There’s one subject guaranteed to cause confusion amongst horse owners…
The study of equine behaviour is a huge subject, this can put people off learning and instead they reach out for a new supplement or a magic gadget that they hope will be a simpler key to rectifying problems. Although learning a better understanding of a horse’s thinking ability, with a concurrent commitment to improving the skill of giving signals and reinforcements takes more time and effort, it can reap fantastic rewards helping a huge number of common problems people encounter with their equine friends.
The way a horse learns is directly related to survival. Horses are driven by food, company, shelter and freedom from pain. If they think they are in danger, they will remove themselves from a situation (for example run) or refuse to get in to one (for example they won’t load). At East Devon Riding Academy we teach children not to run near the horses by explaining that although we know there are no tigers living in Branscombe, if the horses see them running they might think that the children are running from a tiger about to eat them and then they will run too. You have to think like a horse, if their herd mates suddenly take off then they are unlikely to be the one who stands there waiting for the tiger. Even though they’ve never actually seen one, it doesn’t stop their instinct of thinking they’re about!
In different situations, horses will either react to the rider/handler or the environment. If a horse is un-reactive to a plastic bag, it is more under the control of the rider. If a horse spooks at the plastic bag, at that moment it is more under the control of the environment. To get the horse more under the control of the rider requires training, not punishment. If a horse won’t jump then whipping it will just associate an already scary object (the jump) with pain, leading to an even less likely chance of success. Through simplifying the problem (the jump), giving appropriate signals that the horse understands at an appropriate time and taking the time to practise, you will have a much happier and safer horse, more compliant with your wishes. Again, it is important to think from the horses point of view. Just because he can jump a pole at 3 foot doesn’t mean he will automatically jump a set of planks or a whole course at this height if he hasn’t been trained accordingly.
Horses learn well as a result of clear, consistent reinforcement of correct responses. An example of this is horses in many livery yards waiting at the gate to go in a stable each evening. This isn’t because they want to go in the stable, it is because every day at approximately the same time they are rewarded with something they want- food, which just happens to be in the stable. The owner has (often unwittingly) trained the horse to wait at the gate because they have clearly, consistently reinforced this behaviour with food.
Horses can learn unwanted behaviours because they have somehow been rewarded for the incorrect response. If a horse gets through the electric fence and receives a reward of more grass or a friend or freedom, he will do it again. Turn the electric on and some horses will prefer not to get the reward so they don’t get a shock. Others will be so motivated by the reward they will work out a way to still get it, such as jumping the fence or in the case of one of my horses, kicking and breaking the posts. Rewards for the horse take many forms, including removal of pain, which is worth remembering if you are having problems when riding. Stop, think and analyse from the horse’s point of view and you will often see the problem and find a solution. Again, simplify the situation if need be, gain success then progress upwards. Simplification could be things like going slower, making a turn wider, 3 poles instead of 5, 15 minutes instead of 30, 10 metres instead of 2 or vice versa.
Alternatively, unwanted behaviours can be because the training has been insufficiently generalised. An example of this is a horse that will go through water at home but not when away from home because the water is a different version. In order to get the horse to go into any water, training requires exposure to lots of different water but progressed in simple steps- start with a puddle rather than a river!
With many problems, groundwork can be a great solution or a starting point to a solution. It is a good skill worth learning for any rider, as an understanding of anatomy, movement, communication and reinforcement learnt through groundwork translates to many ridden and handling situations.
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