As fate would have it, I ran into positive reinforcement training years before I had a dog of my own and years before it would mean anything to me. As fate would also have it, the use of punitive training techniques is what ended my riding career and stripped me of one of the most important things in my life – horses.
I have been riding since I was young. For various reasons, horses have come and gone through my life. My competition years were short, mainly because I objected to some of the abuse I saw going on in the training arena. I worked in barns all through college and after it as well. I have ridden all kinds of horses throughout my life, and I never really came up against one that I felt I couldn’t master. Until the day came that I did.
I don’t even remember how I found the horse that was to become my undoing and my salvation all at the same time. I think I might have seen an ad online for someone who was looking for her horses to be exercised. I did this every once in awhile, when work at the barn was slow or I was looking for a new challenge. Some riders charge for this service, a nominal amount, but I never did, I just enjoyed riding a new horse. As far as I was concerned, someone letting you ride their horse for free was enough.
Turns out that this horse was an old, abused Amish carriage horse, a breed that is very common in the suburbs of Philadelphia just outside of Amish country. Mostly the horses are bought from rescues or at auctions. After the Amish have no use for them, or the horse is so damaged that they can no longer pull a cart, they are surrendered or auctioned off at the infamous New Holland auction. Often, these horses have serious behavioral problems and phobias. Many of them are afraid of cars because their buggies have been hit. For people whose primary mode of transportation is buggy, a horse afraid of cars is a useless horse. The Amish do not consider horses pets, something many horse people criticize them for, but I always accepted as a cultural difference.
This particular horse was terrified of crops. For those who may not know, a crop is the small whip depicted below. Riders who use crops typically use them lightly on the side of the horse’s neck to make the horse go forward when it has decided it is not going to budge no matter how hard you squeeze its sides with your heels.
I didn’t typically ride with a crop, unless the trainer I was riding with required it. It wasn’t because I had a problem with a crop, at the time I didn’t. I just didn’t ride with them because I found that they got in the way more often than not, and I had an elitist view that if you couldn’t get a horse to go without the use of a crop then your legs weren’t strong enough.
I exercised this particular horse several times without the use of a crop. I wasn’t technically there to train this horse, I was just there to exercise her and ride her because her owner was injured.
This particular owner was a rare breed for me. She espoused “natural horsemanship”, something I knew very little about at the time though I’m still not entirely sure that she knew much more about the concept than I did. The horse was strong, and what I deemed “stubborn”. I recommended a more serious bit. At the time, the horse was being tacked up with a D-Ring Snaffle, a relatively mild bit. While that was the bit I used on my own horse, I thought it wasn’t strong enough for this one, because when you pulled back on her reins, she didn’t stop. My experience with her was that you were more along for the ride than anything else. I was young at the time, 19, and stupid. I thought I was proving my competence as a rider by just being able to stay on top of this horse. I never once thought how dangerous the situation truly was.
Now that I look back on it, I can’t believe how incredibly ignorant and arrogant I was. Here I was, at the time about 118 pounds, vs. this horse’s 1100 pounds, trying to control her with a small piece of metal stuck between her teeth and the strength of my will expressed through my calf muscles.
Stopping wasn’t the problem with this horse, too much going was her problem. So for that reason, I recommended the Kimberwick, a bit that looks something like a medieval torture device. The Kimberwick bit isn’t as extreme as it gets, but it was much more extreme than the simple, light weight snaffle the horse currently sported. When I recommended the Kimberwick (I even brought one to show the owner), she frowned and said that wasn’t where she was going with this horse, and that she actually thought the D-Ring Snaffle was too strong for her sensitive mouth.
I explained to her, as nicely as I could, that her horse did not have a sensitive mouth, and that she was going to end up killing someone that came out there to exercise her if she didn’t have a stronger bit.
That’s where we ran into some natural horsemanship problems. The way I looked at it, this owner was an irresponsible woman who didn’t know the first thing about riding or horses, who was trying to get someone (me) killed. The way I’m sure she looked at it was that I was a headstrong child who was trying to tell her how to train and treat her horses when it was not my place.
I abandoned the bit debate, but not the horse. As much as she annoyed me, I did like her gait. She was smooth and her trot was superb, long and steady, like floating on air, unlike the choppy, strange footed trot that my own horse had.
One day I showed up, and the woman told me that I would not be riding, because her horse had come into season. I rolled my eyes and asked why. She said she felt bad for her horse, and she didn’t know if horses experienced cramps like people did, but her horse seemed to be in a mood when she went into season, and she didn’t tolerate being ridden.
“Well, that’s too bad for her.” In so many words, I went on to explain to this owner that she was coddling this horse and giving it too many freedoms to decide when it wanted to be ridden and didn’t. How was the horse ever going to be able to get over whatever problems she had when she was allowed to make so many of her own decisions? We were the people with the big brains that understood how the world worked, and we could make better decisions for the horse, after all.
