Aggression and Confidence: one question answered

Aggression and Confidence: one question answered

“I know I am aggressive with my horse, but don’t know why — any ideas?”

I had a discussion with CS about aggression and horsemanship.  CS, like many of us, when he first worked with horses says he met rudeness with aggression, and often had a view that the horse should be obedient.  And, like many of us, he has changed over time and now emphasises that to use aggression is really admitting that we have no intelligence – it is not very often that a horse is wilfully disobedient – all he is doing is whatever is easy for him in that moment, so there is no point to aggression.

Well, there is, because in the short term, aggression works.  And that is what makes it so seductive – it works, and gets results – in that moment, on that day.  What it also does though is build in brace, armouring – as the horse learns to expect aggression and so armours against its possible happening:  and an armoured horse is one that cannot “hear” – and moves tensely so making it hard for the rider to “feel” – which can then be interpreted as more disobedience – for which more aggression is the answer – and horse and human become trapped in a spiral of aggression.

None of us like to think we are aggressive with our horses.  But what IS aggression?  The obvious answers include emotion-filled striking with whip or other implements, kicking, yanking on the mouth – -all of these are clear acts of aggression.  Acts against the physical well being of the horse.

But aggression can be more subtle – especially with horses who are so willing to get along, and stoic about their own feelings.  Aggression can be when you ask for a bend, and the horse doesn’t offer it, so you grip the rein hard and tighten that hand even more until the horse is forced to bend.

That is aggression – it has its roots in domination and control, actually it has its roots in fear – fear of not being IN control, and so when a horse does anything other than we were expecting – we MAKE it happen.

Aggression can be the tightening of a finger on the rein to “block” the horse and force it into a position or apparent choice.  It can be that small.

If the problem is bend, then giving with the other rein can be a non aggressive choice…..

There IS a difference between using a rein for guidance and suggestion, and using it to block or constrain – and that is where we need to be aware of ourselves and develop a scrupulous honesty about our riding and our movements – and what inspires them.

The problem with these smaller acts of aggression is although they might not be so clearly actions that damage the horse physically – they are definitely detrimental in the long run.  When asked a question, a horse who has experienced aggression will tighten and protect himself against the possibility of a wrong answer – his moves will not be fluid and relaxed – he will not be calm – -so any move will lose its gymnastic value.  Even if the horse accomplishes the move, the tension within will negate its benefit.   The riding then becomes mechanical manoeuvres for the ego enrichment of the rider, rather than physical therapy and suppling for the horse.

The only way to remove aggression from our riding – -is to remove fear.  When we have no fear – of losing control, then we have no need to be aggressive.

But fear of losing control is not always simple.  We can be afraid of losing physical control – -the horse might run; we might be afraid of losing subtler control – the horse won’t bend, won’t move how we are asking it to – and we are frightened that we are not in control of him and he might run.  But we might also be afraid of losing other forms of control:  we might be afraid of losing control of how we look, how we appear to others — losing control of our ego-centric self; and when we have to involve the horse in the movements, then we are afraid of losing ourselves.  Our ego.  The joy of the centaur moment, when the two of become one, is also the source of fear – if we believe that in finding that togetherness we lose ourselves.

To “allow” the horse its own choices, its own decisions – and to ride with that in mind and ride to HELP the horse, means we need to have no fear or concern for how we look, how much we “give up”, whether we are “doing well” – WE need to remove our own armouring so that every move the horse makes we hear as “oh, that was easier for him than what I was asking, let’s go with that for a bit and then see if we can develop what I was asking to make it easier for him”

It means we ask our questions and accept whatever answer our horse gives us, without any attachment to their answer, able to receive that answer as the feedback it is and learn from it.

When we have fear of any kind, physical or mental, of harm to our bodies or our minds or egos – we become armoured too.  We lose the ability to hear the horse – we lose the ability to hear ourselves and all that is left is instinct.  And instinct isn’t always kind.

To give up aggression is a conscious act.  It takes mindfulness of ourselves, and a mindset that forgives the horse and ourselves for being so much less than perfect.

It takes accepting that there IS fear, and choosing to remove it.

This, above all is why confidence is so important – to us AND our horses.

When we are confident, we can choose to be kind, gentle and non aggressive.

When we are confident we can HEAR the horse

When we are confident we can HEAR ourselves

And then the dance can begin.


5 thoughts on “Aggression and Confidence: one question answered

  1. Fantastic Cathy! Wish I could’ve explained it as well last Saturday when a woman at a party I went too clearly thought I was a total idiot because i don’t want to hit my horse. Food for thought about the subtleties of aggressive behaviour too….will be rethinking what I do when Poppy looks out towards the gate when I lunge her past it.

  2. But there has to be clear leadership from the human. You can correct a horse without being aggressive. And what about consistency. If your corrections are consistent, there is no bracing from the horse, because the horse learns.

    • Absolutely you can correct a horse without being aggressive — I agree — there is a mindset where correction is not necessary — after all, if the horse is not doing what you think you are asking, that is feedback, not a mistake and therefore correction becomes irrelevant and the focus is on clarifying and teaching vs correcting….


  3. I love this entry. Thank you for your clarity. I have started to study non violent communication some years ago and was wondering how this could be translated to our interactions with horses. And you just did that for me with this post.

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