A Note about Sugarbush Draft Horses

I see it over and over again, and no matter how many times it's said, it's still wrong. "Sugarbush Drafts are just an Appaloosa Draft Cross". Uh.... no. The Sugarbush Draft Horse was a breed created many years ago in Ohio. While the initial cross was made using Percherons to Appaloosas, in the many generations following, the breed has been solidified into a consistent type. Saying these horses are "just" a draft cross makes as much sense as saying that AQHA horses are "just" a Thoroughbred cross, American Cream Drafts are "just" a dilute Belgian, or that Morgans are "just" a grade.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

My rambling thoughts on the use of force in training

Lisa, from Laughing Orca Ranch brought up the difference between training with patience, and using force.  I thought about replying in the comments, then realized that since my day was so exciting, that I'd just make my evening post about it.

See, I spent all day washing the inside pets.  I have 6 dogs, and 12 cats.  Every one was filthy, most had fleas, and cash is tight enough that I have to put off buying my topical flea control.  So it was flea baths all around!  Not something any one really cares about.  =)

So Lisa asked, "Above all else, I've learned that you have to pay attention and not use force. Patience and understanding go much further, don't you think?"

Personally, I don't think it's an either/or type of situation.  Keep in mind, I never EVER advocate abusing an animal.  With that said, there are many times that force is a necessary training tool in the arsenal of tricks.  Of course, using force should always be done with patience, so Lisa is dead on!

Now, using anger is the real problem.  I never get angry toward a horse I am working with.  Oh yes, I often get angry AT a horse, but that's the point that I'm walking to the house, NOT when I have the horse in hand, or under saddle.  Anger has no place when working with horses.

Force on the other hand can be very useful.  It all depends on the horse you have in front of you.  So many people think of only what the horse brings to the training equation.  Look at it this way, Red plus blue equal purple, right?  Red plus yellow equals orange.  Purple and orange are NOTHING alike!  Now, if you replace red with the horse, and the other colors with the various handlers in that horse's life, you can see how this applies.

I am a very self confident, alpha type of personality, but I'm also a quiet person.  Often when working with horses a verbal word will never be spoken, but we both simply talk in body language.  That's my style.  It's neither right or wrong, it's just what I happen to feel most comfortable with.

Not the most flattering picture of either myself or the horse, but notice the look on my face, but the relaxed posture of my body.  I was being intentionally stern to Spot for throwing his head.  All I needed was to act grumpy to him and put a touch on the chain and he responded.

Another person may be a more social, verbal and submissive type.  The way this person interacts with a horse will be completely different then the way I do.  Again, neither good, nor bad, just something that is often forgotten, and the main reason why I dislike any type of cookie cutter training methods.

Here is my father, self proclaimed to be "not a horse person".  He is more passive and submissive in his approach, but he still is getting respect from Olivia, a yearling filly.  Notice his softer body position, but the horse is completely focused on him?  The next picture in that series is a lovely standing photo of the filly, exactly what he had asked for.

Disclaimer here:  I think that much of what Parelli says is right, I think Clinton Anderson has his head on properly, but I think that what they are SELLING is bunk.  Good for them for selling it, but they are trying to fit people and horses into molds that are too complex for a DVD set.  I think the above pictures show exactly how different individual and proper handling techniques can be!

So, this is why I started blogging.  Much of it is to put my thoughts into words.  Like I said, I'm the type that does, but doesn't always talk about it.  I often find it difficult to explain to owners what it is that I'm doing.  To me, its instinctual.  I hope to archive my "thinking out loud" here, so that I can reference it later, and to point to when I'm asked a question.  If others read this, and learn something from it, then I'm even happier!  So many people have shared their knowledge with me, so if I have something that others can use, I'm glad to pay it forward.

So, I digress again.  I am good at that!

The use of force when training is something that should be done with a calculated purpose.  Whether it's tapping with a whip, or touching with a spur, or even as severe as throwing a horse on the ground (which is used WAY too often in my opinion) it can be a useful tool.  It also depends greatly on the horse you're working with!  Like I said in this morning's post, trust your gut!

I had a horse named Trouble.  She was a lovely, well bred mare with a history of abuse in her past.  Trouble could only be handled by the happiest of people!  If you showed fear at her antics, she'd blow.  If you showed disappointment in her antics, she'd blow.  And Trouble earned her name, and her antics were severely dangerous!

Yes, my father again, with Trouble.  Sadly, we lost trouble to severe colic.  May the pastures be greener where you are my dear.

