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  • Writer's pictureLouise Stobbs

Setting clear boundaries is a kindness

I went through a bit of a weird time with my horses when I first moved towards more ethical training. I felt so guilty about how I’d trained them before that I let the pendulum swing too far in the other direction and I wasn’t giving them clear enough boundaries. I was so desperate to make sure my horses liked me and didn’t associate me with stress that I actually just confused them and made them anxious because I wasn’t being clear and they didn’t know what was expected of them.

I absolutely do not believe that a horse needs to respond to my every ask with speed and military precision, nor do I think its a problem if a horse says no when we are asking them to do difficult things. What they do need to do however, at the bare minimum, is be safe to manage in their day to day life as they have to live in our world. They need to be safe to lead, and stop, wherever I ask them to (within reason), be okay with their legs and feet being handled and able to cope with being examined by a vet. This is the absolute bare minimum for any horse, even those just living a retired/non-ridden life.

Many horses are going through life just coping, we are very rarely taught to notice the little communications and therefore we ignore it, we miss that release, we miss that little softening, then we create a shut down horse who is ready to brace as that’s all he knows how to do. It becomes a vicious cycle of yanking and pulling and kicking while labelling the horse “numb” and “rigid” while you convince him the right answer is to continue being just exactly that.

When you have one of these shut-down horses and you start moving towards more ethical training, you can end up stuck, feeling like you can’t actually get them to do anything without being “mean”. They have learned to cope with huge amounts of pressure by switching off and ignoring it, if you ask softly you’re going to get nothing. So what do we do?

We reward or release for the smallest try. The easiest example I can give is asking the horse to step back, I will apply an appropriate ask and if the horse even shifts their weight back, they don’t even need to move a hoof, I will release (or reward if I am using positive reinforcement). If we aren’t greedy, very quickly you will get a softening and will have the horse backing up easily from that soft ask. If you go in hard and demand the horse move back quickly and don’t quit until they have, you might be getting compliance quickly but you are creating brace.

If your horse is so shut off that you can’t seem to get them to budge at all, my first recommendation would be to use positive reinforcement training to change their associations. If using food rewards is not appropriate for your situation, you need to find something just irritating enough to get the horse to try, and release for the tiniest try, even if this has to look a bit outside of the box (maybe scraping a stick on the ground or using a rope to create a visual pressure), and no I do not mean doing anything to cause pain or terrify the horse. As long as you are consistent and good with your timing your horse will very quickly start to go off a light ask and in turn start to feel better in themselves.

It is not normal or healthy for a horse to be so braced in their body and it is not a kindness to leave them stuck that way, especially when we are expecting them to participate in ridden work and carry a rider. It is worth noting that horses who struggle with this kind of thing often have underlying pain/discomfort issues which will need to be addressed alongside training. 🐴

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