Majic reached over and grabbed my thumb the other day just as a special-needs student was mounting from the platform. His big teeth could have bitten my thumb off, but only made two big blood blisters… only! If I were another horse, I would have bitten him back, kicked him, bopped him with my head. If I were his dam when he was a colt, I might have grabbed his neck and held him down to discipline him.
As a lowly human (biting him back might have meant the loss of teeth), I punched him. Carefully. On the neck. My student saw it all. She was safely in the Aussie saddle (the only reason I went ahead and punched Majic – her safety was paramount) and in need of understanding why I would hit a horse.
This is often the case here where we teach and value compassion and communication. We do not “hit” horses. But we do discipline them. And I have to explain to students why I cannot have the herd pushing boundaries and causing harm to anyone. I also cannot have brutality expressed on any level here. That makes for a fine line indeed. Some of my students through the past few years have come from abusive situations themselves. I do not want them seeing aggression in any form just as I do not want aggression expressed toward any animal. Yet, a horse is a large and powerful animal. Boundaries must be taught and respected because horses do not know our “right from wrong” ideals. And those concepts can be quite different from barn to barn, teacher to teacher.
One constant for certain is that horses cannot be allowed to treat us as peers or underlings with the bite/push/kick responses they would use with other horses. “Playing” with some horses can encourage such responses and because of that, I don’t play with a horse as another equine would. It is not fair if I am going to then discipline him for trying to play with me.
Majic actually saw an opportunity to “nip” at me in a playful way and my thumb just happened to be by his mouth as I held his bridle. His intention was not to harm, it never is (those occasions are easy to discern with a horse!). But, if I do not tell him firmly in a manner clear to him and absolutely immediate – he will believe it is okay to nip at a person.
Timing is the key to discipline. It isn’t how severely we teach this lesson, it is when we apply the lesson that matters. A horse can only understand the consequences of the immediate action, so to bop Majic for biting my thumb 10 minutes (or even 30 seconds) after he did it will mean nothing to him. Sometimes, we have to “hit” a horse. It is a kindness to teach horses manners because the properly applied slap and verbal “no” or growl can prevent real abuse later by a person who gets really hurt by the ill mannered equine. We are using horse language in essence by bopping him “a good one” for dangerous behavior just as another horse would. Horses don’t put up with such nonsense from each other. If we do, it is like we are giving permission.
I never want to strike a horse. I hate doing it. But I love my horses enough to teach them boundaries for their sakes as well as ours. Properly done, it should only take once or twice to get the point across. And it is not about hurting them (when I punched Majic, it hurt my hand more than it hurt him) – it is about the impression it makes mentally that I do not allow this behavior.