by Laura Crum
After doing a series of posts which began by bringing up the idea that certain horse behaviors which are issues for some horseman are not issues for others—and ranging through different methods of training, ending up with a discussion on whether or not it is appropriate to use force of some kind to discipline or reprimand a horse, I learned a few things. And the biggest thing I learned is that people sometimes have very strong feelings along the lines that their own method/belief when it comes to horse training is the right one—and they don’t like hearing that others don’t agree.
Well, this isn’t exactly surprising, is it? Half the problems in the world are caused by people thinking that their own belief system is the right one—and everybody else should agree with them. I don’t think I’ll take on the subject of religious tolerance right now, thank you very much, but I may just take on the topic of horse training tolerance. So here goes.
There are many different schools of thought when it comes to training horses, and its my belief that most of them can work, given that the person using them is reasonably skilled at reading a horse, a reasonably competent rider, and the person’s goals for the horse are appropriate for the method. The person has to be willing to put in the hours and the wet saddle blankets that it takes to train any horse, if they have a young horse and they want it to become a useful riding horse. But, in general, if the person is happy and the horse is happy, I think its all good. And this would include people (and I have known a few of these) that don’t actually ride and have never ridden much. But if they get along fine with their pasture pet horses and can accomplish the needed hoof care, vet work, feeding/cleaning chores without much trouble, I applaud them. There are many good and workable ways to own and handle horses—ways that work for both human and horse.
That said, there are some situations that I will stand up against. This would start with people who, out of ignorance, pathology, misguided training techniques, or any other reason, starve horses or mistreat them. There are very many ways in which people are abusive to horses and overly harsh training methods are among those ways.
I have seen overly harsh training methods employed by ignorant people who simply whipped and spurred and jerked a horse in pointless ways because they did not know any way to work with a green horse other than trying to force it do what they wanted by intimidating it. This does not work. The confused, frightened horses merely developed terrible habits and were usually ruined as riding horses. This is abuse.
I have also seen overly harsh training methods employed by very skillful horsemen who wanted to win at a high level. These people also whipped and spurred and jerked, but they knew exactly when to do it to produce the desired result. I have seen horses tied all night in their stalls with their heads high in the air so that they would keep those heads down the next day in the show ring. I have seen the horse loving spectators ooh and aah over a performance in the show ring that was created through extremely cruel methods. But hey, the horse performed wonderfully well and won the class. I think that is abuse, too. I quit competing at any horse events because I didn’t even want to be around that kind of abuse…not that I ever did anything like that. But I didn’t want to support such cruelty with my presence or my entry money.
There is another kind of abuse. There are well-intentioned people who buy a horse and whether through their own ignorance or because they have been taught by a so-called expert of some sort, they think that the way to get along with the horse is to be “nice” to it at all times. They want to bond with the horse or (insert new age word of choice here) whatever with the horse. They don’t accept the notion that the human must, essentially, be in charge. In the end, even the best of horses will start to take advantage of such an owner, and most horses will quickly figure out that the human is not in charge and start doing exactly as they please. This does not work out. It is, in fact, a dangerous situation, and the human almost inevitably becomes afraid of the horse. The usual progression is afraid to ride the horse alone, then afraid to get on at all, then afraid to handle the horse on the ground. Quite often the owner gets hurt by the horse, or it is very clear that this result is inevitable. At this point the horse has some extremely bad habits and unless a skillful horseman who is willing to reprimand the horse and work with it in appropriately firm ways gets involved, these horses frequently end up at the killers.
The owner meant to be kind to the horse by being nice and bonding, rather than by being in charge and reprimanding as needed, but this has resulted in the poor horse being hauled and killed in the most abusive conditions possible. Overly “nice” owners are responsible for fully as much abuse as overly harsh owners, from what I have seen.
I am against any kind of abuse of horses, from the overly harsh to the overly nice that results in spoiled, dangerous horses. I appreciate and admire all horsemen who are happy with their horses and treat them well. This would include horsemen who use vastly different methods than I do. I don’t need other horsemen to do the things the way I do them. I talk about what works for me. Other people talk about what works for them. We don’t always agree on what methods work best. But if they are happy with their horses and its plain that their horses are thriving, I am totally comfortable with it. I’m all for horse training tolerance.