Trouble was a mess.  She bit, she kicked, she pawed and she was completely unpredictable.  When I looked at Trouble, I saw a kind eye, and a horse begging for a chance, not a freakish rogue.  I spent many hours teaching her to let me touch her.  I'd pet her neck, she'd snake her head out to bite me.  I'd pet her withers, and she'd try to cow kick me.  If I had a moment of expressing anything but a happy attitude, she became so fearful that she'd blow up - striking, rearing, bucking in place.

I laughed away her attempts to bite me, since I knew I was safely out of range.  When her teeth darted at me, I "rebuked her" by touching her nose solidly.  When she tried to kick me, I would simply hold my hand on her withers, moving with her until the kicking stopped.  When she allowed me to touch her with out fighting, I rewarded her with grain (from a bucket as I couldn't touch her nose) and eventually worked up to petting her head and cooing at her for a reward.

Eventually she learned to love people, and to come up seeking out attention, hence the above picture.

On the flip side, I have had quite a few horses come to me knowing nothing but praise.  Rover was one.  Darling Rover knew nothing other then cookies and petting.  To reward him was nothing out of the ordinary, and he didn't see why he should work to seek the reward.  Brushing, hugs, cookies, these things were what just happened, not something that he EARNED!  He was dangerous in his own right, although much more subtly then Trouble.  Rover never paid attention to his handler.  He would crowd your space, while staring off into the distance.  A sudden move could spook him right on top of the poor person at the end of his lead.  He didn't understand that he couldn't express dominance to other horses with a human in the middle.  Sniff noses and paw... sure, that human will move!

For Rover, I had to set the ground rules.  Get out of my space, or you are pushed out.  If pushing doesn't work, then I would tap his shoulder with a crop until it was enough for him to pay attention.  Start daydreaming in hand, and he was working.  From lunging to backing up, if he didn't focus, he was MADE to do something he didn't like.  When Rover offered to act as I desired (i.e. be safe) on his own, with out a reprimand first, only then was he rewarded.  Today he's one of the best horses I have for beginners. 

Another example of the proper use of force is when working with the dominant horse.  This type of horse requires its handler to PROVE her strength.  If the horse tries to walk on top of you, intentionally, to out dominate you, then yes, you had best return force in kind.  A snap of the halter, a quick jerk of a stud chain, slapping a whip across its chest if it's heading AT you.  All are examples of force, and all can be very effective.  See, horses relate movement to dominance.

Say you're lunging a horse, and the horse ducks inside the circle, and heads directly toward you, forcing you to move out of its way.  That horse, in the horse's mind, just proved that you are submissive to it, and that it is in charge.  If you continue to allow the horse to move you around as the horse desires, then the horse could escalate to even more dangerous behaviour!  Certain things are never allowed just because of safety reasons.  Biting.  Kicking.  Charging.  All of these deserve proper, patienly thought out and delivered, uses of force.

Arden, shown here, is starting to dive into the circle to move the trainer.  She really disliked that trainer (see rearing photo from previous post!) and only had the single session with her.  The trainer though, is standing calmly, and not giving ground.

The problem though, was that this trainer also never gave praise, and Arden is a horse that works for a "good girl!".  Arden did not understand what was being asked of her, and had been trained (by me) that praise is the sign that she's doing what I want.  A simple release of pressure was not giving this horse the reinforcement that the horse needed to feel secure.  Because of this horse's personality, she chose to handle her confusion by taking control of the situation, hence her attempts at dominance.

Now, what Lisa was referring to was not a problem with aggression.  In her case, it was a situation of confusion.  I completely agree with what her gut told her - put away the crop, and work it out slowly!  From her description, it sounds like Apache didn't understand what Lisa was asking, or didn't understand WHY Lisa was asking it, or didn't understand WHY she should do it because Lisa's emotional level was different then the command she gave.  I'd put money on the last option, but I wasn't there.  (It's the most common problem).

When there is confusion, using force is the WRONG way to deal with it.  In that case, it's no different then spanking a child who doesn't understand math.  It sure won't help the kid learn, nor will it help the horse.  If the problem is from emotional residue (we all face fear when handling horses, at least if we're SANE!) then the horse was actually performing the desired response.  Apache was calm, and stood like a saint, rather then sensing fear and becoming spooky or bolting.  The problem is, that it sucks to admit that the fault lies in us, the handler, and not the beast with a golf ball sized brain.  Nothing worse then being outsmarted by a horse and having to admit that your lieing to yourself.  Yeah, I've been there MANY times.

