Bilingual Horsemanship

I’ve been experimenting with training my horses with predominately positive reinforcement for almost five years. I use techniques commonly used in training animals such as marine mammals and birds of prey. These are the animals in which pressure based techniques would be a completely ineffective way to elicit a behavior.

The questions I have in my mind are:

  • Just because we can exclusively train horses with pressure based techniques, does it mean that we should?
  • What would it look like to train a horse using predominantly positive reinforcement?

What I’ve found is something very fascinating, at least to me. Horses are bilingual. On the one hand, they speak pressure/release and understand all the herd hierarchy dynamics popular with Natural Horsemanship practitioners. But they also speak attraction.

Attraction dynamics are different from herd hierarchy dynamics because they appeal to the horse’s thought processes when the horse is not interacting with another horse. I feel this is a huge and important distinction.

If you watch a group of horses grazing in a field, they are not in a constant conversation of, I’m the boss, so get outta my way. Most of the time I see them independently moving about based on what they want next, which is usually another clump of grass, a sip of water, shade or a scratch from a low hanging branch.

What I’m seeing is that there are two very distinct ways to communicate with a horse:

  1. Herd motivation – based on motivation while interacting with other horses; involves pressure and herd hierarchy dynamics; basis for Natural Horsemanship theory.
  2. Self motivation – based on individual motivation while alone; involves attraction; basis for Positive Reinforcement Training.

What I’ve found is when I communicate with a horse using Self Motivation (attraction), it draws from the horse’s earliest experiences as a foal from the mare/foal relationship. In this scenario, the mare is the provider and the foal moves toward what feels good. I believe this sets the stage for the foal to be individually motivated by what feels good. It’s only later that the foal learns to move away from things that feel bad.

I’ve found that when I can relate to my horses based on what motivates them as an individual, our communication becomes simple and easy. I think this is because neither of us has to draw from the tension involved in herd hierarchy challenges. When I communicate using herd hierarchy techniques, I’m no longer acting as the provider. I’m now using pressure, which in their minds may feel predatorial.

I’ve watched my mare Juliet (the “Police Mare” who gets the biggest hay pile) prowl around like panther ready to pounce if she doesn’t get the best pile. Yes, it appears horses are prey animals, but sometimes they can do a darn good job acting as a predator amongst themselves.

The fascinating aspect of this is that I never saw this side of Juliet until we added a third horse. When it was only Romeo and Juliet, with Romeo as the extremely dominant force, I would brag about how Juliet was a complete wonder mare. I never ever saw from her a flattened ear or snaked neck or bared teeth until there was a new, third horse.

Suddenly this soft, gentle-eyed mare became even more dominant than Romeo was dominant over her. It was as if he transferred his power to her. I truly didn’t recognize her. Romeo still is the guiding force in the herd, but Juliet is definitely the enforcer. Yet, when she is alone, she transforms back to her wonder mare status, where she is soft and relaxed.

To me, horses have their two distinct sides:

  1. Who they are in relationship to other horses
  2. Who they are alone, or with a human

The ironic part about asserting dominance like a horse as a human is that we’ve borrowed that behavior from a horse when we saw it in a stressful situation. This is the hole I’d like to see filled. How do horses communicate with one another when there’s no stress involved?

Deep down, I don’t think it’s “Humans emulating horse behavior” that gets a response. I think it’s simply the threat of force or pressure. I don’t think the horse says to himself, Wow, that person is acting like a lead mare. I better do as they say. I do think he might be saying, Jeez, I better move or I’m gonna get whacked.

Force is force whether it comes from a human or a horse. No doubt it’s a powerful way to get the job done. But what if you want more than that?

For now, my practice is Bilingual Horsemanship, learning to relate to my horse predominately as an individual, which is based on their motivation when they are alone and not in relationship with a herd.

For centuries humans have related to horses from the herd mentality, as dominant leader, using predatorial techniques, forcing or pressuring a horse into a behavior. In my experience, it’s easier on the human to shank a horse to make it back up, rather than to attract it to back up. This is because a chain shank across the nose is an external motivator using pressure.

Attraction based techniques require a little more understanding from the trainer, as the motivation takes place internally, based on what feels better to the horse. In my experience, the more I’m able to draw from from that place, the more quickly the horses learn and eagerly repeat a new behavior, without stress or tension.

This is yet another reason why horses are so beautiful. We can train them using pressure or attraction, or a combination of both. It’s the horses that have problems with pressure that interest me. I think they may be the leaders who are showing us a new way to relate to all horses.



2 thoughts on “Bilingual Horsemanship

  1. Very well written post.

    “Attraction dynamics are different from herd hierarchy dynamics because they appeal to the horse’s thought processes when the horse is not interacting with another horse. I feel this is a huge and important distinction.”

    I really like this idea of attraction dynamics and self-motivation.

    I never know how to give a really good explanation to people about why I don’t don’t like the herd dynamics mindset. I’m going to start using that herd motivation vs. self motivation contrast when explaining things (as long as you don’t mind me borrowing it, of course!)

    “In my experience, it’s easier on the human to shank a horse to make it back up, rather than to attract it to back up.”

    I think it’s easier because with force and coercion, you often get results immediately (and fallout and neg. results from use of force much later). As a result, force seems to work well and it’s harder to associate the later neg. consequences with the force. Punishment and pressure is reinforcing for the trainer.

    With positive motivation, behavior is built gradually over time. Without a careful eye, it’s harder for the trainer to see the immediate results of their diligent work.

    Mary H.

  2. Hi Mary,

    Thanks so much, I always look forward to your comments! I feel like it’s taken me a while to make this distinction of herd/group and self/individual motivation. I do hope it helps to clarify why the herd mindset could use some expansion.

    It seems with humans, we act very differently in the presence of other humans than we do alone. I think when we’re in relationship with other people all sorts of triggers and defense mechanisms come to the surface, good or bad.

    I just wonder if it’s the same for horses. That within a herd, you’ll see a wider array of behaviors from one horse based on who that horse has to be to get its needs met. Sometimes it might work better for the horse to be dominant to feel better, or submissive, depending on the horse it’s relating to at that moment.

    Because of this I think it makes sense to be conversant in a wider variety of ways with a horse, not just dominance.

    I really, really like your observations about how punishment and pressure is reinforcing for the trainer. I think it helps them blow off steam, or make them feel they’ve done something. I think the saying, “For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction” is the dynamic at work here. If the horse exerts some type of energy it feels very natural to exert something back in response, whether it’s helpful or not, because like you said, it’s immediate.

    And super cool point about the fallout. I think immediately about DaVinci, perhaps his real name should be “Fallout Boy”….the poor guy. I deal everyday with the consequences of force with him. I don’t know if he’ll ever recover completely. For me, for now, it’s enough to see him be able to relax and breathe without constant snorting and bolting, in his day-to-day existence.

    I really think DaVinci is becoming the ultimate barometer. If these methods work with him, they have the potential to work with any horse!

    Have you found, in your experience with positive motivation, that although the behavior is built over time, it’s possibly stronger and eventually faster to learn, in terms of the horse’s desire to repeat the behavior?


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