by Laura Crum
This is a trendy word nowadays. What I actually want to talk about is the lines that I will not allow my horses to cross behavior-wise. However good they are, however much they do for me, however much I trust them, there are things that I will not allow any of them to do. If they do these things they get reprimanded. The severity of the reprimand depends on the horse. Some only get yelled at. Some get a light swat with the leadrope. Sunny gets a good hard swat with the leadrope.
I am not talking about a young horse or a green horse here. The rules are different with a horse who is learning what right behavior is. I am talking about a broke horse who understands what is expected of him. Such a horse only crosses these boundaries for certain reasons. 1) The horse does not respect you enough to heed the boundaries. 2) The horse trusts that you and he are partners and that you’ll let him get away with this transgression. 3) The horse needs to test to see if you’re still dominant. 4) The horse is scared enough to forget about the boundaries and 5) The horse is angry/interested in something else enough to ignore the boundaries. In 4 and 5 the horse isn’t thinking enough about you. In 2 and 3 it’s actually part of a healthy relationship. 1 is just no good. But in all cases but one the horse needs a reprimand of some sort (in my opinion). The only exception is 4. Sometimes the horse needs to sort out his fear (if it is genuine) a little before he can obey. It really depends on the circumstances and the horse how you handle 4.
I am assuming here that the person is a halfway competent horseman who is not pushing a horse to do more than he can reasonably be expected to do, or expecting him to handle something he doesn’t understand and has had no experience with. In either case, even a good horse is liable to rebel.
A lot of people don’t like these words “reprimand” and “punishment.” They want to use other words. I really don’t care what words are used. What I mean is this: I let the horse know in a way he understands that the behavior is not OK. And I let him know clearly and effectively enough that the horse ceases the behavior—at least for that day.
Also, I correct every horse as his personality requires. With a good hearted horse like Henry who occasionally forgets himself, I’m firm but kind in reminding him. With a tough-minded horse like Sunny who likes to test, and did, in fact, end up kicking his former owners, I’m considerably more emphatic in my corrections. With gentle, sensitive horses like Plumber, Gunner and Twister, who are aghast at the notion of being reprimanded, I stick to a firm word and a gentle tug as a reminder to pay attention. They don’t need more.
And finally, I don’t pick on a horse about stupid stuff that doesn’t matter. If you constantly nitpick a horse, you WILL end up with a problem. That said, I also think you need to consistently enforce certain boundaries, or you will end up with problem behavior in your good horse—behavior you don’t need to have.
For instance, if you have a good, reliable trail horse, like my Sunny, who is also on the lazy side, that horse may offer a balk at the foot of a steep climb that he’s done before and knows is hard work. If I ask Sunny to go on, and he takes a step backward and switches his tail, I immediately over and under him. In other words, I reprimand him in a way that gets his attention and gets him moving forward and obeying my cue. Let’s say I don’t do this. Let’s say I kick him rather ineffectually with my spurless boot, and he takes another step backward and makes an effort to turn around and go back. Let us then say that I stop urging him forward toward the hill, and shrug and say, “Oh well, guess you don’t want to go up that hill today,” and I go another way. What do you think is going to happen the next time I want to ride up that hill? My good, broke and very smart little horse is going to balk once again, and when I urge him forward this time, he is liable to be pretty determined about his resistance and escalate to crowhops and such. I have just created a problem that I didn’t need to have.
On the other hand, there is no point in punishing a horse for certain things. Let’s take my Sunny again, for an example. Sunny rarely spooks, but when he does, it’s a genuinely startled response. I ignore it. I let him look at the thing until I can tell that he isn’t afraid any more, and then I ask him to go on. If he is still worried and sidles by it, I ignore that, too. On the rare occasions when he is feeling a bit up, and tries to retreat or such, I do reprimand him and make him go forward, because I know Sunny, and I know he is not truly very afraid.
There is also the situation (rare with Sunny, but it has happened) when a horse refuses to cross something (like a downed tree or a muddy ditch) because he is truly concerned about it. This sort of thing I play by ear. If I feel a little concerned, too, and the horse is an experienced trail horse, I will often let his decision stand. If I feel confident we can get over the obstacle, and I want to do it, I just keep the horse there and keep asking. Sometimes it takes time, sometimes I need to distract the horse from the issue at hand, sometimes I let another horse give us a lead, sometimes I get off and lead my horse, if I feel the horse is truly worried, and even a following a buddy doesn’t help (I’ve done the leading thing twice—both times with reliable horses and bridges that they had never been on before).
