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  • Writer's pictureLouise Stobbs

You can set boundaries without being harsh about it

Here I am with another post that has been triggered by me stupidly watching a suggested Facebook video and making myself annoyed. The video was of a US based horsemanship trainer, the horse was stood quietly doing nothing on the end of the rope. The trainer explained how he had never met the horse before but he needed to “show the horse what he was about” straight away, he proceeded to harshly smack the rope and clip up into the horses face until they backed up. Absolutely no warning, no soft ask first, the horse wasn’t even engaged with him. He definitely showed the horse what he was about, he showed he was an unpredictable, stressful person that the horse shouldn’t relax around.

There’s a weird idea that you either dominate your horse or he will walk all over you and become dangerous and unruly. Just because someone talks about horsemanship and uses words like “trust”, “connection” and “relationship”, doesn’t mean what they’re doing is kind, nor does it mean that is how the horse is perceiving it. Next time you’re watching a trainer, stop listening to what they’re saying and really look at the horse, see if what they’re saying matches up. Learn to recognise the difference between actually relaxed or just shut down/standing still.

You can’t force relaxation, if your response to the horse not immediately doing what you ask is to correct them harshly do you think they’re going to feel relaxed around you? Standing still, being coerced into keeping their head down and looking quiet does not equal relaxed. If I started pushing and pulling hard on you until you sat down, pushed again every time you tried to get up and then when you finally stopped trying to get up I gave you praise, would you feel relaxed there? Or would you just feel defeated?

If I could get rid of one thing in the “natural horsemanship” world it would be getting horses to back up by “bumping” them in the face with the rope/clip. Anything that is causing the horse to throw the head dramatically is slamming tension into their body and sending them into a flight response. It is so counter-productive to have a horse react in this way, I spend most of my time trying to get horses to relax and put length in the neck so they can learn to work in a healthier posture, if they’re getting slammed in the face every time they make a mistake that is not going to happen.

You will often see people training like this and the horse will start rearing or leaping about, which the trainer then uses to show how skilled they are to manage such a “dangerous” horse, when actually they’re the ones who pushed the horse over threshold in the first place. The horse doesn’t need to go through so much stress and confusion if you just explain things to them quietly, instead of pushing them into mistakes so you can sharply correct them. But doing it quietly doesn’t make very good video thumbnails. 🤷🏻‍♀️

I’m not saying I never have horses become reactive during training, nor am I saying that I don’t sometimes have to be firmer than I’d like to, but it should not be the starting point or the norm and it certainly shouldn’t be escalated or punished. Backing a horse up sharply by bumping them repeatedly in the face is punishment. They always ask for so much, instead of immediately releasing when the horse moves one hoof back, they keep going until they’re satisfied, this is not good timing and feel.

When using negative reinforcement/pressure and release in training I aim to be irritating at worst, I would certainly never intentionally try to cause fear or pain and I would be mortified if I did.

My horses do not walk all over me, they are very light in the hand and even when they’re worried or upset I never worry about losing control of them, this didn’t happen by accident and it also didn’t happen by me being on their case like a drill sergeant. It happened through quiet and consistent training.

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