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How We Teach Our Horses Bad Stuff

10305059_668045259909161_6873291079865697123_n This past weekend I hosted a clinic with trainer Anglelo Telatin at my farm in Honey Brook, Pa. Angelo is an assistant professor and head of the dressage team at Delaware Valley College. He is also an excellent show jumper and has a training approach that is unique to the show world in that he looks at horse behavior and training through the lens of operant conditioning. As soon as I heard him speak at the Horse World Expo February of this year I was hooked and knew I wanted to learn more from Angelo. I had been studying operant conditioning myself as I worked to understand more about dog training, but I had found very few people in the horse world who applied these same principles. Those who did apply them did not teach the easy to understand framework that operant conditioning applies.

If you aren’t familiar with operant conditioning, don’t worry, it’s really very simple. The same basic rules that apply to horses also apply to us. We will do more of what brings us good things or gets rid of bad things (positive and negative reinforcement) and will do less of what causes bad things or takes away good things (positive and negative punishment). These are the principles of operant conditioning, and they are at work whether we recognize them or not. The key is improve our awareness and our timing, so that we can more effectively communicate what we want to our horses.

So to get to the main subject of this post, during the clinic, all of us – participants and auditors – myself included, had one recurring thought… how many of the “bad” things our horses do did we actually train them to do? I will start with Angelo’s example of horses at feeding time. The annoying kicking, pawing, and screaming behaviors that many barns experience at feeding time are actually learned behaviors. That means we have taught our horses to act like this. Here is how it happens. We walk out of the feed room and dump grain to horse #1. The horse in stall #2 does a natural behavior for when he is hungry – like paw the ground or make a nasty face to push his neighbor away from the food (scarce resources), and… it works! We walk up to stall #2 and dump in the grain. Positive reinforcement. The next day, the horse tries the same behavior, perhaps with a bit more intensity since it worked so well last time and again, the food is dumped in. Same thing on the third day. Now horse #2 has got it down – when you want food, paw the ground and threaten your neighbor and within a few minutes the food will consistently arrive in your bucket. Solution? We can train our horses to do something else for food such as play with a ball that is hanging in their stall, as Angelo expertly shows in this video: http://www.angelotelatin.com/en/tips/

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Here is another example – the pushy horse. Consider the possibility that is not only some horses natures that make them more “in your face,” but that they were accidentally trained to behave this way. Take the horse that comes up close and (in our opinion) rudely examines your pockets for food. Don’t immediately assume that the horse is being dominant, rude, or intentionally pushy. Instead think of the possibility that this horse may have simply learned that getting up close and personal is the most effective way to earn food and or attention. The easiest solution to this one? Create a boundary by applying pressure (with a moving lead rope or whip) until the horse moves out of your safety zone then drop the pressure.

Now here’s one that made me slap my forehead saying “why didn’t I see this before!”  – the girthy horse. We pull the girth up a hole, our horse flattens his ears and throws a bite our direction. We stop pulling the girth because it’s probably already in the hole we wanted.  But to our horse, his behavior of pin the ears and toss the head stopped our pulling the girth. The solution? Keep the tension upwards on the girth until your horse stands quietly with head forward, then release the tension. Have the patience to be consistent with it – consistency is key! (Of course with this one, make sure your horse isn’t telling you he is pain somewhere or that the saddle is pinching or causing irregular pressure.)

It all boils down to timing. If we give rewards, like treats, petting, or attention we need to give them during behaviors that we like and we want to see more of. When we release any sort of pressure, again it needs to be for the behavior that we want (and this can be a difference of seconds). If we wait too long, or release too early, or give our horses treats or attention at the wrong time we are sending the wrong message to our horses.

How can we all improve our timing? Be aware of how the system works but don’t stress about it. The more you can be “in the moment” and focused on just looking for the good things that your horse does, the better your timing will become. Plus looking for the good in life is something we should all do more of!

Is there a behavior your horse does that you could have accidentally trained him to do? What can you do differently in the future? If you are a local reader and were at the clinic, share what you thought of the weekend!

See you in the comments, Callie

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