I never punish a horse for jigging. It’s a wretched habit, but punishment will not help. Some horses can’t be cured of it. I prefer not to ride those horses. Most horses can be out-figured. There are many methods. With Sunny, I found that he only jigged (just a little, at the very end) when I did the same route too often. He was bored of it and eager to get done. Once I sorted this out I mixed up the routes and he hasn’t jigged with me going home in years. But I never reprimanded him for it—simply because it doesn’t work. Same for a horse that is high as a kite in the team roping box, or the start of a race/ride. Or fretting because the other horses have left him. This is anxiety and excitement and you will do no good with a reprimand under those circumstances (with most horses—there are always exceptions).
That said, there are certain behaviors where reprimands work incredibly well--again, with most horses. I am assuming that we all have behaviors we find completely unacceptable. The horse that tries to kick or bite you, or pushes through you on the ground…etc. If you don’t find this sort of thing unacceptable and deserving of correction, than we are way too far apart in our thinking to have much of a conversation. The thing is, I think that you need to stop/prevent that behavior before it ever gets to a dangerous point—because that behavior can get you hurt or even killed. Thus my boundaries.
So here are my boundaries for broke horses.
1) The horse may never make a nipping gesture at me. None of my horses would actually dare to bite me, but that fake nipping gesture is absolutely not allowed. Many horses will assay this gesture when being cinched. They always get a sharp punch in the nose for it. I ignore ear pinning or the slight shake of the head. That’s just expressing an opinion. But the nipping gesture is a form of aggression toward me, and it’s not acceptable. And what do you know—none of my horses have EVER nipped me.
2) No horse may make a kicking gesture in my direction—under ANY circumstances whatsoever. This includes if they are really kicking at another horse, or it’s feeding time, or I’m doctoring a painful cut on their leg, or whatever. This is non-negotiable, because it’s too dangerous. My horses must be aware of me and careful not to kick in my general direction at all times, under all circumstances. If any kicking gesture is made when I am behind or near a horse, that horse gets a severe reprimand. And, yes, none of my horses have ever kicked me.
3) No horse may crowd my space when I am leading them or when I am in their corrals. I am very strict about this. As in the above example, including when the horse is just not thinking. I require them to be aware of me and careful about my space at all times. No matter what is going on or how distracted they are by other things or how scared. It’s too easy to be knocked down and severely inured by a horse that doesn’t respect your space.
4) No horse may step toward my foot—accidentally or otherwise. Same principle as the above. Sunny will try the oh-so-casual purposeful step toward my foot sometimes when I’m saddling, and I always kick him in the ankle, hard enough to hurt. He usually doesn’t try it again for awhile. And he has never actually stepped on my foot. None of my horses have. Of course, I stay aware of where my feet are and their feet are at all times—which is a necessity, because I often handle them in sandals. So far, not one smashed toe (!)
5) No horse may move off while I get on—ever. This is particularly important to me because I am short and getting older and very vulnerable to losing my balance when I mount. All my horses stand perfectly still for me to climb on. If they don’t, they get corrected. Every single time.
6) I will tolerate a horse letting me know he wants to stop and take a break on a ride, or have a good look at something, but the horse must move on when I say so. I try to be thoughtful. If my horse is truly tired, I allow a good long breather; if my horse is truly worried, I allow plenty of time to look and relax. But when I say step forward, I make that happen. See my example above about balking, and where it leads.
7) No horse is allowed to eat under saddle or to jerk his head down to graze without permission when being led. I’m very strict about this. I understand that endurance folks WANT a horse to graze under saddle, and this makes sense. But I am here to say that for those of us who don’t do endurance, there are few more annoying things than to ride a horse who firmly jerks his head down to eat when he feels like it, or grabs at the tall grass as you ride through it. Someone let our good horse Henry do this in the past, and it is a habit that remains, despite many corrections. It’s perhaps the one true fault in this very good horse—and it is always an effort for my son to ride Henry across a meadow, due to this vice. None of my other horses have this objectionable trait, and unless you are an endurance rider, I can see no reason to let this habit occur. The same for allowing a horse to tug his head down to graze while you are leading him. I do hand graze my horses from time to time, but I give a very clear signal that permits them to graze, and they are reprimanded if they try to graze without permission, or tug me towards a patch of grass. It makes them much more pleasant to lead and handle and ride.
8) I tolerate spooks and feel-good crowhops without a reprimand as long as the spook or crowhop is just a one shot thing. Spooking and then spinning or bolting is absolutely not allowed (if it’s genuinely fear-caused it’s treated very differently than if it’s an evasion—one has to know the difference). Bucking that’s due to cinchiness is treated differently than bucking used as an evasion. A horse that bucks because he is cinchy is like a ticklish person. They just can’t help it. My much-loved Flanigan was a cinchy horse and I was always very careful with his saddling and warm-up protocol. As far as I was concerned, it was my fault if he bucked with me.
Anyway, there are a few boundaries that I think are important to set. Perhaps you can suggest some others. Or let me know why you disagree with mine.