How best to chastise a horse - that is the question
Recently a Forum member was having problems with her newly acquired horse which had been showing signs of latent aggression. I thought about how to give some comment to her and then I realised that without knowing her or being able to watch the horse’s behaviour towards her, there was no way by which I could positively advise her.
Aggression is one trait in a horse’s psychology which I personally will not tolerate. Once a horse realises how strong it is compared with a mere human then control passes from the rider/handler to the horse. If the horse knows it can generate fear in a human then it will use the new found weapon to get its own way. Luckily most horses are content to be subservient to humans but a stallion, a late cut gelding or an alpha mare can sometimes decide to try its luck. The question for the handler is then what to do.
A very relative issue is that we humans are not all alike. Some of us have little fear of domesticated animals whilst others have a latent fear which arises in times of stress. It is rare that I stand back from a horse but from time to time even my brain tells me to be cautious.
The last time I struck back at a horse was some years ago when a gelding tried to bite my wife’s shoulder. I was standing by her at the time and the horse made a lunge over the stable door. Immediately I waived my hands and shouted at the animal which much to my surprise then lunged at me instead. I flew at it and it did move back but not very far, but then it came back at me. I realised then that I would have to be very careful whenever I was within reach of this horse. It would have bitten me if it had had the opportunity. Yet it did not even know me. The owner rarely appeared at the yard and when she heard that it had tried to bite me over the stable door, she was very concerned lest I had frightened the animal. She competed on the horse which apparently had some ability in cross country jumping partly, I suspect, because it was fearless. The fact was that undoubtedly the animal was a danger to every human on the yard. There was no place for it on a DIY livery yard.
Thankfully the horse was moved away soon after my confrontation with it and I subsequently learned that it had been put down. Chastising such a horse I would classify as Defcon 1 - the last phase in a confrontation. Horses which strike, kick or aggressively bite are not suitable for boarding on public yards.
My own horse at the time was a mature heavyweight cob who had been worked in a trekking centre. He had met with all sorts of humans and had developed his own way of dealing with them. His favourite method of discarding a cumbersome rider was to go down on his knees and roll over - with the rider still sitting in the saddle. It was left for the rider to jump off quickly. He never tried it on with me but in the end he discovered my weakness when he whirled and bolted down a steep tarmacced lane. At the time I was mounted on a flat topped dressage saddle with minimal knee rolls. I was bounced forwards off the saddle onto his neck which he flipped and thereby had me off his back for the first time in over five years. At first I thought it had been to do with his nappiness or the pretended fright of a lamb hiding under the field hedge but I still wonder if the move was predetermined. This horse had a mouth of iron, his chest was broad and he was as strong as an ox. He could easily carry my 200lbs up the steepest of hillsides He had a short stubby neck and he could resist a pull by the rider on either rein. He was stubborn but somehow his individualistic nature made him lovable - not that he was an affectionate animal. In his case it was me whom he was at war with, not the human race.
He knew exactly what he wanted from humans and he tried to make sure he always got it. I never really understood him until right at the very end of our relationship when I watched him carry the woman who had known him all of his life, out of the yard into a hail storm. She sat slovenly hunched over his back, riding one handed, whilst smoking a cigarette Yet at the time this horse was soon to be entered into his first dressage test. When asked to do so, he could be ridden on the bit in a rounded outline but he was not comfortable in the posture. Normally I rode him in contact but on a loose rein. One handed he’d do a brisk extended trot, head and neck pitched up, even when ridden on loose reins. For his mum - he’d do anything she asked without argument. He’d take her sheep herding on a mountainside. He taught her three year old son how to sit. On a trek he was the leader of the herd.
But sometimes he didn’t want to leave the yard. Or if he was out, at an appropriate junction, he’d whirl round to the left and lurch into a fast canter in the direction of home. The only counter for the rider was a savage pull through on the reins in the direction of the whirl and a sharp tap of the whip on the rump as he came through 360 degrees. On such rides, the rider learned to hold the reins short with the crop in the hand. What I had not recognised was that we were at war. Joe had not at that time yet learned to dislodge me from his back. And that was exactly where he wanted me - on my back on the ground, looking up at him looking down.
Yet at other times Joe could be angel. He was simply superb even in heavy traffic. He was gentle with children He was bold and fearless fun to take on pleasure rides It was only when I thought to teach him to ride classically that the problems escalated. Joe could form a rounded outline, but he did not need to bend his neck and spine to carry my weight. He sought control of his head. I now realise that sometime before the inevitable fall in which Joe tore a check ligament and I went to A&E, we had reached Defcon 2. He could not be allowed any leeway in the matter of bad behaviour.
However the fact was that I was using the crop too much. The stricter I had become, the greater was his resistance, When months later during one of his first rides after recovering from his lameness that he dumped me again I realised that the relationship between him and me was breaking down. I couldn’t trust him any more to want to carry me safely. I‘d made a serious mistake in not leaving him with his pride. To be fair to him, he never ever struck out, reared or bit passing humans, the vet, the farrier or visitors onto the yard. The war of dominance was between him and me and to a lesser extent my wife who also rode him at times. Sadly it was his mum who one year later put him down. I could never have ordered his demise.
My present mare is a different creature altogether. She is ultra sensitive. A loud voice saying ‘Oi’ in a strident tone is enough to cause her to lift her head and prick her ears. I never carry a whip with her. The gentlest of application of the whip, say Defcon 3, would send her shooting forwards and she would be like a cat on a hot tin roof for the rest of the session. Even if I started to carry it as routine, I’d inevitably break the bond between us. Yes if she barges me, then I will shove her in return. If she nuzzles me hard, then it is for me to push her nose back. With her, it is beholden on me to ask, and invariably she will obey. When she is in alert mood and fearful then I must calm her with hand, fingers and voice. With her the maximum level of chastisement can only be Defcon 4 - namely a sharp loud voiced command to desist. To move up the scales of punishment, would be to lose her voluntary cooperation with me for ever.
So with these examples in mind, how can one advise how to chastise a horse. So much depends upon the character of both horse and human and their relationship together. The commentator has to meet with both horse and rider which is not practical by intenet.
The days of one standard set of responses by humans to characteristic horse behaviour went out with the cavalry and the arrival of the tank. What is more, horses these days are more finely bred. Not all horses are flight animals, some will stand their ground. We have stopped corporal punishment of school boys, maybe it is time it was banned with horses. There are other ways to dominate a horse.