by Laura Crum
After last week’s post on “Trust” and the discussion that followed (some of it on “A Year With Horses” and “Horse Of Course”, listed on the sidebar), Kate suggested a post on the subject of how difficult it can be to find the path between too harsh and too permissive if you’ve never learned how to use firmer methods. Other people also referenced this point. So today I want to elaborate on this idea.
First off I want to say that I am not at all a fan of overly harsh training methods. I have seen the great harm done to horses this way first hand. At one time I even participated in it. I will never do so again. At the same time, I have seen much damage done by well intentioned folks who simply did not know how to make a horse behave (or set boundaries, or however you’d like to describe it). Read my last post, “Trust” for a description of what I mean. I myself believe in the middle road. I expect my horses to behave respectfully and obediently and I enforce this. Not least because I want to keep us all safe. At the same time, I treat them kindly and fairly and they thrive and seem happy. Every single one of my horses meets me at the gate and sticks his head in the halter.
I think part of the reason that I get along well with my horses is that the way I handle them makes sense to them. I reprimand them as needed to let them know I’m in charge (which is how horses relate to each other), and they find this overall reassuring. I also provide them with many things they enjoy (three meals a day, turn out to graze, plenty of space). And (and this is a big one) the work I have for them is mostly pleasant for them. Light exercise and trail riding, the occasional small gather or a little cow herding and chasing is all they are asked to do. But I do, indeed, give them a whack with the end of the leadrope, or other appropriate reprimands when they need it—and I think this is a good thing. Perhaps the biggest part of this whole equation is that I operate out of confidence. I know I can handle what comes up with these horses. I know I’m in charge. I don’t need to operate from fear.
Part of the reason I don’t need to operate from fear is that I have purposely chosen two good, solid riding horses for myself and my son that are appropriate to our current use, and I am not struggling with a horse that has behavior problems. The other reason I don’t operate from fear is that I have spent forty years owning, riding and training horses and I can both read my horses accurately and respond to what comes up out of a large toolbox of things I have learned over these many years. And this is where all those training methods come in.
So now I am going to admit that in my twenties I was an assistant to a very well known reined cowhorse trainer who used some very harsh methods to make winning horses. His methods were, by and large, standard in that industry at that time. When I worked for him, I sometimes protested at what I was asked to do and he was as harsh with me as he was with the horses. It was his way or the highway. At first I was so in awe of his reputation and skill (and he knew how to make winners) that I just followed orders. A year later, much wiser in the ways of training reined cowhorses and fed up with the cruelty and abuse, I quit this guy and moved on, vowing never to participate in anything like that again.
I then went to work for several cutting horse trainers. They trained very differently and were overall not nearly so harsh. Nonetheless there was a lot of what you would have to call coercion involved. (Spur hard, stop him hard, to let the horse know where he erred.) It wasn’t done to be cruel. Overall it was done effectively and for a purpose. But it was still hard on horses at times. I learned a lot from these guys. Among other things, I learned when to let a horse alone and not pressure him. I trained my horse to be an effective cutting horse. And yes, I spurred him hard at some points.
Now I want to get down to the bottom line here. You will not see many horses winning at a high level in most competitive disciplines without some coercive methods being used. (I’m sure there are exceptions.) But whether you are talking about cutting or reining or dressage or whatever, you can rest assured that most of the horses that win big events were pushed pretty damn hard at times. And there’s a reason for this.
When I was showing cutting horses I practiced with and competed against Tom Dorrance’s wife, Margaret. I’m pretty sure I don’t have to explain who Tom Dorrance is—he’s the grandfather of all the non-coercive training methods out there. When I knew him he was an old man and a very magical person who could read a horse in amazing ways. His wife’s mare had a very pretty way of working and seemed to enjoy her job. She won quite a bit—at the intermediate level. She never progressed to the upper level classes, or was able to win at that level. And the reason was obvious to an experienced eye.
This mare had never been pushed past what she wanted to do. She liked working cows and was handy at it. She worked well, as I said. But to win at the upper levels, a horse has to do more than that. A horse has to be sharp and exactly on, not even a little bit late. If the cow stands still the horse does not stand still, mirroring the cow, he must dance from side to side in a fancy and dramatic fashion, even if there is no real point to this. Horses are taught to do these things with an effective and well timed spur, and some hard stops (in general). The horse has to work harder than he naturally wants to do. And this sort of pressure had never been applied to that mare.
We can argue all day about the rights and wrongs here and I might choose to own Margaret’s mare over any other winning horse if I were choosing today. But in those days, caught up in the competition, what I noticed was that those non-coercive methods only worked to a certain degree. And I continued to use plenty of coercion to train my horse.
The fact is that if you want to train a horse to be competitive at a demanding performance event (which I did for many years) you are going to need to use some coercive methods. Again, I’m sure there are exceptions—I personally did not know any. Certainly some trainers are much kinder than others. “Coercive” methods CAN be used intelligently and applied with kindness. All “coercive” means is that you sometimes insist that the horse do what he does not choose (at the moment) to do—you make him work harder than he would choose to work. You don’t have to push him past what he can do or overwhelm him, though many trainers do push too hard (in my opinion). But “non coercive” methods (meaning you never insist that a horse do what he doesn’t choose to do) will only take you so far. They may make a good riding horse/trail horse (in skilled hands)—in my view they won’t make a high level cutter, reined cowhorse, team roping horse…etc. I would really welcome hearing from anyone who has competed successfully at a high level in a performance event and never once had to use “coercive” methods or insist that a horse try a little harder than he felt like trying.
So let’s fast forward a little. I had learned harsh methods, and I had learned effective coercion. I eventually learned how to apply these things fairly skillfully and without overusing them to the point of abuse. I did a good job of training several horses to be reliable team roping horses. But I was getting tired of pushing horses so hard. And the root of what was driving this, as I came to realize, was the need to be competitive. Take that away, and all of a sudden you could go slower and do things in a way that was much easier on the horse. And so I quit competing, quit pushing my horses so hard, and began just enjoying them. I’m pretty sure my horses started enjoying life more, too. However, all those years of training had left me equipped with the skills to make them behave when I needed to. I did not feel helpless or fearful.
And now I get down to the root of the problem. Because as I became someone who mostly trail rode, I began to run into a whole different group of horsemen. Most of them had not been through the rigorous process of learning to train horses to be competitive in a demanding discipline that I had. Many of them had acquired a horse and were simply looking for a way to get along with it and enjoy it. And a great many of these people were proponets of some methodology or other that was “non-coercive”. They did not believe in “forcing” a horse to obey.
I thought and think that such methods are lovely—IF they produce well behaved riding horses that people can safely enjoy. And I think that its possible that these methods are effective, in skillful hands, at making nice riding horses and trail horses. But what I often saw was ill behaved horses dominating their handler/rider, and people who were quite simply afraid to “set effective boundaries” (to use the PC phrase) and had not a clue how to do this in a way that a horse would understand. In my view, these people needed a crash course in traditional horsemanship, so that they knew how to set firm limits. And at that point, they could begin to find that middle ground where we all ought to be (in my view).
Its very hard to be an effective horseman if you are coming from a place of being afraid of the horse. And its very hard not to be afraid of that big animal if your only tools are the hope that you can make him “want” to do something. What if he doesn’t want to? What I have seen is that when the horse doesn’t want to do the thing they asked, many of these people allow the horse to do something else. And they have various justifications for this. But the bottom line appears to be that they don’t know how to make a horse do something if he doesn’t want to. What the horse inevitably learns is that he doesn’t have to obey. He begins not to respect the human. He doesn’t consider the human his leader. He feels free to do what he pleases. The human doesn’t have any tools to cope with this. And in the end this makes the human fearful and the horse pushy. A bad combination. As a matter of fact, a very dangerous combination.
As I said in my post on “Trust,” the most important thing is that you and your horse stay safe and healthy, able to interact again another day. A horse that crowds you and steps on your foot and breaks it makes this impossible. Worse yet, the horse that runs off and injures you and himself so that neither of you can do more than hobble for a year, makes the whole idea of riding horses incredibly dangerous and downright dumb.
In my own view, if I ask for something and I know the horse knows what I want and knows how to do it and is resisting only because he does not wish to do this thing right now, I steadily and persistently insist he do it, using whatever tools I need. I never have much trouble getting this done (with my current horses), but yes, it does indeed look like reprimanding a horse (often) and it can be called coercive. My horses, however, are very pleasant to ride and handle and we all get along well. I think my horses prefer me as a strong leader who can set limits. I feel safe with them and they feel safe with me.
So I do believe that its very hard to find the middle ground unless you have learned how to be quite firm with a horse—in a truly effective way. It does not help to “beat a horse up” if you do it a way that makes no sense to him. Reprimands must be both timed and of a sort that a horse can comprehend or they do no good at all, only harm. You must first be able to read the horse (see my previous post on “Trust”). Perhaps the bottom line is that before you become a big proponet of some horse guru or other and espouse his methods, you need to pay your dues by simply working with horses for awhile and seeing what works and what doesn’t.
As a general statement, working with young horses involves much more focus on communicating what you want in a way the horse understands. It does absolutely no good to get forceful with a horse who doesn’t understand what you want. On the other hand, you almost inevitably reach a point where the horse would prefer not to do as you ask and then you must be able to insist—with some skill. A good trainer does not ask too much of a horse, but does insist that the horse make some effort to do as he is asked to do. Good trainers know how much and when to ask, and how hard to push for compliance. It is a true art and takes time to learn.
Working with older horses who are well broke is usually a matter of getting along pleasantly with the occasional correction when the old pro tries to take advantage (and they will). They expect you to correct them, and if you don’t do it they won’t respect your leadership. The third category is horses who have habitual problems of one sort or another—usually the result of poor training, often complicated by the horse’s innate personality. These horses are probably best ridden/handled by an experienced horseman, as training a horse to let go of bad habits is not easy, whichever methods you use. One of the most important things you can do to have a pleasant relationship with your horse is to choose a horse that is suited to your skill level and intended use.
The other thing that needs to be added in here is that if a horse resists you in a way you don’t expect, the very first thing to do is to decide if something is physically bothering that horse. I ALWAYS evaluate carefully for soundness and any other indication of pain or discomfort when one of my horses does anything resistant that is not typical of that horse. Even seeming overly lazy can be a sign that the horse is sore. If you can’t tell if a horse is sound, or hurting in some way, you need to be sure to get help with this before assuming that the horse is resistant.
That said, I have heard many well—intentioned people talk endlessly about the various physical therapies they were trying to “fix” a badly behaved horse. Because they have no tools to address the disrespectful behavior, they decide to assume that it’s a physical problem. Some of these quite healthy, sound horses manage to get out of ever being ridden again. And if that works for both person and horse, I guess its fine. Personally I don’t choose to be bluffed by my horses. But I am very, very careful to be sure that they are not hurting in any way. As I said in my last post, it all comes down to knowing how to read a horse.
My last point is that just as non-coercive folks are very offended by seeing harsh methods overused by ignorant trainers, doing no good and only harming horses (and I, too, am angry when I see this), some of us middle of the road people are equally turned off by watching a horse behave in very disrespectful and clearly dangerous ways and hearing the rider/handler deny that this is happening. “No, my horse does not run over me…etc”, while the horse is shoving at them right as we speak. This is going to end badly, is my main thought (see the bit about the stallion in my “Trust” post)—and I no longer try to interfere, because these people will not see what is so plainly happening in my eyes—the eyes of someone who has spent forty years working with horses and learning to read them. No, I don’t know everything. Nobody does. But I can tell when a horse feels free to be disrespectfully pushy, and I can tell (usually) when a person is basically afraid of that horse. And that is not a combination that leads to a happy horse and rider, any more than an abusive trainer will lead to that goal.
Anyway, please feel free to give your own take on this subject. Do you also believe that its very difficult to be an effective horseman using non-coercive methods if you haven’t at least understood how more traditional methods work—with first hand experience? Or do you see it differently?