The Use of Punishment

Recently I have seen too many riders and even “trainers” using punishment as a staple in the training of their horses. They are constantly correcting the horse for being “wrong” or “misbehaving” to break the horse down rather than using positive reinforcement and encouragement to build the horse up. Punishment includes excessive use of whips, spurs, harsh bits, gadgets such as martingales and draw reins, hitting, intimidating, and more. When asked why they do it that way, they simply state, “that’s the way it’s always been done” or  simply “it works”. That may be true, but it certainly doesn’t make it right. The problem is people’s egos get in the way. They feel like they need to “dominate” the horse in order to feel like they have control. The other problem is that people don’t know any alternatives and don’t bother to try to find out. It breaks my heart to see these horses suffering because of people’s arrogance and ignorance.

I read an article recently that summarized the negative effects of punishment very nicely.  The article was written by equine behaviorist, Lauren Fraser. You can find the full article HERE, but some of the highlights include:

  • Punishment can result in the animal experiencing fear, pain or frustration
  • Animals experiencing fear can have a very difficult time learning, and may simply inadvertently offer the correct response purely in their efforts to escape what is causing them pain or fear
  • Training situations that create fear, pain, or frustration in an animal will result in the animal associating future training situations – and the trainer – with apprehension, fear or frustration
  • Punishment suppresses learning
  • Punishment damages the trust bond between animal and trainer
  • Punishment can result in a psychological condition known as ‘learned helplessness’
  • Punishment tells the animal the animal what not to do, but offers him no clues as to what he should do

I highly encourage everyone to read the entire article. Punishment should seldom be used when trying to teach a horse something. It will only lead to fear and confusion in the horse. The horse may eventually submit, but it will be out of fear, not because it actually understands what is expected of it.

I had someone recently tell me that her horse was “stubborn” when confronted her about the way she was continuously whipping it in an attempt to lunge it. The sad reality is that the horse was not being stubborn, it simply had no idea what was being asked of it.  Horses either understand what is expected of them or they don’t. If they are treated fairly and understand what is expected, they will willingly perform whatever is asked of them. However, if the horse does not understand what is expected, it is going to get frustrated and react by acting out in fear and self defense. The horse I mentioned had started bucking, kicking out, and pawing all out of confusion and frustration. She was not being stubborn. She simply did not understand what to do to make the handler stop hitting her.

One other point I’d like to make is that a horse’s ability to understand has nothing to do with its intelligence. The smartest horse in the world will not understand you if you do not speak to it in a language it understands. You can take the most intelligent German scientist out there but if you talk to him in Italian, he is not going to understand. You must speak to the horse in a language that he can understand regardless of what you consider his intelligence level to be.

There is good news though. It is never too late to start over, no matter how badly things have gone in the past. Horses love and forgive unconditionally. You can start over right now and create a relationship with your horse that is based on mutual respect and trust.  Not sure how to start? Contact me at 630-935-4738 or