Giving up riding is incomprehensible to most horse lovers. So what would lead a lifelong trainer, trader, and rider of horses to not only walk away entirely, but even question the concept of domestication itself? Hear Ren Hurst’s incredible journey.
One of the most iconic and time-honored human-animal relationships is that of horse and rider. From the noble steeds of battle to a little girl’s first pony, the bond people share with their horses seems to border on the profound, and the idea of giving up horseback riding is incomprehensible.
So what would lead a lifelong trainer, trader, and rider, who lived and breathed horses for years, to not only give it all up, but even question concept of domestication itself? To look back and realize that what she’d so long considered her love of horses, was in reality her love of power. [tweet this]
While I personally have very limited experience with horses, my guest today built her entire identity around the training, trading and riding of horses. With brutal honesty and admirable self-analysis, Ren Hurst shares her journey in her memoir Riding On The Power Of Others.
The following is a transcription of Ren’s interview:
Emily Moran Barwick: You’ve had a really profound journey with your relationship to horses, through a variety of training philosophies and approaches over this period. Could you share a little of your initial mindset when you first started working with horses informally as a kid, and then how that compared and evolved with your first formal training?
Ren Hurst: I got my first horse when I was 12 so it’s right around the time of puberty—my home life was a mess, hormones, all kinds of craziness. It was just literally a way to deal with all of that at the time. Around [age] 16, I got my first formal training. I really didn’t like how my horse was being treated, and yet through this—what I perceived as violent treatment of her—I was able to do the things that I wanted to do. And it was being condoned, pushed and celebrated by people who were very, very respected in the field of horsemanship but it was effective and that changed the course of my life—being taught violence.
This was pretty much the general, traditional type of horsemanship. Basically they were teaching her how to lunge which is how to send her around in circles (on a line usually), and she was really unruly. Their answer to that was to run a stud chain through the nose of the halter, which is very typical, it’s very common practice. And I remember thinking ‘Oh my god they’re really hurting her when they do that,’ but then they taught me how to do it, and it worked.
You know that’s the very beginnings of my journey, but that feeling and that teaching at a young age—that it’s ok to control and use violence to get what you want and what you need from somebody—affected my life long term.
Emily Moran Barwick: One of the major shifts that you had with your relationship with horses was your introduction to what is called Natural Horsemanship. Can you share a little bit about what that means and how that differs from what you were calling traditional approach?
Ren Hurst: I found natural horsemanship [and] like most people, I thought that ‘oh wow this is the greatest thing ever’. And looking back on it now it’s a completely different way of seeing it. But when it was introduced to me I was already pretty deep in the game, I had already learned how to train horses traditionally, I was already buying and selling and making a profit that way. The whole Natural Horsemanship thing is this grand delusion of love and cooperation and respect and trust because at the end of the day you are still forcing the horse, you are still moving their feet, you are still manipulating, you are still coercing, you are still the one that has the say at the end of the day. And they sell it in this little gift wrapped package of love and cooperation and respect and trust, and there’s just this whole cognitive dissonance with people, that if you apply those same terms to your personal human relationships that is not what those words look like.
It’s based on watching natural herd dynamics, but what people don’t realize is that it’s based on natural herd dynamics in survival mode, not in the natural true essence of a thriving community of wild horses in their natural state, where resources are abundant, and there’s more harmony and cooperation, which we don’t see here in America because wild horse herds are under a tremendous amount of stress, due to the fact that the predators are gone because we’re using their land to graze sheep and cattle and it’s all a mess and quite honestly it all goes back to people’s desire to eat meat. But basing natural horsemanship on the natural dynamics of horses the way they are today is like basing natural human behavior on watching a prison yard. [tweet this]
Emily Moran Barwick: One of the schools that you got to towards the end of your journey through the different methodologies of training, and something that you flirted with a little bit on and off throughout the book before that period was with Alexander Nevzorov )Nevzorove Haute Ecole = NHE). Could you talk a little bit about his approach because it seems to be the most outlying of all of the different formal trainings with the horse canon.
