Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Thoughts About Horse Training

                                                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.)


Joyce Reynolds-Ward said...

Count me as one who agrees with you, Laura. My philosophy is that for my own safety and the safety of others around me, any horse that I am personally responsible for needs to be respectful of human space and acknowledge the human as herd leader. I've learned this the hard way, by owning a difficult and dangerous horse when I was a kid (prone to chasing anyone who ran from her when she postured, though she'd back down if you stood your ground and told her to stop, plus she'd rear and strike at anyone who tried to bully her. Couldn't be bullied, couldn't be pushed. Difficult mare but a superb trail horse if you were skilled and quiet). She wasn't dangerous to me because she understood my boundaries and I understood her body language and quirks, but she definitely threatened several people who got frightened by her and tried to push her into submission. Definitely not beginner horse material, and a horse who would stomp over anyone trying the lovey-dovey treatment on her. And yet--when a Shetland who wasn't in his right mind tried to attack me, she protected me from that pony and made it a point of being present and alpha to him whenever I was in the pasture. I could walk up to this mare and pick her hooves in the pasture without restraint. I cried on her shoulder a LOT, and she gave me horsey hugs.

Many of the less-experienced horse people who take classes through my barn see Mocha as a sweet, compliant and cooperative horse. Which she is--mostly. What they don't see are the years that both my trainer and I put into her to reinforce that respect for humans. She is a quietly pushy mare who, if given the opportunity to take advantage of a situation, will assert her will and take charge. Nothing like my difficult and dangerous teenage mare, but still--a strong-minded mare from a performance background with a potential for serious sting if I choose to wake it up.

Does this mean I'm harsh with her all the time? Oh man, people who say that have never seen the Kookie Begging Face (complete with smacky lips) that she's perfected. Or noticed the degree to which I respond to her body language, or acknowledge her warnings or anxiety about a situation. Or understand why, after a period of schooling collection, I drop the rein and let her canter as hard as she wants on a long loose rein until she chooses to stop.

It's all about the communication between horse and human, with boundaries. Though I have to admit, much as I wuv my horsie, I can't quite get all kissyface and huggy with this mare. I much rather prefer the funny faces and enthusiastic leans from finding that really itchy spot when I groom her.

GunDiva said...

One thing to add to the people who are too "nice" to their horses. Not only do the horses become dangerous to handle, but they will - if anyone is willing to take them on - require harsher corrections than if the owner had just set the ground rules in the beginning.

Almost everything you've said here can be applied to parenting, as well. I think the downfall of our society began when we stopped being parents and started being friends. (end rant)

Laura Crum said...

Great comment, Joyce. Mochas is very lucky to have you for an owner.

I agree about the parenting aspect, GunDiva. Thanks for an insightful comment.

Anonymous said...

Laura, well done. This is usually the type of discussion that spirals out of control on other horsey message boards, but you've found a way to gracefully and politely stick to your guns. I applaud you.

Laura Crum said...

Why thanks, Anon. I'm guessing that you are not the same anon that I reference in the post (!) And yes, I knew it was kind of a touchy topic when I took it on, but I do think some points are worth stating. There are well intentioned people who get involved with horses and have never had some obvious and reasonable points about horse training/handling made plain to them by an experienced horseman. And this is a chance to show where most experienced horsemen agree--rather than where they disagree (because yeah, none of us agree on everything--not that I've ever heard).

Anonymous said...

Here's what I think: I would not want to be sitting next to any child of your Anonymous Commentator on a long flight, because I guarantee you it would not be pleasant. BOUNDARIES - horses and kids need 'em. Period.

I have seen several epic boundary-setting failures in action in my life, with both horses and children. The former resulted in people landing in the hospital, and the latter has led to kids who have Not Turned Out Well (drugs, failure to finish school, etc.). My kids have actually TOLD me, "Thank you for not spoiling us." And I bet if my dog could talk (I don't have a horse, unfortunately) she would say, "Thanks for letting me know when I've done right or wrong. I want to please you so badly, and that sure helps make me more comfortable."

