When Horses Don’t Respond to Corrections

Our behavior expert looks at the reasons punishment often doesn’t work with horses and offers alternative solutions.
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When Horses Don
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Q: My horse kicks out when I clean his hind hooves or when the farrier trims them.   I’ve tried giving a sharp yank on the lead rope, smacking him on the hindquarters, and even squirting him with water. Sometimes he will stop after a few corrections, but the kicking starts up again the next time I work on his feet. Why has punishment not worked, and what can I do to correct my horse’s dangerous behavior?

A: Horses quickly learn that their behavior has consequences, and in theory, a behavior should stop when it is followed by something unpleasant. In practice, however, punishment can be challenging to put into action and can have unwanted side-effects. Becoming familiar with some of the pitfalls of punishment can help improve your training success.

You want to reinforce your horse’s correct responses.

One significant shortcoming of punishment is that it only provides feedback about incorrect behavior but doesn’t give the horse guidance about what it should do instead. Reinforcing correct responses can have a more direct and effective result than punishing unwanted behavior.1,4 In your case, the correct response is when your horse yields his hoof without kicking, which can be reinforced either by releasing pressure (negative reinforcement) or by providing a reward (positive reinforcement). Importantly, the release or reward must happen before your horse kicks to avoid unintentionally reinforcing the bad behavior

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Written by:

Robin Foster, PhD, CAAB, IAABC-Certified Horse Behavior Consultant, is a research professor at the University of Puget Sound in Seattle, Washington, and an affiliate professor at the University of Washington. She holds a doctorate in animal behavior and has taught courses in animal learning and behavior for more than 20 years. Her research looks at temperament, stress, and burn-out as they relate to the selection, retention, and welfare of therapy horses. She also provides private behavior consultations and training services in the Seattle area.

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