Communication or Control?

A discussion on bitless bridles inevitably brings up the subject of control. I am not passing judgement on anyone who rides in a bit, everyone has their own reasons for doing what they do – I have spent more years using a bit than not, I am just sharing my own discoveries in recent years.

I believe that if a horse is in a high emotional state they are unable to “hear” you, meaning your requests have no effect. You then have 2 options:

  1. To shout louder – in other words use stronger aids or equipment. This I would call CONTROL.
  2.  Reduce the horse’s emotional state so that they ARE able to hear you on a more subtle level, you are then able to hold a dialogue. This I would call COMMUNICATION.

High emotional states may be caused by fear, pain, misunderstanding or generally feeling unsafe. If my horse becomes emotional in certain situations, instead of trying to control her (which would mean I could get her to do what I want, but wouldn’t necessarily help her feel any better about it), I would question should I be putting her in this situation where she is unable to cope?  How can I help her to feel better/safer so that we can retain a comfortable level of communication, so neither of us has to go louder or stronger?

Grace can be a highly emotional horse.  In the days when I tried to control her she could frequently be seen standing on her hind legs or galloping away without me, lead line trailing in the wind….. Over the years I have put an enormous effort into understanding how she feels (and how I feel for that matter) and making it a priority to help her feel better, safer, giving her more freedom and more choice; even if she does become emotional, she will now choose to stay with me – as long as she can trust me to listen, understand and have a conversation; not force her into situations that are more than she can handle. If you cannot help a horse to cope then they will engage their own coping mechanisms – which we know as fight, flight or freeze – unfortunately also commonly known as bad behaviour.  Then you are back to the above 2 options again, CONTROL it, or know that all behaviour is COMMUNICATION and continue the dialogue.

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