But this all comes back to the fact that horses aren't pack animals, they are herd animals.  Prey animals.  They seek a strong leader.  They don't always look for a loving leader, since their instincts tell them that to survive they needs to be close to the strongest, not the nicest.  But we're humans, and we're able to be both the strongest and the nicest at the same time.  That my friends is what makes a great horseperson.

And yes, horses do feel love.  It's a scientifically proven fact.  Oxytocin is released into the brain, it's taken up by the receptors, and is processed.  This causes the mare/foal bonding that is called motherhood.  It's also the hormone that causes uterine contractions.  Oxytocin is released in almost all mammals (I don't know of any that don't have it) from prolonged physical contact, and results in a pleasurable feeling.  In humans, we call this feeling love. 

Thanks for the excuse to ramble out my thoughts Lisa.... it got me out of making dinner!


  1. Hmmmm....I think you may have misunderstood something in my comment. If you were referring to me introducing Apache to the crop, I wasn't asking her to do anything at all.
    And there wasn't any emotional confusion on my part either.

    Just as I've introduced her to new obstacles and situations for our competitive trail rides, and practiced them with her, I was calmly showing the crop to her. There was no pressure whatsoever. I was not using any forward energy or shaking it at or towards her. I stood still and held the crop still and spoke quietly to her....because, her eyes were bugging out of her head.
    When I gently touched her with the tip of the crop, it was barely a whisper, but she freaked like I was touching her with fire. And she reared. She wasn't standing calmly like a saint, unfortunately, like you said. She was afraid.

    That is why I finally threw the crop down to the ground and calmly reassured my horse by moving her away from the crop, and that is also when I promised my mare that I would never use a crop on her as long as she did as I asked.

    As my friend and mentor, and the director of Walking in Circles Horse Rescue, Colleen says, "Apache was obviously abused as well as neglected. We know this because the owner told us she 'had to whip Apache with the crop to get her to move', and she never took proper care of Apache or spent any time trying to figure out why she reared (she was in pain from overgrown teeth and the previous owner using a Tom Thumb bit that was hitting the 2" long hooks in her mouth)".
    Instead her previous owner, who claimed she did things the 'cowboy way' just tied her head down and forced Apache to deal with the pain and abuse.

    I consider that the wrong kind of force for someone to use, because there is no communication or understanding between rider and horse. Just the rider forcing her will upon a horse obviously in discomfort and pain.

    Apache wasn't aggressive with me, that is true, but she was fearful. Which is why I decided not to ever use a crop on her. Besides, it's not necessary in her case. She has proven to me that she will move, if asked in the right way for her...firmly, gently and with encouragement...and I suppose, yes with a slight bit of force.

    But force to me sounds so aggressive, as in do this and bend to my will, or else. In many cases I don't think it's necessary. I think many horses will do as asked, if the person is firm, confident and asking clearly...and fairly.

    I'd like to believe my horse and I are a partnership and she is acting in a willing manner, and not just because I'm forcing her to do my bidding all the time.

    I recognized this in my mare yesterday when I asked and she gave...and I could feel her excitement and willingness to please. She wasn't just grudgingly cooperating, if you know what I mean. Her heart and spirit were in the effort and it showed. I didn't have to use any force....I just asked....and she gave, when as you know, she really didn't have to.

    Anyway, I just wanted to clarify that because it seemed like you misunderstood something in my comment.


  2. Oh and I just realized this part of my comment sounded derogative, "I would never use a crop on her as long as she did as I asked." because I will never use a crop on Apache, even if for some reason she doesn't cooperate with what I'm asking. In that case I would seek out a different form of communication instead, possibly a nubby spur or swinging the end of the reins in the air. But never will I use a crop on Apache.


  3. I almost always carry a crop, but I was taught that it's simply another tool, an extension of your arm, not a weapon. I rarely use it, and if I do, it's a tap (and I MEAN a tap) on the butt or shoulder that says, "YES, I really mean it" when I ask for something. Poco especially is so overreactive, if I really smacked him with a crop, he'd launch me to the moon! And after she picked me up off the ground, Heather would probably beat ME with it.

    I think the term "force" is what's being misunderstood here. Force does not equal physical violence. It's important to get into their heads to figure out what pushes their buttons so you can find ways to get what you want. You can "force" a horse to do something simply by making doing that thing easier than doing whatever it is you don't want them to. You make YOUR way the easy way and THEIR way hard or undesirable.

