Subtle Abuse: When Aids Become Weapons.

WMreinaidMy client’s mare is lovely; a very well-bred athletic horse. When my client bought her, the previous owner suggested my client get a cowboy to ride her at first, she needed spurs all the time and the horse was ‘mare-y‘, whatever that means. I get a little mare-y myself at the suggestions.

My client decided the best course of action was working on the fundamentals. That’s where I came in. My initial feeling was that the young mare was pushed hard and fast. She needed some decompress time and although she looked for the familiar spur pain, we took a slow approach to give her time to notice the fighting had stopped.

The mare was absolutely terrified of plastic bags and oddly, because it was an out-of-context fear compared to her wonderful, smart personality in general. She was not at all spooky.

One day my client sent me to the breeder’s website and I watched several videos of them with young horses. In each video, the humans were aggressively stepping forward, viciously flapping bags at the weanling’s eyes. I got squinty just watching. The young horses were confused more than obedient, and some were truly frightened. The breeders seemed to have no awareness of the response, never gave a release, and of course, there was no reward. It’s just bad horsemanship.

In a way, these sale videos showed fearful rescue horses. Worst of all, I saw what my client saw. The impact of this early work had infected the whole training process. Was this where her defensiveness began? Sure looked like it to me.

No, I don’t think plastic bags are cruel. They are just bags, for crying out loud. There is no innate wickedness in spurs or whips or side reins, or the biggest one for me, bits. This blog topic is in response to a request from a reader. These are her words:

“I’m not talking about clear and extreme cases of abuse, but rather more subtle cases. Perhaps ones where there are no visible wounds or scars, but the methods used are confusing, unfair, and do not take into account how horses learn. For example, when amateur owner with a “stubborn or challenging” horse meets inexperienced trainer. I add quotes because I believe often the horse is just confused or frustrated. I’ve seen cases where horses were hit over and over for no reason – no disobedience occurred – for the purpose of “desensitizing”, or “teaching” it that the owner could hit it whenever they wanted and the horse had to accept it.”

It’s a long quote, but I don’t think I can say it better. Most of us have seen the same thing.

When we don’t get the response we want, rather than checking fundamentals and tuning up the rider’s ask and the horse’s response, we ‘get a bigger gun’: More whip, spurs, a stronger bit. If a little is good, more is better.  This is not just a bad idea, it is wrong.

It starts with good intention, coupled with a video recently watched. (A reminder here, not everyone who is famous for videos is necessarily any good with horses.) On top of this, some of us were born with body perception, those of us who were dancers or athletes, but the rest of us don’t always know what our hands are doing way down there at the end of our arms. Our brains get attached to the technique we are attempting, we get frustrated we are losing forward so we get a little louder, and by this I mean harder, with our aids. Then we are still stuck in our heads thinking about obedience to our aids, and… and…

Oh, yeah, the horse. Maybe he is over-reacting or maybe he is shut down, but in either case you are just now noticing that his answer. There has been so much focus on using the aid, there was no listening to the horse.

People love to complain that with the internet and smartphones people aren’t spending enough literal face time with family and friends. I feel that exact way about training aids. An inanimate training aid never replace an actual conversation where both sides try to understand each other.

If your aid isn’t working and you think you need something stronger, try less. When your horse doesn’t understand, yelling the same thing louder isn’t the solution. Find a way to communicate clearer, use rewards to let the horse know they are getting warmer, closer to the right answer. Remember riding is an art, you need creativity. Lighten up, physically and mentally!

No joke, whisper the cue. Use a calf instead of a spur, or release the reins and ask. Use more brain and less brawn.

“Every aid can achieve the exact opposite of its intended effect through exaggeration and poor timing. The continual rein aid lets the horse get stuck and resistant. The poorly timed or rough driving calf can bring disorder into the legs, the gait. The seat that drives too long and too intensively makes the horse roll away on the forehand.” – Gustav von Dreyhausen, mid-1800’s.

Less is More: It’s the one thing horses are forever trying to train us, the one thing that we just don’t trust. Flies have this down, but humans, not so much.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

This blog is free, and it always will be. Free to read, but also free of ads because I turn away sponsorships and pay to keep ads off my site. I like to read a clean page and think you do too. If you appreciate the work I do, or if your horse does, consider making a donation.

Anna Blake

37 thoughts on “Subtle Abuse: When Aids Become Weapons.”

  1. At dog Agility class last night, one of the students observed “if it was called ‘handler’ training no one would come, but the dogs already know what to do, we just have to learn how to ask them”

  2. My Grandmother used to say “When you want someone to listen… whisper”. It is an art and so difficult to do… Thanks Anna

  3. Wow! I’m printing this out and hanging it on my wall. So much good information here. Precisely the reason I pulled my 3 year old from a “trainer”. The spurs just kept getting bigger. Thanks, Anna!

