Choosing Your Battles in The Horse World


It is a complete understatement to say the horse world is full of opinions. The horse world is overflowing with opinions, slapping you across the face with opinions, waking you up in the middle of the night with a megaphone full of opinions… You get where I’m going with this, horse people have no shortage of beliefs and are often exceptionally belligerent and self righteous with said beliefs, especially when they can share them from the comfort of their couch, hiding behind a computer screen. Suddenly, people become an awful lot more confident and knowledgeable than they may actually be. Suddenly, we have veterinary experts weighing in on the decisions of vets, even though said “experts” never even attended vet school or have any remote knowledge on equine biology. Same is to be said with training, we have people pushing their viewpoints on others when they have limited training experience themselves, pushing a cookie cutter approach onto different riding styles or different types of horses that they themselves lack the experience to manage. On the flip side, you also have professionals, experienced riders and otherwise who are set in their beliefs and think that their methods apply to everyone.

Now, let’s go into this because I think this needs to be said. People need to learn how to choose their battles. This applies to junior riders, amateur riders, people in lesson programs, people who own their own horses, professionals and so on and so forth. For example, let’s say you are anti-bit and believe all horses can go well bitless. You are entitled to this belief, even if it may be in poor taste to claim that every horse ever will be happier bitless no matter how soft of a bit they’re being ridden in. However, does it really make sense to be belligerent and aggressive towards the rider working through the training pyramid in a rubber snaffle? We’re in a world where professionals are making their horses’ mouths bleed with double twisted wire gags in public and yet people settle on the riders who are using soft equipment with good hands…. Really? Choose your battles. You may not like bits personally, but you can still respect people who are the lesser of what you view as an “evil”. If it is your goal to eventually see a day where archaic, harsh equipment is laid to rest, then you should be celebrating those who are riding with a proper flatwork foundation, with accepting horses and in soft equipment even if you do not personally believe in said equipment.

Now, the same can be said about most beliefs in the horse world. I personally think most horses are stalled far too much but it would make absolutely no sense to latch onto people who stall their horses overnight like it is the worst thing ever when some horses virtually never leave their stalls. Heck, I think most paddock turnout is too small and even wish my own horses had more space but who am I to get cranky about a horse being in a smaller in/out paddock 24/7 when they could be locked up in a 12x12 box instead? See what I mean about choosing battles? There is often always a worse way of doing things and it is time that as equestrian enthusiasts we learn how to weed through the pros and cons and realize that not everyone will be exactly the same as us, but we should be smart enough to realize when riders are taking steps of betterment.

More recently, I’ve found that the divide between those who take a more traditional approach to horse training versus those who are more on the natural horsemanship or positive reinforcement side of things is quite large. People who believe positive reinforcement (R+) is the best way often frame their beliefs in a manner that utterly discredits those who are not training in the exact same manner as them, I’ve seen some go as far to suggest that mixing R- (negative reinforcement) and R+ is inherently unfair to the horse, despite no research proving this. Now, as someone who uses BOTH R+ and R-, I am flabbergasted about this mindset. If someone is promoting positive reinforcement, should they not celebrate riders breaking from more traditional methods, that often use little to no positive reinforcement, and adding a reward based system to their riding? Is this not a move from the original status quo of bullying horses using far too much punishment and little rewards that people should be happy about? You would think, but unfortunately with much of the opinions within the horse world it seems that people expect riders to be 100% on their side or against them. It is weird and incredibly narrow minded.

Like I said, I have no shortage of my personal beliefs on what is the best way to train and keep horses. A lot of my beliefs are science based and as far as the turnout debate, it is a no brainer that stalling increases certain risks in horses depending on how much they’re stalled for but there is an inherent difference between the owner that is in denial, denying proven scientific facts and the owner who is constantly researching, working to better themselves and doing their best to offer their horse the best life with the resources and experience that they have. In working with rescues like Greener Pastures and in my discussions with SPCA officers, I’ve learned that there are always worse evils. While certain things I may disagree with or not find ideal, at the end of the day, it isn’t worthwhile to freak out over someone doing something that I personally wouldn’t do in my training program provided it isn’t harming the horse, promoting unfair training tactics or potentially endangering other riders.

I would encourage you to assess the situation before passing unnecessary criticism. So, you personally believe punishment should never be used for horses? Is it worth attacking someone for flicking their horse’s nose after biting them when there are people that rapid fire beat their horses for the same thing, continuing to do so long after the horse backs off? Probably not. Is it worth being upset over the use of soft bits when people abuse bitless options and there are all sorts of weird bitting contraptions on the market that probably shouldn’t be? Probably not.

Even if you don’t train the same as someone, you should be able to value the pros and cons and ethicality of their methods by critically looking at how their horses react to them and realistically, how “bad” on either end of the spectrum you view their training and animal husbandry methods to be. We cannot take steps to move forward into a more ethical, caring horse world if we are aggressive to anyone who isn’t completely on our side yet. We should be able to value the middle ground and celebrate it instead of turning the middle ground into a war zone and making people feel like they need to fit into one specific niche of training methods to be accepted. Creating such a great divide in situations that often do not deserve the outrage the receive only serves to build walls and make people defensive, rather than opening up a forum of discussion that would actually allow for learning. There is often something to be learned from both sides of any disagreement.