Horse Training

How to discipline your horse like a proper horse whisperer

The language that we use can colour the way we see things, this is why I advocate being mindful of the language we use, especially around horses.

The word “discipline” can carry both positive and negative connotations, depending on the context and individual perspectives.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the definition of discipline is “training that makes people more willing to obey or more able to control themselves, often in the form of rules, and punishments if these are broken, or the behaviour produced by this training”.

Because the word is so regularly associated to punishments, it can evoke images of punishment, strict control, or authority figures exerting power over others. This can lead to feelings of restriction, fear, and resentment, causing us to associate discipline with a lack of freedom and autonomy.

When discipline is perceived as rigid adherence to rules, it stifles creativity, self-expression, and individuality. This can lead to a feeling that you have to conform and make you suppress your personal wishes.

Experiencing overly harsh and unjust forms of discipline can create lasting psychological effects that influence behaviour and mindset.

Because of this, I prefer to talk about desired and undesired behaviour, rather than speaking of discipline in relation to horses. Because training horses is really no different than raising children: you want to explain to them, on their level and in a way they understand, what behaviour is expected of them.

And just like with children, all emotions are acceptable, but all behaviours are not.

This means that you need to guide your horse and show him how to express himself in ways that make interactions safe for everyone. It also means you need to be very attuned to your horse and hear him when he speaks, not back him into a corner so that he has to shout.

Horses are innately social animals.

Adhering to social rules that maintain harmony is normal for your horse. And if you don’t provide these social expectations for your horse, you’re not meeting his species-specific expectations.

Horses have a complex social structure that involves the establishment of a pecking order or hierarchy, which helps maintain order within the group and minimises conflict. Even with the changes to the way of life of domestic horses in comparison to their wild or historic counterparts, their social needs haven’t changed.

In a typical herd of horses, you’ll find a dominant individual (often a mare) at the top of the hierarchy, followed by other members arranged in descending order of dominance. The hierarchy is usually established through a combination of body language, posturing, and sometimes physical interactions. They use pressure points to communicate each other and you can use them, too, for clearer communication.

The goal of every single member of the herd is to live in harmony with the herd, because the herd means survival. In the wild, and throughout their evolution, horses have faced predators, and being in a herd provides safety in numbers.

Horses in a group watch out for each other, and if one member detects danger, it alerts the rest of the herd, increasing the chances of avoiding and escaping predators.

As herbivores, horses graze on vegetation, and a herd provides access to a larger foraging area and a larger variety of food sources than a horse alone would have. This is particularly important in environments where food availability may be patchy or limited.

So, to organise as a group and ensure the survival of the entire group, horses have built-in programming to adhere to a social structure. And if you aren’t going to display and require behaviour that makes it clear to your horse that you’re the one who’s taking charge of how time, resources and energy are spent on a daily basis, he’s going to feel an innate need to step up and do it.

This is the behaviour which we humans then interpret as aggressive.

Horses and pull-back panic

And we label the horse as “misbehaving” and “wilful”, when it’s simply rooted in self-preservation and the horse is doing the best it can with the knowledge it has in that information.

This is also the crux during which the right kind of training makes all the difference. A horse doesn’t know desired behaviour from undesired behaviour in a human world without being taught and consistently being required to behave as per those expectations.

Horses don’t speak our language, so all they have to go on is what they see and how they feel. This means that horses don’t rationalise, they simply move away from discomfort towards comfort. And this is why we need to make it so that the desired behaviour is the most comfortable position/task of all, that our horses always feel safe with us, and look to us when they’re unsure of how to behave or react.

That’s how you’ll always have a horse that’s eager to work, a horse who wants to please you.

Note that there’s a difference between discipline and abuse.

Make sure that you correct your horse for the smallest things that you don’t want them doing, such as crowding your space when leading them. If you let the little things slide, they grow into bigger things.

And I’m going to suggest that there are two kinds of abuse:

  1. when a horse is punished with psychological or physical means, and
  2. when a horse isn’t trained in the first place.

Why am I saying that not training your horse is abuse? It isn’t directly abuse, but it can so easily lead to abuse down the line.

Because the one thing you should never do, is allow your horse to turn into a spoiled brat. This is something I see people doing when they go too far and don’t train their horse at all, because they feel negatively about disciplining their horse.

For your own safety, the safety of your horse, and the safety of anyone who ever comes in contact with your horse, you need to teach your horse how to function in a world run by humans, because should something happen, it’s the horse that’s going to face the consequences.

Setting horses up to fail is unfair.

And punishing a horse, whether it’s physical or psychological, is also just unfair. Because punishing a horse for giving you an undesired behaviour, is the same as you getting punished for getting the answer to a question wrong while you’re trying to learn something.

Punishment is never a tool to use when you want a horse to truly learn what you’re teaching them.

So, how do you discipline a horse?

I know I’ve given you the run-around to get here, but the short answer is:

You move their feet.

Because whoever controls the feet, controls the horse. That’s how higher-ranking horses in a herd control lower-ranking horses: they move the feet of the lower-ranking horse while simultaneously not giving ground themselves.

So, to emulate this species-specific behaviour, you’ll want to put on your best smile, dress yourself in confidence, do your time with the groundwork (so that your horse has a good foundation of skills) and learn how to make your horse move, while at the same time not moving yourself.

If your horse encroaches on your space or tries to run over you — and you yield to that by stepping back or getting out of the way rather than owning your space, making your horse the one who has to step out of and around your space — you’re never truly going to have a completely safe horse.

So, as soon as your horse displays unwanted behaviour, what do we do? We put that horse to work!

If your horse has the energy and inclination to give undesired behaviours, he’s got the energy and inclination to work. Make your horse yield the hindquarters (pick a number between 5-20 and make him do it that many times), back up five steps, walk behind you at a respectful distance and match your varying pace, pay enough attention to stop exactly when you stop and stand quietly exactly where you guide him to stand.

When you give him the gift of basic skills, you’re setting him up for life. Even if you end up having to sell your horse, you’ll know that you left him in better shape than you got him.

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