The Dominance Paradigm, Right in My Back Yard

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.


5 thoughts on “The Dominance Paradigm, Right in My Back Yard

  1. I am sorry but when i see this sort of rubbish training i cannot help but open my mouth and confront the trainer. the other option is a quiet word in the ear of the trainers client that maybe this is NOT the way to do it.

  2. Well… if you are boarding and/or training near that trainer, confronting them openly is not an option for all the obvious reasons, which can include revenge, right? And if your horse or you are not vulnerable personally, there’s always the “law”. What is considered animal abuse? Not all that long ago, even in the U.S. a man had the right to beat and even kill his wife, children, animals, etc. if he thought it was called for. Unfortunately, here in the west, we still have that frontier mentality to some degree. And how to get the authorities out to investigate? The biggest problem is what seems to be an increasing apathy to ethical issues in our own houses or backyards. I wonder if we feel more powerful if we can give money or make Facebook comments on behalf of charities far away. But how do we handle the issues close to home?

  3. Sabine and Kip,
    I certainly would like nothing better than to hit the offending trainers over the head with a two-by-four and get them to stop. But both the situations I wrote about in the blog were complicated. In the first instance, I was an outside trainer coming in to work with a client and I didn’t have access to or relationships with anyone connected with the horse that was being mistreated, with the owner’s permission I later learned. And confronting the trainer could have put my client at risk of reprisal. In the end, she and another boarder couldn’t take the abuse anymore and moved their horses out and I have been able to share their stories of the place with a couple other people considering boarding there. It takes some time, but eventually the grapevine does its work and people find out about undesireable facilities.

    In the second instance, the incident involved the person who was the horse’s owner as well as the owner/manager of the facility where the abuse happened. So no outlet there, either, other than to quietly warn off some people who were considering working with that trainer. I wish there were more direct action possible, but as a professional in a pretty small horse community, I can’t just go in guns blazing without putting my livelihood at risk.

    My “weapons” are much more subtle and slow-acting, but they do sometimes prove powerful. First, I can provide an example of another way of working with horses and support my clients and other interested horse owners with my experience and knowledge. Second, I can educate on a wider scale through my blog and my website. That’s why I provide so many articles about all kinds of issues for free on my site. I love hearing from people who write to tell me about the changes they have made in their riding and training after reading something I wrote and about the positive reactions in their horses. If minds have to be changed one at a time, so be it.

    • Great reply Stacey!
      Last summer at a schooling show, a reining “trainer” was running a sweet little mare into the fence – to sharpen up her stops maybe? In the class their performance was miserable – evading, slow to respond, etc. The owner then rode her in a different class – she seemed obviously new at this but in tune with her horse who responded brilliantly. The cowboy “trainer”, who had been swaggering around much of the day, was taken down several pegs. Will he mend his ways? Don’t know but the owner got it that he wasn’t right for her horse.

  4. Thanks Patti,
    Love that the owner got such good performance from her own horse and hope the next thing she did was find a different trainer who knows how to make a good reiner. It makes me crazy that these new reining and cowhorse people think you stop a horse with heavy hands and a severe bit or a fence or a wall. What about actually riding the horse and teaching it to stop correctly from the seat like a real working horse? I was lucky to grow up on a ranch and to ride some good cowhorses that were both soft and light and extremely finely tuned. I figured out as a teenager how to teach a horse to slide and roll back without having his head hauled on. Pretty basic stuff.

Comments are closed.