It’s Time to Take The Blinders Off!

Spending time with horses is good for people.

Spending time in the horse industry is an entirely different story.

The horse industry is nothing less than toxic. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say there is no industry better equipped to turn perfectly good humans into full-fledged narcissists than the horse industry. And as for horses? Well, the horse industry does everything it can to remind them that their “proper” place in the emotional food-chain of human society is that of prey.

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not going to mince my words here. There’s simply too much at stake. We need a revolution in the horse industry, and not just for the sake of the horses. The mentality that has dominated the horse industry for generations breeds the exact kind of human leaders (and followers) that are driving our country (and world) to the brink of disaster. Call me melodramatic if you want. My response?

It’s time to take the blinders off.

You’re not seeing the whole picture.

The horse industry attracts thousands of wonderful, good-hearted people into its fold every year. People who love horses. People who admire and respect horses. People who genuinely want to learn more about horses and how to have meaningful relationships with them. And the horses stand ready to love, mentor, teach and heal!

Sadly, the toxic mentality that is rampant in the horse industry quickly swallows these kind people up, devours their good intentions and preys on their vulnerability. Humans of all ages come into the horse industry full of light and hope and love… and soon become jaded, frustrated, insecure, broken, anxious, and ultimately, hard-hearted. I’ve personally seen it happen hundreds of times, at least. It happened to me too.

The good news is, horses still have the potential to save us from this toxic cycle. But first we have to get out of the way and let them lead for a while. Additionally, enough of us must find the courage to recognize and speak the truth on their behalf, no matter how uncomfortable it makes people within the existing industry.

I recently saw an article entitled “Ten Reasons Your Teenager Daughter Should Own a Horse”. The author’s list reminded me what the horse industry looks like to those who still have blinders on:

  1. It will keep your teenage daughter out of trouble.
  2. It will teach your teenage daughter about money.
  3. It builds responsibility.
  4. It builds self-confidence.
  5. It will help your daughter meet new friends.
  6. The barn offers a good variety of role models of all ages.
  7. It will keep your teenage daughter humble.
  8. It will keep her fit and physically active.
  9. It will help your daughter become a creative, active teacher.
  10. It will teach her brain to learn new things.

While it’s possible your teenage daughter (or son) might reap some of these benefits while spending time at a traditional lesson or show barn, I’m far more worried about the long-term emotional and physical damage he/she is likely to receive as a result of the narcissistic mentality that’s rampant among humans in these settings. Let me explain…

Sander van der Linden, Ph.D. is a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge. He determined that there are two types of narcissists: grandiose and vulnerable. In my experience, the horse industry (generally speaking) is a virtual breeding ground for both. As with anything in life, there are certainly exceptions (and thankfully a slowly growing number of them are gaining success in the horse industry). But the average person will need to work really hard to find them!

As Dr. van der Linden’s labels suggest, the grandiose narcissist is more outspoken, while the vulnerable narcissist is more introverted. Both, however, are deeply insecure and become addicted to the quest for positive affirmations and accomplishments. As with all personality disorders, the severity of the symptoms can fall anywhere along a broad spectrum.

Below are some of the characteristics Dr. van der Linden says define a grandiose narcissist. You tell me whether this list “fits the bill” on any equestrians (or instructors/trainers/parents of said equestrians!) that you know?

People who are easily angered or frustrated when others (including horses) don’t give them the full attention or admiration they consider to be their birthright.

People who exhibit a lack of empathy toward others (including horses) and are unable or unwilling to recognize or understand the needs and feelings of those others.

People who fantasize or obsess about control, power, success and having the “perfect” partner (or student or child).

People who feel superior over others (including horses or students) and focus on the flaws of those others.

People who expect to be recognized by others (including the horse or their students or their peers) as superior even without achievements, knowledge or skills that would warrant such a title.

People who set boundless ambitions for themselves (or their horse or their students or their child) and fantasize about being the best.

People who have a sense of entitlement and expect others (or the horse) to fulfill their requests or instructions without question.

People who often get angry or impatient when others (including the horse or their students or their child) don’t live up to their expectations.

People who manipulate or take advantage of others (including horses) simply because they know they can.

People who tend to dominate conversations and don’t listen to what others (including horses) have to say.

Meanwhile, the vulnerable narcissists, according to Dr. van der Linden, constantly question whether or not they are as special, powerful or superior as they think they should be and therefore become addicted to seeking positive affirmations from others (human or equine). In the horse industry I often see how these vulnerable narcissists become victims of the grandiose narcissists and many spend irrational amounts of money seeking the magic “system”, “method”, “tool” or “teacher” that they believe is going to unlock the elusive perfection or status they crave.

While I’m sure it could be said that MANY competitive sports or hobbies have their fair share of people with this mentality, the horse industry is far worse for one simple reason:

Success, as it’s currently defined in the industry, is based on using living, breathing, peaceful, sentient prey animals as tools or pawns in achieving that success, for no possible purposes other than ego or financial gain.

No other sport, activity or industry does this so blatantly while still being considered an almost universally “wholesome” activity.

But here’s the real kicker:

As long as we humans consider it generally acceptable to disregard the horse’s experience and feelings on the road to “success” in the horse-industry, we are missing a monumental opportunity to capitalize on the unique and countless opportunities horses provide to actually teach empathy (which is the direct opposite of – and counter to – narcissism).

