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Correcting a Horse

Hi Ed,

I love your website. I live in AZ so unfortunately I can’t come to one of your clinics. My horse is a gentleman for the most part and was trained by a prominent trainer here in AZ for mounted shooting.

My question is: How do you propose to properly correct your horse when he makes mistakes.

For example: rubbing and scratching or pawing at the rail.

I do not believe in slapping or smacking my horse. My sister and I have had this discussion a few times. She slaps her horse almost every day and gets no results but continues to hit him. I asked her to stop because the horse’s behavior doesn’t change when she does it. How can I help her understand how to properly show her horse the right behavior she wants? I would like to know myself as I am more passive when disciplining.

My horse: leaps, strikes out and bucks when lunged, saddled or not. He’s great under saddle otherwise and never fidgets when mounting or saddling.

My response: I usually vocalize my displeasure and have him come to a stop.

You must be really busy and I understand if you can’t answer my question.

Thank you for reading,


Hi Kristen,
Thank you for visiting our web site.  You've asked a good question and I'm happy to give you my advice. 

Before I correct my horse for anything I want to first make sure I have established my leadership position with him and that I have taught him certain essential exercises to gain control of his movement.  You should know how to ask him and he should know how to perform lots of different movements such as:

  • flex the neck laterally left and right
  • move the hindquarters left and right
  • move the shoulders left and right
  • back up
  • shoulder-in

All these movements should be taught on the ground first then practiced in the saddle so when he becomes distracted or does anything you don't like you can refocus his attention on you by giving him lots of little jobs to do, moving different parts of his body in different directions.  Change the jobs quickly to keep him really busy thinking about the job at hand and paying attention to your next request.  You can't make him stop his bad or annoying behavior but you can give him something to do with his energy.  He will be able to release his nervous energy by moving his feet but in a constructive way that you are directing.  For a full description of these essential exercises performed on the ground and mounted please see our instructional DVD, "Six Keys to Harmony" on our web site at http://www.eddabney.com/video.htm

Once you've taught him to back up on the lead rope you can use backing as a discipline for any unwanted behavior.  Backing is a "constructive consequence" which give the horse something productive to do with his energy.  Backing strengthens the haunches, lightens the shoulders, increases athletic ability and supples the lower spine which are all very positive benefits.  Backing is something a horse would rather not do so using it as a discipline is effective for stopping unwanted behavior without resorting to violence. 

There is no such thing as a "don't, quit or stop it" cue.  Horses do not understand the negative.  They only understand a positive cue or substitution such as "instead of doing that, do this".

As you've already experienced, slapping a horse will not make the unwanted behavior disappear.  A horse does not learn from punishment or violence.  A horse will respond to punishment in two ways - either fear or anger or both, but never learning.  Learning can only take place when both the horse and human are in a calm, thinking state of mind.  Where knowledge ends violence begins.

Here's an example:  If you were on the High School basketball team and were late for practice and the coach yelled and slapped you, you would probably get mad and quit the team but if the coach told you to do 20 push-ups for being late, you would do the push-ups and try not to be late again.  Slapping was inappropriate and was accompanied by an attitude of "mean or mad" but the push-ups were simply a consequence that you brought on yourself by being late.

All this is for horses that you have on a lead rope or when you are riding.  If the horse is tied, you'll have to untie them first then use backing as a discipline.  You really can't expect a horse tied at the rail to not scratch or rub.  I just ignore this.  If the horse is tied and pawing you might let him wear some pawing chains to discourage this behavior.  http://www.nationalbridle.com/product-p/1-0867.htm

As far as your horse's behavior while lunging, the learning is in the release so when you stop him from working when he acts up then you have just rewarded him for his misbehavior.  Expressing your displeasure vocally or yelling at him is not effective.  Horses are not primarily vocal creatures.  They communicate with each other mostly through body language and focused energy.  Use the horse's own language to communicate with them instead of words.

I would not do lunging.  Lunging is boring.  Sending your horse around and around in endless circles does not gain their attention but looses it.  Your horse is being playful just to occupy himself and keep from being bored to death.  Spend your lunging time practicing the Six Keys to Harmony exercises and your horse will be interested and focused on you as you exercise all his body parts moving hips and shoulders right and left.  This is much more productive than lunging.

I hope this answer is helpful.  Let me know how things go with you and your sister and your horses.

Enjoy the Journey,

Ed Dabney is an internationally acclaimed clinician, presenting horsemanship and riding clinics all over the US and in Europe.  In 2007, Ed was named Champion of the East Coast Trainer Challenge Series by Equine Extravaganza.  Ed was honored to have been selected by the University of Georgia to teach their senior level Young Horse Training course.

His training articles have appeared in many major national magazines.  Ed produces instructional videos and the “Gentle Horsemanship” TV program which has been seen on RFD-TV.

Ed's blending of natural horsemanship and classical equitation has made an indelible mark with students all across the United States and now also in Europe, drawing the attention of serious riders searching for the lightest touch and the deepest connection with their horses irrespective of breed or discipline.