Horse owners that use riding crops or other “aids” as a means to punish what they consider the bad behavior of a horse aptly illustrate their own lack of horse savvy and create unproductive tension in the horse/human relationship. Further, by using punishment rather than, for example, pressure and release methods, these owners set themselves up for a rinse and repeat cycle of dissatisfaction.
Horse aids are meant to serve as communication tools, to express a command, encourage or guide a type of motion or reinforce an idea. They are not intended to be used on horses as a punishment tool. However, it is likely that every horse savvy person in a community barn has witnessed an owner using a riding crop, for example, to express their frustration, hostility or in some cases, just plain mean character on a horse. This type of uniformed behavior is hard to ignore and yet, those who have been in a community barn know that barn politics can get down and dirty. It is often the case that behaviors that are distressing to witness are overlooked unless there is a clear chance of imminent harm to either the rider, horse or bystanders.
Witnessed recently was a woman who brought a lovely, over 16 hh (hands high) bay thoroughbred into an arena. At first glance, it seemed as though the horse and owner were in harmony and set to have a pleasurable schooling session. However, just a few minutes into the session it became apparent that the old adage of looks being deceiving was in play.
Although it was clear that the rider had experience in how to hold her seat, hands and legs, she did not seem to have any understanding of what “pressure” means to a horse. When she asked the horse to move into a walk, she did so by digging her heels, spurs included, into the horse’s sides. The horse flinched and moved forward. After a bit, the woman said loudly, “Trot!” drawing out the center portion of her command until it seemed that she was celebrating a soccer goal rather than asking for forward motion. The horse flicked an ear but just kept walking. Without warning, the woman vehemently slammed her spurs into the horse’s sides, semi-screeched “Trot! (the unsaid words, “damn you” were implied) and the horse did indeed move into a startled and uneven trot.
Satisfied, the woman began to post the trot but just a few strides later, the horse came to a dead standstill. The next thing witnessed was the woman striking the horse in the neck, two to three harsh whacks with her riding crop, and then the verbal “trot!” was delivered again. The horse then braced its back, pinned its ears and seemed on the verge of a major blowup. It was only then that the woman hesitated. Had she not, she likely would have ended up on her backside and her horse, freed of the shrieking human irritant at last, would have bucked and kicked around the arena – forward motion it would likely have enjoyed.
Although this may sound like a terrible story to some, it is all too common in the horse world and the sad combination of put upon horse and ignorant rider results in a negative experience for both. However, there is a simple solution to the problem of a horse that has a negative perception of moving forward on command. Natural Horsemanship guru Pat Parelli teaches a method of pressure and release, a method that has been shown to be very effective with horses. As Parelli often states, “Pressure motivates and release teaches.” There is absolutely no room for punishment in this method and it works in virtually every situation with horses, whether working on groundwork, ground manners or while riding.
In this case, given that the owner and horse already had a negative pattern developed, the trick would be to undo the pattern first by rebuilding trust and accepting the slightest effort of the horse to accommodate the rider’s request.
When asking the horse to move into a walk, the rider should first bring up the energy in their own body, as in bring themselves to attention while looking up and forward in the direction they want to go. If the horse remains stationary, gently squeeze with the seat and legs while still in the eyes up and forward position. If that does not produce results, increase the pressure on the horse by gradually pushing the heels into the horse’s sides. None of these stages are to be released, but only built upon. So the rider brings their own body to attention, squeezes, adds heels if there is still no response, and then the crop can be used to flick the hind end of the horse – once, with a reasonable amount of pressure. If once is not enough, then repeat the flick at rhythmic intervals until the horse moves away from the irritant. If at any point during the gradual increase of pressure the horse even rocks forward, which can be called a “try,” all pressure should be released.
As Parelli has noted, pressure motivates but it is the release of that pressure that teaches. So in other words, if the horse makes an attempt to move forward, releasing the pressure used to get that result lets the horse know it did the right thing. The horse is motivated to move away from pressure. Hitting the horse on the side of the neck as punishment does nothing but teach the horse that the human is unpredictable, confusing, and clearly cannot be trusted. Asking the horse to move forward, applying reasonable pressure in fair stages and being willing to reward the slightest effort teaches the horse to move off of commands and builds trust because the horse knows that if it acquiesces, the pressure is immediately removed.
This method of pressure and release develops “lightness” in horses sometimes to the point where an observer cannot even see that a command has been given. The difference between a person who understands pressure and release and the woman, whose screeching and smacking behavior not only caused her horse to become resistant, but also broadcast to everyone within earshot that she had no horse savvy, is striking. Horse owners who understand that tools such as riding crops and spurs are to be used as “aids” in communication, not as tools to deliver punishment, are likely to have a much more harmonious and successful relationship with their horse, no matter what discipline they ride in.
Opinion By Alana Marie Burke
Lessons in Lightness: The Art of Educating the Horse by Mark Russell
Natural Horse-Man-Ship: Six Keys to a Natural Horse-Human Relationship by Pat Parelli