Happy Hacking

Or holiday in handcuffs?

This week I was driving through our village and noticed two identical black standard poodles being walked in very tight red rope head collars on very short leads on a narrow pavement.

The dog’s heads were not being allowed below the vertical by virtue of the short leads and tightening halters on their heads.

Instantly I felt sad. This might be the dog’s only trip out of their home in a day, or one of two and yet what should be an enjoyable and enriching experience for them was fraught with emotional conflict due to the aversive equipment an inappropriate route their handlers had chosen to take them on.

This got me thinking about what we do to our horses when we hack them out in traditional tack, away from home. Especially when we take them out alone without the company of other horses. Horses are herd animals they rely on the safety of the herd for their emotional comfort and physical protection.

We tell ourselves that the horse enjoys this.

We tell ourselves that because he lifts his head, pricks his ears or quickens his step that he must be excited or having fun.

What we fail to see is that those may actually be the hallmarks of anxiety.

He knows from previous experiences (either with us or other people) that resistance is often futile so he complies and comes along but quickens his pace to get home sooner.

When we get to the stubble field he wants to canter or gallop.

He must be having fun now though right?

Maybe this is an relief for his frustration at being taken away from his herd.

Maybe he has been conditioned to believe we want him to go fast here and he does so to avoid being kicked or whipped to go.

Maybe he is being ridden in company and doesn’t want to be left behind so canters to keep up. Maybe its not fun after all.

If you don’t believe us try opening your horse’s field gate and heading for the bridleways without the tack, without the bit, without the whip. If he comes willingly and is safe to ride out then great, you have no need for the bit or the whip in the first place.

If he doesn’t come willingly then he is telling you everything you need to know about how he feels about going out.

Remember that all behaviour is performed for reinforcement. He wants to gain something he likes. He wants to escape or avoid something he doesn’t like. If he doesn’t come what might you do to make him?

Put yourself in his hoofs for a sec… you may want to go to Barbados.

It might have been a bucket list holiday for you for the longest time.

If I offer you a holiday to Barbados you might jump at the chance to go.

But if you can only go in a set of handcuffs, shackled to me for the duration, that holiday experience quickly becomes the stuff of nightmares.

Your holiday companion is no longer a friend, but a captor.

So next time you tack up for that solo hack, truly ask yourself is this Happy Hacking? Or is this a holiday in handcuffs??

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