Home : Horsemanship Essays by Franklin Levinson : Providing Consequences Rather than Punishment, and the Elimination of Fear

Providing Consequences
Rather than Punishment,

and the Elimination of Fear

How we language what we do, the words we use, reflect how we think and what we believe about our lives. I think the old saying that ‘attitude is everything’ does ring quite true. If I say a horse is naughty, a term I hear in the UK a lot, that implies the horse is being bad. It also suggests a judgment that the horse has willfully done something against the wishes of the human. By using the word ‘naughty’ we have attributed all sorts of negative human aspects to that horse. In doing so it may be implied that the horse deserves punishment or discipline for their bad behavior. We say children are naughty or bad a lot when misbehavior happens and dish out what we think is earned and deserved punishment.

Personally, I don’t think punishment works. It didn’t on me when I was a child and I made an error in judgment. We all make mistakes, errors in judgment. Some of these errors are very serious and have tragic and catastrophic results where the lives of many innocent individuals are damaged beyond repair. But to make a judgment that a horse is ‘bad’ because of a specific, undesirable behavior is erroneous and a mistake. The worst behavior we see in a horse is merely the animal reacting to its own fear. It is not being naughty, it is being afraid. A horse being disrespectful of our boundaries, pushy and willful is fending for itself because there is no leader around to provide it with a sense of safety. Its behavior is the animal’s way of helping itself to feel safe, in control and assuring its own survival.

Horses naturally want to follow a good leader. That is their nature and how they survive in the wild. They follow that leader and show respect simply because the ‘leader’ is present. It should be expected that a horse would attempt to fend for itself and become its own leader in the absence of that individual who knows where ‘safety’ is and how to get there. Safety is a feeling only. It actually does not exist in the physical world. Therefore, when we can lead or guide a horse to feelings of safety, that horse will quickly become respectful and compliant.

To me feelings of safety mean several things. The first thing is an awareness of an inner peace. When I feel safe I feel a sense of inner peace. Even if I were trying to skydive out of an airplane, if I felt safe there would still be a sense of inner peace along with the adrenalin. Another word for that inner peace would be ‘trust.’ I am trusting that I would be safe jumping from the plane. Some might call that ‘faith’ as well. Unless we have a sense of safety in our lives, we don’t have much of a life. Our existence is reduced to living in a very limited, fearful world where nothing new is attempted. We would feel a great deal of paranoia and fear would permeate much of what we do. When there is no leader present for the horse, their constant companion is fear and they attempt to control their environment in a strong effort to find a sense of safety.

This brings us back to the question of dishing out punishment and disciplinary action as opposed to providing consequences for behavior we rather not have from our horses. When we dish out punishment we create resentment not respect. When we punish a horse we create fear. Horses do not punish each other. Attempts to take disciplinary action against an individual rarely do anything to change the attitude of that person. It is the attitude that needs to be changed. It has to become the person’s idea to behave in an appropriate way within the society they live. It is the same for the horse. We need to somehow make it the horse’s idea to behave in ways that we want and that are appropriate for the community they live in. Providing a consequence puts the responsibility on the individual for their behavior. Dishing out punishment takes the responsibility and puts it in the hands of the punisher.

A good consequence for a horse’s inappropriate behavior is movement. Horses are naturally lazy. This is part of their survival mechanism. If they run too much they tire and get picked off by a predator. So, they run just enough until they feel a sense of safety (provided and guided by the lead mare). A good reward for compliant behavior from a horse is rest (a peaceful moment). I have become proficient at providing the consequence of movement immediately upon a horse doing anything I do not want and a brief rest as reward for what I do want. Whether on the ground or in the saddle, for biting, kicking, bucking, rearing, charging, being nervous, pushy or anything undesirable I ask a horse to either do hind quarter yields or bend around me in tight circles in both directions and several rotations. I practice this with the horse as part of their initial training so the moves become second nature and as familiar as breathing. This assures their response is immediate and without resistance. These simple moves, when done appropriately and efficiently, will immediately put the horse’s attention upon the human as their good leader. This takes the horse’s focus off of whatever else is happening and puts it upon the task requested. When the horse completes several rotations in both directions, I offer the horse a very short rest and then request the behavior or action I want. If the horse is still behaving in a way I do not want, I repeat the process. Because I understand the horse’s underlying desire for feeling safe (at peace), I repeat the process until the horse accepts the fact that the movement (work) is a consequence for its unwanted behavior. The horse learns that peace can be easily found by behaving in a more desirable way. This allows the horse to take responsibility for its actions and modify its behavior accordingly. Thus the horse learns that being compliant and respecting my requests is the surest, fastest way to feelings of safety (peace and rest).

I have been asked that “isn’t the movement a form of punishment?” This goes back to the core issue of how my words reflect my attitude. I do not want to be a punisher. I want to be a good leader. If I am a punisher there is a shift in the energy behind what I am asking the horse to do. The horse knows the attitude and the energy that is behind the request. It knows whether I am making a request or a demand by my attitude and energy. By providing a consequence I have not made the horse bad or wrong in my mind or his. The energy is that of the leader rather than the punisher. I am trying to guide the horse into taking responsibility for its actions and a fair and appropriate consequence does that. A punishment creates fear and resentment. So, my attitude is reflected in my language as well as the energy behind what I am asking of the horse. The individual receiving the consequence or the punishment feels either our anger or our support. Punishment is most often preceded by and provided with a degree of anger. Consequences provided that are fare do not generally have anything but concern or supportive motivation behind them and, thus, are void of angry feelings. It is the feelings evoked by the interaction that are the key to the animal taking responsibility for its actions and learning the lesson. Punishment produces fear and appropriate consequences produce learning.

As I encourage humans to be compassionate and kind to their horses as well each other, making thoughtful choices and decisions is very important to me. The words we use in our daily language produce an energetic response within the listener and ourselves as well. I wish to develop a deep level of trust with a horse very quickly. My frame of reference and beliefs about horses and their training are reflected in how I think and speak about them. I endeavor to be very conscious about my speech, the words used and how I say them. As horses also communicate through body language (humans do too but unconsciously), I am very self-aware of how I stand and position myself when in the company of horses. This is an important aspect of good communication between individuals of any specie. Showing respect helps us to earn respect. Being trustworthy develops trust. Lets be the best we can be for our horses and each other. Lets endeavor to become peace bringers and not messengers of fear. Thinking before speaking and being aware of the power of our words and thoughts will help ensure the success of our relationships with our horses, with each other and support a better life for all.