The first step in educating a horse is to educate yourself. You must take the time to learn about the horse. That includes his body and his mind. You must learn about his anatomy and conformation to know whether he is suited and able to do what you’re asking of him. You must also understand the way he views and interacts with his world and what constitutes an environment that allows him to thrive. Educating ourselves usually means we humans must disabuse ourselves of our anthropomorphic tendencies and think outside the box of conventional horsemanship. Doing that may be a tad uncomfortable for you, but, if you truly love horses and are sincere about keeping the horse’s best interest first and foremost, it’s necessary. When teaching a horse anything, I strive to create an atmosphere for the animal that is conducive to learning and as stress-free as possible. First, I check every horse for things that may be causing him pain such as a sore back, teeth that may need to be floated or ill-fitting equipment. Every horse that has been brought to me with “behavior problems” has had a history of pain. Once we resolve the pain issue, it is then possible to move forward with education. Sometimes people overlook basic needs such as regular turnout. Sometimes we need to modify a feeding regimen, and add or eliminate particular supplements. It is critical to look at the whole picture of the horse. He is no more able to give his best if he does not feel well than you would be if you were not feeling one hundred percent.
There are two primary training modalities available to us. One is the conventional “negative reinforcement” method (NR), the other is the unconventional “positive reinforcement” method (PR). With negative reinforcement, also referred to as “pressure and release” or “avoidance training,” you apply pressure to the horse in escalating increments until the horse shows the slightest inclination of yielding. The instant that happens, you release the pressure. The horse learns from the release what is being asked of him, and shapes his behavior to avoid the unpleasant pressure. An example of this would be asking a horse to move his hind end away from us. We would press on the haunch nearest to us and increase pressing into the horse, even tapping with a lead rope or whip until the horse moved away. When he moves away we immediately stop. The horse has learned that if he doesn’t move when we first press him there that something increasingly unpleasant will follow. Studies done by equine behaviorist, Carol Sankey, PhD, have shown that this type of training produces a minimal effort on the part of the horse and an aversion to the handler, and cardiac assessments have shown significant increases in heart rate indicating stress even before the NR training has begun.
The positive reinforcement (PR) training model takes the opposite approach. With PR training, you reward the correct response from the horse with something pleasant, either a treat or a scratch. Food rewards have been proven to be a primary reinforcer with horses and is my reward of choice. Consider our previous training example in light of PR. We ask the horse to move his hind end by lightly touching and waiting for the slightest response with no escalation of pressure. At the moment the horse gives any indication of compliance, no matter how small, we offer a reward. The horse is then motivated to try to figure out exactly what got him that reward. In effect, we are engaging his mind to attempt to think through an exercise, rather than think how to avoid something. Again, studies done by Sankey have shown this type of training is more effective, generally strengthens the horse-human bond and improves equine memory.
When teaching a horse, I choose to break any exercise or request into the smallest components. I always look for the slightest “try” or smallest change as an opportunity to praise and reward the horse. You would not expect a child to write words or sentences before they learn the alphabet and it is the same with horses. So often, too much is asked too quickly, resulting in frustration for both the horse and handler. It takes the time that it takes. Each horse is an individual with his or her own unique personality and quirks, therefore one may learn a bit differently from another or quicker etc. Once the horse shows the slightest understanding of what I am trying to communicate, I end that portion of the exercise and go on to something different. I don’t like to be drilled on any one thing endlessly and I believe that kind of repetition bores and dulls horses as well as people. If something is not interesting for you, it certainly won’t be for your horse either. Typically, 5 -7 minute increments on any one exercise is adequate when introducing new concepts to your horse. The goal would be to end prior to the horse losing interest.
Should you feel you need assistance, I am available to help you in educating your horse. However, I highly encourage you to be as involved with the process as possible since you are the one who is the horse’s primary partner. To that end, I would rather teach you the principles of communicating effectively with your horse to reach your desired goals. Yes, there are times when, due to lack of experience or time constraints, you may need me to be the primary educator. But, the more involved you are, the higher the likelihood that you will have continued success and a deepening bond with your equine partner after you bring him home.