Horse Training? Or Abuse?

The will to win in today's highly competitive show world can lead to brutality. Do you know how to protect your horse? Learn the warning signs of abuse.

A 3-year-old stallion stands tied in a small, covered enclosure. His halter is hooked to a chain hanging from a rafter. The tether raises the colt’s head and neck to an awkward level; he almost appears to be on tiptoe. He tugs against the restraint, half-rearing and shuffling his feet, trying to ease his discomfort.

The colt will be “hung” like this, away from food and water, all night. In the morning, body-sore and exhausted, he’ll put up much less resistance when his schooling resumes.

The person riding him may call this a necessary part of training. Others would call it abuse.

Ordinarily, “horse abuse” conjures images of neglected backyard animals starving or thirsting to death. But there’s a subtler kind. It’s closer to home, and harder to think about. It happens to well-bred show horses, at the hands of those charged with their care. It occurs when the desire to win—or otherwise achieve a training goal—overcomes the dictates of fair play and humane treatment.

Sometimes we fail to recognize it. (“It’s just training.”) Sometimes we justify it. (“Everyone does it.”) Sometimes, incredibly, we inflict it ourselves, or cause it to be inflicted by unrealistic demands.

Is such abuse inevitable? The horse is one of the most willing and trainable creatures on earth. The human is the most intelligent and creative, and supposedly the most empathetic. Shouldn’t we be able to persuade horses to do our bidding without abusing them?

Here’s why some think not–and what you can, and should, do about it.

What’s Cruel?

Defining abuse in horse training isn’t as easy as it might seem. We’d all agree that proper discipline of a horse is OK, while maltreatment is not. But which is which? Swatting a horse that presents his rump to kick is clearly not abuse, while administering a 90-second “horsewhipping” undeniably is. But what about all the gray area in between these extremes?

For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on…

Measures Most Horsemen Can Agree Are, by Definition, Abusive:

  • Hang-tying to break down a horse’s resistance and promote a lowered head carriage (by exhausting the neck muscles).
  • Riding or longeing to exhaustion (far beyond the length of time needed to “get the fresh out”).
  • Excessive spurring, especially with so-called “rock grinders” (extremely sharp spurs), causing bleeding and/or “spur dents” (indentations in the cartilage between ribs).
  • Excessive jerking on the mouth, especially with a severe bit (such as a super-narrow-gauge twisted-wire snaffle), causing injury to the tongue, bars, or lips.
  • Excessive jerking on the lead shank, especially when a chain is used over the face or in the mouth, causing injury.
  • Excessive whipping or beating, from the saddle or the ground, causing terror or injury (thrashings that represent an expression of anger and frustration rather than a measured attempt at discipline).
  • Hitting about the head, especially with a solid weapon.
  • “Bitting around” for excessive periods (where a horse is left to stand for hours with his head tied around to one side, then the other, to enforce flexibility).
  • Withholding food or water to create submissiveness. (Cutting back on the grain ration of a hot horse is OK; starving a horse into weakness is not.)

Obviously, such measures aren’t the norm in today’s Western horse world. Yet they may be more pervasive than we’d care to think.

“There definitely are trainers whose philosophy is to win at any cost,” attests Charlie Cole, a multiple world-champion Quarter Horse trainer based in Texas. “Not many people will resort to the worst abuses, such as riding a horse to complete fatigue or hitting one over the head with a bat. But, believe me, it does happen in extreme cases, and owners need to be made aware of it.”

The Roots of Abuse

How does someone who ostensibly loves horses (or at least chooses to make a living or pursue a hobby with them) come to use such methods? There’s no simple answer, and typically many factors are involved. They may include:

Pressure to win

A trainer’s financial well-being often rests on his or her ability to win in competition. This can lead to cut corners and overstepped boundaries. Overly demanding owners add to the dilemma.

“Some clients have a must-win mentality,” notes Cole. “They don’t care what you do as long as it seems to ?work.’ But it’s not worth it to me—no one can pay me enough to abuse a horse.”

Big-money futurities—which require so much of the youngest, least-experienced horses—put further pressure on trainers. Abuse may become a means to “get the job done” in the limited time available before a major event, and to make sure a young animal is “calm” enough to perform.

Weak training skills

Abuse is sometimes the last resort of trainers who’ve run out of ideas. “It helps to have a lot of ‘tools’ in your toolbox,” observes Sandy Collier, a world-champion reined cow horse trainer based in California. “If you try something several times and it’s not working, it’s your responsibility to figure out how to present it differently to the horse so it will work.

