Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Middle Road

by Laura Crum


After last week’s post on “Trust” and the discussion that followed (some of it on “A Year With Horses” and “Horse Of Course”, listed on the sidebar), Kate suggested a post on the subject of how difficult it can be to find the path between too harsh and too permissive if you’ve never learned how to use firmer methods. Other people also referenced this point. So today I want to elaborate on this idea.

First off I want to say that I am not at all a fan of overly harsh training methods. I have seen the great harm done to horses this way first hand. At one time I even participated in it. I will never do so again. At the same time, I have seen much damage done by well intentioned folks who simply did not know how to make a horse behave (or set boundaries, or however you’d like to describe it). Read my last post, “Trust” for a description of what I mean. I myself believe in the middle road. I expect my horses to behave respectfully and obediently and I enforce this. Not least because I want to keep us all safe. At the same time, I treat them kindly and fairly and they thrive and seem happy. Every single one of my horses meets me at the gate and sticks his head in the halter.

I think part of the reason that I get along well with my horses is that the way I handle them makes sense to them. I reprimand them as needed to let them know I’m in charge (which is how horses relate to each other), and they find this overall reassuring. I also provide them with many things they enjoy (three meals a day, turn out to graze, plenty of space). And (and this is a big one) the work I have for them is mostly pleasant for them. Light exercise and trail riding, the occasional small gather or a little cow herding and chasing is all they are asked to do. But I do, indeed, give them a whack with the end of the leadrope, or other appropriate reprimands when they need it—and I think this is a good thing. Perhaps the biggest part of this whole equation is that I operate out of confidence. I know I can handle what comes up with these horses. I know I’m in charge. I don’t need to operate from fear.

Part of the reason I don’t need to operate from fear is that I have purposely chosen two good, solid riding horses for myself and my son that are appropriate to our current use, and I am not struggling with a horse that has behavior problems. The other reason I don’t operate from fear is that I have spent forty years owning, riding and training horses and I can both read my horses accurately and respond to what comes up out of a large toolbox of things I have learned over these many years. And this is where all those training methods come in.

So now I am going to admit that in my twenties I was an assistant to a very well known reined cowhorse trainer who used some very harsh methods to make winning horses. His methods were, by and large, standard in that industry at that time. When I worked for him, I sometimes protested at what I was asked to do and he was as harsh with me as he was with the horses. It was his way or the highway. At first I was so in awe of his reputation and skill (and he knew how to make winners) that I just followed orders. A year later, much wiser in the ways of training reined cowhorses and fed up with the cruelty and abuse, I quit this guy and moved on, vowing never to participate in anything like that again.

I then went to work for several cutting horse trainers. They trained very differently and were overall not nearly so harsh. Nonetheless there was a lot of what you would have to call coercion involved. (Spur hard, stop him hard, to let the horse know where he erred.) It wasn’t done to be cruel. Overall it was done effectively and for a purpose. But it was still hard on horses at times. I learned a lot from these guys. Among other things, I learned when to let a horse alone and not pressure him. I trained my horse to be an effective cutting horse. And yes, I spurred him hard at some points.

Now I want to get down to the bottom line here. You will not see many horses winning at a high level in most competitive disciplines without some coercive methods being used. (I’m sure there are exceptions.) But whether you are talking about cutting or reining or dressage or whatever, you can rest assured that most of the horses that win big events were pushed pretty damn hard at times. And there’s a reason for this.

When I was showing cutting horses I practiced with and competed against Tom Dorrance’s wife, Margaret. I’m pretty sure I don’t have to explain who Tom Dorrance is—he’s the grandfather of all the non-coercive training methods out there. When I knew him he was an old man and a very magical person who could read a horse in amazing ways. His wife’s mare had a very pretty way of working and seemed to enjoy her job. She won quite a bit—at the intermediate level. She never progressed to the upper level classes, or was able to win at that level. And the reason was obvious to an experienced eye.

This mare had never been pushed past what she wanted to do. She liked working cows and was handy at it. She worked well, as I said. But to win at the upper levels, a horse has to do more than that. A horse has to be sharp and exactly on, not even a little bit late. If the cow stands still the horse does not stand still, mirroring the cow, he must dance from side to side in a fancy and dramatic fashion, even if there is no real point to this. Horses are taught to do these things with an effective and well timed spur, and some hard stops (in general). The horse has to work harder than he naturally wants to do. And this sort of pressure had never been applied to that mare.

