Wednesday, February 16, 2011


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?


Michelle said...

I agree, Laura. My Clinton is a gentle soul, but from time to time, he needs a little reminder that I am the boss, not him. A stern word is generally enough, and I carry a whip during our dressage work (which I never use), but its enough that Clinton knows to behave. I think you have to be willing to repremand a horse, no matter his personality. Because if you can't repremand a horse who generally behaves, what are you going to do if you get with a horse that needs more discipline? You have to be the boss. Same with people. If you don't stick up for yourself, in the name of respect, you are going to get run over 100% of the time.

Laura Crum said...

Michelle--You sound like a woman who has had life experiences similar to mine. Thanks for an insightful comment.

Mikey said...

Very interesting post and something I was thinking on (you read my mind). Yesterday when I was sorting I was also people watching and how people school their horses. I was schooling a bit too between runs, just working on little things, w/t transitions, good stops, etc.
I should say here that I believe in a firm hand (and I'm not saying I'm perfect, I've been too harsh plenty of times) but give a lot of love and praise too. The good should outweigh the bad. Isn't the saying 1 negative is equal to 10 positives?

So while schooling in public, I believe that you should not get after your horse. It's just something no one wants to see. Spurring, yanking, etc. Not cool. I like to work quietly. If I don't get what I want, I say and do nothing. When I get what I want, a nice pat on the neck, lots of strokes, lots of GOOD BOY (but not so loud as to annoy other folks).

I try to set an example that you don't have to be so harsh.

Now last week when I took the screamer, Quinn, I finally got so annoyed at the whinnying, rather than cause a scene, I just put him back in the trailer. I knew I was losing patience and it would not look good if I lost it, nor would it have done a bit of good in changing his behavior.
But boy I get tired of seeing people being so harsh to their horses. A gentle reprimand is fine, but we can all do without the brutality. I saw some stuff yesterday I just didn't like. It wasn't necessary. Would these people do that to their children in public?

Francesca Prescott said...

I agree 100% with you, Laura. I'm not a pushy bolshy person by nature, and tend to have a hard time sticking up for myself, so having to be my horse's boss can be testing for me at times. But I know how important it is, and will be even more aware of it now, as I embark on the search for my new horse. They're not all as easy going as Kwintus, and I'll need to keep it in mind. Thanks for a brilliant post.

Promise said...

I agree as well.

Funny, I was just talking about something similar to this with my mom last night. The horse in the stall across from Promise's is a bit of a jerk. When she is cross-tied, her butt slightly overlaps the edge of his gate, and he regularly tries to bite her butt.

I reprimand him, even though he is not my horse, by walking quickly at him and telling him to quit. And I know some people have mixed feelings about it, since he is not mine. I do it because first and foremost, he is being very rude, and could potentially cause a dangerous situation. But also, MY horse, knows that I am alpha in our "herd," and as such, she expects me to protect her from things that threaten her safety. So, if a horse lunges at her as we walk down the barn aisle, they get threatened with the end of my lead rope. This is my job as her alpha, and this is why she will follow me anywhere...she knows I will protect her, and she feels safe.

So, on the rare occasion this gelding succeeds in getting her, she'll look to me, rather than freaking out or trying to kick him or whatever. Good mare, but I can't take the chance that she will freak out and injure herself, me or someone else. Therefore, I reprimand the other horse. He, on the other hand, seems to be testing his dominance over me, more so than her!

To the other token, when I was cold hosing her injured leg the other day, she was tied, and was pawing at the dirt. Every time she lifted her foot, she got a smack on the butt, whether it hit the dirt or not, and was told forcefully to quit. She didn't believe me, and so I smacked her butt a little bit harder each time. I finally smacked her hard enough that she looked back as if to say, "Oh, I guess you meant it, huh?" And stood there patiently waiting for me to finish.

Laura Crum said...

