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Horse Training or Abuse?

The horse world has its difficult issues, and Horse&Rider has never shied away from delving into them to bring facts and informed opinions to its readers. For this piece, an in-depth discussion of questionable training practices, author Jennifer Forsberg Meyer interviewed a variety of experts to set forth how and why abuse happens, plus what owners can do to help prevent it from occurring.

A 3-year-old stallion stands tied in a small, covered enclosure. His halter is hooked to a chain hanging from a rafter. The tether raises the colt's head and neck to an awkward level; he almost appears to be on tiptoe. He tugs against the restraint, half-rearing and shuffling his feet, trying to ease his discomfort.

The colt will be "hung" like this, away from food and water, all night. In the morning, body-sore and exhausted, he'll put up much less resistance when his schooling resumes.

The person riding him may call this a necessary part of training. Others would call it abuse.

Ordinarily, "horse abuse" conjures images of neglected backyard animals starving or thirsting to death. But there's a subtler kind. It's closer to home, and harder to think about. It happens to well-bred show horses, at the hands of those charged with their care. It occurs when the desire to win--or otherwise achieve a training goal--overcomes the dictates of fair play and humane treatment.

Sometimes we fail to recognize it. ("It's just training.") Sometimes we justify it. ("Everyone does it.") Sometimes, incredibly, we inflict it ourselves, or cause it to be inflicted by unrealistic demands.

Is such abuse inevitable? The horse is one of the most willing and trainable creatures on earth. The human is the most intelligent and creative, and supposedly the most empathetic. Shouldn't we be able to persuade horses to do our bidding without abusing them?


Here's why some think not--and what you can, and should, do about it.

What's Cruel?
Defining abuse in horse training isn't as easy as it might seem. We'd all agree that proper discipline of a horse is OK, while maltreatment is not. But which is which? Swatting a horse that presents his rump to kick is clearly not abuse, while administering a 90-second "horsewhipping" undeniably is. But what about all the gray area in between these extremes?

For the purposes of this article, we'll focus on measures that most horsemen can agree are, by definition, abusive.

These include:

  • Hang-tying to break down a horse's resistance and promote a lowered head carriage (by exhausting the neck muscles).
  • Riding or longeing to exhaustion (far beyond the length of time needed to "get the fresh out").
  • Excessive spurring, especially with so-called "rock grinders" (extremely sharp spurs), causing bleeding and/or "spur dents" (indentations in the cartilage between ribs).
  • Excessive jerking on the mouth, especially with a severe bit (such as a super-narrow-gauge twisted-wire snaffle), causing injury to the tongue, bars, or lips.
  • Excessive jerking on the lead shank, especially when a chain is used over the face or in the mouth, causing injury.
  • Excessive whipping or beating, from the saddle or the ground, causing terror or injury (thrashings that represent an expression of anger and frustration rather than a measured attempt at discipline).
  • Hitting about the head, especially with a solid weapon.
  • "Bitting around" for excessive periods (where a horse is left to stand for hours with his head tied around to one side, then the other, to enforce flexibility).
  • Withholding food or water to create submissiveness. (Cutting back on the grain ration of a hot horse is OK; starving a horse into weakness is not.)

Obviously, such measures aren't the norm in today's Western horse world. Yet they may be more pervasive than we'd care to think.

"There definitely are trainers whose philosophy is to win at any cost," attests Charlie Cole, a multiple world-champion Quarter Horse trainer based in Texas. "Not many people will resort to the worst abuses, such as riding a horse to complete fatigue or hitting one over the head with a bat. But, believe me, it does happen in extreme cases, and owners need to be made aware of it."

The Roots of Abuse
How does someone who ostensibly loves horses (or at least chooses to make a living or pursue a hobby with them) come to use such methods? There's no simple answer, and typically many factors are involved. They may include:

Pressure. A trainer's financial well-being often rests on his or her ability to win in competition. This can lead to cut corners and overstepped boundaries. Overly demanding owners add to the dilemma.

"Some clients have a must-win mentality," notes Cole. "They don't care what you do as long as it seems to ‘work.' But it's not worth it to me--no one can pay me enough to abuse a horse."

Big-money futurities--which require so much of the youngest, least-experienced horses--put further pressure on trainers. Abuse may become a means to "get the job done" in the limited time available before a major event, and to make sure a young animal is "calm" enough to perform.

