Is there another way to train horses that will enhance your relationship?
Traditionally, horse training has been based on using Pressure/Release methods or Positive Punishment. This underpins much of what Natural Horsemanship methods entails as the principle is that a horse can be taught to exhibit a behaviour based on the use of pressure/force or punishment. This method requires a great deal of skill from the trainer to be applied with any degree of subtlety and falls into the -R (Pressure/release) and + P (punishment) quadrant of Operant Conditioning. However there are three possible fallouts from these two methods.
1) A horse can habituate to the pressure or the punishment and stops responding. In order to get a response you need to increase the pressure or punishment, which can lead into a spiral of increased pressure/punishment to gain the required behaviour.
2) Horses shut down and this impairs their ability to learn. They will not offer any behaviour. This then is mistakenly seen as a compliant horse
3) A small percentage of horses become aggressive with the force or punishment used, so it then needs to become more forceful and a upwards spiral occurs of increased pressure or punishment and increased aggression is displayed by the horse as a result.
These two methods can work but the question is what does it do to the relationship that you wish to have with your horse? I personally want a relationship based on trust and one that has the horse and I both wining in the interaction. I don’t want a horse that becomes aggressive or who shuts down and can’t learn or one in which I have to keep increasing the pressure or punishment until I have to tap into my own aggression and anger. I want a horse that willingly provides the behaviour I require at all times in our interaction. I want to have fun while I am training any animal.
Negative reinforcement and Positive reinforcement are two sides of the one coin. I can force a horse using pressure / release (-R) or I can ask a horse by providing a marker and reward when they perform the behaviour (+R). This then enhances my relationship and provides a horse capable of learning more and more and makes training fun for both of us. This is irrespective of training tricks (which are fun for the horse and enriches their environment) or husbandry behaviours.
Meet Zan a 5 yr old Fresian gelding that has been very well trained with pressure / release and some positive reward. However after 5 years he was still exhibiting unwanted behaviours such as biting the owner and strangers and not responding to commands. His nickname was “persistence personified”.
When I assessed Zan I saw a horse that desperately needed contact with humans, however as he was imprinted as a foal and removed from his mother at a young age, he thought that involved treating humans like other horses. His default interaction, especially when food was involved, was to come right into the human’s personal space and nibble then bite if pushed away using pressure/release or punishment. He had fast learned to habituate to the pressure/release of the lead or sticks and they were having no long term impact on changing his behaviour and the owner was tired of the constant battle with this beautiful horse.
So in order to show Zan an alternative more acceptable method of interacting with a human he was taught to nose target a hand and a target stick with a closed mouth. Every time he did he received a marker (YES) and a food reward. He quickly learnt this and was happily engaged in the activity. I deliberately selected a target stick (polystyrene ball on the end of a crop) so that he would get used to targeting an object away from a person. These are both foundation behaviours that can be used in a multitude of ways in other training.
Here is Zan learning this:
Once he got the concept of working for a reward, rather than being forced into behaviour by the use of pressure release it was time to teach a back command again using positive methods. Zan already had learnt back but via application of sticks or a rope used in a pressure release method, which was causing him to back but not actually teaching him what back meant. I wanted to reframe the whole behaviour, as there is a very big difference between teaching and forcing.
Back, taught in a positive way, involves the touching of a part of the horse (without applying pressure) until they move backwards. As you can see he initially he didn’t understand what I was asking. The temptation then is to apply pressure or use the previously learnt cue. However I waiting until Zan started to offer the behaviour I required. This was initially a very slight movement of his muscles. As you can see in the video he offers all the behaviours he previously learn in an attempt to find out what would gain the valued “Yes” and the food reward. This was a horse totally engaged at a very high level on the exercise.
Part 1 of teaching Back
Part 2 of teaching Back
Clearly we can see that Zan was trying hard to work out what he was being asked. It is normal in horses taught mostly with -R in pressure/release to get a bit “stuck” as they are only used to being forced into behaviour not offering behaviour. But once they understand the concept they power away and learn everything else in a much faster fashion.
I left the arena for 15 minutes or so and then returned and it then became clear that latent processing had occurred. This is processing at a deep level within the brain and happens in all animals as the previous concepts consolidate. Normally it occurs overnight but Zan was such a smart horse and so craving of the right way to work with humans that it happened rapidly in this case.
Here’s hoping Zan’s owner saw the benefit of this type of training and will continue with him.
The Pet Care Magician
Facebook groups: Talk to me about Positive Reward Based Dog Training
Louise Kerr (aka The Pet Care Magician) runs the Pet Care Magic club where devil dogs, horrible horses and crazy cats are turned into perfect pets. The program provides owners and pet professionals assistance with with common pet behavior training, feeding and grooming issues such as barking, escaping, scratching, aggression and fleas She consults and writes widely on a range of pet care issues for owners and also assists pet care professionals in setting up and growing their businesses by the provision of customer handling advice, sales and marketing strategies and up to date product information that allows for the differentiation of their pet care business from their competitors. The Pet Care Magic Club is part of Elite Pet Care & Education based in the Nambucca Valley NSW Australia but can be found on internet enabled devices worldwide.