Q: Should I Punish My Horse for Misbehavior?
When is the right time to punish a horse: when he bucks, spooks or doesn’t respond to the aids I gave? As a rider, I don’t have a lot of confidence and am confused about the aspect of punishing a horse. Also, how do I punish him: smacking him with the whip or giving a sharp half halt?
Lisa Churn, Buffalo, New York
A: The most important thing to understand is that the concept of punishment does not apply to horses and riding. You cannot punish a horse when you have a bad ride or something goes wrong. Instead, you correct the behavior. Horses do not understand when they have done something that we consider bad behavior or wrong.
The first thing to do is to understand and try correcting the aids and signals you physically gave to your horse. Once you correct this rider-to-horse translation, your continuous conversation will become easier. When correcting a behavior, you must do so right away, not when the ride is over. This correction must be done a maximum of three seconds after the behavior. Any reaction just a few seconds after and the horse will not understand what he has done. In his mind you are getting after him for nothing, therefore damaging the relationship with your horse. The correction depends on the movement you are executing and the severity of the horse’s reaction or lack of reaction.
One of the first things to consider when your horse rejects your aids is that he may be in pain or discomfort. Many horses will object to a movement by trying to self-conserve. Maybe their back is sore or a leg doesn’t feel right. If this is truly not the case, make sure your horse is in front of your leg aids and going forward. Go back to the basics and work on upward and downward transitions, establishing your horse on the aids. Start with a forward response to the aids.
In some cases, a sharp half halt may be all that is needed for a correction. In others, it may be a tap of the whip or a sharp leg aid. The key is to figure out what you were saying to your horse and how you can make this a clearer message. For example, with a spooky horse your goal should be to have his focus entirely on you and not on the scary flowers next to him. This is not a punishment, but a correction of gaining his attention with inside aids and changing up your routine. Punishing the horse that spooks at the flowers with a whip or harsh aids is the quickest way to create a truly scared and unrideable horse.
Correcting the behavior can be done with small steps, too, such as ending on a good note, even if it is a small one. Is your horse backing when being asked to walk? OK, as soon as he steps forward and walks, reward him and be done. In order to improve as a rider and gain confidence in both yourself and your horse, always end on a positive note.
Jaime Amain is a USDF gold medalist. His dressage career began in Spain, where he trained under Juan Manuel Munoz Diaz. He continued his dressage education in Germany and after receiving his German FN bereiter’s license, rode for Klaus Balkenhol for nearly three years. He trains out of IDA Farm in Wellington, Florida.