To everyone out there who claims to love horses, I want to extend a challenge. If there were a different model for “success” in the horse industry, one that focuses primarily on teaching humans to be more empathetic vs. more narcissistic, would you embrace it? What if it means un-learning everything you’ve been taught to believe is important in your relationship with horses? What if it means re-envisioning YOUR OWN business within the horse industry? What if it means risking the loss of current clients or students and making a decision to nurture and welcome new ones? What if it means making an investment of time and money to learn how to become a completely new kind of role model for the next generation of horse lovers?

Most of all, what if it means becoming the human your horse already knows you have the potential to be?

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Please Anthropomorphize My Horses!

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been chastised (or heard someone else being chastised) for anthropomorphizing a horse? In the horse industry, “anthropomorphizing” is typically considered a mortal sin. But in my experience, overzealous attempts to avoid anthropomorphism can be far more dangerous… often leading to serious misunderstandings, injuries, illnesses, accidents and (dare I say it?) downright abuse.

For those who may not be familiar with the term, anthropomorphism is the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities, including animals such as horses. Anthropomorphism gets a bad rap because, when taken to an extreme, it can lead to an excessively anthropocentric stance, where a person attributes an entirely unrealistic number (or type) of human characteristics in animals where they may not actually exist. For example, when a human assumes all horses feel cold, and need to be blanketed, whenever that human feels cold or needs a coat to feel comfortable outside. Or, when a human assumes all horses will be more comfortable, or safe, sleeping in a barn than being outside overnight simply because most humans feel safer and more comfortable sleeping in a house than outside.

But what about the excessive avoidance or rejection of anthropomorphism (even in the face of clear behavioral evidence), which leads to a devastating denial of the very real and vast similarities we share with horses? In my experience, this denial is far more rampant in the horse industry – and far more dangerous for both horses and humans – than excessive anthropomorphism will ever be. For example, how often do humans choose to categorically deny that horses experience the same types and frequency of physical pain or discomfort in their bodies as we do in ours, despite a multitude of behavioral responses suggesting this pain exists? How often do humans choose to ignore or deny the fact that horses form incredibly deep bonds of friendship with other horses (and even with particular humans) and that they have strong preferences about who they live, spend their time and interact with (again despite clear behavioral evidence)? And how often do humans choose to pretend that horses (should) somehow naturally enjoy being ridden, feel comfortable wearing excessive tack, or voluntarily give up what little control they have over their lives, their bodies and their choices when we ourselves would never tolerate such treatment?

Did you know that anthropomorphism is actually considered to be an innate tendency in human psychology? This means it may well exist in, or be determined by, factors that are present in us at birth. If this is true, it indicates that evolution has deemed anthropomorphism to be essential to our nature (and survival) as human beings. Perhaps most significantly, it is tied to empathy, which is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

In her Op-Ed Why Anthropomorphism Can Be a Good Thing, Mary Hood Luttrell explains that anthropomorphism is a positive, animal-centric tendency that allows humans to recognize the similarities we share with animals. She explains that by allowing ourselves to recognize similarities between ourselves and animals (while obviously respecting differences too), we are better able to see the ‘whole animal’. And by seeing the whole animal, we’re less likely to commodify its individual parts – its skin, its fur, its physical conformation or athletic abilities, its usefulness for human purposes or gain.

I seriously doubt there’s a rational horse or human anywhere who would deny that there are differences between our species! Many of these differences are immediately obvious, which is why both humans and horses are naturally cautious and nervous the first time we encounter one another. Other differences, such as the fact that horses can’t breathe through their mouths or that they have no vomit-reflex, may be less obvious. But no two individuals (even within the same species) are the same in every way, so it’s only common sense to presume there are differences – both innate and acquired. Shouldn’t it be equally common sense to assume there are similarities?

In an article entitled Shared Science: Human and Equine Health Similarities, Sara Evers Conrad even acknowledges that “horses suffer many of the same health conditions that people do including cardiovascular disease, samonellosis, Lyme disease, joint disease, uveitis, tendon issues and cancers. The two species also exhibit similar clinical signs, even when the root causes may be different. For example, equine grass sickness and Alzheimer’s; self-mutilation in horses and cutting disorders in humans; foal rejection in mares and post-partum depression in women; equine metabolic syndrome in horses and diabetes in people; asthma in humans versus what was classically called heaves in horses.”

Both Comparing Humans and Horses and Comparable Parts – You Are More Like Your Horse Than You Think! provide detailed explanations of the vast similarities between the equine and human musculoskeletal systems. There is also scientific evidence that Facial Expressions are The Same in Humans and Horses.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a staunch advocate for learning everything we possibly can about horses, and for never blindly believing anything without due diligence and research. But I’m also a staunch advocate for using one’s intuition and “following your gut” anytime you interact with horses. The best way to build a relationship of trust – and to stay safe – with horses is to practice empathy as liberally as possible, to never put yourself in a situation that feels unsafe, and to never assume a horse will want to do anything you yourself wouldn’t want to do if you were in her “hooves”.

Here’s one thing I know for sure: when you visit my farm, I’d MUCH rather you anthropomorphize my horses than deny their innate “sameness”. In return, they too will look for, and recognize, the “universal one-ness” we all share.

For more information about Kim and her heart-centered equine-assisted experiential learning business visit