Why do you ride horses?

Are your goals competitive or purely recreational? Where does your relationship with your horse fit into the big picture of your hopes, dreams and motivations as an equestrian?

What does a successful ride (or groundwork session), show season, year with your horse look like to you? Is it about winning? Receiving positive or constructive feedback? Improving on something from last time? Having fun? Making progress? 

In this day and age, equitation science is gaining a stronger foothold in the world of horse training and equestrian sport. Undoubtedly, this is proof of progress in favour of the welfare of the horse, but there is one aspect of the trend to focus heavily on the science of horse training that really bothers me.

Learning theory provides an excellent framework by which the wide variety of training methods can be judged on their merits – helping us to train ethically with the horse’s welfare in mind. This framework does in essence allow training to be adapted to the strengths and weaknesses of individual horses. However, I feel that when equitation science principles are taken too literally, these positive outcomes are achieved at the expense of nurturing the horse’s unique character and the rapport between horse and rider.

As a 2012 Journal of Veterinary Behavior paper explained it:


“Welfare is not only concerned with biological functioning, but also with ‘‘affective states’’ such as emotions, pain, suffering, and frustration when opportunities to express species-characteristic behaviours are thwarted.’’ ~ Heleski & Anthony, 2012 (Science alone is not always enough: The importance of ethical assessment for a more comprehensive view of equine welfare)


What am I getting at?

I believe we should use science to guide our training, without losing sight of the goal of genuine partnership with our horse. The horse is gregarious by nature, a social creature that thrives on pair bonds within the herd. Given the endless list of impacts humans have on horse welfare, recognising these psychological needs by training in a manner that promotes emotional wellbeing is the least we can do.

A note from the author: Since this article was originally published back in 2012, a greater focus on the horse-human relationship and its place in the equitation science picture has emerged. For links to some of this research (and more!), please see the Further Reading section at the end of this article.


We should spend time with our horses outside of a training context, building a relationship and figuring out what they enjoy. Where do they like a rub? Which activities do they get a kick out of? We can incorporate this knowledge into training, using positive reinforcement by providing timely rewards wherever possible. We give the horse variety in its work, using the “fun” activities as time out from more serious training.


We can do all these things without ever assuming the horse to have human feelings, motivations or reasoning abilities – we just have to learn to understand how they communicate their feelings with us and accept them for what they are.

In my mind, obedience without willingness is the result of a one-way dictatorship. “Willing” obedience stems from striving for a mutually beneficially rapport that allows the horse to thrive mentally. After all, isn’t “harmony” meant to be the ultimate goal of dressage?

As clarified in various dictionaries:


  • Complying with orders or requests
  • Submissive to another’s will
  • Submissive to the restraint or command of authority


  • Reader, eager or prepared to do something
  • Given or done readily: “willing obedience”
  • Acting or ready to act gladly, eagerly compliant
  • Done, given, accepted, or borne voluntarily or ungrudgingly
  • Cheerfully or eagerly compliant
  • Done, borne or accepted by choice or without reluctance


  • The attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal, or object
  • Attribution of human motivation, characteristics, or behavior to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena
  • An interpretation of what is not human or personal in terms of human or personal characteristics


  • A close and harmonious relationship in which the people or groups concerned understand each other’s feelings or ideas and communicate well
  • Relation marked by harmony, conformity, accord, or affinity
  • A relationship of mutual understanding or trust and agreement
  • Intense harmonious accord
  • Confidence of a subject in the operator (as in hypnotism, psychotherapy, or mental testing) with willingness to cooperate


In conclusion…IMG_4510

The take home message is very simple – anthropomorphism has nothing to do with desiring a willing, harmonious partnership with your horse.

Do you want your horse to want to work for you? How do you want them to respond when they are frightened or unsure? Do you want your horse to be confident in themselves? Confident in their handler? Where does trust fit in?

How can you best use the guidelines of equitation science and the goals of harmonious partnership to inform your approach when working with your horse?


© Cat Walker 2012


Further Reading

Cat is a Melbourne-based equine therapist and anatomist, led down the rehabilitation path by some special horses of her own. She is currently studying a Master of Animal Science, investigating vertebral, postural and sensory dynamics in horses expressing congenital malformations of the 6th and 7th cervical vertebrae.