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«WHY DO HORSES (USUALLY) DO WHAT WE TELL THEM? AL RI TE L ong before we rode horses, we hunted them, killed them, and ate them. In more recent times, ...»

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ong before we rode horses, we hunted them, killed them, and ate them. In

more recent times, we’ve developed elaborate methods to dominate them


and make money from them. We’ve turned them into beasts of burden,

starved them, beaten them, and sent them to war, even while glorifying the “noble horse” in songs, stories, and beautiful pictures. And in some cultures, we still eat them.

ED Given all this, it’s rather remarkable that horses can ever learn to trust and willingly obey humans. Yet every foal is born curious, sociable, and trusting, ready to give his loyalty and obedience to a worthy leader, human or equine.

HT From the horse’s point of view, the most important questions in relation to his leader are very basic ones: What will happen to me? Will I have food, water, space to move around in, good friends to keep me safe? Whom should I trust?


From the human’s point of view, the key questions we ask are also simple:

Why shouldn’t my horse step aside, pick up a foot, change leads, chase cows, R cross a stream, jump, run, halt quietly, leave his friends, or walk into a trailer,

just because I tell him to? But the questions we should ask are just the opposite:

PY Why does my horse do any of these things willingly? What is his motivation?

(In business parlance, the question would be, What’s the customer’s incentive?) CO If you’ve never asked those questions, or if your quick answer is, “Because I’m the boss and I said so,” then it’s time to step back and think more carefully about the horse-human relationship from the horse’s point of view. If your horse’s obedience is the result of force and domination—not mutual trust, equine logic, and thoughtful understanding—you and your horse will never feel completely safe or comfortable with each other. And if a half-ton horse doesn’t feel safe and secure, he’s likely to choose one of his instinctive alternatives (run, fight, or resist), and someone may get hurt.

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That’s negative horse training. Negative training ignores the horse’s needs, desires, and logical thought processes. It creates resistance and provides the horse with no legitimate reason to cooperate, other than pain or the threat of pain.

Positive horse training, on the other hand, defines the horse-human relationship as a team, with reasonable motivations and logical rewards for cooperation. Positive horse training uses well-timed rewards to build trust and respect between horse and human. Trust and respect, after all, are two faces of the same coin; you can’t have one without the other.

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training “finishing” the horse—because training is always dynamic and will therefore never be “finished.” Every human-horse interaction—even something as routine as feeding, haltering, or grooming—does one of three things: It confirms, strengthens, or weakens the horse’s trust and confidence in humans. It works the other way, too: Every horse-human interaction confirms, strengthens or weakens the human’s trust and confidence in the horse. But since we humans are the ones who possess the larger brains and control the horse’s environment, we’re supposed to be in charge—so we’re the ones who are responsible for figuring out how to make the relationship work.

You may not consider yourself a student—particularly if you haven’t seen the inside of a classroom for a few decades. But the very best horsemen and horsewomen all know that every ride on every horse teaches us something new, if we simply listen and pay attention. Alois Podhajsky, the legendary and longtime director of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, expresses this understanding very well in his book My Horses, My Teachers.

I have not written this book as a how-to manual for training horses from birth through the highest levels of success. (There are many good books and training systems already available, and I’ll refer to several of them at various points.) Primarily, this book was written to encourage you—the concerned and

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The positive trainer builds confidence and establishes patterns of obedience by tapping into every horse’s need for comfort, security, and trustworthy leadership.

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committed horseperson in any discipline and at any skill level—to think more carefully about how humans communicate with horses and how they need to communicate with us. I want to help you create a logical, consistent system of request, response, and reward that will help you and your horse establish excellent teamwork. I’ll provide you with a model for lesson plans that you can use to clarify the steps in reward-based training and adapt them to your own training program. I’ll also give you a series of tried-and-true exercises to develop your balance, your communication skills, and your ability to say yes to your horse.

In other words, we’re going to take a look at the communication process from the horse’s point of view and understand how his behavior can be influenced so you can get what you want by giving him exactly what he needs and wants. That’s positive horse training.

I can hear the protests: “But all my horse wants to do is loaf and hang out with his buddies!” That may be true—and you’ve identified two of the horse’s basic motivations—but it’s not the whole truth. And you can use those desires (for security, relaxation, and companionship) as rewards that will work in your favor. If your training follows a consistent reward-based learning process, your horse will want to please you. After all, who do you want to have working with you? A friend who will trust your judgment in a scary situation, who will work extra hard just to make you happy? Or a stranger who grudgingly does what he’s told, grabs his paycheck, goes on strike at every opportunity, and quits as soon as the work gets tough?

