by Laura Crum
Jami’s post about rollkur and Terri’s followup got me thinking. So today I’m going to do a post about abusive training practices. And I want to warn you straight up—this post is not for the faint of heart. If you’re squeamish, don’t read it. Also, this post is not about rollkur. Not only do I not know anything about rollkur, but I couldn’t even get my ancient computer to view the video clip that Jami put up. However, certainly both Terri and Horse Of Course expressed the opinion that this practice is abusive, and I believe them. It got me thinking about other abuse I’d seen and it brought up a question that I’ve raised before—I mentioned it in my comment on Jami’s post. So here’s my story.
A long time ago (more than twenty years) I worked as an assistant to a well known reined cowhorse trainer. Next door to this trainer was a western pleasure horse trainer, who just happened to be his girlfriend. She was always riding in his arena, and I got to know her horses.
Now I knew squat about western pleasure and I was never very interested in it. But I knew that the star of her barn was a coming three year old they called Wilbur. She hoped that Wilbur would have a good chance to win the western pleasure futurity, which was a big deal.
To my eye Wilbur looked more like a TB than a QH. Over sixteen hands tall and very refined, Wilbur was apparently what was in vogue in the western pleasure world at that time. He was a gentle, sweet colt and could execute the super slow collected lope and jog and all the other western pleasure stuff (which I don’t know much about). He had one little problem. As befitted his refined, sensitive looks, Wilbur was a tiny bit spooky.
It was nothing that would bother anyone in “real life”. But every so often this coming three year old would look askance at something on the rail and arc his body away from it. We’re not even talking untracking his feet. Just a tiny little half shy. But it wouldn’t do.
Apparently, to have a chance at winning this futurity, Wilbur couldn’t bobble in any way. He could not look askance at anything and bow up his neck. He had to be completely flat.
The pleasure horse trainer tried to take the spook out of Wilbur in various ways and failed. She became more and more upset by his flaw, and turned to her boyfriend, the cowhorse trainer, for advice.
The cowhorse trainer was one tough guy. It was this fella that turned me off to reined cowhorses forever, by the cruel methods he used to achieve his goals. And he came up with a plan to take the spook out of poor babyish Wilbur. They took this three year old, they jerked him down, tied his feet together, put him under a tarp, beat on him awhile, and then let him lie there for a few hours. I know they did this; I saw them do it.
Wilbur fought like crazy and skinned up his legs, the pleasure horse trainer shed tears, and they all kept saying they had to do it. I asked them why they thought they had to do it. (I was pretty pissed off—I quit the cowhorse trainer not too long afterwards after an even more abusive episode.) They all explained how important it was that Wilbur stop spooking, and that this would take the flinch out of him.
The thing is, I knew about the tarp routine. I’d been around some tough cowboys in my life. And the point of the whole thing is to make a horse feel helpless. I didn’t see how feeling helpless was gonna stop Wilbur from spooking. And guess what? It didn’t.
It took long weeks for Wilbur’s torn up legs to heal. He still spooked at stuff. And he had a very sad look in his eyes. That’s all I really know, because I quit that bastard cowhorse trainer and never went back. The one thing I learned best is that winning isn’t worth torturing horses. I don’t know whether Wilbur did well at the pleasure futurity. I do know that what they did to him was cruel and horribly unecessary. Simple, huh?
OK, now here’s another true story. Some not too knowledgable folks around here raised a colt they thought, in their ignorant way, should be a stallion. He was reasonably well bred, reasonably good looking, reasonably athletic. Trouble was, they didn’t know anything about stallions. They didn’t know much of anything about horses, actually. They raised up their colt and they tried to break and train him themselves and it was a disaster. These people were not mean to their young stallion, whose name was Playboy. Oh no, they were very, very nice to him—always.
Playboy was tough minded and he quickly learned to bully his owners. He got mean. They were afraid of him. They sent him to a not very handy trainer, who rapidly became afraid of him, too. Then to another trainer, who told them they had to geld him. They did. Playboy was four years old by now and the gelding didn’t change him much. He was mean as a snake. I’m talking not just a horse you couldn’t ride, you couldn’t even lead him around without him striking at you or trying to bite you—and I don’t mean nip.
His owners were scared of him. Two more trainers gave up on him. And the owners, having ruined what might have been a good horse, sent him to the local livestock auction, to take his chances with the kill buyers, or perhaps wind up with some innocent buyer that Playboy would probably put on the wrong side of the lawn. However, as luck would have it, there was a tough old cowboy there who knew Playboy’s story (it’s a small world and the trainers had talked). This guy bought the horse at killer price and took him home. And guess what?
The very next day, this cowboy led Playboy into the arena and when the horse struck at him, he jerked Playboy down, tied up all four legs, put him under a tarp, beat on him awhile and left him there for twelve hours (and no, this one I didn’t see, the cowboy told me about it). Every so often the cowboy would check on the horse and when he did, he made sure to look that horse in the eye and put his hand on his neck. And then he left him there under the tarp.
At the end of the day, the cowboy put Playboy away. And lo and behold Playboy did not bite or strike the man. He kept his distance and his eye was wary and respectful. The next day the cowboy went to work training this horse to be a useful ranch horse and rope horse. And Playboy made a good one. The cowboy kept him and rode him for many years and he always said Playboy was the best horse he ever owned. He was very fond of telling how he acquired the horse, which was how I heard the story.
So, now, here ya go. Was the tarp a cruel and abusive thing to do this time around? I’m not defending it. I’m just telling the story. Remember, Playboy did not get the way he was because people were mean to him. He got that way because people were too nice to him. He had absolutely no respect. Feeling helpless clearly addressed that issue in some very fundamental way for this horse.
This is my question. The training method was the same both times. It’s a method that most of us would call abusive. I’ve never used it. I’ve never retrained a horse like Playboy either. Was this method appropriate in this instance? I don’t know.
Here’s what I see as the main points. In the first case the method was used not to address a “real” problem—Wilbur wasn’t really doing anything wrong. It was used because someone wanted to win a particular event. Winning was the motivation. In the second case it was used as a last ditch effort to salvage a very dangerous horse from the killers. A completely different motivation.
Second point: Wilbur was a very sweet, sensitive horse and did not need such cruel treatment. And, in fact, the treatment did not help achieve the goal. Playboy was about as mean (and dangerous) as a horse can get and desperately needed to learn who was boss. They were very different individuals.
I think it comes down to two things. The individual situation and the motivation. If you are truly trying to help a horse to have a good life, and the horse is a certain sort of individual, some pretty tough methods may have to be used. If you simply want to win, and are willing to torture sweet, giving horses to that end, its an entirely different thing.
Another factor that comes into play is the skill level of the trainer. It takes an experienced, intuitive horseman to know when an extreme method is really called for, and when it will actually help a horse. Tying up all four legs, for instance, has to be done right, or a horse will just hurt himself. The trainer has to have both a complete knowledge of the method and what it can achieve, as well as truly understanding when it might benefit a given horse.
This is a very extreme example, and I’m not gonna defend it as a method. I just think it presents the point I am trying to make. And, for instance, I’ve seen certain “bitting up” exercises that can be very abusive if used to excess, also used to good effect on certain horses when the trainer employed the methods judiciously to solve specific problems and did not overdo things. The methods themselves aren’t right or wrong. It’s the way they’re used—or abused.
OK, there’s my thoughts. Please chime in with your own. It’s a complicated subject. Where do we draw the line? Could Playboy have been “rehabbed” in kinder ways? I don’t know. Is it a good thing that tough old cowboy got through to that very dangerous horse? I think so. What do you think?