Home » Riding and Training

Punishment & Correction

18 August 2011 No Comment

Punishment & Correction
By: Rhett Russell

There is no such concept as punishment to the horse. In the herd, if a horse is yielded out of his space by another horse, he doesn’t go away and stew on this for 10-15 minutes and come back mad and kick the other horse. If a horse is bitten by another horse he doesn’t go get a group of his friends and come back to “teach the other horse a lesson”. This is a human thing, we do this – horses don’t! If there’s going to be a confrontation, it’s immediate and going to happen at the moment of conflict.

Alois Podhajsky one of the masters of classical dressage put this in terms that best relates to the use of punishment with the horse: “The rider with high ambitions and little knowledge will be more inclined to revert to punishment than will the more experienced rider. He will try to obtain by force what he cannot achieve by the correct use of the aids as taught by the classical school”.

This doesn’t just go for English riders; this is true for horsemanship of all disciplines. If you have ever been to a horse show and seen someone hit their horse because the horse wouldn’t perform you’ll understand. If the horse isn’t responding to an aid or cue it’s likely the rider’s fault. How can you correct a horse for something you do wrong? Or doing what you asked – even inadvertently? Learn and watch what your body is doing, get riding lessons, check for proper fit of tack, and check for injuries of physical problems of the horse.

As a rule of thumb – would you ever hit your spouse and not expect negative consequences? The same goes for your horse. I can’t ever think of a good reason to hit a horse for the sake of punishment. I’ve seen many a farrier who will hit a horse with a tool if the horse won’t stand still. What’s the purpose of this? To make the horse afraid of the farrier or the rasp? How can you punish a horse for the owners lack of work with the horse on this issue?

Many people believe that they get respect out of fear from their horse. You know the type, they put the fear of god into the horse and they’ve got every training problem figured out. I can’t throw a rock in my area without hitting at least one of these type of people. I’ve been on so many trail rides where you’ll hear someone say that they’re going to get a bigger bit to control their horse. This is one of the most severe forms of punishment that you can deal to your horse. You may have more control but it will be because of fear of the bit, not out of trust.

Anger Management

Your horse picks up on your attitude. If you are having a bad day you are probably sending a message to your horse through your posture, tone of voice, movement, etc. Your anger, whether inwardly or outwardly expressed – will be picked up by your horse. This is a form of punishment that you may not have even realized that you were subjecting your horse to.

Take Control of your horse’s well being

I’m a private pilot, when flying I have control of the airplane. This concept is called “Pilot in Command (PIC)”. While in the air, I have complete control of the airplane, passengers, and the safety of all involved. This means that I have the authority and power to override even the Air Traffic Controllers if the situation warrants. In an emergency situation it’s not only expected that I do whatever is necessary to ensure the safety of everyone involved — it’s required. This is the same responsibility you have as a horse owner. If a trainer, farrier, vet., friend, etc. does something that goes against what you believe – get out of the situation as soon as possible. For example, if someone tells you that you need to hobble your horse, tie him, throw him on the ground and sit on his neck until he’s “calm” and submits — do anything to get out of this type of situation; make an excuse, tell the truth but get into a better world for both you and the horse.

So what’s a correction?

Many people will read this and think that a correction is the wrong term to use. When you are training the horse to do something, you are not trying to dominate the horse. A correction is the act of modifying a behavior, movement, or posture through operant conditioning; either positive or negative reinforcement. A correction can be anything from an extra ounce of leg pressure to a severe (7 on a scale of 10) use of the rein or popper to keep a horse from biting or kicking another horse or human. Use the appropriate correction for the situation, but no more!

Positive Reinforcement is using something the horse likes or enjoys as a reward for appropriate behavior. Because the animal wants to gain that good thing again, it will repeat the behavior that seems to cause that consequence. A good example is a scratch on the wither when the horse gives you an appropriate response.

On the contrary, negative Reinforcement is not necessarily a bad thing either – it’s just one way of communicating with the horse. Tightening a muscle in your calf or using your pressure on the rein are all signals that tell the horse what we want, and are all forms of negative reinforcement.

A horse that “mis-behaves” in a herd situation will be disciplined or corrected by another horse who is higher in the “food chain”. This correction (negative reinforcement) will be appropriate to the situation i.e. getting in another horse’s space may get bad ears or a shoulder yield, but probably not a kick right away. In order for this horse to get kicked he’s either going to have to ignore/miss the warning signs from the other horse or continue to push the confrontation to another level.

