Natural Horse World

Changing Tack Will Reduce Cruelty to Horses

How many people have you seen take out their anger and frustration on their horse/dog/partner?
We’ve probably all been guilty of it at some time or other, I know I have in the past but like to think I have learned more patience and self control through the study of natural horsemanship which enables me to think more like the horse and not blame them for instinctive responses or reactions.

Poor thing with rugs
Another form of cruelty – keeping horses isolated, without continuous forage, and covered in rugs on hot sunny days.

In doing so, I have become much more aware of the abusive nature of humans and how they take out their frustrations on their animals, perhaps thinking that these dumb creatures have no means of reprisal.

Of course some do – the dog bites or cowers and refuses to obey, cats scratch or become timid, the sheep and cattle simply run away (if they can) and so would horses if we allowed them.
But humans are smart, or so we say, and they simply come up with more ways than you can imagine to control a horse then subject them to whatever treatment we choose to dish out.
These controls include many things we see as normal thanks to traditions that have been passed down through many generations and which we give no thought to their relevance for today’s world.
Did you know that the reason it is traditionally correct to mount from the left side of the horse is because warriors carried their swords on their right hip enabling them to draw their weapon with their left hand so throwing the right leg over the horse was much easier.

Needing a bit in the mouth to ride a horse is a strong traditional belief which has been disproved by the advent of the bitless bridle and now thousands of natural horsemanship students who ride in natural halters and hackamores perfectly safely once they have understood basic one rein control.

In the eyes of the traditional rider, this is madness of course but how many riders with bits on their horses can be seen out of control because they are hauling on two reins, causing the horse such pain that its instincts take over and say flee or fight?

Putting a piece of metal in the most delicate part of the horse, his mouth, which is integral to his survival, and then giving the reins of control over to a volatile human is like asking your best friend or partner to wear a lip ring or tongue stud with a chain attached to your short fuse!

How long do you think the relationship would last?

I often shudder when I see riders not only using the bit severely, but just using it constantly to hold the horse’s head in vertical flexion for long periods of time. The longest we should be asking for a collected appearance is 3 or 4 minutes maximum which is the time it takes to do a show jumping round, show horse workout or half a dressage test (there’s usually a loose rein walk about half way through).

Why is it that people think the horse has to be collected to be controlled when collection was only ever designed to give the horse the power it needed to perform high level manoeuvres such as the haute ecole school movements which originated for warfare?
The constant pressure on the sensitive bars and lips of the mouth eventually damages the tissue in these areas giving the rider a heavy or dead feeling on the reins, and the horse a crutch to lean on instead of truly collecting in self carriage. To Bit or Not To Bit details the damage bits can cause to horses.

In addition to these amazingly varied torture devices (there are hundreds of different bit designs – almost all with the essential aim of control) we see the horse’s mouth strapped shut with a noseband or head tied down with a martingale so it can’t ‘evade the bit’. Poor things – imagine if we had to work with our mouths taped shut so we concentrated better while doing our job – how would you feel? Frustrated I’d say and that’s exactly what causes our horses to develop habits like teeth grinding, jaw crossing, sticking the tongue out, tossing the head or simply look dull and bored with ears back, suffering their torture.

When we stop them from expressing their feelings, the more sensitive and probably the more talented (these traits seem to go together) horses find other ways of expressing their frustration by rearing, bucking or bolting and are either subjected to more pressure until their spirit is broken or sold for meat. Other horses just don’t look forward to their time with people and become hard to catch, saddle and bridle.

And then there’s the whip – designed as an extension of our arm to reinforce our leg or seat cues/aids if we are a caring or conscientious rider/driver but it’s often used to reprimand the horse when it fails to understand our requests and ‘acts up’.
In the racing world, the whip is used to ‘encourage’ a horse who is probably already trying as hard as he can as he nears the finish post. It just doesn’t make sense.

Some showjumpers and eventers can be seen flogging their horse after a refusal – a sure fire way to reinforce that being near the jump is not a nice place.
And I’ve seen stallion owners advised to whip the front legs to control their stallion and even witnessed public performers use this method as a way of getting the horse to lie down (along with severe yanking on the bit) – maybe he was a cart horse driver in a past life when flogging horses and seeing them fall in their attempts to pull overloaded carts was commonplace?

What about spurs? Much the same as bits and whips, they are rarely used as intended (to refine the leg aids and ask for more elevation from the horse) and more often used in a effort to get the horse to listen to the leg for more forward movement. You don’t see jockey’s using spurs because they need a longer stride so why try to use them for speed when they were intended to instigate more elevation?
And a nagging set of legs is as bad or worse than a nagging set of hands – one saying go, the other saying slow. What is a horse supposed to do – put up with the equivalent of torture or try to rid themselves of a rider who really shouldn’t be there in the first place with the lack of knowledge you so often see these days.

