Thirty-five years ago, I stood with a group of women protesting a murder sentence given by a judge in Denver. The defendant had shot his estranged wife in the face, point-blank. The judge gave a ridiculously light sentence, saying she had provoked her husband by leaving their marriage. Then in this week’s news, reports that a judge gave a puny sentence to a Stanford swimmer, found guilty by jury, of three sexual assault felony convictions. Even after an extremely eloquent statement from the victim. Sometimes it feels like we’ve made very little progress indeed.
Why would a horse blogger speak up on this issue?
Partly because after I was raped, I didn’t tell the police or anyone else. When my rapist was finished, he mansplained–in a paternal, sarcastic tone–that no one would ever believe me. I crumpled into silence. Well, I got my voice back.
And secondly, because when news about sexual violence hits, we’re sadly reminded of our own pasts, or of those we know who’ve been hurt, or we have a backward flutter of relief that it wasn’t us. Even if the intimidation doesn’t rise to the level of violence, when there’s a verbal assault or insinuation, the threat still hangs in the air and we can’t trust that line between talk and action.
So what do we do when our hearts hurt, when we need peace, and a friend to lean on? We go to the barn. Some of us have escaped to the barn all our lives.
But there’s mansplaining in the barn, too. If you choose a positive training method, you’ve heard it.
Mansplain means “to explain something to someone, typically a man to woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing.” Lily Rothman of The Atlantic defines it as “explaining without regard to the fact that the explainee knows more than the explainer, often done by a man to a woman.
Mansplaining is generally served up a with a dose of White Male Privilege. I got in trouble for using that term this week, so if you feel any better, use the traditional term: The Good Old Boys Club. Either way, it’s that person who likes to be in charge, but can only feel good by putting someone else down. It’s the leader who dominates with fear, as if showing disrespect to others is a sign of strength.
The cowboy farrier who told my client I was babying her horse and all any horse needed was a cowboy to ride him. Or the rancher who looked at his twelve-year-old mare, crippled beyond painful imagination, and proudly proclaimed, “We use ’em hard.” Or the sheriff’s deputy who repeated again and again, to a long-time horsewoman, that horses don’t need water; they can live on snow. Or the old cowboy at my book talk who told me that his horses weren’t like mine; his horses had to work.
Or the thing I hate the most; a “natural horsemanship” video trainer, who holds a wild-eyed horse’s lead-rope short enough to be able to attack the horse’s face with his celebrity-whip. All the while he’s crashing on the horse, he’s playing to the audience and verbally disrespecting the woman–it’s always a woman–in the same way that he is disrespecting her horse. She nervously agrees, sharing her horse’s fear and confusion.
I don’t feel the cowboy magic. I am sick of seeing spur rowels and steel tie-downs on terrified horses. Tired of horses being shown who’s boss, by riders who’s insecurity masquerades as bravado. Dominating temperaments are so ingrained in our culture, so common, that sometimes we get contrite just to stop the mansplaining short of a bigger fight. We’ve been taught to hide ourselves in plain sight, in a cloak of silence.
To be clear: I have nothing against cowboys. For crying out loud, Ray Hunt was a cowboy. What I hate is a bully.
And it turns out that the FBI does, too, moving animal cruelty up to a Class A felony, the same as murder and arson. It isn’t that the FBI has gone soft for kittens. Statistics show a majority of violent crime begins with animal abuse. If they see cruelty as a precursor to worse violence, shouldn’t we?
The second reason I know this is a big deal, is the number of emails and comments I get from riders who resist being told by trainers that fear equals respect, and that we must have our horse’s respect at all costs. They’re relieved to find training methods that value intuition over violence; thrilled to experience an even better response from a horse for NOT being a bully. They understand that a horse can clearly tell the difference between kindness and weakness.
The best horse-people know that rodeo isn’t the highest form of horsemanship. They train with gentle hands, take good care of their horses, and show respect for others. Having compassion can sometimes be as challenging as riding a bull, but they lift the conversation above name-calling and innuendo, and stand up for others, patiently holding space for them until they can stand up for themselves.
A special reminder to horse-women; we ARE the horse world. We’re literally 80% of the competitors at shows, and the percentage of pleasure riders is probably larger. At the Olympics and other world competitions, women compete–not in “ladies” classes–but as equals to men. And we frequently win. Women are a huge financial power; we outspend men by far. Instead of that being a joke, we should take it seriously. Money is power.
And perhaps the most world-changing women’s trait; we understand, usually first hand, that fear and domination do not equal good leadership. We know that just like intimidating women and kids doesn’t create a trusting relationship, neither will harsh training techniques create a committed equine partner. Fear will never be a dependable motivator as long as the victim has a heart beating and a breath to move forward.
Horses teach us to elevate the conversation; that a small, well-timed ask-and-reward is always kinder and more effective that a huge fight.
So the next time you find yourself standing in a puddle of mansplaining, take a breath. Put a smile on your face and speak the truth: “Officer, that just isn’t right.” Or take your horse’s reins back with these words: “No thanks, you’re fired.” Stand up to bullies and hold your ground with your own calm, but equally proud proclamation: “We don’t do it that way here.”
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.