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The ugliness of motivation

Written by Julie Taylor on 27.03.2017

For a few days I have been pondering the meaning of the word “motivation” and the way it is used by horse people. In our latest video feature, there is a quote from the Swedish equestrian newspaper, Ridsport, in which the author, Kim Lundin, argues that horse sport can't always be pretty because horses sometimes need “more motivation than that which is beautiful”. This caused quite a few comments on our Facebook page from people who did not think the horse in the video was being motivated at all. Beautifully or otherwise. The word motivated, it seems, carries connotations of positivity for a lot of horse people. This is not always justified.

Someone even offered a dictionary definition to back up their opinion that horses can't be motivated by ugly riding.

“the state or condition of being motivated or having a strong reason to act or accomplish something.”

For me, the above could refer to all sorts of reasons for action. Fear, hunger, pain, lust, competitiveness, longing. Motivation in itself is a neutral term. But when we humans say: “I feel really motivated” we are usually talking about a good feeling. Of hopefulness and empowerment. We don't say: “The risk of being evicted from my flat really motivates me to go to work” or “I am motivated to wear a seatbelt by my dread of dying in a car crash”.

When humans say that someone else has motivated us, we mean that they inspired us. They stirred our inner drive to get things done. It's not so much that they gave us a reason to do something. It's that they made us feel able to do the thing we already wanted to do.

The kind of motivation horses get is somewhat different. Sport and leisure horses are almost exclusively controlled by pressure and – if they're lucky – release. When Kim Lundin writes: “Sometimes your horse needs a little more motivation than that which is beautiful” she might as well write: “Sometimes your sport horse will only perform if you apply more pain than a lot of people are going to find acceptable.” But as the article was meant as a defense, not an indictment, of the sport, Lundin had to phrase it differently.

The above paragraph was edited on April 4, 2017: Kim Lundin has made it known to us that she strongly disagrees with the above interpretation of her words.

Of course, no horse actually needs to be motivated because they already are. What the title of every book, DVD and magazine article about “motivating your horse” tends to omit is “... to do what you want instead of what he or she was originally motivated to do”. I even found one article about how to “motivate the unmotivated horse”. I thought about that for a while. The unmotivated horse? The horse with no reasons for doing anything at all? I don't believe I have ever met such a horse.

Reading the article, I found out they were not actually referring to an unmotivated horse. They were referring to a horse who was motivated to stand still when the rider was motivated to do trot to canter transitions. The solution to the problem, by the way, was to encourage (equestrian newspeak for coerce) the horse by kicking it enthusiastically (that means hard) in the ribs. In other words, the type of motivation which can sometimes look a bit unattractive in photographs.

All over the internet, you can find similar references to unmotivated horses which turn out – as you read the articles – to be horses who are simply not motivated to do what the rider wants. What does this say about how we view our horses? That we speak of their lack of motivation to do what we want as lack of motivation in general? To me, it paints a somewhat bleak picture of a bunch of humans who regard horses as empty shells waiting to be stuffed full of our own hopes and aspirations. Even if we frequent the websites such as this one that offer tips for “positive motivation”, the subject matter is still how to replace the horse's intrinsic motivation with a need to do what the human wants.

That's not the kind of motivation we talk about for ourselves. In no way does it empower the horse to do that thing he would really like to do. On the contrary, it talks him out of doing it and into doing whatever suits our own agenda. When this happens between humans, we don't call it motivation. We call it manipulation. And nobody likes or trusts a manipulator.

I'm not yet sure what to do with this realisation. As a journalist or as a horse owner. It's been brewing in the back of my mind for a long time and it poses something of a problem when you run a video streaming service that sells – among other items – videos about how to get horses to do things they wouldn't have thought of doing on their own. It seems to me that we don't just have to be able to question our means of motivating horses but also the decision to motivate them in the first place.

Faced with the choice between getting to know my horses even better and continuing to be in control of their behaviour, I'm leaning very much towards the former. I have tried control. I have done the whole ground work stop, back, park thing. I know how to clicker train, which, make no mistake, is also about control. I even used to compete a very long time ago. Like Crispin Johannessen says in his interview, that was all about my ego. My glee at having successfully appropriated a body 10 times heavier than my own. I see that now but I don't see where to go next.

Like the people who buy tickets to “liberty” horsemanship displays, I am drawn by the idea of the horse interacting with humans of his own, free will. But because of the job I have, I also know that those shows are just an illusion. A trick of smoke and mirrors to make the audience think they are in the presence of something as rare as a horse and a human doing something together without force. The irony is that everyone can achieve that for real if we can let go of our egos. What is your horse doing right now? Go do that with him. No, you won't get to boss him around but do you normally measure your friendships by the degree of bossing around you can get away with? No, you can't sell 4000 tickets to people who want to watch you pick grass and sniff poo, even if you do hire a DJ and fork out for dry ice and a disco ball. But you will authentically be doing something with your horse without force.

This I know: Every foal is born fully motivated. Motivated to run and play outside day and night, motivated to stay with his dam until she sees fit to wean her baby. Motivated to graze or browse for at least 16 hours per day when he grows up, motivated to choose and be chosen by his own social group. Motivated to unseat with a mighty buck anyone he doesn't want on his back. Motivated to explore the world, wandering many miles each day. Motivated to act on his intrinsic motivations. Motivated to live, not simply survive.

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