Horses Forgive Bad Behavior by Humans but They Never Forget


Seasoned and smart horse owners can tell in an instant whether the horse they are approaching has been handled, or mishandled. The most perceptive trainers, handlers and owners can read the subtle and often not so subtle nuances of equine language that indicate a clear welcome, a sense of uncertainty or a clear defensive posture. They then adjust their motions, attitude and behaviors accordingly in order to achieve the best outcome for both horse and human in the ensuing interactions. However there are also those who, despite years of lessons at the barn, a library full of “How to” horse books and even a genuine love for horses, remain clueless to the fact that horses will forgive humans for behaving badly or insensitively but they never forget how they have been treated and they will pattern their behaviors accordingly.

For example, at a barn recently, a teenage girl, laughing with her companions, decked out in a lovely equine monogrammed sweatshirt and knee-high leather equestrian boots approached her horse rapidly from the rear and then squealed in anger when the horse mildly kicked out at her with one hind leg. The girl walked into the tack room, grabbed a small crop and then proceeded to smack her horse on the rump repeatedly while she told the horse in no uncertain terms that he was not going to get away with his bad behavior. She then turned to her companions and said, “He always does that – he’s such a little brat.”

Even from a distance, it was clear that the horse had very low expectations of his owner, and that he was not surprised by her negative behavior. In fact, by his posture, he seemed resigned to it. After the horse was saddled, it became clear that he was going to faithfully carry his rider around the arena while her friends watched. The horse moved well for his owner, supple and moving off her leg commands but in his eyes, there was an emotional shadow and the shadow represents his mistrust of his owner.

This is a perfect example of a horse who continually forgives his owner for her lack of horse savvy in that she has clearly not taken the time to understand what it is that she has done to make her horse resentful or fearful of her. Instead, she “deals” with the problem using punishment; the horse continues to express its opinion, is ineffectually reprimanded and then the horse forgives her and is willing to obey her commands. However, the horse never forgets this punishment and it compounds his negative perception of his owner that she is not to be trusted. Thus, each time the horse owner initially approaches her horse, the cycle of kick and severe reprimand is repeated. In this case the interaction is mild but in cases of severe mistreatment the interactions can have dangerous consequences for both horse and owner.

What is missing in this equation is the understanding of why a horse would kick out in the first place. There truly is no such thing as a bad horse as all of their behavior is learned from their experiences with people. People teach horses the habits that are often labeled as “bad.” So for example, a likely issue in this particular case may simply be that this horse owner has not respected the fact that her horse may not like people rushing up behind it – this is not because the horse is being a “brat” this is the nature of the horse. Its head is tied, it cannot escape and as horses are essentially “food” in the food chain and humans are by biology if not character, “predators” the horse is by nature, defensive.

If this horse owner were to take the time to reframe her horse’s low expectations of her she would likely be able to change her horse’s behavior from “bad’ to accepting. By using methods of approach and retreat, by mixing up her tactics so that sometimes she approaches quietly from the front, or quietly from the side and at least temporarily without a gaggle of spectators her horse might come to better understand her behavior and come to trust that her intentions are in his best interest. However, by not listening to her horse’s opinion, which has been expressed in reaction to his environment, this horse owner will continue to be annoyed by her horse and her horse will continue to mistrust his owner.

It does take time to listen and to learn how to understand the ways that horses communicate but as renowned Natural Horsemanship guru Pat Parelli is fond of saying, “Take the time it takes so that it takes less time.” How many days, months or even years will the horse owner described here continue to interact negatively with her horse before she realizes that she must change her own behavior, in order to change his? If she simply took the time to evaluate her horse’s behavior rather than resort to punishment, she might discover that within a short period, she could spend more quality time with her horse and less time labeling him a “brat.”

Opinion by Alana Marie Burke


The Horse

3 Responses to "Horses Forgive Bad Behavior by Humans but They Never Forget"

  1. Sandy Wallis   May 27, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    I thought this was a very insightful and very needed article. The only thing I disagree with is the statement, “There is truly no such thing as a bad horse.” I could agree with, “There are very few truly bad horses”. The word “bad” is subjective, so perhaps you are using it in a different way than I perceive it. But I would use the word “bad” to describe a horse who is overly dominant or even aggressive. I would not include the horse you described in this article as “bad”, since as you pointed out, she was being defensive rather than aggressive. The biggest clue here is the girl said her horse “always does that.” That means her method of dealing with the problem is totally ineffective, so she needs to rethink the matter. If she happens to read your excellent blog, maybe she will.

    • Sandy Wallis   May 27, 2014 at 1:39 pm

      I look forward to reading more of your thoughts.

  2. Luke   May 27, 2014 at 9:11 am

    Very good article!

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