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Question on discipline

From: Leah

Dear Jessica,

I hope you can give me some advice, I think I need it! I have a four year old QuarterHorse gelding. I do not have much experience, he is my first horse. I have had him for one year. He is intelligent, eager to please, "well in his head" as the french say here. He is fearless, it seems, and lives in a herd of nine horses, in which he is the dominant. Though I lack a lot of experience, I have spent each day working hard, making sure never to try to go beyond my abilities, studying books, videos, going to training workshops, and am now working at the stables he is at, feeding and moving the horses to and from the stables and pastures. I have progressed rapidly. This whole time, I have gotten much guidance from the owner there, who breaks horses and does dressage. He has been a bit my mentor! I have great respect and gratitude towards him.

Before trying to work on technical things riding, I concentrated a lot on establishing my base on how I will interact with the horses, It has shown to be very effective for me. All the horses there obey and respect me with the slightest gestures, and this "mentor" even expressed real awe at how well I achieved this.

Yesterday though, an event made clear that him and I have some differences in thought on those base methods. He offered to aid me take a shoe of my horse, Blue. When he had his hoof in hand, Blue tried to pull it back at one point, and the guy started yelling and hitting him. I watched the situation get out of hand quickly, becoming a contest between them, until I couldn't recognize my horse anymore! His eyes were rolling, he was moving all over the place, refusing to give his foot, and this guy was angry and cursing and kicking him. He went to get something, I do not know what it is called in english- a stick which has a loop of twine on the end, that one wraps around his upper lip and tightens? He put that on, and my horse stood still. After about two minutes (the shoe was difficult to remove) the fight between them started again though. At the end, he was yelling at me, saying I am too gentle with my horse. My horse was quite simply nutso.

Since I am less experienced, I am not about to reject or ignore critisism too quickly, but rather take a good look and see if it is valid before I take it to heart. Often it is very useful. But my horse never had done anything like that with me, if he pulls a bit his foot, a firm "no" puts an end to that quickly- it never escalates to what happened there.

He practices classic technique, using continued pressure.......I have been using the western method, releasing the pressure as soon as he complies to my demand. I didn't feel comfortable holding that thing around his lip at the same time he was standing still! That was what we wanted, I felt he needed a sign from us of that! Not getting any clear signs of what we wanted and whether he was doing it yet, he seemed to get confused and frustrated.

So there is that difference, and there is also the emotion thing. He says often you must "get mad", to scare the horse into submission, and he does. I am simply more a mental person than an emotional one, perhaps enjoying the process of learning, therefore appreciate the challenges horses offer me to act and express my will, so don't get mad. I act, I discipline, but never with emotion. He thinks that means I lack force.

My question then is this- I have my method, and so far it is effective for me, and I observe reasons to believe his is not. Therefore I shall continue my way for the moment, and there is no reason for me to bring that up with him unless he does. But what I wonder is- A horse who is accustomed to one method, and has someone work a different one with him, can that cause behavioral problems? Or can the horse sort of learn "this way with this person, that way with the other"? I am happy with my horses discipline and work with me, and wonder if I need to insist that this man know and respect the method Blue is used to, so as not to screw up his head, make him confused or lose his enthousiasm for work! I am not sure whether that is a risk or not, and my decision to speak about this with him is really only dependant upon that.

Thanks for any advice you could give, I appreciate your wisdom greatly, Leah


Hi Leah! It sounds to me as though you have a very good method of dealing with your horse, and I think you are also getting some good help from the owner of the stable. However, I agree with you that the situation you described was not good or appropriate.

Horses always have reasons for doing what they do. A cooperative horse will not pull its foot away just to be rude, or to "test" or "challenge" the farrier, but may pull its foot away if it is uncomfortable or unbalanced or frightened. Hitting the horse and yelling at it will not help it become more comfortable or better balanced or less frightened, and if the horse was not already nervous, it will be after someone has yelled at it and hit it.

The stick with the loop through the end is called a "twitch" - when twisted around the horse's upper lip, it releases endorphins and keeps the horse standing quietly. It shouldn't be used as an alternative to good handling - but many farriers and vets will want the owner to use a twitch if the horse becomes at all agitated or nervous, because they don't want to put themselves in a dangerous position. Handling a horse's feet puts a human in a very vulnerable position - in prime "kicking range" - and I'm sure you can understand why any farrier would be reluctant to work on a horse that was dancing and leaping.

Horses CAN learn different routines and associate them with different humans, or even with different tack. Stallions used for breeding, for example, always know instantly whether they are being taken out for exercise or being taken to the breeding shed, because their handlers typically use one halter or bridle for each activity, and the horse very quickly learns which is which. But horses appreciate consistent behaviour, and I would suggest that you accept help ONLY from those people who are willing to treat your horse with the kindness and respect that you have taught him to expect.

A note here about classical technique: CLASSICAL technique employs minimal and very brief pressure, with the emphasis always on the "yield" - what the new Western trainers call the "release". Continuous pressure is not classical technique, it's just bad training.

Another note, this one about horse psychology: It should never be necessary to frighten a horse into submission. You can be strong and authoritative, ASSERTIVE, like the herd leader, without being AGGRESSIVE. Discipline must always be given without emotion, otherwise it becomes aggressive punishment rather than an assertive reminder of one's authority. You are right - and he was wrong. He may well be correct in saying that you lack force - but since force has no place in horse-training, I would take as a compliment!

I expect that the man was frightened, and was probably ashamed of being frightened, and the fear and embarrassment made him act aggressively toward your horse. He was probably also annoyed that your horse would do whatever you wanted, calmly, and would not cooperate with him! If he is a good man, he is probably already more than a little embarrassed about the incident, and wishes it had not happened. ;-)

If you want him to use your techniques of horse-handling, you may need to show him exactly what they are, and explain that THIS is the way you want your horse handled by everyone. If he is willing to comply with your request, then you can safely accept his help - if he is not, then you cannot. "Getting mad" is not a good training tool - I like yours much better: patience and calm. I also like your attitude toward criticism - it's very practical and sensible.

La prochaine fois que cet homme veut vous "aider", dites-lui "Merci bien, vous etes gentil, mais je vais attendre l'arrive du ferrier, j'ai besoin de parler avec le ferrier (ou veterinaire, ou qui-que-ce-soit). L'important, c'est que Blue soit sain, sauf, bien dans sa tete ET bien dans sa peau - et vous aussi!

Jessica

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