When horse training goes off track

You need to remember the following: ANY HORSE TRAINING CAN BECOME ABUSIVE. That’s right ANY type of horse training, even Clicker Training, can become abusive if it forces the horse to do something that is hurtful.

Generally, I agree with the idea of long and low – used in short durationwhen the horse can freely move their head and come out of this head set whenever they want too.

However, if the horse’s “head set” is forced through training to stay down for long periods of time without any sort of respite – whether through positive reinforcement, pressure training or through artificial aids (i.e. draw reins, Chambon, side reins etc…) – you start entering that ABUSIVE TERRITORY of horse training.

I personally have seen a professional trainer tie up a horse in draw reins for hours in order to chase championship points. The AQHA has rewarded the Peanut Rollers with ribbons for decades and even though they have come out with a statement against this training practice – judges are STILL awarding Peanut Rollers (and I’ve personally seen this).

The Dressage world is no different – artificial head sets have led to “behind the bit” horses and those who are bent like a pretzel leaving their back U-shaped and their hocks trailing.

And I’ve seen Clicker Training and Liberty Training repeat these same mistakes. I have seen some CT and LT horses with weak backs, U-shaped conformation, and muscles in all the wrong places.

Just because you have shaped a pose with a clicker or with artificial equipment does not mean your horse is gaining benefit from the exercise. When do you know your training has gone off track?:

The horse becomes resistant (this usually means the horse is feeling pain).

“Naughty” horse episodes become more frequent.

The generally nice, get-along horse explodes! (rearing, bucking, etc..)

The horse shows pain issues, especially in the neck and back.

The horse shows reluctance to greet you, be saddled, bridled etc…

The wrong muscle groups become stronger (i.e Ewe neck, loss of topline, sagging belly, weak hindquarters).

The horse’s gaits do not improve – they become worse.

The horse does not seem relaxed (tail switching, tight mouth, ears pinned).

The horse becomes robotic in its work. Any free expression is lacking. His eye looks dull and uninterested.

REMEMBER, you need to understand how the horse moves and verify your training is always shaping CORRECT MOVEMENT. Correct movement is not built in a day; it is shaped through daily incremental exercises that help the horse build its strength in order to do the tasks you desire.

Correct movement will provide the horse a longer working life with less chance for pain and injury. It makes them happier to do their work and to enjoy their time with humans. Riding becomes easier because the horse is able to do what is asked physically and enjoys his time without straining and bracing.

As a responsible horse owner, it is the right thing to do

My thoughts:

If using equipment like side reins or a Chambon, research extensively how to use it and if possible have an expert show you how to use them. Use them only for a short re-training period so you can make sure you and the horse are not using them as crutches to make a “look.”

Throw out what look is desired in the show ring. Almost 99.9% of what showing requires in terms of a “frame” and an “appearance” is WRONG.

Watch a lot of YouTube videos and become a spectator at horse shows. Learn how to spot lameness, oddness in gaits, hollowed backs, ewe necks, and other non-correct or odd movements by educating your eye. The more different horses you see, the faster you will learn to notice what doesn’t seem “right.” However, keep your comments to yourself; those horse owners don’t want to hear your thoughts especially at a horse show.

Videotape yourself and your horse when working. We all make mistakes and by videotaping yourself you will be able to self correct faster then if you wait months for a lesson under someone that knows less then you do!

Learn about horse conformation – my preferred book resources: Horse Conformation by Juliet Hedge (DVM); Lameness by Christine King (BVSC, MACVSC) and Richard Mansmann (VMD, Ph.d). Take conformation photos of your horse before, during and after to examine if you are on the right path.

If your horse is underweight OR fat, flabby or has a sunken back or topline learn about nutrition as well as your horse’s exercise requirements. Fact: the typical horse owner overfeeds and underexercises.

Don’t leave it to your boarding barn to make these decisions and realize that most equine vets take ONE class in horse nutrition in college – so brush up, read up and learn about this important topic. If you can’t exercise your horse enough and can’t pay a trainer, look for a compatible person who can do a partial lease (a win-win for everyone).

Many of the most BASIC DISOBEDIENT ISSUES are pain related:

  • Saddle fit, leading to back pain
  • Dental issues, leading to bucking, rearing, lameness
  • Wrong bit (they go too severe or I’ve even seen them put in upside down!)
  • Farrier work is wrong, leading to lameness, soreness
  • Diet is wrong (too much high calorie feed, not enough feed, too high sugar)
  • Not enough forage (grass, hay etc…) horses NEED hours of pecking at grass
  • Turnout is wrong (horse doesn’t get enough exercise other then riding)
  • Barn environment is stressful leading to episodes of nervousness, colic, fear induced behavior, etc… (issues I’ve personally seen is frequent changes of times horses are fed; changing horse’s routine with no rational reason; even someone secretly riding a friend’s horse without her permission! etc…)

JMO but when your horse doesn’t seem to lose weight when they are fat, or gain weight when they are thin, or can’t gain muscle even when the diet and exercise is adjusted accordingly a medical intervention may be needed:

  • Insulin Resistance (pretty much a given with ponies and “easy keeper” horses) needs a diet readjustment;
  • Cushings Disease (a tumor that effects hair coat and reduces the top line muscle producing a saggy gut) requires diet changes and prescription medicine;
  • PSSM/EPSM found in Quarter Horses and draft types can impact the horses physical ability to move out from the hind end requires diet changes; or
  • EPM which is a neurological disease etc…

I’m probably preaching to the choir with posting this but it is so important to realize that any work can become abusive; horse’s can endure a lot before they show us they are in pain; and we need to be self-critical in a productive way (not nasty) in improving our knowledge and skills.

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