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Horse Training Tips – Replacing Old Habits
Often when I am asked to work with a horse it is because the owner is having some issues. The horse is doing things that the owner just doesn’t like, would really like to change that, has tried everything and has only ever found a temporary fix or the horse has found a work-around (he work out how to evade/override the ‘fix’).
The general approach to training horses is to stop the unwanted behaviour. More often than not that works. The consequences of doing that unwanted behaviour are so aversive to the horse that they stop almost immediately. The ones that spring to mind for most people are a wind sucking collar and hitting the horse. These are both classified as punishers… they punish the behaviour you don’t want so that it stops.
The more behaviours you have to shut down with punishers/aversives, the more likely you are to shut down your horses problem solving and creative side. The horse can quickly end up in a state of ‘learned helplessness’; they have learned to be helpless and do nothing until told to. It’s not a good place for them to be emotionally, however, as handlers we tend to think of these horses as ‘foot perfect’.
If your horse is doing something again and again then we can safely call it a habit. Habits are hard to break. Have you ever tried to stop biting your nails? or stop smoking? It’s pretty hard to do. There are lots of readily available potential solutions (which involve punishers), such as the foul-tasting nail paint to stop people biting their nails, or when giving up smoking pinging an elastic band off your wrist when you get a craving.
With the horses we tend to use punishers to stop habits; put draw reins on them if they work with their head too high, hit them on the head or belly when they rear.
But punishers come with side effects themselves. I’m not going to list them all, I’ll just pick out two to talk about. A few things can happen with the use of punishers;
- when the punisher is removed the behaviour might continue
The initial application of the punisher (hit on the head, add draw reins) stops the unwanted behaviour. However, all we have influenced is the horses behaviour, we have not had any impact on the drive or motivation for that behaviour. Why are they doing it in the first place!
When we think the behaviour has stopped and we remove the punisher we may even see an extinction burst; where we see an explosion of the frequency of the behaviour after a period of time of not being allowed to do it. That is when you might see someone bite their finger nails until they are mere stumps and bleeding, or the smoker seems to chain smoke for a period of time after forced abstinence. Take the draw reins off the horse and he sticks his nose even higher in the air. The desire to do the behaviour seems to have built up and built up so that when the person or animal is allowed to do the behaviour they have to pay back that deficit of time when they were not allowed to do it.
Adding the gadget didn’t solve the problem, it seems to have made it worse.
- the punisher doesn’t work at all
What if the punishers are not working at all; the behaviour continues regardless of what we do? Or worse, what if the horse decides to ‘fight back’? All of a sudden we have no more tools in our training tool box and we don’t know what to do.
The smoker pings the elastic band off their wrist but still lights up a cigarette. If they have a well practiced habit or a particularly strong addiction to the nicotine then punishing the desire to stop smoking won’t work. The reason for the behaviour has not been addressed. As with the horse, the reason for sticking their nose in the air has not been addressed when the draw reins are added the desire or need to raise their head is just as it was when we started. If the need to wind suck is strong enough then they may even fight against the draw reins.
How Do We Train Without Punishers?
The solution is very simple; think about what you want instead of the unwanted behaviour.
What do you want instead of nail-biting, smoking, nose in the air? Once you know what behaviour you want instead you now have a behaviour you can use to replace the old habit. In choosing the behaviour you also have to make sure it is addressing the underlying drive to do the behaviour. A horse with a back issue or a saddling issue may well toss his head, or keep his head high. Make sure you have checked the horse for medical/physical/dental issues that may be causing the behaviour to happen as a result of pain or discomfort.
Once you have ruled out physical issues for the behaviour you can start to reinforce (or reward) the horse for the behaviour you want in place of the old behaviour.
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