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Training Nervous Horses

Posted by vwkoch, 26 March 2010 · 841 views

Horse Handling Thoughts
Last October, I watched a trainer proceed to break a mare’s spirit at the stable where I board, and it frustrated me so much I did a blog on “Breaking Horses.” Well, the trainer’s back, and once again, I need to work out my frustration by blogging about his methodology. How in the world can anybody think a horse can be cured of being nervous by threatening it and hitting it?! (Note: The previous blog is at <http://forums.horsec...&showentry=434> for those who might want to review it.)

This time around, the trainer was called in for a horse that is being trained to pull a cart, but the horse gets scared when the shafts hit the side of his rump when he is turning. They hadn’t even attached a cart to the shafts yet, because of his reaction to the shafts hitting him. He isn’t a particularly silly horse, and he wasn’t running off or anything, but he needed to get over being frightened before it would be safe to hitch him up to a cart. Mostly, it was a problem that just seemed to need some time and patience, but I guess patience, at least, was in short supply.

The guy they called in is clearly a three-trick trainer. He trains horses by waving a stick with a plastic bag on the end, doing all kinds of things with a tarp, and laying the horses down. In this case, I never saw him lay the horse down, but he did use his only other two tricks. Apparently, he thinks that getting a horse to stand still with its head down is a good thing, because he succeeded in training the horse to stand still with its head down whenever he raised the stick with the plastic bag. He wasn’t as successful with the tarp, however. After several nights of working with the horse, he put the tarp over its rear end, so that it would hit the sides of the horse’s rump the way the shafts did, and the horse panicked, for which it was punished by being repeatedly struck with the stick with the plastic bag. What a wonderful way to instill confidence in a frightened animal!

The guy did eventually get the horse to pull a cart around in an acceptable manner by (1) exhausting the poor thing and (2) making it more frightened of punishment than it was of the shafts. He exhausted it by working it for hours at a time for several nights in a row and by putting runners (instead of wheels) on the cart and making the horse drag the cart and driver through loose dirt (inside) and mud (outside) until it finally quit reacting. He was also very proud of coming up with the idea of having the horse stand unhitched between the shafts and punishing it if it left that position, so it would think of being between the shafts as a safer place than anywhere else. So, is it a lasting success to get an exhausted horse who’s scared to death of you to accept pulling a cart? I really doubt it.

First of all, what happens when the horse is no longer exhausted? Second, what happens when the guy he’s so scared of isn’t around any more? Third, even if he has somehow habituated to the shafts, I’m pretty certain that the habituation will be lost if something else scary happens to him while he’s pulling the cart. The horse hasn’t learned to be any braver, and he certainly hasn’t learned to trust humans to protect him from scary things. What he’s learned is that, if he gets scared while he’s around the cart, any humans in the vicinity are likely to attack him, which makes life even scarier. If his owner thinks this horse can now be trusted to be safe while pulling the cart, he’s due for a nasty shock. I won’t be at all surprised if this horse seriously hurts someone some day.

It isn’t rocket science to understand that punishment doesn’t make a fearful horse braver. If you can’t figure it out for yourself, it’s in the writings of practically every good horse trainer. People who understand horses have ALWAYS cautioned trainers to handle nervous horses compassionately, from the ancient (370 B.C.) writings of Xenophon (“Only a gentle hand can calm a nervous horse”) to the contemporary writings of Temple Grandin (“Horse trainers need to be very careful to prevent the formation of fear memories [because] a horse may be able to learn to overcome its fear… but the old fear memory can pop back up when it's least expected”). However, as another contemporary, trainer Ray Hunt, once noted: “When the horse is in trouble and the human doesn't know how to help him, the human lets his pride get in the way and the first thing you know - it's a contest.” A trainer who is determined to “win” at whatever cost is a very poor trainer indeed.

So how SHOULD this horse have been trained to accept the shafts of the cart? In my opinion, the best way to deal with his fears would have been by desensitization --- not by flooding him with irrelevant stimuli, as this trainer did with his waving plastic bag and his tarp, but by GENTLE desensitization TO THE SHAFTS, with slowly increasing pressures (so the horse never got really fearful) and lots of rewards. Instead of making him more afraid of the trainer than the shafts, I would have made him look FORWARD to having the shafts touch his sides, because being touched would mean he got a treat.

The end result would have been a horse that was (relatively) safe whether or not I was around and one that could accept the reassurances of the driver if something else scary happened while he was in harness. There would have been nothing to cause him to associate terror or punishment with the cart, so he would not have had any bad experiences to cause him to relapse into panic if something else scary happened. In addition, I bet that I would have achieved success (i.e., quietly pulling the cart) sooner than this guy did --- and the horse would have been TRULY quiet, not feigning calm because he was afraid to react.

As it is, this horse is almost guaranteed to have an episode of panic while pulling the cart in the future. Even if the owner then hires a GOOD trainer, who uses proper desensitization techniques for rehabilitation, the horse will ALWAYS be prone to relapse into panic, because it will never forget the initial association of the cart with terror and punishment. Unfortunately, the owner will probably just bring back the same guy, and the cycle will continue, until the horse is sold as “unmanageable.” The problem, however, is not with the horse. It is a PEOPLE problem.

In the first place, the owner needed to recognize that a nervous horse is not the best choice for pulling a cart. If he insisted on proceeding to train this horse to drive, he needed someone who would handle the horse very carefully, to encourage it to relax rather than to destroy what little confidence it had. Both the owner and the trainer are responsible for ruining this horse, and they’ve done so through ignorance. They will probably never recognize that the problem was with them, not with the horse. Given the fact that the information on how to handle such a horse PROPERLY has been around since at least 370 B.C., it’s truly tragic that such mishandling still happens. Will we EVER learn?

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