We can argue all day about the rights and wrongs here and I might choose to own Margaret’s mare over any other winning horse if I were choosing today. But in those days, caught up in the competition, what I noticed was that those non-coercive methods only worked to a certain degree. And I continued to use plenty of coercion to train my horse.

The fact is that if you want to train a horse to be competitive at a demanding performance event (which I did for many years) you are going to need to use some coercive methods. Again, I’m sure there are exceptions—I personally did not know any. Certainly some trainers are much kinder than others. “Coercive” methods CAN be used intelligently and applied with kindness. All “coercive” means is that you sometimes insist that the horse do what he does not choose (at the moment) to do—you make him work harder than he would choose to work. You don’t have to push him past what he can do or overwhelm him, though many trainers do push too hard (in my opinion). But “non coercive” methods (meaning you never insist that a horse do what he doesn’t choose to do) will only take you so far. They may make a good riding horse/trail horse (in skilled hands)—in my view they won’t make a high level cutter, reined cowhorse, team roping horse…etc. I would really welcome hearing from anyone who has competed successfully at a high level in a performance event and never once had to use “coercive” methods or insist that a horse try a little harder than he felt like trying.

So let’s fast forward a little. I had learned harsh methods, and I had learned effective coercion. I eventually learned how to apply these things fairly skillfully and without overusing them to the point of abuse. I did a good job of training several horses to be reliable team roping horses. But I was getting tired of pushing horses so hard. And the root of what was driving this, as I came to realize, was the need to be competitive. Take that away, and all of a sudden you could go slower and do things in a way that was much easier on the horse. And so I quit competing, quit pushing my horses so hard, and began just enjoying them. I’m pretty sure my horses started enjoying life more, too. However, all those years of training had left me equipped with the skills to make them behave when I needed to. I did not feel helpless or fearful.

And now I get down to the root of the problem. Because as I became someone who mostly trail rode, I began to run into a whole different group of horsemen. Most of them had not been through the rigorous process of learning to train horses to be competitive in a demanding discipline that I had. Many of them had acquired a horse and were simply looking for a way to get along with it and enjoy it. And a great many of these people were proponets of some methodology or other that was “non-coercive”. They did not believe in “forcing” a horse to obey.

I thought and think that such methods are lovely—IF they produce well behaved riding horses that people can safely enjoy. And I think that its possible that these methods are effective, in skillful hands, at making nice riding horses and trail horses. But what I often saw was ill behaved horses dominating their handler/rider, and people who were quite simply afraid to “set effective boundaries” (to use the PC phrase) and had not a clue how to do this in a way that a horse would understand. In my view, these people needed a crash course in traditional horsemanship, so that they knew how to set firm limits. And at that point, they could begin to find that middle ground where we all ought to be (in my view).

Its very hard to be an effective horseman if you are coming from a place of being afraid of the horse. And its very hard not to be afraid of that big animal if your only tools are the hope that you can make him “want” to do something. What if he doesn’t want to? What I have seen is that when the horse doesn’t want to do the thing they asked, many of these people allow the horse to do something else. And they have various justifications for this. But the bottom line appears to be that they don’t know how to make a horse do something if he doesn’t want to. What the horse inevitably learns is that he doesn’t have to obey. He begins not to respect the human. He doesn’t consider the human his leader. He feels free to do what he pleases. The human doesn’t have any tools to cope with this. And in the end this makes the human fearful and the horse pushy. A bad combination. As a matter of fact, a very dangerous combination.

As I said in my post on “Trust,” the most important thing is that you and your horse stay safe and healthy, able to interact again another day. A horse that crowds you and steps on your foot and breaks it makes this impossible. Worse yet, the horse that runs off and injures you and himself so that neither of you can do more than hobble for a year, makes the whole idea of riding horses incredibly dangerous and downright dumb.

In my own view, if I ask for something and I know the horse knows what I want and knows how to do it and is resisting only because he does not wish to do this thing right now, I steadily and persistently insist he do it, using whatever tools I need. I never have much trouble getting this done (with my current horses), but yes, it does indeed look like reprimanding a horse (often) and it can be called coercive. My horses, however, are very pleasant to ride and handle and we all get along well. I think my horses prefer me as a strong leader who can set limits. I feel safe with them and they feel safe with me.

So I do believe that its very hard to find the middle ground unless you have learned how to be quite firm with a horse—in a truly effective way. It does not help to “beat a horse up” if you do it a way that makes no sense to him. Reprimands must be both timed and of a sort that a horse can comprehend or they do no good at all, only harm. You must first be able to read the horse (see my previous post on “Trust”). Perhaps the bottom line is that before you become a big proponet of some horse guru or other and espouse his methods, you need to pay your dues by simply working with horses for awhile and seeing what works and what doesn’t.

