After I wrote about the bilingual nature of horses and their ability to speak and respond to both pressure and attraction, I realized another facet. It appears that pressure-based communications are reactive and attraction-based communications are interactive.
When a trainer uses pressure-release techniques, they are counting on the fact that the horse will have a reaction. There is almost an infinite list of ways to apply pressure as there is an infinite list of desired responses/reactions from the horse. The more ways the trainer knows how to apply pressure, the more reactions they can draw from the horse.
In essence every reaction requires a different stimulus to get a response from the horse. The more stimuli there are (or ways to apply pressure) then the more, ideally, the trainer will get the horse to perform different tasks.
When I trained with pressure this way, I quickly got discouraged. I didn’t have the time, money or coordination to learn the seemingly endless number of ways to apply pressure in my quest to have a relationship with my horse. I especially felt like a major failure when it came to rope work. If I wasn’t getting dizzy from watching my horse circle around me, I was tripping over the rope.
Jeeez, If only I had ordered the 20-disc DVD set telling me how to start my colt, then I could learn all the stimuli and the ways to position my body, wave my arms, focus my gaze and instantly gain my horse’s trust and respect without falling on my face! Wow.
When I began training with attraction, I found an amazing and life changing distinction. It creates a situation where the horse is interacting, not reacting. Pressure-based techniques demand a reaction. A cue is given and the horse is pressured to respond to the cue.
With attraction-based training on the other hand, a cue is given and the horse is asked or invited to respond without the threat of pressure. This crucial difference is the magical space where the horse is given the opportunity to choose to respond (interact) rather than be forced to respond (react).
This beautiful place is where I think we start to clearly see the reasoning abilities of horses. I grow weary of hearing trainers say that horses can’t reason and learn simply by repetition.
If they can’t reason and they only learn by repetition, how do we explain a horse’s uncanny ability to unfasten its stall door, walk over to the feed room, turn the handle on the door, lift the lid to the feed bin and dig in. Lot’s of complex tasks there.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ll be working with one horse, only to see my other horse on the other side of the fence (that I thought was sleeping) begin to mimic the exact behavior of the horse I’m with. I rely on this ability to watch and learn especially when I’m working with all four horses at the same time.
My most recent painters learned to paint by watching the other horses paint first. It’s truly a wonderful thing to see.
I can see that if people only work with horses using pressure/release techniques, they may assume horses have no reasoning ability because the horse can only react, not interact. The horse has no choice but to respond to pressure because the alternative, not responding, will result in something that doesn’t feel good. Even then, I think the horse is still reasoning and may sound something like, I better do what this person says or something won’t feel good.
The moment I began asking and inviting my horse, giving him the opportunity to decide, I saw a beautiful new world unveil. From the focus and attention my horses now give me, it appears that they truly enjoy being given the opportunity to figure things out. I’ll go as far as to say horses need challenges for their brain as well as their bodies.
I think the reason more people aren’t using positive reinforcement training with their horses is that they think they’re being too nice, or that their horses will run all over them. I’ve found the opposite to be true. When I create an atmosphere of interaction, the horses appear delighted to give me what I want, and with much more enthusiasm and brilliance than if I forced a reaction.
By teaching a horse one skill set, the horse can quickly understand and perform any behavior I want. In contrast, pressure/release natural horsemanship requires a different skill (or stimulus or pressure or irritant) for each behavior from the horse because it’s based on reaction to a stimuli.
For example, if you stand at the horse’s hips and wave your arms, it will create a different reaction than if you stand at its head and wave your arms.
My one skill set of teaching a horse, Click Means Treat and Target an Object, has become the the crux of teaching my horses to paint, stand in one place, come when called, retrieve, lie down, side pass, turn on the hindquarters etc. It also makes trailer loading a breeze. Leading without leadropes becomes dreamy. Working simultaneously with four horses falls into place. All these things happened when my horses began interacting rather than reacting.
The simplicity of this type of training may be the reason it’s not really mainstream. Maybe it’s hard to develop a marketing plan, a clinic and DVDs based on teaching one skill set. It’s probably not very exciting to watch because everyone is smiling and relaxed. There’s no conflict to resolve, no drama to witness on the edge of your seat, no need for whips or round pens and not much to buy at the end of the show. There’s just one basic skill, targeting, and one piece of equipment, a target (usually a found object). Not much to it.
Teaching a horse to target, I believe, is the foundation that shows the horse you want interaction not reaction. It shows the horse you are appealing to its brain, its thought processes, its dignity, not its instinct to react to an aversive stimuli.
I do realize that the world is, for many horses, one of pressure-based communication. The proposal I’m making, based on my work so far, is to teach the horses about pressure through attraction. I’m proposing we create a clear and fair relationship where the horse is taught how to respond to pressure without the use of aversives (pressure or force).
How’s that for irony? A pressure-free way to teach pressure. This has huge appeal to me. I don’t have to learn a thousand different ways to create an irritating stimulus so my horse will behave or react in a certain way. I get to invite my horse. I get to create a place where we both feel good.
What does this look like so far? If I need my horse to move off of my leg, I first teach this on the ground. I ask the horse to follow the target stick to the right. After at least two repetitions of targeting the stick to the right, I’ll place my hand where my leg would be on his left side. I pair the placement of my hand with the targeting of the stick. Soon I can simply place my hand on the left side and my horse easily moves right without irritation or tension.
What I’ve seen with my young Clydesdale is that working with him this way is creating a softness, attentiveness and focus that I never would have expected from a young horse. I think there’s a big difference in his willingness because I offer a safe place for him to learn. There is no punishment or pain for the wrong answer. I think this gives him more zest to try than my other horses who were trained before me.
I just love the moments I share with my horses where I’m interacting, not just forcing a reaction. The wonderful part about it is that it’s as simple as showing a horse that click means treat when you target an object. That’s the beauty and simplicity of training with attraction.