The bare necessities
Updated: Feb 9, 2018
Have you ever done something you didn't want to do because your riding instructor told you to do it, while your conscience told you otherwise? I have. I'll go ahead and state that I think most riders have. Especially those of us who have been riding since we were too small to question authority. Perhaps you were told you had to do it. Perhaps you were told it was essential. That there was no other way. It might have made you feel terrible but you did it anyway.
Don't beat yourself up (as well). You are not unusually weak or unprincipled. Most humans are a lot more obedient to authority than we like to admit. Can you remember the Milgram experiments of the 1960s where volunteers were told they were taking part in a psychology experiment where they had to teach another person to remember pairs of words by punishing the subject each time a mistake was made? In reality, the ”learners” were in on the experiment and the real subje
cts were the students pressing the button to administer electric shocks as punishment for poor performance. What the ”teachers” didn't know was that the ”learners” were not really being harmed. They were just playing a recording of their own voice crying out as if in pain and protesting the continuation of the trial. The point of the experiment was to find out just how far a human will go in order to comply with orders from above.
What will we do if we truly believe it is "necessary"? And what does necessity mean? Where do we draw the line when it comes to obedience to authorities? These are important questions for anyone and for people who ride horses, they are questions we have to answer all the time.
Professor Stanley Milgram and
his colleagues expected the percentage of ”teachers” who would go all the way through with the experiment to be very low. Between one and four per cent of subjects would agree to administer the three consecutive 450 v jolts, according to predictions by Milgram's fellow scientists and final year students. One question round to highly qualified psychiatrists forecast that most ”teachers” would stop as the ”learners” began to cry for help and that only about one tenth of one per cent would actually give the maximum shock.
It turned out these predictions were somewhat too optimistic on behalf of human nature. Of the 40 participants in the first study, 26 went all the way to 450 volts. These people weren't sadists. They weren't even psychopaths. Causing pain was horrible for them. They started to sweat, some began to stutter. They moaned and groaned and bit their lips and picked at their own skin but they didn't sto
Why didn't they stop? Why does anyone continue to do something which they clearly feel to be wrong? The answer is necessity. Or perceived necessity. When the subjects of the Milgram experiments tried to stop, they were told by a person whom they thought of as an authority that this wasn't an option. That they had no other choice. That it was "essential" for them to go on.
It wasn't until I did the research for this blog that I read the exact words the subjects were told when they started to waver, and when I did, the words and their effect on the subjects struck me as an echo of every bad decision I have ever made about a horse.
This is what the authority figures told the humans who wanted to stop causing harm:
"The experiment requir
es that you continue"
"It is absolutely essential that you continue"
"You have no other choice. You must go on."
Think back to a time when you did something to your horse which you knew to be wrong. What made you continue? Was it that it seemed as if there were no other options? Was it that you felt like you really, reall
y had to? Or else.
Or else what? Or else your horse runs over a cliff and you both die? Or else you don't win a ribbon? Or else you can't go for a hack? Or else the other people at your yard will mock you? Or else your boots get di
rty? Or else the clinician in the big hat looks down his nose at you? Or else your horse won't jump that obstacle today? Or else you'll have to wait? Or else you'll have to practice more?
Apart from the very few sadists among us, none of us like to cause pain or fear to a horse. Yet, so many of us have done it in the past. It's safe to say that some of us will do it in the future. But if we don't like hurting horses and horses don't like being hurt, why do we do it?
"It is required for the training to continue."
"It is absolutely essential."
"There is no other choice."
Or as the subjects were told
in the Milgram experiments:
"Whether the learner likes it or not, you must go on until he has learned all the word pairs correctly, so please go on."
Milgram subjects concerned with whether they were causing physical harm as well as pain were told that ”there is no permanent tissue damage, so please go on.” Hey, did someone just say blood rule?
As I watched the footage of the Milgram experiment on YouTube, one thing struck me very clearly. The subjects who refused to go through with the punishment were the ones who knew that they did not, in fact, "have to" do it. They were the ones who saw that the alleged essentiality of their compliance was manufactured. This insight enabled them to disobey the authority figure who told them to d
In the same way, almost all the perceived necessity which drives our crimes against horses is false. We just can't always see that it is. Our fear, pride, greed and even love clouds our judgement. If you reduce a rosette t
o its physical components; two cardboard disks and a quantity of cheap ribbon, is it worth becoming an animal abuser for? Once you let go of the dominance myth and adjust your expectations accordingly, what level of obedience do you really need from your horse in order to feel safe? We are told that horses are dangerous animals. That's a lie. Horses are potentially dangerous animals. Humans court that potential by choosing to interact with horses. Most of the way, you get to decide how potentially dangerous your horse is because you are the one who designs the interactions. Do you want to be in control? Guess what, you alrea
dy are. If you want to be a hundred per cent safe from horse related accidents, all you have to do is never go near a horse again.
I know that there are going to be some people reading this who are getting a bit angry now. I also know why, because I have felt the same anger many times. Enough times that I have learned to notice and question it when it pops up. It's the defensive anger which accompanies the feeling of being told that something awful and necessary you have done was in fact only awful and not at all necessary. Whenever someone has shown me a gentler way of doing things with horses, it has felt like an indictment at first. As the perceived necessity which used to justify my own transgressions crumbles away, I am each time left with a stack of ill deeds in my baggage which have suddenly become inexcusable. That takes some dealing with, but the dealing is worth it.
I'm happy to say that it gets easie
r over time as I do fewer and fewer stupid things. Learning from those who are ahead of me in terms of kindness and compassion is worth the shame and pain of discovering exactly how crap I have been. As I write this, I feel like I have arrived. I am a good person to my horses. But I also know from experience that I will feel that defensive anger again in the future. "The mind cannot foresee its own advance" as the economist, Friedrich Hayek said. Or if you prefer the words of George Bernard Shaw: "All great truths began as blasphemies."
The Milgram experiments didn't just show what authority can do. They showed how far people are willing to go if they believe that they have no other choice. That's why we must keep questioning our own feelings of entitlement towards horses. Those feelings which don't acknowledge any alternative to bending the horse to our will, even though the glaringly obvious alternative is to simply stop making him do things he doesn't want to do. For the same reason, discussions like the one taking place about the use of terms like "dominant" and "naughty"
are so important. (Check out the budding hashtag #ditchdominance for more info) These are not trifles. These are words and attitudes which shape our perception of the animal we're dealing with and affect how we meet him and what we perceive as "necessary" in our handling of horses. These words and attitudes both express and shape our ethics.