Threats vs. Actions
November 7th, 2018

18 year old me with my horse looking at me

and saying, “Really? I don’t believe you.”

There is a certain school of thought in horse training that you should never hit, push, or otherwise use physical force on a horse. Although I certainly don’t want to promote beating horses into submission, I think the outcome of this “no force” training is often much worse than the force many people would otherwise use.

Since people are told they shouldn’t use force they often use fear to motivate their horse. There are several problems with this approach.

First, I think intimidation is much more abusive than a tap with a whip or a smack with a rope. Instead of the horse feeling physically uncomfortable, you are making him scared. This also makes relaxation impossible because fear is a constant tool used in training.

Another problem with this approach is that over time the horse will get used to your threats and won’t be as scared. As the horse’s fear disappears, so does his response. Once he decides you are no longer scary he will stop listening to your aides and will most likely begin to intimidate you. After all, this is how you taught him to interact.

In addition, fear is only a good motivator when you are the scariest thing out there. If something scarier appears, your horse will take over and ignore you.

Once you start down this path of using fear to threaten the horse into submission you have to use increasingly more fear to keep the horse motivated. Eventually you have created a monster horse that isn’t scared of anything and repeatedly challenges you.

Now you have a problem horse who will probably require a large amount of force in order to safely handle.

Instead of threatening your horse, warn him. The difference between these two is that when you threaten a horse you have no intention of following through or fail to follow through. When you warn a horse you stick to your guns and follow through with a consequence if necessary. The horse learns to believe you and takes you seriously.

If you watch a horse being worked that doesn’t believe his handler you will see that he is nervous and angry. This horse feels insecure because he cannot trust his handler. He doesn’t know what the rules are or what he is supposed to be doing because his handler in constantly lying to him.

If the handler follows through occasionally and then threatens the majority of the time the horse will be even more distressed. He will know there are consequences, but the handler’s inconsistency makes it impossible for him to understand the rules. Uncertainty throws the horse into full blown panic.

If the horse believes his handler you will see a much calmer, more engaged, and less angry horse. Even if the horse is being worked in a militaristic, respect based manner that expects him to act like a robot, he will still be calmer because he at least understands the rules and expectations. The horse may be disobedient and evasive because he dislikes his handler and his work, but he far better off than the horses in the other scenarios.

Looking at your options it becomes abundantly clear that you must take action instead of threatening your horse. No matter what your training ideals are, you need to first and foremost be consistently believable to the horse. Once you have mastered this, then you can work on catching things earlier and building the partnership you want with your horse. It is better to ask for something at the wrong time and follow through than it is to give up figuring you were wrong for asking how or when you did.

I know in a way this is overly simple, but it is a good starting point for most horsemen. It doesn’t mean that you can’t still have a conversation with your horse. You can always ask your horse a question or suggest something and wait for his response. If you are going to tell him something though, you need to mean it because threats only piss horses off.