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Franklin Levinson's

Horse Help Center

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Is it abuse or not?

Hi Franklin,

Maybe you could offer me some insight into something which puzzles me no end. I am sure there is an answer, but I just haven't clicked onto it yet. It has to do with this thing of certain horse people, who can get their horses to do the things they want them to, but often with varying degrees of unkindness, usually without any thought for where the horse might be in all of it.

Fortunately I did not witness this today, but apparently a young woman I know really kicked and kicked her young daughter's horse (from the ground I think, not while riding her) because it was 'running away' with the girl, and 'not listening to her'. I suspect that the horse went more quietly after that. These sorts of people often do 'win' in the short term, and even over a longer period of time it would seem, and the horses even seem to 'love' them.

I do not want to 'dominate' a horse in any manner similar to what I have just written - I don't even want to have to speak harshly to a horse . . . so many people seem to do this, and often the horse will stop doing whatever it is. For instance it will stand still if it has been jostling around when growled at. A lot of people think I am too soft on the horses, and I understand that there is a need for leadership which then leads to respect on their part - mostly I can manage horses who are not too dominant and I know I have quite a settling influence on them in a lot of situations (kids like taking me to their shows, because they know I won't shout at them, or their horses, and can settle all of them! I never know any of the rules and regulations, but my role at shows seem to be pacifying kids, their parents and the horses - usually in reverse order!).

The problem comes when dominant horses get pushy with me - I try and understand where they are coming from, or why they might be behaving they way they are, what external influences are causing it etc. I guess in a nutshell, I am trying to find the balance between good leadership and kindness.

A horse I know rears when she is frightened . . . I wouldn't want to be in a situation of trying to manage her when she does this. My way would be to build the trust so that she would not have so much of the fear rather than to try and make her do something, then reprimand her for rearing. But what do I do if she does rear? Another of my project horses will follow me a couple of kms. along the river bank to the holding yard, and walk in, but not let me put the halter on him when I first go to get him. Until yesterday, he would allow me to halter him once inside the yard! I liked the idea that it was his choice to come with me, he wanted to be with me, and I suspected that he felt unsafe under halter with the other more dominant horses around him . . . he couldn't run away if he felt he needed to. But now I have the dilemma of him not accepting the halter once inside the yard. Yesterday, when he moved away, I thought, o.k., I won't pressure him today as he had seemed a bit 'off' from the first moment. I thought tomorrow will be better if I don't hassle him today. Not so . . . and he is only playing games with me - he is not frightened or upset. I don't want this to become a habit that he will just follow me to get his food and then get let out the gate again! I halter him because I want to work and play with him a while . . . play some games with him in lieu of riding him.

My strategy will be to put the food in plain sight inside the yard but not let him into the yard without him allowing me to halter him. What do you think? I have visions of him running off and not having his feed (the grass really is sufficient for him at present anyway), or he will stop following me, and either way I have lost him. I don't want to lose him! I will try and get my husband to scan some photos and put them in email format, so you can see this horse and me at play. 11p.m. and the end of the day again . . . goodnight!
Regards, Jan

Hi Jan,

What you saw was abuse pure and simple. I am a very effective trainer and I stopped hitting and kicking horses like that a long time ago. A well aimed and well timed poke to the snout is the most I'll do to get after a horse physically. What I have learned is how to make what I don't want a horse to do hard and what I do want easy. Here is an example; For a horse that rears like yours when the handler is on the ground I will make certain the horse knows how to lung on a short line or lead rope. If he balks at going forward or rears I will immediately have him circle around me, in both directions 5 or 6 rotations. Then I offer a break with a "Whoa!". If the behavior continues at all I have him continue the circling immediately and go through the process again. Going in small circles is work and no fun for a horse. Standing peacefully next to me and going straight is much easier than going around in tight circles, which is hard work. Believe me it usually doesn't take very long before the horse is happy to cooperate willingly. There has been no abuse, no war or arguing.

