In my many years spent as part of the equestrian community, I've come across many great riders and highly capable grooms. Even so, it worries me just how many harbour misconceptions about equine behaviour and perception. The amount of riding instructors I hear proclaiming that a pony is simply "taking the piss" and that you need to "show him who's boss" is troubling. In this article, I'm going to debunk this common, but misguided belief that I have encountered all too often within the equine community.
First, let's define what is meant by "taking the piss" in this context. A horse will appear to be ignoring the instructions of a rider/handler, usually an inexperienced novice, and behave in a manner that could be considered "naughty." For example, a new pony owner is out for a hack and decides to take a different route. The pony, having never been this way before, is not keen and begins to nap with increasing intensity until the pony bolts and gallops home. Some experienced know-it-all will then come along saying that the pony is simply taking the piss and imply that the rider basically man-up, try harder and show it who's boss. Not only is this untrue, and pretty vague and unhelpful, it then leaves the rider feeling ashamed, demoralised and as if the horse dislikes and has it in for them (another misconception). This is exactly the wrong mindset to harbour if you want to have a productive training session with a horse, leading to more behavioural problems and a big knock to the confidence of the new rider. Everyone is unhappy.
Consider this alternate explanation for the behaviour. The pony is confidently walking along the route it knows best. The rider asks it to go a different way all of a sudden, which is unexpected for the pony, so he stops to consider the instruction. The rider, impatient, procedes to flap their legs in a panicky, yet ineffective, way at the pony's sides while sawing at the left and side of the pony's mouth. The pony is jarred and uncomfortable, so it tries to move in such a way as to alleviate the discomfort, but will not go down the unknown path because there is a funny smell down there and a big puddle in the way. Who knows what the funny smell is, or how deep the puddle is? That puddle could be a deep hole that reaches the centre of the Earth. As far as the pony is concerned, it definitely could be. Although it may seem silly to you, equines don't have the same visual processing capabilities as humans and they cannot estimate the depth of puddles the way we can. The pony, caught between the rational part of his brain that's trying to assess the situation for danger and the flight response being triggered by the riders wild attempts to get him to move begins to panic. The rider, too, seems panicked as their urgency increases, and the pony then worries that maybe the human has sensed danger, or that the puddle really is that deep and that he must perform a spectacular jump over it to get to safety. The pony feels too stressed by this and decides to bail, taking the safe option and galloping home to where his buddies are, as that is where he feels safe. The rider seems stressed so the pony feels justified that going home was the right decision.
Does it still seem like the pony is taking the piss to you? In fact, equines cannot take the piss. It isn't in their nature to want to annoy, humiliate or take advantage of a person. This is a very human concept and a form of passive aggressive human behaviour. To think that a horse can be passive aggressive is to anthropomorphise the animal. There's not a malicious bone in their body. Horses are prey animals and they have many natural enemies. All they are driven to do is stay alive, which they do by avoiding conflict unless it is the only option. Behaving in such a way as to antagonise you intentionally is, therefore, counterproductive to its' primary goals. No, the horse is not "taking the piss" out of you on purpose, although it may feel that way. Possibly your instructions are not clear or firm enough and the horse is confused. Maybe your emotions are getting in the way and you are stressing the animal out and making it feel as if it is in danger. Remember, many of the things we ask of them are unnatural. Horses do not school or do dressage in the wild, as this would waste the essential energy they could be saving for running away from an actual threat or surviving the winter. What you are asking it to do is counter-intuitive from its' perspective. So, if you give weak and unclear signals, the horse may choose to conserve its energy instead if it can as this is the easier and smartest option from its' point of view. If you aren't confident and are unsure of what you're asking, why should your horse trust you and follow your instructions? In this case, it will probably choose to trust its own judgement and not yours.
This doesn't mean that you need to "show it who's boss" either. Horses aren't pack animals like dogs. They may live in herds and have a social hierarchy, but they will not view you as part of their herd the way a pet dog will view you as part of their pack. They will never view you as a boss. However, by staying calm, confident and giving clear instructions that they understand, they will trust you enough to do as you ask if they are able to. They don't want to fight with you, they just don't want to be lead into danger. Don't get me wrong, there are some horses that will go to the end of the earth for you, just look at the cavalry horses of WWI, galloping repeatedly into gunfire. But not all can be removed from their natural instincts so easily, and you'd never get a donkey or a mule to run into battle twice and you shouldn't expect them to.
Horses really are wonderful animals. We ask so much of them that we forget that it isn't normal. We need to remember that their perception, psychology and natural behaviours are completely different to our own. We need to respect that they are individuals with their own interests and not tools for us to use and abuse. As instructors, coaches and other professionals in the equestrian community it is important that we study the complexities of equine behaviour and instill this knowledge in our novice students. We mustn't shame them into thinking that they are weak, allowing a horse to do them wrong and take the piss out of them. Instead, we should teach that they shouldn't take it personally. That they should relax, stay calm and be clearer. If we make it easier for horses to do as we wish then they will do it.
We all need to remember that everything horses do for us is a great gift that we should not take for granted or misuse. All that strength and power, yet they don't use it against us. I think that's something we can all respect.