Intimidation Horse Training
By Don Blazer
          Intimidation training, which is actually a repeating of punishment, is the primary way most horse trainers get their horses to perform.

          They jerk, jerk, jerk on the reins or spur, spur, spur until the horse complies out of fear and force.

          Of course, it works, for a period of time.  (Long enough to get through a class.)

          It works well enough that a great many of the most successful trainers seldom use any other form of behavior modification.  (Note: I did not say the “best” trainers intimidate, and I will say there are a great many who don’t intimate and are very successful.)  But the majority of professionals intimidate and the vast majority of horse owners who are not professionals also use “intimidation” as their primary means of getting a horse to perform. 

          Since most of the judges and “influencers” of AQHA policy (the association I am most familiar with in terms of showing horses) are also trainers or are “invested” in the showing of horses, intimation is accepted.  I’m sure it is also the case with other breed associations.

          The biggest problem with intimidation is that it is not truly training and therefore it doesn’t have a lasting effect.

          The proof is that intimidation trainers are constantly intimidating their horses….during at-home training sessions, during warm up at shows, just before entering the show pen for a performance class and even after exiting the show pen.

          It’s never ending, because it is never permanent.  It does not teach a horse the correct response to a request; it only instills fear and helplessness.

          The horse performs simply out of an effort to avoid pain.

          Intimidation trainers don’t use positive or negative reinforcers to teach correct footfall sequences of an exercise, but instead immediately begin more intimidation—severe bits, tying heads up in stalls, refusing to let horses lie down to rest, excessive flexing without relief.

          There are those special horses that can tolerate the intimidation and can win classes…some even become champions.

          But, of course, most intimidated horses don’t perform well consistently.  They get so nervous, so fearful, they can’t manage a smooth and graceful performance; instead they get through it with pinned ears, swishing tails, sweaty necks and heads carried as low as their knees.

          There is a time for punishment….it is when a horse’s behavior is dangerous to handlers, riders or other horses.  When a horse makes an effort to bite a handler, or kick at a person or horse, then immediate punishment is the appropriate response.  (It’s the response which comes from any member of the herd; so if you’re a “natural horse trainer” then you should be aware that punishment for dangerous behavior is a naturally appropriate response.)

          Once the punishment has been initiated, it should be ended as quickly as it started.  From that moment on, the handler/trainer should be looking for ways to use operant conditioning to shape the horse’s behavior.

          Punishment (intimidation) is so common a practice that I’ve witnessed judges watch a competitor (also a carded judge) jerk, jerk, jerk a horse again and again without the slightest hint of disapproval.  (AQHA does have an “abuse policy” which clearly states that continuous jerking on the reins is not acceptable.)

          The competitor rode the sweating, trembling horse into the show pen, completed the course while issuing a few more good jerks on the reins, then exited and was awarded a placing in the class.

          Judges aren’t going to disqualify professional horsemen since they may have to show under them at a later date, and because many of them also practice intimidation.

          On the positive side, I know of at least one show management which removed an abusive trainer from the show grounds.

          Show management and executives from the associations are the only ones who can slow down (not eradicate) intimidation training.

          It is just plain silly to think competitors are going to discipline themselves or their trainers….why would they?   The consequences are intimidating!

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