Thoroughbred Logic: Be Fair

Want respectful and well-behaved, happy horses? A key (but certainly not the only) component is this: Be fair.

Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, will offer insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). Come along for the ride as she offers her logic on fairness and horse training.

While most folks understand the term “fair,” actually defining what it means ‘to train horses fairly’ is, in fact, pretty tricky. Dictionary definitions of “fair” are bland and largely useless. They include: “in accordance with rules or standards” “or without cheating or trying to achieve unjust advantage.” In the diverse world of human-equine interactions, there is no single standard to which we all are held. And advantage is necessary (at least mentally) when trying to translate the asks of a 120(ish)-pound person to a 1200(ish)-pound horse.

A dictionary definition for “fairness” gives us “impartial and just treatment or behavior without favoritism or discrimination.” That’s helpful if we’re looking comparatively at how you treat a barn full of horses. Yes, be fair there too – top horses and those who won’t ever see a competition ring all get the same care, compassion, and (importantly) boundaries.

Boomer (Badabing Badaboom) enjoys the attention and gets a gentle “nope, I need your head back over there” during his conformation shoot. Photo by Kelly Robison.

But – what actually is “fair” in relation to training Thoroughbreds/horses in general? Apparently this is more complicated than it might seem. As I noodle this around, it seems “fair” has to do with being:

a) kind but upholding your boundaries like hell

b) consistent to the point of predictable

c) able to address the individual

d) being proportional/commiserative in both the training asks and responses.

This article kicks off a short series about fairness (because as always, I start writing and realize there is a LOT more here to unpack) stay tuned for more examples and elaboration in the following weeks.

Louis (Unbridled Bayou) receives a big pat for making a super effort in his dressage test at Poplar. Was it perfect? Nope, but he tried and that gets rewarded. Photo by Cora Williamson.

In the meantime, in no particular order, here’s a list of 10 things that the idea of “being fair” includes:

  1. Fair is engaging and responding to the horse in front of you, not the last horse you handled, not the horse you had yesterday, or a week ago, or the one you wish you had purchased.
  2. Fair is communicating clearly (be it a new training step or a big fat, “hell no.”)
  3. Fair is being switched on enough to identify the mental, physical, and emotional state of each horse and to set your expectations according that knowledge.
  4. Fair is ensuring the asks are commiserate to the needs and experience of the horse.

    Baby horse “Beans” (Giant’s Gateway) goes for his first post-track ride. Being fair to him meant minimal asks under saddle other than Walk, Trot, Canter and please turn. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

  5. Fair is being consistent in your actions and energy to the degree that you become predictable. (Horses and humans seem to like predictable, seems keeps stress levels down).
  6. Fair is ensuring that your responses are related to their intention. (A kick at a fly and a kick at you are a wee bit different, a horse that bolts after a fence gets halted faster than one who jumps and lands quietly).
  7. Fair is setting clear boundaries and rules and upholding them every time. (This is my space. No rubbing. No running out of the stall… and so on).

    Aspen got tired of conformation photos and began heading down the rabbit hole of irritated/bored behaviors. This gave us a good chance to correct it and resume standing quietly. Photo by Kelly Robison.

  8. Fair is being able and willing to make a big or little correction and then leave it alone and not hold a grudge.
  9. Fair is timing your reward or correction appropriately — a release from pressure needs to be responsive to their effort in the same way that a correction needs to immediately follow the undesirable behavior.
  10. Fair is rewarding successful effort, but also always praising the try.

Tuck’s (Louisiana Bling) good behavior earns him affection and rewards while still maintaining boundaries (no pushing into me, thanks). Photo by Kelly Robison.