I’ve not been blogging much lately, but I have been busy. I’ve been working one-on-one with horses and their owners. People come to me because the training methods they’ve been using haven’t been effective. There’s usually something specific that they haven’t been able to do, whether it’s getting a horse onto trailer, or having the horse move forward from a leg aid. During the first visit, I take a detailed case history, and although there is a discrete goal that the owner wants to achieve, the conversation is always filled with emotion. There’s the underlying sense that the connection between horse and person is broken. Every one of my clients has a horse because of their love for the animal and the desire for a relationship. They might, or might not, do a sport with their horse. They might hire me to improve their riding, which might help in the show ring, but what skilled riding really does is to help them feel that communication flow to and from their horse. When there’s a disconnect between a horse and owner there are all of the same emotions that one has with a flawed human-to-human relationship – sadness, disappointment, frustration and loss.
Emotions and Training
Although I’m steeped in the science of behavior, I don’t discount the emotions. In fact, horses have them, too. Horse society is built on mutual relationships. Studies show that horses live in compatible groups, and that herd dynamics are based on cooperation. Horses have tight bonds with their best friends. That’s one reason why being with a horse can feel so fulfilling, because that horse can and will accept you into their circle of friendship. But it is not enough to just love your horse; that’s not what determines behavior. Behind all of those YouTube videos that show an almost mythical mind meld between the horse whisperer and his horse, there is science. The laws of behavior science are like the laws of gravity. They’re there. They impact everything. Just as you can’t claim that you don’t believe in gravity and float up, you can’t say that your training takes place outside of the science. Behavior is determined by antecedents and consequences. It’s not difficult to identify the laws of behavior with a lab rat whose world is reduced to a bare box. But life is complex and messy. Understanding what drives behavior between horses and their people is not so easy.
That said, you’d think that I’d tell my clients to ignore the emotions and focus on the behavior. I could pull out my clicker and train whatever overt behavior that they say that they came to me for. But that’s not what I do. Good training is about clearly identifying and defining the behavior to be trained, and then splitting that behavior down to it’s smallest component, reinforcing that component, and building from that tiny success. With horses the very first step to getting cooperative behavior is to work from a place of calm trust. Yes, trust and calm are totally non-scientific words! But, I can describe to you, in quantifiable terms, what that looks like in a horse. It’s how they blink their eyes, hold their lips, and use the muscles in their neck. It’s a swivel in the ears, a whiffly breath, and even how slowly they chew. Those are behaviors that can be reinforced and built on.
I don’t use a clicker for that work. The click indicates game on! It is stimulating and if done poorly it’s frustrating for the learner. I’ve yet to work with a horse that doesn’t have issues surrounding food, from resource guarding (which often comes across as aggression and can be very dangerous) to anxiety, and the clicker can exacerbate that. Once those food issues are resolved, I can add the clicker if desired (it’s a an effective training tool that I often use.) When I start with a horse, I train a new default, one of trust and relaxation. I train this demeanor using reinforcers, but I do this without the precision and demands of the clicker. I want more of a Hello, happy to see you, let’s hang out vibe, rather than what you get from an enthusiastic border collie ready for a play session. (There’s a place for that energy from horses, but for safety’s sake I prefer it on cue.) My riding instructor, Grand Prix competitor Kim Litwinczak, counsels that you can’t ask for forward from a horse until you have him going relaxed first. I’d add that a prerequisite for all horse training is a calm state, in which a horse wants to, and can, tune into the person. (Relaxed doesn’t preclude energy. Those are two different things!)
Some horses are so tense, defensive, distracted, or shut down that it’s hard to see that first moment of engaged trust. Sometimes I have to find the physical space that a horse can relax in: perhaps it’s in the barn, or if there’s separation anxiety from the herd, at a pile of hay just outside of the field. You can’t force calm; you have to find a flicker of it – and then use science to expand on it. The science is: what you reinforce is more likely to reoccur. So, you reinforce the calm. How? It depends. A quiet word, a breath, allowing the horse to go back to his friends, a scratch, hay, food, can all be reinforcers. If at any time during training I see signs of frustration or anxiety, including ear pinning, tail swishing or tight lips, I know that I’ve pushed too far. If that happens, I’ll go back a few steps in the criteria and find a place for the horse to willingly engage without tension.
Conversation and Trust
At this stage relationship building is key, and that means that you have a conversation with your horse that the horse can take part in. Some people train for compliance – the horse either does as told or does nothing at all. The problem with that is either the horse becomes dull to the world, or their pent-up frustration leads to an explosion. My favorite way to do relationship work is by grooming, during which I ask the horse where they like to be brushed, how firmly, and at what speed. The answers will come by watching their eyes and how their muscles tense or relax. While grooming you’ll learn to read the minutae of their body language. Trust is built during dialogue when communicated needs are met.
(If, while grooming, you feel that you’re not making any progress, it could be that your horse is hungry or in pain. Or it could be that even touch is too much for your horse. I’ll write about that in another post.)
Observation and Relationship
There’s a well-known trainer who is frequently quoted saying animal training is a mechanical skill. I agree that effective training requires timing, however his mantra is not mine. I’d say, training requires astute observation and knowing your animal. Especially for a creature like a horse – who uses subtle body language – you need to understand what the animal is saying before you can ask anything of them. Good training breaks down behavior to the smallest denominator, and its starting point is a place that feels right for both parties. For example, when training a horse to get on a trailer, that first step might be out of sight of the rig. I ask the horse, Where can I lead you so that you are relaxed and confident? Perhaps the answer is nowhere. Perhaps the horse first has to learn to engage with me in the stall. I can only find this out by careful observation and taking note of the smallest of nuances. Without relaxed engagement and trust, all other training will be built on an insecure base.
Every single horse person that I know has training goals (like riding a first level dressage test) but that’s the small picture. What we really want is to be best friends with our horses. Simply loving on your horse won’t get you that (and it can get you hurt.) I’m currently working with a horse who will not get into the horse trailer. The mare tenses and braces just looking at it, and so we’re working far away from the rig. I’m teaching her to breathe on my hand and to follow it on cue. She is rewarded with carrots. We’ve only had three training sessions, but I already see a change in how she relates to me. What I do makes sense to her, and she is learning to trust that I will listen and respond to her body language. A horse who was wary of having me at the end of a lead line, has been transformed into one with a light in the eye and a pricked ear. Now when I arrive at the farm, she raises her head and looks at me, ready to see what we can do together. In this way, relationships and science are not mutually exclusive. Using the principles of behavior science to guide your interactions can get you that seemingly magical connection with your horse.
(Please note that the photos used here do not necessarily match the horses whose stories are being told. But they match the meaning!)