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Horse Training: When Is Discipline Abuse?

Jennifer specializes in articles about horse training, care, and purchasing.

When does discipline become abuse?

When does discipline become abuse?

Are Some Horse Training Techniques Abusive?

These days, animal abuse has become an important social issue. Opinions on the matter range from those who believe animals are merely property and they can do whatever they like to them to the extreme views held by some members of PETA.

I personally have been attacked for stating that the use of a whip is acceptable under certain circumstances and I have also been ridiculed for saying I don't carry one all the time. So, some people draw the line in different places.

However, there may well be some good rules of thumb to follow on the matter.

Equine Psychology

To understand where the line should be, one has to understand horses. I had far too many dealings with a woman who believed (and convinced others) that horses had such thick skins they barely felt it when you beat them. She never convinced me, but she did teach many children to beat horses.

Horses are, in fact, very sensitive to physical contact of all kinds. Indeed, much of the communication between rider and horse occurs using the seat and legs. Horses respond quickly to physical discipline and physical reward. (If you really want to make your horse happy, try gently scratching the base of the mane about halfway down the neck—they love that.)

Additionally, horses have a surprisingly good memory. Studies have proven that horses remember people who treat them well and people who treat them badly. I have personally witnessed a horse definitely showing signs that he remembered that "So-and-so always has treats" when the person concerned hadn't been there for several months. Because of this, horses are almost as vulnerable to trauma as humans are.

For example, somebody I know had a multi-stakes-winning Standardbred gelding who turned into a beautiful hunter. He had had a long and highly successful career (he was only gelded for medical reasons), but then had a bad wreck on the track that resulted in the sulky landing on top of him. That horse never went in harness again; he was simply unwilling to be put into any kind of a carriage. Can you blame him?

Horses also do not grasp change easily. A horse who is moved to a different stall may continue to try to go to the old one for months. Therefore, a horse who has been abused is likely to retain psychological scars for an extensive period of time.

The second key aspect of equine psychology is that horses do not consider long-term consequences. Horses are aware only of immediate consequences. Corrections, therefore, need to be applied immediately and quickly. If you wait until you get back to the barn, your horse will have forgotten what they did wrong. Any form of discipline that relies on the horse understanding non-immediate consequences is ineffective and could be considered abuse.


The Vital Importance of Release in Horse Training

From "immediate consequences" comes a vital and central aspect of horse training.

When we ask a horse to do something, we use, for the most part, physical contact either directly through the seat and legs or indirectly through the rein. The voice is also important (carriage drivers often rely very heavily on the voice as the only contact they have with the animals is through the rein).

As an example, if a rider wants a horse to trot, she will close her legs onto the horse's sides and shift her seat slightly forward. As soon as the horse trots, however, she relaxes her legs again. She may keep the inside leg on the horse a little because that helps the horse's balance, but the second the horse trots, the aids are stopped. This is release.

Release, quite simply, is that when the horse does what you want, you stop hassling him about it. Horses that are not given release will generally learn to ignore the cues. This is called desensitization and is common in horses ridden by beginners. This tends to lead to an escalation of ever louder cues and can end up with the whip coming out.

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When applying discipline, remember to release. Too often you'll see a rider—sometimes an advanced competition rider—hit a horse for refusing and then just keep hitting it, no matter what it does. (Half the time the refusal was their fault anyway.)

Not only does hitting a horse 8 or 10 times carry with it the risk of injuring the animal physically or mentally, but it completely violates the principle of release. As soon as the horse does what you ask, the pressure needs to ease. A horse that is being beaten is not given a chance to do what the rider wants, and is just being harassed and pressured.

Sometimes, giving a horse a tap with the whip is warranted, but remember that it is pressure and has to be followed by release. For example, if a horse will not go forward, the technique should be squeeze, tap, then squeeze again. This gives the horse a fair chance to do what you want when you ask nicely.

Did the Horse Actually Do Anything Wrong?

One very important matter for the line is that a horse should only be disciplined if it actually did something wrong.

Coming back to the same individual who gave the "horses have thick skins" line, this person also believed that if a horse was scared, the best way to resolve it was to make the horse even more scared of you.

Hitting a horse that is scared, anxious, or in pain is always abuse. A horseman learns to determine what is going on. For example, if a horse has always cantered off before and suddenly starts bucking, it is probably not being naughty. More likely, something is bothering it.

One common problem that always needs to be considered is that when horses are trained, their backs actually change shape. A green horse who has just been backed has little muscle on what is called the "top line." A fit horse can have quite a lot. Many times, an inexperienced trainer will discover that their green horse suddenly starts playing up about two months into work. They may think or even be told that the horse is going through a "testing" phase—when often the inevitable physical changes have resulted in a saddle that fit perfectly when the horse was backed not fitting anymore. Many professional trainers use saddles with adjustable trees for just this reason.

