Why I will never ride again...
Before we dive into this controversial topic, let me preface this article by saying that my intent in writing these lines is not to offend anyone. I am expressing my own views, which stem from my horse-riding and horse “owning” experience. Of course I welcome constructive discussion, so long as mutual respect is maintained.
Horses are beautiful, majestic animals beloved by all humans, idolized by most children and revered in countless tales, mythologies, stories. Trusty companions, strong and enduring, they have been mankind’s faithful aid and abet for as long as history remembers…
Or have they? From where I am sitting as I write these lines, there is another way of looking at this story. Horses’ companionship with humans has – without a doubt – contributed to where humanity is at today. They have transported us, ploughed our fields, carried us through battlefields, enabled us to be faster and therefore more successful at hunting other animals, and they have even taken part in our selfish amusement, often at the expense of their own lives. But did they do that out of pure, benevolent choice or were they forced into it?
Interestingly, a number of pre-formatted ‘excuses’ seem to spring up whenever someone (often a child or a person who knows very little about horses) asks whether it might not be too hard or too painful for the horse. “The end justifies the means” and “horses need to be useful” are among some of the weakest ones, while “I enjoy horse riding too much” or “my horse becomes unbearable if I don’t ride him” are some horse-rider favorites. You might even hear “Oh, but horses enjoy working, it keeps them occupied”… As for the pain factor, some will maintain that “horses are tough, they can take it, and whipping doesn’t feel the same to them as it does to you”.
This is the mindset that has led most of us horse lovers to believe – from a very young age – that riding was absolutely fine. Of course, we condemn the most violent practices, and some of us quite rightly oppose horse racing and other abusive “sports” but when it comes to our own amusement, we see it in a different light.
And this makes sense to me. Most horses are docile and, when they are well trained – and this is really where you may start to understand where I’m coming from – you might never feel like sticking a bit of cold metal in their mouths and restricting their blood flow with a tight girth (or cinch) to get on their backs and start controlling their every step bothers them in the slightest. But here’s the deal: horses weren’t “made to be ridden” as I once heard someone say – how could they be? I have come to think of it as taking over another animal’s body to bend it to our will. A behavior that – even if I might sound a bit extreme in saying this – is nothing short of parasitic and certainly not an act of friendship and connectedness.
But from a very young age, like many other horse lovers, I viewed horse riding as an experience of pure connection with another being. Of course, I witnessed rebellion on the part of some particularly “difficult” ponies, or nasty falls that are simply “part of the game”… but it didn’t occur to me at that point to think that this was simply the horse expressing an opinion. “Show him who’s boss”, “horses require discipline” or “get off, I’ll show him how to behave” should have meant something to me back then, even as a child! But it didn’t, and I continued to ride horses.
Fast-forward to quite a few years later. I hadn’t ridden horses consistently for quite a while but still loved the idea and I was presented with an opportunity I simply couldn’t turn down. And Ambaé entered my life.
She was young – not yet three – but I didn’t care. This just meant that I could train her to become exactly what I would like. Nobody had traumatized her yet and, with the help of a trainer, I could make her into the perfect (not so) little horse. Which clearly proves that I DID know that many horses can get traumatized from being “broken” the wrong way.
And she was so full of life, curious of everything and trusting… and a little pushy, and sometimes not very respectful of the “boundaries”, and not always particularly obedient. But she was open to everything, and so happy to learn new things. My trainer was great: she introduced me to bitless riding and encouraged me to choose a treeless saddle that would be easier on my mare’s back (another clue that shouldn’t be ignored!) and we started training Ambaé through games and ground work until, eventually, she would be ready to be ridden.
And this experience was wonderful: the training process allowed me to realize that connecting with my horse was not only possible without riding at all, but the connection was deeper, more like a dialogue. Still, much of it was me asking – sometimes even demanding – until, eventually, I got Ambaé to do what I wanted. What everyone calls training started to feel like imposing, not by force because I had already moved away from that mindset, but by badgering her into it. Because this is what “good” horse training looks like: never forcefully imposing, but making it so that what you are suggesting the horse should do is the most “comfortable” option for them, so they will naturally choose the path of least resistance.
Eventually, I did get on Ambaé’s back. I did it respectfully, I didn’t catch her by surprise and I asked for her permission. And she gave it to me, unconditionally, because she knew that I wouldn’t abuse her trust. There it was: I could “ride” her and, gradually, she was learning how to respond to my cues and go left when I wanted her to, and right when I indicated right, and to pick up some speed. All that without a bit, without spurs, without even a saddle, simply communication and trust. I even received some compliments from much more experienced riders who said to me “you know, I would never have dared to ride my horse without a bit or saddle or anything like that when he was barely broken”. But for me, something had clicked, my perspective had shifted.
Not so long before that, I had become vegan. And I was becoming more and more aware of the reality of most horses’ lives, even at the club where I rode. We had moved to a new place where everything was much more “traditional”, and my mother and I were the only weirdos who rode bitless and who stopped riding in the middle of the lesson if their horses were beginning to show signs of no longer being in the mood. “You treat her like a princess”, “it shouldn’t be up to her to decide” and “if you don’t force her, she’s never going to canter” were people’s reactions to my attitude. But at that point, I had stopped caring and, very soon after that, I stopped even seeing the point in riding at all. That wasn’t what I wanted our relationship to be based on. I didn’t want to be “boss” or to “make her” do anything that she didn’t feel like doing.
I sold my saddle and I will never buy one again. And now, our relationship is based on so much more. Training my horse made me realize that I didn’t want to ride anymore. In many ways, it seems Ambaé is the one who trained me after all. But only because I was willing to listen and to hear HER cues. I wanted to feel her emotions and to give her as much as she gave me, and forcing her to canter when she would SO clearly have preferred to stop riding and go eat some fresh grass had become impossible.
Many pet owners perfectly understand if you tell them that you value your fur baby’s happiness above your own, so why should it be any different for horses? No, my horse is not “useful”, no more than my cat is. No, I do not need to get anything special out of her other than seeing her happy. And no, I don’t think it’s a shame that I don’t ride her.
I know this notion that horses should be “useful” to us is a well established one, but it is by now about as outdated as the idea that a human being cannot survive without consuming the flesh other beings. The excuses humans make up to justify driving nails deep into their horses’ hoofs, hurting their mouths and teeth by pulling hard on a metal bit to control their movements and forcing them to support their weight on their – obviously not designed to be ridden – backs now feels to me like nothing short of torture and slavery. Horses are kept in conditions that are a far cry from what their natural habitat is, and those kept in stalls very often develop behavioral issues brought about by depression.
Of course, I am not suggesting that most horse owner don’t love their horses. I know they do. Most horse lovers agree that one of the reasons these animals are so fascinating and lovable is that they are highly emotional beings with whom one can build a true connection, even a relationship, a friendship…
So I choose to let that friendship be a true friendship, rather than a relationship based on emotional and physical abuse. I understand this can be a difficult choice, but I encourage you to objectively study the relationship you have with your animal and to listen. Horses may not speak any words, but they do talk. And if you are open to what they have to say you may discover a level of mutual understanding and love you would never have thought possible.