Do we put Horses Under Too Much Pressure?

Written by Wednesday, 23 November 2016 14:39

We may not like to think of it this way but most of us are taught to deal with horses through force- the application and release of pressure to achieve the desired result. For example, if a horse is jump shy and keeps running out to the left, we are advised to carry a whip on the left side and dole out a little tap to deter further avoidance. The idea being that the fear he has of doing something, like going past a scary object or going over a scary jump is outweighed by the fear/pressure from us. However in many cases this can have the effect of  reinforcing the horse's fear, of the jump or scary object as this activity then equals pressure or pain. This is a classic example of how we are punishing undesired behaviours through the threat of and the application of pain, and how this method can fix a problem temporarily, but it will never really overcome that horse's fear of jumping or going past scary objects.

Many equine behaviourist’s believe that ‘naughty’ behaviours like; running-out, bolting, barging, biting or kicking boil down to three very simple things - present or past fear, pain or miscommunication. When your horse is being asked to perform an action and he is punished if it is not performed, whether by using a loud, harsh tone, a quick smack on the withers or a smack with the whip, your horse is effectively being assaulted for being in pain, feeling fear or misunderstanding what you want. Either you, the handler are not giving clear correct signals or past experience has led your horse to react in a certain way.

We have come to believe that horses need to be led with a ‘firm hand’ or ‘they’ll walk all over you’. Now, I believe, that we approach horses in this way because we are the ones who are intimidated either by fear of being hurt or fear of failure and fear of what others think of us. But, if we can only realise that empathy goes a lot further than force in the equine world both horses and their owners will be a lot happier. Horses are naturally skittish prey animals and we need to gain their trust to give them confidence. So, the next time your horse doesn’t react how you’d like, think about WHERE this behaviour may have come from and try and think how you can change your approach, asking in a calm and clear way. We must remember to separate ourselves from our horse’s behaviour because it is never about us, it is a combination of instinct and past experience that have influenced the way they act. 

Do you think pressure and release is a force for good or evil?!!  Should pressure have no place in horse training or is it just a case of when you apply it, and how much?


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4 comments

  • Comment Link Gill Langridge Thursday, 24 November 2016 12:14 posted by Gill Langridge

    The ideal would be to train using positve reinforcement, but the equestrian world has a long way to go before this will happen.
    There are a lot of psychological problems caused by escalating negative reinforcement techniques, from conditioned suppression to learned helplessness. We do need to be mindful of our horses emotions as well as our own.
    Do we want robots or horses who are allowed to think for themselves - even if that means they can say "no"?

  • Comment Link Ellie Fells Wednesday, 23 November 2016 19:20 posted by Ellie Fells

    I think it is so important that every now and then we stop ourselves and ask how clear our aids really are. Sometimes in a high pressure situation (such as when you're trying to get a horse that won't load onto a lorry with everyone watching) it is easy to forget what you're doing and start shouting and getting cross, forgetting the horse has no idea what you want him to do! I've definitely been guilty of that in the past.

  • Comment Link Kaitlin Woods Wednesday, 23 November 2016 17:38 posted by Kaitlin Woods

    This is a good read and definitely worth thinking about more. I think this when it comes to a horse who is unsure of loading onto a trailer or lorry and people saying to just teach it to get on by using a whip...

  • Comment Link Julie Moore Wednesday, 23 November 2016 15:20 posted by Julie Moore

    Interesting, and yes I think it depends on the situation. For instance today my mare had a couple of episodes out hacking on the road today where she kept stopping and not wanting to go forward, and running back for no reason that I could discern apart from being a bit nappy on this occasion. So when she wouldn't respond to my leg, I gave her a quick tap and she went on again. In this case I fell she has zoned out and a tap got her attention back and just backed up my request. On the way home we didn't have any problems. On the other hand, this same mare used to kick when being ridden amongst strange horses, so we had to be very careful. People told us to 'give her a good hiding' but I knew she was doing it because she felt threatened in company. Smacking her with a whip we felt only added to her sense of fear, so we just tried at all cost to avoid it happening whilst gaining her confidence in these situations. Now she is much more relaxed and hasn't kicked out at another horse for a long time.