WRANGLING ON THE RANGE #145
On good behaviour
PICK YOUR BATTLES
From "Horse-Canada" - May/June 2005
by Karin Apfel
One of the most common phrases in horse training is, "Don't let
him get away with it!" or, "Don't let her win." Often the reason
given is that the horse will form a bad habit, or 'get one up on
you,' as though training were a competition or a war between
horse and trainer. I would like to inform you that it is
sometimes OK to choose to deal with an issue on another day or in
That is not to say that if a horse has learned, through
inappropriate handling, that he can avoid work by resisting the
pressure of the rider, that one should allow this. Being 'giving'
in this situation will only reinforce his lack of respect for
you. An established bad habit formed as the foundation of the
horse/rider relationship indicates a need to have the training
basics reestablished. However, there are times when you can feel
a battle coming on and it can be beneficial to back away from the
Trial and Error
I came to this realization through the usual method of mistakes
made and some illuminating incidents. For example, recently I was
leading a horse into an unfamiliar stall. The horse stopped at
the stall door, threw up his head and tried to back up. There was
nothing to fear in the stall that I could see, but I allowed the
horse to back several steps until his head came down then asked
him to just stand still. If I asked him to step forward again,
his head would start to come up, so I just stood and waited,
curious to see what the horse would do. After a about a minute of
standing, he blew out a sigh and lowered his head and neck. When
I asked him to come forward he walked along.
He paused again at the door to the stall and I kept the lead
loose, but my attention forward into the stall. He took a brief
sniff of the bedding, then stepped in calmly.
Another incident occurred many years ago, while riding my quarter
horse cross gelding in the arena. One day he objected strongly to
a corner of the arena and shied away whenever we approached it.
He had been ridden in this arena many times and had never shown
any fear of this corner before, so, with my riding agenda in
mind, I spurred him forcefully into the corner. Had he been a
youngster, I would have been more accommodating, but he was well
into his third year of training and I had a schedule to keep. The
long-term result of this incident was that this gelding was never
quite as comfortable again in that area of the arena and it was
always hard work to keep him round and soft there.
The Fear Factor
Fear is a potent motivator that can cause a horse to refuse a
cue. Behavioural studies tell us, and we can observe for
ourselves, that animals use approach and retreat to desensitize
themselves to frightening stimuli. If you would like to watch the
process in action, just put an unfamiliar object, such as a beach
ball or an old tarp in your horse's corral or arena and let him
explore. Each horse will have a slightly different process of
familiarizing himself to the object, but in almost every case
there will be a 'dance' of approach and pause/retreat. Had I
allowed my gelding the opportunity to realize that the corner was
not dangerous before proceeding, I would probably not have had
the permanent result I did. I should have scrapped my agenda and
made the training session more about teaching the horse to work
through his fear and trust my leadership rather than going where
he was told. Ah well, hindsight...
(Sometimes dismounting and leading your horse into the area he
wants to stay away from will work. It shows him you as his boss
and leader are not scared of the area, and if your not scared
they he need not be - Keith Hunt)
A Little Biochemistry
When a horse sees something fearful or unknown or is experiencing
pain, chemicals such as the hormone and neurotransmitter
adrenaline, are automatically released into the bloodstream and
the horse's nervous system goes into the flight-or-fight
response. The effects are: increase in the rate and strength of
the heartbeat, dilation of bronchi and pupils, vasoconstriction,
sweating and reduced clotting time of the blood. Blood is shunted
from the skin and viscera to the skeletal muscles, coronary
arteries, liver and brain: The fight or flight system bypasses
the rational mind and moves the body into a state of alert that
causes the animal to perceive almost everything as a possible
threat to survival. Learning is virtually impossible in this
The nervous system starts to settle down again once the horse
stops or steps away from the fearful object or escapes the pain.
All animals learn that distance will allow them to manage their
physical responses and allow them to think about what is
happening. Anything unpleasant occurring during this process can
fix a fear in the horse's mind. By spurring my gelding into the
corner that frightened him, I confirmed for him that that spot
was indeed dangerous.
The Effects on Training
We will never know all of the different stimuli that can produce
fear or stress in the horse. A horse's sense of smell, hearing
and even range of vision are far superior to ours and an animal's
interpretation of even those stimuli we are aware of can be quite
different from ours. A horse could also be experiencing physical
discomfort or pain that is making it difficult to respond. Back
pain and mouth pain are common causes of a horse's inability to
respond appropriately to a command. Therefore, if a horse refuses
a familiar cue or reacts unexpectedly, it is more useful to try
and figure out why the horse is balking and deal with the cause
of the problem, rather than simply forcing the horse to obey.
That does not mean we should allow a horse to determine his own
training agenda or avoid every situation that may make the horse
It is not always easy to decide when to push through a lesson and
when to back off and approach from another angle or at another
time. The guidelines below can help you make your decision:
When to hold your fire:
l. When the horse is in pain or discomfort or anticipates them.
Try switching to a bitless bridle; check the fit of your tack;
and have a vet or chiropractor rule out pain in your horse.
2. When the horse is afraid. Your horse will not learn anything
when in a state of fear and will only begin to question your
judgment and leadership.
3. When you are not completely sure you are asking the horse to
do something it is capable of. You need to revisit the basics and
better prepare the horse.
4. When you are not sure you are completely capable of asking the
horse to do something and are asking it clearly. You may need to
refine your skills or re-do the groundwork that establishes your
leadership over your horse.
5. When you expect a royal battle over an issue that you do not
have the time, skill or confidence to win. Back off until you
have them or hire a pro.
When to stick to your guns:
1. When you have ruled out the above conditions and the horse is
resisting out of "laziness" (lack of motivation) or is testing
your resolve as leader.
As you can see, there are many reasons to take off the pressure
and give both yourself and your horse a break. Bad habits are not
formed by one or two incidences. View your horse as a 'junior'
partner rather than an adversary, consider the influences that
may be affecting him, and you will build his trust and confidence
in himself and you.
Karin Apel is a canine and equine behaviour specialist who runs a
positive reinforcement dog training school. Her own behavior
modification started in Pony Club.
Your horse has "horse sense" and can detect situations that we
cannot detect; i.e. a boggy area. I've learned from my horse when
trail riding that she can detect a boggy area where I cannot. It
looks to me like a tall grass area, but she knows differently,
and will not proceed into it. I've learned quickly that she knows
best in this instant, and that the area is proably boggy, so I
find another area, and when she walks across it to the side I
want to go, I know she was right in not going across the first
area I was taking her. Allow your horse to have horse sense when
out trail riding in areas you are not fully familiar with.