Erik Herbermann has very kindly allowed Arrow Equestrian to publish this article on the website. This was first published by the United States Dressage Federation in their magazine "Connections" in June 2014. Please note that this article is copyright protected and is reproduced here on condition that it is neither copied, reproduced or circulated in any way.

The Morality of Riding

By Erik Herbermann

RESPECTED PARTNERS: Treated with fairness and kindness, the horse can become a happy, willing partner in the equestrian relationship. Erika Luy and Lusitano stallion Orion share a quiet moment at Germany's Reitinstitut Egon von Neindorff.

Thoughts on the relationship between ethics and horsemanship.

As we progress in this wonderful venture of horsemanship and as our love for the horse deepens and our awareness matures to more refined levels of understanding about our place as co-inhabitants on this earth, we begin to evaluate the morality - the righteousness - of our actions in a less egotistical, less self-serving manner.

Morality has to do with the quality of our heart - that is, the credibility of our attitudes and intentions - towards every person, every creature, every plant as well as the environment of this good earth and the mineral treasures it holds. Morality sets before us the question of whether or not we meet all that exists in our surroundings with integrity, respect and sincere good will. It is therefore a subject which rightfully causes much soul-searching to define our rights and privileges - as well as responsibilities.

It is indeed our birthright to exist, to breathe air, to seek fulfillment, to exercise our free will and to discover ourselves - even the very purpose of life - through experiencing the 'cause and effect' results of our thoughts words and actions as they are reflected in everything which surrounds us - whether animate or inanimate - during our lives.

As we exercise our free will and enjoy the effects our skills and talents have on our daily encounters and experiments in life, it is essential that we - as much as humanly possibly - do not impede or restrict the joys and rights of others. Nor should we exploit any aspect of what the Earth and Nature have to offer. It is exactly this accepting of responsibility - to be genuinely considerate towards others and to maintain the balance in Nature - that potentially causes life to be good for all. If we each contribute our part and dedicate ourselves to this end, no one would be without.

One may well ask if riding, itself, is actually morally acceptable. Do we have the right to domesticate any creature and inure them to follow our wishes? Here, we can really get ourselves into the proverbial 'can of worms', especially if we become extreme and try to be holier than the pope! I believe, it is granted to us to be joyful in using all the earth has to offer, but we need to do so wisely and respectfully. Therefore, if we are reasonable and sincere and strive to understand the creatures and discipline ourselves to interact harmoniously with them - with honest hearts and benevolent intentions - then riding is ennobling; a worthy activity which enriches the lives of the creatures as well as us humans. In that sense, I believe our interaction can be entirely moral.

It is essential to recognize that, irrespective of the level of ability or experience, the rider is responsible to be the leader of the equestrian partnership. The truth - and necessity - of this can be readily determined, if we take the saddle and bridle off and let the horse do 'his own thing' in the arena. Some horses will roll; others will run around or buck and play for a few minutes; and some will visit the horse in the mirror or the person who just released them. By nature horses are only motivated by a few basic instincts: to survive by eating and drinking; to flee from a predator; to play with their friends; and to procreate. It is therefore an essential duty, if something worthwhile is to happen when riding, that we provide that indispensable 'purpose ingredient' to our interaction with the horse. Only the rider's clarity of purpose, backed by resolute will, gives the horse reason to act. Because even after twenty years of perfect training horses do not intellectually know what they are doing under saddle. What they do gain from a consistent training routine is to learn that, when they respond to the aiding signals, their actions are met with enjoyable praise and appreciation from the rider or from an audience. In this way habits are formed which result in horses experiencing harmony and joy in their lives under saddle. Furthermore, responding to the rider's signals causes them to be doing things they would likely not do on their own at that particular moment; things far more interesting than chewing a fence or watch birds outdoors. That is why, when favorably handled and ridden, they look forward to seeing the saddle and bridle coming. Some horses even become quite irritated when the rider takes another horse out to ride before them.

To further underscore the urgency of taking on the task of moral leadership: It would be just as pointless to ask a horse how he would like to be trained and ridden as it would be to ask a three-year-old child how they would like to be raised. Some children would say something like, "Just fill the fridge with ice cream and let me have fun scribbling on the living room walls!" Certainly, no reasonable person would argue about the importance of fitting one's approach to the personality, temperament and needs of a horse or a 3-year old child. Yet that does not exonerate us from the responsibility of providing the essential parental or equestrian guidance.

Most of the time riding and training is a joyful experience. However, much like raising a child, it may occasionally require taking action which, "hurts me more that it does you", until maturity and understanding have developed. It can take many years before a grown-up 'child' returns to their parents saying, "I don't know how you put up with me back then! Thanks for your love, patience and understanding - even for 'laying down the law' when that was needed". So, too, in riding, horses need, want and respect clear, fair guidance. Some people send their horse off to a trainer to handle challenging situations. After all, horses are entirely capable of having their less-experienced owners around their 'little finger'; or unnerving them with a couple of bucks, or by taking off at high speed through the bridle.

It is surely essential to look at these aspects as objectively as possible and to find that golden 'middle ground'; somewhere between, on the one hand, a lack of leadership or a misunderstood sense of kindness and, on the other hand, unnecessary roughness. The bare-bones solution to avoid extremes is to have genuine love and respect for the creatures and to develop a sense of measure or discernment. Some 'barnyard common sense' is surely a useful ingredient to help navigate our decisions and actions wisely and appropriately.

This brings us full-circle to the unavoidable subject of forwardness. It is part of our inescapable obligation as leaders of the partnership to make sure forwardness is present. Energy must be there first. Only then are we able to direct and manage that energy and send it in the desired direction (school figure). When there is little or no energy, there is nothing to direct or manage and the horse's muscling, joints and back suffer. Here, we are actually, though unintentionally, hurting our horses. I hasten to add, however, when thinking of the opposite extreme, forwardness has nothing to do with chasing a horse around by running him off his feet at some high rate of speed. Balance, good tempo and a steady rhythm are always to be considered when sending a horse forward.

In summarizing
Clearly, morality has to do with us basing our actions on universal truths as they are written in Nature. That is, they need to be founded on ideals and values beyond ourselves. Worthy, decent, moral behavior fosters harmonious, joyful relationships and contentment in our lives. Whereas carelessness, unkindness, disrespect meet with equally unhappy reflections from our immediate surroundings and interactions - whether at the work place, in business, recreation or in our relationship with the horse.

When we approach horsemanship on the sound wisdom of nature - skillfully incorporating the laws of physics, in concert with the tried-and-true foundation of fair moral values - we are liberated to help form the raw gold of the untrained horse into a beautiful, balanced, harmonious jewel. In this way our riding is elevated from a physical push-and-pull handicraft into a beautiful and worthy art form - a rich partnership in which the horse is respected and willingly and fully takes part.

Have a wonderful ride!

©Erik Herbermann. 2014.

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