Somehow, I convinced the owner to let me ride her. I got on with no problems, however, when I mounted, she refused to move forward, which was a strange experience considering stopping her had been my major problem with her in times past. I sighed and squeezed and yelled and growled and threatened, all to no avail. See? The owner said; she doesn’t like to be ridden when she’s in season.
Well, I thought, I will put a stop to that. I instructed a friend of mine who had come along to fetch a crop from the barn. The owner again reminded me that the horse was terrified of crops. My thinking was, everyone needs to get over his or her fears eventually, and today was this horse’s day.
I instructed my friend to hide the crop behind her back and hand it to me from a position where the horse couldn’t see her, so the horse wouldn’t know that I had the crop. When I had it, I lightly tapped the horse’s neck. She sprang forward, only to stop again. I tapped her again, completely giving up on using my well-developed calf muscles. She sprang forward, then bucked and stopped. I rode out the buck and steeled myself. I tapped her again, not what I would have considered hard at that point, but more “stern”. She sprang forward, but this time she did not stop. The next thing I knew, we were in a full on wild west show, with her galloping headlong, barely missing the trees in her paddock, while she bucked the whole way. Despite how hard I pulled on her bit or how far back in the saddle I leaned, putting my whole 118 pounds into it, she would not slow down, and I was helpless to stop her.
I held on through five large bucks with all my might. On the sixth buck, she came up with all four feet off the ground, at least five feet in the air, my friend told me later. In mid-air I came out of the saddle, and we landed hard. When we landed, I found I was straddling not leather, but skin. I was on the horse’s neck while she continued to gallop and buck. I dropped the reins, grabbed onto her mane and pulled. When that didn’t work, I tried pulling on her ears to no avail. I watched as the scenery flew by and looked for my exit. As we rounded a turn into an area with no trees, I let go of her mane and threw my left foot over her neck. I hit the ground and rolled with my arms tucked across my chest. I looked behind me and saw the horse rearing. She came down with both front feet on my back, but not nearly as hard as she could have. When she realized I was underneath her, she hopped over me, did one more circle and stopped.
I got up, brushed myself off, every muscle inside me shaking. My friend stood there next to the horse’s owner, horrified. The owner rushed to apologize and see if I was okay.
Angry, with broken pride, I walked to the horse and grabbed her reins. I drew her up to the mounting block, and the owner asked me what I was doing. I told her I was going to get back on. The owner informed me that I was going to do no such thing. I explained through gritted teeth that if I didn’t get back on that this horse was going to think that every time she didn’t want to do something she could just throw her rider and that was that.
I didn’t get back on the horse; the owner put her foot down on that one. I don’t know if she did it for the horse or if she did it for me. At the time I was outraged, now, I have to say I am immensely grateful, because if I’d gotten back on that horse, I may not just have a broken riding career, I may have a broken neck.
For years after, every time anyone talked about “natural horsemanship” I gritted my teeth and glared, or just walked out of the room. “Natural horsemanship” meant “that person is a hippy idiot who doesn’t want to discipline/control their horse properly and is looking to create a dangerous animal.”
Now that I look back, “natural horsemanship” was exactly what that horse needed. Natural horsemanship utilizes a lot of positive reinforcement training techniques. That horse needed a clicker trainer, not flooding. That horse needed someone to listen to her needs, and assuage her fears, not force her into confronting them. That horse needed the me that was five years older.
She taught me a lesson though, a lesson that would take years for me to appreciate, and she taught it at a great price.
A couple years after I was thrown, I started to have chronic pains in my back. It started low and crept its way up. My doctors thought it was my kidneys, so they ran every test they could, searching for an answer. After everything came back normal, they started looking at other issues. It turns out that the pain is permanent nerve damage done to almost every muscle in my back. The damage causes the nerves to fire over and over, never ceasing. The firing causes fruit sized knots to form, which causes spasms and shut downs and constant pain. Every week I get eight to ten injections from eight inch long epidural needles loaded down with lidocaine and bee venom jammed into several different muscles just to ease the pain and help me walk. The damage is most likely permanent. The reason the doctors couldn’t find it at first is because it’s typically the kind of damage that is incurred as a result of a severe car accident. When they asked about car accidents I told them the truth – I had never been in a serious one.
I guess I’ll always have a love/hate relationship with that horse. She took away from me the thing I loved most – riding horses, but she did me a favor too, although I didn’t realize it until several years later. When it comes to having a proper relationship with any animal, whether it is of the same species as you or not, the relationship shouldn’t be built on force and control, it should be built on understanding and communication.
I may never be able to ride again, but that horse taught me a lesson my dogs and my boyfriend would never have been able to, and now, thanks to her, I’m able to give them the relationship with me that we all deserve.