I was thinking about my life with horses so far. What I have learned through trial and error, what I have gleaned from trainers, magazines, books, videos, blogs, osmosis, diffusion, and of course the primary source: the horses themselves!
I thought I would make a list of my personal discoveries and maybe you guys could share some of yours? There is a ton of information out there so tell me what have you discovered? What has the school of hard knocks taught you?
- Use positive reinforcement-We are working with one of the few species that actually responds to Negative reinforcement at all but every animal on the planet (including whales, elephants, clams, fish, and humans) responds to positive reinforcement! Reward is the mechanism that makes work play.
- Be predictable- I think being a "leader" means the student can count on the teacher to react the same way every time. Confidence means you have a plan. In order to create a learning environment you have to be predictable in your cues, your rewards, and your releases. Trust is built when your horse can predict your response and you can reasonably predict theirs. It is not magic it is repetition.
- Keep it simple- Keep your cues simple and work on one thing at a time. I need this tattooed on my forehead because I am horrible at this!
- Be creative- There have been so many times that I have been stuck in one mind frame/discipline/trainers' philosophy. If you have a problem then find another way to look at it. There is no one right answer and horses are individuals just as much as humans are. Be an open minded skeptic.
- Have a plan for every ride- When I was younger you just got on and went through the gaits in circles. I think that really bores our equines. Same with lunging for the sake of exercise or blowing off steam. Same with throwing tarps in their faces all day. Have small objectives for every ride and when they get it right tell them! If you want a horse that likes to work make sure they know what you want them to do.
- Bad days are normal- Actually that has been scientifically proven( see illustration). As new behaviors are acquired and old behavior extinguishes there are always extinction bursts. They are like clock work.
- Find a yes- an answer to a bad day! If you are experiencing one of those nasty extinction episodes then ask your horse a question you know he will say yes to. That is how you build confidence.
- Consider biology- Training is a science, but don't factor out of the equation of horse's innate behaviors. Work them into your training regiment and don't fight them. I think this is what natural horsemanship is trying to say but I do wish they would use a little more scientific dialog and a little less magical thinking
And on the other side of the coin...
- Don't be afraid of being afraid-fear is nature's way of telling you something may not be such a good idea. We have a stigma against being afraid but it really is a good thing. Take it down to where your comfort level is and work from there. Horses really do pick up when we are nervous.
- Punishment does not work- it doesn't! It makes our animals fearful and is almost impossible to administer correctly. It only shows the animal what you do not want not what you do want. It also has the side affect of relaying to the animals that the behavior is appropriate when it is not punished. which increases the likely hood of re occurrence. Not fun, though we have all been there for sure!
- Don't use force- I know this seems repetitive but I am not talking about punishment but I mean when using an irritant in negative reinforcement. First they are bigger than us. If you use force you are playing a game you can't win. Also if you use force you are illiciting a prey response. We use force and punishment because we are primates. If we get angry or scared we aggress. We all do it from time to time, and most disciplines and training methods excuse it or condone it, but it is not productive or necessary in training. We do sometimes stoop to that level, but don't make excuses for it and see it as a mistake not a victory.
- Anthropomorphize- Horses do not think we are horses! They do not think you are their alpha or leader. It is not fair to them to think about it in this way. The horse responds in a way that reflects his biology and his repertoire of learned behaviors. "Trust" comes from generalizing your cues so that he reliably responds to them including when he is scared, excited or saucy, not because he thinks you are his herd leader.
I have come a long way from where I started though. How about you? How have horses changed your point of view?