A horse should not be beaten if it is scared, but rather be worked with to help it get over its fear. I have seen horses react with fear to the strangest things, such as walking into a box stall, or a horse that would jump anything as long as it didn't have a ditch under it. Such apparently irrational fears are often the result of something in the animal's past. The horse that won't go into a box stall may have been, at some point, trapped in one. The horse that spooks at ditches may have been stuck under a fence with a ditch under it.

I have also encountered genuine phobias in equines, but most of the time there's some triggering incident. Horses that are scared of particular things can be desensitized with time and patience. In many cases, though, the horse that is beaten for being scared is no longer afraid of whatever it was afraid of, but of its handler. Such animals need retraining to teach them to trust humans again.

Horses should also not be beaten if they are reacting the way they are because of pain and ill-fitting tack. Sudden misbehavior by a horse that is normally an angel is 90% of the time caused by physical discomfort of some kind. Of course, knowing your horse and how they normally behave is key.

Is There a Better Way?

Also, consider whether there is a better way to get your point across to the animal.

For example, in the case of chronic misbehavior or a horse that is throwing tantrums (I've seen both green horses and older horses that have not been well-trained throw actual tantrums), it is often much more effective to work the horse until the misbehavior ceases and then immediately end the schooling session.

If a horse is refusing to do a specific maneuver and pain and discomfort have been eliminated, then it is much more effective to school that maneuver last and end the session as soon as it has been done correctly, until the horse does it right off.

Ending the schooling session once the horse has done what you want is, of course, the ultimate "release."

For problems on the ground, the voice and body language tend to be more effective than the whip, although I have used a lunge whip as a barrier to convince a horse of the concept of "personal space."

Finally, if the misbehavior is running away or "taking off," then the use of any kind of physical discipline tends to be counter-productive. Some horses run away because of discomfort—running away can be a symptom of over-bitting. If the horse is doing it to be a brat, then I have found only one effective solution.

That solution is to keep the horse running. When it tries to stop, keep it running. Don't let it stop until you say. It usually only takes two or three applications of that for the horse to realize that running off with you isn't much fun. Hitting a horse that runs off will often be used by it as an excuse to run off again.

In Summary

In summary, hitting a horse can be discipline or abuse. Some people believe that any use of the whip is abuse. However, the good rules of thumb follow:

  1. Discipline must take place immediately after the misbehavior. Note that tying a horse up and leaving it to think about what it did does not work on horses.
  2. A horse should never be disciplined for being afraid or spooking.
  3. A horse should not be disciplined if there is a reasonable suspicion that it may be in pain or discomfort.
  4. Any discipline should be followed by immediate release, assuming the misbehavior has indeed stopped. It is seldom necessary to hit a horse more than once.
  5. For some misbehaviors, using the whip is not the most effective method of discipline.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2012 jenniferrpovey


Mike on September 15, 2019:

Tom Dorrance says if more than a second or two goes by the horse won't realize what it did. Horses kick the snot out of one another in the herd but they always ask nicely first...what happened before what happened happened? Is it you or your horse? 75% of the time it is YOU. PETA, oh what a wonderful world to live where no one has to work. PETA, please fix the mustang problem by homing all those horses? While you are at it, fix the human homeless problem too.

Joyce on August 19, 2019:

Horses are very sensitive and cautious. To my mind there is nothing you cannot do with a horse if you are patient, kind,and persistant. ,

It is never necessary to beat a horse and anyone who does lost control and authority with the horse long ago. Horses are not fools, and they always respond to people they trust and respect, the only variable is time. There is a lot of senseless abuse out there. It is the people who are stupid, not the horse. A horse by nature is sensitive and kind. Beating the horse is stupid and non productive.

Joyce on August 19, 2019:

You dont break a horse, you give a horse confiddnce. You do this with kind, consistant, training. you are training a horse every time you interact eith it, whether you realize it or not. Horses do not like surprises. They want to know what to expect and they will be willing partners if you treat them kindly and consistantly.

I had a mare who was acting up and I thought about smacking her, but thought twice. I got off her and checked the saddle and girth and finding nothing, looked at her feet. Her shoes had come loose and were bothering her. I learned a lesson I did not forget.

Charles O'Donnell from Westerville, Ohio on August 14, 2019:

Hi, and thanks for the tutorial.

I'm a writer, and my current project, a YA fantasy, depends heavily on the relationship between the main character, a 17-year-old girl, and her horse. One of my colleagues, who grew up on a horse farm, told me that as soon as he read that the girl forms a bond with the horse, he stopped reading, saying that horses don't "bond."

