Sometimes contrast is good. I normally prefer to link to feel good, positive, forward moving videos and stories, however this story demonstrates my previous post in the most timely manner. I just posted a blurb musing about negative reinforcement training being called harassment training and I find a well publicized example that I feel compelled to use to visually demonstrate my last post.
The impetus behind my work with my horses is to focus on what I want instead of what I don’t want. This video is an example of what I don’t want, but from this, I can clearly identify what I do want.
What I want for a horse that has issues with being bridled, is for the horse to have the bridle completely demystified. First I consider why does the horse have the issue. Is it his ears, his mouth, is it the notion of humans placing him in a headlock?
From there I begin making every step of bridling something the horse can associate with good feelings. For example, if the horse has sensitive ears, I teach the horse to target its head to my hand, then its ear to my hand. The moment the horse allows me to touch its ears, it becomes a celebration and a party. The horse now has the association that When my ears are touched, it’s the best thing ever!” Notice that the horse is always moving towards me, not me moving towards, or doing something to the horse.
Also too, the reward is much more than a release of pressure, because, well there’s no pressure! My reward for the horse performing the behavior I want, say letting me touch its ears, is the something very valuable to the horse, three alfalfa pellets. The horse’s association is this: human hand on my ears brings good things that I enjoy and need, I like hand on my ear!
If it has issues with its mouth, I teach the horse to target the bit with it’s muzzle. Then I’ll slather the bit in molasses and let the horse lick and play and often it will draw the bit into its mouth on it’s own. Upon seeing his bridle, Raleigh, my Clyde, will lower his head and stand with his mouth wide open in anticipation. It’s as if he can’t wait for the bit. My guess is that because we made the bit sooooo much fun, his association is that of bit means good times!
If the sight of the bridle is unnerving to the horse, I spend time using the bridle as the target. I’ll have the horse target the bridle all over the place. Pretty soon, the horse associates the bridle with good feelings. When the horse sees the bridle, that bridle becomes a visual stimulus eliciting the response of something to move towards in anticipation of something wonderful happening. Bridle means yay!
Conversing with a horse using positive reinforcement, in my humblest of opinions, embodies a fabulous way to honor a horse’s inherent dignity. Here’s the contrast, nothing is being done to the horse, the horse is not being acted upon. Instead, the horse is allowed to choose, to move towards, to look forward to something good happening.
In my experience when I motivate with the promise of good things coming down the pipe, my horses are more than enthusiastic to repeat the behavior I want. This is exciting for me to see. I love their enthusiasm. This is a much different feeling than motivating them with pressure and then the release of that pressure. The presence of pressure, especially for the sensitive horses, often starts the relationship off on an irritating, harassing, unpleasant feeling climate.
My hope is that these demonstrations to show how quickly a horse with issues can be made to do something will fall out of fashion. I don’t think it should ever be a contest to answer the question of how quickly, but instead to answer in the horse’s mind, how good does this feel? Because, if your horse is feeling good, he will easily give you the behaviors you want. And ta da! This feels good to me (and you), and then my horse feels even better, and then we keep creating good feelings and so on and so on and so on! (And quite often this happens really quickly because I don’t know of a single creature that doesn’t want to feel good.)
May horses all around the world fall in love with their bits and bridles and most of all, their handlers.