant. For example, using only the blunt area of your riding boot is not as precise or effective as using a humanely designed spur, which becomes an extension of yourself.
When taking a discipline to an art form, you may use a certain type of bit to achieve more accurate communication with your horse. It’s similar to holding hands, or dancing closely with another person. You more accurately understand each other, because you’re being held in an intimate manner. That kind of intimacy is a privilege, not a right – much like putting a bit in a horse’s mouth. That intimate dance is beautiful. It radiates an energy like no other. It mesmerizes you.
Signs of Ineffective Communication
Someone who is exceptional with horses has a connection with them that appears almost invisible or magical. This type of connection is not forced. You won’t see the horse foaming at the mouth, her tongue turning blue or hanging out. She won’t be overextended at the poll, jerked by the rider’s hands or spurred to the point of having indentations in her sides.
Nor will she swish her tail; and if she does, the rider should immediately recognize it as feedback. A swishing tail is not necessarily disobedience. Instead, it usually means the rider is asking too hard or fast, or the horse flat out doesn’t understand. It’s your responsibility to read the signal, understand it, and communicate more clearly. Sometimes it may be a learned behavior caused from previous mental and emotional baggage – it depends on the situation and the horse.
Training Devices Don’t Equal Bad Intentions
People who say training tools are bad or cruel demonstrate an ignorance of a pretty basic concept. It’s like this: guns don’t kill people…people kill people.
What that means is that an object or tool is not what’s evil or good. It’s just an object. It doesn’t possess any power until the human comes into the equation. It’s not the tool or device that’s cruel – it’s what you do with it and how you use it that makes the difference.
Allow me to give an example. You can use a belt to hold up your pants or take it off and hit your kid with it (not that I’m suggesting this). In the end, it’s just a belt – it doesn’t know what it’s doing. It has no power until you give it power and put intent behind it.
An equine training device is no different – it’s not the tool that’s cruel or evil, it’s the attitude and intention behind its use.
Knowledge and Intent
People, not tools, are the ones who have intentions. Those intentions can be good or bad. The common denominator is not the training device; it’s how you use it. Many times, abuse is the result of ignorance rather than deliberate cruelty.
It’s up to you to choose what tool to use, how to use it, and what your intention is when you use it. You must also be knowledgeable. Your decision must be based not only on the result you want; you must also respect your horse’s noble nature and stay true to your core values.
The truth is, it’s all about having integrity. This means no matter how much peer pressure you encounter, you must stick to your moral and ethical principles when selecting a communication tool to use with your equine partner.
In the end, it’s not about the horse or type of tool you use, as much as it is about you. If you want true unity with your horse, you have to develop into the type of person who can earn it.
Stephanie Krahl is a natural horse care specialist, wri ter, teacher, coach, all -round web geek and co-founder and CEO of Soulful Equine. She teaches horse guardians about natural concepts that help their horses thrive. Combining her passion for horses wi th her software engineering background has helped her become a better problem solver for her equine partners. When she’s not wi th horses, Stephanie loves watching movies, reading and going to the gun range. soulfulequine.com