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Using chains for control

From: Andrea and Joe

Hi Jessica: We are avid fans, as you know, and we miss having you here for clinics....but your newsletter makes me feel as if you are still here with us!!! Now, our question:

We have had the same discussion over and over again with one of our boarders. She maintains that using a chain over the nose, or under the chin, is OK, because if the handler knows what they are doing, the pressure is released "instantly".

We maintain that using a "stud chain" on a horse is un-necessary, cruel, and even when used "properly" has debilitating effects on the horse, both mentally and physically.

Would you please settle this, if you can, once and for all?

Does a horse anticipate pain from the chain resting on it's nose (or under), even if the chain is not pulled on or snatched at? Does the use of stud chains cause rearing? What are the long term effects of this "tool", both mentally and physically?

Since we do not allow the use of stud chains on our property, or for our horse transporting business, we have settled the matter in our own way, but we really want a professional opinion (yours).

Andrea and Joe


Hi Andrea, hi Joe, I miss you too, and wish you all the luck in the world in your new location.

Your boarder has missed some important basics in her education as a horse-owner, and I hope that you, by teaching and by example, will be able to help her fill those gaps. The use of a stud chain - over the nose or under the jaw - should not be routine for anyone. A chain, like a twitch, is a method of restraint, NOT a method of training. There are times when it may be necessary to use a severe method of restraint - it may be entirely appropriate in an emergency situation, when causing the horse some pain in order to immobilize it can help the horse survive or avoid much greater and longer-lasting pain. Think of a horse caught in a barbed wire fence, for example, with one person holding it whilst another person runs for help. Using a chain or rope over the horse's nose, applying a twitch, tying up a leg, or sitting on the horse's head - any method of restraint - would be a good idea in this situation, in order to prevent the horse kicking, struggling, and tearing itself to shreds on the barbed wire. In a situation like this, there's no time to train a horse to stand quietly without moving its feet, and the handler would have to do whatever was necessary to keep the horse safe until help could arrive.

Routine handling - taking the horse from the stall to the cross-ties, or from the stall to the pasture, for instance - should not require a twitch, a chain, a rope, or tying up one of the horse's legs. If a horse doesn't stand quietly or doesn't lead well, the solution is not to use an emergency restraint measure, it's to TRAIN the horse; that is, to teach the horse what you want it to do, and reward the horse for offering the behaviour that you want, so that the horse will continue to offer that behaviour.

Sadly, many horse-owners and trainers are very fond of chains. The use of the term "stud chain" is revealing - it tells you that the person using the term sees stallions as wild, dangerous, unpredictable animals that need to be controlled by pain.

In answer to your questions: Yes, a horse can anticipate pain from a chain over its nose or under its jaw - and if the chain has been used to inflict pain in the past, the horse WILL anticipate pain. Why wouldn't it?

Yes, the use of a chain can provoke a rear. Some horses will rear in response to a sudden, sharp pain across the nose or under the jaw; other horses will eventually rear in an attempt to get away from the steady pain of constant pressure.

Training and coercing do indeed have very different effects - both physical and mental - on horses. A horse that cooperates because it understands is a much safer horse to handle than one that gives in because the handler has just attacked and hurt it. Causing sudden sharp pain to a horse can cause the horse to react violently. Jerking a chain over the delicate nose or under the jaw of a horse can cause the horse to rear or even to flip over. Putting steady pressure - even light pressure - on a chain will cause another kind of problem. Constant, dull pain can cause a horse to become accustomed to the pain over time. This doesn't mean that the horse will ever enjoy the sensation - but a horse that expects and accepts pain will typically become either dull and sullen, whereas one that anticipates and does NOT accept pain will become reluctant to cooperate, or even actively resentful.

If a handler is sufficiently skilled to be able to know exactly when to use a chain, how hard, and for how long, and is capable of releasing it instantly and completely, then... the handler should be far, far beyond the need to use pain and restraint as a substitute for training. Inflicting pain on a horse can produce a REACTION, but not a LEARNED BEHAVIOUR. Teaching a horse to stand quietly or to lead calmly takes time and some effort, but it's worth doing. Causing pain to a horse does not mean being in control of that horse. What your boarder needs to learn is how to control her horse - and when she learns to do that, she will no longer believe that control comes from a length of chain. I know you both, and I know that you can help teach your boarder how to handle a horse correctly. ;-)

One thing you may want to keep in mind is that there are other forms of restraint that create the selfsame pressure (and pain) as a stud chain. The currently-in-fashion rope halter, for example, is available in different styles, made from different thicknesses of rope, and with knots in different places. If your boarder, for example, were to exchange her ordinary halter and stud chain for a rope halter made from thin rope, she would be exerting exactly the same sort of control (and inflicting the same sort of pressure and pain) as before. Rope halters are all about control, and the thinner the rope, the more painful and strong that control will be. If you decide to help her train her horse better, you should also plan to show her that she can achieve good control with an ordinary flat leather halter, and stronger control with a rope halter made from thicker, softer rope - and that just as there is no need to resort to a chain, there is also no need to resort to the use of a rope halter made from very thin cord. Such a halter may appear to be more gentle than a chain, but the apparent difference is very deceptive.

Several years ago, someone sent me a comic strip that I loved, and kept until it literally fell apart. It was such a perfect description of the "want control, must use chain" philosophy, from BOTH ends of the leadrope. In the comic strip, you see a dog and its owner, walking along (dog in front, pulling), connected by a tight chain lead. The first caption, apparently quoting a dog-training book or a trainer, reads "All it takes to assert control is a little jerk at the end of the chain." The second caption is the dog's thought bubble: "Yes, that's how I'd describe him." ;-)

Jessica

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