Buying the Right to Make a Correction.

WMprettyTomShe’s Tomboy. I don’t write about her often enough; she’s a little more serious than my corgi men. She’s a Briard, a French herding breed that has a very protective side. Tomboy appointed herself my personal bodyguard when she was a tiny pup and has done a flawless job of guarding and herding me for twelve summers. Her commitment is fierce.

On that particular day, I was having a party on the farm. There were lots of dogs running and Tomboy broke up a few light dog altercations but mainly she had my back. Relentlessly. Then the guy arrived on a motorcycle.

The guy was dating a friend and we were all welcomed him because of her. I’d met him and his dogs previously. He made sure everyone knew he was a man of great faith. He had two yellow labs and every time he came close, they both hit the ground and rolled belly up. I took their opinion into account as well.

He parked his bike and walked toward me, and quietly, Tomboy moved from behind me to block his path. She just put herself between us; no growl, just a watch. The guy took a step to go around her but she moved to keep her position. Then he told her to lie down, but she stuck to her spot. He said something I didn’t entirely hear, while smiling at me, and it dawned on me that he was going to roll her.

Wikipedia’s explanation: “An alpha roll is a technique used in dog training to discipline a misbehaving dog. It consists of flipping the dog onto its back and holding it in that position, sometimes by the throat. The theory is that this teaches the dog that the trainer is the pack leader (or alpha animal).”

Rolling a dog is a controversial technique, but in our case, it was black-and-white-wrong. She wasn’t disobedient; she didn’t trust him. She’s always been a good judge of character so I believed her. But he had no right to punish her in the first place, so I got between the guy and Tomboy, because I have her back, too. I asked him to stop. He started to explain to me what he was doing was helping me train my dog. I said, “She’s doing her job.” I thought about his dogs and stood my ground. “Back off.”

Like most of us, my charming hostess thing only goes so far. And this guy was an arrogant jerk, but we commonly see riders like this in the horse world. They confuse leadership with belligerence. And yes, professionals do it as well. The belief is that if we show weakness the war is lost and the animal will be spoiled. Worst of all, it negates the horse’s intelligence. Lots of us were started with this method with horses. I certainly was.

It’s obvious that this guy had no right to correct Tomboy, but when do we have the right? Even with our own horses and dogs, when is the most effective time? And when are we taking their behaviors too personally and missing the message?

First, if you are embarrassed or frustrated or mad, just take a break. Emotions are selfish; it’s not about you. I’m always surprised when people think that their horse has a vendetta against them, when the simple truth is that behavior isn’t personal. Is your horse healthy? Could he have ulcers? Is he hungry? Set him up to succeed by making sure he is ready to learn.

An animal can’t learn if they are afraid–obvious and simple. It’s the reason we harp on about relaxation in dressage. Sure, they can learn fear and distrust; the guy’s labs were proof of that. If we walk into a pen like a Neanderthal with a club, we’ve lost already. We have to define ourselves as a leader, yes, but someone who inspires confidence and safety. In other words, we have to evolve out of the old model if we want a better response.

On any given day, I believe we have to buy the right to correct a horse. How else could it be meaningful? It can be as simple as asking for his eye or acknowledging a calming signal. Especially with our own horses, let them volunteer. Don’t do it for them. Allow them to participate by coming to you or lowering their heads–engage them. If catching is an issue, then that’s the place to start healing old experiences. If your horse acts like you’re a predator, take the cue. It’s the starting place.

Never underestimate the power of touch. Current research says that horses prefer a scratch to a pat as a reward, but I prefer a flat hand laying still. Connection with a horse is as simple as touch and as intimate as breath. It’s enough.

Then ask for his best work by communicating with subtle clarity. Consistently. It sounds idiotically simple but we train response or resistance. Dullness or energy.  If you don’t like what your horse refects back to you, take him at his word, and negotiate with the new information. See yourself as intelligent.

The positive model of training has lots of gray area. If the horse is spooked and distracted, he won’t always hear you whisper. Sometimes you might need to give him a bit of a startle to get his attention. The art is to be able to adjust your cues without emotion. If you have to be loud, do it just once, and then get quiet and find a way to say good boy in the next minute. You want the first thing he hears to be a reward. Be generous, work toward a tendency of patience, and then when you make the inevitable mistakes, he will show you that tolerance as well.

WMTomwatchingFinally, humor me with one more photo of Tomboy. I was having a sick day, lying on the couch dozing, and she was on my chest. This is my favorite photo of Tom. She was keeping an eye on me because I was sick.