Mikey--I totally agree with you. I do not think anyone should be harsh with their horse in a public situation. When a horse does need some fairly stern reprimands, it should happen in private, and after due consideration. The problem of folks who are too harsh with horses that don't need or deserve that (many times the problem here is the rider's lack of skill) is every bit as pervasive as the problem of people who are letting their horse push them around because they don't know how to be firm enough. Like most things in life, I believe we need to strike the middle road.

Thanks Francesca. Let us know how the search is going, OK? I keep waiting to hear about horses you are looking at.

Laura Crum said...

Promise--I totally agree with you, and those are good examples of exactly the sort of reprimanding that I believe is frequently required if we are to work around horses with reasonable safety.

horsegenes said...

Spot on as usual. Every horse needs a different level of discipline, but they all need it - just like children. They look to us to be the protectors and leaders and they want boundaries set for them. That is how they learn.

The big paint horse crumbles with so much as a harsh word or a light smack. He has never been dominant and is usually the one going without dinner if there are any other horses to push him around. The roan mare... OMG - we have "coming to jesus" meetings regularly. She is getting better all the time but she is one tough cookie. She has wanted to be the herd boss mare from birth. When she was a yearling she would challange the broodmares for dominance. They would bite her, kick at her and chase her off. This was a daily occurance. She has an incredible drive to be the boss. Of course now all those bite marks are like indilable ink on her bay roan coat!

Laura Crum said...

kel--you and I are on the same page. I almost said that children don't thrive without reprimands, either, but then I wasn't sure I wanted to go there. I know many parents who believe in the non-reprimand, "redirect their energy" school of thought, and their children are just plain rude. I don't believe this will serve them well in the long run.

Don't you just love (not) the way those roans get marked up? I love roans, but not the "dinged up" effect.

Anonymous said...

I agree and don't agree. I believe that drawing clear consistent boundaries on the ground for personal safety is essential, but what's the intent? to punish the horse or to tell the horse clearly where the boundary is - the action may be the same but the intent's a little bit different.

I also believe that every horse is different and that what works with one horse may not with another, as you point out.

I also believe that it's possible to train horses, even to train horses effectively, using dominance/alpha based methods and by reprimanding/punishing horses for doing the wrong thing - it's possible to raise/train kids that way too. It works and people have been doing it for years, because it works.

But I think there's a difference between a horse that's compliant and a horse that's willingly compliant, and I think there are ways of providing leadership and direction to the horse that aren't just telling the horse what it did wrong or asserting dominance.

Not trying to be argumentative - just a different point of view - in fact a while ago I did a whole post on this:

Amy said...

I certainly agree with you! Horses are all about herd rank. Getting others to move their feet. The one who moves their feet are not the boss. If you do not establish this with your horses, it can definitely be dangerous with some. You'll get a horse who will walk all over you and not care one bit. I also agree with positive reinforcement training for horses, but every being also needs some sort of discipline as well or you get zero respect.

Motivating Your Dog

horsegenes said...

Laura... I will go there about parents who won't or don't discipline there kids. Children need boundaries. And if you don't set them and reinforce them you are doing a huge disservice to your children. I have several really close friends that didn't believe in any form of physical discipline - they would give their children a "time out" in a room filled with TV's, video games, toys, etc. Really??? Of the families that we were close to one has a son that is going through his second stint in rehab.. court ordered no less, they are raising their daughters child because she was only 16 when she got pregnant. The daughter has since moved on and left said kid for her parents to raise. One has a son that got a dishonorably dicharged from the service on purpose because they weren't "fair" to him and now is living who knows where selling pot. Her other son is a furry....(don't even ask). The third family has a daughter that got pregnant while working as a striper in a nasty run down gentlemans club. What they all have in common - "we can reason with our two year old, we don't need to discipline our children, We don't believe in spanking or slapping hands, we only use positive reinforcement yadda, yadda, yadda". These people are not uneducated lowlifes - they are college educated with good jobs and good families. And they weren't raised that way. The kids were never taught any self control or respect. They were never given boundaries or wanted or worked for anything. They were never told no and had it inforced.

O.K. then.... this is me climbing down off my soap box.

Laura Crum said...