As a general statement, working with young horses involves much more focus on communicating what you want in a way the horse understands. It does absolutely no good to get forceful with a horse who doesn’t understand what you want. On the other hand, you almost inevitably reach a point where the horse would prefer not to do as you ask and then you must be able to insist—with some skill. A good trainer does not ask too much of a horse, but does insist that the horse make some effort to do as he is asked to do. Good trainers know how much and when to ask, and how hard to push for compliance. It is a true art and takes time to learn.

Working with older horses who are well broke is usually a matter of getting along pleasantly with the occasional correction when the old pro tries to take advantage (and they will). They expect you to correct them, and if you don’t do it they won’t respect your leadership. The third category is horses who have habitual problems of one sort or another—usually the result of poor training, often complicated by the horse’s innate personality. These horses are probably best ridden/handled by an experienced horseman, as training a horse to let go of bad habits is not easy, whichever methods you use. One of the most important things you can do to have a pleasant relationship with your horse is to choose a horse that is suited to your skill level and intended use.

The other thing that needs to be added in here is that if a horse resists you in a way you don’t expect, the very first thing to do is to decide if something is physically bothering that horse. I ALWAYS evaluate carefully for soundness and any other indication of pain or discomfort when one of my horses does anything resistant that is not typical of that horse. Even seeming overly lazy can be a sign that the horse is sore. If you can’t tell if a horse is sound, or hurting in some way, you need to be sure to get help with this before assuming that the horse is resistant.

That said, I have heard many well—intentioned people talk endlessly about the various physical therapies they were trying to “fix” a badly behaved horse. Because they have no tools to address the disrespectful behavior, they decide to assume that it’s a physical problem. Some of these quite healthy, sound horses manage to get out of ever being ridden again. And if that works for both person and horse, I guess its fine. Personally I don’t choose to be bluffed by my horses. But I am very, very careful to be sure that they are not hurting in any way. As I said in my last post, it all comes down to knowing how to read a horse.

My last point is that just as non-coercive folks are very offended by seeing harsh methods overused by ignorant trainers, doing no good and only harming horses (and I, too, am angry when I see this), some of us middle of the road people are equally turned off by watching a horse behave in very disrespectful and clearly dangerous ways and hearing the rider/handler deny that this is happening. “No, my horse does not run over me…etc”, while the horse is shoving at them right as we speak. This is going to end badly, is my main thought (see the bit about the stallion in my “Trust” post)—and I no longer try to interfere, because these people will not see what is so plainly happening in my eyes—the eyes of someone who has spent forty years working with horses and learning to read them. No, I don’t know everything. Nobody does. But I can tell when a horse feels free to be disrespectfully pushy, and I can tell (usually) when a person is basically afraid of that horse. And that is not a combination that leads to a happy horse and rider, any more than an abusive trainer will lead to that goal.

Anyway, please feel free to give your own take on this subject. Do you also believe that its very difficult to be an effective horseman using non-coercive methods if you haven’t at least understood how more traditional methods work—with first hand experience? Or do you see it differently?

17 comments:

Mikey said...

Another excellent post. I think timing is everything. Experience counts with horses, and yet the most experienced horsemen can still push too hard and end up with a bad result. Experience, confidence, timing, it all comes into play.

I must say, I really do appreciate the good horses I've got now. Being a strong leader is key, but not taking it too far. I like to say I'm their cheerleader, not their bully.

Laura Crum said...

Mikey--As always, I agree with you. Timing is everything--and its still hard to get it right--even after many years experience. I guess the thing that happens after awhile is you notice when you got it wrong(!) And yes, my main emotion these days is gratitude for the good horses I have. When I give them a mild reprimand for some minor testing it is always done just to "keep them honest"--I am never upset with them. They are such good horses.

Shanster said...

Absolutely - this is exactly what I'm trying to learn with my "delicate flower" of a horse, Rosso. grin. I am so thankful to work with someone who can assist me in this art!! Well written Laura!

...you almost inevitably reach a point where the horse would prefer not to do as you ask and then you must be able to insist—with some skill.... Good trainers know how much and when to ask, and how hard to push for compliance. It is a true art and takes time to learn.

Laura Crum said...

Shanster--Wow! You picked the exact sentences I regarded as the heart of the piece. I didn't think anyone would notice, but you did. Thank you.

Linda said...

