Reliability is highly valued in horses. In people too, we all can agree that trustworthiness and reliability are completely priceless in business and in functional relationships.
consistently good in quality or performance; able to be trusted.
“a reliable source of information”
synonyms: dependable, good, well founded, well grounded, authentic, definitive, attested, valid, genuine, from the horse’s mouth, sound, true; More
When you ask them to jump they say ‘How high?’. When you ask them ‘Can you?’ they say ‘Yes’…
When you need they provide.
When you want, they allow.
When you ask they acquiesce.
Whenever, whatever, always there, always trusted, always dependable to provide a service and provide what you need.
What about what they need?
There is a dark side to reliability. In a relationship of reliability where one party is more dominant than the other, it becomes one sided. Referring to both people and to horses, those deemed ‘reliable’ by someone else who always gets something from them is an abusive misuse of someones good nature. It is one sided. It can almost be a narcissists dream, to come across someone ‘reliable’ because they can get everything they need without any obligation to clearly define the others needs, and make sure they are met too. It can be a breeding ground for exploitation and misuse. We all have a choice to make. But if you make a habit out of employing a horse to ride or work for you, or a human to work for you, I believe you have a responsibility to constantly check in with them to make sure their needs are being met as much as yours are. If you are interested in things like success, quality performance, and longevity, you better make sure that those who you employ feel good about what they do, or risk they do a botched job of it.
DO NOT ask anyone- horse or human- to do a job they dislike and expect them to do it well. That is madness.
Reliability is often accompanied by a character that is forgiving, temperate, patient and open minded. They are willing to compromise. But at what point does compromise begin to compromise them harmfully? When does it tip over the point of being easy to work with and become simply an abuser as their victim?
How many of us equestrians have been to stables and either seen, worked with or ridden those horses which were categorised as ‘Reliable’. Bombproof, solid, safe, responsive. These horses will perform no matter how crap the rider is, no matter how hard the hand, no matter how deep the kick, no matter how tired, stiff, sore or neglected they are, they will just continue giving output, because they are physiologically pre-disposed to being accepting of the world around them. Or they feel like they have no other choice.
Reliable: Learned helplessness?
Unreliable: Unlearned helplesness?
Lets flip that. We also know those horses which are deemed less reliable. These horses often do well in the right hands, but in the wrong hands they are unpredictable. They can be dangerous or explosive, or reactive. If you were brought up in a horse culture that robbed you of your independent thought then you may fall into the trap of mindlessly categorising such horses with commonly bandied about terms such as;
Or worse. I’ve seen people describe such horses with open vitriol, calling them dicks, knobs, idiots, annoying, barstards and other such words of hate and ignorance.
The same person will then happily put a first time rider with a trot technique akin to a jackhammer on a ‘reliable’ horse because that reliable horse will be less likely to behave ‘dangerously’ with such a person. Meaning that horse will notice the pain, discomfort and confusion, realise that they cannot, or will not do anything about it, and just do what is asked anyway. It’s like a rape of their good nature. Taking something you do not have a right to take and giving nothing but negative back.
What I am trying to say is, ‘ACCEPTANCE IS NOT THE SAME AS APPROVAL’.
One can accept a task and do it, and even do it really well without approving the task or liking it.
‘Just because I did it, does not mean I wanted to do it’.
Is something that many equestrians and many people need to come to grips with fast. Because I believe it is key in getting high quality performance out of those whom you employ, be they horses or be they people.
Treat. Your. Work. Well. Be honourable. Be fair. Be reasonable. Use your common sense. This is not rocket science.
Give them dignity, respect and work which is not only appropriate for them, but fits into their niche of genius, and gives them hope for the future.
Sanson is a perfect example of such a horse. He absolutely loves work. In fact, I am on a ‘working-holiday’ in Spain right now and messages from my stable back home report that he appears sad without my regular visits and follows people around initiating play and wanting cuddles. Needless to say, I cannot wait to see him in a couple of days. None the less, too many times in his life before I had him, he found himself catagorised as unreliable. He bolted, he barged, he bucked. He hurt people.
