What are we doing when we repeatedly turn to violence and brutality to coerce our horses to do what we want or to force them not to do what we don’t want? Twice in one week recently I witnessed fellow professional horse “trainers” making that classic mistake: confusing aggression with communication and fear with learning.
Both incidents happened while I was involved in teaching lessons and both were egregious enough to draw my attention away from my students and their horses.
First was a Western trainer on a very young-looking little sorrel horse, repeatedly jerking the horse in the mouth, spurring it and hitting it with the reins over and over throughout the entire hour-plus I was on the property.
In this case, it was not obvious even to two educated, experienced horsewomen what exactly the trainer was trying to accomplish. The horse would spurt forward and the guy would grab with his spurs and jerk it to a stop. Then he’d grab it with the spurs again and hit it on the hindquarters with the reins, over and under, and the horse would spurt forward again. Rinse and repeat over and over and over. Tanque Verde Stables, Adam Bradley
Sure looked to me like a good way to teach a horse either to grab the bit and run off or to flip over backward. I found out later the latter was what the trainer was trying to undo, “fix” the horse in one session to stop rearing with its owner. Right. I expect that was not terribly successful.
I saw similar “training” techniques employed by this trainer over several months until, finally, my client couldn’t take it anymore and moved her horse out of the facility. Then found out later that the same professional seriously injured another client’s former horse ramming the animal into a fence to “teach her to stop.”
I generally find the only to entice a horse (or human) to give up on a habit is to replace the undesirable behavior with something else. To do that, it’s often necessary to explore the cause of the habit and to remove that cause. For example, removing an ill-fitting saddle as prelude to teaching a horse that bucking isn’t the only way to behave under a rider. Even in those instances when the source of the bad behavior isn’t discernible, you still need to find some way to connect with the horse’s brain, to physically prepare him to learn instead of just reacting to gross stimuli.
A horse in full-on flight response – or in fight mode, for that matter – is in no fit state to learn anything. He shuts down all his brain but the primitive part that is trying to save him from danger. When trainer = danger, the horse will never learn anything useful.
The second horse I saw being hit instead of helped by his trainer was punished during a jumping lesson for refusing to jump a small oxer off a right-bend corner. I don’t know how long the lesson had been going on when I noticed him, but my gaze was drawn to the horse refusing the jump by trying to duck out the right side.
I watched the rider circle again and set the horse up to refuse all over again – no right bend, no outside rein support and the horse so far on the forehand the rider had no horse in front of her leg at all. The horse kept ducking right, though really he was just continuing to fall over his right shoulder as he had done through the entire turn. (Not unlike the horse in the video who just kept falling to the left out of a poorly executed bending line.)
The fix for this is pretty straightforward: have the rider actually bend the horse, rock him back on his hindquarters and balance him up under her seatbones supported by the left rein. After a few stops maybe the horse needed the incentive of a small voice correction or a tap with a jumping bat on the right shoulder about three strides out. This was a horse I had seen in the past to be honest and willing when ridden properly, so even that might not have been necessary.
Instead of coaching the rider to correctly set the horse up to jump, the trainer appeared to blame the horse. The next time he ducked out, the rider leapt off, the trainer mounted and faced the horse toward the middle of the fence and proceeded to whale on him with the bat. Because, of course, it makes perfect sense to a horse that if he makes a mistake induced by Rider A, then Rider B will get on and hit him and he’ll know the next time what to do for Rider A. Or Rider B. Or anyone at all. Also, it will become perfectly clear while he’s being held at a standstill and hit with a bat that he must jump the fence the next time he’s cantered to it. (Just like the horse in the video clearly understood that dumping his rider and having a crop chucked at him were connected.) Mathias Fernandez
After the beating, the trainer bent the horse right on a circle and rode him very strongly to the fence with plenty of rein and leg support and then hit the him repeatedly as he was approaching and jumping without a sign of ducking out. This happened over and over until my lesson was finished and, thankfully, I left.
So, unsupported by a rider the horse runs by the fence and gets hit. And, supported by a rider the horse jumps the fence and gets hit. As far as I can tell, neither the horse nor the student, Rider A, learned a darn thing here except how not to jump an oxer on a right bend.
I did not see whether the student ever remounted to attempt the jump. I did, however, hear all about the big welts all over the horse afterward from a fellow boarder who was rightly upset and appalled.
What, exactly, did these professionals think they were accomplishing? Teaching the horse a skill? No. Creating new positive associations to encourage specific behaviors in the future? No. What they were doing had nothing to do with training or teaching or anything else productive.