“Losing your temper and punishing in anger is counterproductive,” she adds. “It just creates fear and more resistance, which can then lead to more abuse.”

Tough event standards

Modern trends in certain events can create training challenges that invite abuse. For example, Western pleasure’s modern preference for level neck carriage, slow movement, and bobble-free correctness—all on a draped rein—places a huge burden on trainers. They must, in effect, create “Stepford mounts” that perform perfectly with no visible guidance. 

It’s a difficult undertaking under the best of circumstances. When difficulties do arise, observes Cole, some trainers are tempted to resort to intimidation and abuse to ensure their horses’ compliance in the show pen.

Bad horse-to-event fits

The specialized nature of today’s events requires exceptional horses. When a horse without natural talent for a particular event is pointed in that direction anyway, the risk of abuse rises.

“You have to know how far to push before stopping,” says Texas-based Quarter Horse trainer Vicky Holt, who adds that sometimes it’s the level of competition that’s wrong. “When a horse just isn’t capable of the top ranks, I’ll suggest to his owner that we do the weekend Quarter Horse shows and skip the World and Congress. Then you’ve got a better fit.”

Sometimes what’s needed is a complete job change. “I’ll tell a client, This horse doesn’t want to go to Pleasure Horse School,'” says Carol Dal Porto, a world-champion performance trainer based in California. “I’ll offer another class, such as trail, jumping, or a pattern event. Beyond that, if the horse just doesn’t want to be a show horse, you have to send it home.”

But, as Cole points out, offering options is easier for all-around trainers. “If all you do is one event, you’ve got to train the horse in that event or send it to someone else,” he observes. And because a lost horse is lost revenue, single-event trainers may push the envelope in an effort to make a horse perform, regardless of suitability.

Trainer machismo

The Western horse world’s cowboy heritage means there’s a certain acceptance of “bloodletting” and a “might makes right” perspective. Frank Barnett, a Florida-based trainer who rehabilitates problem horses, points out that relying on brute force is a copout. 

“You’re not a real horseman until you lose your strength,” he says, noting that advancing age takes care of some brutal tendencies. “When you can no longer muscle a horse, you wind up figuring out better ways of training him,” he says.

Finding a Fix

Abuse does more than injure horses mentally and physically. It also damages the industry at large. “Brutality can ‘work’ on a horse in specific instances, but it doesn’t teach him much,” observes Barnett. So although a fearful, intimidated horse might perform for his trainer, he likely won’t perform to the same degree for someone else—say, his non-pro owner.

“We lose people from the business because of it,” says Holt. “The owner tries to ride the horse and says, ‘This one’s not trained!'”

Moreover, violent training is the exact opposite of what most trainers claim to be offering. The principles of time-honored horsemanship call for the development of the horse, mentally and physically, through thoughtful, systematic, patient work.

“What trainers need to ‘get’ is that non-abusive methods work better than abuse,” says Dal Porto. “When I was just starting out as a trainer, there were times I’d get frustrated, and the common thing for inexperienced trainers is to focus on what the horse is doing wrong and then correct him. 

“My program began to move forward when I started looking for what a horse was doing right—and how I could reward him and make him want to do that again. When all that negative energy is replaced with positive energy, it creates a much better learning environment.”

Barnett seconds this sentiment, noting that trainers need to have something to fall back on when they run into resistance. “That way,” he says, “they don’t simply longe harder or turn to ‘bigger’ equipment. When you have a logical, progressive system, you always have a baseline to go back to.”

Adds Cole, “There’s only so much a horse can learn at one time. I preach this. Say you have a young horse you’ve been training for a month. He’ll be going along really well up to a certain point, but then when you ask him to go a step further, instead of getting better, he gets worse. He’s hit a wall.

“At this point, if you insist on getting him back up to where he was before—and it’s tempting—you can wind up getting frustrated, and this is where abuse can come into it,” he continues. “But if you settle, that day, for just a little bit better, then he’ll be a lot better for you the next day. You’ve got to know when to be patient.”

Collier notes that if you shoot for making your horse just one percent better each day, he’ll be 100 percent better in 100 days. “Now, that’s something worth striving for, and it rarely results in the pressure to cause abuse,” she says.

Carol Harris, owner of two-time American Quarter Horse Association Super Horse Rugged Lark and with experience on the AQHA’s judges committee, says trainers must stop expecting horses to be “bionic” in execution and consistency.

