by Laura Crum
My last few posts have generated some interesting comments, so today I would like to take up what seems to be the bottom line when it comes to the difference between NH and traditional horse training. And this appears to be the use of “force.”
First off, force is going to be a bit tough to define. But for the purpose of this discussion I am going to define force as using firm physical methods to insist that a horse do something he doesn’t want to do, or not do something he does want to do. In other words, to “force” the horse to behave as the handler wishes him to behave.
Force would include everything from the extreme of beating a horse about the face with a lariat rope until you put out his eye (which I have seen) and just whacking a horse in the shoulder with the end of a leadrope when he tries to push through you on the ground. It would include all kinds of bitting up where the horse is forced to give his head, and swatting a horse with a crop when he balks and won’t go forward. It would also include beating a horse in the face and neck with a shovel, such that he has scars (this happened to Wally’s horse, Twister, before we got him).
I’m sure you can see from my examples that I believe that force can be used appropriately or in very cruel and inappropriate ways. However, I do believe that force is necessary in effective horse training. The horse must at times be forced to do what he doesn’t want to do, and forced NOT to do what he does want to do, or the horse will never accept the human as leader/boss…whatever word you want to use. In my opinion, this is basic to having a reasonably obedient horse that is safe to ride and handle.
Now we could go on and on about when force is needed and when it is cruel, and what methods are Ok, and what are cruel, but I don’t think much productive discussion would result. Different methods and degrees of force are needed for every horse. I am absolutely opposed to any sort of force that harms a horse. There are very many sensitive horses that NEVER need any more force than the lightest tap of crop or a bump with the leadrope to get their attention, or even just a sharp/loud word. I have several of these in my barn. And there are those horses that need a firmer approach. I have one of these, too.
The thing I am interested in here is the basic concept. If I have understood it right, NH methods assume that a horse never needs to be forced to do something against his will. (Please tell me if I am wrong about this.) I can’t see how this could ever work.
In every horse discipline I know of, including trail riding for pleasure, a horse must sometimes do what he doesn’t want to do. If he is only to do what he can be coaxed to “want” to do, any trail ride will be aborted when a horse has had enough. Let alone all the more demanding things we do with horses.
I mentioned in the comments on my last post that I once practiced with and showed my cutting horse against Tom Dorrance’s wife, Margaret. Margaret had a lovely mare who enjoyed working cattle, as many horses do. But this mare was only competitive at the intermediate level, in my opinion because she was never pushed past what she freely offered to do. Never spurred to be a little quicker and sharper, or try a little harder. In my current, not-interested-in-competition state, I think that is a very nice way to train a cutting horse. But back in the day when I competed, the hole in that system was quite obvious to me.
The thing is, like almost everything else, it’s all about finding the middle ground. There were cutters who spurred and jerked their horses unmercifully, in order to make them try harder. Depending on the skill level of the trainer, this could totally backfire with the result that the horse was so blown up he could not be shown successfully, or, in certain very skillful hands, it could create a world champion. Even in my days of competing, I was never willing to subject my much loved horse to this sort of intense training in order to win. Yes, I spurred him to make him a little sharper. But I refused to take it to the degree where I felt I was taking the fun out of the event for him. It’s a fine line, for sure.
Today I don’t compete. I trail ride for fun. I don’t ever wear spurs. But I will whack my stubborn little yellow trail horse in the shoulder with the leadrope when he purposely tries to step on my foot, or nips at me, or pushes into my space. I will whack him on the butt if he turns his butt to me when I go out to catch him, or balks on a trail ride. The thing is, because I have been consistently firm with this horse (who has needed more force than my more sensitive, reactive horses), he almost never tries these stunts any more. He is confident in me as his boss/leader, and he trusts me. We get along great. I am quite sure that no one who was unwilling to use any sort of force could ever have had a happy partnership with this particular horse.
So today I would love to hear from those who do believe that force of some sort is needed in horse training, and from those who don’t believe force should be used. And if you don’t believe force should be used, will you please explain to me how you cope with it when your horse decides that he has had enough and he is turning around and going home now. Or he doesn’t want you on his back and decides to dump you. Or he wants to come out his corral gate and eat grass and you are an obstacle in the way of what he wants. Surely you must use force of some kind to let him know that you are in charge and he must yield to your wishes?
For those who will insist that force is never needed, I would like to hear how you manage to remain in charge/the leader or whatever you would like to call it. I think we can all agree that the human must be in charge/the leader rather than the horse, if the human is to interact safely with this 1000 pound animal. This is not to say that a wise horseman will not sometimes/often let the horse’s choices stand—I do this myself when it seems appropriate. But it is my decision.
I also want to say that not all horse training issues can be solved through the use of force. Far from it. If a horse is fearful, usually force is the wrong approach. Though even a fearful horse must learn (usually through some kind of force) that he must still respect your space/obey your cues. If you can’t get this done, you are in very real danger when you interact with such a horse. If a horse doesn’t understand what you want, force is almost always the wrong approach. The use of force must be carefully judged. Usually the time for force is when a horse is “testing the boundaries.” There are types of force, like tying, and some kinds of bitting up, where the horse is essentially struggling against himself, and these can be very effective in teaching a horse patience, calm and acceptance, without the human having to conflict with the horse. But the horse is still being forced to do something he doesn’t wish to do.
Anyway, I’m interested to hear others’ ideas about the use of force in horse training.
(It is also possible that we could redefine the concept of “force.”)