I was teaching a lesson recently that reminded me of something I do not often speak on nor teach. It’s the concept of disciplining your horse during a particularly difficult ride. As humans, we are driven to seek perfection. When we are taking a lesson, we are hoping the instructor on the ground will help us get a few steps closer to achieving that perfection.
It’s always a little disappointing when I am teaching and I see the ride not going the way I had planned. As with any teaching, you go in with a plan A and by the end, sometimes you have ended on plan Y. There’s no telling how a ride will really go, but it is my job as a teacher and trainer to format the ride in a way to where the end result is at least a positive note.
A very young (but very nice and very well-meaning) horse with a similarly green (but very hard-working) student were having issues. The lesson was off to a rocky start and because of life, the rider did not have a chance to lunge her horse before hand like she normally does. It was a bit chilly out, right before dinner-time, and because of the weather, the rider hadn’t had the chance to ride in a while. That paired with a 3 year old horse usually means it’ll be an interesting ride.
Her horse began pulling some shenanigans. Starting with trying to bite her feet while in the stirrups, then bulging towards the gate, refusing to stand still while facing in the general direction of the gate, then eventually leading to some crow-hopping and unappreciated playing.
My rider became understandably timid. Her usually dead quiet, dull, and relaxed boy was feeling his 3-year-old self and my rider became tense, defensive, and became afraid of allowing her horse to move forward which of course only promoted more crow-hopping.
She became frustrated, again completely understandable. But, she gave him a firm and aggressive yank on the reins. I encouraged her to breathe, sit heavy in her saddle (she began perching forward nervously) and maintain her connection and allow her horse to keep moving forward, marching, and to not block the forward motion. When she became nervous again, her horse felt stuck and gave another crow-hop; she instinctively yanked the reins out of frustration again.
By the end of the ride, we accomplished not what we intended, but another plan. We focused on keeping her horse marching and keeping his shoulders aligned (as he can be a bit of a wiggle worm, like most 3 year olds) so as to clearly keep a straight horse between her legs.
Reaction to discipline prompted this post. Here’s what I feel is appropriate discipline when you have a naughty horse, as elaborated above.
1. React out of anger. Your horse may have a bit of a cheeky side, but that’s no reason to aggressively lash out. Yanking, pulling, unnecessary harsh kicking, unnecessary spurring or whipping, etc., are all reactions out of anger. In this way, you utilize your usually positive aids as negative reinforcements. This can be confusing for the horse. Your horse does not have the capability of differentiating between a kick to go forward and a kick because you’re angry.
2. Work horses to exhaustion. Once you get past whatever hump you are dealing with, do not work your horse into complete exhaustion. I have seen this one too many times. A horse is being naughty, so the rider or handler lunges or rides the horse far past where they normally would as a form of punishment. I am a complete advocate of working a horse past its comfort zone to achieve what needs to be achieved. However, I am talking about the dripping sweat, heaving and panting, shaking legs, sort of over-working. This is not safe for the horse as you risk injury and harm by pushing the horse too hard without proper conditioning work prior.
3. Get off and give up. If you don’t feel safe and do not have a reliable ground eye, then of course, that is an acceptable time to dismount. As much as my inner self screams “DON’T GET OFF; FINISH YOUR RIDE,” sometimes it is the safest option to finish the ride from the ground. But, if you do have a good ground eye, if you are in a lesson, or if others are around to keep an eye an you, do not give up by dismounting. Though it can be hard, try and accomplish one thing during your ride. Even if it is nowhere near the objective you came out to accomplish, just aim to get 5 good transitions; 2 quality leg yields; or maybe just quietly marching around the arena at a walk. Whatever it is, make a plan and stick to it. Once you feel you have accomplished it with a passing grade, dismount.
Remember, some behavioral problems, if repetitious, could be an indicator of something larger. Ulcers, ill-fitting tack, incorrect tack, injury, overdue teeth, etc. are all possible causes of continuous misbehaviors. Ensure that your horse’s health and well-being checks out before addressing the misbehavior as a training problem.