    The perfect example of this is Clinton Anderson's method for getting a horse into a trailer. Make them work and work and work until getting into that trailer is the only way to not have to work. For Jaz, that sometimes means, "Get in the trailer or this stick will tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap on your butt all day long until it drives you crazy." It doesn't hurt him a bit, but it's annoying and he wants to move away from it.

    In this context, I force my horses to do stuff every darn day.

  4. Dang it! See what you made me do?? I got so wrapped up in this post that I blew off my workout!!

  5. Lisa, I understood what you were saying completely, and I tried to make comments through out to that point. BUT, you got me thinking about how misunderstood the use of force is as a training tool. That's what I was on about, not you in particular, but the concept in general.

    For you and your horse, no, you should not use force, since the other way works best. Like I said, trust your gut, and do what seems to fit for your situation. You did, and you got the PERFECT result. To me, that says that you chose wisely.

    For other people and other horses, they should not refrain from using force... a shove, a spanking, etc, because it might be the most effective training method for that other horse.

    Also, so often, the LACK of "being the boss mare" or what ever you want to call it, causes SO many problems. One of the most common reasons people ask me to look at their horse, or help them with their horse, or even TAKE their horse is because they were too passive, and the horse is walking all over them, becoming dangerous.

    I'm not saying that you, Lisa, are like that, but others are, so your comment got me thinking.

    Lisa, from the posts on your blog, you seem to have a good understanding of what Apache needs from you. Your personality and hers compliment each other, and I am not in any way saying what you're doing it wrong.

    Just as I mentioned my beloved Trouble. I would never have used force with her, because she was abused, and it was NOT the proper tool for the job. On the flip side, using patience and kindness was not the proper tool for the job with Rover. Rover had NOTHING but too much patience, and had become a problem because of it. I never had to beat him, but I did have to be very stern and stop babying him.

    Leah did a great blog on how dangerous Rover had become, simply because he wasn't paying attention, and overreacted to her simple correction.

    That's all I was trying to say.

  6. LOL, Leah...you didn't really want to work anyway =p

  7. Oh! My comments about the confusion were also in relation to her not walking forward under saddle, not the introduction of the crop!

    Sorry, just realized that might not have been clear.

  8. lol! Ok, well even with the not walking forward issue, I wasn't confused in what I was asking. She just refused and didn't take me seriously. I think a little of that might be that I am used to just clucking or leaning forward and getting a horse to walk. My previous horse was super sensitive and if I even touched her sides with a squeeze, she would buck or crow hop.
    I'm sure if I would have used my heel on my previous horse, like I've done on Apache, she would have sent me to the moon, like Pokey would do to Leah with too much use of the crop.

    I don't have any issues with crops...or, whips, or even carrot sticks for that matter. I was fully prepared to use the crop I bought. My mentor adviced me to just tap my leg and not even touch Apache with it, and that that technique works just as well for many horses.

    Like Leah said they are just a tool.....that can be helpful and effective if used in the right way....but in Apache's case, those same tools were used as a form of abuse. So they won't be helpful in my work with her or for our relationship.

    When I first brought Apache home, she was a little pushy and would tend to get in my space, but with the ground work I've done with her....and not done forcefully, just with quiet confidence and firmness (sort of like you with the energy you portrayed in your photo) she will move out of my space now, even if I just point in the direction I want her to move.

    And if I hype up my energy by puffing myself up a little taller and using more animation in my arm and finger, she will move away very quickly with respect. But I don't even have to touch her with a whip or crop at all.

    In her case, like you agreed with, she just doesn't need it. And quite honestly I believe using stronger methods would degrade our relationship which is being built on trust, especially after what she...and even I, have been through.


  9. I'll bet your right in your guess as to why she didn't go forward.

    I love reading about you and Apache. Every time I do, I keep thinking that you found the perfect horse to match you, and she's so lucky to have you. She sounds like such a sweet thing, and I bet in only a few more months you'll have an amazing horse on your hands!

    I have to say, Leah and Poco are kinda the same way. Watching their relationship progress has been great. I wasn't sure it would be a good match at first, but Leah was adamant and I'm glad she was so firm about it. He's turned into a great horse. A whole LOT of horse for any rider, but he obviously loves her so much, you can see it in his eyes.

  10. Gah, you're not your. Hot and tired now, and storm is making my arthritis flare up, so forgive typos please.