Effective Training Means Being Like the Alpha Mare

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One way to learn about how effectively train horses is to find a pasture with a strong alpha mare and watch her ?train? the other horses turned out with her. Her demeanor is maternal, but her justice is swift and sure.

What if another mare blunders into her at the water trough' Before that mare even realizes her trespass, the alpha mare has delivered a sharp and instantaneous reminder to stay out of her space.

Sometimes these corrections are as simple as pinned ears and an ugly look, and sometimes they involve teeth and hooves. But no matter how harsh the correction, the instant the incident is over, it's over. She'll go back to grazing peacefully or making her way to the water trough, as if nothing had happened. She neither shrinks from her duty to keep order, nor does she continue to arbitrarily punish the rule breakers by chasing or harassing them when they?re doing right. And because she is swift, strong AND fair, her fellow herd mates live in peace and happiness. They follow her lead, and they trust her judgment. We can learn from her, because our job is to lead and direct our horses, and they must trust us.

BALANCE.? So, like the alpha mare, we must use discipline, for both their safety and ours. it's finding balance that's important.

Discipline must be three things:

? Fast?If you can't deliver your discipline instantaneously after the behavior you want to correct, you shouldn?t deliver it at all.

? Fair?The punishment must fit the crime. A horse standing in your space isn?t the same as a horse trampling you. A horse who is genuinely afraid of something isn?t the same as a horse attempting to avoid work. The amount of energy you put into a correction should equal the amount of energy the horse is putting into the behavior. A horse pawing in the crossties might get a clap with a hand and a vocal correction. A horse in the crossties striking purposefully at a passing human is going to get a lot of noise and a swift, harder slap.

? Finite?While sometimes you may need to correct a behavior by (to borrow a phrase from another trainer) ?making the horse think He's going to die for one minute,? as soon as that minute is up, it's over. Everyone should go calmly back to whatever they were doing, back to whatever was being asked of the horse when the bad behavior surfaced. You want to always give the horse the opportunity to give you the right answer. And, when the horse gives you the right answer, the praise should be as clear or clearer than the correction.

CRUEL OR INEFFECTIVE' A correction that isn?t fast, fair and finite can veer into the realm of cruelty. Please note, we have made no mention of a specific action that is cruel or not. That's because even a seemingly innocuous correction, like a yank on a lead rope, can be cruel if not done in a fast, fair and finite manner.

For instance, let's say a horse who?s eager to be turned out starts dancing around while being led and barges in to the space of his handler. The handler corrects the horse by immediately yanking the lead rope twice and growling loudly at the horse. The horse pulls himself together and follows quietly alongside the handler. When they reach the gate, the handler praises the horse when he stands quietly for his halter to be removed.

Contrast that with this: The horse dances and plunges. The handler does nothing for several minutes as the horse bangs into her and yanks on her arms. The handler suddenly explodes into a fit a screaming and yanking. The horse immediately backs down, but the handler continues to randomly rip on the lead rope as they walk to the pasture, even though the horse is now behaving. By the time they get to the pasture, the handler rips the halter off the horse's head while the horse is still walking, and the horse explodes away from the handler and gallops away.

Which horse would you rather have to turn out next time' Which set of discipline (utilizing the same methods) made sense to the horse, and which set was frightening and confusing' Which horse has built trust with its handler because it understands what's expected of him, and which horse is now wary of the handler because he doesn't know what the right answer is' That is the difference between cruelty and discipline, between fear and respect.

A METHOD TO THE MADNESS. When you're making a correction, there are several methods that can be used singly, or in combination, to let the horse know his behavior is wrong.

The first method is vocal or sound. This can be clapping of the hands, a growl, a word like ?QUIT,? or even a nonsense noise like ?AH-AH.? If you're riding, you can't clap your hands, but you can use your voice or even slap your crop on your thigh or boot to make a noise.

The second method is physical. This involves making physical contact with horse, either with your hand or with a tool like a crop. If you cringe at the crop, remember, two things: 1) The alpha mare?s correction at the water tank and 2) A tool is only as cruel as the person who uses it.

So, there is nothing inherently wrong with a physical correction, within limits. If using your hand, keep it open, no fists or punching. Placement of the correction should be near to the part of their body that's being used for the bad behavior (if the horse is cow-kicking at you with a hind leg, don't smack him in the neck). Stay away from sensitive areas?eyes, groin or ears.

Make sure the energy or strength of the correction matches what the horse is putting out. If the horse is pawing in the crossties, a light tap with a dressage whip on the forearm of the offending leg should be sufficient. If the horse tries to strike and bite at you, an immediate, and strong open-handed slap to the chest is appropriate.

And you must fit the correction to the individual horse's personality. Just like people, some horses are bold and brash, while others are timid and anxious. For some horses, a significant physical correction will be needed to even get their attention, while others will snap to attention with one sharp noise. A horse that is more timid will still need the occasional correction?that timidity doesn't mean that the horse should never be corrected?but you may need to modify the degree of correction.

MAKING THE RIGHT CHOICES FOR YOUR HORSES. How do you know if you're making appropriate corrections' How can you tell if someone else, perhaps your trainer, is making appropriate corrections' As always, the horses will tell you better than anyone.

Are the horse's unwanted behaviors improving' Does the horse seem calm and comfortable, or is he anxious and uncertain' Is the horse's training moving forward, or is it stagnant or worsening'

Similarly, do the corrections you see the trainer make seem sensible to you' Can you see cause and effect' If you ask the trainer to explain their process, is it clear' Or do they just say things like ?Your horse is stupid?'

If the horse is improving, eager to work and interact with you, then you know your horse is learning to make good choices in a way that makes sense to him.

When Behavior Turns Dangerous:?While there is never a time for corrections not to be fast, fair and finite--and corrections should never be cruel--there are rare times when a horse has acquired truly dangerous behavior that could get a human hurt or killed?such as lunging at you to bite, rearing, striking or kicking. When a horse has become physically, and especially unpredictably, dangerous to ride or to handle, we believe there are three parameters to guide you:

  1. ?No one but a highly experienced professional should be riding or handling this type of horse.
  2. ?While brutality is never acceptable, a horse who will purposefully harm a person is likely to end up dead or on a truck to Mexico. So, harsh correctional methods may be necessary to give the horse (and others) a chance for survival.
  3. These horses, sadly, often aren?t repairable, and as painful as it sounds, the kindest thing may be humane euthanasia. If that's undesirable, the owner must understand that retraining a truly dangerous horse can be like the adage about ?not knowing what goes into the sausage.? And, that, even if the horse does become manageable for the professional, he might never be safe for anyone else.

BOTTOM LINE.? Horses thrive on routine. They want to know where they stand in the pecking order and understand their job. Horses need boundaries. Without them, the horse will become alpha mare over you, and that's where trouble begins. If you don't establish and maintain boundaries, it's the horse who ends up paying the price, as He's continually sold farther ?down the river,? perhaps until he meets an unfortunate end.

So, if you're primarily the handler of your horse, put your practices under the same microscope?honestly. Are there things you avoid doing with your horse in order to avoid conflict' Then you need to learn to properly discipline your horse, for his safety and yours.

If you do make a correction, does the horse accept it and make a positive change' Or does your correction seem to make things worse'

If discipline changes need to be implemented in order to positively influence the horse's behavior, you need to decide if you are willing and able to make them. Training horses to become fun, enjoyable companions requires good instincts, timing and a willingness to take a page from the alpha mare playbook.

Article by Performance Editor John Strassburger.