I haven't come up with an answer to your last question, but I've asked it myself more than once. I don't know if you have to have had exposure to the one type in order to first feel safe--then progress to the least amount to get max result. I tend to think yes. I train for the trail, and as you pointed out, it's more natural and comfortable for the horse, so there may be less resistance. A lot of my horses have also been colts that we've trained up ourselves--which as you also pointed out, need a softer hand since so much of what they're experiencing is new. I have a friend who trains and we used to ride together a lot. She tries to keep even the performance training as natural as possible. For example, if she races them on barrels one day, she always follows up with a trailride the next day. She's found that if she does that, they're more willing to compete when it comes time and they become an all-around solid horse no matter what their future holds. She also has time requirements on her that I don't. People pay her to "put 30 days on them"--and that means they want to see progress. I feel like she uses "the least amount to get the maximum result" in 30 days, but, yes, it's probably more "coercive" than my training. However, I attribute most of her success to her confidence and natural ability with horses. Horses like her--A LOT. They respect her and they want to give it all for her. She makes it look easy. That's why I'll only go so far as saying--I want to find the least amount to get the results, because that's going to be different with every person and every horse and every situation--but the bottom line is you need to feel safe and confident.

Laura Crum said...

Well said, Linda--I agree with all you point out.

AzTobiano said...

Laura -- My 'phrase' to describe this to others when training my youngster(s) was that 'they know I won't ask them to do something they can't do, and that I won't accept them not doing it.' The flip side of this is to never to ask them to do somethin they are not able to do, or that you're not able to make them do if they refuse! In other words pick your battles, but don't ever cease learning.

Anonymous said...

I'm a lurker, not a commentor, but Laura's last couple of posts really resonated with me. I'm a NH follower but not a kool-aid drinker. Most people get into natural horsemanship due to a problem horse - they're looking for an answer they can understand for a horse that they don't. In my opinion, NH gets a bad rap because of the people practicing NH to the best of their understanding and ability - not the way that it should be done. I started Parelli in 2003 and I can say that the organization and it's teachings have changed for the worse over the years - dumbing down for the more and more inexperienced horseowner. In all the clinics I've attended, etc., the biggest problem has always been the people who won't go to "Phase 4" - the highest level of correction. They think they're being too hard on the horse when in reality, our worst is nowhere near what another horse would do to that horse if it invaded their space. So instead of insisting, they nag and nag and nag at the horse and the horse never has to do what the person's asking. The person settles for the good enough and the horse, just like a child, knows that mommy's not "really" going to do anything about that behavior. People like NH for all the obvious reasons, but if they never really understand what the bottom line is the results are always going to be unsatisfactory. Trust has to go both ways. The horse has to trust that their person will be fair and not ask something of them that they can't do. The person has to trust that their horse will do what's asked of them. That level of trust builds over time. You ask, your horse hesitates, you insist, he does what you asked with no harm coming to him or you. Trust builds every time that event occurs. However, if we only did what he wanted, we would spend all our time standing in the middle of the pasture watching the world go by. Of course, I would be more than welcome to sit on him and watch the world with him as long as I didn't expect him to move.

Debby - a foxhunter and trail rider

kel said...

Great post Laura. I know that you and I for the most part think alike. One thing that my trainer and I talk about is the "discipline wave". It has to do with timing and extent of your discipline. Your discipline or coercion has to match the behavior and it has to peak and ebb as they do. Each horse is different. Some have a small but long (nagging) dicipline wave and for some it is like a white squal. Comes quick and peaks fast. Getting what you asked for and being able to let go of the emotion (that we humans tie to those situations) and go back to that quiet place is someting that takes years to learn. I am still learning it and learning how to leave my human emotions (anger and fear) out of it.

In a perfect world our horses would be compliant and perfect performers without any coercion. In reality they have a brain and mind of there own. Sometimes they need to be nugded in the right direction.

Laura Crum said...

AZTobiano--Great phrase. I'll remember that.

Debby--Thank you so much for a very enlightening comment. I had the impression NH had sort of gone backwards, but since I'm not involved with it, I had no idea if I was right. What you said made a lot of sense to me. I met Pat Parelli thirty years ago when he showed a bridleless mule at the Snaffle Bit and he seemed pretty darn savvy. But all the hype in the intervening years, and the NH people I have seen, have really turned me off to the whole thing. Thanks for the insight.

kel--I so agree that a huge thing is to leave anger and fear out of it when working with horses. Its a goal I aspire to, but don't always achieve. Having a couple of truly reliable horses is very helpful--its much harder when faced with a difficult behavior problem.

