Behavior: Discipline for Kicking and Striking

Q: We have a disagreement in our barn: How do you best handle immediate discipline for a horse that strikes out with both front feet or cow-kicks and knows better (not a young horse)? Those people in our barn who have Western discipline upbringing say it's okay to kick the horse in the ribs (much like you would thump on one if you were riding and the horse wouldn't respond to leg aids), and the English group says no kicking from the ground, but kicking while riding is okay.

I'm not talking inhumane beating, but immediate discipline.

What are your thoughts on immediate discipline by experienced horse people in these situations? Also, what could be done in the long term to avoid these situations altogether?      Babs, via e-mail


A: My response may sound like that of an aging hippie, but the simple truth is that I have settled on a strong personal preference and professional opinion that a peaceful, nonpunitive approach is the way to go with horses and people. I have lost all interest and tolerance for contact aggression, whether slapping, punching, kicking, shanking, or pestering. I also see no benefit in clucking and yelling.

Maybe it's age-related dementia, but that position has solidified over the years while watching different styles of human behavior around animals. Working as a behavior specialist in a busy hospital and teaching environment with nationally and internationally diverse faculty, staff, students, trainers, and owners with all sorts of horses at all levels of training in all the different disciplines, you can't help but appreciate the relative efficiency and quality of life of various confrontational and nonconfrontational approaches to handling horses.

We also see quite a few horses that are uncomfortable or stressed for one reason or another, and I am always impressed at how discomfort--either physical or psychological--brings out those unexpected aggressive responses in horses. How the people react can make a big difference.

So, if faced with that situation you describe, I would first try to understand why a schooled horse struck out with both feet or cow-kicked in the first place. I would focus on relaxing and regrouping. I would try to reward the behavior I wanted (not kicking or striking) and reassure the horse.

Having said that, if you are really, really good with your timing, can anticipate and interrupt the undesirable action as it is happening, and can immediately relax and start again, then for certain things the aggressive approach can work for some horses. The trick is to get the message to the horse of what they specifically did wrong, then relax and start again. Biting in colts is one of those things that I used to try to teach interrupting with a swift, strong whack on the lips. But I don't do that anymore myself or try to teach it. Teaching people how to ignore the nipping and redirecting the colt's behavior forward has been more successful and satisfying.

To advise on how to avoid these situations I would need to know a bit more about the horse's history and what might be provoking the undesirable behavior. But, say you have a horse that tends to be reluctant about lifting a foot, for example, or gets wiggly for injections. In these scenarios intermittent reinforcement (a treat once in a while) when they are being good works wonders for me.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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