There are places where I will stand up for what I think is realistic—I don’t believe there is anything wrong with that. I’ll give a specific example to make my point clear. There are a great many horse owners that I know, both in real life and on the internet, that are, quite frankly, scared to go on a solo trail ride with their horse. The horse has misbehaved in the past, or they’ve come off, or the person is just anxious or whatever. Now, I have no criticism of this. We are all on our own journey and we do not need to judge ourselves by others. If you want to stay in the riding ring, or ride only as far as your horse’s “comfort zone,” or not ride at all, I think all of this can be just fine. But I am somewhat amused by those who cannot climb on their own horse and go off on a trail ride insisting that their training methods are superior to mine, or others who CAN do this.
I can phrase this kindly by saying that some training methods are suitable for some goals and not for others, and I think my methods, which result in horses that can be ridden out on the trail whenever I choose (and I have always been able to take any of my own horses for a ride any time I wanted) may work better to achieve the result I want. I am not asking anyone to use my methods instead of his/her own. In general, I’m glad to hear how other competent horse people who love their horses and are happy with them do things—including when it’s different from how I do things. As long as it doesn’t result in abuse to a horse, including the abuse caused by being overly “nice,” I think its all good. This doesn’t mean I will drop the methods and tools that have proven workable for me, any more than I expect others to drop the methods that work for them.
People who want to compete at various equestrian events are, by and large, going to need slightly different training methods than those who wish only to have pleasant, relaxing rides on their horse, down the trail or in the ring. I have been both these types of rider in my life, and I can attest to the different approach that is needed. But in both cases I have needed to remain firmly in charge of the horses I rode and handled. This doesn’t mean that I don’t listen to my horse. I do. I will frequently choose to honor my horse’s wishes. In the case of my current riding horse, Sunny—a very competent trail horse with a solid mind—I respect his dislike of arena work and do little of it; I let him choose when he needs a breather on a hill climb…etc. But I remain in charge. When he decides a turkey vulture landing on the beach is a threat, I let him know that it isn’t, and that we will pass said creature. And we do. Sunny and I have a partnership. We get along. But I am the one in charge.
I think most horsemen can agree to this notion, though some may prefer to call themselves a “leader” rather than the boss. In my view it matters little what you call it, as long as the horse understands two things. 1) He is not free to defy you. 2) You can be trusted to take care of him. I really think that if you accomplish this, whatever training method you use is quite workable.
But seriously, if you’ve obviously never owned a horse and you think that any use of firmness in horse training is abuse (as an anonymous commenter asserted on one of my posts), you might stop and think before you call me a jerk for my methods, which include appropriate reprimands for a horse who is “testing the boundaries.” It’s not that I can’t take a little abuse from commenters (I can), but if you have never trained a horse from the time he was three years old and covered many miles with him, and had him be there for you every step of the way, and faithfully cared for him into his thirties, you really aren’t in a position to say my horse training methods are not appropriate. You just haven’t walked the walk.
(And yes, many competent/good horsemen may never have trained a young horse by themselves and/or been lucky enough to have a horse live into his thirties. Many good horsemen are too young to have owned a horse that long. I do understand this, and am not meaning to put anybody down, except that one ignorant anonymous commenter. The fact remains that I have trained three horses that were with me from their first rides through old age. I trained them myself and they all three were good horses who both won awards in the show ring and packed me on literally hundreds of miles through the hills. One died at 35, one is still with me at 33, and the last one is retired and still with me at 24. And I have had several other good horses besides these three, two of which are still with me. My horses are happy, healthy, overall long-lived, and I do believe that they like their lives and also feel more secure knowing that I am in charge. So yeah, if you want to call me --or anyone else-- an abusive horse owner, make very sure that you can equal my track record when it comes to caring for happy, healthy horses right up until their end. I think that’s reasonable.)