What About Discipline?

Jan Dawson
President, AAHS

[reproduced from fall 2001 Caution:Horses, Vol. 6, No. 3]


How hard should I beat my horse and how often? Sometimes I wonder if that is really a dumb question. The opposite might be this. How dangerous should I let my horse get before I do something about it?

I am always amazed at how far people will let things go with their horses before they draw the line. And I am not advocating corporal punishment for horses, far from it. But if the rider or handler doesn’t set limits early and stick to them then someone is going to have to explain things to the poor horse and that is what I really hate, because the horse doesn’t know what he did or that it was wrong.

It is sort of like a child: if Mom and Dad set limits, if the limits make sense, if the limits are consistent, the kids won’t go to reform school.

On the other hand if the limits are here today and vague tomorrow then the kids know it may be worth the effort to try to wear Mom down, or play Dad off against Mom, or wait for a weak moment to get their way. Maybe they will go to juvenile hall.

Horses are not much different. If they know the rules and the rules are fair, if the rules make sense, if the rules are consistent, then the horse will be soft and easy. If not, that dumb, hard-headed, son-of-a-gun will be a rogue. (That’s where Bubba stands back and says, "I knowed I never shoulda bought him in the first place. There was just sumpthin’ about him...")

Horses do not deal with frustration well at all. They need consistency. Consistently bad is even better, in some cases, than inconsistent. They also need to respect us. We must be the herd leaders. You know the saying, "If you are not the lead dog the view never changes." Or the other favorite, "When the lowest horse in the pasture kicks you, what does that make you?"

To some people this means that we have to "show’em who’s boss." I think not, but we do have to gain and retain their respect. Do we need to punish them? Rarely. Punishment has never been shown to be much use in discouraging mistakes. It seems only to have a useful purpose when discouraging aggressive behavior and then only when the aggression was unprovoked. Punishment will sometimes be beneficial in discouraging unwanted behavior as a crack of the behind as a horse gathers himself up to rear up but that is about the only time. In most cases it would be a band aid. The rider would be treating the symptom rather than the problem.

So how do we gain this respect? In most cases we can do it the same way we do with children, often without their knowledge that it is happening. When the young child keeps getting into things he shouldn’t we have learned to redirect his behavior and give him something more appropriate to do. When a horse puts his head down to eat grass it is a mistake to rip his mouth with a severe bit when there are other options.

What other options are there? First we have to agree on the problem. To many of us the problem is not that the horse is eating grass. The problem is that he has stopped his forward motion and that he has taken his attention off the rider. Punishment is a band aid. Redirection is better. Just push the horse forward over his mouth and give him something to do.

I recently was in a barn with a young woman whose very nice horse was squeezing her up against the hitching rail. She pushed against him, told him "no" in a barely audible voice, then picked up a whip and gave him a bit of a tap. He fired at her and she ran. Now she was crying because he had kicked at her and he had learned that he could make her yield. The really sad thing was that this is not a bad horse.

There are lots of things that we could have done but the answer had to be one that would work for this owner and this horse, not for us with this horse. We recommended the John Lyons "Leading and Loading" video and taught her to use the method with another horse. We re-schooled her horse then put the two of them together. The horse now knows the rules. She knows that the rules have to be rules. Now the horse is relaxed and is not being nagged all the time.

I witnessed another case of "punishment" in the name of training. This was a situation in which a small woman was tacking up a large Oldenberg gelding. The tack fit fine and the horse had no back problems or any other physical problems but as soon as the saddle was placed on the horse’s back the horse began to fidget and when the woman began to cinch up the horse he started to paw. She took the bat she kept handy and gave him a good swat and he quit and she cinched him up tight right there in the cross ties. This was repeated for several days, sometimes even resulting in the horse’s raising a hind leg to the woman. He never kicked but each time he raised his leg she hit him smartly and jerked the cinch on up.

We had the horse in the barn for a couple of weeks before the behavior went away. We never laid a hand on the horse. He simply needed to be cinched up more slowly so we attached the girth and did other things. We tightened the girth in several stages and the behavior went away on its own. Now the horse can be cinched up fairly normally at home or at a show by just giving him a minute or two with a fairly loose girth to adjust.

I think the most common misguided punishment that I see is in the use of artificial aids. The problem is not that they are used but that they are used improperly. The whip and the spur are designed to reinforce the leg but all too often they are used to replace the leg. The result is a horse that not only does not respond to the leg but that is forced to accept the whip and spur as the regular aid. Unfortunately for the horse, the rider who makes the mistake of substituting the artificial aids for the natural ones rather than using the artificial ones to reinforce the natural ones is seldom skilled in the use of either

Lack of skill in the use of the artificial aids will often result in their overuse or unreasonable use. If there is nothing that the horse can do to make the rider stop kicking or using the whip, the horse will stop responding to either. At the absolute extreme the horse will sometimes refuse to move at all and may even lay down. Too often this situation is not recognized for what it is. It did not develop overnight. It developed because the rider did not make clear rules for the horse and stick to them. The rider also was lax in developing her own skills so that when the horse cooperated, she missed it and went on pushing. This severe a mistake will mentally destroy a sensitive horse. It can make them extremely dangerous. It is not an uncommon occurrence. Few horses are born aggressive. Some are made so. Many are made mental wrecks. All are accomplished by insensitive riders.

Gain a seat. Learn the aids. Listen to your horse. There isn’t much else.

Reprinted with permission of the copyright holder and the American Association for Horsemanship Safety.   P.O. Box 39, Fentress, TX 78622.

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