February/March 2013


More unnecessary dominance-based "training"

What are you teaching your horse?

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Desert Horse Services Inc.
Desert Horse Equestrian Services
9420 E. Golf Links Rd.


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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 dont 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 hed 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.

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Training whether were talking about horses or dogs or small children is basically a function of two activities. First, we teach new skills by programming in information that creates a series of responses, repeating the stimulus and rewarding specific outcomes until they become habits. If A, then B. If I touch you on the shoulder with a specific pressure or a consistent pattern of taps, then you move the shoulder away and I praise your choice to reinforce. After I confirm that you understand this basic input/output, I can refine the outcome to suit my needs by teaching you that the energy with which you move is directly related to the energy with which I press or tap. A quick, light touch might mean you should move over in the crossties so I can groom your barrel. A stronger, more sustained tap-tap could ask you to sidepass several steps in order to go around an obstacle.

Second, because were working with students who are not clean slates, we replace behaviors we dont want with alternatives we do. If not A, then B. If I tighten the cinch and your habitual response is to rear, then in order to teach you not rear, I have to replace that habit with another. I find something that makes you relax and feel good a treat, a tone of voice, a muscle massage, an acupressure point and do that while Im tightening the cinch to create a new, positive association. After I have reinforced the better choice enough times, the new behavior will have become the new habit.

In either situation, if I replace the process of teaching with an exertion of force that creates fear, Im only inducing my horse to react without thought or reason. If you rear when Im saddling you and I beat you until you stop, I just taught you to rear until I beat you. I did not teach you anything at all about standing for a girth to be tightened or give you any reason to stop the rearing behavior until I beat you.

A trainer has to create an incentive for the subject to produce the desired behavior, and I find that a positive incentive gets the job done more efficiently and with longer-lasting benefit than a negative incentive, especially one that triggers an emotional response fear, anger, confusion, frustration. Putting any learner canine, equine, human into a reactive state really limits the amount of learning that is possible. It might be easier to do dominance, but the time and thought it takes to customize a positive approach is well worth the result.

Lets face it, hitting, kicking, screaming and the like dont require much intelligence or effort on the part of the perpetrator. Finding the most effective positive incentive does take more thought, more time and more creativity to find something, for example, that your horse likes. This could be a treat, but productively training with treats is harder than it sounds. I generally find it works to find a spot where the horse likes to be rubbed or touched or one of the acupressure spots that gives the horse an endorphin release. Then I would rub that spot while asking the horse to stand still. Over time (anywhere between an hour and a year) I would link the enjoyable rubbing spot to the cinching process until the horse had only positive associations with the action. Instead of rearing and then getting punished or even not-rearing while cinching, he would stand still and be relaxed during cinching.

I have to be clear and consistent with my question and give you time to consider your options and come up with an answer. I reward the answer I want you to repeat. Or, if you dont choose what Im trying to teach you, I redirect your response by refining and repeating my question until we achieve the desired result. The process requires patience and a relaxed, grounded affect. And the more consistent and relaxed I am when I do these things, the more consistent and relaxed youll be in your responses.

I want you to feel free to respond honestly, showing me when I have been unclear or missed my timing as well as making it clear when I have gotten the cue just right. In short, I want my horses to think about their responses to my requests.

I want to invite instead of impose, to create a process that empowers and enables the horse instead of coercing and creating unnecessary stress.


Desert Horse Equestrian Services has a new barn/home at Mesquite Springs, 9661 E. Graf Lane. Come visit Ichobod, Junior, Sport and their friends in this peaceful setting. We'll soon be enjoying the shade of big trees.

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