Becky brought up a good question in the comments the other day.
She wrote: I really expected Tally to get more of a spank for her beady little shark eyes and deliberate attempt to hurt a rider. Would it have been useless, since she was so quick to anger? Is working them really hard really enough of a discipline? When to pick a fight head-on and when to let it go is something that's really confusing me nowadays.
This is a valid point. I am not a believer in making my horse my best friend, at least not on the same plane as I would a human.
With another person, my friendships develop over time. They are made up of give and take, acceptance of each others foibles and flaws and a healthy balance of power. We need to be of enough interest to each other to want to develop and keep the friendship going. I have the choice of keeping or walking away from any human friendship I make.
Life may dictate a human friendship, but I create my friendships with horses. There is a balance of power in my relationship with horses and it definitely leans to my side. I have recently snagged a phrase from ...Kel?, "benign dictatorship," it sums up my approach to horse training nicely.
Horses don't walk in the barn door wanting to become friends and for the most part, neither of us have the choice of walking away. They come in looking for food and then they begin looking for their place in the herd. If I am going to be part of their daily life, then I will become part of the herd. So the battle of muscle and wits begins.
Horses work off of a hierarchy. There's the boss horse, the bottom horse and all the stuff in between. There are enemies, friends, best friends and so on in the herd, but they all behave according to the laws of the pecking order. New relationships begin with the establishment of power, then friendship happens, not the other way around.
I want to be at the top of the pecking order. Period. So there can be various levels of war waged, or simple clarifications, depending on the horse.
If you watch horses in a herd establish themselves there are some basic maneuvers.
The attack with teeth and striking front feet (Charge!).
The kick with the hind feet (Get AWAY)
Running away (Uncle!)
Then there's the passive aggressive portion of herd life.
Getting into each others space (made you move, ha!)
Cutting in line (Hay in the feeders, water in the tub)
Who gets the best grass (wait, I want that)
Who gets to chase who (your friend's not here, your ass is mine)
Dealing with each of these pieces in a way the horse clearly understands puts me quickly on the top of the heap. By understanding the motivation behind each behavior I can keep discipline quick, simple and fair.
I'll go through each one and my response to the situation.
If a horse comes at me (Charge!) I will step in and try to make them think they are going to die. This is the most blatant form of aggression a horse displays and I want to squash it hard and fast.
John Lyons has always maintained you can whomp on them as hard as you want for three seconds, then you need to quit. This is about the time it takes for a horse to make its point to another horse.
I have to be honest here, I'm not coordinated enough to get the job done and keep an eye on my watch. So I go by body language. If a horse is coming at me with teeth or front feet I yell, raise my arms and charge. I will nail said horse with a crop (preferred "teeth") my lead rope, my feet, whatever I need to get my message through. I don't stop until the horse backs off (Uncle!). Then I completely quit. If I'm angry I walk it off, I make sure I've gotten rid of any grudge before I start in again.
There is training that follows this, but I'm sticking to discipline for this post.
Next comes kicking. From a full barreled two legged power thrust to a cow kick when I try to pick up a hind leg or hit a tickly spot, the idea is the same (Get AWAY). my response is, "Not only no, but HELL NO!"
It's vital for my horses to know I can go anywhere I want and touch any part of them I need to. My horse can let me know they are uncomfortable with where I am by stepping away from me, then I'll decide to either respect the request or continue on. My horse cannot kick at me, ever. If it's a double barrel kick then I will respond in kind, with a longe whip becoming my hind legs. I'll whack that kicking sucker until he moves away from me, then I'll immediately stop. Again, I don't continue with training until I'm sure I'm back to the benign portion of my dictatorship.
If I'm dealing with a cow kick I'll slap the offending leg, just once, again with the crop. Then we start over. I've never had this approach fail me.
Now we get to the tricky part (Uncle!). I reward a horse that moves away from me by releasing pressure. In Tally's case she was definitely running away, but she was using it as a form of aggression. She had to have learned the behavior somewhere and it had to have been taught to her by a rider.
Have you ever watched an old cowboy movie where a horse is jumped by a mountain lion? The horse jumps and bucks and screams and if that doesn't work, he runs. Running is a last resort in the horse wars. If the horse happens to knock the mountain lion off his back by running under a tree, he sure isn't going to waste time bucking and jumping the next time. He'll head straight to the tree. The idea is still the same though, running is the last chance a horse sees for an escape.
Tally wasn't screaming Uncle, but she sure wanted to get away. I couldn't let her muddle the situation by worrying about her temper. She needed to find out it was a lot less work to let the rider stay on her back and that no harm would come to her if she did. She didn't understand that people weren't mountain lions. Hitting her would have only strengthened her position.
A more subtle version of Tally's behavior would be a horse that sucks back and pitches a fit when I approach them while tied. If they are really scared, I'll stand quietly until the horse does too. No soothing words, definitely no screaming and I don't back up. I just stand quiet. If the horse comes towards me I'm back to trying to kill it, as soon as it backs away I'm quiet. This usually makes sense to the horse and goes a long way to curing a horse that pulls.
If it's a horse that sucks back because it's a rotten, spoiled booger head, then I'll step in, scream and yell and wave my arms around, while he's pulling. As soon as he settles, even a hair, I quit. Make sure you have a very sturdy rope, halter and tie rail before you try this one, it gets wild. It also works.Again, if he comes toward me I'll thump on him until he gets away from me.
Then we get to the passive aggressive part. If a horse crowds me it's a modified version of "Charge!"
While you won't get hurt by having your space stepped into, the horse will file the small victory away and remember to be even pushier next time. Plus, I know they think it's funny and they laugh at us with all their friends.
I don't usually hit them for this, I raise my hands and snarl, stepping into their space until they back off. I will slap them on the chest with my reins or lead rope, or kick them in the hoof to move the feet if I have to, but normally it doesn't take much.
Shoving their butt into me is a watered down threat to kick. I drive them off.
Walking in front of me through a gate, racing past me when I'm leading them or asking for a stop on the ground, snatching food from my hands, all of these are versions of behaviors that can escalate into danger for me. How do you translate them?
I have mentioned using crops and longe whips as discipline. I also use my reins. I rarely use my heels or spurs and it's even less to get me hauling at their mouths.
A whip drives a horse forward and away. I use it for just those things. My reins do the same.
Spurs and heels are for cues, lift, right and left. I don't use them for forward.
The bit is for communication. If I'm jerking my bit I'm just screaming and yelling, I'm also adding pain. This doesn't help anybody.
I will set my spurs into a lazy, bored, or just ignoring me horse and drive them into my hands. I'll set my hands hard enough to make them feel like they're getting rammed like an accordion. Call it a pissed off half-halt if you will. I'll repeat it until said horse is alert, lively, soft and sorry.
My main form of discipline is more work. If my horses want to ever see their dinner then they'll comply. By building on this premise from day one, they're usually pretty quick to respond after I've pushed them into their tenth or eleventh circle at high speed.
So those are the basics of my benign dictatorship, hope it clears up a few things.