Alternatives to Punishment

The horse that kicks at feeding time.

The horse that bites or tries to climb on you.

The horse that crashes into you.

The horse that balks and refuses to move.

All of those examples are ones in which many people would recommend punishment. They’re times when I would’ve used punishment once upon a time.

They’re all situations where the human either feels unsafe or gets very frustrated, which means we’re going to go to punishment first.

They’re also situations where the “tradition” of horsemanship would tell us that a horse “isn’t showing respect” and “needs to be shown who’s boss”.

(You can read my thoughts on respect by clicking here – but spoiler alert, the only place that word belongs in horse training is if we’re talking about our respect for our horse.)

The thing about punishment is that even if it isn’t effective in the long term, it’s going to get us a response and be reinforcing for us, an outlet for our fear or frustration.

But it isn’t the only way.

And it definitely isn’t the best way.

If our horse is doing something that we find undesirable, the first thing to do is to ask some questions. Why are they behaving that way? What do they find reinforcing about it? Because they do find something reinforcing, or they wouldn’t be repeating the behaviour. Horses do what’s worked out for them in the past, which means that to change a behaviour, we need to find something different for them to do that we can make even MORE reinforcing for them in the future and replace the behaviour we don’t like.

Let’s see this in action.

The horse that kicks at feeding time. Probably in the past that behaviour has gotten his feed flung in his direction in a hurry as the human hurries out of his space. Or maybe that’s how he managed to get his spot at the bale in the big herd he used to live in. Either way, the fix is going to be similar. Feeding time behaviours are easiest to fix, as you have a very valuable reinforcer right at hand – their breakfast! By simply waiting outside the gate until the horse is standing with his ears up looking at you, you’ll be teaching him that behaviour is what makes the food happen. If you crack the gate and the bum swings, back out and take the food with you. And if you can catch even a moment of bright happy ears and nose towards you, that’s the moment to give him his dinner, and that’s the moment he’ll learn that it’s a lot easier way to get his food than all that kicking and carrying on. It might take a few repetitions, especially if the previous behaviour has been a long term one, but he will figure it out.

The horse that bites or tries to climb on you. Either they a) have found that people will leave them alone if they do this, or more often b) they are trying to treat the human as they would another horse and engage in rough and tumble play. In the later situation, physical punishment is going to be one of the most ineffective methods to deal with the issue, as you’ll be doing exactly what they wanted, engaging in what they understand to be play behaviour. Generally the punishment has to escalate to such a point that the fear and pain are significant for it to be effective in discouraging the behaviour, and you’ll also be associating yourself with fear and pain, instead of play. It’s so much easier, and more beneficial to simply explain to your horse that those aren’t the sort of games we like to play but here’s some games I do enjoy. As this is most often seen in a young horse, the first approach is simply to ignore and disengage when the behaviour you don’t like appears. All the scratching and snuggling and playing … gone, walk away. When the youngster approaches you in a way you do like, then go back to all the things you know they like to show them that’s a rewarding behaviour. And know that the more things you teach them, the less often these sorts of things will come up – even if you do nothing directly to discourage them, as they’ll have other games to play with you.

The horse that crashes into you. This is the one I still struggle with the most. I hate that, a horse that bodychecks me, I think because it’s when I feel the most unsafe given that I’m not the most stable on my feet at the best of times! My instinct is still to fight back, even though I know it’s not the best way. I got in a huge fight with cantankerous old Knight Rider just a few weeks ago when he crashed into me coming out of his stall and then continued to drag or run into me the whole way to his turnout pasture. Which I can tell you right now wouldn’t have continued that long if I hadn’t escalated the fight. I was so upset afterwords – that’s just not how I do things anymore. But what was done was done so – after a little cry sitting in the snow – all I could do was make a plan so I could do better next time. I simply waited until he stood quietly and rewarded that with a treat before I opened the gate to lead him out, and then rewarded again when the gate was open. With his attention squarely on me, he waited and walked out politely and the fight never started.

The horse that balks and refuses to move. I’ve used non-escalating negative reinforcement to work with this in the past and it did work eventually. By that I mean I used a tapping whip that was stopped as soon as I got some forward movement. Timing was so important though, and patience as I had to wait out a very confident and determined individual. That was before I learned about target training. It almost seems too easy when you’re able to ask a horse to walk towards something they want instead of away from something they don’t want. Target training a horse is so simple, as they naturally reach out to touch new things with their nose, so it’s very easy to put it on cue and reward it. Touch the target, get a treat. Now, you can use that same skill for all sorts of things … my balky mare who wouldn’t go through the stall door? Suddenly it’s no problem if she can walk towards a target that she knows is a fun and rewarding game! Teaching a horse to walk over a tarp? Onto a trailer? The sky is the limit for the usefulness of this tool! A target is exponentially more effective and easier than a whip or other forms of force with a balky horse.

Those aren’t even the only way to deal with those particular issues without using punishment – all it takes is some understanding of how horses interact with the world around them, and a little patience and imagination!

Punishment is often justified using the argument “that’s what another horse would do” which isn’t untrue. Horses are often harsh in their treatment of each other. But the thing is, a lot of the time these “problem behaviours” arise BECAUSE our horse is treating us as they would another horse. We’re not a horse, and reacting the way that a horse would is only going to continue the issues. We need to teach our horse how we’d like them to interact with us, as a human, not as a horse, and punishment isn’t going to be the most efficient way to reach that goal. 

Think outside the punishment box. Because there is always another way. 


Want to learn more about communicating with your Miniature Horse? Click here. 



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