2938 Vet. Med. Basic Sciences Bldg.
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
By Sarah Probst
University of Illinois
College of Veterinary Medicine
"We love our horses, but it is important that we don't expect them to love us back. Respect is what we should desire," says Dr. Dean Scoggins, equine Extension veterinarian at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. "The difference between you and the people we call 'horse whisperers' is that they are clear about what they want from a horse. A horse's respect is gained when rules are clearly and consistently implemented."
To effectively communicate rules, it is necessary to recognize normal and abnormal behavior in your horse. Horses are a prey species; we humans are predators. Approaching a horse like a predator will not gain his respect. In fact, it may induce fear. You must realize that your horse is going to respond like a prey animal to certain approaches and adjust your behavior so your horse will understand.
"The difference between discipline and punishment is attitude. Don't react to your horse's actions because you are mad at him. React because you want to show him the right way to get the job done," says Dr. Scoggins. After the wrong action has occurred, it is too late. You need to admonish your horse before the action has occurred. To accomplish this, you must be observant of the horse and allow your horse to make mistakes. "Offer a mild pressure first then escalate it until a response occurs. Release the pressure immediately. Eventually release only for a soft or correct response," adds Dr. Scoggins.
Not communicating the rules in an appropriate manner can lead to unwanted behavior. "When I interact with my horses, I'm careful not to create a problem I'm going to have to fix," explains Dr. Scoggins. "Two problems common to people who struggle with their horse's respect are the horse walking too close to the owner when being led and the horse not wanting to be caught by its owner."
Horses in a herd have personal bubbles that they respect among each other. You should let your horse know what your own bubble is. An owner that allows his horse to walk too close when led is asking to get trampled. Teach your horse to respect your space for safety reasons.
When your horse encroaches upon your space, offer him the best deal by leading him to the position where you are comfortable. If he still steps into your space, interrupt his motion with a rebuke. The level at which you discourage your horse from an action depends on your horse. Some horses need only the wave of a hand into their space, while other horses may need a rope snapped in their face a few times before they understand the diameter of your personal space.
Horses that do not want to be around their owners are often hard to catch. To convince a horse to come up to them, some people offer treats. "You can't feed a horse into liking you," says Dr. Scoggins. "Horses don't feed other horses treats. You haven't gotten love or respect from giving a horse treats." In fact, offering treats to catch your horse may lead to unwanted behaviors such as nipping, invading your space, or reacting with anger if you approach without a treat. Your horse should come to you because he respects you, not because he expects to get something. Respect with horses can be achieved by being consistent with the rules.
Start your horse in a small arena or pasture and drive your horse around the enclosed area with a lead rope; do not use a whip. Continue to apply pressure until the horse faces up to you. Reward your horse with a lack of pressure. Approach your horse and reward further by scratching a favorite spot. And then walk away. Do this several times before you actually "catch" your horse and work with him.
When you are finished working your horses and you are bringing them back to pasture, don't just send them running into the field. Walk them inside and leave a lead rope around their neck. Scratch their favorite spot and then release them. This gives your horses a reason to want to be with you instead of instigating a predator-prey relationship where you, the predator, are always trying to catch your horse, the prey.
Although you may never be labeled "horse whisperer" by your peers, it is important to use the concepts characteristic of people touted as whisperers. They are consistent and clear about what they want from the horse and they use the horse's natural reactions to teach the rules.
For more information about medical care for your horse,
contact your equine veterinarian.