I find that most owners that call me mention “respect” issues. This word comes up again and again, but I think the true meaning gets lost in the word. When a horse is being “disrespectful” there is actually a whole lot more happening.
When people think about “respect” issues, they are generally referring to a horse that is misbehaving. This can range from not paying attention when riding or leading, to aggression and dangerous behaviour. But what is really happening? Do these horses need a serious reprimanding to bring the disrespectful issues to an end? Not necessarily.
In other articles, I discuss the idea of sub-problems. Particularly in my article “When the Problem isn’t “The Problem“. When I say sub-problem, I am referring to problems that arise from a base problem.
I find a lot of owners think the problems they are having stem from a lack of respect, but this is actually rarely the case. Respect issues generally stem from a much more basic problem. Respect issues generally come back to trust and fear.
In many articles I say all problems stem from fear or lack of respect. I say this because it is an easy way to lump a lot of problems together. But respect is an a complex issue.
So lets take a deeper look. Why does a horse become disrespectful? Usually its a combination of things. Every horse is different, and so every horses recipe of problems is different. Disrespect occurs when a horses recipe of problems tips to a point of unbalance.
The ingredients for disrespect are any combination of fear, stress, trust (lack of), confidence (lack of), memories/assumptions (conditioning), pain, feeding imbalance, and stubbornness. Im sure there are even more factors I’ve missed, but the bottom line is that a lot of things generally come together to create a disrespectful horse.
I find the most common problems are a combination of not trusting the human in situations where the stress level is heightened, coupled with a lack of confidence within the horse and with the owner. As the horse misbehaves, the owners confidence plummets further, making the horses confidence plummet, reinforcing the idea that the human is not a good leader, and not going to keep the horse safe, making the horses trust in the owner disappear.
Particularly when stress is added to the situation (showing, leaving the other horses, introducing fearful items such as a trailer, clippers, farrier), then you create a recipe for disrespect.
When your horse is being “disrespectful” he is trying to tell you something. It’s not ,”I don’t like you, sod off,”, its “I am feeling very unconfident and maybe a bit fearful and stressed out, and you are not helping”.
Horses are creatures of habit. They develop habits very easily. This is great for training, but terrible for the above situation. The more frequently your horse behaves in an unwanted way, for what ever reason, the more he is reinforcing his habit of “disrespect”.
The owners get frustrated, and then punish or reprimand the horse, which reinforces the horses idea that they are not trustworthy!
So why does a horse “take over” when they are being “disrespectful”? If they are feeling a bit fearful and unconfident, why is that not obvious? It all comes back to herd psychology.
In a herd, there is 1 leader. They all know which horse it is (a grumpy old mare), and she is the boss, the Mammy. When things get tense, they look at her to see what she is doing. If she is running, they follow. If she is calm, they relax and remain calm.
Domestic horses have not lost this instinct, particularly when their stress or adrenaline is up.
Sometimes in a stable, there is a “Mammy” horse, but sometimes there isn’t. However the safety in numbers rule will still apply. This is why you get horses that can be anxious or barn sour. Safety in numbers.
Most (99%) of horses are not leaders. They are natural born followers. They need a leader to trust and follow. Someone to look at when they feel unconfident and nervous. Someone that makes them think, everything is fine, don’t panic.
Unfortunately they never (rarely) think a human can play this role. So they try to take on this role themselves, which makes them feel nervous and unconfident. This comes out as disrespectful. Not paying attention, running over people, doing what they want, but what they are really doing is trying to find a way to get back to being a follower. They are feeling desperate inside to go back to following.
Now some horses get very good at pretending they are a leader. But its really only conditioning. As soon as they see the opportunity to go back to being a follower, they take it.
So, this is where the training I do becomes very important. I teach the horse that a human CAN be a good and confident leader. That he IS safe in my hands, and he can relax. And he does. But then I have to teach the owner that they can be a good leader, and generally this requires giving them their confidence back.
It can be quite frightening trying to control a horse that has taken over control, and over time, as this situation gets worse for horse and owner, an owners confidence level gets chipped away. And unfortunately, this means the horses confidence level gets chipped away, and the cycle continues.
So building confidence for the pair is very important. The horse will go through a phase of fighting the change in the situation, mostly as he or she works through their own fear at turning the control over to the human, but also to test that the human really is a good leader who can handle anything. This is where it becomes hard for the owner to do it alone.
So if you feel you are having respect issues with your horse, take a deeper look. There is probably a lot more going on. Help is at hand, and I am always happy to give a fresh start to a horse and their owner, I’ve done it countless times, and will continue to do it countless more times! But understanding what is really happening is half the battle.