Emotion is an important topic in training. Emotion has a huge impact on actions or behaviors, and this as true for people as it is for animals.
Emotional control isn’t discussed much in traditional horse training although it is still very important as horses can easily become frustrated, agitated, distracted, fearful, etc. Emotional control is discussed very often in regards to positive reinforcement training, however, because positive reinforcement brings in a whole new set of emotions. Positive reinforcement can be fun for the animal, and with fun you can get excitement, motivation, and spontaneity. These emotions are part of what makes positive reinforcement so effective, but with horses we have to be careful with these emotions.
Training Horses Is Different
Emotional Control may not be as critical for smaller animals
This is where I am learning that training a dog (or a goat ;)) can be very different than training a horse. If my dog gets really excited during training and runs so fast that she knocks into me when I tell her to “come” I really don’t mind – she’s a mini dachshund and I love that she is really “driving” to me as my dog training class calls it. Or when Francine, the pygmy goat I am playing with, jumps up on me as she tries different things to see what is going to earn the next click, it’s not a big deal.
But horses are big, they can easily hurt us when they get excited or fearful, and that is what makes the difference in how focused we need to be on emotional control when we are training. We also have to be careful when we assign meaning to an animal’s behaviors. For example, no one gives it a second thought when a cute little dog like my dachshund jumps up at them, but if a horse rushes over and crowds someone’s space it is often referred to as the horse being dominant or trying to establish his place in the pecking order, when really it may not have any more meaning than the same excitement exhibited by my little dog. With the horse, however, rushing around and crowding are obviously unacceptable for safety reasons.
When we reinforce something, especially in positive reinforcement, where food is often involved, we are not just reinforcing the behavior the animal just did, we are also reinforcing the emotion behind the behavior, as well as any other behaviors that the animal was doing in that moment. This is where training truly becomes an art because the trainer has to be so aware of everything that is going on and what connections the animal may be making- whether they are the desired ones or not. When we work with our horses, we want them to remain be responsive, attentive, and focused, yet calm and quiet as well.
Our Emotions Matter Too
Emotional control isn’t just important for our animals however. We also need to be very aware of the emotions we bring into a training session or the ones that develop during the session. For example, I was working with a Chincoteague gelding named Phoenix, working on teaching him to simply walk calmly next to me. He was frustrated and trying all the behaviors that used to bring him food – tossing his head, pinning his ears, stopping to paw the ground, etc. But as I was watching all his frustration I had to stop and laugh at myself because I realized that I was every bit as frustrated as he was in that moment. So I stopped the session and we picked it up again later that day with much better results.
Emotion affects our behavior just as it affects our horses
Just like our horses, we are going to behave differently depending on what emotions we are operating on. Especially since horses are so in tune to how we feel and the energy, if you will, that we give off, it is every bit as important for us to work on our emotional control as it is working on our horse’s emotions. I believe that one of the most important steps to maintaining and developing emotional control is by taking things slow and breaking down the training into small pieces so that the human knows exactly what they expect and the horse can experience success and “getting the right answer” whether that comes with a reward or a release of pressure.
Also, when we consider emotion – whether our own or emotions are horse seems to be displaying, I find it very helpful to look at emotion objectively and ask the question of why am I feeling this way or why is my horse displaying this emotion/behavior without making it too personal. For example, if you start to feel fearful, don’t beat yourself up for being a wimp or not being able to “get ahold of yourself”. Instead, think – why do I feel this way? What triggered it? Where do I feel it in my body? This separates you as a person from the emotion you are feeling in that moment and makes it much easier for that emotion to change.
We can’t always control our emotions, or those of our horses, but being aware of emotion is critical to effective riding and training. What are your thoughts? What is an example of an emotion you felt in yourself or saw in your horse that you were able to change?
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See you in the comments,