Kate-I'm glad you responded, and as far as I'm concerned, its fine to be argumentative. I kind of hoped someone would argue with me--that's what makes it interesting. There are many ways to train horses and I'm a big believer in the notion that lots of different ways can work. That said, I believe what I said in the post--most if not all horses need reprimands. We may be talking a difference in semantics here...or maybe not. I do believe horses need us to be the dominant herd member, and that reprimands are essential to this. But my intent in reprimanding a horse is more to show him where the boundary lies, to use your words, than to intimidate him. As I pointed out, I reprimand sensitive, naturally compliant horses very gently. Given such a horse, not much reprimanding is necessary. And I have had quite a few of these. But given my little Sunny, a person has to be willing to be a bit tougher, and I think most all horsemen would find this to be so, even if they weren't a big fan of reprimands. That, or Sunny would push them around.. So it really comes down to the individual horse.

Amy--Yes, positive AND negative feedback are pretty much essential--I agree.

kel--You know, I'm a middle of the road person in this area, too. I was raised very strictly, and in some ways I am not the better for it. So I try not to be too harsh with my child. I don't spank. But I am fairly firm, I demand respect, and have taught my kid to be respectful and polite to others. I set clear boundries, and I do reprimand when those limits are crossed. Like you, I don't think I do a child a favor not to teach him respect, self control, and the ability to accept discipline. That said, I work very hard to protect his integrity as an individual and to teach him to feel free to make his own choices. Its a fine line, finding that middle road.

Laura Crum said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Laura Crum said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Laura Crum said...

Also, regarding Kate's point about a horse who is compliant versus one who is willingly compliant--I think this, too, has more to do with the individual than anything else. If you have a naturally compliant, sensitive horse and you are any kind of a good trainer, that's going to be a willingly compliant horse. In Sunny's case, you have to be pretty tough with the reprimands or he won't bother to obey you. Sunny is a very smart, confident, tough-minded little horse and not very sensitive--his personality reminds me of our pony, Toby. In fact, I really enjoy Sunny--the needing to be reprimanded thing is a small drawback for the many good things he gives me. I won't go on as I have bragged about this horse and how good he is outside way too often. Sunny is "willingly compliant"--as long as he's sure I'm worthy to be in charge.

horsegenes said...

Laura... that word... "spank" always brings around feelings - one way or the other. I didn't spank - like with a belt or over my knee or any of those antiquated practices. I did give a swat to a bottom or a hand once in a while. With that said... I don't believe that I ever caused them any physical pain.

When my father was alive he had a bad back and used to swing the fly swatter at me occasionally because it hurt him to bad to get up and move around. After he passed the only discipline that I got was from my mom. She was in a wheel chair...I definitely, definitely, didn't get swatted enough! She couldn't catch me so she had to be creative. She taught me respect, morals, values, boundaries, self control (o.k. I am a little weak when it comes to self control and horse shopping) and work ethic without physical disicpline.

Laura Crum said...

kel--Me, too. That is, a little weak on self control when it comes to horse shopping. And in a lot of other areas, actually. I'm kind of a knee jerk rebel--the result of my very strict Catholic school upbringing. You tell me I shouldn't do it--I just get defiant and all the more determined. So when I get told (even by myself) that I don't need any more horses...well, now you can see why I've got eleven to take care of.

Susan said...

The first thing I have to wonder is, what would Sunny's behavior be like if you had raised him? If he had never been allowed to push on people?

I strongly believe that horses need and want a fearless leader. And the owner needs to command that respect, just like in a horse herd.

You have to do what it takes to keep your horse's attention. If a horse becomes afraid to the point that he's become dangerous, face it, you don't have his attention. If he trusts and respects his handler/rider his attention will remain on that person because the leader helps him through scary situations.

Laura Crum said...

