Never Spank Your Horse

This summer I’m taking a course in human development, a requirement for completing my M.S. in counseling. It’s fascinating to take this class while studying natural horsemanship: the parallels are plentiful.

Authoritarian techniques tend to backfire when it comes to horses

Yesterday while reading my textbook, Development Through the Lifespan, I studied a chapter on emotional and social development in early childhood. The chapter described three parenting styles:

  • Authoritarian parents act cold and rejecting; to exert control they yell, command, criticize, and threaten; “Do it because I said so” is the prevailing attitude; they make decisions for their child and expect him or her to accept their word without question; they force and punish the child when she or he resists.
  • Permissive parents either overindulge their child or don’t pay attention, thus showing little control; instead of gradually granting autonomy, they let their child make decisions before he or she is capable; children of permissive parents can eat meals and go to bed and watch TV whenever they want.
  • Authoritative parents insist on mature behavior, give reasons for their expectations, and use disciplinary encounters as teachable moments to promote their child’s self-regulation; they engage in gradual, appropriate autonomy granting, letting the child make decisions when she or he is developmentally ready; they are warm, attentive, and sensitive to their child’s needs and establish an emotionally fulfilling parent-child relationship that draws the child into close connection–yet at the same time, they exercise firm, reasonable control.

Hmmm, can you guess which is the recommended parenting style? And can you see any similarities between authoritative parenting and natural horsemanship, based on the description  below?

Natural horsemanship is the philosophy of working with horses by appealing to their instincts as prey animals, understanding their psychology, and communicating through equine-based body language. The goal of natural horsemanship is to build a trusting partnership between horse and human. “Firm but fair” is a motto of natural horsemanship; practitioners agree that teaching through pain and fear does not result in a beneficial relationship between horse and handler. The object is for the horse to be calm and feel safe throughout the training process, allowing it to bond with its handler.

The obvious connections between child-rearing styles and horse-training philosophies got me thinking about different ways to be with horses.

What kind of parenting technique are trainers using when they use twitches, crops, and hobbles? What about when they let a horse run himself to the point of exhaustion, then throw a saddle on him?

What about folks who treat their horses like half-ton pets, plying them with treats to earn affection and anthropomorphizing them beyond recognition? Is it a good idea or a bad one to let your horse rub his head against you whenever he feels like it?

What might parenting experts think of horse handlers who let a young horse gain confidence in transitioning from a walk to a trot before they bring him up to a canter? How would they feel about a handler putting light pressure on a horse’s side to make him step away, then releasing that pressure as soon as he responds?

Not recommended for child-rearing or horse training

Not surprisingly, I’m all for the authoritative approach when it comes to horses and children. I can say from personal experience that permissive parenting has major drawbacks. I don’t think my son, now 21, would take kindly to a round pen and a lunge line, but I wish I’d understood the child-rearing equivalent of natural horsemanship when he was young. We both would have learned important lessons in boundary-setting, attentiveness, responsibility, and cooperation—and we might even have avoided a certain unpleasant visit to juvenile court.

My textbook has some sobering facts about the effects of different child-rearing styles. Here’s how it shakes out:

  • Children of authoritarian parents are anxious, unhappy, and have low self-esteem and self-reliance; they tend to react with defiance, anger, and force when frustrated.
  • Children of permissive parents are impulsive, rebellious, and disobedient; they may also be overly demanding, dependent on adults, and less persistent with tasks.
  • Children raised in an authoritative household have an upbeat mood, self-control, task persistence, cooperativeness, high self-esteem, and favorable performance.

Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the most effective parenting or horse training style. My guess is that natural horsemanship folks and authoritative parents would have a lot to share with each other—and we could all benefit from listening.

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One thought on “Never Spank Your Horse

  1. True words and thoughts as ever were. It is indeed a hard thing to see yourself as you really are. It is harder to make a committment to change.

    Learning Natural Horsemanship, especially applying “firm and fair” as my primary focus, has slowly but surely brought me to within reach of a new sphere of balance with myself and with Sonder.

    It is almost a year now since I started. Less than a year. Imagine what I will be feeling this time another year foward.

    E. English

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