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

Photographs by @helenlouiseequinephotography

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.