Loyalty…Partnership: they’re words we value and always our goal–but we can’t demand them or coax them with cookies. They’re a gift, given in exchange for respect.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Anna Blake

0 thoughts on “Buying the Right to Make a Correction.”

  1. Love this so much. There’s a trainer near us who raises a few especially-suited Briards a year to be therapy dogs for children on the autistic spectrum. I can see from your story how perfect they would be for this kind of partnership. 🙂

  2. I agree. My dogs are always right except this one time. I own my barn and we had an event and there were about 10 women. This guy drove up and we ALL had a very uncomfortable feeling about him, very creepy. Well, all the dogs took to him immediately (9 of them). I have never forgotten or understood this.

  3. So happy to read that you kept your canine friend from that probable narcissist. Many of those types in the animal training world.

  4. It’s amazing to me how people will just “step in” to train other people’s animals, unsolicited and unasked for and in Tomboy’s case completely inappropriate. The arrogance of that individual is overwhelming and hopefully he was not in your group for long.

  5. Great post. Isn’t it amazing how ignorant and rude some people are? A few years ago, the husband of a colleague decided to blow hard into the ear of my German Shepherd to see how she would react. She showed great restraint and just turned away from the fool. ( I was ready to boot him out the door. )

  6. I too own a Briard. And I have rolled him….when he was young, and unaltered, we had a few differences of opinion as to who was alpha. Used correctly it is a very effective training tool. I am very happy that I have a 3 yo, altered, boy who is a delight.

    As for horses, I have never had to roll one 🙂


    • Doesn’t sound like you used it as a party trick or as a steady diet. It takes perception to have this breed, they aren’t easy. That said, I lost my male, Howdy, over two years ago. I am still heartbroken. Give your boy a scratch from us.

      • they are amazing dogs…not for everyone tho! Very very smart and emotional. I never let another person discipline my dog, horses or child in my presence. I am the alpha and will take care of things as I see fit.

    • I’ve had Briards for nearly 20 years. While years ago I thought when owning Malamutes and perhaps my first Briard that the alpha roll used appropriately was ok, now I know much more about training and can see no reason to ever roll even a Briard. I currently have two intact well behaved Briard girls.

  7. The alpha isn’t the mare who is biting and kicking everyone into submission, she is the quiet, patient one who gives clear direction. Thanks to you I am getting a little better about waiting for the willing response. And hopefully I am responding as well. Oh and trusting that my animals have such keener senses than I have.

  8. Your way with words makes people(at least THIS people) want to do better and be better. I always get happy when I get an email from you!

  9. A dear friend of mine loved the Briard and had her second one when her daughter was just learning to talk. When asking the little girl what kind of a dog she had she replied “Brainyard”. Maybe she was on to something.

  10. We were rescued by a black Lab and farm dog (Border Collie mix) who is the runt and an Alpha female. She does not even want to ever learn roll over and, though she is very well trained, she will not learn this. She was cared for more by my husband because he was always home when I was teaching. He is ill today and she is very concerned!!! I can get her to roll over but it takes an assist very much like the correction mentioned. She is a clown and has a very large vocabulary receptive and she talks. Her feeding times are 7:00 AM and 2:00 PM. But, she just talked my sick husband into feeding her at 1:00 PM because “everybody else is eating.” Who trains who?

  11. “Loyalty…Partnership: they’re words we value and always our goal–but we can’t demand them or coax them with cookies. They’re a gift, given in exchange for respect.””

    My father taught me this decades ago. It is how I have treated all my animals. I have taught my daughter the same since her birth. It is a message more people need to hear, and learn

  12. I am reading your posts and am with you in theory, but I don’t always know how to put it into practice. For example, I have a rescue mare I know nothing about. Maybe 12 years old by her teeth. Between trainer and vet, we decided she’s a paso fino, but she doesn’t gait. She has a ground covering walk, but she always wants to break into a trot. I don’t want her to trot, but I’d like her fastest walk. If she can’t gait, I don’t care about that. If she finally breaks into a gait because I don’t want her to trot, that’s ok also. I only trail ride. Someone has trained her because she’s awesome to ride. But not very trusting. Hard to catch at first, but much better now. Her other fault is that she didn’t stand still to get on. Took me 20 minutes or so the first time I rode her. Now I can get her stand in about 5 or less. And her social skills seemed poor. The rest of the herd didn’t like her much at first and it’s taken a long time for her to become part of it. She’s the lowest and the others really don’t like her too much. The old gelding lets her eat with him, but the other 2 mares run her off. I have to make sure she has feed away from them or she would starve. She was thin when I got her, but normal weight now.
    Anyway, what I want to know is, if you had this horse, what would you do to get her to just walk and not trot without pulling on her mouth all the time? The theory is, that you should be able to put your horse at a gait or speed and they should maintain it on a loose rein. I would like her to do that without my constantly pulling her back down to her fast walk. I was at a clinic where the trainer got a horse to slow it down by always pulling the horse’s nose to her knee and just waiting until it settled and then letting it go. As soon as it broke out of the speed she wanted, she would pull it’s head to her knee, wait till it was calm, and then start out again. That did seem to work after a while at this clinic. I thought of trying that with this mare, and I did yesterday, but it didn’t feel right, if you know what I mean. Felt like it was too rough or something. Just the way she looked at me Like she was saying,”why are you doing this to me? I’m doing my best for you.”
    Anyway, what are your thoughts on this?
    Beth in PA

