Disciplining horses in the middle of lessons is difficult. As instructors, we don’t want to show our riders negative behavior from us or point out negative behavior in our horses. I believe the best way to discipline a horse is to eliminate the problem through training, stress elimination, and positive reinforcement but that mostly takes place outside of lessons. I want to share how I discipline in lessons, but please know that this is my personal way of doing things and is not meant to be construed as the only way or the best way.
I’m going to talk about a few scenarios that might come up in the middle of lessons. For each scenario, it is important to eliminate any obvious trigger (i.e. if a horse always kicks out at side walkers then use that horse for riders who don’t need side walkers). Know your horses’ unique traits, know what your volunteers can handle, and know your riders’ limits.
Walking too fast/breaking into a faster gait: This usually happens because of unintentional cues. It could be a side walker lagging behind the rider or jogging a few steps to catch up. It could be the rider squeezing their legs or kicking their feet.
The Quiet Discipline: This is one that is easily fixed if the trigger is noticeable. If a rider is accidentally kicking their horse, point it out to the rider and/or ask the side walker to do an ankle hold to keep the foot from bouncing against the horse’s side. The leader can also work to control the horse at a slower pace by taking deep breaths, relaxing their hold, and being a source of calm for the horse. Holding the lead rope toward the center of the horse’s chest is another quiet signal to the horse to slow down.
Bullying the leader: If a horse is bullying the leader, it can become unsafe for the volunteers and riders and needs to be addressed immediately. The horse might be bullying by running through the leader or pushing into or away from the leader.
The Quiet Discipline: If a horse is pushing past a leader, I find repeated whoa’s and walk-on’s to capture the horse’s attention and get them to pay attention to the rider and leader better. If a horse pushes into the leader, I’ll incorporate turns and circles and ask the leader to keep a hand on the horse’s neck to steer the horse’s head in the correct direction. As a last resort, I will take over as leader for a brief time and then set up a session with the leader and horse outside of a therapeutic riding lesson so they can work together better.
Kicking: I don’t mean full kicks from a horse, but cow kicks. If a horse is kicking straight out, towards a person, it is probably time to re-evaluate if the horse belongs in the program or with that rider. However, I have seen a number of horses cow kick, where they kick out to the side or underneath themselves as a sign of annoyance.
The Quiet Discipline: Horses usually kick as a sign of discomfort. Figure out what the trigger is and address it, even if it is the rider. Not every horse and rider are a good match and it is safer to take the rider off and re-evaluate then to push forward with a bad match. If a horse kicks toward a side walker they likely don’t appreciate where the side walker is standing (too far back). A horse might also kick out in response to where a rider is sitting if they are too far back. Kicking out might also be a sign of pain if a horse kicks out during mounting, dismounting, or bending exercises. It could be worth a vet check if there are no obvious signs.
Biting: Ah, the standard example of bad behavior in lessons and the hardest to handle. Biting is typically a sign of discomfort with the work a horse is doing or the people they are surrounded by.
The Quiet Discipline: Knowing what triggers the horse to bite is important. If a horse usually bites at the mounting block, tell the leader to take a step away while the rider mounts. If a horse usually bites when trotting, use a lunge line to trot. Biting can be difficult to stop because it’s hard to truly discipline in the lesson when the biting actually occurs. Avoidance of the bite is a good place to start.
With any disciplinary situation, it is important to consider the language being used. Just like there are no bad children, there are no bad horses only bad behavior. If a rider questions why a horse kicks out, I will explain the reasons and offer solutions. If a rider yells at a horse for not paying attention and taking off into a trot, I assure the rider that the horse is not at fault. Riders pick up on more language and behavior than we might assume. Staying calm and exuding confidence in the horse, rider, and volunteer(s) is key to successful discipline.
Interested in more in-depth ways to discipline? Questions on other scenarios that come up in lessons? Leave a comment below and I will answer the best I can!