Horse people seem to uniformly agree that horses must respect humans. Without respect, they argue, a horse is not safe to be around. Many who talk of respect also think that respect is the glue that binds your horse to your wishes: with respect, he’ll do any stupid thing you ask. Without it, he’ll use his own judgment. As one horseman writes, “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.”

This drives me crazy. I value thoughtful use of the English language about as much as I value anything, and everyone seems to misuse the word “respect”.

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.” Does my horse admire me because I can drive a car or stand on one foot? Does he defer to me because I can talk or type? Does he even care that I was an Eagle Scout or have a Ph.D.? I don’t think so. What does your horse deeply admire? What abilities, qualities, or achievements has he noticed in his colleagues? Does a horse respect anything?

If we pretend for a minute that horses don’t respect or disrespect, then what is it that we are talking about, and what is it that we want from them?

I know what I want. 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. I bet you want that too.

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.

So what is it that we want when we talk of respect? I think much of it sorts out with the human becoming more fearful as the horse approaches, and feeling more comfortable when the horse is some distance away. A horse that “respects” is one that doesn’t approach too closely. We feel better if we blame the horse for lacking respect than if we blame ourselves for being fearful.

Horses are happy to stand much closer to their best friends than humans stand to theirs. When horses 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.

I don’t fear my horse. I don’t want my horse to fear me. I want him to be relaxed with me. 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.

Around this point in my monologue, I start hearing “But… But… But…” Every objection is a little different, but there are some common threads:

  1. You will get hurt if he gets too close. No. He knows exactly where his feet are. Don’t put your feet under his, and everything will work out. He knows exactly whether a bite hurts, and will never ever hurt you with a bite if he loves you.
  2. He will be hard to control if he feels independent. Well he’ll be harder to control than if his will has been destroyed, but aren’t his interests and needs something you care about? Don’t you at least want to know what he’s thinking?
  3. Other horsemen will laugh at you if you have a big smudge on your white blouse. Don’t know about you, but white doesn’t strike me as the right color to wear when you make out with your horse.

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. And frankly, whether or not he thinks he should entrust his life to me, I like to think that I can entrust my life to him.