I went to the local county fair over the weekend to watch the draft horse shows. Always a fan of the biggest horses, I thought it would be neat to see them up close and personal. And it was phenomenal – those horses really are something to see.
I was more than disappointed (disgusted, really) when I saw how the horses were being handled in the ring. For the first class, the handlers were on the ground, not riding the horse. Almost every handler carried a stick, and used it to poke the horses into the correct position.
The handlers were pretty rough with the horses, giving them stern halter corrections, too. Unfortunately, not only were they unnecessary, none of those punishers were timed correctly, which really fueled my frustration. Generally, the punishment came after the horse either got a little antsy and was fidgeting. To correctly use a punisher, it must be delivered during or immediately after the behavior. Not two, three, or even four seconds after. But there’s no need to even use a punisher. Using a punisher incorrectly is almost inhumane.
One woman actually used the stick to hit her horse in the face every time he would raise his head. She’d hit him. In the face. With the stick. And later, she’ll wonder why he’s suddenly head-shy. Honestly, it was almost too much for me to watch.
The day was saved however, when I watched a man handling a Belgian mare. Unlike the other handlers, he didn’t have a stick. He would simply tap his finger on the leg he wanted the horse to move. Voila, the horse obliged and moved that leg. He was so calm, so still, it really caught my attention.
After he came out of the ring, I went over and talked to him about how he handled the horse and he said he taught all his horses using gentle methods. He said he had no need for the stick in the ring, and he doesn’t use one outside the ring either.
I didn’t trust myself to speak to the woman who was hitting the horse in the face with the stick — I probably would have said unkind things. If I’d been able to ask why she hit her horse in the face with the stick, I’m sure she would have said something to this effect: If you’re working with horses who are taller than you are at the shoulder, and who weigh 2,000 pounds, you’ve got to show them who’s boss.
I hear this all the time in the dog-world. People believe that because the animal is bigger and stronger, that justifies using force to control the animal.
I don’t buy it. And here’s why: I’ve watched a 10,000 pound elephant (5 times heavier than the Percheron horse) offering his gigantic foot up for a nail trim. Volunteered it. No sticks, no cattle prods. The keeper says “foot,” and the elephant offers his foot. All for a slice of an apple.
If the keeper of a 10,000 pound elephant doesn’t need to use force, surely a person working with a horse, even a draft horse, doesn’t need to use force. Behavior is behavior, whether it’s an elephant, a draft horse or a person. And force doesn’t have to be part of the equation when working with any of them.