How Do I Get My Horse to Respect Me?

How Do I Get My Horse to Respect Me?

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Q. How do I get my horse to respect me?

A. First, so that we’re on the same page, let me explain what I think of as respect from a horse.

I certainly don't think of it as fear. I also don't think respect has to be a kind of profound obedience wherein a horse doesn't move a foot unless directed to do so by his handler.

I think of respect more as reasonably prompt compliance with what I am asking a horse to do. That might specifically mean: “Don't crowd me; move away; come here; whoa; and go."

We can get our horses to respect us by using behavior modification. We will save a discussion on punishment for another time, because in the long run, punishment is not our best training tool. Likewise, advanced forms of restraint are not really behavior modification either.

The two common forms of behavior modification are positive and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is giving a horse what he wants (usually a food reward) for doing what we want or ask him to do. Negative reinforcement is removing a mildly aversive stimulus when the horse does what we want.

Negative reinforcement is probably the most commonly used tool to train horses. Think of this sequence of events: You pull on the reins to put pressure on the bit in the horse's mouth, he responds by slowing or turning, and then you relax the pull on the reins. You have just removed an aversive stimulus when the horse did what you wanted him to do. That is negative reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement gets a bad rap because people often think giving a food reward will make your horse less respectful and maybe nippy or nudgy, because he will always be looking for treats. But in my experience and when done correctly, this has not occurred. First, I begin training a horse to expect a food reward for turning his head away from me, not toward me. Food rewards are not given randomly, the horse must do or not do specific behaviors in order to get the food reward.

The key to getting your horse to be compliant and, in my mind, to respect you—or rather respect your commands or training methods—is to apply your reinforcements correctly and consistently.

For example, if you sometimes give in and give that carrot when the horse nuzzles or nips at your coat pocket, it's worth the effort to him to keep trying that technique even if sometimes you swat at his nose and say "get off me!" Likewise, horses that get "hard mouthed" and don't respond well to bit pressure have probably over time not experienced that removal of pressure when they did the right thing by slowing down. So often what might appear to us as a lack of respect or responsiveness is actually a horse that has not been correctly or consistently reinforced for doing the right thing.

About the Author

Nancy Diehl, VMD, MS

Prior to attending veterinary school, Dr. Nancy Diehl completed a master’s degree in animal science while studying stallion sexual behavior. Later, she completed a residency in large animal internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center and worked in equine practices in Missouri and Pennsylvania. Diehl also spent six years on faculty at Penn State, where she taught equine science and behavior courses and advised graduate students completing equine behavior research. Additionally, Diehl has co-authored scientific papers on stallion behavior, early intensive handling of foals, and feral horse contraception. Currently she is a practicing veterinarian in central Pennsylvania.

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