Does Your Horse “Respect” You?

I’m just the sort of old-fashioned cowgirl/dressage queen/dork that loves the concept of respect. Philosophically and in real life, I care more about respect than love in most situations. Love can be fickle and misguided, but respect is a sacred trust. Sadly, as a trainer and writer, I avoid using the word.

The word “respect” has been kidnapped and held against its will. It’s been bullied into being a code word for all kinds of behaviors that I, well, do not respect. Respect is a lofty ideal that has been sullied to mean domination and control, based in fear, so insecure humans can bolster their egos, making themselves right by making others wrong. It’s seeing fear in an animal and being proud that you put it there. There’s a sales pitch for this kind of training and it sounds reasonable, especially if you don’t read horses well or think they are “dumb” animals. Domination training has been around for centuries.

Some of us relate to horses when the misuse of the concept of “respect” comes up in training. We have experiences with being told to “respect” things that did not deserve respect; adults who were cruel, rules that were demeaning, philosophies that made us second class citizens. The word respect has been bruised and misused, but for compassion and equality to exist, that old-fashioned respect must be rescued. And I mean the word rescue in the abused horse sense; see it standing knee-deep in manure, malnourished with dead eyes.

Most of us carry some guilt if we were taught this approach when we started working with horses. It never felt right, but we did it, horrified by our own actions, and cowed by those who demanded we do it because, as they explained, we’d spoil the horse otherwise.

Then some of us rebelled but went too far the other way. We coo and coddle, pockets full of sweets, we encourage horses to shut down and act like stuffed toys. We collect them in different colors and smother them with a version of human love that ends up being as desperate as teen angst, living some horse-crazy fantasy that horses find demeaning and boring. We kill them with kindness thinking we are doing better but is it better “respect” if we write it in pink ink with hearts and flowers next to the word?

Most of us are works in progress, in neither extreme but trying to find our own balance and a truth that works for both us and our horses. When we know better, we can do better.

Do you notice something missing in this word debate? Horses. When we talk, it’s all about us. What we want, how horses reflect on us. Like we’re better if horses are shut down with fear in our presence. Like we are better if horses mug us like a stall toy. Half the time we’re more concerned with how our peers see us than how our horses do.

Dictionary result for respect/nouna feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements.

Surprised? Have we had the meaning backward? Is this why some say respect can’t be demanded but must be earned? But isn’t that still all about us?

Because I respect admire horses, I make the choice to put the horse first. To lay down my selfish behaviors and really get out of my own normal insecure human ego stuff. Instead, I try to live up to horses.

Start here: Foremost, it’s my job to buy hay. It isn’t a joke, it’s a profound responsibility. In order to buy hay, I must prioritize my personal safety. I cannot let myself get hurt by my own complacency or ego. I must care for myself so I can care for my horses. Whether I’m showing off chasing my horse in a round pen, or laying on his back without a helmet, I’m disrespecting my horse if I do party tricks to impress people. Just to stir it up, one more:

Dictionary result for self-respect/noun: pride and confidence in oneself; a feeling that one is behaving with honor and dignity.

Does it make you want to straighten your shoulders and take a breath? Maybe go less with the jokes that demean the two of you? A horse understands the sarcastic tone if not the words. It’s time to bring the best of ourselves to our horses, to up our conversation to inspire them rather than share a co-dependent dysfunctional relationship. We can show our respect for horses by asking some hard questions of ourselves.

Do we respect a horse’s language by learning it or by name-calling him in our language?

Do we respect a horse’s way of life by managing his care as close to natural as we can or by not inconveniencing ourselves?

Do we respect a horse’s intelligence by giving him autonomy or by dumbing him down to our lowest caricature?

It is just like man’s vanity and impertinence to call an animal dumb because it is dumb to his dull perceptions.  ~Mark Twain. 

Do horses respect us? No, they answer us honestly. And the old cowboy standard: Does your horse respect your space? I think a better question is do you respect his?

I won’t make a joke out of our relationships with horses because I respect admire them too much. The real question is can we humans behave with honor and dignity?

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
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Anna Blake

71 thoughts on “Does Your Horse “Respect” You?”

  1. The rewards of having respect, i.e., honor, esteem and deference, for onesself and for all other beings, nature and the universe, are endless!

