Monday, February 15, 2010

Punishment - why not to use it


Now I am all for discipline (not to be confused with frustration, aggression, or punishment – for a very accurate depiction of “proper” discipline, check out Cesar Milan’s first book Cesar's Way; I feel he describes it more accurately than I could ever attempt here), however I have to say that after years of working with horses the “traditional” (for lack of a better word) way, I have found punishment to be much less effective than boundaries (discipline) and earning a horse’s respect.

Another two inter-related factors that play a decisive role in my refusal to punish a horse are the following:
Dignity – horses are “beings” too, much like us, with their own thoughts, feelings, and desires. Who are we to impose ourselves – our wants, needs, feelings, desires, and thoughts upon another being, what gives us the right? I honestly believe that it is very integral to a horse’s training/development/well-being to preserve their dignity. Rather than “making” a horse do what we want, we can “ask” them to do what we’d like to. We can take what they give us and mould it until we have what we want. In this fashion, we proceed at the horse’s pace (which, if you treat the horse with respect and earn the horse's partnership, occurs at a rather rapid pace) and according to their needs and desires as well. By “earning” a horse’s respect and trust and by preserving their dignity, we also create a partner who then wants to do as we ask, rather than forcing it upon them. For example, rather than stripping a horse of its dignity as we strap it down with all sorts of gimmicks and training devices to teach it collection (which, if done in this fashion, will likely be “false” collection anyways), we can instead encourage the horse to work from behind and eventually collect, through exercises and gentle guidance. In this fashion, the horse will also try harder. As prey animals, a horse will naturally want to do the opposite of what a predator (us) demands; if we earn a horse's partnership however and learn to work with the horse, the horse will offer up much less opposition.
Respect – I think to have utmost respect for a horse is to allow them to be a partner rather than a prisoner. It is to understand what motivates a horse, what they want, what they need, and to cater to them as they also cater to us. In a partnership, either partner should be permitted to offer up a suggestion or ask a question, and have the other partner listen and respond appropriately. An example: perhaps if I do a little liberty work with my horse (this does not mean every session, but at least every once in awhile) and allow him to move about freely and make the decision himself of whether to be with me or not rather than forcing him to be with me through ropes, perhaps he will instead choose to be with me. Maybe if we do a little of what my horse wants to do one day, he will do a little of what I want later, or the next day. In a partnership, I can give my horse the respect of having a say in what or how we do things – in doing so, he is therefore more likely to want to do things I ask. In a partnership, I give so that he can give.

On the other hand, it is also our responsibility to develop a horse to the extent that it can be a better horse and a better partner – respectful, trustworthy, “obedient”, calm, brave, smart, polite, and “centered” (“balanced” emotionally and mentally). In doing so, we have to set boundaries but also give the horse a fair chance to react. One has to possess assertiveness but also act in a trustworthy manner. When we allow emotions to get the better of us, we lose all respect and represent unstable leadership to our horses. This is the problem with punishment – it is usually accompanied by emotion (anger). While the actual kick or slap to the horse might not hurt the horse (this IS a 1,200 lb animal, after all) the actual action is what can ruin the trust and respect of a partnership.

Punishment, by contrast, can bring about one of two things in a horse: retaliation and resentment, or fearfulness. It can bring about the aforementioned in an extreme fashion, or, with a very tolerant and balanced horse, it might not be overly visible. However take all the ropes off that horse and you will see what you truly have – if you can still do all the things on the ground and under-saddle at liberty that you could do with ropes on the horse (and not because the horse is a push-button, shut-down robot, but because the horse is truly interacting with you), you’ve got a partnership. This is not to say that punishment does not always work, just that it is often not the best way of going about things and that it usually does not work or last, because the root of the behavior that invoked the punishment is not addressed (ie. why the horse did what it did) and it does not serve to earn respect or trust (in fact, it can remove either). You might have a good partnership and bond with your horse that includes punishment even, but it could be better without it (in my experiences). In the horse who tends to be RB, the horse will simply view you as the predator you are, and an unpredictable, untrustworthy one at that! The LB horse will tend to start some behaviors as a means of establishing dominance – your punishment is a retaliation that can possibly continue a game the horse has just started or it can lead to further retaliation and escalation. Our LBI is the one who taught me the ineffectiveness of punishment – I had finally met the horse who, when punished, would simply escalate the situation. Punish him and he would have either one of two reactions: he would physically attack you (kick, strike out, bite, buck, etc) or he would shut down and ignore you completely, refusing to move a single step unless it was in the direction of his pasture. Instead, I had to work my ass off at earning his respect, preserving his dignity along the way. When I did so, he finally started coming around, to the point where now, years later, he will do anything I ask of him without question, and happily.