Weak training skills. Abuse is sometimes the last resort of trainers who've run out of ideas. "It helps to have a lot of ‘tools' in your toolbox," observes Sandy Collier, a world-champion reined cow horse trainer based in California. "If you try something several times and it's not working, it's your responsibility to figure out how to present it differently to the horse so it will work.

"Losing your temper and punishing in anger is counterproductive," she adds. "It just creates fear and more resistance, which can then lead to more abuse."

Posted in Behavior, General Training, Horse Care, Rescue & Welfare, Riding & Training, Tips, Training, Western | | 7 Comments

7 Responses to “Horse Training or Abuse?”

  1. hidden farm says:

    “What wins in the show pen becomes the standard, regardless of what the rulebook says.”

    This statement is so right. I see abuse at almost every show I attend. English riders trying to get their horses deep into the corners will yank on their outside rein incessantly where the judge cannot see. Western riders bang the horse in the mouth every other step to get his head down…many times way below what the AQHA rule book states. Rule book says the ears should be level with the withers. I see horses with their noses almost to the ground and those horses get the blue ribbons from the ignorant judges. Not to mention the 4 beat canters and jogs that look like the horse is dead lame!

    It’s up to the judges to make some changes for the benefit and safety of the horses!!!

  2. Daisydlx says:

    Saddly enough, I personally know a trainer who currently uses some of the methods listed in this article. She lives in a remote area, so the choice of trainers is extremely limited. Early on in my horse career, my horse fell victim to her “training” methods.” When she didn’t get the results she wanted, she told me she was finished with him, as he was “not her kind of horse.” Her kind of horses, of course, were the ones she was breeding and selling. My once even-tempered gelding became difficult to handle, and very tense. It turned out that she was feeding him straight alfalfa and keeping him in a stall all day, except for the couple of hours he was out for training. It made him so “hot,” that he couldn’t focus on his training, which elevated to the abuse level. It was only after I sold him back to his previous owner that I learned what had happened. My naivety was my downfall, for both my horse and me.

  3. ladyreiner says:

    Cris Cox has said it best, “When a rider loses their patience, it means they’ve run out of knowledge.” So true! There is no room for anger in training or coaching.

  4. icy says:

    I have quarter horses and have been to many shows. The things I see just disgust me. I can’t even watch the warm -up, (especially western). I think there should be some unidentified person monitoring trainers at the shows. If they are doing it at the shows, you know they are doing it at home. The associations need to step in and do something, checking horses mouths, checking for spur cuts etc.You can”t make a good mover out of a bad one.

  5. This is sadly to true. I am a young rider but have witnessed a lot of signs of abuse at the shows I’ve attended. When things aren’t working out on a horse, people immediatley blame it on the horse, No, it could NEVER be the riders fault! That is what makes being a horsewoman so irritating. You see all of these other riders who are there at shows to win and they are on the horse for every little mistake, or when the horse misbehaves they blame it on everything other than themselves. Oh, maybe its the footing, or oh maybe that other horse is a distraction, or oh maybe so and so is having a bad day. Obviously, even if it’s a professional judge, people aren’t going to want to listen to advice on how to handle their horse. They won’t want to be told how to do their job but sadly, that’s often times just what they need. To the SPCA animal abuse and neglect is taken very seriously and horses are seized quite often, but a lot of cases go unnoticed. Many horse farms are far back and hidden to the public eye so that any apparent signs of abuse will go unseen. The only way the SPCA will know about any of these is from call ins from concerned observers. I just wish more people had the nerve to speak up the the owner themselves or to an operation like the Spca.

  6. koochalaba says:

    I never ever have any trainer work with ny horse unless I am standing there watchingthe training. Trainers are less likely to abuse a horse with the owner there.

    I am a certified dog trainer and a few years ago I was sick to death of bad training advice for my horse. I asked myself what I would do if this was a dog. I am an advocate for positive reinforcement type training. It is based in science, it works and the animals are happy. With positive reinforecement there are no forced based methods and no harsh training tools used.
    I started clicker training my horse! It worled wonders and all of his ground manners are now wonderful, including trailer loading. Positive reinforcement is the best way to train any animal. You can even train them under saddle using the clicker. Best of all, the horse is happy.

  7. Spirit Horse says:

    Well, just how many people are ‘really’ interested in stopping the abuse of the competitive horse in the training and in the competition?
    AQHA is really not interested, NSBA is dragging their feet, and USEF sees no abuse, hears no abuse,so they do not have to talk about any abuse.
    You want to really help make chanes then contact me direct at with the subject line abuse.

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