  2. Very good article, Anna. Thanks for writing and posting it. I, too, have often seen and heard others saying, “My horse respects me, my space, the bit, my spurs, my crop, etc.,”, when it seems like the horse is actually showing fear or just acceptance. I feel comfortable around my own horses, but still I’m aware that they are much bigger than me and I can get hurt by them, not b/c they are trying to hurt me but b/c they are bigger, and their self-preservation reflexes are much different than mine. I believe respect should be aimed toward them.

  3. I believe horses are looking to humans to be good leaders. I’m wondering what your take is on that? I know that word can be as murky and convoluted as respect. A good leader (which is rare to find) looks out for her subordinates, has their best interest in mind, considers their opinions, but leads (even when their choices aren’t popular). Isn’t that something a horse respects? Something a horse looks for?

    • Cathy, I do write about that a lot, and I could write a book about it, but the short answer is that horses are looking to feel safe. IMO.

    • Are either of you ladies familiar with the trainer Mark Rashid? He talks about just this topic, being a leader that makes a horse feel safe, in his book “Horses Never Lie.” I find many of his insights to be fantastic, and he is very much in your line of thinking, Anna. I’d highly recommend his works if you don’t know him. Really great, thought-provoking stories, as well as just being a pleasure to read!

  4. Very nice Anna. I too was raised a cowgirl/horsewoman. I will refer to your earlier post about letting a horse be a horse. I think what you say here is connected to that. My dad was an old cowboy and respect was a result of knowing your horse and listening to your horse. It was also knowing what a horse was and not projecting your own human nonsense onto the horse which has become so popular today. As a young girl I remember his constant chastising me to not expect so much from a green horse because they need time. I had no idea how much time was needed! It took me many years of riding difficult horses to understand the magic of time. Time for a horse is not the same time as for a human. That a trainer/owner understands this concept indicates her respect for the animal. Spot on as always! Thanks again.

  5. Really good article & good comment! I agree – we humans have the heavier burden (so to speak) of respecting these much larger animals – THEIR space – at the very least making the attempt to see how they see things. Putting yourself in another’s shoes – whether its a thousand pound horse or another human being appears to be harder and harder for people to do. Kind of the old “its my way or the highway” expression.

  6. You are exactly – and I do mean exactly – right. Those of us who work at being honest with ourselves have heard, seen and done all of it. And still, those misguided instincts and beliefs rise up in us at times! It is worth being reminded. It is important to keep striving for “better” because it spills over into everything else. Thank you for pointing it out, again.

  7. Good words, Anna…and good delving into word meanings and implications.

    Respect, I think, is a two-way street. I want my horse to respect me by paying attention and responding to my cues. So, I must start with respecting him, by paying attention and trying to understand his perspective and his concerns.

    Mark Rashid writes about the old horseman who he learned under as a kid. One of the old man’s favorite questions was, “I wonder how the horse feels about that?”

    This, I think, is where respect begins. And it is just as true of human relationships with other humans.

    Thanks for sharing such a thought-provoking post! 🙂

  8. Yes, in all respects. Youthful cowboying, a foray into coddling, being cowed ( I like interspecies references ) by the word “respect”. This work in progress is almost frightened in those moments when her very wise older mare and she….I can’t think of the right word…connect? Submit? Partner? Trust? Respect? Display an attitude of interdependence maybe? It’s a little overwhelming at the moment, but I think I could get used to it. It’s kind of that same feeling as when I’m performing a piece of music and the music becomes the all, not the self, not the instrument, and you and your audience, are literally carried away. It doesn’t happen that often and it can’t be conjured. You work towards it and wish for it, and in the end, when the time is right, it carries you. I feel exalted when it happens with the music, somehow it’s more profound and intimate with the horse for me right now. Right now it makes me shy! As in bashful. Or maybe a little spooky, too.

    Thank you, Anna.

      • Yeah, it’s definitely not the kind of ephemeral magic a shared musical moment can create. I’m startling myself when I relax into that moment with the horse and get the response I’m looking for, though. It’s new to me! Thanks so much for all your answers to our comments. Your ability to parse and distill is admirable!

