I have horses because I like them. I ride and teach because I like horses. I trained horses for people for many years because I like horses. I see them either as friends or as friends-to-be that need help.
It’s because I like horses that I care as much about the emotional welfare of my horses as I do about the way they work. I don’t want work to feel a chore to them. I don’t want my horses to feel work is a grind and something to dread. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how I can make the challenges of riding and training something that we can willingly do together with minimum stress and zero drudgery. To me, that’s as important as any of the cool stuff I might be able to teach them to do.
That is why training that deliberately sets out to make work seem like a burden to a horse, confuses me. I am not kidding. There is a lot of mainstream training that is purposefully designed to make a horse hate work. It is derived from the old adage of “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult.” I first heard this at a Ray Hunt clinic very many years ago, but since then it has been incorporated (in a corrupted form) into the teaching of a lot of trainers – both popular and unknown. I can think of a handful of trainers who largely base their entire approach to horse training and teaching along those lines.
The first time I was aware of this was at a clinic in the 1980s where the trainer was helping an owner load a horse into a trailer. The horse refused to take more than a couple of steps onto the ramp, so the trainer backed the horse out and lunged it in circles at high speed just outside the trailer. The horse whirled around and around for a few minutes and then was invited to load into the trailer again. The horse walked about half way in and stopped, so the trainer backed it out again and began sending it around like a satellite orbiting at the speed of light. After four tries at loading the horse, it finally stepped all the way into the trailer. Everyone was impressed at mission accomplished.
In another example about 6 years ago, a visiting clinician was assisting a fellow whose horse had bonded to another horse in the group. In order to help overcome the separation issue this created, the trainer had the rider allow his horse to wander of its own free will towards its buddy. Then on cue from the trainer, the fellow picked up the reins and applied leg to put the horse to work in close proximity to its friend. He worked his horse hard for several minutes, until the trainer told him to point his horse to the opposite end of the arena to see if the horse would willingly walk away from the second horse. The horse went a few steps and then drifted back towards its friend. The owner was instructed to make the horse work hard around the other horse once more. After about six or so repetitions of this exercise, the horse would finally walk to the end of the arena without looking back for its friend.
Then, of course, there is the all too common liberty round pen work where a horse that won’t be caught or hook on to a handler (or join-up) is chased around the yard until it decides being with the person in the middle is less stressful than being run around the perimeter at speed.
There are many more examples I can quote, but they all have one important thing in common. Their effectiveness in changing a behaviour relies on using work as a punishment for the responses we don’t want.
I am not saying that such a strategy is not effective in changing an unwanted to a wanted behaviour. It clearly works when it is done well. However, I believe there is a price to pay when we use work as a punishment.
I never want my horse to hate its job. When we want a horse to see work as something we do together and it feels okay, how can a horse distinguish when it is meant as a punishment and when it is meant to feel like two mates sharing a satisfying experience? How is a horse expected to feel comfortable about being lunged for balance and focus and also feel uncomfortable about being lunged for not loading into a trailer? How is a horse expected to feel okay about being directed around a round yard to build focus and relaxation and then feel bad about it when it doesn’t want to hook on? How is a horse that is looking for safety in another horse expected to feel good about us and working with us when we use work to trouble a horse?
I believe there is a lot of merit in the philosophy of making the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult. But the concept is applied too often too broadly and without an appreciation of the negative consequences of using work as discourager of behaviour. The risk of this approach getting in the way of a good relationship with a horse and a horse’s willingness to work is too high a price for me. There are alternative strategies that can be applied that don’t have the same negative consequences. These can be tried and experimented with if only people would not be so lazy and think a little more about the health of their relationship with their horse and less about creating obedience.
Photo: Running a horse in a round yard to convince them hanging out with people is a good deal is not the best formula for a good relationship in my opinion.