Discipline and Backing

After a fantastic weekend with Ellie I couldn’t resist writing a post, even though I should be studying for my fast-approaching exams! Over the last few days Ellie and I have worked on our Groundwork, handling and grooming, and also on her yard manners – things like standing tied without having a tantrum, and moving over when asked to allow people to pass with other horses or move out from the wall so I can handle or groom her other side. All in, those things are coming along very well. It took a little while for her to get head around moving over – she was convinced that pressure on her side meant back up. She eventually found the right answer but still sometimes tries backing up first, which is only natural.

On Sunday I started to think it might be better if I could get her saddled sooner rather than later, so that while we do groundwork between now and my exams, she could also be getting used to the saddle too. I had planned to just start desensitising her to the saddle without putting it on her, but she had no reaction whatsoever so I went ahead and put it on. Nothing. I thought maybe when she started to walk or when I did the girth up it would bother her, so I did the girth loosely and walked her out – not a bother! Over a few more minutes I walked her and did the girth up a little more, and repeated that until it was tight enough for riding. Ellie was more interested in trying to find bits of hay around our feet than in me tightening this strange contraption around her. I let the stirrups down, thinking that might worry her a little, made snapping sounds with the leathers, banged on the seat of the saddle, and then trotted her up and down a little to get to stirrups moving, but she wasn’t bothered. A little irritated by the irons bumping off her but not worried in the slightest! Finished up by lying my weight on her saddle from a tall mounting block and couldn’t believe my luck with how quiet this little filly is. I’ll have to re-gig my plans for now until exams, as I had planned to spend about a week on saddling her and a week on working her off the fence or a mounting block – neither of which bother her in the slightest. I might start ponying her off my boss’s 18 yr old polo pony I have in for conditioning at the moment.


On another note, it’s not all sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. Ellie likes to be cheeky and test the boundaries and I’m having two specific issues with that. The first being that she chooses a new vice every few days to try out. When I first got her, it was kicking. With discipline she became a lot less fond of that tactic so decided to try biting instead, and even bit/nipped me on the top of my head while I was bolting her stable door. She has stopped the biting now, but has started to do tiny rears when she wants to have a tantrum – she lifts her front legs just enough (barely a foot) to stomp them on the ground loudly. Who said humans and horses were completely different?! Where my issue lies is with discipline systems. Buck Brannaman says that discipline is a precursor to good behaviour, and never occurs after bad behaviour. Punishment occurs after bad behaviour. I would never beat or even hit a horse out of anger, and I probably wouldn’t hit an older horse for having a bold moment either. However, in possibly the only way I would disagree with Buck to date, I can’t help feeling that allowing a young horse to kick you without consequence is a dangerous trend for the future. I like to think of herd dynamics when I’m trying to sort through this. In a herd, the leader would never allow a young colt to kick him – he would drive the colt away with aggressive body language, or give him a small bite or kick in return. So my strategy is, I stay calm, patient and understanding, but I give her one smack before the kicking foot has even returned to the ground, or while her teeth are heading my direction. I wish I could consistently use the “discipline, don’t punish” philosophy but I feel that it’s not always practical. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Buck’s methods, the idea is to predict that bad behaviour is coming and redirect the horses energy into a difficult task. However, I find that works for things like biting, as I can see it coming a mile off, or kicking during groundwork, but it’s extremely difficult when I’m bent over handling Ellie’s back legs. She doesn’t swish her tail in warning and I can’t see her facial expression. It’s something I’m constantly considering, so I can’t wait for my next clinic with Ricky Quinn (one of Buck’s students) – I’m very interested to hear his perspective on this problem.

The second problem that I’m struggling to get around is that Ellie has adopted a very positive, affectionate, trusting and respectful attitude with me (95% of the time), but she is a bit of a tyrant towards anyone else. I think it’s partly because she has decided that I’m ok but that she hasn’t decided about the others yet, and partly because I’m the only one handling and disciplining her at the moment. She becomes tetchy, defensive or even aggressive towards others. She lures them in with an adorable expression of curiosity and desire for cuddles, and then tries to bite them when they approach her. I think she needs two things to sort this out: to have positive experiences with people other than me, and to be disciplined by people other than me. My problem though is that I don’t feel comfortable asking others to get involved. I can’t very well say to my barn friends “can you please come over and touch my horse? She might bite you but feel free to give her a little smack on the nose if she does!”. I don’t want to be responsible for anyone getting hurt and no one in my yard has experience or an interest in working with completely green horses, so they are very nervous of these vices. If anyone has any suggestions, I would love to hear from you below!

So, that’s everything for today. Quite a long post but there was a lot to get through!



12 thoughts on “Discipline and Backing

  1. And when Chief is being snarky, he responds well to a fast hand toward his eye…Not hitting him in the eye, but a strong firm open hand fast toward him, like “Get the hell out of my space.” And he moves. Then I make him back up. I am not sure if this is good advice or not for you. It is the same hand I would use during ground work if he is not respecting my space like he should. If I want him to turn on the hind and he doesn’t move out of my space, when you might bump them in the side knot of his rope halter. Take care

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  2. I have always used the herd as my example, in applying punishment. As you said, there are always those moments when you can’t prevent an incident (biting, kicking or getting stomped on), so you need to indicate that it was not acceptable – which other horses definitely would. It will be fun to watch your progress with Ellie!

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  3. I’m having a similar problem with punishment. I usually work with positive reinforcement and try to plan ahead, avoid confrontations and come up with distractions. But nasty behaviour I can’t tolerate. The problem is, that I don’t like violence at all, I hate giving a smack, I don’t even kill flies (well, not on purpose…). So sometimes I’m at a loss with how to handle my joyful bundle of energy. I’ve tried punishment, but it doesn’t work for me, probably because I’m not feeling it and it feels artificial to do it.


    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this Bee. Personally, I’m not very bothered by having to give a smack. Don’t get me wrong – I couldn’t fathom beating a horse. It’s always one smack, followed by an offer to complete some easy task of good behaviour (like back a couple of steps), followed by huge praise when Ellie does that. I do have a friend like you though and she has developed her own interesting strategy – a very loud vocal cue and a big swing that actually only results in a pathetic tap! I also know someone who flicks their horse on the shoulder and that works wonders!


  4. Where to begin answering both of your questions that are most definitely rooted from the same thing? Most definitely I find that a horse with spunk is a good horse because firstly they keep you on your toes and secondly because they never give up which you can use to your favor.
    Here in the states in reining and cow horses there is a very famous and notable line of quarter horses that come from a buckskin stallion, Hollywood Dunit. These horses have won the most consistently and have brought lots of money to there owners but there is just one catch.. This line is known for there stubborness! Once the trainer over comes it these horses are some of the best horses in the reining and cow horse world.
    So my first tip is do not lose your patience or hope when you deal with this behavior but rather channel your energy to deal with the issue accordingly. It is very frustrating for sure and some days you may even think you are going backwards but consistently reprimand with out becoming an opposition to the horse and you will find her starting to work with you instead of against you 🙂 if you have any questions let me know for sure!


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