7. A Relationship is a Huge Responsibility
Relationship, like leadership, is far too in-depth a topic to cover in a single post. What a relationship is, and how to build and maintain a relationship are all topics we will include in a future series. All you need to know at this point is that a relationship is a huge responsibility. Some of you are now already wondering why a relationship has to be such a huge undertaking anyway. You may be thinking, “Wait a minute here, I just want to go out to the barn, get my horse, groom it, saddle it up, and go for a ride. Why would I even want to bother with all of that relationship stuff?” The truth is, you and your horse—as fellow beings—have a relationship whether you like it or not. And that relationship (since there is no way to avoid it unless you get rid of the horse and buy a motorcycle) is going to be a product of your investment in said relationship, and your awareness of the health and sustainability of it.
Whether you realize it or not, many of our problems with our horses are relationship based, not training based. That is another reason why sending a horse to a trainer doesn’t always solve most people’s problems. Things like spooking, trailer loading, water crossing, and herd bound behaviors can often be feedback about the quality of your relationship with your horse. The horse may do all of those things for the trainer because they have built a relationship where the horse trusts and respects them, and still not do any of those things for you because you haven’t done the same. The horse needs you to be its leader and emotional anchor. They are looking for someone who can tell them what to do and how to react in any given situation, all the while taking their nature into account. Expecting your horse to obey your every whim simply because you are sitting on it is unrealistic and unfair.
Now you may be saying, “Well, I guess I can see why having a good relationship with my horse might be useful, but what about this responsibility stuff?” When you have entered into a relationship you have committed to becoming as concerned with your partner as you are yourself. And this is hard because all creatures are inherently self-centered. For example, say you went to the barn with the plan to do ___. A responsible person invested in the relationship would be willing to put on hold their plans to do ___ for the betterment of the relationship. But it is much easier to go ahead and do ___ because that’s what you went to the barn to do in the first place. Do you see how tempting this is? If you proceed to do ___, you are being self-centered, not relationship-centered; and the result you end up with is a direct product of that choice. What makes this even more difficult is that although you may be saying“that sounds easy enough. I’ll just not do ___ with my horse when he doesn’t want to. That will make him love me!” Oh, but sadly this is not the case. In fact, it usually goes something like this:
“Horse! Will you do the dishes?”
“Always making me do things, never showing any consideration for how I feel, I don’t even know you! Are you ever going to even think about what my needs are?”
Now, with this incredibly anthropomorphic scenario, I hope you can see how “Nevermind, don’t do the dishes,” is in no way a proper fix for the relationship issue. We want you to be able to ask your horse for anything! And believe me, he wants the same. Just like with fellow humans, the issue here was not with the action desired; the issue was the state of the relationship in which it was asked.
Relationships don’t have a pause button. They are always there and always “on”. And like many other things, if you aren’t always working to make them better, you are making them worse. No relationship ever truly plateaus. They may get easier over time, in that you no longer have to make a concentrated effort to keep the other member in the forefront of your mind, but they should never just continue in neutral. If it feels like you are coasting, it probably means you are coasting to a stop.
But don’t take this to mean a steady, un-dramatic relationship is a bad thing. Don’t assume that spectacular demonstrations are proof of a good relationship. Riding bridle-less, for example, should only be confirmation that you ride with a bridle extremely well. But what most people do is go bridle-less, and after several euphoric, gallop-off-into-the-sunset sessions get extremely upset to find that their relationship with their horse has changed for the worse. Because they were being self-centered instead of relationship-centered, they were incapable of being who their horse needed them to be, when their horse needed them to be there. Spending time on these things is what creates a valuable relationship. Trust falls are great, but no one would assume that the more you do them, the better your relationship will be. Rather, the fact that you can do a trust fall is proof of a good relationship.
The relationships you value the most in your life are probably with people who were committed to, and concerned with, your relationship with eachother. They wanted you to share yourself with them. They would want to know if you needed their support, and would gladly give that support over an experience they had planned for you both. And most importantly, they stayed firmly in their role and adapted their own character or their own plans for the sake of that relationship. Why do we think our relationship with our horse should be any different?
A great read for further insight: