Myths That Lead To Punishment
Updated: Feb 28
One of the most dangerous mindsets equestrians have towards their horses is that the best (and maybe only) solution to get rid of unwanted behaviors is punishment. This is a multifaceted problem that stems from many different myths equestrians believe, despite the overwhelming evidence against them.
In this blog article I'd like to address the common eight myths I hear in defense of using punishment, and then at the end offer you an alternative approach to eliminating undesirable behaviors.
Myth #1 Respect
Did you know... that horses are actually incapable of “respecting” you? They can learn to not rear, bite, kick etc... but “respect” plays no part in the equation.
Respect is a human state of mind, a human attribute. A horse learns what works and doesn’t work, a horse does what it takes to keep peace and to survive. Horses are not born knowing that we find invasion of our personal space rude and disrespectful... that we don’t like to be kicked at or bitten. In fact, to a horse.. while they may move each other out of the way to obtain desired resources.. they actually spend a lot of time in each other’s “space” as well as performing all those the behaviors we don’t care for; co-grooming (licking, nibbling, even biting), swishing flies from each other as they stand side by side, play fighting, sleeping side by side, gathering tightly together in the shade or to break the icy winds. Regardless of seniority or leadership status within the herd, this invasion of “personal space” isn’t disrespectful...it’s living harmoniously as a community, especially when observing a truly feral herd of horses. So why do we insist that our horses “respect” us? And why do we punish them for NOT respecting us? Why do we claim when a horse kicks or rears they are “disrespecting” us?
Myth #2 Dominance
For what seems like forever and a decade we’ve believed that there’s a dominate herd leader and then a ranking system of each member of the herd after that. That there’s one horse that's in charge of everything, and the rest follow. We were told this is how the herd stays alive, how horses communicated! However, this theory has long been disproven... and yet equestrians have refused to let go of it.
Just a couple generations ago this methodology was all we had to go on, however with the progress science has made its just an old habit now; a convenient and easy way to ignore the REAL reason training techniques work or an excuse for a lack of education. We use this idea of leadership and being the dominant one over our horses as fuel for the “disrespectful” behavior argument. If we are alpha/leader/dominate and the horse is submissive/follower/subordinate then they must inherently know that they should do as we ask or they are disrespecting our authority as herd leader! This mind set in turn excuses the use of pressure and punishment in training as a necessary evil, since the horse NEEDS a “leader” and, according to this theory, humans can fulfill this leadership roll too. So we are being “kind” to the horse by communicating in this way; for punishing them.
While I agree that we do need to be a leader of sorts for our horses, since they are subject to an unnatural lifestyle they can not navigate safely on their own. The dominance theory fuels an aggressive and punishing leader based on a hierarchy system that does not exist. When in reality what the horse needs is the type of “leader” that is a consistent and confident guide, one that is patient and slow to punish. A leader that is determined to earn the right to lead rather than demand it based on outdated theories. A guide rather than a dictator.
Myth #3 They Are Dangerous
Because of a horse’s size and strength it’s easy to be convinced that they are dangerous. And truth be told... they are, but not because they want to be! When left to be JUST horses, horses are not a dangerous species. In fact, they are food to the dangerous species. Horses are the “run away from danger” species... However! When a prey animal is trapped they are forced to resort to dangerous behaviors. So it’s easy to interpret “dangerous actions” of self defense, fear, communication, etc as “acts of aggression” towards you... and it’s easy to blame those dangerous actions on the horse, but really is the horse the one to blame?
Aggressive behaviors in horses magnify tremendously in human created environments. With the riding, shipping, training, artificial lights, small pastures, stalls, scheduled feed times, and limited inter-species social interactions, we place a lot of unnatural stress on our horses and its bound to manifest itself in one way or another. Sometimes that’s health.. and sometimes that’s behavior. What’s more is when it DOES result in dangerous behavior we punish the horse, which we know from studying the brain that this only causes MORE stress. It’s a terrible cycle we’ve put our horses in the middle of. Where there is no win for them.
Horses are not inherently dangerous or aggressive towards us or towards each other, but when us humans want to strap ourselves to them and suppress their every instinct and need... we’re bound to create a monster! If your horse is acting dangerous or aggressive there’s a reason. Punishment is only a temporary “fix”, not a solution.
Myth #4 It’s natural
It’s easy to watch a mom correct her baby and think to yourself “ah! That’s how I should do it because that’s how the mom does it, so it’s natural for me to do it too.” Eh, kind of. There’s one BIG difference. We aren’t horses. This argument is frequently used in dog training, but also in horse training as well. And while I’m not saying we should completely disregard inter-species communication in regards to animal training, I AM saying just because they do it doesn’t mean it’s “natural” for us to do it.
It’s vital to remember we are not that animal’s mom... or a herd member. No matter how you try to walk, talk, and act like a horse you will never be a horse. You can not give that horse something it’s mother or herd mates give them, and that’s the inherently positive aspect of being with “your own kind”. This is especially critical in social species, like horses. They are genetically designed to seek companionship of their own kind. It’s how they stay alive. Just the mere presence of another horse is positive for the horse, even if that other horse is rather rude and aggressive... it’s better than being separated from their own kind. There are many great ways to condition your horse to enjoy your presence, and I’ve met many handler/horse teams where the horse gladly leaves the herd at the request of the human, but just because you have a great relationship with your horse doesn’t mean your horse thinks you’re a horse. Punishment from you is worlds different than punishment from another horse. When it comes from another horse it’s natural inter-species communication, when it comes from you (no matter the method) it’s not “natural”, it’s not the same.
Myth #5 It works for me and my horses, it’s fine.
Does it? I mean, technically punishment DOES work. But it may not work the way you think it does. Punishment is highly rewarding to the punisher (the handler/trainer/rider in our case). Because the punisher receives instant gratification when the behavior stops. We say to ourselves “Yes! It worked. Good job me” and we go about the rest of our lives feeling rather successful and accomplished. This ALSO means we are highly likely to repeat this same behavior (punishing) again in the future, since it “worked” the first time... and... the more often it works the more we do it. But why does it work? Punishing a behavior works because living beings are pre-programmed with self preservation instincts. When something we do hurts, we stop. When we go somewhere and we get scared, we leave... and so on and so forth. Punishment acts upon this programming to suppress/stop specific behaviors by triggering self preservation in the animal. Horse bites, you inflict pain, horse stops. No harm done and problem solved right? Yes, and no. Temporarily the behavior is stopped, so in that way it did “work”, but the problem is that the original cause of the behavior is not resolved.
For example, the horse bit you because the cinch hurt, you hit the horse, the horse moves it’s head away but is still not happy about the cinch and the cinch still hurts. Problem behavior is temporarily fixed, handler feels good about themselves for fixing “disrespectf