It's hard, though, because the line between being firm and being abusive (to horses and children, to continue my analogy) wanders all over the place, depending on people's culture/upbringing/perspective. The end-zones usually rest in two extremes, too.

For example, with horse training, on one end you've got the "get it done at all costs" school of thought. Whip 'em, spur 'em, shank 'em, starve 'em, tie 'em, nail giant shoes on their feet and paint caustics on their ankles, etc. On the other end you've got, "Oh, such a pwetty horsie, just do whatever you want and Mama will take care of you. Don't want to leave your stall today? Okey-dokey!"

Somewhere in the middle lie people who think any saddle with a tree/bridle with a bit is horrible, those who believe all jumpers must wear running martingales and heavy bits, those who think making a horse jump over things at all is horrible, those who think a horse better have a job or he's worthless, those who think making a horse run around barrels is torture, those who think living in a stall is cruel, those who think living in a pasture is cruel, ETC. ETC.

Same thing for kids were expected to do a nighttime routine and go to bed at a certain time. "Oh, you're sooooooo mean!" was the hue and cry from someone. "My kid goes to bed whenever he wants. He usually comes into our room a couple times a night, too. He's much happier that way." Well, sure he is, and he's also falling asleep at school the next day because he's not old enough to think about the consequences of staying up until 1:00 AM. And YOU, my friend, are exhausted from being woken up several times.

Anyway, Laura, I applaud you for tackling this subject in a calm and considered fashion. I really do agree with everything you said. You're never gonna please everybody, ESPECIALLY not in the horse world! ;-)

Laura Crum said...

Thanks Anon. And yes, you can never please everyone, and I'm certainly not even trying to do that. Just putting my own truth out there and trying to be respectful to the truth that others may have, while at the same time being quite clear what is abusive in my eyes. Its a fine line--in every area of life, I think.

Dom said...

Stop abusing horses, Laura. Just stop.


Laura Crum said...

OK, Dom. I will if you I have to quit drinking margaritas, too?

Dom said...

No, that would just be mean.

Kerrin said...

Had a new teenage rider at the program yesterday. I had limited time to introduce her to our horses and training philosophy and I wanted to give her plenty of time to enjoy being on the back of a horse, not just talk talk talking at her (I"m sure they get plenty of that in their other life.)

This young woman is experienced around horses and it showed, but she sure had never seen any training method quite like ours. The rope halter, stick and string, flag, the breast collar and back cinch and the snaffle bridle with rope reins and slobber straps, all unfamiliar to her.

I was talking (remember that I was trying hard not to talk, talk, talk) and I said "here's what we try to do- we try to make our communications with the horse clear and firm, and kind and fair."

At that point I just stopped talking, because I suddenly realized I had said it all.

Clear cues: doesn't matter if it is a rein aid, a leg aid, a movement of your hand, a movement of your feet on the ground, a voice command, whatever . . . as long as you are consistent. (And the horse can easily learn different cues for the same behavior from different people.)

Firm follow through. No empty threats, no pleading and cajoling, just- here is what happens after what happens happens (stole that from Parelli, sorry.)

Kind: Any punishment, reprimand or negative reinforcement is only as firm or severe as necessary and ends as soon as possible. Be as firm as necessary and as soft as possible (Tom Dorrance?) Nothing that has to be taken 'out behind the barn.' Nothing that leaves scars (mental or physical.) Never anything that the horse's mother wouldn't approve of (Parelli again.) Equipment that allows the horse to find a comfortable place where he is just wearing it and it is not acting upon him. That comfortable place is the frame the rider wants to see him in. The frame the horse adopts is mutually agreeable to horse and rider.

Fair: No punishment coming out of nowhere without prior and proper education of what is expected and the natural consequence of unwanted behavior. Plenty of time for him to think about what he is learning and change his behavior to avoid any negatives by responding to the cues promptly.

Laura Crum said...

Kerrin--I like your clear, firm, kind and fair very much. I could say exactly the same thing. I'm sure our methods are a little different, due to my not having the NH background, but the underlying philosophy is quite similar.

Liz Stout said...

Totally agree with you! Well organized from start to finish. Great writing! Passing this along for others to read.

Laura Crum said...

Thank you, Liz Stout!