December 18, 2017

Crime and Punishment

“I praise loudly. I blame softly.” ~~ Catherine the Great

            Just the other day I was asked an interesting question by a student. She had recently begun taking lessons with me after several years with another trainer. She said one of the reasons she changed trainers is that she felt the previous trainer was too harsh with her horses. What she then asked me was, “Would you rather be too hard on a horse or too easy?”

            An interesting question to be sure. If those are the only choices, which would you choose? Neither option is best for horse or rider, but if you had to choose only one, which would it be? When I was asked this question the answer came easily and quickly- I would much rather be too easy. Immediately after that answer, came the natural follow-up question, “Why?”

            Ah yes, why indeed… In my 30 + years of training horses I have developed my own way of working with these wonderful animals. I never forget that they allow us to sit on their backs and direct their every movement and even their very thoughts. They allow us to choose where they will stand to be groomed, when they will pick up their feet and they put up with being saddled and bridled. They allow us to decide what gait they will be in and how fast or slow that gait will be. I am always aware that, given the proper incentive, every horse can dump my sorry behind into the dirt at any given moment. I constantly do my best not to give them that incentive. Some may say I’m not taking control of my horses or the situation. Not true. I just remember who has the real control here. I respect the power horses have and their willingness to relinquish that power to us. As long as we don’t abuse it.

            Over the years, I have seen lots of abuse in the name of “taking control”. The large breed organizations do their best to keep it from happening.  AQHA requires its Professional Horsemen, like me, to sign an oath to protect horses from abuse. If we see it going on at a show, we are obligated to report it. But what about at home?  Who do we report to back at our own barn? Well, the horses of course! We all owe our horses our respect. They are living, breathing, feeling animals that deserve to be treated with kindness and fairness.

        I describe abuse as a correction that does not fit the crime. Here’s an example- A riding instructor is teaching a group of students riding Hunt Seat on their own horses. During the lesson they are asked to drop the stirrups at the posting trot. One rider isn’t as secure as she should be and grabs the horses’ sides with her spurs. The horse responds properly by trotting faster. Now the rider is desperate to stay on, so they dig in even more. Soon the horse starts bucking and the rider falls off. The horse, now relieved of the painful spur pressure, stops and looks down at the rider as if to say, “How’d you get down there and why did you do that?”

         Now the trainer steps in and grabs the horse and starts jerking on the reins and hitting the horse. The horse tries to run away from the trainer so more correction is applied in the form of more jerking on the reins and more hitting. Soon the horse is in a full panic, trying to get away. This is answered with more beating until the trainer finally has vented all their wrath and stops. The horse is now standing still, covered in sweat, shaking with fear and covered with welts.  The student is crying and scared to death. The parents are mortified.  The remaining students are completely baffled about what happened to cause this outburst, confused about what to do next and fearful of the trainer.

        When the parent steps in to confront the trainer, she defends it by saying that the horse could not be allowed to get away with bucking the child off. Since the child was not able to correct the horse, she had to. Now the horse will know better and won’t do it again.

        In my opinion, this is a perfect example of the punishment not fitting the crime. First, the crime was only that the horse bucked, not that the child fell off. And the buck was clearly provoked by the child spurring the horse. But, provoked or not, horses aren’t supposed to buck with a rider. However; the moment that a correction could have been beneficial was missed because the rider fell.  The only thing the horse understood was that it was being punished for stopping when the rider fell off, the last behavior it did. The correction happened long past the moment when it would have had any effect on the bucking behavior. And the correction did not fit the crime (bucking when provoked); therefore it was abuse.

        Now correction or punishment is a fact of life for everyone. Children have time outs. Adults get traffic tickets, fines or jail time. Horses get bitten or kicked by herd members. It helps keep order in societies. It facilitates learning. It is necessary and even beneficial. But abuse does none of those things. Abuse causes fear, resentment and warps minds. Abused children will never reach their full potential. Abused adults feel trapped and lash out at others. Abused horses will either become unmanageable or shut down completely. Abusers become trapped in their own abuse, never learning better ways to cope with anger, fear and loss of control.  Abuse never works, never helps and is never the answer.

        So the next time your horse makes a mistake, give them another chance. If the mistake didn’t get anyone hurt, just try it again. Don’t make matters worse with your correction.  Always respect the effort. Always acknowledge the triumph. Always finish on a good note. Punish seldom and always, always make sure the punishment fits the crime.

Cheryl Rohnke Kronsberg is a Certified Horsemanship Association Master Instructor and Clinic Instructor. She is also an AQHA Professional Horseman. Cheryl has been teaching riding and horsemanship for over 30 years. Currently she and her husband own and operate CRK Training Stable in Yorba Linda, CA. We welcome your comments and questions. Please feel free to share this article with your friends, but rights to publish this article are restricted. For more interesting articles from Cheryl go to





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