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 “disrespectful” behavior, but the true problem is not fixed.... and how is the handler ever to know the cinch hurts the horse now? If the root cause continues, the horse’s behavior is likely to get worse over time, and the punishment will continue... at least until the handler uses enough punishment at a strong enough rate to literally “shut the horse up”. Congratulations, your horse now suffers in pain in silence.
For some equestrians this may be a shoulder shrug to them, but I’m going to take this deeper. Let’s say the cinch hurts because there’s a rib slightly out of place or a muscle problem... now the horse has been told to keep quiet, so it does, but it has to cope with this pain. Likely it’ll start compensating by traveling funky one direction or not lifting the back etc. Short term this could cause stiffness and frustrating rides, and long term it could do serious damage to the back or joints of the horse.. limiting their performance life!
So yes, punishment DOES work. But it has some serious downsides. Increased stress (remember the stress I mentioned in Myth #3? We’ve now added to it... possibly creating new and even more dangerous behaviors), suppressed communication, increased fear of humans, and so much more. Punishment comes with some very serious side effects that no horse is immune to. So while it may “work” for you, is it really “fine”?
Myth #6 Horses need boundaries, especially studs and colts.
This isn’t actually a myth. What’s a myth is the word “boundary” being used synonymously with “punishment” and the idea that young horses and studs require an extra amount of punishment and force to make them “less dangerous”. Sure! Studs and colts WILL need very consistent and very clear boundaries, but so do all horses, and a horse needing to be trained to maintain safe boundaries isn’t permission to use punishment! Punishment is just a form of training, boundaries are lines you create in your training that you do not wish your horse to cross or invade (usually for your own safety).
This is the same idea as personal space, you have to TRAIN the horse to understand a safe space between their body and yours.. they don’t just atomically know how to act safely around a human. If they did, it might be okay to use punishment, but they don’t. There are more ways than one to train safe boundaries, and punishment is the one that fails to teach the horse what TO DO...only telling them what NOT to do.
Punishment also has the negative side effects that we’ve previously discussed, such as increased stress, increasing fear responses, disabling trusting communication, and triggering learned helplessness (a state of mind that occurs when an animal is repeatedly subjected to an aversive stimulus that it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal will stop trying to avoid the stimulus and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation. Even when opportunities to escape are presented, this learned helplessness will prevent any action. — sometimes mistaken as being “bomb proof” or successfully desensitized)
Another way people phrase this sometimes is “manners”, “my horse needs to learn some manners”. What do you automatically think of when you hear that phrase? Personally, even though this isn’t how I train my horses to have manners, I know how most people do so I picture a person using punishment to back the horse up, use the end of the rope to chase the horse out of their space, or smacking the horse for biting or kicking. This form of training might successfully teach a horse to stay out of your space, but at what cost?
Myth #7 They are big! You can’t baby them.
Unfortunately there have been quite a few equestrians over the years that have created stressed, angry, dangerous, pushy animals from lack of consistency, boundaries, and education. This has lead other equestrians to blame the lack of punishment in the horse’s training as the cause of these behaviors and to make the animal’s size the reason they need more punishment. However, a horse’s size has nothing to do with how much punishment should be used during training or how training works.
Did you know that the exact same training methods we use with horses can and are used on the smallest of puppies to largest of whales? There’s a science behind the training of any species, it requires patience and consistency, it requires education and practice. No mater how big or how small the animal is, punishment is only one aspect of training and it’s not the same thing as “not babying” them. Even small children and puppies that are “babied” are difficult and out of control. The problem isn’t the animal or the child, it’s the adult human.
In fact, for an animal that has been trained without consistency and proper handling, punishment can create an even more volatile and out of control animal. With no consistency or “right answers” in the animal’s life they are likely to be stressed and frustrated, and if you start hitting them for doing wrong things you you’re likely to magnify any frustrated and pushy behaviors, creating even more dangerous behaviors!
One more aspect to this size argument is the animal’s degree of sensitivity, how large an animal is compared to yourself doesn’t change the sensitivity level of their skin, emotions, or trainability. Size has nothing to do with training whatsoever except in the fact that your personal safety is far more dependent on your OWN consistency and your OWN dedication to learning how animals learn when working with a much larger animal.
Myth #8 We have no other option
One of the biggest eye openers to me over the past years has been the lack of awareness equestrians have for scientific advancement in animal training. It’s like we’ve decided horses are completely different from.... orcas, turtles, goldfish, dogs, dolphins, sea lions, chickens, goats, sheep, tigers, elephants, lions....... why is that? If a zoo keeper can train a tiger not to kill him, using methods that don’t involve punishment, I can assure you that your horse can ALSO learn to not kick you without the use of punishment.
There are literally mountains of research out there about animal training of all species, doesn’t matter the species! We can train giant marine animals to do far more complex behaviors and “courses” than we ever train our horses to do, and we can do it without ever touching them with a whip, spur, rope, crop, bit, draw reins, chains, etc. In fact, if you were to walk into a wildlife sanctuary or a zoo tomorrow and see them kicking a tiger with metal prongs on their feet to get them to jump through a hoop or run faster you would be appalled! That’s a living being you’re hitting, yanking, pulling, shoving... punishing! All for your own gratification “Surely there’s another way!” You would say. And you would be right!
It wasn’t long ago that animals of all species were trained with harsh methods, so I’m not saying they’ve always been doing it better than us, and some still aren’t, but my point is that there IS another way. For a long time the equestrian community as a whole has been turning a blind eye to the science of animal training. As a collective group we’ve said “there is no other way!” while we hold fast to the old methods of pressure and punishment to train sensitive peaceful prey animals. Some have “tried” to change but either tried to do it without help, throwing up their hands when they hit a bump in the road, or they found out it was too hard to change so they went back to what they knew and what they knew worked quickly.
I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that doing things differently is easy, it’s never easy to change. Just like learning how to ride isn’t easy... just like being an equestrian isn’t easy. But I am encouraging you to not draw the “its too hard” line or the “its not for me” line at the part of being an equestrian that is most about the horse. I mean, that’s why we are equestrians right? Because we love horses? Don’t we owe it to the horse to constantly be seeking the least negative, least stressful, and least harmful form of training?
Final Notes -
Alright, alright, now you’re probably thinking “that’s all lovely and nice sounding Adele but my horse rears when I walk them out of their pasture.” Or “my mare bites me when she gets cranky.” Or... “My horse kicks when I go to pick up his hoof... I can’t just let him get away with that!” Well, first of all, you aren’t letting him “get away” with anything. (Unless you consider letting your horse use his only form of communication as “getting away” with something) But yes, we do need to have a way to communicate with our horses that we are fragile creatures that don’t enjoy being kicked or bitten. So let’s look at ways of doing this that DO NOT involve punishment in the follow up blog article to this one... Eliminating Problem Behaviors
Myths That Lead To Punishment II
more reading on the subject....
On Herd Dynamics and Dominance
https://www.youtube.com/user/eponatv/ (watch the Real Ethology Series)