Does the Punishment Suit the Crime?

There can be many reasons why a horse refuses to jump. Your job as a rider is to analyze the behavior and understand its cause before trying to correct it. | © Amy K. Dragoo

As a rider, you often need to make instant decisions regarding your horse’s negative behavior, such as a refusal or spooking, and those reactions are critical to his future responses. Are you the type who knows exactly how to correct him for a disobedience or do you have a knee-jerk emotional response? Or worse, do you lose your temper?

Some riders think that going to the stick is the answer to all disobediences without any prior thought, often while yanking on the horse’s mouth. But a rider who loses her temper and gets rough with her horse is nonproductive and often ends up creating a bigger problem. The horse has a brain comparable to that of a young child, making it difficult for him to understand what the rider’s clashing of aids or ill-timed smack with a crop is supposed to mean. When he’s confused, the original problem often becomes worse. 

Instead, you need to be able to understand your horse and his reaction to situations before applying any corrections. Your response to every disobedience cannot be black and white. 

Knowing which correction to use and when comes from listening to your horse and practicing. Some riders are gifted with all the right instincts, but many can be just as correct by making an effort to understand what their horses are telling them with their behavior. 

Let’s look at some specific examples of mistakes that are seen as horse error but are actually caused by rider miscues or misinformation. 

The most common and seemingly basic disobedience is when your horse refuses to jump a fence. Riders are taught to punish horses for refusals. However, you first need to analyze the situation and understand the cause of the refusal before implementing the appropriate correction. There are many reasons a horse could stop at a jump. A few examples: Could it stem from a pain-related issue? Did the horse understand he was meant to jump the fence or was there a lack of steering on your part? Was it a very green horse who was nervous and afraid of the jump? Was it a seasoned horse who had no business stopping? Rider error could result from nerves or lack of confidence that gave a half-hearted effort and put the horse to a distance that he was unable to solve. If you are unsure of why your horse stopped, then you should rely on your trainer.

If soundness is the issue, no amount of punishment is appropriate and your horse needs to be cared for before he jumps. If you’re unsure, schedule a visit with your veterinarian to thoroughly go over your horse. 

If the refusal was due to lack of steering, commonly called a runout, then driving aids or a stick should not be applied. You need to be more accurate about your approach, leaving no doubt in your horse’s mind where he is to go and what he has to jump. He must be given a direct approach to the jump. 

If your horse is green and tentative, spooky or a little quirky, the best reaction might be to ignore the refusal, make a small circle and ride to the jump again as if nothing happened. Judgment calls for determining whether a little more leg is needed along with a cluck and possibly a touch with the stick behind the leg off the ground. These are degrees of reaction from the rider using judgment. 

If your seasoned horse refuses, then the correction is to hold him to the center of the jump, bridge the reins and use the stick behind your leg, circle and readdress the jump. This needs to be done in an unemotional way so he simply understands that he shouldn’t stop. If it’s overdone, you can create a nervous horse. In most cases, he will go ahead and simply jump the jump. 

If your horse stopped because you chose a distance that was impossible for him to jump, that goes into the category of weak, indecisive riding and needs to be addressed separately at home, working with your trainer. 

Patting a horse who stops is never recommended even if it was entirely the

fault of the rider because this would be interpreted as reward. 

Your horse should move forward from your light leg aids, as Wilton Porter demonstrated at the 2012 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session in Florida. | © Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore

Another common disobedience is shying away from the obstacle. In this case, I prefer regaining the horse’s attention rather than reacting to the spook or heading the horse directly to the object he is spooking from. Keeping the attention on you and moving laterally toward the object at the same time usually will accomplish this. For example, if I’m cantering on a circle and suddenly my horse looks outside the ring and then moves in on the circle, I immediately bend him around my inside leg, push him over a few steps and continue as if it never happened.

Lack of Self-Carriage
Another problem I see riders having with their horses—and then using an inappropriate correction—is lack of self-carriage that results in spur marks. The horse is dead to the rider’s leg, and she keeps urging him forward every single step, eventually wearing a nasty rub from a combination of constant nagging leg as well as spur.

If you are using your leg constantly to get your horse to go forward, I recommend you teach him to react to your leg. Combine the use of the stick, behind the leg, in conjunction with the leg and the cluck to encourage him to carry himself. After getting a forward reaction to these aids, then you can use much less leg. If your horse drops back again, the same aids should be applied. Do not use a constant nagging leg. Your horse should then go forward with less leg and the cluck and eventually carry himself with a much lighter leg. 

These are just a few basic disobediences that occur regularly, and it is very important to understand why they happen and how to correct them. As George H. Morris says, “You need to be able to be strong as well as soft but never rough.” 

Trainer, judge, clinician and author Holly Hugo-Vidal is based in Rancho Santa Fe, California. Growing up in New York, she trained with horseman George Morris, who instilled in her a belief in solid basics and a demand for excellence. With her former husband, Victor Hugo-Vidal, she ran the successful show barn Cedar Lodge Farm in Stamford, Connecticut, learning from Victor’s ability to help anyone with a desire to accomplish his or her goals. Her next mentor was show jumper Rodney Jenkins, who provided her with lessons in reading horses and creating in them a desire to please. She is the author of the book “Build Confidence Over Fences!” To purchase it, go to

This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.

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