Gentle Discipline, Gentle Training

Training means, ‘the process or routine of one who trains’, ‘the state of being trained’, ‘practical education in some profession, art, handicraft, or the like; instruction coupled with practice in the use of one’s powers: as, manual training; a sound business training. ~ The American Heritage Dictionary

We don’t seem to have any trouble agreeing on the meaning of the word..

But…we do have some baggage with ‘discipline’.

Discipline derives its root meaning from the word ‘disciple’, which means ‘to teach’. But, in this day and age, it has come to mean something else; a punishment, chastisement or reprimand for ‘bad behavior’.

If we have word fear or prejudice, it limits our options for discussion and further understanding. It makes for a messy, indirect dialog. So, let’s be bold. Discipline belongs in our language. We can re-visit its usage with regard to working with horses.

A problem arises with the modern use and implications of control, which has been used to define the word discipline. According to Merriam-Webster, discipline means ‘control gained by enforcing obedience or order’. This is packed with provocative words like control, enforce, and obedience as a result.

However, The American Heritage Dictionary defines discipline as, ‘training expected to produce a specific character or pattern of behavior, especially training that produces moral or mental improvement’.

In this view, training and discipline are complimentary, however, the horse is not the only recipient.

How to use Discipline:

In this system of teaching or training, discipline is not the crack of the whip, jerking the reins, kicking the sides of a horse, shanking the lead line – which are all punishments – or even pulling on a halter until the horse yields (negative reinforcement).

Discipline is the internal governance of the rider or trainer. This self-guidance isn’t rigid, intransigent or hollow. It is a gentle, hyper-engaged, and positive demeanor that projects steadiness and engenders trust. Combined with knowledge and experience, the disciplined rider/trainer can project groundedness, self-control, calmness, love and empathy.

How can we expect a horse, who mirrors us in many ways, be taught self-control if we are not?

A horse is much more likely to figure out and connect with a reliable, consistent – disciplined – coach and partner. In other words, a compassionate, responsible leader.

This rider/trainer isn’t looking to reward or punish, but consistently encouraging the horse’s efforts. The horse internalizes the fact that trying is good, it’s fun, and it’s rewarding ‘for its own sake’. This is much more meaningful than the occasional ‘one slap’ we see riders offering their horses only when something goes right. During all the time in-between those ‘right’ moments, there may be a growing uncertainty or discomfort in the horse.

Gentle discipline within the rider/trainer starts with connection. Behavior arises from just how connected the horse feels – or doesn’t feel – to the rider/trainer. It is a litmus test. When it is lost for whatever reason, the horse may try to take charge, seeing that safety and protection may not be a priority.

The rider/trainer who issues punishments for the subsequent reaction – without realizing the lapse in partnership – is actually hurting the horse for a failure on their own part.

Imagine how confusing that is to a horse, and how stressful it must be to be misunderstood for something that makes survival sense to other horses.

If a rider/trainer lapses in connection and the horse acts out in some way, it is best to do nothing. Have the courage to let the horse’s emotions to run their course. Accept, with full understanding and acknowledgement of just where the lapse in leadership responsibility can be placed.

For example: I was riding a horse who reared several times in an indoor arena. As soon as I felt I had the horse’s faith again – which was within two twenty meter walking circles, I asked for a halt and dismounted. I just kept talking to him, soothing him…intensely focusing on him and telling him I’d never hurt him. I meant it with all my heart, and most of all, I wasn’t afraid. Horses really don’t like a leader who can’t grasp herd survival instincts – and just how ‘together’ and connected they need to be in times of trouble.

This was only the third time I had been on the horse, and he was supposed to be very well adjusted and trained. There was another trainer in the arena. She saw the whole thing, and instantly abandoned the lesson she was teaching, to yell at me in front of students, clients AND horses. She said I should get back on and carry a whip…she said I was teaching a perfectly good third level horse to be a dangerous rogue. I took the lumps knowing there was something wrong with him. I could feel it building in him. I didn’t bother to try to explain that to anyone.

I never rode him again. As it turned out, he had very serious gut problems. For as much pain as he was in, it was amazing he still had the kindness and willingness to work with me…I never felt for a second that he wanted to hurt me…he just wanted to be ‘heard’.

Disciplined riders/trainers treat their horses like family, and they transmit an apology when they get it wrong. They don’t force or bribe the horse for affection or obedience; instead they see honest but perhaps undesirable behavior as an unmet need. They refrain when they want to lash out in frustration, and do what it takes to regain composure. They have the wherewithal to ask, “What is my horse’s behavior communicating? What can I do differently?”

This rider/trainer will find ways to constantly instill confidence through steadiness and honoring the horse’s input. The horse can ‘raise his hand in class’ if he doesn’t understand (or doesn’t feel good), and the rider/trainer will patiently, creatively teach individual horse new things (or find out what’s wrong). The horse won’t have any worries about being hammered into shape.

Most of all, this gentle discipline doesn’t change as the horse becomes more educated and proficient. ’Commands’ given to a high level horse are still requests, light-hearted and lightly applied. A horse that is fully dialed into his rider, who is filled with confidence, trust and proper conditioning to fulfill difficult requests, will do so happily and instantly, and to the best of his ability.

He will have a bright facial expression and a quiet, loosely swinging tail regardless of the task…he will not labor at the pirouette, and will make instant, nearly explosive transitions from collected to extended work…all with ease and a loosened rein.

Published by Adrienne

Researcher | Author | Illustrator | Equine Energy Technician | Classical Dressage Published work: "Coherent Horsemanship: Combining the Quantum and the Classical" - 2020 AHP Award Winner for Excellence in Equine Media, "Legendary Hearts of Horses" - Readers’ Favorite 5-Star Reviews, EQUUS Film & Arts Fest Official Selection

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