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By now, just about everybody on social media has seen that video of the rider who falls off her horse mid-round in the ring and proceeds to chase him and attempt to kick him as he scoots sideways trying to avoid her fit of temper.  There are few ways this can be interpreted other than as a tantrum from a rider who ate dirt and blamed it on the horse. Yet, my Facebook feed is full of people defending her actions and pronouncing there isn’t anybody out there who hasn’t gotten angry at a horse and done something similar.

Those comments are more disturbing than the original act.  Before I begin, I want to point out that I have no problem with physically disciplining a horse – in an appropriate way.  The discipline must be immediate, it must be short, and it must be a clear response to an egregious offense that the horse can understand.  As an example, my trainer and I have both worked with aggressive horses who have learned to charge people. If you pin your ears back and charge me, you will most definitely meet my friend, Mr. Whip.  I won’t be shy about it.  I’ll charge back.  You will learn quickly that human beings have a space around them and if you aggressively intrude into that space with the intent to knock one down, it will hurt and you will regret that choice.  I’m far from a radical who believes there’s some way to magically communicate with every horse and make him love you and not want to run you over.  There isn’t.

However, I don’t hit that charging horse in anger. (Honestly, I’m usually laughing and saying something like, um, no Princess, that doesn’t fly here).  I don’t do it because I’m frustrated or upset. I do it because Princess needs to learn not to run people over or Princess will wind up a steak in France in record time, and I want to save Princess’s life.

If I strike a horse – it is done calmly and out of necessity and to assert my position as the dominant party in the herd.  That is what allows me to quickly move past that stage and create a horse I can treat as a snuggle bug, because it’s no longer trying to flatten me.  We work out the rules and then we learn that when we’re nice to people, they provide cookies, massages, and all sorts of awesome things.  My last aggressive, killer horse is doing Pony Club these days.

Now let’s look at things you don’t hit a horse for:

– falling off

– causing you to feel embarrassed

– you had a bad day

– you had a fight with your boyfriend

– you have a headache and he’s just not getting it

– you’re tired

– you lost a class/game/event/race

Horses lack intellectual capacity. They are not a smart animal and things like premeditated behavior are way, way, way beyond them.  (Even ponies. I swear.)  Your horse didn’t dump you to make you look dumb.  Mostly, they react in very predictable ways based upon pain/the absence thereof.  If you get left behind over a fence and pop them in the mouth, they will start stopping and refusing to jump.  Pain avoidance.  If you get ahead on the landing, that’s super unpleasant for them and often painful, so they may react by crowhopping – objecting to pain.  They’re simple creatures. This is as far as the equine brain extends.

Therefore, it’s completely pointless to punish them for things they didn’t do deliberately, especially when they have no way of understanding why the punishment is being applied or how they could have avoided the punishment.  It’s like randomly smacking your child in the head because you’re in a bad mood.  We all agree that’s not okay, right?  We all agree that you need to have self control and learn coping tactics – deep breaths, walk away, maybe get a sitter for the afternoon.  The crime is not that you feel emotional.  You’re human, it comes with the territory.  It is that you made the worst possible choice and took it out on an innocent creature that doesn’t even understand why you’re inflicting pain and fear upon them.

All of our behavior is a choice.  Unless you are severely mentally ill, I don’t accept that you cannot control your behavior. (My favorite example is those who point out that men who claim they “cannot control” their violence against their families never do seem to “lose control” and hit a 250 lb. bodybuilder, do they?  Huh…funny how that works.)  We make choices daily that go against our emotions – we don’t ram into the annoying person who cut us off in traffic.  We don’t tell our boss where to shove it when he makes an unfair criticism of our work.  We smile at the customer or client who is on our last nerve.  It’s called being an adult, and we can all apply the same decency to the animals in our lives.  If you find yourself agreeing with those on Facebook who say, oh, everybody loses their temper with their horses sometimes, perhaps you should remember that fifty years ago, it was totally acceptable to smack your wife and kids around.  Two hundred years ago, you could beat your slave if you were in a bad mood. We’re better than that now – right?

Be better. And stop making excuses for those who feel entitled to lash out with violence at those who cannot defend themselves, or criticizing those who speak out against it.