When a Kick in the Gut Isn’t Enough, I Don’t Know What Is…


Quarter Horse with Dorsal Stripe

I haven’t been kicked in 10 years!

Those are the words I heard after I witnessed a 3 Star Parelli Horsemanship Instructor get kicked during a professional demonstration with her horse this past weekend. My nerves had become more and more tense as her demo went on. At the beginning, she had mentioned to the audience that the long stick with the thin rope at the end was merely to make herself larger and that it wasn’t used to hit the horse. She said that the horse didn’t actually know that she was weaker, slower, and smaller than he was. Later on she talked about how she had to be dominant 51% of the time in order to maintain control and that he was graciously allowed to be the leader when she let him. This horse had had quite a bit of training but was being uncooperative which she explained was due to being put up these past few days because of the wintry weather.

The demo included exercises where she had the horse walk, trot, canter around the arena, as well as do flying lead changes, back up, and pass between herself and the fence (known as “squeezing”). From the very beginning, this horse was amped up. He had no problem getting up in her space and it made me very nervous every time ran up to her.

It is ironic that at the beginning of the demo she told the audience that Parelli Horsemanship was based on observing the horse’s body language and communicating effectively with it. As I watched their interactions, her cues appeared extremely similar to me (and probably to the horse) making her communication quite ambiguous. The cues for switching directions and moving out away from her appeared to have the same hand motion. When he chose the wrong behavior, she moved into his space until he did the behavior she was looking for correctly (spacial pressure also known as Negative Reinforcement). As the demo went on, he was becoming more and more frustrated. I observed faster movement, blowing his nose violently, and rushing into her space during his changes in direction (every time he did that my heart skipped a beat).

Then came the time where she said he was a bit unsettled by the crowd (there were about 20 people around the small arena for the demo.) She said that horses were claustrophobic by nature and making them go through tight spaces would increase their confidence. A squeeze exercise is where the horse goes between the human and the fence (a narrow opening). He cooperated and passed between her and the fence multiple times. Then about the 6th time after he passed her he threw a kick at her. Luckily she was close and it did not seem to have harmed her. Her response was to raise her stick with rope tool and hit her horse. After this action, which clearly caught her off guard, she exclaimed to the audience, “I haven’t been kicked by a horse in 10 years!”

Now that you know the detail of what happened, I’m going to talk about what I saw and heard, and how I interpreted it.

The sentences in italics above are the times where my jaw probably dropped. Does she actually believe that the horse thinks he is weaker that she is? When does making an animal (or human) do something they are scared of increase confidence? Anyways, lets talk about a few key concepts she talked about:

Body Language

When she began the demo, she emphasized that observing the horse’s body language to communicate with it was critical to good horsemanship and that force was not used to train the horse. This confused me the most because it was clear to me that the horse was getting more and more frustrated as the demo went on. Maybe she didn’t want to stop or change her demo because people were watching (even though it was a very casual crowd) or maybe it was that she didn’t want to let him set the pace, or maybe it was that she simply isn’t looking for the right body language cues from the horse. It reminds me a lot of when I was using dominance training with dogs. Once I knew to look for calming signals (head turns, lip licks, sniffing, etc.), it opened up a whole new understanding of what the animal was trying to communicate to me. I thought I was observing body language, but it turns out I was looking at it the wrong way. But lets talk in terms of energy like she described it often. This horse’s energy was off the charts. He was aroused, stressed, frustrated, and confused – and she wasn’t giving him any breaks. Who knows, maybe she was nervous and he was picking up on it…


Humans seem to think that animals have this desire to take over the world. We have it in our minds that animals want to be dominant over us when the fact is, WE are the ones entering their space and world in the first place. Without humans, animals would get along just fine and I’m willing to bet that species of animals wouldn’t start trying to dominate each other. Animals know we are a different species. We don’t have to compete with them in the same way that they would compete with others of their own species. Domestic animals know that we hold their resources – food, shelter, and water. There’s no need to make them submit to us any further – they are our prisoners to begin with because they rely on us for everything.

The best thing we can do is to listen to them, teach the a way to communicate with us (by this I mean clicker training or reward based training), and to try not to provoke them into reacting aggressively. When we fail to do this, we are not doing them justice. They don’t have a choice and their small voices are completely removed from our conciousness.

Frustration – No Pressure Release

The training I witnessed appeared to be based in pressure – as with most horse training. The reward is a release of pressure from the human – meaning the human backs off the horse and gives him space. The exercise that was being practiced when the horse kicked the trainer involved a lot of pressure on the horse – going through a narrow pathway. Asking the horse to repeat this exercises over and over without giving him a break, or release in pressure, communicated to the horse that he wasn’t doing something correctly. She was providing no feedback other than asking him to do it again and again. The horse got more frustrated each time and it ended with a kick to her gut and a whack to the horse. Again, the lack of communication her part and her lack of observation skills shocked me.

In the seminar I attended a few weeks back with Peggy Hogan, a prominent subject she repeatedly brought up was limiting the level of frustration in the horse. The learning process is tough and as teachers/trainers we have the ability to make it easier or harder depending on our competence. Whether you’re clicker training or using spacial pressure to train, you have to make it clear when they animal performs correctly or incorrectly. In clicker training, they get a treat when they do something correctly or nothing when they don’t. In training with spacial pressure, they get more pressure when they do it incorrectly or a release in pressure when they do it correctly. No matter the method, the human must competently apply the technique correctly to reduce frustration and confusion in the animal.

Are we really predators to horses?

The horse trainer said at the beginning of the demo that horses are prey and we are predators and that we have to help them trust us by training them. In my opinion, we have domesticated and purposely bred horses. Are they truly predispositioned to fear us? Yes, they are prey animals, but those who have been raised around people are not fearful of us. At the very least, they understand that we bring them their food and walk them around. There is no need to treat them as wild animals other than taking the proper precautions about physical safety since they are large. After centuries of selective breeding, we should understand that at least they are capable of learning in a more humane way. (All animals are capable of learning without force or spacial pressure, but especially those who have lived with humans for centuries!)

In my mind, there is no comparison to the training Peggy Hogan has shown the world. Its time to embrace clicker training to train horses, and other animals, all the tricks we want the to know. Its simplicity and clarity is leaps and bounds ahead of the game when it comes to trick training in animals. Give the animal a choice and a paycheck. They are there because of us and we are the ones asking them to perform unnatural behaviors. Force is utterly unnecessary in the 21st Century…

***In case you may not have noticed, this is a blog. These are my opinions and, unless I say so, are not always backed in science.***