He loves work but he is a horse who has a very definite boundary of the type of behaviour and activities he accepts into his life. I respect that. A horse has ONLY himself. He has his body and he has his life. He has nothing else. No job, no bank loans, no taxes, no house or car or pets or clothes or organic mesculin greens in the fridge crisper that will get a Jamie Oliver twist in that evenings starter salad. Horses have their bodies and their life. When you come into contact with them and start to provide a context of work together with them, be prepared to meet horses who will one day say ‘No.’ ‘No, I don’t like that, I don’t want to do that’. The same horse may even have tolerated that same request more than once, just because they trust you, they gave you the benefit of the doubt and waited to see where the situation would go. If the situation did not go anywhere positive for them, they will say No. This is why is it so important to pay attention to their expression, watch for those tiny moments of change, or the quality with which they do something. Because just because they tried it for you once, does not mean they have signed a contract that they will mindlessly do something ‘crap’ forever.
But a ‘reliable’ horse would probably just do it. But the same reliable horse will probably never do it with love, energy or vitality. They will never have a joyful expression in that work, they will be dull, switched off robots who have long lost their ability to have agency over their life and their activities with people, because someone too unscrupulous to pay attention to how they felt robbed them of it. Because reliability is often accompanied by gentleness. An unreliable horse is probably less gentle when confronted by perceived suffering. They know how to take care of themselves, violently if necessary. But I can bet you, that unreliable horse is far less likely to find themselves under a crap rider, or in the hands of an ignorant person. I’ll bet my years salary, that an ‘unreliable’ horse, in the right hands, when treated well will be endlessly more generous, gentle, soft, expressive and willing than a quote ‘reliable’ horse, any day of the week.
I was a dancer for a long time. A dancer is very, very VERY analogous to a horse. Especially when comparing working professional dancers to horses treated traditionally through dominance. A creature of movement, without a voice, forced to perform often under duress, without the benefit of an opinion.
As a dancer, I was both. I was both that reliable plod and that high strung advanced ride. For years I thought that the way to be SAFE, PROTECTED, STABLE and SUCCESSFUL was to fall in line, do what I was told, never express my opinion or at least suppress it as much as I could, and just work, work, work. I became that person in my company that the staff went to when nobody remembered the choreography, or when someone got sick, or when casting a new performance, I was put in a position without a second cast- meaning I was the only person dancing that position even if my colleagues were afforded the reprieve of an alternate.
You know what I became? Dull, lifeless, and without passion for my work. I lost the magic because I was robbed of my autonomy. I was just trying to survive. I didn’t believe I had the right to ask for what I really wanted. So I accepted the scraps off the table. I realised that all my ambitions and hopes and dreams was washed away by my perceived ‘reliability’ because why give me something that is ambitious that risked flaring me into having an opinion or authority in my workplace, if they could just put me in a menial position and never get a complaint out of me. It was about power and control. Many people in leadership positions are scared of intelligence when coupled with a clear internal faith or power. They do not want to be challenged. They do not want to be shown to be lacking. As a leader they want to maintain their dominance and so if they can put intelligence and power into a dull little box they are able to control it.
Once I realised this I realised had to do something different. I became a ‘No’ person. But I realised that it was too late, I had left it go for too long. I had accepted and accommodated being ‘reliable’ for so many years that my superiors did not have the energy, or focus to suddenly re-catagorise me as someone who wanted and deserved more. I was in my box. I had to get myself out. And I did. I walked away from it all.
I promised to myself I would never let it happen again. When I found myself recently in a situation where this pattern was repeating itself I had a different response. One which shocked not only others but myself too. I found myself somewhere where apparently my ability, intelligence, my services and my potential was recognised, and then was delegated to something designed to make me a dull machine. Well, I had a violent internal reaction to it, which I managed to calm into a productive ‘No’, and I walked away, having set my boundaries. I will not let that destructive pattern wreak havoc in my life again.
What we should strive for is a balance. Meeting our horses and our people half way. But it has really got to be half way. Eventually, both sides must get something out of whatever activities you are doing. And I am not talking about money, food or a pat on the back ‘Thank You’ every second Thursday. Each of us, horses and humans, have the right to find meaning in what we do. Value that is integral to who we are, what we are good at and what we have to offer.
Allow your horses to have ambition for how they want to be treated, and how they live their life. Allow your horse to say no because 100% I can guarantee the same horse that says no is trying to pull you up. They want you to be better. Better for them but also better for you! Let your horse show YOU how to improve. Can you be humble enough for that?