  9. Amen!! I have long avoided the word “respect”. When we were young we were taught to “respect” our elders … yet, I suffered abuse at the hands of the people I was supposed to respect. Even as recently as last year, I worked for a boss who would “demand respect” to the point of verbal and emoti9nal abuse. So, that word has a negative connotation for me … a strong word, corrupted. Much like “leadership” – another favorite if the dominance crowd. With the people I supervise, or the horses I work with, I prefer words like collaboration, support, and trust. To the extent possible, it should be about working together and giving everyone a voice and the safety to use it. Some may not like your words, Anna … but I lived them!

  10. Love this article because it unravels so much “conventional wisdom” about training – with thoughtful consideration given to both the horse and the human. My horse has taught me more about my human-ness than any other creature – my proclivity for nagging, my need for love, my lack of patience. He has required that I face myself and then (unwittingly) rewarded me richly when I’ve risen to my better self. I do have a question related to the old notion of respect though. In a specific training scenario, say with a young horse that doesn’t know the “rules” about not jumping over the top of you, or likes to bite since that’s the game he plays in the pasture – how does a human firmly but respectfully say, “No!” The herd he runs with doles out a “no” that he won’t soon forget. He’ll get double-barreled for biting the herd boss, yet he’ll get a fun game of chase if he bites the third in command. Just wondering how to “establish boundaries” or is this also a false kind of conventional wisdom?

  11. Wow Anna! Once again you have provided such insight into the horse/human relationship.
    Thank you so much!
    It is so validating to read your insights. Until a few years ago, I was one of those people who believed that the horse must respect me first. Somewhere along the line I started realizing that I must also respect my horse. My entire way of interacting with my horses has changed for the better.

  12. I wonder how much of the ‘respect’ era was motivated by, or at least started with, the goal of staying safe around horses. Having worked on big breeding farms where you care for hundreds of horses that get minimal handling I can appreciate the desire to have a horse ‘respect’ my space. This of course has nothing to do with training and the two should never be confused. But if I’m going to get everyone fed that day, it’s essential that I don’t get run over and killed.

    I can imagine there was some of this in the old time cowboys’ approach: not having the luxury of time to go slow, coupled with the need for physical safety and the fear of getting hurt without any available medical care, while not having another option for transportation…

    I guess what I’m saying is our old friend fear, that great motivator, probably got us into this mess.

  13. Excellent article! Thank you for sharing your insights into “respect”. I have never seen the “respect” concept stated more clearly.

  14. Thank you for this, Anna. I depend on you to keep me mindful and appreciate you are not hesitant to call a spade a f**king shovel. My life is blessed with a mustang, off the range recently enough to still speak his mind and heart clearly, and you could be speaking in his voice. We need you to keep speaking the truth. <3

  15. Thank you as always Anna. I know you sometimes take requests for blog posts (you’ve already taken one from me) and I would love to read one specifically about the concept of personal space around horses.

    “Does your horse respect your space? I think a better question is do you respect his?”

    I’m a relative newcomer to horses and have been told that a horse should always stay out of your space or he’s being “bad”…if they come into your space they don’t “respect” you, and if you step out of their space you are reinforcing that “disrespect.” One instructor advised me to carry a plastic bag in my pocket and shake it at my horse when he came near. Yuck. I’m sure you have lots of thoughts about a better way.

    Thank you again…I’m grateful I came across your blog some months ago.

    • I too would like to hear Anna’s thoughts on this.

      I can share some of my own thoughts with you…if the words of a novice horseman mean anything to you. 😉

      Asking the horse to respect my personal space is a very big deal to me, mostly because I see it as a safety concern. In the pasture, our horses frequently nip, bite, and kick each other as part of their normal social interaction and it is no big deal. Five minutes later, all is calm and the discussion is over, with only minor scars to show for it.

      However, we humans are much more fragile. My skin is not tough enough to handle a horse bite. My bones are not strong enough to take a full-powered horse kick. I must insist on respect for my personal space, not because I’m better or smarter than the horse, but because I am so much more fragile that if we are to have any relationship at all, it must be contingent on respect for my personal space.

      That said, I try to also show my horses respect for their space. When approaching my horse, I often pause and wait for an invitation in his posture. I try not to just charge up and mob him. Likewise, I try not to smother him with affection, realizing that my idea of affectionate hugs is not something he wants, needs, or desires.

      I try to respect his personal space in regard to affection or demands. I insist he respect my personal space in regard to my safety and fragility.

