Animal abuse: When are we crossing the line? (Part 1)

I’d like to address something I see a lot these days between animal lovers and horse lovers such as myself.  I would like to discuss when there are cases of animal abuse or whether there are cases wrongly labeled as such.

I definitely do not know all the answers and I do not want to pretend that I do.  But maybe I could be an instrument to starting a conversation about it.

I have been around horses all my life, but I have never dove in as deeply on this subject as I am now.  However, I did get into horses as much as I could when I was younger, but not as much into the horse’s mind as now.   Trying to jump into horse psychology and natural horsemanship is a lot of work.  But naturally, while we are along this pathway of getting deeper knowledge about the horses, there can be mistakes made along the way.

lungeing_silhouette1-300x193That is why while learning natural horsemanship, the horse we use becomes your experimental horse, just like your first-born child is more of an experimental child, poor kid.  Cheyenne and I are getting a better relationship through this but, unfortunately, she is the horse I learn on.

It all started when I taught her some tricks and she loved the connection with me associated with the tricks.  But she didn’t seem to enjoy it when I rode her as much.  She would flip her tail quite a bit, throw her head and pin her ears, or even kick up her heels.  When I saw another individual working her horse in natural horsemanship, I wanted that kind of relationship with Cheyenne.

On a side note, always check out the physical aspect of their negative reaction just to make sure there is not physical pain.  I did bring out a horse chiropractor to make sure my horse’s negative reactions were not from pain.  The first visit found that both of my horses were out in various areas.  Cheyenne was out in both sides of her hip area while Gypsy was out in her neck and rib cage area.  Head tossing could come from teeth needing to be floated or too harsh a bit.

I am now working on getting that kind of a relationship and it takes time.  For everything I ask of her to accept, I need to see how she feels about different situations.  Such as, how does she accept the saddle, bridle, my mounting skills for bareback, etc.?  Then I deal with those different circumstances until she accepts and is more happy with it.  How I can tell if she is content is her head being lower, licking and chewing, no ear pinning, etc.  So if I acknowledge Cheyenne’s feelings about certain things, then we get better in our relationship.  I am told that through this kind of training horses get trained faster but more thoroughly and horses who have a connection with the trainer, it is all about relationship first.

I see this connection with Cheyenne, she loves working with me.  I still don’t have the relationship on her back as well as the ground but I am working on it.  It is becoming more and more solid.  I need to mount in a way that her head stays low, and she is relaxed after mounting.  Only after she is standing content — with head low, eyes and ears relaxed — is it then time for me to ride off.  I learned this first in dressage before natural.  They love the natural connection with their horses too.

Now, before I started training natural horsemanship I was sometimes too soft with my teaching skills with my horse, but then there were other times it seemed that I would jump to being more firm or too harsh.  I am now trying to find a happy medium to where I work with my horses through understanding how they are thinking about my approach on proper reactions to the way my horse and I work through situations.

lungingNow, what constitutes abusive training or too passive training?  There are people including me who use small whips, lunging whips, dressage riding whips, a carrot stick too.  These whips are meant to be used as tools more for an extension of your arm.  It is abusive to use them as anything other than that extension.  To explain, when I am riding and my horse does not respond to a squeeze from my legs, I use the dressage whip when the horse does not respond to my leg.  So with no response from the leg, tap with the whip behind my leg, sometimes that is all it takes.  But if I get no response after the whip, then I use it a little more firmly.  But the goal is to teach the horse to get used to the signal from the leg and not the whip.  So use the whip only as a guide that teaches. I learned this from dressage riding that I have done for years.  I am just starting to learn how natural horsemanship differs in its training.

When I am working with my horses, when I ask them to do something, if the horse doesn’t respond I need to ask myself if I am giving them signals that I am not aware of or maybe I am giving the wrong cue or a combination of cues.  Example, if I am asking the horse to trot but I am pulling back on the reigns, I am giving mixed signals.  Here is another example.  I want my horse to stop but my legs are squeezing the horse tightly, mixed signals.  So we need to be careful to not make cues or signals confusing, or mixed with other cues that we just are not aware of.  These situations can make the trainer or owner confused as well in comprehending that the horse is not responding, then situations can lead to abuse.

Just remember, try to focus on how you are cuing/signaling the horse and watch for the slightest try and reward that.  But make sure your signals are clear as to not confuse the poor horse who cannot speak English.  After the horse responds, then we need to release the pressure or stop the cue as a reward, it is the release that teaches.  Otherwise, it can be confusing to the horse to figure out exactly what you want.  But when we release the horse might then say, ” Aha, I get it now.”  But we need to be consistent with that same signal for the same reaction, otherwise there’s confusion.

If I am lunging my horse and I want Cheyenne or Gypsy to trot or canter, I give them the voice command and if I get no response I pop the whip, I don’t use it on them.  If they circle too close to me, then I take the tip of my long lunging whip and point the tip at the horse’s shoulder and shake it to cause the horse to move out and away from me.   However, if a horse all of a sudden turns on you and charges the handler then, by all means, you have the right to use the whip on the horse to stop the charging, this would not be abuse but save the handler from being trampled.

There is another area where people need to protect themselves from horses.  Horses are prey animals.  They react first then maybe question what they may have kicked, bolted from, or bucked off.   However, as humans, we weigh much less than a half-ton animal and need to out-think the horse instead of trying to use brute force to get a horse to perform.

Example: I watch people try to get their horse to move by abuse of over-using a whip, really large spur use, or strong bits that are too much for the horse or in the hands of an abusive handler who does not know how to properly use that bit.  Instead, we need to join up with the horse in understanding what causes them to flee, buck or kick,  otherwise understand their thinking and working with them more on their level and not so much try to squeeze them into a human mold.  There are correct ways to use spurs too that is not abusive, but again used as a tool to help in learning.

There have been humans who have gone out and observed the horse in their natural habitat and come up with a plan to train them by using horse psychology.  I feel like this is a better way to understand their world rather than large bits, spurs, excessive whip use, etc.  in other words, they’re breaking their spirit.  We more likely partner up with the horse as a benevolent leader but have a connection with them.  This is the connection that I am wanting to talk about.  The fine line that goes with it on being too harsh or too soft to where your horse does the jitterbug on your head.  This is where we are heading, but there are other areas of abuse we could look at as well.

Please stay tuned for more and please feel free to comment.

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