  4. Great post! I’ve been trying very hard to use a method where I “think the transition” before I “ask” for it. I’d say 98% of the time it works perfectly. But then again, my horse is truly a genius! And I totally agree with Sharon’s grandmother: My over-the-top, highly dramatic, shrieking machine of a Cow Dog shuts up when I remember to whisper. Who woulda thunk? 😉

  5. Well said! And I LOVE all the posts here. We have all seen situations that were not “abusive” by the letter of the law, but were chronically abusive situations. I go to the shows sometimes and see so many frustrated horses, I feel their pain and want to leave. As you said in your post, it’s a “conversation” not a dictatorship!

    I love this community!

  6. Great post. I make no claims to brilliant riding but I have learned to stop and think when things aren’t going well. A deep breath and a softer approach get you much farther in the long run whether it’s horses, dogs or children….

  7. I am such an amateur – that I assume any failure in the ask/response is on my side. Or it is simply a language barrier and I try and break it down into smaller components until we understand each other. I took a lesson with this woman once, she seemed smart and capable and her horses were going well enough. She kept trying to tell me the reason MY horse was “off” was that he was lazy, and did not want to work, and that I should be pushing him harder. I never could bring myself to take a second lesson with her. And then the Lyme titer came back positive. They are talking to us – we are the ones who need to learn how to listen.

  8. Ooh, if only this worked with husbands. Certainly horses suffer from the equine equivalent of “marital deafness” when nagged ever louder!
    Seriously, with the plastic bags, breeders’ helpers at in-hand Arabian shows here in (SW) France rattle plastic bags on sticks (court fool’s bladder-on-a-stick?) and stamp on the seating benches to alarm their entries into characteristic “on their mettle” behaviour. Are the judges insensitive – I don’t think so. Yet another example of counter-intuitive “horsemanship”. Why? AArgh!

    • I haven’t thought of those Arab shows in years, they were horrible. We need to adjust our vision to real beauty. (I’ve never had any luck using plastic bags with my husband either.)

  9. All of this is so true of training/dealing with dogs, too. I call it the “bigger hammer” approach–the little hammer didn’t work, so get a bigger one! No, how about we just communicate better?

  10. Great post Anna, we are such an ‘aspirin’ society and reminders like this are so important – shared on all my media !!

  11. Reblogged this on Happy Horses Blog and commented:
    I liked this blog so much I decided to reblog – training or healing – so many parallels, especially in today’s quick fix ‘aspirin’ society.

  12. My rescue cat Frank can yowl very loudly, but I found if I whisper yowl back, he quietens. He’s what I call a good trainer. All my animals are 🙂

  13. Really well said, my thoughts exactly and so lovely to hear how others feel the same (even though we’re countries apart :)). I took my daughter to a pony club day to watch, thought she might like to get involved, find friends, but she was horrified at how they rode (so was I), so she never went & was happy riding at home. I think it came down to that conversation you spoke about, she felt & listened to her horse & she recognized at a young age that they didn’t.

    • This is a good news/bad news comment. Your daughter is great and it’s sad that all the girls aren’t starting this way. Thanks for you comment.

  14. Again, I very much agree. Here’s how I see it – even when a horse is supposedly “slab-sided” or “hard mouthed” or “stubborn” or “too tough to feel the aids”, he will still flinch when a fly lands on him. If he can feel that fly, he can surely feel that spur. If he’s not responding, ask him the question in another way so that he can answer, because he is surely hearing/feeling the question.

  15. Another thoughtful, extremely useful and educational post. Beautiful, Anna. Now that I handle (in one way or another) 16 horses a day who came in at widely varying ages and training types, I see what I can only describe as PTSD in some. One horse we were told “never listened, never paid attention”. It’s true: he was checked out. Luckily most of his ego is intact. This horse wouldn’t stay “with” us for PRAISE. He checked out on the good as well as the bad. He’d given up on people. Great horse. Once we began asking him to stay for praise, he became vulnerable, and we had something precious to work with. A little bit of hope. Keep saying it!

    • I hope you are loving your job, it is a gift to get to know so many horses. It’s my favorite thing about training… Good job of knocking quietly on this horse’s heart.

  16. Hi Anna,

    Leslie Wylie here from A reader sent us a link to this great post and recommended that we seek your permission to share it on Horse Nation — I agree! I saw the Creative Commons notice but wanted to double check before sharing with credit.




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