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January 08, 2019 3 Comments
Is it OK to hit your horse? by Don Jessop
Words have power, don't they? "Is it okay to hit your horse?", is a very powerful question with a very simple answer. It doesn't have to be complicated but it is fraught with deep emotion.
The answer is yes and no, naturally, because you have to define the word "hit."
Does "hit" mean, tap, bump, defend, stimulate? Or does "hit" mean whack, hurt, smash, get angry, or punish? And... could it mean both at different times?
What does "hit" mean to you? If you're like most people, the word "hit" always means punishment. If you're like a very few other people, "hit" has two meanings and only one is okay to use!
If I said, "I have to hit my horse with my stick to prevent him from running over me, when it looks like my 180 lb body doesn't match his 1800 lb body..." I am justified in my action and yes... even in my choice of words. I'm not angry, I'm defending myself, and in that situation it became absolutely okay to hit my horse.
But some people have a visceral response to the word "hit." It only means punishment. So I often refrain from using the word. But ironically, there are some people who, because they refrain from using the word, also refrain from using their leadership in the moments that count the most, especially regarding their safety around horses. They choose not to "hit" their horse because in their mind, "hitting" is always punishment and will create a break in the deep relationship you've tried to establish with your horse. The down side is, these same people can never lead a horse into or through challenging situations for fear of destroying their relationship and their horses confidence.
These people get stuck in the lower levels of horsemanship forever. But, in rare cases, a persons mind can expand to embrace more than one meaning for a word. They can let go of the monotone expression of a single word and see the value in a negative word being used with a positive intention. And one day, they may be able to use the word, or even express the physical action behind the word, with complete positive intent and have no ill feeling about being that kind of leader.
My six year old daughter, now eleven, once responded to a question from our hairdresser while sitting in the chair. I could see her face in the mirror from where I sat. I could see her intention and attitude too. Her response made me laugh and made the hairdresser gasp.
Her question was, "What do you do if you're horse doesn't go when you ask?"
My daughter responded, "You hit them."
Of course my daughter only new one meaning for the word hit. She didn't know at that time in her life, given her upbringing, that the word had a negative connotation. At eleven years old now, she does know both meanings and is careful to express them appropriately, as we all should.
Are there better words, than "hit?" Should we just agree to never use the phrase "hit your horse" and move onto words like "bump" and "stimulate?" Perhaps... but make no mistake, there are some safety situations where the force of your hand and the speed of your stick is the only thing that will keep you alive and help that horse learn to respect the smaller creatures around him in difficult situations. In most cases, however, the power and position of your pressure should be calculated and controlled. If you must "hit" or "kick" your horse to get a response during training exercises, try using incremental pressure, that starts small and gets bigger if the horse doesn't respond, then couple all pressure you apply with massive rewards to ensure the horse loves responding to your hand or leg.
One last note just to be clear. It's OK to hit your horse to survive a dangerous situation. That's taking the first meaning of the word. It is not OK to hit your horse to punish them for something that's already happened. Their brain works quickly and generally operates in the heat of the moment. Only then is action required from you. After the moment, when calmness overcomes the horse, he can think more clearly and enjoy a rewarding connection with you, but in the moment, you must act, you must lead, you must not be afraid to express the first meaning of the word hit, according to this article. You must be able to bump, tap, stimulate, or defend.
One more last thing, but this really is the last thing. Light physical contact is more meaningful and helpful to a horse than visual stimulus.
In the world of natural horsemanship, there is a technique that I wish would not be used so frequently. Here is how this ugly technique works: If you ask your horse, while on the ground, to circle around you, and you notice that she isn't responding to your suggestion to go or go faster, some naively trained practitioners will whack the ground with their stick really hard to drive or scare the horse into motion. I hate this technique because, if you knew more about horses, you'd know they respond better to light physical contact than to fast scary visuals. Besides, who would want to scare their horse into motion anyway? It doesn't make sense! The last thing I want is for my horse to be afraid of fast scary motions from me. I want them to read me. I want them to see when I want something and when I don't, regardless of my hands and speed.
Instead of hitting the ground to scare the horse forward, a soft brush of the whip on the horses shoulder or a tap from behind, doesn't hurt the horse and can help them understand your intention much sooner with much less confusion. If the horse is too far away, the stick might not reach and therefore touch the ground instead, but my intention is always to make contact. Light contact at first. Why??? Because horses respond better to light physical contact to reinforce your intention then they do to heavy visual stimulus.
I encourage you to re-read the first few paragraphs of this article. Learn to use words in a different way. Learn to accept multiple meanings and embrace a stronger sense of leadership that's more flexible to challenging situations.
Thank you for reading. I'll see you again soon.
By the way, if you haven't yet, take a look at the Horse Mastery Group. Give yourself a chance to truly grow your own leadership, regardless of your level, you will be welcome into the group. There are people there from all stages of the game, including beginners and elite riders. That's part of what makes it so exciting. There is only one caveat. You have to be a horse addict to join the group.
January 24, 2019
I try to to keep my conversation to “less is more” with my horses. Our challenge is to get the quickes , smoothest response from the smallest ask.
January 10, 2019
I like your last tip regarding touching lightly vs. hitting the ground with the stick, it makes a lot of sense and helps the horse to tune in not tune out! Great article!
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February 12, 2022
Taboo subject for many horse owners and brand new students (and their parents) on “hitting a horse”. Leadership and in some cases survival has to be the intent on all disciplinary actions. I learned that early in with horses, but until your clinic it was hard for me to explain to others the why of what I did and why I did it. Since your clinic my confidence has gone way up and it shows in my relationships with horses, students and owners. Thanks Don!!