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Gentling a Wild Filly
WRITTEN BY: Cheryl Sutor   [July 25, 2000]


Training Question:

I just purchased two fillies, both 12 months old. A friend who has many years experience with horses is helping me with them. Both horses are wild. My question is regarding his handling of them. He has them tied to a pipe fence in a corral. He leaves them tied up for several hours and then he releases them for a short time. Is this a proper way to tame a horse? One horse is doing well and can see a difference with her behavior but the other one is very spirited and is doing no better.

From: Marilyn



Trainer's Response:

Horses are flight animals, and are terrified of being restrained. When they become frightened or feel restricted, they panic and run. In hearing that both of these fillies are wild (or un-trained), tying them up as this man is doing creates a very dangerous situation for both the horses and for anyone who may be near, should they panic. In addition, this type of "training" is very stressful for the fillies.

You should start by gaining the fillies' trust and respect before asking them to do things for you such as haltering, leading, lunging, riding, etc. By gaining their trust and respect, their instinct to flee and their fear of restraint will start to disappear. The more trust and respect they have in you, the less they will feel the need to flee.

Horses at this age have very short attention spans. When working with young horses, the lessons should be frequent, but of short time. The best way to work with a horse such as your own is to begin with basic training, allowing the horse time to accept your presence and interaction with them. These first training sessions should last no longer than 15 minutes, with about 1 hour in between each session.

This keeps the training "short-and-sweet", and encourages the fillies to look forward to your visits. It decreases the chance of over-working them in their early age, and also decreases their chance of exhaustion or boredom (both are very non-productive in horse training).

Through patience and understanding of the horse's mind, you can learn to teach your fillies these simple tasks yourself, or to easily enforce them once your trainer is no longer around to help. When you make the big decision to own a horse, you are also making the decision to learn to speak their language, you are making the promise that you will listen to what they are saying, and will try your hardest to respond in a way that they understand. In keeping this promise, it will ensure that the relationship between you and your horses remains positive, and you will end up with trusting, obedient companions.

Horses learn through interaction with thier surroundings. If you believe that interaction with a fence in a corral is a good learning experience for your fillies, then you should continue with the training. However, be sure you know exactly what this "trainer" is trying to teach your fillies through this type of training. Ask him to explain what he is doing, and most importantly why. Ask him to explain what your fillies will learn from it. Listen to your heart and to your moral beliefs when deciding what is best for your fillies.

If the trainer cannot answer your questions clearly, or if you disagree with anything he is doing with your fillies, it is time to find a new trainer. Make sure that your horse's trainer knows what he is talking about and can train your horses in a caring and considerate way.

The best training any horse can have is through interaction with humans. The fillies need to learn to trust their human companions and to enjoy their company. Tying the fillies to a fence does not provide this type of interaction. Trust is not gained through force or pain. Trust is gained through pain-free repetition and positive reinforcement.

In every training request, there are 4 steps. Please read our article on Sensitizing & Desensitizing to learn more about training your horse specific cues.

Each step in a training request plays a very large role in the training process. If any step is left out, the training is not likely to progress as desired.

The fence that she is tied to, on the other hand, cannot interact very well with her and it cannot provide the 4 steps in each training request. The fence cannot reward her for making a correct move or a correct change. This is why I believe that tying a horse to a fence does not teach her much. It may break her spirits, but it will not teach her to become an obedient, respectful and responsive companion.

In addition, when introducing a horse to new things, the horse should not be restricted in her movement. The horse should be allowed to back away from the "scary" object, should she feel it is necessary. By restricting a horse's movement (by tying or holding the horse still, using hobbles, twitches, chains, etc.), the horse is introduced to extreme mental and emotional stress and pain. The horse would lose trust and respect for you through those methods of restraint, and would only work for you because she is forced to.

For example, let's say you have a fear of snakes. Which training method would be more likely to help you overcome your fear of snakes? Which method would put you through a great amount of emotional stress that is both not wanted and not needed?

