Horse Training – Punishment Vs Correction

Have you ever become angry at your horse? Of course you have! Everyone does. Either it's a bad day all around and the horse is simply the only living thing within a ten-mile radius, or the horse has been misbehaving so vehemently that he should be the one to take the brunt of your anger.

This is where it pays to know the different between punishment and correction.

A few years ago, I was sitting on the fence, watching two of my students ride. They were not in a lesson – just hacking their own horses – but I've always liked to keep an eye on my students during the week. One of them, a girl we're call Felicia, was becoming increasingly angry with her horse. She was working on lead changes, which we had been starting in lessons, and her horse simply was not picking up on her cues.

Finally, on about her fifteenth try, she snatched up her reins, halting the horse, and landed a resounding kick into his side with her right leg. It was so hard that the horse let out an explosive breath of air, jumped sideways away from the pressure, and Felicia, unprepared for this darting motion, fell off.

Felicia, as most teenagers do, jumped right up, not waiting for me to arrive. Seeing that she was alright, I caught the horse on the other side of the arena, then led him back to the gate. She asked me why I was taking her horse out of the arena, and I replied, "Until you can learn the difference between punishment and correction, you should not be allowed on a horse."

This might seem harsh, since Felicia was obviously frustrated, but I wanted her to learn a lesson.

In the wild, horses do not punish each other. You'll never see two horses gang up on a third to teach the outcast a lesson in manners. They do not vindictively bide their time until the right moment to strike; rather, they react instinctively as a correction. For example, when a stallion crowds a mare in the field, the mare nips the stallion on the neck or haunches to warn him that he is invading her space. It is immediate, no-nonsense, and non-judgmental.

An example of punishment would be poor Felicia. She was working hard at a training technique, and when she did not get her way after several tries in the arena, she kicked her horse. The animal did not realize he was being punished for his inability to affect a lead change; how could he have possibly connected the two incidents? Often, we mistakenly credit horses with human intelligence, assuming they know exactly what we want, and in turn, exactly what it is they've done wrong.

Correction, on the other hand, involves a positive or negative consequence directly related to the behavior.

In Felicia's situation, the horse did not understand how to do a lead change, or what she was asking. For that, there can be no real correction until he figures out what she's asking and then misbehaves anyway. We can not punish a horse for our own training deficiencies; we can only correct when they knowingly disobey.

For example, let's say that your horse refuses to stand while you mount. Let's take it one step further and add that this behavior did not start until a week ago. Every time you take him out to the arena, he walks off before you can get your foot in the stirrup. This is a negative behavior that your horse knows is wrong.

A punishment for this behavior – and an ineffective one at that– would be to slap your horse on the rump with your hand or with a crop. He does not tie the two behaviors– him walking and you hitting– together in his mind, and therefore it does not teach him anything.

The correction would be to sharply pull back on the reins, which he recognizes as the signal to stop. Then, you would go back to his head, let him stand for a moment and pet him on the neck. This is positive reinforcement for his standing. Then go to mount again, and repeat the procedure until he stands while you mount.

There are five basic rules for correction:

1. Be Quick. If you do not administer the correction right away, the horse will have already forgotten what his behavior was, and will not associate the two in his mind.

2. Be Purposeful. If you're correcting just for the sake of having something to do, or without a clear idea of your purpose, it's useless. Have a clear training purpose in mind, and work toward that purpose.

3. Be Consistent. Make sure that every time your horse perpetrates a bad behavior, you exact the exact same correction. Otherwise, your horse will be confused and will not learn whatever you are trying to teach him.

4. Be Appropriate. Slapping your horse repeatedly with a whip is inappropriate. Let the correction fit the crime.

5. Be Reasonable. This falls in line with the old adage: pick your battles. Your horse can not learn everything at once, and if you're correcting him left and right, nothing will stick.