Hear me out: I don’t believe empathy has to be taught. I believe it is conditioned out of people over the years.
When I was a kid, I desperately wanted to be friends with the horses I rode in lessons. When my instructor would scream “KICK HIM” I was torn between not disappointing her, and not wanting to harm my friend. She would explain it away: “you have to teach him who’s boss,” “you can’t hurt him, you’re too little,” “if you don’t get him, he will get you!”
Over the years, the harming of horses became more subtle: the kicking and pulling of a beginner gave way to the obsession with a horse’s headset and incessant micromanaging with my hands and legs. All of these were lead by and conditioned repetitively by instructors. If it were up to the little girl 26 years ago, I would have never kicked or pulled.
Unlearning these habits was not easy for me. Learning too see from a horses perspective was hard, too, because I had these responses conditioned into me. Though I have always deeply loved horses and never wanted to harm them, learning more about how they think, move and see confronted my habits and left me in a strange place inbetween harsh habits that don’t work and ineffective fluff-ery.
Learning to be effective without being harsh and devoid of empathy is a pretty straight shot for someone who hasn’t been repetitively conditioned to kick, pull, see-saw, and grind. Even well meaning, kind people are going to really struggle to not do these things, after the habits have been cemented.
Most children want to ride because they love horses, and inside they know when what they’re being asked to do is wrong. Most children look at horses with empathy and care in a way that the adult eye, clouded with conditioned beliefs, goals, traditions, or the burdens of stress, tends to miss.
Many of my students are “decompressing” from prior instruction that caused them to go against their deep moral center. As a result, they don’t trust their instincts, and struggle to connect in meaningful ways with their horse. Their relationship is clouded with fear, doubt, dependence on a trainer, and lack of enjoyment.
There is a part of you that knows you don’t want to harm your horse, and knows what is right and what isn’t. You know when your horse’s eye says he is not ok, even if your instruction has lead you to believe he is fine.
Trust that little voice – it knows the way back to the innocent enjoyment of a child with a horse.