Brains before brawn: a rant

We’ve all seen them. Someone who decides the warm-up ring at a show is the right place to drill lead changes, getting increasingly angry and liberal with the whip at every failed attempt. The person whose horse is mentally not prepared for the work they’re trying to do, so they end up yanking the horse to a stop repeatedly and seesawing on the mouth out of frustration. The rider whose spooky horse is hesitant about something and they yank the horse around, yelling and whaling away before the horse even knows what’s happening.

Unfortunately something I see a lot of on a pretty regular basis is people picking fights with horses while they’re riding. I don’t get up on my preachy soapbox very often on this blog, but this is one thing I just don’t get and it drives me nuts. Horses are very rarely obstinate under saddle just for the sake of being obstinate. It’s much more likely that they’re a) confused by what you’re asking b) not prepared for what you’re asking – either mentally or physically – or c) hurting. Trying to force them into doing something and letting our emotions take control creates a situation where no one wins. Either the human ends up frustrated or hurt, or the horse ends up frustrated, upset, and likely resentful.

Why buy trouble?

As humans, we have brains (well most of us). We can think logically, foresee how different scenarios could play out, and make intelligent decisions. Horses are creatures that are very much “in the now”. They react to the situations they’re put in, to their surroundings, what they’re being asked to do, and how they’re being asked to do it. We as humans can control a lot of that, and therefore can in essence choose to avoid situations that probably won’t turn out favorably. I’m not saying avoid situations as in “Snookums doesn’t want to go in that corner, so we’ll just avoid that half of the ring”. I’m saying that we take a moment to instead ask ourselves how we can, in a way, outsmart Snookums and get him into that corner without resorting to manhandling and frustrating both parties. Basically using your brains – not your brawn. It’s possible in almost every scenario if you set your emotions aside and think instead of react.

Remember that saying? It’s really true. For myself personally, when I encounter disobedience in a horse the first thing I ask myself is why. Was the horse properly prepared for what I asked? Did I ask correctly? Is there some outside factor – mental or physical – that is preventing the horse from responding appropriately? Nine times out of ten the resolution to the disobedience can be found within the answers to those questions (which is why I think a good trainer is so important – to help us mere mortals figure out where we’re making mistakes). Sometimes it’s as simple as us asking in a way that wasn’t understood very well. Other times it’s the horse saying “I’m so wigged out right now, I can’t handle this” in which case you can take a step back, find something to un-wig them, and ask again.

There’s also nothing in the world to be gained by yanking/kicking/beating/yelling. To the people that then try to justify their idiotic behavior by blaming their horses for being jerks: I’ll say it… you’re the jerk. Our hands and legs aren’t weapons, they’re aids. Same with a whip and spur. I can’t even imagine what people are expecting to accomplish when they take out their temper and lack of riding skill on their horse. There’s a difference between a firm “No, I said do this” reprimand and flat out abuse, and IMO I see the line blurred way too often when a human’s temper takes control. C’mon people, we’re better that. I don’t know about you but I’d rather be a thinking rider who sets the horse up for success, not the reacting rider who punishes and frustrates. If you regularly find yourself in fights with your horse, you’re doing something wrong, and maybe it’s time to seek professional help.

Of course – yes, sometimes horses are in fact just plain disobedient. But we can make a correction swiftly and succinctly then move on without holding a grudge or losing our temper, and subsequently reward them when they do it right. My real grumble here is the people that choose to start a fight where there never had to be one in the first place. It’s just not fair to the horse.

Take a look at this except from the USDF website: “its purpose is to develop the horse’s natural athletic ability and willingness to work making him calm, supple and attentive to his rider.” We don’t get those things with force, hysterics, and emotion. We get it with tact, fairness, and intelligence.



28 thoughts on “Brains before brawn: a rant

  1. Well said! I saw a great quote somewhere that said something along the lines of “when the horse is not responding, you either asked the wrong question or you asked the question wrong.”


  2. “Of course – yes, sometimes horses are in fact just plain disobedient. But we can make a correction swiftly and succinctly then move on without holding a grudge or losing our temper, and subsequently reward them when they do it right. My real grumble here is the people that choose to start a fight where there never had to be one in the first place. It’s just not fair to the horse.”

    Walter Zettl says something along the lines of, if you think that a correct might work (i.e. extra spur when a horse kicks out during a flying change), try it once. If it doesn’t work the first time, MOVE ON. Repeatedly trying to spur or whip or whatever your trying to do isn’t going to work the second, third, or 70th time if it didn’t work the first. I absolutely agree!

    As a Parelli student, all of this makes me very happy. Preach on!!


  3. Yes! I just wrote about how myhorse is my mirror, more so than I realized it have encountered with other horses. I think people need to take a long hard honest look at themselves if they are having frequent ‘discssions’ as you have described.


  4. I’ve been there, it’s a bad place when frustration takes over. But like you said, the horse is trying to tell you something.

    I met Pippa Funnel and she said the best advice she can give is to never get angry or frustrated with your horse. Always patience, and time.


  5. Denny Emerson has posted on facebook several times today about this subject. Do you follow him? Agree with everything said here- always give the benefit of the doubt to the horse. If ever I get too frustrated to be positive and logical, I get off. Enough said.


  6. Well said. There is rarely an occasion that warrants getting angry at a horse and even less occasions on which that warranted anger is useful. I think it was CW Anderson (Billy and Blaze, y’all) who always said, “A true horseman knows neither fear nor anger”.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. My trainer always says “I check my position first. Then how I’m asking. Then I look to the horse.” It’s a good mantra to live by, especially for those of us with hyper sensitive drama queens masquerading as adult ammy dressage horses…


  8. nice post!! this is definitely something i’ve struggled with – being patient and not taking it personally. in a way – it’s usually easier with horses i don’t know vs. the horse i’m working most closely with – like somehow that ‘closeness’ tricks me into giving the horse anthropomorphic characteristics…

    but yes – i agree that it’s super important to take a step back and think about the issue holistically, and how i might be causing/adding to it. i frequently ask myself: ‘ok what is the outcome we need here? where can i give the reward / remove pressure?’ – it helps change my focus, i guess


  9. This is a big reason why I love my current trainer, who I know you know well. I have never ever seen her lose her temper at a horse and she’s very good at gauging what they can and can’t handle mentally… at least with my particular horse. I have lost my temper in the past and it’s shameful. Something to avoid at all cost.


  10. I completely agree with you. The worst is the riders that pick a fight with the horse because they’re scared to death of it (or because they are trying to show their “skills” in front of everyone at a show), then ride the living piss out of it because it’s “misbehaving”, and then go on to brag about how good they are with problem horses while the horse stands there so exhausted it looks like it’s going to collapse. Seriously? I HATE the people that pick fights with a horse just so they can brag about how bad ass they are for beating/riding it into submission. FYI, just because you’re terrified of your horse doesn’t mean that it’s a “problem” horse, the problem is it’s rider and those riders need punched in the face. Okay, rant over.


  11. great post Amanda. I do know that there are days when my pony is in a BAD mood and there are days when I am in a BAD mood and once in a blue moon they are the same day. EGADS Those days I figure out either to quickly A) get off and give it a pass or B) go out the gate turn right and go for a nice trail ride. it is just not worth it.

    But I do know what you mean and have seen it at shows, events etc. It is so bad when they do it in public like that (NOT that it is good to do it at home but I see it so often in a public venue it drives me CRAZY and usually it is causing some kind of bottle neck or rubbernecking that the whole ring shuts down.) You can’t train them in the five minutes before the start time for sure. Just not worth it, just go and ride and have fun. You can fix stuff later! Blows my mind at these unrecognized events how the schooling gets intense. WTF?


  12. The trainer I grew up with always used to say that we had to show the horse that we came with. That is, the second you loaded your horse for a show, you were done with ‘training’. Of course, there are little corrections that can be made in a warm-up or a schooling day, but 99.99% you’re done and you’re showing what you saddled that day.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s