University of Vermont AAHS

Is It Discipline or Revenge?

Jan Dawson
President, AAHS

[Reproduced from Caution:Horses, Vol. 2, No. 4, Fall 1997]

For many years, actually since my first Ray Hunt clinic, I have adopted the position that, other than for an aggressive act such as biting or striking or for simply not listening, the act of disciplining a horse does no good. This stems from the belief that the horse really does always think he (or she) is right and the absolute belief that, outside of tricks, a horse can only learn one thing and that is to move away from pressure.

To make this more clear it is necessary to define "aids," "cues," and tricks. The easiest definition is that a cue is a signal that is not self-reinforcing and that results in a trick. (Be patient, we'll clear this up.)

Let's suppose that I want my horse to turn in the direction that I point with my arm when I am on him. I point my arm to the right, add the left leg, praise him or give him a treat when he does it and pretty soon he will go wherever I point at any speed. However if I point to the left and he doesn't respond, pointing "harder" is not going to help. I must go back to my leg and reinforce the meaning of the pointed arm. The pointing arm is the cue; the leg is the aid. The difference is that if he doesn't respond to the leg, I can use more leg and he will respond.

To expand this principle suppose we have taught the horse that if he feels the left heel, he should immediately strike off on the right lead. Now if we touch him with the right heel and he does not canter, kicking him harder and harder with the left heel will, by itself, not result in a right lead canter. Will a beating help? Probably not because this is a cue, not a coordinated use of the hands legs and seat.

If we ask for right lead canter by bending our horse around the inside (right) leg and pushing him into a canter with the outside (left) leg or with the right leg while controlling the hindquarters with the left leg, we are using aids not cues. We are using aids because if the horse doesn't canter we can increase with strength of the aids and allow the aids to reinforce; themselves.

But what happens if one is using aids and the horse takes the wrong lead, or just trots faster? Will discipline help? Probably not. Here's why...

The only thing the horse can learn to do except tricks, is to move away from pressure. The reason he moves is to make the pressure go away. As long as when you apply the pressure and something moves, then you know that the horse responded. It may not be the response that you wanted. But if you analyze where your legs, hands, seat were in terms of what the horse did you will discover the adjustment that you need to make. How the horse moved will tell you what you did and allow you to make the correction. When you discipline the horse at this point it is only going to confuse him.

You applied the pressure, he moved away from the pressure and then you thumped him. The next time you apply pressure, he may not move at all.

That brings us to the only time I really approve of discipline while mounted. If I apply pressure and the horse does not respond, I will reinforce the pressure and, as long as anything moves, I am happy. Then I will start over. If, however, I thump on him for not answering and then continue to thump, I have passed from discipline to revenge and revenge is cruelty.

I did not originate any of these ideas, but I agree with and promote them.

In human coaching one needs ten "attaboys' to make up for every "whatta- jerk." The same is true for horses trainers and riding instructors.

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