Monday, December 14, 2009

Another thought on shut down

As I was mucking stalls this morning, I was thinking about horses in my past and the many horses you see in the stabling area of competitions who are rock steady in their manners on the ground. They will stand while they are groomed, wrapped, braided, etc, frequently without even being tied. But for many of these horses, it's because they have learned it's better to do nothing until told to do something. So they stand still unless they are pulled (rope) or pushed (shoved over). Rather than being taught TO stand, they have been taught NOT to move. There is a difference.

The first difference is the way that it is taught- with reinforcement or with punishment. Clicker training horses to stand still is done with reinforcement- stand still and you get a treat, now stand still longer and get another treat, etc. They learn self control leads to rewards. They learn good things happen if they stand still. Horses who are taught NOT to move are usually taught with punishment. If they move, they get yelled at, slapped, shanked, yelled at some more, etc. Pretty soon they are afraid to move because if they do, something bad will happen...that's fear.

The second difference
is what will make these horses move and what happens when they do move for some reason. The horse who has been taught not to move by using punishment will stand until he becomes more afraid of something else than he is of the punishment. It may be a door banging, a dog barking down the aisle, a loose horse outside, kids running and screaming etc. The same things might cause a positively reinforced horse to startle but it is more likely that his frame of mind is calmer. And if he does startle, the response will be different. Rather than over-riding fear, he has been conditioned to think about the good things that will happen if he stands. So rather than spooking and then taking off for fear of the retribution, he will spook and then think, "oops, if I stand or go back to my person, good things will happen". A horse standing out of fear may be on edge on a windy day because he is nervous but is afraid to move for fear of punishment so the tension builds and builds in his body until he busts out with some nervous energy or becomes so afraid that he decides it's better to leave town than stay put. A horse standing from being rewarded will have a calmer, happier frame of mind and will be conditioned to calm himself in order to get rewarded. In addition, his person will most likely see his nervousness and begin reinforcing him more for standing as well as asking him to do relaxing things like dropping his head which is a conditioned activity for calming. That horse will feel safest with his person, doing what he knows will be reinforced. The other horse may very well decide that he needs to take matters into his own hands since his handler is scary and so is the banging door.

In the end, I'd rather have the reinforced horse under me when riding than the punished horse. I feel safer on a horse who looks to me for help in calming down than the one who may decide that truck coming down the road is scarier than the thought of any punishment I would dole out, especially if he dumps me just to avoid both options.


Emma said...

Thank you very much for posting this. I bought a very 'quiet' 'well behaved' horse, that I didn't realise was shut down due to previous mishandling, that was until we were hacking out and had a couple of very nasty experiences where she did feel she needed to flee for her life. I actually spent quite a long time feeling this was my fault, and somehow I had ruined her because I wasn't a strong enough rider or handler.

Thankfully I found clicker training and we are now on the long road of trying to put things right for her, so that she can learn she can deal with life, rather than be afraid of it.

Bookends Farm said...

Emma I'm so sorry you had those nasty experiences but so glad you have that horse now! I think your experience is very common, unfortunately. Best of luck to you-

Mary @ StaleCheerios said...


I have one of these I'm dealing with now.

" The horse who has been taught not to move by using punishment will stand until he becomes more afraid of something else than he is of the punishment"

Unfortunately, the poor guy is afraid of a lot of things. But he is very stoic, until he is completely over threshold, and then he panics or explodes.

He "looks" fine, though, you know what I mean? And he tries to be good, I think he's just been punished or ignored for expressing his feelings in the past.

Interestingly, when I worked on a guest ranch several summers ago, we had a dozen or so of our horses who were like this, now that I think about it. They were perfect horses, put a beginner on them or a kid and they would take care of their rider. Put an adult on one of them and they'd w/t/c like a star.

These dozen or so horses (out of our herd of 60) all had a strip of red electrical tape on their bridles. They were the horses that could not be tied. At least to a hitching post, fence or anything solid.

I think they had learned how to work through their fear in other situations, but never learned how to not panic if they got spooked when tied. If they'd hit the end of that leadrope, they'd just panic.

It's the little things here and there that always tell of much larger problems hidden underneath.


Golden the Pony Girl said...

This post ( and the one you linked too) was just the inspiration I needed to tackle "ground tying" with my horse. He is always very eager to offer up behaviors (sometimes too eager) and I wanted a calm default behavior to be able to fall back on but was unsure on how to shape something so... motionless. Teaching a horse to stand and not to hold still really sold it for me. Thanks!

Bookends Farm said...

I'm glad it got you inspired! It really is funny how you can look at that from two totally different sides. I always wonder how people with different backgrounds read these! I'd love to hear how things work out for you...