What's your opinion? Also, what reading would you recommend to research this topic, that of the relationship between horses and their owners?

jenniferrpovey (author) on September 04, 2017:

Scflo, absolutely tell the trainer. Even if he's not inclined to worry about the "feelings" of the animals - punching a horse in the head can cause serious injury (they're not as prone to head injuries as some animals because of the shape of their skull, but horses absolutely CAN get a concussion if you hit them hard enough or in the wrong place) and the owner wouldn't be happy!

scflo on August 30, 2017:

I have witnessed some of the stable hands coming into work hungover and punching the racehorses in the head and chest just to get rid of their aggression, i think this is so wrong, but do i tell the trainer in charge or keep my mouth shut? To me this is complete and unnecessary abuse, am i wrong?

tthcr42 on April 22, 2017:

So the point of PETA is that the horse gets to have his/her own life and you don't have to deal with any of this bullshit in this article - ie. working over a horse. Maybe the horse doesn't want to be what you want him or her to be for yourself or others. Take a few minutes and grasp that concept. The horse isn't here just to accommodate you and your needs. It has his/her own life.

Emma on March 16, 2017:

I beleive hitting a horse with abuse it not wrong and its not abuse we have to use them to be able to have contact with the horse and gets its attention

Laura Matkin from Laceys Spring, Alabama on January 15, 2012:

It was no accident. They were professionals, training to make and sell show horses. I think the shine had long worn off the job and they were in a place where they didn't care about the horses 'feelings' for lack of a better word. They had so many horses there to train and care for plus a reputation to uphold in the show ring. I think they forgot somewhere along the way what it was they loved about their work and why they had gotten into the business. I heard them tell stories about horses they had loved so I know they must have started out differently.

At one time this stable had many wins in the show ring and sold fine quality show horses. I believe they would put out great Show horses if they changed their training tactics. They certainly have the experience they need the patience.

However, I haven't seen or spoken to these people in years so hopefully they are better.

jenniferrpovey (author) on January 15, 2012:

They clearly didn't know what they were doing. Any training method that causes a horse to bleed is abusive. (Needless to say, accidents can happen...and a horse that gets cut in the face can bleed a *lot*. I've seen it more than once.)

Laura Matkin from Laceys Spring, Alabama on January 14, 2012:

We live and learn. It's unfortunate that we make other people and animals suffer during the process but, such is life.

The trainers at B&W were rough trainers. I haven't seen or spoken to them in a long time so I don't know if they have learned better training methods yet. I sure hope so.

I don't know what kind of bit they were using but they are professional horse trainers, they knew what they were doing. It was very upsetting to me seeing them train, especially when my Mother's horse Nathan (the love of her life) was brought in from the ring with his mouth cut and bleeding that after a horrible ride. He was yanked this way and that way and the trainer dismounted to whip him once before getting back on him and finishing his 'training'.

Anyway, I am glad you wrote this article this subject needs more attention.

jenniferrpovey (author) on January 13, 2012:

I have never attempted clicker training, but have heard many good things about it.

It sounds like your horse had never gotten a true release. Also, a mouth should never be bleeding. 9 times out of 10 this means that a bit is being used that is far too harsh.

I say 9 times out of 10 because I once witnessed an incident with a pony. His owners put him in the mild jointed eggbutt that is very much the 'if in doubt' bit in the English hunt and show jumping community. He got crazier and crazier, and then they realized his bars and gums were bleeding.

They were using a cheap bit that was not stainless steel. Cheap bits often contain a lot of nickel...

I don't blame the owners for that one - who would have thought of it without having encountered it before?

Cat R from North Carolina, U.S. on January 13, 2012:

I miss working with horses!

Laura Matkin from Laceys Spring, Alabama on January 13, 2012:

You are so right "it is often much more effective to work the horse until the misbehavior ceases and then immediately end the schooling session.

If a horse is refusing to do a specific maneuver and pain/discomfort have been eliminated, then it is much more effective to school that maneuver last and end the session as soon as it has been done correctly, until the horse does it right off.

Ending the schooling session once the horse has done what you want is, of course, the ultimate 'release'."

I got my horse when I was 16 and had her trained at B&W stables by a trainer whom I had been riding for and taking lessons from since I was 8. The trainer used a whip first for everything. Sometimes the horses mouths would be bleeding when the trainer was done with 'training' the horses. As a result my horse hated to be ridden, pawed anxiously and would act up badly when being ridden.

We were ignorant about horse training that was the only place and those were the only people we were associated with concerning our horses.

I took my horse home to our farm where she has been now for several years. IN the meantime I learned more about dog training, clicker training and positive reinforcement training.

I clicker trained my horse and stopped training every time we had success even if that meant only 5 minutes of training. My kids can ride her now, she loves to be ridden and acts disappointing if she isn't. A complete turnaround from the way she was before I trained her.

I am so so so glad I learned positive reinforcement training techniques. I use those same techniques on my children, co workers and family members with great result.

Thank you for the information and Happy Training to you!

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