Anger and the matter of the carrot or the stickI have just read through a thread posted on HF which has become fairly polarised about how to chastise a young filly which had shown some bad manners. The thread has attracted a lot of written comment from members of the Forum and slowly a pattern of opinion has emerged. On the one side are those who follow the principle that in modern horse management one should be careful about the use of forcible handling, whilst on the other side there are those owners who believe that firm positive chastisement has its place in enforcing obedience. Some owners say that horses should be shown how to obey; others say that any horse should not be allowed to get away with any misdemeanour. Perhaps both sides will agree that teaching a young horse the boundaries of what is acceptable behaviour towards humans is a tricky exercise - one to be undertaken with care and persistence with a view to the longer term and with consideration as to the nature of the individual horse. It is merely a question of how the objective is to be progressed. As trainers of horses at the very beginning of the process we have to make a choice about which methods we intend to employ.
Over the years I must confess to having carried a crop in my boot which I have used to reinforce instructions given to what was a very stubborn 12 yo horse. But I have never ever beaten to punish a horse with a crop or a whip. I may have reacted instinctively, even in anger, when a horse had barged me out of the way, trodden on my foot or put me at risk but my retribution usually went no further than shouting “OI!” sharply at the offending animal. Invariably it’s enough. Horses mostly hate loud noises and they can readily sense antagonism in a human. One sharp tap with a crop might be appropriate if a mature horse needs to be brought back into compliance but beating a horse with the idea of inflicting pain as punishment is never appropriate when dealing with a dumb animal. The horse can‘t speak, at best it can only defend itself. Mostly all the animal does is to take the punishment in silence and remember the person who inflicted the accompanying pain. Will the horse associate the punishment with the act of disobedience? Well we are told by those experts who are said to know, that it depends upon how quickly the punishment follows the act of disobedience. There is a second or two for the human to respond in at the most. What is noticeable is that we humans are very apt to say that the horse has no ability to reason for consequences but when we are chastising the animal we expect the horse to associate the pain of chastisement with the cause for the punishment. Surely humans can’t have it both ways.
Now we all know people who rant first and then think afterwards. I suspect we also know horse owners who are quick to punish their disobedient horse with a slap. Such owners may regularly act out of anger which has no place in horse management or in horse riding. Rage is completely destructive in relationships be they between humans or between humans and animals. Acts carried out in anger can easily become acts of cruelty. On the other hand, one can readily understand how a clumsy or wilful action of a animal weighing half a ton can bring about injury to a human especially a slightly built young woman. However as owners or riders we should always adopt defensive procedures when in the close proximity of horses. Whenever a particular horse is prone to aggression towards humans then undeniably steps must be taken to isolate that animal from regular contact with people. Luckily horses by nature aggressive towards humans are not common but all horses regardless of temperament are heavy, powerful creatures and they become unpredictable when excited or fearful. One should not punish them for panicking when in fact what they need is re-assurance.
It is widely promoted that a horse is born with fear uppermost in its mind but fear mostly comes from a bad experience. I personally would rather say that the horse is instilled with suspicion of anything new, unknown or out of place. To be cautious in this life in my mind is a virtue and not a vice. Nature has given the horse the common sense to be wary of its major predators on this world - humans. So the human when beating a horse does no more than to reinforce the horse’s inbred fears. By chastising the horse the owner may assuage for themselves their own anger but he/she does nothing to reinforce his/her relationship with the animal which he/she will need to trust implicitly later when mounted on its back. To be able to ride any horse well, the rider must be in receipt of willing acceptance and compliance from the horse. The rider might obtain compliance through fear but willingness is more elusive.
In Britain most horses are backed at 4 and until then they are left to grow. Between weaning and coming into work there is a period when we aim to get the youngster halter broke. In later life we shall always need to catch the animal, to shoe it and box it. The horse must learn stable manners. For sure we don’t want young stock to fear humans So the unschooled youngster calls for some very careful handling and preferably only by experienced horse people. Teaching a youngster to be halter broke is more than just training it to follow at the shoulder - it involves showing the youngster that there is nothing to fear in doing what its master has asked it to do. That is a fundamental requirement for the further training of the adult horse. The horse must trust its trainer.
I spend a lot of time getting my intelligent and sensitive mare to trust me. Nowadays one slapping by me, for any misdemeanour by her, would put me back months in her ongoing training. Furthermore nobody on our yard is allowed to handle her unless I have given them instructions as to the acceptable way of doing so. If she should misbehave then it would have been my fault for creating the wrong environment. She expects me and other humans to respect her and in return I expect her to trust me and other humans. It is called a partnership between species. After many years of being with horses I firmly believe I have a better relationship with my horse by persuading her to comply with my request than by compelling her under threat. On those rare occasions when I do develop anger then I come away from my horse because whatever I might do in anger might well prove to be counter productive with long lasting consequences.
In the XXIst century horses are largely kept by humans for pleasure. I personally hope my horse gets some pleasure from being with me, otherwise what is the point?