This is not to say that horses do not need assertive, strong leadership, and boundaries – they certainly do. However everything needs to be done fairly and mimic the behaviors of a herd. For example, a herd member will never be standing dozing peacefully then suddenly explode and lash out at the nearest horse near him. Instead, if a horse is disrespectful towards him, he will lay his ears back, swish his tail, bare his teeth as he moves in to bite, then finally he will position his body and bite or kick – there are phases (even if they are done rapidly). So for example if I ask a horse to move, he knows that I am going to first point my finger or arm in the direction in which I would like him to move, then I will pick up my stick, I will wiggle my stick (making the movements bigger and bigger), then I will touch the ground where he is standing. If he is still there, he is going to hit the string that is coming down towards him, but if he moves off, the string is simply going to touch the ground – I am focusing on the spot rather than the horse. Pretty soon, he is simply going to move out when I point. At first, my phases will be slow and take a long time to go through, so that the horse has a lot of time to think and figure out what he should do, but as he understands what I am asking, I am going to request more and more respect, to the point where my phases come quickly. However I am not going to ask the horse to move out by pointing, then slap him with the whip (in punishment) if he doesn’t. While I will not punish a horse for biting me, I will definitely flap my arms or otherwise command respect and establish my space – the horse cannot bite me if it is not in my space. Then I can move on to earning the horse’s respect or trust – the root cause for the bite. For the most part, if you ignore the undesirable behaviors and reward the desired responses (through rest or another motivation), in combination with earning a horse’s respect and trust, you can gently mould your horse’s behaviors to create a balanced partner – without the use of force and punishment.

I find a great deal of owners use punishment because “it works” for them. It achieves what they desire. While I do not feel that it (punishment) allows for an optimal partnership, perhaps they feel what they have is good enough – and with the average horse, punishment “works” (to an extent, on the surface). However the problem then arises when you meet the horse one day on whom punishment does not work and only creates problems. Some extreme cases:


Our LBI, which I have already previously discussed: punishing him meant a massive war on your hands and no matter how forceful you got, he could (and would) get more forceful, eventually to the point where it was a 1,200lb horse pitted against a mere 130lb human. Punishment, with him, only increased his resentment and thus retaliation.


We acquired an abused RBI this year – a 6yo Paint gelding. While punishment was obviously taken to the extreme in his case, he remains a prime example of what punishment does, just at a higher and more visible level. He is extremely distrustful of humans; I was given him when his owner could no longer deal with his fear of everything and his turning his hind end towards her so that he could not be caught. The confidence and thus curiosity has been literally beaten out of him and it has been a process to bring that back. Obviously he was punished for whatever the original owner deemed “undesirable”, amounting to an extremely fearful and suspicious horse.

My Thoroughbred is a very high energy LBE who was never developed into a well rounded horse. The result was that at the track, he was anxious and easily stressed out. Of course being conditioned into a prime athlete and then cooped up all day, especially without teaching him how to “deal with his emotions” and be calm, created a horse who was wound up like a spring, ready to blow at any moment (especially in a LBE, who wants to move his feet)…which of course he did…often. His behaviors ranged from bucking at the canter because he was being held back, to jumping around on the ground because he had no idea what to do with himself. Of course he was then punished. First it was a chain over his nose, which soon progressed to a chain over his gums – in the interest of “control”. Being an LBE, he is also a dominant horse so in him, the punishment not only created a great deal of distrust I am still working hard to undo, but it also created rebelliousness and retaliation. On the track, he then learned to kick out at other riders passing by – not the horses, but aiming directly for the riders. On the ground, he kicked at people if they walked past him on the walker, and he would double-barrel kick constantly as he was walked around the shedrow. He was a real sweetheart in his stall but was ultimately very distrustful of, and disrespectful towards, humans. The result, when I got him, was bucking at the canter under-saddle, kicking at me if he felt trapped, and explosions under-saddle. If he exploded, there was no stopping him – he would blow up but then continue blowing up in an attempt to get the predator on his back off. I have worked uber hard at earning his respect and trust, and it is paying off – the only “vice” that remains is his explosions under-saddle, but even those are occurring less and less frequently, and only under extenuating circumstances; even now, if he does explode under-saddle, it is usually very small and contained – he “comes back to me” very easily and goes straight back to work…eventually they will disappear completely as well. On the other hand, I also “listen” to him though as well – if he is not yet sufficiently ready to do something, we work harder at better preparing him for it before re-attempting it. If I can read that he is over-excited about something, I don’t push it, and eventually we get it. He has learned that I won’t push him and that he can not only trust me (that I will not punish him), but that he can trust my leadership.

Although these are extreme examples, there are many more just like them out there. If these are extreme examples of “extreme” horses operating under “normal” rules of punishment, think of how it could possibly be affecting the “normal” horse. Good, better, best - never let it rest. Maybe it "works" for you, but maybe it could be better?

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