A rudimentary search of this title into google reveals results showing two very different meanings
handle or control (a tool, mechanism, information, etc.) in a skilful manner.
“he manipulated the dials of the set”
synonyms: operate, handle, work, control, use, employ, utilize
“the workman manipulated some knobs and levers”
control or influence (a person or situation) cleverly or unscrupulously.
“the masses were deceived and manipulated by a tiny group”
synonyms: exploit, control, influence, use/turn to one’s advantage, manoeuvre, engineer, steer, direct, guide, twist round one’s little finger, work, orchestrate, choreograph
“the government tried to manipulate the situation”
This is a dichotomy that I think is worth breaking down in relation to horses.
We see it all the time, everywhere, it is utterly pervasive. From chilled recreational stables to high tension sport yards, horses are being manipulated. If we look at it through the lens of point ‘1: handle or control (a tool, mechanism, information, etc.) in a skilful manner.’ It seems like an innocuous, harmless and perhaps even admirable thing to do. Working a horse ‘correctly’ requires skill after all, and in this sense, the horse can be seen as a tool that we can influence, and master, improve and alter. We even employ them in jobs, and utilise them for pleasure.
I am not saying that those things are bad. I think many of them can be really positive if done with the right perspective and awareness. I think it is worthy to develop a horse in a way that is healthy for him physically and mentally and to do this we must ‘manipulate’ them somehow… right?
I don’t think so.
There are some horses that really love and benefit from being ‘put to work’, in the sense that they perform better when there is an objective target for them to aim for. Rather than just moving in seemingly mindless circles and figures without sense, some horses come alive in a job as simple as a trek or a trail ride. Take it one step further; when working cattle or livestock. Sport horses come alive when they have jumps to clear and obstacles to consider. This is also pure movement science. Moving without a reason is empty and hollow and leads to pure mediocrity, in any alive animal. In fact, humans seem to be the only human heel bent on movement for movements sake. This might seem funny coming from a dancer, but I dance because it is highly developed movement that has a meaning to me. Not just pure exercise… pure exercise for exercise sake is boring to me. Movement with intent gives potential for excellence.
However, so often manipulation can slip easily into its darkest form. That of point 2 : control or influence (a person or situation) cleverly or unscrupulously.
People without moral principals, honesty or fairness will misunderstand the importance of providing meaningful work to a horse and simply manipulate them. they manipulate them so they can get what they want, rather than give what the horse needs. These horses become vessels for their humans egos, anger and sometimes even sadness.
I used to teach very regularly at a local Sport stable of pretty good reputation not far from the Warsaw city center. And whilst my student and I certainly were the odd ones out with our slow and gentle (and bitless) approach it was many times a great opportunity to observe riders whom I could quite fairly and objectively categorise into some form of point 2. If for no other reason than there seemed to be a basic disregard for the horse in general. Beautiful shiny dressage bridle with a flash or drop nose band so tight that the horse was losing litres of foamy drool after not 10 minutes of work. I remember seeing blue tongues. Rolling, staring empty eyes. Flared nostrils that struggled to breathe. Oh but the horse was moving beautifully… said their trainers. What?
My student Matylda and her Gelding Tadek
But mostly it was the eyes of the horse and the expression of the rider I will not forget. A rider who sat unsmiling, on a beautifully turned out horse. Unrelenting hands and a seat that masqueraded as something classical but all it was really doing was holding onto their thick dressage knee pads for dear life, and a horse with an empty staring expression that seemed to ask,
or worse yet…
‘I give up.’
It was not my place to say something. And so I did not. But just this past week at a consultation I was presented with an open window, a client and her trainer who asked for my help and I felt I had a chance to make a difference. So I did. I am glad they were open enough to listen. And I am glad the horse in front us us ultimately vindicated me of what I was trying to reveal to this trainer.
It is ok to manipulate, if you are doing it honestly and kindly and with some sort of balance.
One of my favourite trainers, Buck, always an endless source of soundbite inspiration to me said at his clinic:
‘Horses don’t like Horse Trainers. Work with your horse in a way where he doesn’t feel like he is being trained on.’
Even though on my website and Facebook page I use the term Horse Trainer, I don’t feel at peace with the term. Because I don’t believe in the typical- Teach Aid, Refine Aid, Push Button, Horse Reponds, This Is Correct, That Is Not Correct- approach to horsemanship.
Thankfully I have a horse who tells me very clearly, if I have slipped, and approach our session with a ‘train on him’ attitude. Each time my intention before our meeting was ‘I am here to be with you and go forwards in growth together’, always brought nt only better results but better feelings in us both.
If you had to look into the mirror, which side of the manipulation fence would you be on?