Tradition would also have us believe that horses are safe and simple – in the old days everyone had some contact with horses and got to observe their ways, maybe be involved with them on a daily basis and be aware of the dangers just like we are with cars.
But now, television and the printed media show us pictures of the happy riders galloping off into the sunset so that most people have an unrealistic expectation of horses.
Couple that with a ‘motorbike’ mentality and you have a recipe for disaster, often for the rider but most likely for the horse.

Many children now wanting a horse have the disadvantage of parents who are not the least bit interested or experienced with them.
And so the poor child has to learn the hard way and many do with a horrible amount of injuries, or the parents seek out help and trust the first person they find – maybe a neighbour or friend who may only know a little more or at worst be a bad example.

So many children are packed off to pony club which is better than no instruction at all, however traditions are strongly followed in this institution which seems to promote competition over sound horsemanship and good general horse knowledge.

While there’s nothing wrong with competition goals to inspire riders to achieve and progress, its unfortunate that many pony club instructors gloss over the things that make horses tick and are often biased in their views of alternatives such as natural horsemanship, positive reinforcement (Clicker Training) and riding bitless, barefoot and with treeless saddles.

Younger children especially, need good examples and lots of fun to learn things safely. They need knowledgeable parents who can intervene when tantrums are thrown and the pony is treated harshly so that children come to respect these wonderfully forgiving animals and not take them for granted.

I guess it all comes down to attitude and sadly, too many people in this world believe humans have the right to dominate animals and do whatever they feel like with them.
Thankfully, traditions are being questioned and more people are looking for a better quality relationship with their recreational choice – the horse.

Awareness of positive techniques, horse psychology and natural alternatives to caring for a horse is becoming more common place.

Many people know horses are special creatures who bring out the best in us, they give us unconditional love, they are always there for us providing we care for them appropriately and they are changing the way we relate to each other, if we allow ourselves to be open to non-traditional practices.

One day, I’m sure the true horse lovers will be seen in such numbers that those practicing some traditional techniques will be frowned upon, just as just as more enlightened horsemen and women are today for daring to be different.

If you are one of them, keep learning and trying new things – experience riding bitless, get rid of the spurs and whip, and investigate what it takes to have your horse barefoot or ridden with boots. The range of alternative methods of training and equipment is growing and progressing so keep up with the times and try something new.

When you know enough to be calm, confident and have good horse communication so you don’t need ‘artificial aids’ (bits, whips, spurs) then let the public see your skills so you become a good example. And above all really put your horse first – so you can shine together.

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12 thoughts on “Changing Tack Will Reduce Cruelty to Horses”

  1. Cathryn Butterworth

    So grateful to read this… i’ve been riding bitless for a long time now, trained my Arab x Warmblood.. who is a very high energy type and he’s just fantastic, been in situations where people would have thought a bit was necessary but he’s been listening and staying as calm as he can! So I proved to myself that it really does work with the right approach and trust in your partnership. I also do barefoot and have been a little doubtful just lately if i should perhaps try shoes… but thankfully once again something like this pops up and i shall keep to the barefoot for now!! Big thanks for posting this 🙂

    1. Cynthia

      Glad it has inspired you to stay barefoot Cathryn – there are so may great booting options now that its always going to be better than metal shoes for the horse – have you seen the new Scoot Boots? They are so light and easy to put on/off, and the feedback has been great on them so far. Wonderful to hear you are riding bitless – its all about the training, and the relationship so keep setting a good example 🙂
      Cheers, Cynthia.

      1. All my horses are barefoot, (I don’t like the thought of heavy metal thingies on their feet,) and my mare has foundered before, so we can’t ride on gravel. I just checked out the scoot boots, and they’re just what I need! I didn’t know there were any out there, and was planning to make something like that, (covering the bottom of the hoof,) but they’re perfect!
        P.S. I also really loved your article!

