We are all Mark Todd
How the equestrian culture of violence can become a culture of compassion.
We live in the age of irreverence, and that is no small thing for the horse world. People are starting to question the old methods. It no longer matters what you achieve, but rather how you achieve it.
Even the great idols are being held accountable for their actions and Mark Todd was not the first, nor will he be the last. Because this was never about him. He is just the symbol – or perhaps symptom – of a much bigger issue: the culture of violence in the horse world.
Violence is at the core of our relationship with horses. Historically, we hunted them. Then we trapped them in enclosures for slaughter. Then we used them to pull our carts and carry us into battle. But horses are big and fearful animals, so we needed to make sure they wouldn’t kill us. Crude early training methods relied heavily on using pain to control horses – putting a metal rod in their sensitive mouths, for example, or slapping them with sticks to make them move away.
Over the course of millennia, these crude methods evolved into training systems. As horses evolved to become less fearful1 and as we learned to interpret their behaviour, these training systems became more refined. The Greek general Xenophon, for example, showed an innate understanding of operant conditioning more than two thousand years before B.F. Skinner ever formulated his theses.
Still, force was at the core of horse training. The bits remained, the sticks remained, but instead of simply using them to inflict pain we started using them as predictors of pain so that we could use ever finer signals.
And still today the bits remain, as do the sticks, and those crude methods that evolved into training systems have now become a culture of violence.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve all yanked a lead rope at some point in our lives. Or slapped a neck. Or switched to a sharper bit. Put on draw reins. Added “more leg”. Put on spurs. Shoved our horses away. Wrapped a chain over their nose. Forced them into a trailer using lunge lines. Put a twitch on their muzzle.
Why do we do this? Because we’ve been conditioned to think it’s right – as a culture for thousands of years, but also as individuals for most of our lives.
The first thing we’re taught when learning to ride is to dominate horses. “Don’t let him win”, “show him who’s boss”, “he’s just testing you”, “she’s just being bitchy”, “more leg”. These are familiar phrases to any horse person, and they establish a relationship of dominance and subjugation from the very start.
The second thing we’re taught is to make horses do what we want by applying pressure – physical or psychological force – and not yielding until the horse responds in the way we desire.
These two cornerstones of traditional horsemanship create the perfect foundation for a culture of violence. If we’re taught to believe that we need to dominate our horses, and the only tool at our disposal is force, then the Mark Todd incident becomes not just unsurprising, but inevitable.
But thankfully cultures can change.
Today we know more than our ancestors did about how horses feel, learn, communicate, and perceive the world. We know that horses don’t try to dominate us. The behaviours we used to interpret as “testing” or “challenging” or “dominating” are simply signs that our horses are afraid, uncomfortable, stressed or experiencing conflicting motivations. Instead of trying to dominate them into submission we now have the knowledge to address the underlying physical or emotional issues.
We also have a deeper understanding of how horses learn and can develop a more sophisticated training approach than just increasing pressure until we get what we want. We can use the environment and a variety of reinforcements instead of force.
The archaic methods of dominance and force are unscientific and unethical. It is high time for the horse world to abandon the culture of violence in favour of a modern culture of compassion, where ethical and science-based treatment of horses takes precedence over traditional dogma.
It’s quite doable. We already love our horses and care deeply for their wellbeing. The bond we share with them is arguably the closest we share with any species, apart from dogs. Horses have been our nation-builders, freedom fighters, muses and companions throughout history.
The love is already there; we just need to unlearn the old behavioural patterns and practice some new ones.
Abraham Lincoln once said that “violence begins where knowledge ends”, but I would argue that it’s the other way around: violence ends where knowledge begins. So let us learn, and spread the knowledge, together.
“The horse world”, after all, isn’t just Mark Todd; it’s you and me as well.
Librado et al., 2021