by Laura Crum
I have blogged before about my little horse Sunny, who needs occasional reprimands. Someone said the other day that they didn’t believe in “reprimanding” a horse. Though I certainly respect everyone’s right to their own approach, I have to say that I disagree strongly with the notion that there is a practical, safe way to train or handle horses without occasionally reprimanding them. There are certainly horses that need very gentle reprimands. I have never met a horse that didn’t need to be reprimanded in some way from time to time.
With all due respect, the idea that one can get by without establishing one’s boss status through an appropriate reprimand is just contrary to the basic nature of horses. Horses want to see who’s boss, and this is established, amongst their own kind, through some pretty fierce biting and kicking. In short, some very direct reprimands for insubordination. It is a pretty human notion that we can always talk a horse out of things by “redirecting his energy” or “communicating what we want”, but horses are not humans. Some horses are indeed “pleasers”, who care what we want. Many horses only care what we want if we show them we’re in charge. They want and need us to prove we’re the boss if we expect them to obey us.
This does not mean we need to be overly harsh, or that we should overwhelm a sensitive horse. I have one horse on my place, my boarder, Twister, that you cannot even raise your voice to, it upsets him so much. Let alone hit him. And yet Twister, who is always treated kindly, will take advantage of us from time to time, tugging his head down to grab grass when he has not been invited to. We don’t hit him, we don’t yell at him. But we do give him a sharp pop with the leadrope to let him know that’s not OK. That’s all it takes.
If, however, you were to treat my Sunny horse like this, never reprimanding him any more harshly than that, I guarantee you’d have a monster on your hands. Sunny is a tough, cold blooded critter who needs strong reprimands. When I got him he had clearly been able to push a few people around and would offer to both bite and kick. He was hard to catch, refused to be fly sprayed or wormed, and was frequently hard to load in the trailer. Sunny was not afraid in any way. He was defiant and testing for dominance.
Basically I spent a lot of time whacking Sunny with the end of the lead rope in the first six months I owned him. This did not scare him. It did not upset him. If it had, I wouldn’t have done it. Sunny remained quite calm at all times. His eyes got a little bigger that’s all. But he began to look at me more respectfully. And his testing behaviors steadily diminished. Today he is a very pleasant horse to be around and only very occasionally needs to test me a bit. When he does, and I reprimand him, he appears satisfied and content. Nowdays Sunny usually meets me at the gate and sticks his head in the halter, and is easy to load, fly spray and worm, so I don’t think I’m too far wrong about his genuine need for reprimands.
Sunny is at one end of the scale. And there are certainly horses that want very much to please. Horses like Twister and my Plumber, who are unduly upset by any suggestion of harshness. I reprimand these horses with a light bump of the leadrope. But its still a reprimand. I’m saying, “No, you can’t do that.” I have never known one horse that did not need to be reprimanded in some form. That is, if you want to remain in charge.
Since remaining in charge is how we stay safe with horses, I think reprimands are very important. We need to be clear that we’re in charge. Any disrespectful behavior must be reprimanded—and effectively (whatever that individual horse needs in the way of a reprimand), or the horse will not continue to see the handler as the boss. We also need to be clear when a horse is misbehaving out of fear rather than disrespect. Fear behaviors may still need a reprimand—as in I don’t care if you’re scared of that tarp, you may not jump on top of me. Your horse, in essence, must be more scared of what happens when he trespasses on your space than he is of the scary object. Believe me, this is how horses respond to the alpha animal in the herd. You want to be that alpha to your horse. And your horse likes it like that.
The trouble with training systems that are based entirely on the horse doing what you ask because he “wants” to (whether he wants to because of treats or whatever) is when the day comes that he really doesn’t want to do something, you will be up a creek without a paddle. Because unless you’ve proved your boss status through a few appropriate reprimands, that horse is going to figure he does not have to obey you. He may figure he doesn’t even have to respect you. And this can be a dangerous situation, for both you and the horse.
Horses feel safe and happy when they trust that their human is a good strong herd leader. I do not think we do any of them any favors by supposing that they do not need reprimands from time to time. The trick lies in knowing what each individual horse needs. I think the biggest mistake we make is in supposing that horses are mostly alike—that what works on one horse will work on another. If I thumped on a sensitive horse the way I thump on Sunny, I would ruin that horse’s trust. It would be a very wrong thing to do. And yet Sunny probably lost his previous home because his behavior became unacceptable. I don’t think his previous owners had any idea this horse needed the kind of forceful reprimanding he requires. They did not provide it and his behavior got worse. It took me awhile to figure Sunny out, and it somewhat happened because I will not be bullied and simply did what it took, but in the end I realized that this horse was asking me to prove my dominance—and that he required me to do so fairly forcefully.
And Sunny still needs a “reprimand session” from time to time. Because he is mostly pretty good now, I tend to relax and let down my guard, and let’s face it, I don’t enjoy reprimanding him. This winter, when he tested me a little, I gave him small reprimands and mostly ignored him, telling myself he was fresh and felt good. And the other day, I got my come uppance. Sunny clearly felt good, and was determined to test me to see if I was still the boss. For the first time in almost a year, he walked away when I came to catch him and turned his butt to me. So I walloped him. He made one circle, faced me and made mouthing motions. I caught him and saddled him and climbed on, and this calm little guy spooked at the dog, tried to exit the ring, and then crowhopped when I booted him back in. He was literally forcing me to work him over. So I did. In soft shoes and with the butt of roping reins—not too much nasty weaponry there. A lot of lope, stop, back up, leg yields…etc. Stuff I don’t normally do. I sure didn’t hurt him any. But I got his attention and made him feel dominated (gee, this sounds kind of weird—not a relationship I’d want to have with a person). Did he act scared, cranky or resentful? Nope. All of a sudden I had a cooperative, light, responsive horse who loped in the nicest collected frame he’s ever managed to achieve. We ended the day very happy with each other. I guess I should just beat him up more often.
Here’s my point for today. I believe that most, if not all, horses require reprimands from time to time, even if they are only very gentle reprimands. And some horses require pretty firm reprimands. As much as I would like to never have to wallop Sunny again, I don’t think its gonna happen. Sunny needs his reprimands and I need to be able to provide them or our partnership will not work out. So what do you think about this? I would love to hear from anybody who either seconds this view—or disagrees with it. If you don’t think horses need reprimands, what would be your system for dealing with a horse like Sunny?