It is appropriate and desirable for you to take the role of the great leader or parent with your horses all the time. Horses are attracted to and need the leader present 24/7, just as a young child needs parental leadership and guidance all the time. Horses get their sense of safety from their leader. They trust and respect their leader and do not challenge that horse. In fact they revere their leader. They follow willingly and are happy to comply with requests that help the betterment of the herd, help the herd survive. In the absence of a leader the horse becomes fearful of most everything and fends for itself and rightly so. This helps insure its survival. Please do not forget this most important aspect of being with horses. It is incumbent on humans, as we have captured the horse and domesticated it, that we take this role on readily and willingly. Bodily maintenance and stroking alone are simply not enough. Talking sweetly all the time and just petting and feeding the horse doesn't instill a sense of safety and trust in the horse. The horse wants, needs, craves, has to have, cannot survive in a healthy way without , can't adjust well to new things, perform well, or have any kind of a good existence without a leader present all the time. Anything else produces a mal-adjusted animal that will have behavioral problems all the way down the line. Sometimes we have to say "NO!" loudly and mean it. Just like with a child, a parent has to be able to say "NO" and make it stick without going to abuse. This is important for the child's safety. It is exactly the same with a horse. There is nothing wrong with getting a horse's attention with an abrupt sound. That is why you see horses stop a behavior when someone makes a noticeable sharp sound. It does not have to be harsh, which many people don't understand. It just has to be abrupt enough to get the animal's attention to have the behavior modified (not abusive or mean). Again, just like with a child.

You can begin to establish yourself as the great leader (Gandhi school of leadership) quickly and easily. You can establish yourself as the 'leader of the dance' by making the simplest of moves or actions a request. Things like walking forward, stopping (WHOA!), backing , turning, moving around you in a circle (lunging), going gin and out of things like the stall or trailer, any basic move is a chance to consciously lead the horse (make all a conscious request). Then when the horse complies he gets a "Good Boy" and maybe a scratch on the neck (not a pat or anything other than a scratch on the neck or withers). Praise should be earned and not just continuously lavished on the horse. If that happens the animal will not understand what he is being praised for and the action of the praise itself will eventually be meaningless as it happens too much. Once a pattern of appropriate requests, compliance and praise (thank you) is in place, what I call a winning cycle is established between the horse and human. Horses habituate very quickly to learned patterns of behavior and this is a good one to get the horse into. They like it! It helps them to trust the leader as it is appropriate, consistent and the praise is actually appreciated by the horse who understands he has done something good. There is not one negative thing about this type of association with horses. It helps them socialize to humans and anything that does that peacefully without instilling fear is a good thing.

As I am at this keyboard so very much anyway, I have abbreviated your letter to the most relevant aspects for the 'Help Center' section in my website. This will do the most good for the folks looking for assistance with their horses. I hope this is OK with you. Unfortunately, I do not have much additional time for correspondence, but I appreciate the offer. Remember the Gandhi type of leadership I referred to earlier. He incorporated great love with great leadership. You can do that to, just like the great love of the parent for the child. If your paddock is small enough (rope it off a bit if it is too big), you could ask the horse move away from you and keep him moving around a small area without a halter on him. Just wave your arms a bit and walk towards him to keep him moving. Actually you are leading a dance by doing this. Once he has moved around for a few minutes, stop having him move, turn away and take a few steps away from him and pat your leg like you are inviting him to come with you. He'll probably follow you and let you put the halter on him. He is playing a game with you and you just don't know how to play. You need to make up the game and lead the game as I have suggested and see what happens. Forget using food at this point. It is coercion, not needed at this time and confuses the issue. One more thing, you mentioned you like it when it is the horse's choice to do what is asked of it. I do too. The way to get that cooperation is to become the leader every moment, every second, every instant. But we want to be a certain kind of leader. Like the head mare, herd leader in the wild horse band out on the range. Embody the leader always, just like a parent. Sometimes it's just an attitude we bring to the horse. Believe me the horse knows your attitude and is responding to it every moment. 'Quiet Strength' is a good concept. I teach a leadership/teambuilding program for corporations using that paradigm. It works and is the kind of leadership the horse loves and wants from its leader.

I hope I have offered a few useful suggestions. Blessings to you and let me know how you are doing and if you think there is interest in your area for my brand of training.

Sincerely, Franklin

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