Another protest: “My horse will be spoiled if I’m too nice to him!” This isn’t about being nice or not nice; it’s about trust, understanding, responsibility, respect, and logical consequences. You won’t spoil your horse if, from his point of view, your requests and rewards are both logical and appropriate. With a deeper understanding of how to create trust by knowing what motivates your horse, you’ll be able to view the horse’s needs (his goals) as incentives for good performance (your goals).

Reward-based positive training uses both positive and negative reinforcement to help you accomplish what you want by giving your horse what he wants and needs. Negative reinforcement? Isn’t that punishment, the opposite of reward? No, not at all. Let’s review some basic terms in learning theory.

Patterns of Learning How does learning occur? Behavioral scientists have identified four ways that most animals—including humans—learn a specific behavior. These four patterns of learning are positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, punishment, and extinction. Both positive and negative reinforcement strengthen behavior by providing appropriate rewards for correct responses. Punishment and extinction weaken behavior because they do not provide rewards.

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8 The Power of Positive Horse Training

Positive Reinforcement Positive reinforcement isn’t just a reward for correct behavior; it’s a specific pattern of learning that occurs when a particular behavior receives a reward. Here’s what happens: A reward is offered, the horse uses trial and error to find the response required to receive the reward, and the horse gets the reward. The trainer repeats the offer-response-reward sequence, and the horse soon discards the behaviors that don’t work, zeroes in on what does work, and shortens his response time to get the reward faster. The horse has learned something new by associating a reward with a previously unrelated action.

Perhaps the best-known example of positive reinforcement used in training is clicker training, which teaches an animal to obey commands by associating a food reward with the sound of a mechanical clicker. Clicker training was originally developed to train free-swimming dolphins, which obviously can’t be pushed or pulled into a particular behavior. One of its great advantages is that the animal initiates the actions that result in a reward. If training sessions are scheduled around feeding times, this method can produce rapid results because the animal is hungry. (Food rewards are discussed further in chapter 3.) Pure positive reinforcement doesn’t work in all training situations. It’s a trial-and-error process that requires a lot of time and patience because the horse has to initiate the behavior that yields a reward. It does work well, however, in situations where you have little or no physical control over the horse (for example, when you want your horse to come when called). It’s easy to train a horse to come when you call or whistle, but it’s amazing how few horse owners bother to teach this. Most people trudge out into the field, walk up to the grazing horse, and hope he doesn’t leave while they’re buckling on the halter. But if every time you enter the paddock you offer a reward, connect a certain signal (a call or whistle) with the reward, and use the signal to catch the horse being good when he takes even a single step toward you, you’ll end up with a horse who’s easy to catch and happy to see you.

Of course, our horses experience positive reinforcement every day without our thinking about it, and sometimes the results are not always what we’re looking for. It can explain a lot of behavior that doesn’t seem logical to us but makes perfect sense to the horse. “Hey,” the horse thinks, “when my human walks in the barn in the morning, I paw the floor and yell, and voilà! Breakfast arrives.

Works every time!” We may not think of this as positive reinforcement because we didn’t intend to train the horse, but that’s a classic example of a behavior that has developed through positive reinforcement.

Does positive reinforcement work? Yes, as long as the rewards are prompt and consistent. As with all training, if the rewards disappear, eventually the behavior will disappear.

Does positive reinforcement use bribes? No. There’s a small but very important difference between a bribe and a reward. A bribe is given before the requested response; a reward follows the response. Remember, too, that the reward doesn’t have to be food. There are other meaningful rewards the horse can appreciate, such as praise, rest, a scratch on the withers, or a rub on the forehead.

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Why Do Horses (Usually) Do What We Tell Them? 9

Negative Reinforcement Negative reinforcement is not punishment. Negative reinforcement strengthens a particular behavior when the horse takes action to avoid something that’s uncomfortable. When he responds correctly, he receives a clear reward because the negative condition disappears.

For example, to ask my horse to stop while I’m leading him, I stop walking and create pressure on the bridge of his nose by pulling back on the halter. The pressure is the negative condition: It’s a small but uncomfortable pressure that upsets his balance and his comfort. The horse may attempt a couple of different responses to make the pressure go away, but it’s only when he gives the correct response (he stops) that I promptly release the pressure. Through repetition, the horse learns that if he gives the correct response (stops), he receives a reward (the pressure goes away). This is the important point: The horse doesn’t stop because I tug on the halter; he stops because he has learned that every time he responds in that way to that signal, the pressure goes away (or he avoids it entirely) and he is comfortable again. I’m not using physical force to stop a halfton animal, I’m using a reward to encourage the horse to stop by himself.

To reinforce the correct behavior, I’ll also give another reward, generally a pat or verbal praise—which is positive reinforcement.

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