      Good boundaries make good relationships.

  16. I often feel that society as a whole has misunderstood the meaning of the word “respect”, but I digress.

    When I first got one of my horses, he had not been handled much at all. This, as it turns out, is more of a blessing than a curse. 🙂 He did have a behaviour that I at the time thought of as disrespectful, as he used to invade my personal space and simply expect me to move if I was in the way of whatever he wanted to get to. We had a few occasions when he literally “bumped” me out of the way with his shoulder!

    Your post got me thinking that there is clearly a difference between the absence of disrespect and the presence of respect. Just because he does not walk all over me anymore, does that mean that there is respect? No, I don’t necessarily think so – but claiming my own space certainly made me more interesting, and maybe laid the groundwork for inviting respect in?

    I’m not sure the correct term is even “disrespect”. What I got from the horse in the moment (which I might have totally misread) was a kind of “oops, didn’t see you there, didn’t expect to bump into you!” An ear flick in my direction, rounding his body momentarily around me, shoulder away, a quick peek at me, before again becoming intent on his goal. Is that disrespect or just mindlessness? On the other hand, not being mindful of other beings to the point that you walk into them is probably disrespectful… or maybe this is just semantics (but maybe there is no “just” about that).

  17. The longer I’m around horses, the more I find that becoming a better horseman = becoming a better human.
    (and respect ≠ submission)

  18. I was hoping to bring my mare to your Auckland clinic but the planets didn’t align. She was my return to horses after 25 years horse and we got off to a terribl start, the first year we were an accident waiting to happen so I restarted her using online training not really sure about what I was doing or if it would work. I’ve had her four years now and we’ve improved a lot. I think I understand and can read her some of the time but still has some quirks and I sometimes feel like a piece of the puzzle is missing. I used to be a teacher aide in a primary school and when I’m working with her I try to treat her the same as I would teaching children by quietly showing, pointing, asking and giving her a rub to show her she’s got it right. She seems to enjoy learning this way, it works for us. BUT she can still be a bit spooky and on high alert from time to time. When this happens sometimes I can work with her doing basic stuff she knows well to bring her mind back to me and she relaxes, other times she’s over the tipping point of her comfort zone and it’s a very fine line between being able to work with her and sending her into flight or fight mode. I’d love advice on how to work with her in these situations. She’s a real introvert who although much improved, still lacks confidence at times, she can shut down quickly but also be on high alert. Took four years for me to see her yawn.

    • It’s always a long and winding road but it sounds like you’ve made good progress. Tracey, she sounds good. No horse is flawless, we have that in common, too. Thanks.

  19. Thank you, Anna, for a great blog. You know, it really is a damn shame that the word “respect” has been so trashed and misused that it’s best to just avoid it altogether.

    Since following you, I have become increasingly respectful ( oops, used the word) of my horse’s space, asking permission before stepping in closer, and asking for a “yes” to halter and so on. It’s interesting to me, and maybe to you, that the better I do that, the calmer they are around me. My highly anxious horse tends to come in too close, and some folks think he is just super-friendly. Also, at one point, numerous trainers had labeled him ” a very dominant horse.” But of course what’s truly going on is his lack of confidence. The man who helps me out now and then kinda gets into a wrestling match with his head when Cash pushes into him, and he and Cash kinda push and pull on one another. .. and not surprisingly, Cash is more anxious around him I have noticed. My awareness has been evolving on this matter.

    Anyhow, I, too, am interested to hear you speak or write sometime on the matter of personal space as Joe Pote above has asked too. I don’t think a horse is “wrong” to get close, sniff me or whatever, but I do think when I go into their pen that I need them to be mindful of my presence and not knock me over. To be enough of a distance that a startle isn’t going to knock me over. It’s a bit perplexing on how to accomplish that with affirmative training…

    • I’m endlessly fascinated with how horses behave differently with each individual, it never gets old. But it sounds like you have a good handle on it. Thanks, Sarah.

  20. Respect is not really in my horse vocabulary. Lots of replies here and I think only one used the word “trust”. I’m old and horse savvy and often “wary” (constant awareness) but I can read them. We can’t demand respect. Demands invoke fear, that is not respect. All we can do is demonstrate we understand, we will do no harm, we can be trusted. We can discourage an action. Our youngster here nibbles, exploratory, without being violent. If I see it coming I tap her lightly on the nose with my forefinger and say “no”, which has come down to holding out the finger and saying “no” to which she remembers and almost apologises. Left to her own devices she would happily tear your shirt off, just to see what it is. Thanks Anna, another great bit of writing.

