Disciplining Your Horse - Part 1
By Will Clinging
As a trainer and clinician I am fortunate to work with a wide variety and a large number of horses. As a result, I see different patterns of equine behaviour emerge. This is not behaviour in the sense of studying wild horses, but rather, behaviour patterns that have developed due to interaction with and handling by people. I see horses behave in ways that wild horses probably wouldn’t understand. I have written articles about horses that develop “princess complex” and have also discussed a variety of behavioural problems.
I see problem behaviour develop in a horse that has seen little or no handling, and before he has had any training. This is not because the horse is bad, in fact, often he shows no sign of misbehaviour; and it is not just bad manners because an unhandled horse does not understand that we expect him to behave in a certain way.
I see horses that are apparently gentle and easy to be around, but do not understand how to behave like horses. These horses behave like spoiled children who have just been told they can’t have a cookie. Horses learn to throw temper tantrums that result in an exhibition of extreme behaviour not out of fear but out of anger. These horses soon learn how to milk the system to get their own way. In many cases, we are not prepared to effectively discipline this bad behaviour: either we overdo the correction and get mad at the horse, or we try to comfort the horse for being scared. Both scenarios only confirm the bad behaviour.
Many of today’s horses do not live in a natural herd environment, and when one horse disciplines another it is done without anger or fear, and neither takes offense.
When I refer to disciplining the horse for problem behaviour I am not advocating punishment, but saying that we cannot allow the bad behaviour to lead to a reward for the horse. The horse must reach his own conclusion that such tantrums are not effective before he will start looking for a better way to behave before he gets what he wants. A major factor in how we discipline is emotion. If we get too emotional about what is happening, either we take it as a personal attack and get scared, or we fight back with aggression. It is the emotional factor that changes the horse’s perception of the correction, because then the horse is also taking what should be a simple correction as a personal attack and exhibiting the same fear and aggression that we presented first.
When one horse scolds another, there is usually no anger attached and therefore no fear. But our barn-kept horses never learn how to give or take correction without giving or taking offense.
This problem is not strictly caused by over-affectionate handling. Many horses have a lack of horse discipline because of the environments they live in.
They often get little or no turnout with other horses, so they don’t learn how to behave like horses. They behave the way we expect them to, and too many people treat them like pets, giving too much affection and not enough unemotional correction.
If the mare does not have good parenting skills, she may not discipline her own foal when he steps out of line, and the foal will soon learn he can push the limits without consequences. Photo: Robin Duncan Photography
When we raise a foal it is often not in a natural herd environment. Some mares do not even know how to scold their offspring because they never had enough interaction with a herd to develop the skills of herd discipline. A mare and her foal do not make a herd. If she was never scolded by her dam, she may have no parenting skills when it comes to disciplining her own foal when he steps out of line. The foal will learn to do whatever it wants with no consequence attached. If the mare does keep her foal in line, it needs to be supported by those involved in the daily handling of that foal. Otherwise, the foal could learn to work his authority figures against each other. Not unlike children who, when told by one parent that they cannot have a cookie, go and ask their other parent who might say yes, foals learn which parent is more likely to give them a “cookie” in the first place.
From a trainer’s perspective, handling a horse with a temper makes the initial job more difficult. I have to be prepared to let the horse work through his fits and reestablish better habits to deal with his frustration or fear. Once the horse learns that he will not be rewarded for problem behaviour, he realizes it is not effective anymore, and at that point he becomes just another horse.
If the horse has been extreme in his tantrums then I must be able to work the horse through his anger to whatever level he decides to go. This horse knows exactly how far to push us before we stop asking him to do what we want; this is generally a smarter horse.
The horse learns that if he keeps resisting just a little more, we will give in before he does. In this situation, it is my job to go beyond the level where his owner gave in, however extreme, until the horse gives up. Unfortunately he must find this out the hard way and there will usually be several episodes before he gives it up. His behaviour will often become even more extreme and he will do all he can to avoid giving up. As I see the behaviour escalating I know I am getting closer to a resolution. It is this knowledge that allows me to work through it because this part of the job is not fun to do or to watch. As the saying goes, “The darkest hour is just before dawn.”
I used to see very few horses that behaved with such tempers. Unfortunately, I believe it is becoming much more common. I have no intention of offending any horse owner but when you coddle your horse, you are not making life easy on him; instead, you are making training much more difficult for both the horse and his rider. A horse with a temper will be unpredictable and less reliable than one that is less emotional. I am not saying that there should be no affection; I believe there should be affection. It is not about balancing affection with discipline but about supplying plenty of both. I will conclude with a quote from Buck Brannaman: “Discipline will keep your horse from becoming abused and discipline will keep you from becoming an abuser.”
Related: Disciplining Your Horse - Part 2
Main photo: A trainer’s job is more difficult when the horse has a temper. The horse must be worked through his anger to learn he will not be rewarded for problem behaviour.