Susan--That's an interesting point. Plumber, who I did train myself, is both very respectful of my space and very trusting. He is by nature a sensitive horse who wants to please, however. This makes him an anxious horse, but under saddle or in hand, he would go anywhere I pointed him--because he trusted me as his leader. As for Sunny, I'm not sure how that would have worked out (me training him I mean). I did not tend to select such tough, cold blooded critters to train, back when I was training. Its an interesting question. I agree with you that making a horse overly fearful through overly harsh methods is a huge negative. I have seen very accomplished trainers achieve winning results this way, but I have no wish to be that person. I do, however, want to be safely in charge--and thus the point of my post. Thanks for an insightful comment.

Gayle Carline said...

Perhaps people would be less argumentative if "reprimand" were replaced with something more like "disciplined." Horses need a herd - I think they're always looking for that structure in their lives. When we are inconsistent herd leaders, we make them anxious and ourselves miserable.

I have two ends of the spectrum in my horses. My mare rarely tries to usurp my authority, but when she does, a quick snap on the lead rope (if I'm leading) or solid push with both legs (if I'm riding) is all she needs to re-join my herd. Her son is a rough and rowdy guy, so I have to use more force to get his attention. I don't think of it as reprimanding him as much as teaching him where my boundaries are.

The bottom line is that, as much as we'd like this to be a give-and-take relationship with our horses, we need to be their leaders. Forget the riding - think of basic maintenance. They need us to be in charge when they need foot care, tooth care, general medical care. Willingly compliant is great if you can get it, but some things are non-negotiable. If there's a fire at my stables, I don't care if my horse loads into the trailer willingly or not - I just want him in there!

Laura Crum said...

Well said, Gayle. I feel that my horse must respect me at all times--on the ground and on his back. If he is fearful, I need to provide supportive leadership, but any disrespectful behavior arising from defiance needs to be addressed with firm leadership. I think "disciplined' and "reprimanded" mean pretty much the same thing to me, but the bottom line is what you said--"they need us to be in charge".

Alison said...

Hi Laura,

I was most intrigued by the Boycott American Women comment on this forum. I think you need to delete it!

Unknown said...

Yup - I also agree with this post and most of the comments here too! Positive AND negative reinforcers, treating each individual according to their individual needs.

That said, I'm like Francesca and I'm not very "get in your face" which I'm certain led to my issues with Rosso.

I feel on the fixin' side of it now and I ride him with ever increasing confidence while I work on my "I'm the boss no matter what" persona. Funny how riding can sometimes work your emotions in difficult ways too.

Guess it's partly why we all find such thru and thru satisfaction from it - such mental and physical enjoyment/work. Makes us better hoo-mans, in my opinion. :)

Unknown said...

grin - my husband must be logged in .. NOCODG is a Northern Colo. Disc Golf thing... this is Shanster!

Laura Crum said...

Alison--Well, I thought it was kind of funny, actually. You can delete it if you feel strongly about it.

Shanster--I have totally admired your journey with Rosso. It takes courage and hard work to get through one's issues with a horse that has put his rider on the ground. I'm not sure I'd be game to try it as this point. Now must go help my boarder get a vet to his horse. Poor Twister is dead lame this morning--I suspect an abscess--hope that's all it is.

Linda said...

I came over here from Kate's site. I like this topic, and it's one we all discuss a lot. I used to be strongly the "alpha horse" theory type, but now I'm more the "least amount to get maximum results." Like you pointed out, that's different with every horse. First and foremost, however, is that you be safe around your horse--and maybe more important than that--that your farrier be safe around your horses. A safe horse, to me, is the most important goal, but I am taking great pleasure in finding the least amount with each of my horses. We have seven, and some of the them, including a Mustang, we've raised ourselves, so it's easier to use the least amount approach than the ones where we inherited people caused issues.

Laura Crum said...

Linda--As I said on Kate's blog, I think I'm middle of the road on this issue. I happen to have a horse right now that requires these reprimands, as I discussed in the post. My previous three main mounts did not. I think it all comes down to being able to correctly "read" what a horse is saying and respond appropriately. And I, too, have found that the horses I've trained myself from when they were young required very few reprimands. Thanks for stopping by--I think this topic is worth LOTS of discussing--its really both fascinating, and vital to our success as horse people. And my first definition of success, like yours, is staying safe while working with horses.