Ren Hurst: Basically it’s approaching the horse as an absolute equal and really meaning that. I mean, you don’t talk down to them, you don’t anthropomorphize, it’s all very logical, very practical. Zero equipment is needed or necessary. No treats, no coercion, no anything. You have nothing but your authentic self to show up with and to present to this horse, and basically the education of the horse looks very similar to how you would educate a small child that does not speak English. And so it took a tremendous amount of faith on my part just to believe that maybe this is possible. And it was that faith that took me through the barriers of realizing what in fact was possible with these animals and how horrendous it is, what we do to them when they are capable of understanding us at such an elevated level.
Emily Moran Barwick: In your book it is very clear that you’ve built your entire identity around training, trading, and riding horses. So how and why do you finally reach the decision to give up riding?
Ren Hurst: It was not an easy decision. It was extremely emotional, I remember the very moment that I sat Brandy down in my office and I took her hand and said: ‘I’m really sorry, but I can’t ride anymore’. That was our whole life, which meant that our whole future was going to be totally shifted because of this decision. She wasn’t ready to quit riding and neither was my apprentice. My apprentice still rides. Nobody in life. I had a huge following in Texas, and everybody thought I had completely gone off the deep end.
The thing is I can explain this all day long, and people can get it on their heads all day long—which is what drives me crazy about people needing the science of it—because as important of that is, this is an experiential change, and it can only be changed through the feeling of the experience of connecting with an animal in this profound way. Most people have no idea that the animals they are spending time with are in an absolute state of learned helplessness, of conditioning, that doesn’t even allow to experience their true nature. What you are experiencing is like this empty shelf version, or even an ignorant version of the animal in front of you. That is why a lot of times the animals come out as seemingly unintelligent, because we keep them stupid.
So because of the NHE school, I was experiencing Shai in an entirely different way than I had ever experienced a horse before, because the school required me to show up and treat him as an equal. So that’s what I did and by god he didn’t show up as one. The level of communication sucked, it ruined my life. Here’s the thing, once I had experienced it with him we started applying it to our other horses and one by one they started healing and changing and becoming totally different versions of themselves—when we had know these horses for years. We were those people that would have said: ‘we have this beautiful relationship blah blah blah…’ But we didn’t know any of them.
The very last horse I had in my training paddock—I’ve always had a very hard time actually talking to the animals because it felt awkward—I got up there and I sat on his back and I placed my hands on his withers and I just asked him: ‘Is it OK for me to be up here?’ And he just had this really deep sigh and dropped his head. I don’t know how to explain this other than it felt like he said ‘yes’ but with total resignation, like it wasn’t coming from a good place. I knew that feeling, I knew that feeling deeply of saying ‘yes’ when it really, really wasn’t what you wanted. I just slipped off of him and I was completely done.
I had trained hundreds of horses, I’m not an idiot, I could go back through that film trail of all the horses I trained and remember all the times they said ‘no’, and I manipulated them into saying ‘yes’ or loved them enough to get them to say ‘yes’ to me all the time.
But with Shai, because the school required you to honor every single ‘no’ 100%, if he said ‘no’ in any way, all I could do was walk away. It wasn’t about manipulating or getting to the ‘yes’, it was about dropping all sense of agenda or expectation, and allowing the horse to truly have an equal say in whatever developed between the two of you. Nobody does that in training. That’s not training, that’s relationship.
You have to almost experience a truly free horse if you’re a trainer to walk away from it, otherwise your perception of what horses are and how they behave is really skewed. We really don’t know the essence of what love really means, and that’s what this work has turned into beyond horse training or NHE or any of that. The whole thing we do now, is we’ve essentially learned a method of un-domesticating animals or people in a domesticated state through this unconditional love and action which is extremely difficult, is not woo-woo, it’s very logical, it’s very practical, it works, it’s very effective, and you have to be really ready to show up for it because it brings up the darkest aspects of you that most people don’t want to face, which is why most people like to keep their animals the way they are because that is their source of unconditional love that they’re not willing to find within themselves.
And the way we work with animals here at the sanctuary is it’s a practice center. It’s practicing this way of relating in a truly unconditional manner that heals the domesticated subject and gives you a chance to heal yourself out of a domesticated state that society and conditioning has placed us in. So, by liberating the animals, and practicing working within these parameters of keeping it honest and keeping it at that level, you grow tremendously as a person and there’s not a lot of people signing up for that yet because it’s really hard work.
