Horse Training Is A Matter Of Respect And Trust

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A few weeks ago I received a letter from a Horse Journal subscriber who disagreed with the theme of my March issue article ?Effective Training Means Being Like The Alpha Mare.? So this week I'm going to reply to her comments.

I think that Lucy Maynard, of Clifton Park, N.Y., and I are looking at the same issue from two opposing angles. it's a bit like both of us looking at the same glass of wine sitting on the counter, but one of us seeing it as half-empty and the other seeing it as half-full.

Ms. Maynard writes: ?The purpose in working with our horses on the ground and under saddle is to build the horse's confidence, cooperation, trust and respect. By investing in this process, a partnership and relationship is built between the two. In working with horses in this manner, the horse learns with positive reinforcement, rather than punishment or negative reinforcement.?

Yes, I agree completely. This is the ideal.

She continues: ?Alpha Mare: The term, as used in this article, could easily be misconstrued to mean ?dominance over the other.? Often times, the Alpha mare is not the leader of the herd; she alerts the herd to danger; however, the herd chooses the horse to be the leader who they trust and respect. Humans should not act like an alpha mare; they should act with benevolent leadership in the spirit of cooperation. Ask yourself who would like to follow--a benevolent leader or an alpha-like person'?

She then adds: ??If we slap, pull on the lead rope for control, yell, or scare the horse in any other manner, we demand obedience through instilling feat, rather than earning it in a positive manner. Hitting, slapping, using the whip for punishment, is never acceptable. ?If the horse misbehaves, there is a problem with the relationship between horse and handler.?

These second and third paragraphs are the crux of our differing viewpoints. Ms. Maynard?s first paragraph expresses the ideal, but life doesn't exist in an ideal world of perfect horses in an always-peaceful environment. We have to teach horses to live in the real world, and sometimes we have to be assertive about that.

Similarly, we have to teach children to say please and thank you, to clean up his place after dinner, to look both ways before he crosses the street, to not touch the hot stove, to do their homework, and to respect other people. Sometimes it's just a gentle verbal reminder, and sometimes you need to invoke serious consequences.

But horses aren?t children: They don't speak our language and they can seriously hurt us (and each other) with their actions or reactions. So sometimes you simply must use more than a calm voice or a nudge?a chain, a whip, your hand or a loud voice?to get their attention and to regain control and their respect. These aids certainly should not be used as punishment in prolonged fit of anger, but they can often be essential in the reprimanding of a misbehaving horse. You cannot allow a horse to bolt, kick, bite, rear and strike or similarly misbehave. And the predictable use of these aids for serious misbehavior is, I believe, a building block of horses? respect for us as their trusted leaders.

That assertion coincides with my belief that our aids?on their backs or on the ground?should be as light as possible, but as strong as necessary. Any aids you apply must have the desired effect. And, if they don't, you need to increase the intensity until they do. Then you soften or cease the aid?that's the reward for the correct response.

Similarly, I do not fully agree with Ms. Maynard?s assertion that, ?It is our responsibility to learn the horse's language, not the horse's responsibility to learn ours.?

At its root, training is about teaching the horse to understand our aids or signals and respond correctly to them. Certainly we have to learn to read what their movements and body language are saying, but training is teaching the horse to understand our commands (our language), because these commands are sometimes necessary for his safety and for ours.

Ms. Maynard and I each believe that horses behave and perform for us because of a trusting relationship. She believes that is because we allow them to be our equals in the decision-making. I think this is as faulty as seeking to parent by being your child?s best friend. I believe that our relationship with horses should be built upon their respect for us as a trustworthy leader. Yes, just as with children, we must respect their individual needs, abilities, strengths and weaknesses, but they trust us only if we don't lie and don't give them confusing messages. If horses don't understand us, then they can't trust or respect us.

Here's my Bottom Line: Horses are big, powerful animals who simply must respect us, on the ground and on their backs. When we command, ?jump? (or ?whoa? or ?move over?), their only response can be, ?Yes, sir, how high'?

I pride myself on the relationship of mutual trust I build with my horses, but it is based upon them understanding that I'm the benevolent captain of our ship.