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RESPECT - a model for a mutually respectful relationship

This is a guest blog written by Fiona Tothill of Kingsmead Equestrian Centre, finalist of The Equestrian Business Awards Riding School of the Year and SEIB Large Riding School of the Year

When working with horses (and people) it became apparent quite quickly that one size definitely does not fit all! However, I also realised that the same attributes were needed although they are needed just in different doses.

I was always challenged by the hierarchical approach and dominance in the human - horse relationship, although when working closely with half a tonne of flight animal I wasn’t prepared to allow my horse to be the primary decision maker! I needed to establish a connection that enabled my horse and I, who quite frankly have brains which are wired differently, to co-exist in a symbiotic partnership. This is when my RESPECT model was born. My overall desire was to have a mutually respectful relationship.

Helen Louise Equine Photography

The definition of respect is:

1) due regard for the feelings, wishes, or rights of another

2) to admire (someone or something) deeply, as a result of their abilities, qualities, or achievements.

RESPECT gave me a lot more, it gave me an acronym on which to build respect!

The following seven elements are needed in varying degrees depending on the horse and human. Although, I believe all elements need to be in place to have a good enough partnership. I avoid the use of "perfect partnership," as whilst I aspire to have the perfect relationship with my horse, it is the bringing together of two naturally different personalities - personalities which are affected by so many variables, that change minute by minute. Consequently, I have decided that good enough is good enough. As with any relationship, there will be times when it is perfect, however, I don’t want to be frustrated or disappointed when it falls short!


How to Build RESPECT


Whilst the other elements can flex as to their importance and where they come in, relaxation is first. Both you and your horse need to be relaxed. Until you are relaxed in each other’s space it is difficult to move on or find the other elements. Different things will tell me that the horse and person are relaxed although key signs are breathing together, body positioning, facial expressions and a ‘soft’ eye (seen in both!). It’s not hard to see how everything can unravel when the handler is trying to push on when either they or the horse is not relaxed.

E stands for EMPATHY

I find this is the element that is most misunderstood. We are not looking for sympathy (this puts us in a higher place), nor are we looking to anthropomorphise. We must remember our horses are horses and will always think and behave as such, to make them anything else (even in our minds) does, in my opinion, do them a disservice. So how do we use empathy? We simply have to understand their feelings, to know where they are coming from. I can understand why (to my horse) that carrier bag is terrorising, I don’t share that fear and I know it’s a overreaction however it’s in my horse’s moment so I need to understand that! I also need to understand my horse brings memories, I can surmise why he is as he is, although I probably don’t know. An appreciative understanding goes a long way, however he doesn’t need my sympathy and I must be mindful that I have only deduced these ideas so must not hold them as facts. However this understanding can help me balance the remaining elements.

S stands for SENSITIVE

Working with horses, I need to be quiet, calm and mindful of the effect of any pressure I may apply. Horses feel physical pressure, obviously through contact but more distant through our heart rate and breathing. They follow our sight, our bodies and our minds, they feel our emotional pressure (have you ever been let down in that moment you want to look good?). To be good around the horse you need to find your emotional neutral and know where you are physically. Literally an inch off can make the difference between moving forward or completely blocking. You only need to be ‘enough’, you need to be clear of your intentions (horses are past masters of reading intention) and you need to recognise instantly when your horse is yielding to your pressure. The quicker the pressure is off the more relaxed you both feel, things start to happen as if by magic (although like any ‘trick ‘ it is subtle moves and well-timed actions).

Helen Louise Equine Photography

P stands for POSITIVITY

I find this the hardest element to teach! Horses are big, they are flight animals and they don’t always think for or about us mere mortals. They also have big and sadly sometimes slightly damaged personalities, remember they are built on memories and they are programmed to react first then think - a combination which may not be good! Your horse may have had a less positive experience before this one, he will default to a behaviour that helped him feel (or even be) safe. We need to be clear and concise. We must know what we want, not just the end game but we must know what we want each step of the way and we quietly need to keep asking. When asked how much pressure I would say you give whatever your horse gives you, plus one! So my cob who wants to please often needs no more than a click (a barely inaudible sign) however when my 17.3 mare, who has an opinion about life, says no I simply match her opinion and calmly and concisely add one!


As I have mentioned the horse responds to many pressures or different energies, as a result my encouragement can take many different forms. Verbal encouragement is a must, be it a quiet whisper to calm the overstimulated brain or a more determined ‘growl’. Every other form of encouragement is supported by the verbal; I think this helps ensure we are congruent. You try kicking on when saying woah or saying go on when pulling on the rope! Other forms of encouragement can be sound, movement, pressure or physical touch. Again timing is key and it’s important to remember it’s not about physical strength although strength of mind does matter.

C stands for CONNECTED

You and your horse must be CONNECTED. This connection may be physical although must be emotional. You only have to see horses working at liberty to realise that we don’t need to be physically connected to have a good relationship. It is however easy to see when the connection breaks, it is a fine thread of connection; ‘pull’ too hard or suddenly and it snaps. With less experienced handlers or riders, I find the connection goes because the person simply forgets he is ‘holding’ the horse! People get distracted, so do horses and often by different things! From the moment I am with my horse, I am with him, at the exclusion to everything else, it’s not an intense connection but the whole relationship requires you to be there when needed (think of a securely attached child, they don’t keep running back to check as they know you will be there if there is an issue).

T stands for TRUST

Combine the above and you will start to build TRUST. Trust is knowing your horse can do whatever you require (walk past the carrier bag, do a halt to canter transition, stop); it doesn’t necessarily mean they will! The horse needs to be able to trust you too! He needs to trust that you will guide him to what you want (not tell him once and expect him to know). He needs to trust that when he says he is worried that you hear his concerns, he then needs to trust you when you say it’s safe. Build the trust slowly and protect it for all you are worth. Do your utmost not to break that trust. As once you have that it, that is the time when the work really begins, as you have to keep it!

This is a guest post brought to you by Fiona Tothill of Kingsmead Equestrian Centre and The Equestrian Business Awards.

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