Emily Moran Barwick: One of the main objections that I hear from horse owners in response to a few of the deals I’ve done on the subject, which I read throughout your book as well, is this assertion that they love their horses, and that their horses in turn love to be ridden. How do you respond when you receive these kind of objections?
Ren Hurst: Well, it depends on if I’m trying to word it in a way that actually reaches people or if I just answer off-the-cuff, because it is insanity, it’s absolute insanity, and what’s worse about it is that many of the horses that are displaying these behaviors that they like to be strapped with the dead body parts of another animal and have this metal rod stuck in their mouth, they probably do because their life experience has been so limited, that that looks like fun in comparison to standing in a stall all day. There’s such a disconnect in the use of the word “love,” and what we actually do with these animals.
I know that these people feel love towards their horses, without a doubt, no question, but, if it’s the same love that you feel toward your family members – I mean, do you place your family members in bondage, micro-manage every aspect of their lives, and then climb on them whenever you want and ask them to take you around. The answer is ‘no,’ and if you do, I don’t want to be a part of your family. But, it’s like, how obvious is that? That’s not a loving relationship, and it’s not an equal relationship. This is a being you have placed in your control and in your care, and then you call that “love.” What that is, is something entirely different. I mean, there’s nothing “loving” about using someone for your own personal benefit. Love is way bigger than just a feeling. That feeling is more like affection, and it’s more attachment-based.
Emily Moran Barwick: Why do you think that this is so difficult for people to break with this concept of riding horses?
Ren Hurst: People are deeply attached to being able to use the horse for their sense of power—women especially. Ninety-five percent of my clientele, the whole time I was in the horse industry, was women, ages, probably between 40 and 75 years old.
I cannot even tell you how many times I’ve heard the words, “my horses saved my life.” It’s such a painful thing to hear, and I don’t argue with people when I hear it. But the truth is, is if your emotional connection to another being is where your dependency on where your survival lies, then you’re giving your power away, and women taking the power away from the horses is a lot of times how they make it in this world, when the rest of their relationships are not necessarily working, or if they don’t feel powerful in other areas of their lives.
I saw this again and again and again. When I stopped riding, and was still trimming hooves for my clients, so many of them would get tears in their eyes because they could see and feel the truth of what I was talking about and they knew someone like me would never give up riding if there wasn’t something profoundly true about why I did it, because I’m not that person.
This wasn’t an easy emotional decision for me, it just makes absolute sense. But to give that up before they knew what to replace that with would’ve been death for them—maybe literally. Riding, to many people, is as much a dependency as any other drug that’s keeping them functioning. It’s a really, really hard thing to give up if it’s your main source of joy and freedom in the world. [tweet this]
Emily Moran Barwick: There are many vegans that continue to ride horses—do you find that the objections that you receive for giving up riding mirror those that we tend to receive when people are resisting shifting to veganism?
Ren Hurst: Many vegans, whether they understand it or know it or not, are still exploiting animals. When the focus is on the actual physical harm, rather than the exploitation aspect of this, there’s still a disconnect. So it’s very similar, the arguments remain the same because people are jumping on this moral issue rather than the issue of ‘why are we doing this in the first place and is it necessary?’ ‘And what am I getting out of it and what are my motivations for continuing it?’
From Ren’s book Riding On The Power Of Others:
“Having underestimated the intelligence level of animals for so long and at such great depth, when I was exposed to the truth of what they were really able to understand, being surrounded by them left me feeling like a slave owner.
It’s no wonder we keep them stupid. Isn’t that exactly how we were able to control members of our own species for so long? One will never be able to understand the intellectual capability of another if they are only willing to weigh it against their own understanding of that individual.
If we believe animals to be stupid, and we keep them under our control, they will be stupid. Unless we create an environment and a situation where they can advance.”— Ren Hurst
I hope you enjoyed hearing from Ren about her journey. You can find links below to her ongoing video series as well as to her book and the New World Sanctuary Foundation to follow and support their work.
It’s important for all of us—vegans included—to be mindful of our relationships and interactions with all beings, human and non-human alike.
If you liked hearing from Ren, do give the video a thumbs up and share it around to help others learn to truly love horses, and subscribe for more vegan content every week. To help support Bite Size Vegan’s educational efforts, please see the support page.
Now go live vegan, learn to love unconditionally, and I’ll see you soon.
— Emily Moran Barwick