The Dish On Discipline

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In a perfect world, horses would never bite, kick or misbehave. You know you need to correct your horse, but how do you know what is appropriate or too much “in the moment?” Here, top trainer/ clinician Julie Goodnight helps you understand discipline and praise.

By Julie Goodnight with Heidi Melocco

Horses need structure and discipline—otherwise how would they know how to act toward people? What you may think of as bad behavior is not the same as what a horse thinks of as being naughty.

For instance, horses bite and kick at each other in the herd. That’s appropriate behavior for them when turned out together. But that’s not appropriate behavior when humans are present. Horses shouldn’t interact in that way when people are around and you have to teach your horse what isn’t acceptable in your presence.

Horses that don’t have rules to follow and ramifications for bad behavior are just like spoiled children. They are poorly behaved and not much fun to be around. The opposite is true, too, if your horse has rules and structure and you are willing to admonish as well as praise your horse, you’ll have a partner that’s wonderful to be around. Horses are the most amazing animals because of how hard they will work to please you if they see you as the leader. That’s the most satisfying relationship to have with a horse—to know a horse looks up to you, feels safe with you and tries really hard to please you. To reach that relationship level, you’ll need to understand a bit of horse psychology and understand how and when to correct and praise your horse.

Horse Psychology

Because horses are herd animals, they seek out acceptance. If you watch a new horse being introduced into the herd, you’ll see that it isn’t a friendly encounter. The horses are brutal and mean to the new horse. With body language, the herd will tell the new horse that he isn’t accepted and that he should go away. The new horse is chased away, bitten, kicked at and more. But still, no matter how mean the herd is, the new horse will keep going back for acceptance. The horse’s survival depends on being accepted and becoming a safe part of the herd. Over time, if the new horse is contrite and consistent, the herd will allow him in and he’ll be able to work his way up in the pecking order.

In your herd of two, you need to be the leader and understand how your interactions with your horse mimic what is taught in the herd. Make it clear to the horse that you are a firm leader (not rough, but worthy of respect) and he’ll soon be requesting your acceptance and working hard for you.

If you try to start a new relationship by pampering and giving treats, that goes against everything he knows in the herd. He won’t seek out your acceptance if your acceptance comes for no reason. If you’re begging him to be in your herd, his herd-instinct tells him that it must not be a herd worth being in.

Once the horse knows that you are willing to dish out the pressure in a correction when it is deserved, you may never have to discipline him again. He’ll learn to be a little more careful around you. He’ll also want to gain your respect and your praise.

Positive or Negative?

So how should you correct or praise your horse to have the best relationship? Let’s review the scientific definitions of positive and negative reinforcement. Keep in mind that negative reinforcement isn’t punishment. Negative reinforcement just means removing pressure. Positive reinforcement means adding an incentive.

No matter which type of reinforcement you offer, you need the horse to associate your response with what they did. Make sure to give the correction or reward within three seconds of the behavior—and the closer to the behavior you can give the reinforcement within that three seconds, the better. Timing is everything when you’re training horses—horses live in the moment and they need the correction or reward to be fast.

What does negative reinforcement look like in action? I recently worked with a young horse owner and her newly-off-the-track Thoroughbred. The horse was kicking out if anyone touched her around the stifle or any time Chloe attempted to wash this sensitive area. I taught her to hold her hand (or the water) on the area as long as the horse was picking up her foot and threatening a kick. As soon as the mare relaxed and accepted the pressure of the girl’s hand or the water, we took away the pressure and gave the horse a rest. Taking away the pressure is negative reinforcement because you took away the pressure when the mare did the right thing. Horses feel pressure keenly and respond well to this method.

In positive reinforcement, you have to wait for the horse to have the correct response, then reward it. You may offer a verbal praise, petting and stroking or even giving a treat or a click. A horse will work hard for praise even when a treat isn’t included. In working with Chloe and her mare, we made sure to praise the mare with soft cooing and strokes on her neck when she tried hard and didn’t offer to kick or pick up her foot. She did the right thing, so got a positive reinforcement immediately.

Time for Praise

It’s so important to praise your horse—and horses will work hard for your praise. However, praise only means something if it’s offset occasionally by admonishment. If you only dish out praise for your horse (if it’s earned or not) and he never gets scolded for doing something bad, why would he keep working hard to earn your praise? If your praise comes too easily, there’s no reason to try to earn it. Just as he needs praise for doing something really well, he needs to be admonished when he does something wrong.

I am very tuned in to effort. I always want to praise the horse for making an effort. I don’t expect my horses to try hard every minute on every ride, but if I ask something more challenging and the horse tries his best, I want to reach down and stroke his neck. Or the best reward you can give is to allow your horse to take a break and to leave him alone. If I’m working on rollbacks with my young horse, Eddie, and he’s done a great job and been responsive, I’ll give him a break and allow him to just stand there and take a breather with no further interaction from me.

Firm But Kind

Every horse is different in temperament and sensitivity. What is a harsh scolding to one horse may go unnoticed to another horse. If your horse is eager to please and is sensitive, the slightest correction will affect him. If your horse is insensitive and strong-willed, you may need a stronger correction. Plus, each situation is different—what the horse did that needs a correction, what prompted the behavior and how motivated the horse was to act that way.

The science based theory of training says that however the animal is acting right now is how they are motivated to act. And if you want to change that behavior, you have to find the amount of pressure it takes to motivate change. And keep in mind that pressure can be mental pressure, a move in his direction, a hand signal, a verbal cue or actual physical pressure to touch the horse. We’re not talking about whips and spurs. An admonishment could be speaking harshly or as I call it, “hissing and spitting” at the horse. I make a hissing sound and stomp my feet and the horse understands that I don’t like his behavior at the moment.

Whatever pressure you use, it needs to be enough pressure to motivate change. If you correct your horse over and over for the same behavior, you’re not using enough pressure to motivate change. What’s more, you’re teaching the horse that you aren’t worthy of respect. He can ignore you without consequence.

Let’s put that in concrete terms: you’re riding around the arena and the horse pulls toward the gate on every lap. If you merely steer your horse away, you are only cuing him and not admonishing him for his disobedience for stepping off course. He’ll continue to veer toward the gate because there was no penalty.

How much pressure should you use? Well, how sensitive is your horse? I err on the side of using more pressure at first to see what reaction I’ll get, in the hopes that I will never need to do it again. You stand to lose more by under-correcting instead of over-correcting. If the horse misbehaves and you use one strong correction, you may never have to issue a second correction. If I under-correct, I may have to correct again and again and that’s a really bad start to a relationship. He won’t be cued in and listening to me.