    • With the understanding that giving an opinion long distance, without seeing the horse, is totally crazy… It sounds like the horse has had a lot of anxiety. I won’t label it more than that, good or bad, but she came to you in worse shape than she is now, so, I think she is improving. It takes time, as you well know.
      As you describe the mounting challenge, it tells me that she didn’t like what happened right after that. They usually resist the thing that reminds them of the thing…so my guess is that being ridden was an anxiety producing thing and she has plenty of memory of that. And it isn’t about trotting or gaiting, just about relaxing and it sounds like she tries, but the past catches up with her. So my advice is give her time. Keep your body as soft as possible and exhale audibly when she speeds up. If she comes slower for just a second, reward that instant. You might play slow music and let your seat follow that rhythm. It will not happen instantly, but she will feel it.
      You are right, many times pulling reins increases anxiety, and if she got quick undersaddle in the past, of course she was pulled on. I would reward her for every slow step.
      By now you should be shaking your head at the work ahead of you, but keep at it. She doesn’t want to work this way either, she just can’t trust a way out yet. She can only do it one step at a time. Go slow in all things, lots of breathing. And know you are saving her in more ways than you know. Eventually she will be able to thank you herself, but for now, let me. Thank you for your patience, thank you for caring about a horse that isn’t easy.

  13. You know – it’s funny all of my animals (well, ok, not the pony…) roll. I was always taught that it was how they knew you were “in charge” – but we never used it as discipline… I roll them over when I snuggle them, or play with them. Even the cats get belly rubs. I always thought of it as common sense that if I needed to check wounds, trim nails, hunt for ticks etc, that if they were comfortable and safe with me doing that on a calm clear day, that I would stand a better chance helping them under pressure.

    Disciplining someone else’s pets is like correcting their kids. There are people I am close enough to, who’s rules I know, that I am comfortable being an extension of Mom… But in any other instance there would have to be blood… 🙂

  14. So true with Tomboy and the biker guy. I once read a book a long time ago on training horses and they actually described how to “hog tie” a horse to the ground and sit on its head to “break its spirit”. I’m sure it was quite successful. It also horrified me then and stayed with me to this day. I once saw an “unruly” horse tethered with its head held high on a pole with a chain. It could go around and around but could not lower its head and it was left there to “calm” down. I’m happy to say the owner took it home in disgust as did I mine when the trainer tried to do things to my horse. Shameful actions. Yes the dog was doing her job and good on her. The horses are talking to us when they do things we think are not appropriate or just isn’t the behavour we would like them to have. Mirror work comes to mind. They are showing us what’s wrong with our approach or our line of thinking. Working from the heart, honoring all animals and being respectful to them will go much farther than any gimmic one uses in order to show their authority. Great article Anna.

    • Great comment, Jocelyn. And yes, I have seen all sorts of horrors and heard explanations about what was being taught. It was a far cry from what was being learned, I do know that. Us humans have a way to go on the listening side. Thanks.

  15. We recently took on a new beast … a former track beast turned pony horse and he’s kind of cute. They said he was hard to catch. Right. He’s been in my pocket since S left on Friday and yesterday tried to help me pick cucumbers in the patch planted right next to his paddock. Take the cue … dear former people, he didn’t like you much. At least they knew it enough to ask us if we would take him given the other options available.

    • It’s funny… this catching thing is such a tell. Maybe he can’t tell the difference between catching and chasing! And sure, I’ve known horses so traumatized that it takes some time, but I have a rescue here who does everything they said he couldn’t. I’m no genius trainer, I just ask politely. And in your case, You’re a horse magnet and who can resist your cucumbers…I’ve seen them.

  16. Hi Anna, I love Briards, we’ve had three, but because they can be so protective and we have lots of people visiting, we sadly made the decision that they aren’t the right breed for us at the moment.

    Food for thought in your article as well 😊





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