  21. “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me,” sings Aretha. “Respect: a high or special regard: esteem,” says Webster’s.
    When I’m with my horses, I cannot help but respect them because I hold them in high regard. In return, I strive to present myself so that my horses respect me (hold me in high regard) and want to be around me, not because of fear or dominance. So far so good!

  22. The word respect has indeed been kidnapped and is in need of rescuing!!!
    I love this so much. You really have a way with words and a beautiful view of horses 🙂

  23. Anna, sometimes I think that we share some DNA (though you are considerably more evolved) because you continuously give clarity and organization to my hail storm of shared thoughts. And….your timing is down right spooky. Just yesterday, I spent a good deal of time waiting and breathing in order to perhaps gain some trust from a very insecure rescue of mine. I admire him for surviving his ordeal, and I work hard not to feel sorry for him, but to be in the moment with him. At this point, Respect has nothing to do with it.

    • Feeling sorry for him does not one iota of good, it’s respectful to just keep breathing. Keep up the good work, Thanks, Laurie.

  24. I train with positive reinforcement and a variety of things the horse wants.

    One of the ways I “respect” my horses is by not giving a cue until I think the horse can respond to it.

    There are so many ways we can disrespect a horse, and your illustrations we’re wonderful.

    Thanks for bringing this topic to light.

  25. Thank you Anna. I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog and I really like this one. After many years of not riding or being around horses, I am back to doing what I love. Being able to ride a wonderful horse and spending non riding time with the same horse! He’s opinionated and a little stubborn but really a nice horse. I’ve come to that time in my life when I try very hard to understand things before I just react or do something I was told to do a long time ago by other horse experts. I am also trying very hard to learn respect for horses and earn respect from the horse that I love to ride.
    I don’t know if that makes any sense but I am trying. Thank you again for this blog!

    • Linda, I love this comment. We are at an age that we can be better with horses than ever before. The bravado of youth isn’t that cool to horses. Thank you and welcome.

  26. Excellent perspective on respect vs. domination. When I hear someone characterizing a horse’s behavior as “disrespectful”, it usually means the horse hasn’t submitted to that person’s “superiority”, predicated on a master-slave model. That means they’re expecting the horse to speak their language, rather than vice-versa.

  27. Very good article Anna. Yes, lots of words get corrupted from their true meanings; esp in the world of horses. There is the same problem with ‘discipline’ I think: a euphemism for punishing a horse. I wish people were actually more deferential towards all animals, at all times. The horse is not there as an object to which things are done; but as a sentient creature who we might *ask* if we can do things *with* him.

    • I so agree. And it’s such a loss. Horses are brilliant communicators if we are polite enough to learn the language. Thanks for commenting, Greg.

  28. This comment comes a bit late, as I have been out of town. But I think respect means something different to predators than it does to prey animals. Predators (us) tend to think of respect in terms of dominance. Whereas for prey animals like horses, I think respect means something more along the lines of trust. It means that the other has earned recognition for their ability to keep the herd safe. Like the top mare. Or like us if we’re lucky. When my horse and I go riding out on trail, I have learned to respect when my horse has picked up on something that I have not yet, having less acute senses for danger. And my horse has learned to respect that if I check out what is worrying him and reassure him that it is all right, he believes me.

  29. I agree with Therese. Some horses seem a lot more brainy than others, maybe it has something to do with their humans. And yes, if you suggest its ok, they seem to take it in. I had one so canny she did some amazing things to save us at times, jumped off a track one day, stopped, ears up the hill, I sent out a big Aussie coo-eee and two mountain push bikers came out of the timber screeching on their brakes. Travelling through town, up through a grassy easement with a bike track and bridges/tunnels where roads went over the top, ears up and going into the tunnel and I had to duck my head, it was the only low one. She stopped dead. Said to me, “if you have no room, we are not safe if I have to manoeuvre.” We went up the embankment to cross that road. Town, traffic and a pack pony, her sister, beside me and never such a thing as even an incident. Trust. I learned to respect her judgment.


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