Performance Horses of Georgia

When You Should Punish Your Horse

Growing up as a teenager I always wanted to learn how to ride and be the best I could be whether riding in shows or riding for pleasure.  I had the opportunity to purchase some horses at a young age to try and fulfill that dream.  As with any young person, once you get the experience of horseback riding in your blood, it never goes away – – it’s always there.  And so through the years I had many instructors, some good and some bad, but it was always the instructors who were at their worst that I will never forget.  

If you’ve ever taken riding lessons, then you can relate to your horse when it comes to being corrected for something you did not do just right. Maybe the instructor got a little sarcastic. Maybe he or she raised things to the level of a scold. Maybe you messed up big time and got yelled at big time. Or maybe to prove his or her point about what you did wrong, the instructor got really stern and made you do whatever it was over and over and over to drill into your head.

Whatever happened, as the instructor got louder, pushier, or stricter you probably did not feel so good about what you were doing. Your first reaction was probably a knot in your stomach or you got nervous, afraid, grumpy, mad, or even resentful.  Even if you knew you earned the reprimand you got, going through it didn’t make you feel good about riding that day and worst of all, you probably didn’t learn anything except that going back into the arena with that instructor wasn’t something you were looking forward to.  That’s why are students are taught there are three times you punish a horse for doing something wrong–never, never and never.

The first goal in a riding lesson is to make the horse feel positive about himself and the whole experience he has when he’s with you. When everything is horse logical and no more than one step away from something he already knows, the horse learns to trust that nothing bad is going to happen when he’s around you. That trust leads to relaxation and relaxation and rhythm are the foundations for anything you are going to teach a horse.

When a pressure gets “louder” either physically or psychologically, the horse feels that is something he wants to escape from. Whenever he’s running away from a pressure, the horse is not learning. Whenever his current rhythm is abruptly interrupted, he is not learning. So if you jerk on a lead rope, make a sudden move around his head, yank on the reins, kick him in the side, smack him with a crop or gig him with a spur as “punishment” for something he did not do right, then the only thing the horse learned is that it’s not safe to be around you. His trust goes away. Any positive feelings about the training session get cancelled by that breach of trust.

Remember you have to show the horse what you want him to do before you can ask him to do it. You reward any tiny move in the right direction. You don’t punish wrong moves, you just ignore them. You simply go back to showing him what you want. Go back to something he already knows and can be successful at. Then ask again. If you get what you wanted, stroke him or scratch him and let him know how pleasant the whole thing was. If you don’t get it, just stay calm, stay positive and start showing him again.

Once you can ask the horse to do something and get it consistently, now you can tell him to do it by just beginning the feel of a full corridor of aids. Only when the horse reaches this stage can you enforce your asking.

Here is where it gets a little tricky. You have to enforce what you’ve asked in a way that the horse does not feel as punishment. Enforcement means re-enforcing something the horse already knows, re-minding or re-focusing his attention. That’s a different attitude than correcting the horse because he’s gone wrong.

When any one part of a corridor of aids gets too loud, it destroys the feel of the full corridor. A corridor of individual aids gives the horse a message about how you want him to shape the next stride just like a sentence made up of individual words tells your buddy what you want him to do.  If you start a sentence then wind up yelling just one word, that one loud word drowns out the meaning of all the rest.

Enforcement means emphasizing one of your aids just enough to remind the horse of the shape you’re asking for without raising his excitement level to the point where you drown out all the rest of the corridor. Maybe you’ve asked the horse to work in a straight line in a particular rhythm as he approaches a jump. You have him in a corridor of aids that includes your seat bones, your hands, and your legs but as he gets closer to the jump you feel him starting to belly out to the right. You could put just a little more pressure on that right seat bone to ask to him correct his bend or you could squeeze just a little more with the right leg to remind him that he’s in a corridor that’s straight.

If your enforcement focuses the horse’s attention on a single aid or pressure within the whole corridor of pressures that’s creating the feel of the shape you want him to take so that he forgets about all the rest, your aid–your rein, your seat bone, your leg, your crop–was too “loud.” Punishment does not remind the horse of the shape you’re asking for. It slaps him to attention to that one aid and makes him forget all about the rest of the things shaping the corridor. Worst of all, it changes his thinking about whether or not going back into the arena with you is something he’s going to look forward to the next time.

Training is a matter of making the horse feel positive and comfortable when he takes the shapes you direct at every stride. When he doesn’t, there are three times you punish him for that – NEVER, NEVER, AND NEVER!

And so when a horse does not get the shape right or misses it for a stride or two at this ranch, there are three times he’ll get punished – NEVER, NEVER, AND NEVER.   And the three times instructors are allowed to yell at a student are NEVER, NEVER, AND NEVER.  What is good for horses is good for people, too!