Last revised April 12, 2017

Respect? Maybe.1

Respect can be defined as “a feeling of deep admiration or deference for something that is good, valuable or important and that is elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements.” I can drive a car, type, and stand on one foot. Does my horse appreciate me for these talents? Does he deeply admire me for my ability to play the violin? Does he defer to me because I was an Eagle Scout or have a Ph.D.? I don’t think so.

Does a horse respect anything? What does your horse deeply admire? What abilities, qualities, or achievements has he noticed in his colleagues?

These are easy questions with hard answers…

What do we mean by respect?

Tim Hayes is one of many who argues that your horse must respect you in order for you to show leadership, and that if you aren’t recognized by your horse as a leader, he will do as he pleases, and regularly ignore you. “For a horse to choose another as his leader and entrust his life to them, he must respect everything about them: intelligence, ability, trustworthiness, and wisdom.2 ”

But I don’t want my horse to entrust his life to me. I just want him to come to the gate when he sees me, to walk down the road with me side-by-side without a lead line, to groan with delight when I scratch his chest or neck, and maybe crack a horse joke or two. But even though he can do all these things, I don’t think he has any concept of intelligence — especially of human intelligence — or any concept of ability, or trustworthiness, or wisdom. My horse doesn’t come to the gate because he respects me. He comes because he likes me, because he likes being with me, because we have fun together.

Mark Rashid gets it right about respect, as he does with so many other things. “People think if horses are taught and repeat a behavior we want, that’s respect. If we inadvertently teach a horse something we don’t want, and they repeat that, that’s disrespectful. This has nothing to do with respect. The concept of respect doesn’t exist for a horse. Horses don’t have an ability to understand respect and disrespect.3

Personal Space

Most of the articles on respect on the Internet seem to involve personal space: how to keep your horse from crowding you, or standing too close to you.4 This “respect” is generally taught by punishing the horse whenever he comes too close by jiggling his lead line or grabbing his face or waving a stick in his face or tapping him on the chest with a stick. Clinton Anderson thinks that his horse’s nose should be no closer than seven feet from you.

One of the many thing that Anderson doesn’t understand is that horses and humans are different. We are different about many things, including our need for personal space. Carolyn Resnick has argued “In regard to personal space etiquette, humans have a history of being too aggressive or too submissive, generally unclear, guilty of over thinking or feeling entitled and of taking a relationship for granted.” I wouldn’t blame us for anything, but I think that horses and humans differ in their need for personal space. Even humans have big differences in how much personal space they need.5

  • Horses are happy to stand much closer to their best friends than humans stand. When they stand close, they show affection. They have no inhibitions about leaning into a friend, resting a chin on a friend’s back, or swishing their tail in the friend’s face. When one smells another’s butt, no one objects. When a horse stands close, it shows affection. When he moves away, he may show disinterest, dislike, fear, or boredom. But he doesn’t show respect when he moves away.
  • Humans generally don’t touch each other in public, and feel uncomfortable when their personal space is entered. When a 120 pound human gets near a 1,200 pound horse, it is the human who gets nervous. That anxiety increases the human’s desire for more personal space.

I don’t want my horse to move away from me when I move toward him. I may want to brush him or hug him or scratch his chin. How can I do this when he’s across the room? I don’t think that people who are afraid of their horse should try to teach it anything. They should work on why they are fearful. You are not close to a “partnership” with your horse if you fear each other.

Personal space is a good idea if you are wearing your wedding dress or a tuxedo and need to entertain your horse for a few minutes. But personally, I’d rather horse around with my horse, and come home wearing some of his dirt. Horse love is a contact sport.

What’s Good for the Goose

While my horse may not respect or disrespect me, it is true that I respect my horse.

I respect him when he freezes in one of our walks, to study some distant situation. When he freezes, I freeze too, so he can concentrate and sort out whatever concerns him. We need to work together to ensure that our trail ride is safe.

I respect him when he comes upon some especially tasty grass, and usually let him snack. I know that I’ve got pockets full of stuff and a grocery store for my taste buds, and he’s only got his miserable picked-over pasture for his. What is this tasty grass doing here next to the trail, if it isn’t waiting for him?

I respect him when his nose is itchy, and let him rub it in my armpit. I have hands and arms, he does not.

All of these things I gladly do for him. In exchange, he does much for me. Horses may not understand respect, but they certainly understand love. They are happy to give it, and happy to receive it. My horse gives me so much love, in fact, that you might call me spoiled.


1 Image source: Pexels.

2 Hayes, T. “The Four Reasons a Horse Says ‘No!’” July 2016.

3 Rodley, Laura. “Mark Rashid discusses herd dynamics at Equine Affaire”. Country Folks. Dec 26, 2014.

4 For example, see WikiHow. “How to Train a Horse to Respect You”; Sutor, Cheryl. “Get Some Respect!”; Equisearch “Teach your horse to respect your personal space” Sept 5, 2008.

5 The Japanese, for instance, seem less desirous of touching and groping each other. What Americans might regard as friendly physical contact, such as hugging upon greeting or touching another’s arm while talking, Japanese perceive as an invasion of one’s personal space. On Feb 10, 2017, a president met a prime minister, cameras rolling, with a 30-second long, deeply uncomfortable handshake, which the PM was visibly relieved to have end.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *