When Horses Don't Respond to Corrections

When Horses Don't Respond to Corrections

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Q. My horse kicks out when I clean his hind hooves or when the farrier trims them.  I’ve tried giving a sharp yank on the lead rope, smacking him on the hindquarters, and even squirting him with water. Sometimes he will stop after a few corrections, but the kicking starts up again the next time I work on his feet. Why has punishment not worked, and what can I do to correct my horse’s dangerous behavior?

A. Horses quickly learn that their behavior has consequences, and in theory, a behavior should stop when it is followed by something unpleasant. In practice, however, punishment can be challenging to put into action and can have unwanted side-effects. Becoming familiar with some of the pitfalls of punishment can help improve your training success.

You want to reinforce your horse’s correct responses.

One significant shortcoming of punishment is that it only provides feedback about incorrect behavior but doesn’t give the horse guidance about what it should do instead. Reinforcing correct responses can have a more direct and effective result than punishing unwanted behavior.1,4 In your case, the correct response is when your horse yields his hoof without kicking, which can be reinforced either by releasing pressure (negative reinforcement) or by providing a reward (positive reinforcement). Importantly, the release or reward must happen before your horse kicks to avoid unintentionally reinforcing the bad behavior.

Imprecise timing and weak punishers lead to poor learning.

Accurate timing is a cornerstone of successful training. The consequences should be consistent and immediate. If the reward or punishment is late, the horse can become confused, frustrated, and even learn the wrong thing. 

Through poor timing, it’s possible to unintentionally reward the unwanted behavior or to punish the correct response.2 For example, kicking will be rewarded—and persist—if it’s resulted in a release of pressure or has led to a delay in having the hoof worked on. The correct response (lifting the leg) will be punished if you do not release the pressure as he lifts his hind leg.

Finding an effective punisher can also be challenging. If it’s too weak, the horse will habituate to it; but if the punisher is too strong, it will trigger a defensive fight-or-flight response or even cause injury.

Punishment is not recommended if the problem is behavior caused by fear or pain.

Punishment is more often used when people perceive the behavior as naughty and feel irritated or angry in response.3 However, the majority of behavior problems in horses are caused by pain, fear, or frustration—not disobedience—and punishment can intensify these strong emotions and make the problem worse.  

If your horse is in pain, obviously this issue must be addressed. If your horse is anxious or fearful, he might not be able to mentally process the connection between kicking and punishment, because learning is impaired when an animal experiences strong emotions.1 In addition, the unpleasant experience can quickly become associated with the situation and the person delivering the punishment.

Learned helplessness is an undesirable side effect of punishment that can occur when the horse experiences inescapable pain or discomfort. The horse could learn that no matter what he does, the pressure or pain doesn’t ease up, and this perceived lack of control can lead to a withdrawn and unresponsive horse.

Take-Home Message

Punishment is commonly practiced to stop unwanted behavior. It seems simple—bad behavior is followed by an unpleasant consequence—and often gets immediate results, which can be very satisfying. But, as you have experienced, the behavior change is usually short-lived. The value of using punishment to train horses has been questioned for decades due to the challenges of applying it effectively, as well as the welfare implications when it is applied incorrectly or misused.1 You might find alternative methods, as described above, more successful.

Selected References

1 Mills, D.S. 1998.  Applying learning theory to the management of the horse: the difference between getting it right and getting it wrong.  Equine Veterinary Journal, Supplement 27, 44-48. 

2   McGreevy, P.D. & McLain, A.N. 2009. Punishment in horse-training and the concept of ethical Equitation. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 4, 193-197.

3   Ben-Michael, J., Korzilius, H., Felling, A., and Vossen, J. 2000. An exploratory model of dog disciplining.  Antrozoös 13, 150-163.

4   Hockenhull, J, & Creighton, E.  2013. Training horses: Positive reinforcement, positive punishment, and ridden behavior problems. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 8, 245-252.


About the Author

Robin Foster, PhD, CAAB, IAABC-Certified Horse Behavior Consultant

Robin Foster, PhD, CAAB, IAABC-Certified Horse Behavior Consultant, is a research professor at the University of Puget Sound in Seattle, Washington, and an affiliate professor at the University of Washington. She holds a doctorate in animal behavior and has taught courses in animal learning and behavior for more than 20 years. Her research looks at temperament, stress, and burn-out as they relate to the selection, retention, and welfare of therapy horses. She also provides private behavior consultations and training services in the Seattle area.

comments powered by Disqus
Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from Learn More