Susan said...

I had to go back and read your essay on trust because I missed it.

I have two things to add. The first one is about anger. I find a lot of people equate assertiveness with anger and they don't want to get mad at their horses. Well, who does? To me the key is as soon as the reprimand is over, drop the anger, if that's what you had to use to get his attention. You can't hold onto it and expect to have a good relationship with your horse.

Also there seem to be way too many angry trainers out there. You know the ones, if they weren't clobbering a horse, they'd be kicking the dog, etc. I can see the fear horses have for these people. In the short term they might get results, but a scared horse isn't one I want to ride. In fact I've had scary experiences with horses that were afraid of being hit.

The second point is the well-used phrase, "horses are unpredictable." I disagree. They're totally predictable, if you pay attention to what's going on. There's always a reason they do what they do.

Good posts. They keep us thinking and paying attention to our horses.

Laura Crum said...

Susan--I suppose what I mean by horses are unpredictable is that I have known of steady horses that whether stung by a bee or whatever, suddenly blew up and did something violent. I'm sure there was a reason, but it isn't always something the rider/handler could see coming, making it unpredictable in that sense (and sometimes very dangerous).

Anger is a tough one with horses. I have been angry at my horses and i have used my anger to be strong when it was needed. I have also made big mistakes by getting angry and pushing too hard. I try not to act from anger any more.

Yes, some trainers just seem to be angry--I agree. And overly fearful horses are a wreck waiting to happen, just as much if not more so than disrespectful horses. Good point.

Kate said...

Post coming - not ready yet - good food for thought in your post.

Gayle Carline said...

In their herd, horses are very clear about their boundaries and their desires, and their reasons are all pretty self-centered. And yet, we worry about whether we're coercing them to do what we want. They sure don't worry about their neighbor's feelings as they're chasing him away from the food.

I ask my horse first, nicely. Then I demand, also nicely.

Francesca Prescott said...

Laura: the middle ground is the right place to be as far as I’m concerned. I think I’ve always been in the middle ground as far as horses are concerned. I can’t do the “you will do this and I will beat you until you do it approach” – and goodness knows I’ve witnessed a lot of that.

There are a lot of angry trainers around, people with festering frustrations about never having made it to where they wanted to be. They're like angry bulls when they get on horses, and it's ugly. And cruel. They shout, they bully. They're scary.

But the other extreme doesn’t work for me either; if we worried so much about coercion we’d just buy horses to look at in fields and admire – although you could also argue that that’s coercion too! Birds in cages?

And I do agree with you that to get anywhere in higher levels of competition, horses are going to have to be pushed. Is it right? If they’re capable of doing it, I guess it is, because if you think about it, top level athletes push themselves to their limits too. Of course, then you can also argue that it’s cruelty because when it comes to horses, they are being forced into it, they have no choice. I’m coming from a dressage perspective because that’s what I’m familiar with: but did you see, for example, Fuego’s freestyle to music program in Kentucky? Or have you watched Totillas swagger in and out of the ring, before and after his performances? These horses probably deal with their share of coercion, but their brio doesn’t seem to suffer from it. Are their handlers in the middle ground? Where does the middle ground begin and end? For me, it ends where the horse can’t do what it’s being asked to do, for whatever reason.

Laura Crum said...

Great thoughts, Gayle and Francesca. It does seem that some high level performance horses enjoy their job--once they've learned it. Certainly some of my team roping horses liked to go roping--they made that clear.

Kate--Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

Kate said...

Belated comment - my post went in a different direction.

I think it's very difficult to get the proper balance between been too big and being ineffective - it's important to get the job done and not nag at the horse, but also not to assume that big is the answer before trying other means.

And I do think there's a big difference between being an effective leader and being an alpha or dominant. Leadership isn't necessarily control, it's direction and motivation, which can be achieved with positive reinforcement.

I do agree that a lot of horse newbies find it difficult to get big enough when needed - they're worried about their relationship with the horse, but you can't have a good relationship with the horse without being an effective leader - but that doesn't require being punitive or dominant. It also takes confidence and "presence" to get big when needed.

I think a lot of people from conventional horse backgrounds are too casually rough with horses - not necessarily to the point of outright abuse, but just proceed on the assumption that it's a big animal and therefore you have to be rough or use punishment as a training method. I think it's possible to be pretty low-key and subtle and still be effective - horses are amazingly sensitive and responsive if given the chance to be - I think most horses are pretty darn willing if we give them a chance to be and don't assume they aren't.