Karen Pryor who is a renowned expert on positive reinforcement training has written the best book I’ve run across (Don’t Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training) to explain the use of appropriate positive reinforcement versus negative reinforcement in training. She explains how the use of positive reinforcement works with people, horses, dogs, marine mammals, etc.:

“almost all traditional animal training consists of the applied use of negative reinforcers. The horse learns to turn left when the left rein is pulled, because by doing so it can ameliorate the tugging feeling in the left corner of it’s mouth. Elephants, oxen, camels, and other beasts of burden learn to move forward, halt, pull loads, and so on to avoid the tug of a halter, the poke or blow of a prod, goad, or whip.”

“Negative reinforcement can be used to shape behavior. As with positive reinforcement, the reinforcer must be contingent upon the behavior: one must cease “prodding” when the response is correct. Unfortunately, because the prodding, in whatever form results in a change in behavior, the behavior of the person doing the prodding may be positively reinforced, so that, as with punishing, the tendency to lay on with the aversives increases. Naggers, for example, may eventually get results, and this is reinforcing to the nagger. So nagging escalates, sometimes so much that the nagger goes on nagging whether the desired response has occurred or not.”

There’s a lot to be said for knowing when to quit (release pressure). I really like this train of thought because it illustrates one of my biggest pet peeves — people who nag/pester their horses and never give him a chance to do the right thing. And those that are so busy trying to complete an exercise that they concentrate only on themselves instead of the horse.

This is not to say that there is never a time when you shouldn’t get after a horse for inappropriate behavior. A “pushy” horse that tries to rub on me, may find a forearm or elbow in their way. I’m not going to hit the horse, but I’m also not going to let him use me as a scratching post.

The most important part of correcting a behavior is rewarding for the appropriate response. How else is the horse going to know when he’s done the right thing? Some people believe that the horse should “know” because he’s not getting reprimanded for doing the wrong thing. That may work, but there’s a better way. Many riders are quick to discipline, but find praising the horse as a sign of weakness or embarrassing — a horse can be rewarded with as little as a scratch at the withers or a release of the rein. On the flip side; some people don’t have the ability to correct a horse. They may be “too nice” and unknowingly let the horse walk all over them. These folks have no concept of what it takes to be firm and fair with their horse.

A correction also needs to be in terms that the horse understands. For example, if you are on a trail ride and the horse constantly goes into a trot but you want to walk, there are many things that you can do to correct this behavior. Which of these would you use?

A. Hit the horse.
B. Yank on the bit real hard.
C. Disengage the hindquarters.
D. Come to a stop, wait for the horse to soften, reward, then continue on.
E. Let the horse do what it wants.

To me the correct response would be D. Come to a stop, wait for the horse to soften, reward, then continue on. If the horse were to go back into a trot, I would repeat this exercise and let the horse “find” what I am asking for. It may take a long time before the horse “finds” the behavior that I’m after. That’s OK with me, patience is something that pays off big later when you work on other issues. This is by no means the only way to approach this behavior.

Rules of Correction

1. Be concise: Quickly correct and get on with what you were doing. Don’t linger or overdue it.

2. Don’t do it like you enjoy it! There is no score, there’s no winner/loser.

3. Have a purpose: Consider what you are working for. What’s your goal?

4. Look for the good, don’t focus on the bad: Learn to minimize or ignore the incorrect response and encourage the correct response. Be positive; question your “training attitude” and your trainer; If your horse support/peer group consists of people who firmly believe in the “spare the rod, spoil the horse” type of training – look for another trainer or group of friends. I believe that you can determine a persons “training character” by observing the ratio of Punishment to Reward when working with a horse.

5. Be appropriate: There may be a time to use the “big hammer” if the situation warrants, but don’t go into the training mode with the “whup-ass” attitude – save that for your brother-in-law and the (WWF) World Wrestling Federation.

6. Pick your battles: Know when you have the ability to follow through with something. Rather than flail away aimlessly with something that you have never worked through before or are having problems with — know your limits and abilities. If you have to call in professional help, DO IT! Even I have someone I call for help with tough problems. Most of all, make sure that you correct a horse for a response you are after, not for something you did wrong.

Maximize the use of positive reinforcement and minimize the negative


“The Complete Training of Horse and Rider in the Principles of Classical Horsemanship”, by: Col. Alois Podhajsky, Paperback, 287pp., ISBN: 0879802359, Publisher: Wilshire Book Company, Pub. Date: June 1972

“Don’t Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training”, by: Karen Pryor, Paperback, 202pp., ISBN: 0553380397, Publisher: Bantam Books, Incorporated, Pub. Date: revised August 1999

CAUTION: There is some risk involved in horse training for both you and the horse. Horses can cause serious injury. Be sensible and donêt attempt anything that is outside your comfort level. This information is intended to illustrate how we apply our training techniques, you are responsible for using this information wisely. If you donêt feel comfortable with your abilities or an exercise, donêt do it! Seek advice or assistance from a professional horse trainer. Stay on the “high side of trouble”.

Leave your response!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also subscribe to these comments via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.

CommentLuv badge