Monthly Archives: June 2008

Affection and discipline; Part 1

As a trainer and clinician I am fortunate to be able to work with a wide variety of horses. I also get to work with a lot more horse than most people. As a result of this I see different patterns emerge in equine behavior. Not behavior in the sense of studying wild horses but in behavior patterns that are developed due to interaction and handling with people. I am seeing horses behave in ways that wild horses probably wouldn’t understand. I have written articles in the past on horses that develop “princess complex” and I have written about a variety of behavior problems. What I am seeing is problem behavior developing before the horse has had much or any handling and no training.
It is not because the horse has been bad and in many cases has shown no sign of misbehaving to their owner. It is also not just bad manners because unhandled horses have no concept that we expect them to behave in a certain way.

What I am seeing is horses that are apparently gentle and easy to be around have no understanding of what it is to behave like a horse. These horses are behaving like spoiled children that were just told they can’t have a cookie. Horses are learning how to throw temper tantrums that result is extreme behavior being exhibited not out of fear but out of anger. These horses then learn how to milk the system to get their own way. We are not prepared in many cases to effectively discipline the bad behavior being exhibited. We either over do the correction and get mad at the horse or we try to comfort the horse for being scared. Either scenario only confirms the bad behavior.

When I talk about disciplining the horse for behaving this way I am not talking about punishing it. I mean that we can not allow the bad behavior to lead to a reward for the horse. The horse must come to his own conclusion that such tantrums are not effective and therefore look for a better way to behave before they get what they want. A major factor in how we discipline is EMOTION. We get too emotional about what is happening. We then 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. They are also starting to take what should be simple corrections as personal attacks and exhibiting the same fear and aggression that we presented first.
When one horse scolds another horse there is usually no anger attached therefore any fear. Our barn kept horses never learns how to give or take correction without giving or taking offence.

This problem is not strictly caused by over affectionate handling. Many horses have a lack of horse discipline because of the environments we keep them in. They often get little or no turnout with other horses, so they don’t learn how to behave like a horse. They behave the way we expect them to, and too many people treat them like pets, too much affection and not enough unemotional correction.

When we raise a foal it is not often enough in a natural herd environment, some mares do not 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 a herd make. If she was never scolded by her Dam she may have no parenting skills when it comes to disciplining her foal for stepping out of line. The foal will learn to do what ever they want 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 that are told by one parent that they can not have a cookie go and ask their other parent in case they might say yes. Or they learn which parent is more likely to give them a cookie in the first place.

As a trainer dealing with a horse with a temper make the job initially more difficult. I have to be prepared to let the horse work through his fits and reestablish better habits in terms of how he deals with frustration or fear. Once the horse learns that he is not in trouble for behaving the way he does he will realize that it is not effective anymore? At that point he is 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. These are the horses that know exactly how far to push us before we stop asking him to do what we want. These are generally the smarter horses. He learns that if he keeps resisting just a little more that we will give in before he does. It is then my job to go beyond the level that his owner gave in at however extreme until he gives up. Unfortunately he must find this out the hard way and there will usually be several episodes before he gives it up. His behavior will often become even more extreme and he will do all that he can to not give up. As I see the behavior escalating I know I am getting closer to resolution. It is always darkest before the dawn. It is this knowledge that allows me to work through it because it is this part of the job that is not fun to do or to watch.

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 to offend any horse owner but you are not making it easy on your horse to coddle him. In fact you are making his life in training much more difficult for both him 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 because I believe that there should. It is not about balancing affection with discipline but in supplying plenty of both. I may sound like I am ranting and maybe that is the case, I apologize for digressing. 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”.
© 2008