“This is a living, breathing creature, with feelings. If you treat him well, he’ll pay you back in spades in the long run,” she says, adding this doesn’t mean you can’t ever “get after” a horse. “But it must be done with timing, skill, and moderation,” she says. “And, afterward, you don’t keep threatening—you give the horse a chance to be good.”

Some breed and sport associations, to their credit, now police their events to keep the worst offenses from occurring on show grounds. But that doesn’t stop a trainer from hang-tying a horse at a nearby barn, then hauling in to compete in the big class.

Judging is a huge piece of the equation. Associations—which set standards and oversee judges—must realize what any trainer can tell you: What wins in the show pen becomes the standard, regardless of what the rulebook says.

If judges were to consistently stop rewarding unrealistic goals—say, a 2-year-old so buttoned-up he won’t even glance across the arena—especially when it’s obvious the horse has been intimidated, the standard would change. Then, trainers who can achieve such uber-obedience only via abuse would no longer feel the compulsion to do so.

What *You* Can Do

Above all, make sure your own horse is never under the control of an abusive trainer (see tips for this, below).

Beyond that, don’t be shy about letting others know your feelings about abusive methods. The more that’s left unsaid, the easier it is for those who abuse to rationalize their actions. If you see obvious abuse at a show, notify a steward. 

If someone asks your opinion about a trainer you know to be abusive, be honest. You needn’t generalize or pass judgment; just relay any relevant information you know to be true and let the person draw his or her own conclusions.

Ultimately, we all must face the reality of what goes on, and help others to do so as well. Barnett, who’s spent a lifetime studying classical horsemanship and how it applies to the most difficult horses, doesn’t mince words.

“The old masters say that whatever’s painful for the horse is abusive,” he says. “I won’t argue with that, even though we’re all human, and probably lying if we say we never lose our tempers. Still, the horse-human thing is supposed to be a partnership—even if we do have, must have, 51 percent of the deal.

“The horse,” he adds meaningfully, “is not meant to be a slave.”

Don’t Let it Happen to You

To help keep your horse from falling victim to abuse, follow these guidelines in selecting and monitoring a trainer.

Check his/her reputation

Talk to longtime clients and others who know the trainer well. Ask specifically about the individual’s training philosophy, whether his or her program follows a logical progression, and how he or she handles discipline. 

“Good trainers will adapt any program to fit individual horses or trends, but they’ll always have a foundation to fall back on,” says trainer Carol Dal Porto.

Stay grounded

Don’t become starry-eyed over a trainer’s name recognition. If you’re seeking a halter trainer, for example, don’t let “shank power” (an individual’s current popularity in the show pen) blind you to abusive practices.

Watch the warm-up

Ideally, observe the trainer in action over a series of shows, paying particular attention to his/her manner in the warm-up pen. 

“Are they consistent?” asks Dal Porto. “What is their relationship with the horse? Are they riding him all day? Do they pick-pick-pick at him, never giving him a chance to choose to be good?”

Keep in mind that people are generally more circumspect in public than they would be in private, so any roughness you see at a show is likely to be intensified at home.

Visit the facility

Does the trainer’s barn look safe and well-maintained, with obvious care taken for the horses’ well-being? Do the horses look happy, relaxed, and well-fed, with no raw mouths, bloody sides, or swellings on the head?

Watch in particular the horses’ expression and body language when they’re around the trainer. Do the animals seem alert and willing? Or dull and robotic? Watch the ears; if the horses insist on keeping one ear obsessively cocked toward the trainer and appear fearful, it may be a sign they’re remembering—and anticipating—abuse.

Ask to see the tack room, and check the bits on work bridles. Do you see blood, or worse yet, bits of tissue?

Be candid

Discuss your goals and the level of competition you desire. Ask, “Is my horse suitable for this?” “How will you know?” “What are my options?”

“Make it clear you don’t want to win at all costs, and specify the sorts of things you definitely don’t want done,” recommends Quarter Horse trainer Charlie Cole.

“A good question to ask,” suggests Dal Porto, “is, what do you do when you get stuck? Ideally, a trainer has a mentor or a network of professionals to compare notes with. That reduces the risk of your horse becoming your trainer’s guinea pig, when trusted colleagues might be able to offer just the solution your horse needs.”

Remain vigilant

If proximity allows, go see your horse regularly. Ask the trainer if it’s OK to occasionally drop in unannounced, for a short visit that won’t require his time. Whenever you visit, watch for the same sort of things you did when observing the trainer’s other horses.

If you find anything that alarms you, discuss it with the trainer to learn of any extenuating circumstances. If the trainer seems defensive or evasive, it may be time to consider a change—for the good of your horse.

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