Discipline? Punishment? This can’t be classical training! Let’s take a closer look. I didn’t say ‘force’ or ‘coerce’ or ‘subjugate’—though there are many who train horses under those terms.

Xenophon recognised that: Anything forced or misunderstood can never be beautiful. If a dancer was forced to dance by  whip and spike, he would be no more beautiful than a horse trained under similar conditions€¯

Xenophon made these observations around 2500 years ago and they still stand us in good stead today. Throughout history there have been fashions in riding / training styles and not everything in the history of classical riding is acceptable to us today, as it wouldn’t have been to Xenophon.

For instance, in the 16th century the Italian riding master, Grisone told that the way to deal with a horse that was reluctant to go forwards was: to tie a vicious cat to a long pole, in such a way that she lies belly upward and with the free use of her claws and teeth! This was during the time of the Inquisition and witchcraft trials when man was not so well disposed towards the horse. However, it became realised that brute force did not make for well-trained mounts, but created rogues only to willing to repay the unkindness meted out to them.

It is said that no serious struggle should ever arise in the training of a young horse, but there are older horses who through spoiled handling by their previous owners may warrant the title ‘difficult’. I would like to make a distinction between ‘difficult’ and ‘dangerous’ A dangerous horse is outside the remit of this website. Fortunately, these types are very rare and have usually only become dangerous through extreme mismanagement. On the other hand, there are many horses that are given the label ‘difficult’ when there has been a breakdown in communication, the horse often resorting to becoming awkward by shutting down to all the outside stimuli that are causing his confusion. ‘Lazy’ horses are often far from it; they are sensitive horses whose only way to deal with the confusion is to ignore everything.

We should use tact and diplomacy whenever possible in our handling, but some horses do challenge our authority as benign leader, just as they would in a herd situation. We should not avoid a confrontation just to keep the peace, but neither should we pick a fight just to ‘show him who’s boss’. Here, again confrontation shouldn’t be read as Force. Many times the handler / rider has not spotted or reacted to the early warning signals that the horse is not happy with a situation, but knowing whether the horse needs reassuring or cajoling is a consummate skill.

Xenophon also wrote: Young horses should be trained in such a way that they not only love their riders, but look forward to the time they are with them. In this he's not telling us to treat them with kid gloves, but rather as one would a young child. Psychology informs us that a constant stream of: "Don't do that—Stop it!—No—Quit that—Behave yourself" has a detrimental effect on one's self- esteem, but too many people seem to train their horses this way and to see how some people abuse their mounts in public, at a show, fills me with horror at the thought of how they must treat them at home!

I don’t think he’s saying we are not allowed to punish, but we must make sure that it's justified (if unsure, it's better to postpone punishment than it to be unjust) and never use it as a substitute for correct aids. Many horses are punished, not for being disobedient, but for not understanding or not being able to do what was asked of them. The most unjust punishment for a horse is to be reprimanded for doing what the rider, unsuspecting, through uncoordinated aids, asked for and for not doing what they think they asked. I rarely come across a horse that actually needs to be punished, as a truly disobedient horse is usually a sour one and needs a far more tactful handling than having the **** beaten out of him. When discipline genuinely is merited, it must be swift, short and then forgotten and much made of the horse when he shows any attempt at complying with what was being asked of him.

Discipline can very in its intensity according to the sensitivity of the horse. For some merely growling at them has the desired effect, for others strongly applied aids are usually enough, but a few may need the ultimate punishment; one hard smack with the whip, to re-establish order. In this context the whip is always the short ‘jumping’ whip; a ‘schooling/dressage’ whip should never be used to punish.

On the other side of the coin is reward. Some riders are quick to chastise, but find praising the horse soft or embarrassing. A horse can be rewarded with as little as a scratch at the withers which doesn't even disturb your hands, to a walk on a long rein as a thank you for executing a successful exercise. My ultimate reward is not a tit bit (although some materialistic horses appreciate them); I get off and lead the horse back to the stable (or lorry at a show). If you are on your own and have to negotiate gates, don't ride up to them first before getting off. Take your horse into the middle of the arena, or a little way from the gate if in a field. and dismount there.

A thinking rider will notice that a horse does try to please us in our requests because he likes the reward.

A word about patting. A hearty loud slap on the neck is usually for spectators benefit, it doesn't mean much to a horse. A quiet, delicate touch that sends a gentle ripple through the horse's nervous system creates a much more pleasant sensation.

You can draw some interesting conclusions about a rider and their training system by observing their application and ratio of Punishment to Reward.

To make a perfect horseman, three things are requisite: 
First, to know how and when to help your horse.
Secondly, to know how and when to correct him.
And thirdly, to know how and when to praise him and make much of him.



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