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A Lifetime of Experience Yields Good Horse Sense

Pet Column for the week of July 15, 2002

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Services - Veterinary Profession

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Jennifer Stone
Information Specialist

Dr. Dean Scoggins, an equine Extension veterinarian retired from the the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, has many secrets to reveal about the nature of our equine friends. During his 50 years of handling horses, his ideas on horse training have come full circle. He recently shared some of his wisdom on the eve of his retirement from the University.

"I have known some tremendous horses in my time," says Dr. Scoggins. "My first horse was a 3-year-old mare that I bought when I was 15 years old. I bought her and a saddle for $75. She was spoiled and would initially buck me off when I tried to ride her. She eventually became a great horse-she just needed some time, patience, and training. Since then I have noticed that all of the really good horses are strong willed."

Horses have a strong sense of fairness and will take discipline and training but will not stand to be abused. "I once knew a horse that would buck you off in a heartbeat if you were too aggressive or did something that he didn't think was right, even though he was a National Champion performance horse," says Dr. Scoggins. "When training a horse, you must strike a balance between being aggressive and being lenient."

In Dr. Scoggins' opinion, there are two directions in which training can go wrong. One way is using too much force to get the horse to do what you want. The horse may obey, but may become afraid of you. The horse may also rebel and become difficult or even dangerous.

The other extreme occurs when the owner thinks that the horse is a big poodle and tries to make a pet out of him. The horse may love this because that means that he doesn't have to do any work, but at the same time, the horse may become disrespectful and start taking advantage of the owner. "Before you know it, that 1,000-pound horse may be walking all over the poor owner," says Dr. Scoggins. "Some people want their horses to be their pets or surrogate children. They want to pet them and love them, but horses don't really understand that type of behavior. They do not behave that way with other horses, and they are not going to behave that way with humans."

Dr. Scoggins finds that the disrespectful horses are the most difficult to work with. As he puts it, when these horses are sent away for training, they think that they have been sent to boot camp because they are expected to do work for the first time.

"Sometimes after correcting this type of problem, these horses become your best buddy because distinct expectations of behavior have been set," says Dr. Scoggins. "Horses need and respect boundaries, but owners must be consistent."

Dr. Scoggins also believes that the best teacher is the horse himself. "Horses will let you know what methods are the best for training them. In many cases the horses are of the headstrong variety and may force you to adapt your teaching style. Training is really more of a partnership than anything else," says Dr. Scoggins.

Dr. Scoggins' beliefs about training have changed over the years. "As a kid I was using many of the same techniques that I do today, but when I started showing horses I got a lot of advice based on the idea of forcing the horse to do what you want him to do. It was not all brutality, but there was a lot of force involved," says Dr. Scoggins.
"Today, I give owners some tongue-in-cheek advice: throw away the training manuals and instruction books because, for the most part, they were meant to train humans and not horses."

The method that Dr. Scoggins prefers is often called natural horsemanship. "This method is all about getting into the horse's mind and helping him understand what it is that you want him to do," says Dr. Scoggins. "This style of teaching is especially good for children and people who have never had any experience with horse training. I like to make my trainees do calisthenics: Stop. Turn, roll over their hocks, back up, step forward. What you are trying to do is to get the horse's brain in gear to do the job even if that job is just to go out and get the mail. You control the horse's feet in order to control the horse's mind by asking for increasingly precise movement."

If you are looking for someone to help you with this style of training, you should spend time with the prospective trainer to make sure this person is a good match with you. "This method sometimes seems as though it takes longer than training by force," says Dr. Scoggins, "but by laying the groundwork you can expect a higher level of obedience and respect from your horse in the long run."

EDITOR'S NOTE: The source cited in this article, Dr. R.D. Scoggins, passed away in December 2006.