There is always such grand excitement when a new horse arrives to the barn. Most people want to get to know the new horse and their owner, find out what their personality and background is, and so on. This arrival was no different. Sahara, a six-year-old beautiful bay Arabian mare, was arriving today. Her owners were clearly new horse people. They purchased Sahara from Craigslist and didn’t care to do much with her but to lead her around like a dog. Sahara was clearly spirited and gave her owners the runaround. Not even six months passed before they had to sell her.
The woman who bought Sahara had been around horses because her husband had a couple of his own and was friends with people in the rodeo ring. He had handled many Quarter Horses over the years and knew his way around them. Together, this couple wanted to take on Sahara, who was clearly a project horse. The wife was admittedly unexperienced with training and even riding, but from listening to her friends and husband talk about training, she knew what she needed to do: she needed to be the boss.
This was a loaded role. She took responsible steps to get this wild horse’s feet trimmed, get her the shots she needed, and to deworm her. But she also knew that ownership implied asserting her dominance over Sahara. She brought out some friends to help her, collecting tips on how to be dominant. As she started working with Sahara, being the boss was a struggle. Sahara was hot, aggressive, and had been allowed to get her way for far too long.
What made matters worse were the voices around her saying she wasn’t doing enough to get her horse under control. Sahara’s new owner—meant to be her leader and caretaker—was becoming the punisher. But it wasn’t just her owner. It was all the people who offered to “help” with Sahara. The punishments escalated, far beyond what I found necessary, and seemed to characterize most her handling. She was bullied with a whip during lunging time, run around the arena over and over with no purpose, and smacked around with various ropes (possibly worse). Yet these tactics did more to confuse and intimidate her than teach her. Within a few months, Sahara was moved to a training barn.
I’m not sure what became of her, but sadly, this scenario isn’t uncommon enough in the horse world. I have seen far too frequently the phenomena of punishment taking the place of training. Sometimes, it happens so innocently that we don’t even realize that we’ve fallen into it. Other times, it is impatience that grows over time into cruelty. And it needs to stop.
How the Punishment Cycle Occurs
Discipline is an indispensable part of training. We show our horses through boundaries and consequences of their unsafe, aggressive, or undesired behavior. We give them parameters to make them understand how they will be accepted under our leadership. Keeping in these boundaries, they are rewarded and safe. Our task of providing consequences should always be to their ultimate benefit. Furthermore, it should never inflict actual harm. For example, a horse that acts safe around humans will almost always be well cared for. So it is to their benefit to act politely around humans, and a reason to draw boundaries around impolite behavior. Disciplining your horse when they act outside of these boundaries will demonstrate their importance.
Some horses test boundaries more than others, and this is natural. And dealing with such horses is often how we develop the prejudice in our mind that we need to be harsh all the time in order to maintain the power dynamic. Our own impatience, confusion and frustration may cause us to inflict a consequence even when not necessary. This is especially true when we do not listen to what our horse tries to communicate to us (such as pain, confusion, or fear).
This cycle solidifies over time when we begin to discipline our horse as a response to our own insecurity, instead of their wrongdoing. When we are afraid of our horse, or don’t know what to do in a given training moment, resorting to punishment is an easy out. At the very least we are putting him in his place, right? When this response becomes a habit, the punishment mentality becomes our default response.
Some people are taught that punishment is a crucial aspect of training from the beginning of their learning process with horses. They are taught to look for the horse to act up. Unfortunately, they think that when they have punished their horse, they have been productive in their training. In fact, the opposite is true. Training implies discipline, where poor behavior is met with a consequence. But when your horse offers no organic reason for you to discipline them, there is absolutely no reason to look for it.
This line of thinking will inevitably lead us to pushing our horses until they commit a punishable offense. Not only is this an incorrect approach to discipline, but it is a power trip. It is a cheap and backwards way to approach training. It sets up a dynamic where the horse can never win. While we don’t want our horses to overpower us or change the dominance dynamic, we do want them to do well. We want them to know when they have done something right.
I have found that there are very few people who actually mean ill towards their horses. Most people who manifest this mentality care about their horses’ well-being and cherish their time with them. This makes me believe that most people are not aware that they are punishing out of turn, either because they were taught incorrectly or have grown tired in one way or another.
The outcome of this dynamic is a constant cycle of defeat, though. The horse will learn that no matter what, they will always lose. Depending on the horse’s personality type, they will either respond with tension, fear, aggression, or apathy. Do you remember that one teacher in elementary school who nitpicked at your faults, perhaps even made an example of you in front of your peers? While the psychological implications aren’t as deep or shame-based, your horse will still experience the discomfort and lack of acceptance. From a pack mentality, they sense a lack of protection and stability, and internalize a need to fend for themselves.
Breaking the Cycle
The antidote for this mentality is to approach your horse with the mindset that they can and will please you. Instead of looking for how they will misbehave or underperform, look for the positive in their performance. Their bad habits will rise to the surface; but deal with them when they happen instead of going to look for them. This is the difference between discipline and punishment: seeking to build them up in trust and dependency, as opposed tearing them down. Leadership is about boundaries and kindness working together, not power for power’s sake. We want our horses to win, to feel safe, and feel like they have pleased us. This will encourage them to keep seeking reward, rather than fearing the inevitable and unpredictable punishment. They will know that their time with us always involves a pleasant experience, even if discipline is present. When our horses win, we win too.
See also: How to Challenge the Challenging Horse