Every interaction with a horse owner is a positive one. Most recently whilst out in the community, on a day where temperatures stayed in single figures, the sun splitting the sky, we knew that there would be owners enjoying the weather with their horses. Only 2 minutes from pulling into the estate, there it was – the unmissable flow of water and bubbles. In most of the communities we operate in when the sun is out, so is the hose and washing up liquid and it’s not dishes they are washing their horses.

Low and behold, we have Shetland and a coloured cob, getting the sunny bath, despite it being freezing cold. A loosely tied rope around the Shetland’s neck and a very low placed head collar on the cob. Even more disturbing, was the nylon rope tied to the rings on the head collar, as a make shift bit! For additional support there was an all important hammer. These horses were not tethered locally, so the need for a hammer! Well, I leave that up to you.

Attack is the best form of defence! – Not always.

We are not a welcome sight for some owners, as I am sure you can imagine, with neighbours and onlookers, becoming desensitised and accepting bad horsemanship as normal behaviour, they don’t report any misdemeanours or challenge the behaviour of others, especially if this is the norm. The reasoning behind it is that it is so difficult to prove and they have lived in these communities, sometimes it just not worth the bother, pull the curtains and look away.

Within the codes of practice there are guidelines that relate to the Animal Welfare Act 2006 Section 9(2)c the need to exhibit normal behaviour patterns.

“Training 3.2. Any behavioural intervention can have both intended and unintended consequences for horses and should not be brought about without careful consideration and advice from an experienced horse professional.

3.3. Horse training should be humane, effective and safe for both horse and handler. Horses do not perform unwanted behaviours intentionally to defy their handlers; usually there is an underlying reason such as pain, discomfort, fear or habit (the behaviour has been learnt because it has been rewarded, often accidentally, in some way). A reward can be the release of pressure on a head collar, or increasing distance between a horse and something it finds fearful. It is important to understand the behavioural needs of horses so that you can try and identify the cause of the behaviour, rather than label the horse as “naughty”. Any training should be appropriate to the age, experience and condition of the animal in question. If you are unsure how to best handle your horse, advice should be sought from an experienced horse professional.”

3.4. It is an offence to cause an animal unnecessary suffering and this includes psychological suffering. Intervention or punishment intended to suppress an unwanted behaviour should only be delivered immediately so it is directly linked to the behaviour in question. Punishment can cause psychological distress to the horse and may induce fear, which you may then become associated with. Using a whip inappropriately to suppress unwanted behaviour may also cause pain, affect learning and/or stop the horse trialling new responses. You should not beat your horse or use other inappropriate punishments.

3.5. Any restraint method used to assist normal management or treatment of the horse should be applied by a competent person only, and for the minimum period necessary. If a horse’s behaviour warrants the use of a restraint method such as a twitch, consideration should be given to retraining the horse so that it no longer requires the restraint method. The horse’s psychological state and the potential to develop a long-lasting fear response whilst restrained must be taken into account. Sedatives must be prescribed by a vet and only used under their guidance.

For this owner, my rocking up on a sunny morning was not what was wanted, so the general, tongue in check abuse happens, to which I shrug and laugh it off, not always the best thing to do, but we have been having interactions with this particular owner for more than 10 years. “Why are you always picking on me?”- trying to deflect their behaviour by the others and what they do and how cruel it is. I took it all in my stride, my focus remaining the nylon rope going through the cob’s mouth and the hammer. After the heckles and testosterone had subsided, we had a civil discussion about rope burns and appropriate lead ropes, still not mentioning the rope going through the horse’s mouth, to keep the handler calm. Fortunately, I carry a stock of donated and new items in the car, a lovely soft lead rope with shinny clip. So, without delay I set about, attaching the lead rope to the head collar, at which point I made my awareness of the rope going through the horses mouth very distasteful and that there was no room for cutting corners in horsemanship. If such a method had to be used for control, then we at Communities For Horses could provide the owner with a bit, that could be used. However, no amount of biting, makes up for good handling, without fear, which is where the hammer comes in.

We then went on to discuss humane methods of handling and pre-planning for when you’re about to do a task such as bathing a horse. Having the appropriate environment and equipment ready, will prevent you from looking like a cruel fool and a true horseman. Something that every horse person aspires to be, to grow and learn, being caught red handed, literally by a welfare officer, makes for a memory. What we did and do is make those memories lessons – ones that will not be forgotten.

I have no doubt in my mind that this particular owner will not be using a nylon rope as bit in future, due the to complete and utter embarrassment that they felt when they had been caught. The once know it all horseman had been proven to be, not so good horseman and controlling a horse with pain and fear is not nice full stop. Being made aware of this in front of others, in an unchallenging way, allows the horse owner to actually excel in their knowledge and aspire for better.

Many people will disagree with the way in which we work, but going in heavy handed does not change the behaviour, it just makes a challenging situation potentially volatile, which can then lead to even worse behaviour. The way in which we work, allows people to realise the outcome of their actions, in context, a much better outcome for the human and horse alike.

There is no need for hammers in horsemanship, unless you’re a farrier.