January 10, 2014
As I’ve learned to be a parent over the last five years, I have often noted—admittedly, not always with joy—the parallels between being “mom” to a son and “mom” to a horse. The constant need for food and poop removal, for example, stands out rather vividly in my mind…
But it of course takes far more than basic physical care to raise a child or train a horse:
We must constantly deconstruct our requests—both the simple and the complex—and translate them into a language our pupil can understand.
We must recognize a “try” and reward quickly and accordingly, even if it isn’t exactly right…yet.
We must constantly monitor behavior in the hopes that a gentle correction early can prevent an uncomfortable confrontation later.
And we must be prepared to be firm when necessary, because the establishment of boundaries and respect for you as leader/teacher/parent is ultimately integral to the safety of the child or the horse, as well as necessary for either one’s success when venturing forth into the world without you.
“Just as good parents find within themselves the strength to correct their child, you have to find within yourself the strength to keep your horse under your authority,” writes trainer and dressage rider Douglas Puterbaugh in his book THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS OF DRESSAGE. “In both cases, the intent is entirely proper. For his own good, a child must learn to distinguish between behaviors that are acceptable and those that won’t be tolerated. Horses are similar…Like a child, they look to your leadership to show them the right way to do things.”
Douglas says that horses require “discipline with a purpose.” This phrase stands out in that it doesn’t advocate being a teddy bear or a nag or a tyrant. As parents and as horse owners, we must cultivate the ability to correct at the appropriate moment, to sometimes leave our pupil alone and give him time to “figure it out,” and we must always be in control of our temper.
“When your horse misbehaves you have to act quickly,” writes Douglas. “You must get your horse’s attention and immediately give him direction. This should be done firmly but gently because unwanted behavior does not necessarily mean a horse is deliberately misbehaving. It just means he’s doing something you don’t want him to do.
“You must always rule in favor of the horse. You must always be clear about what you want him to do. You must always be clear with your aids, and you must always carefully measure your response. Any reprimand must be proportional to the offense. Furthermore, a reprimand is deserved only when the horse knows better and is willfully disobeying….Never reprimand a horse that doesn’t understand something. You want to teach your horse, not bully him. A docile horse will tolerate being bullied, but a noble horse won’t. A noble horse will bully you back. Either way, you lose. You lose the trust and confidence of one that’s sweet, and awaken the doubt and defiance of one that’s a king.”
Again, Douglas’ last point rings true to the parent in me as well as the rider! How often I’ve seen children cower in fear beneath a sharp reprimand, while I’ve witnessed others volley screams until it was the parent who retreated in defeat.
In truth, wielding discipline in the barn or arena is a delicate balance, like so much else we do with horses. It has a necessary place in good training, just as it does in good parenting, but it must always be conscientiously applied, and it must always have a purpose.