        1. Cynthia

          Thanks Jo – wonderful to hear that your horses are barefoot and that you’ve discovered Scoot Boots – they’re great!
          Happy Trails 🙂

  2. Evie Jayne

    Good article but I have a question.
    I have two geldings that I have trained on the ground using pressure release techniques. One is very soft and sensitive, the other does only as much as he needs to and not a breath more.
    I have tried riding both of them bitless and have found the experience awful. I know and use one rein stops. I use my seat to control speed, transitions and halt, legs and a light squeeze to steer. I don’t ask for collection for long stretches, though I do ask for bit acceptance and a soft jaw. In the bit, both boys are relaxed and light and I find I don’t have to use my reins much at all. I can predominantly ride on a loose rein, very rarely needing much contact. Bitless was a different story. Speed, halt and transitions were fine, no change at all but turning! It was awful. I had to haul on their heads, soft finger squeezes were ignored, seat ignored. I hated it. In the end I went back to bits, because it was so much lighter and softer and not a battle. I’d like to understand what went wrong for us. Do you have any ideas?

    1. Cynthia

      Hi Evie,
      congratulations for trying bitless – what type of bitless bridle did you try? From previous feedback it sounds like it may have been a crossunder style – many horses don’t know how to turn in this one, because the pressure across the cheeks on an angle, is not something they have learned to respond to. I’ve found the sidepull style bitless bridles much easier for the horse to understand – like my LightRider Bitless Bridles as the pressure on the nose is close to what they would feel from the bit, and the halter. So, its simply that horses respond to what they’ve been taught – ground work, keeping the pressure rhythmic and light is the best way to introduce a bitless bridle so you get the same softness and responsiveness as the bit. I hope that encourages you to try again – so your horses can have all the benefits of being ridden bitless 🙂

  3. Judy Weinmann

    There are so many things to consider in horsemanship, so many different theories, and so many masters of this sport that one must pick and choose which and what they prefer to use…and combinations of different methods might just be what’s needed by many who have difficulty with just one or a few professionals/masters of horsemanship. I agree that the more confidence, knowledge, and ability the handler has (and we all start out “not so good!),the better the horse can give us what we are asking him to do. I’ve observed many groups of horses in a herd and it’s just easier to see that there is always a “boss” (and I grant you that that role can change daily or even hourly)…but you will see in every horse group if you watch long enough…there is a leader/boss.
    And when the leader is taken from the herd you will notice some of the others nickering, calling for her/him to return…they truly miss this member and welcome her/him on their return. I’m only trying to state that to be safe around horses someone needs to be in charge…never did I mean to convey the idea that “leadership” means cruelty or abuse. If the handler/rider isn’t the leader, then the horse takes over. They are just doing what hundreds of years has proven to them…to survive you must run from danger. They will always be Flight from Fright creatures who will always feel safe in a herd situation…safety in numbers keeps them comfortable. Their inherent needs are Safety, Comfort and Play!

    1. Cynthia

      Absolutely agree with everything you have to say Judy. Did you see the article on leadership I wrote? /leadership-horses-cynthia-cooper/

  4. Great article, and I loved how you explained the use of the tools, and how it isn’t usually the tool itself but the misuse of that tool that creates the cruelty.

  5. This was a very enlightening article to say the least. I’ve only been a part of the horse world for 6 years now. All I’ve ever wanted was to have a good relationship with my horses, treat them kindly, and have them carry me where I want to go. However, in my attempts to be kind, they see me as weak and step all over me. When I ask, they say, “No”… So how does one learn to become connected with her horses? How do you gain respect and obedience on the ground and in the saddle? How do you stay safe with a horse that wants to plow over you when all you’re doing is standing there? I would appreciate some resources, thanks. P.S. I’ve moved my horses away from metal bits, hacks, and shoes, and have never used spurs. I’ve never hit or beat my horses; and have always only loved them.

    1. Cynthia

      Hi Mic, it sounds like you are doing the right thing with your horses except protecting your space if they are ‘plowing’ over you. Sometimes you have to stand up for yourself in the herd just like other horses do when they don’t want to be pushed around. I find making myself ‘bigger’ by waving my arms, or swinging a rope around helps define the boundaries. Then the next thing to do is study equine ethology (learning why horses do what they do) and Learning Theory so you can modify behaviours that you don’t want, without resorting to heavy handedness. My pages on Horsemanship are a good place to start /horsemanship/ and I can highly recommend the books on this page: /great-books-to-read/ as the best place to start. Good luck with your learning journey and well done for respecting your horses 🙂
      Cheers, Cynthia.

  6. Great article! I have come back to riding after almost 30 years off, and so much has changed. It seems people have gone bonkers over unnecessary & uncomfortable so-called ‘equipment’. I was fortunate to have great parents and great neighbours as a pony owning child, but I wish I’d learned to ride the way I’m re-learning now. So much kinder, and easier! I much prefer being in the saddle ‘the natural way’ this time around, and the PRE Andalucian I ride is VERY happy being bitless.

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