Training Method 1:
The trainer sits you down in a chair, ties your hands and feet to the chair's arms and legs. He then proceeds to hang snakes all over you while you scream in fear, kicking and wiggling trying to "get the heck out of there". He continues to allow the snakes to hang all over your arms, legs, neck and sit in your lap until you are too tired to fight anymore and you give up and accept the snakes only because your efforts to escape have exhausted you, both physically and mentally. How would you feel toward this trainer? Would you trust and respect him?
Training Method 2:
The trainer places a rope around your neck and proceeds to pull you close to his assistant who is standing there with snakes draped all over him. With each step closer, you pull away harder and resist more. Since you are being very resistant, the trainer yanks on the rope around your neck and hits the back of your legs with a whip. Every time you try to resist or scream, he yanks and hits you. You eventually give in and stand still without making a sound (you might be trembling, though), only to avoid being whipped and chained. You go home that night with bruises around your neck and sores on your legs. How would you feel toward this trainer? Would you look forward to future training sessions with him, or would you run away at first sight?
Training Method 3:
The trainer stands 100 feet away from you while holding a snake. You see the snake and it reminds you of your fears. The instant you think you might turn and run, the trainer turns away and walks 20 feet further from you, now standing 120 feet away from you. You think "well, that wasn't so bad...I didn't have to run". After you're completely relaxed, the trainer walks 21 feet towards you (now 99 feet away from you). You have the same reaction, but the trainer, again, turns and walks away before you decide to move. While never stepping close enough to make you run away, the trainer repeats this process over and over until he is finally standing 50 feet from you. He then walks away completely and ends the lesson, deciding to work on more repetitions tomorrow. How would you feel about this trainer? Would you trust and respect him? Would you fear him? Was this training experience somewhat pleasant, or was it painful and inconsiderate?

For anyone with even a little bit of sympathy and compassion, the first two methods can be extremely disturbing to imagine. Not only because you can imagine the horror of being forced to face your worst fear, and the stress and pain of trying to escape while being tied-fast to something sturdy or while being whipped, but because you can also imagine this for your horses. I use these examples because we, as humans, are able to feel sympathy and compassion for animals, however, we often do not recognize that this is exactly what many "horse trainers" are doing with horses.

Of course, after reading the senarios above and comparing these "training methods" to situations that we can easily imagine, Training Method 3 is the best bet. Then, why do we chain, smack, hit, force, or otherwise painfully restrain animals just to teach them what "acceptable human behavior" is? Remember that a horse's natural behaviors are often classified as unnacceptable human behaviors. It is natural for a horse to bite, kick, or run away. However, this is unnacceptable to us. Let's teach this to the horse in a pain-free and understanding way.

Training Method 3 is known as the "approach-and-retreat" method of training. It is also known as Desensitizing a horse. By using the approach-and-retreat method, a horse can be trained to accept new objects in his surroundings while eliminating her fear, and most importantly without emotional damage. Through repetition of the approach-and-retreat method, the horse soon learns to trust you when it encounters new things that may seem frightening to her. She begins to trust your judgement and leadership skills.

The approach-and-retreat method works this way: you begin to walk towards the horse with an object that you'd like the horse to become accustomed to, or less scared of. Watch the horse's body posture very closely. The instant you think the horse may even be thinking of moving away, you immediately turn and walk away from the horse. Wait a few seconds (or until the horse has relaxed), then repeat.

By your walking away, the horse is instantly rewarded for her behavior of standing still without restraints. She is rewarded for not thinking that her fears about the object are strong enough to turn and run away. She is rewarded for those few seconds of trust that she gave you. She learns that your request (asking her to accept a scary object - let's say 100 feet away) was not so hard after all. The next time you ask for the same request, you may be able to walk 99 feet from her, then 98 feet, then 97 feet, etc. Through repetition, she is soon no longer afraid of the object and her trust in you has grown.

Walking away (or removing the stimulus/scary object/etc.) EACH TIME is the most important part of the approach-and-retreat method. When you walk away, the horse thinks "Whew, I thought that was going to be scary, but I guess I was wrong". Through repetition, this thought gets saved in the horse's long-term memory which eventually takes over her fear of the object.

This approach-and-retreat method works very well from the very simple things such as approaching the horse in the corral or pasture to be petted, or haltered, to more complex things like lungeing and riding. Being able to approach the horse and interact with the horse in ways such as petting, brushing and leading are the very first training steps that should be taken with every horse, whether they are wild or gentled. Until these first lessons are learned very well by the fillies, the training should not progress any further than that.

Once the horse has learned the basics of accepting your handling them all over their bodies, including picking up their feet and rubbing every inch of their body, along with basic leading lessons, you can begin other advanced ground training such as lungeing and fun round pen work.

Remember...Horses cannot be expected to communicate in our language. However, when we learn to communicate in their language, training becomes easier and much more successful.

You will find additional articles of interest in the following sections on our website: Horse Training Principles, Equine Behavior, and Ground Manners. I hope these articles will set you on a wonderful path of stress-free communication between you and your growing fillies!



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This article was published on: July 25, 2000. Last updated on: March 7, 2002.