Control, that sneaky obsession

Mis à jour : 5 avr. 2020

Control; that little thing that take so much space in our lives. That thing that we just can’t live without. That control that makes us less of a good human being, less beautiful human creature, in every sphere of our lives. But that obsession about control is toxic when working with animals. It poisons our relationship with them, especially with horses. It deteriorates our riding, our feelings and it often impairs our judgment when training. A human being is one of control. We love to control everything, and we have a really hard time to let go of that. Losing it is risky; it’s risking on a 1000-pound animal that can seriously injure ourselves, or even kill us. So we can understand the rider's obsession about control… And yet, it is when we accept to let go that true magic can really happens.

It must be understood that riding a horse involves risks, real risks, that are not without real consequences. Each year, we hear about riders who suffered from life-threatening accidents, leaving them marked for life and sometimes, we hear about death. We need to acknowledge risks about riding to accept them and to try to reduce them to a minimum, so we can practise our sport for a long time. How many riders want to have total control on their horse at all cost, but never wear a helmet? Isn’t ironic? We really need to understand that, at the end, we never really have control; so prevention is better than cure. I never stress this enough, we should ALWAYS wear a helmet. We only have one brain and helmets already had saved so many lives (and cognitive function). I really don’t understand how people can still ride without a helmet.

* In the pictures showed, I almost never wear a helmet, when I was younger, we didn’t have all the knowledge about brain injuries that we have today. Also, in my area helmet for riding was really not known at this time. As soon as I got informed enough, I put a helmet on my head and it never left me since.

That being said, let's go back on our main topic; control. Many riders seek control by restrictive or harsh tack: martingales, tie-down, leverage bits, gadgets bit of all kinds, spurs, crops, training aids of all kinds, aversive and dominant based training techniques, etc. The search of control and the fear of losing it often bring riders toward violence. Psychological and physical violence. Horses often face incredible violence because their riders are afraid to lose control and because they are not able to accept that they are working with living being. Working with the living is accepting that we can’t have an absolute control over that living soul and that we can’t be the only one to decide. It is also accepting that the other one has needs and emotions that need to be acknowledged. But many people still refuse to take those facts in consideration and prefer to work with violence and submission from the horse… which will probably lead the horse to learned helplessness, mental death or rebellion. And a horse that rebels will lead to a monumental loss of control (and incidentally will lead to even more violence from the rider toward that horse or to the horse death).

As told in a previous article(that I will translate soon) (, true control is not physical, it is mental. When we control by force or pain there will always be, at a time or another, something that will be stronger than that pain, and the control will be lost. As we would have based our relation on dominance and fear, we will end up with a really impressive control lost. The horse does not trust us, so once the control is lost we will have a hard time regaining it. For me, less is more. The less artificial and gadget stuff we use on a horse, the better. In training, I am a purist, if I can’t obtain result with the minimal material possible (exit draw reins, gadget bit and other crap) I need to work on my riding and training skills. Some people will argue that it is only making the process of training faster… But if for that I need to force the horse into shape, I am deeply not interested to go faster. I have all my time to go there.

The best way to have more control (because absolute control is just a fairy tale) is to build a relationship based on trust and freedom. Indeed, letting some control over our relationship to the horse is more than beneficial. He will learn to self-control his emotions, which will lead to 100 times safer interactions with us. It will also be easier for him to relax. Without questioning, if we let him some slack, we release a lot of tension we put on him. If we are tense in his mouth, always pulling at the slightest acceleration trying to micromanage every step the horse takes, we will create a lot of tension, stress and frustration. We need to seek for emotional relaxation, mental relaxation, it is the only way to have more safety with horses. A calm animal who knows how to manage his own emotions, who learn how to explore objects of fear instead of fleeing them, will be an animal 100 times safer than the one we try to control by force and that is tense like an arc. The latter will always be on the verge of exploding. Just like a pressure cooker, pressure will build up until it can’t take it anymore, then boom! It will explode and it will be ugly.

I have, myself, experienced both ways. For many people, revealing I am a really anxious person is shocking to them. For most of them, I don’t appear to be anxious. Sonara is exactly the same, when younger (now she is more mature and learned how to manage her emotions) she was extremely anxious, reactive and even explosive. It does not really show anymore and it reduced a lot, because we have a relationship based on mutual trust, but her true nature is anxious. I trust Sonara 200% and I think she does the same. But this has not always been the case. I, like many others, have tried to control my mare with my hands (my harm strength mostly). Even when riding bitless, and being in the natural horsemanship thing, we can make this mistake. I had tense arms, I was always trying to slow her down, so I was always riding with tension in the reins and by the same token, I was tense in my seat. So Sonara was just as tense as I was and as I kept putting pressure on her, she ended up exploding and panicking. It was frustrating for me (and for her) in addition to not helping us to trust each other and to ride in a happy state (too many riders forget to think about the horse happiness in the work).

One day, I just finally thought about how it would be more logic for her to relax if I was relaxing my riding and myself first. I needed to let her go, let her some slack, to enable her to experiment and to realize that it was easier when we were both relaxed and not fighting against each other. It asked me a lot of efforts at first; it is counter-intuitive to let a horse which is a bit hot on the jumps run free to them. We stay there, as a simple passenger, praying to survive haha. But it worked! After some hot moments, she ended up relaxing in a way I never experienced with her. Letting her trot as she wanted to, being a simple passenger and intervening as little as possible. Only taking action when she changed gaits or when she started to be so hot that I felt I was losing her. Then I just putted her back to walk, waiting for her to calm down and starting again. Exit constant tension, pulling hands, tense seat and holding breath. Sometimes, even today, she starts like an arrow and I still need to think; breath, relax, zen, slow, steady, soft, straighten up, anchor yourself… Each time, it works. When we never have good results, we need to change something. This is what happened, it just clicked, pulling wasn’t doing anything. It was even worsening everything. So, as Einstein once said: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

The energy we release has more influence on control than most of the bits or training aids we can use. The only thing that can increase control is to let go and to do a real basic work on your relationship with your horse. If your horse doesn’t “listen” to your hand maybe it is because it is too hard? Inconstant? Nobody ever really explained to the horse what it meant? Why do you ask a stop while you put some legs? The basics are the forgotten ones of the equine world. We want to go fast; we take the shortcuts to reach our goals. Basics are boring… people want to be done with that as fast as they can, but I cannot stress this enough; basics are primary; we NEED a solid foundation to build a healthy and secure relationship. An animal that can self-control, who knows what we expect from him, who trust his rider and to who is given power over his own daily life is a safe animal and a partner without equal. I rode with and without a bit and I lost control with and without a bit; I have never seen any difference to regain control with one or not. Each time, it is the relationship I built with my horse that made a true difference. People that ride bridleless (in a neck collar) have the control of their animal. The horse or the rider are not some genius, they simply have worked correctly on the basics which have led them to a higher level of communication.

Lately, the FEI announced wanting to ban bitless riding from the cross-country phase of eventing. The FEI is going backward. It’s totally mind-blowing that after all those years, nobody has understood yet; control is not in the bit!! Amount of bitted rider has lost control of their horse while competing, nobody ever blamed the bit for that. But when a bitless rider loses control, we are accusing the absence of bit right away. Find the error… One day, maybe, more people will finally understand that control doesn’t come from physical restraint and that we can never have total control when working with a living being anyway.

The final word: If you want to have absolute control, drop the horse and buy a motorbike.

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