Thursday, September 23, 2010

Winning Battles

We hear this phrase all the time when it comes to horses. But recently it's made me think about the wording. If we have "won", doesn't that mean the horse has "lost"? I prefer to think of training as win-win. If my horse finds himself in a new situation, I don't want him to automatically become fearful because he associates new or scary situations with an impending Fight. Then he's worried about the new thing AND worried about a fight.

A friend recently began a thread on the forum at The Chronicle of the Horse magazine about Clicker Training (see the "Off Course" section). I was really excited to see all the responses which appeared in short order. Clicker Training is more mainstream than I realized! More than one person responded about using CT to get a horse through a spooky situation and how easy it made it as well as how it changed the horse's attitude toward things in the future. Horses who have played "Touch the Goblins" see new and scary things as an opportunity to approach and conquer! One does have to be careful because when they like to approach scary things, sometimes we have to be the ones to warn them to go my young ones who want to touch the electric net the first time they see it!

Even if we ignore what "losing" does to the horse's frame of mind (and it would be pretty silly not to consider that in a training situation), what does it do to my frame of mind? I might approach something new like a bridge to cross and if my horse hesitates, I immediately put the "Make it Happen" into my approach. I wrote about this in . I prefer to approach challenging situations like puzzles. Hm, what is going to be the best way to deal with this problem in a way that both my horse and I "win"?

The great thing about Clicker Training is that having the horse win is a critical piece of the whole method! If he does what I want, he wins a prize- a treat, an opportunity to do something he wants to do, permission to retreat to a safer feeling place, etc. So we both win. Yesterday I took Ande out to the arena, successfully passing the usual scary parts of the barnyard without a bobble. However, I knew that our two little pigs had escaped their pen in the barn and were out rooting in the paddock next to the barn. I find pigs hysterical- horses don't seem to agree with me. I was prepared for Ande to be alarmed at their funny little noises, headless appearance (heads rooting in the mud) and unexpected cavorting just like any young animal. I stopped when we came around the corner of the barn so he could have a look. He looked, but at that point they were pretty quiet and he was unconcerned after a moment's glance. Good boy.

We continued on to the arena and had a slightly better view of them. He stopped and looked again. Curious, but still not concerned. Good boy. (no clicks and treats needed here) I continued on to longe him- circles, walk, trot, canter, over trot poles and a small jump. At one point, he was standing motionless after a treat (he's using himself very nicely over trot poles these days!) when a neighbor fired off a gun. I jumped, but he didn't. About two seconds later, however, the piggies came screaming out of the barn where they'd gone for a siesta. That startled him and he shot forward in alarm. He didn't run me over and he stopped himself before hitting the end of the longe line. His head was high and eyes were popping. I raised my hand to his poll and he dropped his nose to the ground. Click and Treat! Head came back up but not as high- the exercise was doing it's job. Practiced and practiced and practiced in relaxing situations, he was responsive and happy to cooperate because he knew it meant good things for him- he got treats AND it helped him calm down. Horses don't like to be alarmed- they really do prefer being relaxed. They might enjoy playing, but I don't believe they really enjoy being frightened. I do believe that "getting after" a horse who is spooking will only increase their anxiety level. And trying to soothe a horse who is nervous can reward the horse for spooking! But asking (not demanding) for something specific from a worried horse, and having him respond by calming down can then be rewarded so that they actually learn to calm themselves.

So after a couple moments of head down and rewards, Ande and I continued on with our longeing. We had both won- I had a responsive and manageable young horse; he had calmed down and the opportunity to go back to work which he likes because he gets rewarded regularly for accomplishing new things.


Anonymous said...

My thought is that if you're fighting with your horse, something's wrong, big time. Sure "winning" can happen - we see it all the time when horses are coerced into doing things - this ultimately leads to explosions or else shutting down, depending on the horse's temperament. Dealing with resistance to what you're asking requires first figuring out why the horse is resisting - it's usually because the horse doesn't understand or because of a pain issue - and then being persistent and patient in asking and rewarding small tries. Clicker is one really good way to do this, as you point out. But too many people are into the "make the horse do it" school of thought due to their own lack of understanding.

Bookends Farm said...

What can be difficult for some people to get is that bit about horses "not understanding". So many folks say "of course he understands, we've done this before". But unless I really know what I am doing to cue a behavior and what I am doing to reinforce or punish that behavior...I'm working in the dark, making all sorts of assumptions which lead to frustration on everyone's part.