Let's look at a few things to consider that will help us know where the lines are. First, let's look at what is a fair request. A fair request to me is anything that is fairly easy for the horse, is clearly communicated, and the horse can execute at least a bit. The next thing to consider is how much of priority it is and how much are you willing to accept (there is a lot of room for variables here). Another aspect could be, is the request an area where the horse is out of balance. What that looks like is a horse who is extremely one way in his behavior, training, or energy. These are horses I am looking to balance out gradually to a more middle ground. And finally, I look at what I call non-negotiables. These are areas where I have decided that I am not negotiable on in regardless of the horses opinion. They usually pertain to safety or extreme dominant or aggressive behavior but can go into technical training if it seems appropriate.
Now that we've laid that out, let's look at some other variables. When we put equipment on a horse, we have given ourselves a small advantage ( I say small because at any moment a horse decides you're off or he's not participating, it's done, I don't care what you have on them). A horse by nature wants to get along so if he sees there's an out or release, he's going to look for that rather them fuss too much (unless there are bigger issues afoot). This leads me to not taking advantage of a horses extremely generous and compassionate nature. Everyday, I am literally blown away by what I see horses tolerate in care, handling, training and un-natural lifestyles. It is on us humans to keep in mind to ask only for what a horse can deliver comfortably and happily in his daily life. That leads me to restraint. I see it as force at any point the horse has his ability to move taken away ie. roping or tying legs up. Other things such as twitches and chains/shanks also fall into this category if used to take away the horses opinion completely. The only time these may be justifiable methods is when it is a medical emergency and a horses health depends on it (and you can't tranquilize them or the tranquilizers are not enough). It means there is no time to train them gently at that moment.
Let's also look at how horses handle Firmness in the herd. If the horse is a fair and balanced Lead horse, he will only use as much energy/pressure as is necessary to get his point across AND it will not be PERSONAL. It will be to serve a clear purpose and it will be in the moment. An understanding will be achieved and the horses' will move on from it without incident.
So taking all that into consideration, when is it force or firmness in everday handling or work with our horses. Well that is best defined between a horse and his person. But here are some guidelines I use. If it is a reasonable request and I have made it a priority in my mind, I try to see if I can at least communicate my request at Liberty first to let the horse have a say in it and can observe his responses. How hard is it?, Was he put out by the request or took to it easily. Any time I am working/playing with a horse and I run into a "no", I have to ask myself why is that "no" there. This is the information that helps me know when to be firm or if I am pushing a horse way past his comfort zone.
Some questions I would pose to myself would be:
What is the age/level of this horse?,
Is this Dominant behavior?,
Is he confused?
Is he in Pain?,
Is he a little afraid?
Is he a lot afraid?
Will the horse not trust me if I am more firm?
Would it benefit him to go a little past his comfort zone?
Would he become a more balanced horse?
Do I have good enough timing, feel and release to help my horse understand my firm request?
If I am more firm will he respect my leadership more?
This can all be played with to see what "Conversation" comes up between you and your horse. When we practice Carolyn Resnick's Waterhole Rituals, We always know we can rebuild trust and connection when it may feel strained from pushing to strongly. We also know that playing with the boundaries can help create a better bond and help you become a better Leader in you horses eyes. The video below shows a choice I made to not use restraint or force with my horse who was quite violent about clippers when I first introduced them. I decided if I couldn't get him to allow it I would not resort to restraint. More oats for thought....
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