Disciplining Your Horse, Part 2
By Will Clinging
In my last article "Disciplining Your Horse, Part 1," I wrote about how many horses are developing different behaviour patterns because of the affection and lack of effective discipline they receive.
I have been pleasantly surprised at the number of people I’ve heard from who recognize that their horse fits into this scenario.
Recognizing the problem is the first step in resolving it. There are a few things to keep in mind when you attempt to change the behaviour of your horse should he behave in an unacceptable manner. First, horses are constantly pushing boundaries and are usually very intelligent. Many of us do not give them credit for their intelligence and their ability to rationalize. Do not take this factor for granted; their intelligence is the only reason we can change their behaviour.
Do not underestimate the intelligence of horses. Their intelligence allows humans to be able to train them and change their behaviours. Photo: Robin Duncan Photography
Second, do not start something you are not prepared to finish. Corrective training is not about winning or losing but about finding an acceptable resolution to a conflict. That does not mean the problem is fixed. It might only mean that the conflict is less intense. You will not convince a horse in a few lessons to change behaviour that has developed and been accepted for a lifetime. It will take time.
Third, do not take your horse’s actions personally. He is not behaving a certain way just to pick a fight, rather, he is trying to prevent one. By nature, horses are defensive not aggressive. This does not mean the horse won’t act defensively aggressive; even though you may feel you are not threatening him, you are.
And fourth, do not be afraid to be physical when correcting your horse. This is the cause of much of the problem behaviour we now need to change. Many of us enjoy horses because they are kind animals. But a horse can perceive too much kindness as weakness, and horses do not have much time for weaker horses. Horses are very physical when they correct each other. Don’t worry! You are not strong enough to hurt your horse unless you are using a weapon.
Give your horse responsibilities and let him figure out what his options are. His responsibilities are to pay attention, think about what you have asked of him and come up with a decision about how he should respond. Your responsibilities are to keep his attention, give him time to think, and let him make up his own mind. He may be wrong most of the time, but so what? It is more important for him to know that it is his job to figure things out for himself. Do not punish him for being wrong or he will stop trying, or he will try too hard – either one will lead to lack of success. You must make sure he is successful, maybe not to the level you would like, but incremental success will lead to ultimate success. He will soon learn what his options are, and which ones are ineffective. When he learns what does not work he will start to look for different options and this is where, if we are paying attention, we can start to encourage him to keep looking. Eventually he will be correct or nearly correct and then it is time to stop asking. Don’t fall into the trap of repeating a correct action over and over and over again. Once he takes responsibility and does it a couple of times, give him credit for having learned what you asked.
Like children, horses need to have consistent boundaries set and enforced. Many people have unclear expectations for the behaviour of their horse, which leads to problems. If you are not sure what you want, make up your own boundaries by making yourself a list of the things your horse does, both good and bad, and asking yourself, “Do I like it when he behaves this way?” If you do not, then you should do something about it. If you do like the way he behaves you should let him know that you appreciate what he is doing for you.
If your horse has learned to ignore you and takes offense when you get after him for misbehaving, the earlier you address it the easier it will be to change. This does not mean it will be easy: the more established the behaviour, the more confident the horse, the harder it can get. This means he may change his behaviour for the worse before anything is resolved. If you are not prepared to see this through to a satisfactory conclusion, then do not start. Things are likely to get very intense, so are you prepared to go where he might take you?
It is very important that you are able to remove emotion from any request or correction you may use to get your horse to perform. Emotion causes unclear thinking. Fear, anger, and frustration are all debilitating when trying to teach or learn. If you cannot remove the emotion from the equation it will be difficult to clarify things to your horse, because your horse will feel the same fear, confusion, and anger as his rider.
Once a bad behaviour is corrected and the horse is taking responsibility for its own actions, a new life unfolds that is much more enjoyable and conflict-free. Photo: Robin Duncan Photography
You must always be looking at the things your horse tries to do for you, rather than dwelling on the things that you think your horse is going to do to you. I know a rider who has seen her horse rear up and was not able to get the vision of her rearing horse out of her mind. When she expects the horse to rear again, she has already set the horse up to fail. Use the power of intention and positive thought to help rather than hinder the process.
Never look to punish your horse for any action, however extreme you may think it is. Correct him absolutely, but NEVER punish. Perhaps it is just a difference in definition but correction is methodical and deliberate, punishment is emotional and reactive. Do not be afraid to hurt your horse’s feelings; he will like you more after the problem is resolved.
When trying to change behaviour I use three stages. The first stage I call “conflict.” I need to cause enough conflict that I cause the horse to express the poor behaviour. I will do my best through methodical correction and reward to have the horse look for better options in dealing with me. This can sometimes set the horse up to anticipate that the next lessons are going to be as intense as the “conflict” stage.
The next stage I call “clarify.” In this stage I will not be the cause of the conflict. The horse will anticipate enough conflict that I won’t need to initiate it. I will just make requests quietly and deliberately as if I know he will be successful. He will often overreact and I will just quietly let him work himself through the conflict stage and clarify to him that he is doing fine. Correctness is unimportant but encouraging him by asking less of him should help him learn not to overreact.
The third stage I call “support.” From this time on I will expect the horse’s behaviour to be much improved. Each and every time the horse reverts back to previous behaviour I will support him by resolving the issue that comes up. I do not want to look at this as a lesson; rather, I look at it as life. In his new life he is expected to behave well and will realize that if he decides to behave badly there is a consequence. On the other hand, life in general is much more enjoyable because we are not dealing with conflict every day.