The Responsibility of Love

One of the most frustrating things I hear in the rescue world when people get rid of their animals is, “they can no longer earn their keep”. This is a very outdated way of thinking. There was a time when animals served humans as essentially, slaves, they labored, they suffered, they were used until they could no longer be used, then they were killed and used for their parts. This baseline assumption is a huge problem – the idea that animals owe us their lives, their labor, their bodies, and then still ask for their affection? The idea sounds absurd when we look at it from the outside, when we take out our personal bias. If we were to look at another culture doing the same actions to another species we would see our hypocrisy (for example when people get upset over the abuse, labor, and consumption of dogs, cats, and exotic animals in Asian wet markets).

We could debate forever the ethics of using animals for labor, for their products, or for their meat. I’m not going to get into that – but I encourage everyone to look at this topic deeply and think about it with your brain and heart and come to your own conclusions that you feel good about.

I’m here to talk about the choice to own, ride, and commit to our horses in particular. These poor animals fall everywhere from livestock to family member. Regardless of where they land on your sliding scale, most people have an assumption of labor for their horses. They expect to be able to ride, drive, or compete with their horses. Why get a horse if not to ride? Just get a dog if not, right? Horses aren’t just expensive pasture ornaments. But what’s in it for the horse to do so?

I think it’s time in modern society to shift our mindset when it comes to horses – it’s time for a change. Horses should no longer be expected to work or expected to conform to human goals, competitions, or aspirations. But the shift I’m asking for isn’t huge. I’m not going to tell people to stop riding their horses or working their horses – but rather shift our mindset to appreciation. We should now appreciate when our horses choose to participate with us, we should appreciate when they help us reach our goals.

There is a huge difference in this mindset of expectation vs. appreciation. When we expect something and it’s not delivered (for whatever reason) we feel betrayed, let down, and justified in breaking up a relationship. It’s as though they aren’t upholding their end of a deal or bargain – but there was no contract, they didn’t know the deal. When we appreciate instead of expect, we go in with no presumptions, no goals, nothing to lose, so everything they offer we can be grateful for. We can recognize the gift our horses have given us by choosing to participate and choosing to give us their labor and relationship. These things can be achieved with Positive Reinforcement, to show our horses what we like, what we want more of, and that we are grateful for it. It can also give them the ability to say “this is too much to ask for right now”. It provides the horses a level of consent and agreement. This concept of appreciation vs. expectation can be seen especially when the horse becomes injured, sick, old, or even just unhappy. So often horses are sold, given away, left at auction, or otherwise tossed out simply because they are no longer “useful” to the owner, because the horse is no longer meeting their person’s expectations.

When we think in the realm of expectations, we believe that a horse should do our bidding it puts us in the frame of mind of force, pressure, and even punishment should the animal not comply. While when we think in the realm of appreciation, we believe a horse owes us nothing but they may choose to give to us – this puts us in the frame of mind of reward, reinforcement, praise and signs of appreciation. I do have some degree of expectation to be able to provide my horse full care safely. I want to be able to tend to their hooves, clean their environment, provide enrichment and basic husbandry care – I expect this. I don’t expect them to be perfect and compliant for these things from day one, I expect to be able to work towards this so I can provide them a healthy and appropriate life. I do not expect them to participate in anything that is just for fun, just for me, or cosmetic in anyway, these things I just appreciate when they do participate. I show my appreciation through positive reinforcement (and non-contingent rewards and love!) This becomes a more mutually beneficial and enjoyable relationship for both partners.

When we make the decision to add a horse to our life we owe them a full contract of freedoms (freedom from hunger, thirst, discomfort, pain, injury, disease, fear and distress, and the freedom to express their normal behaviors) with low expectations (the ability to provide them care) and a great deal of appreciation for anything they chose to share with us. This is the responsibility of love, if we choose to love them and add them to our lives, we owe them all this. Ideally this will be for a lifetime partnership – there are situations where we can’t keep them, but it should never be for a horse not fulfilling an expectation they didn’t know about or sign up for.