Monday, February 6, 2012

How Much does "Why" Matter?

Frequently the first thing which pops into mind (above, Eloise demonstrates "POP" this past weekend) when a problem arises with a horse is "why did he do that?" Or, "why won't she do this?" In the last couple years, I've come to tell myself that frequently it doesn't matter. It's hard to let go of, but the truth is, many of us get horses who have backgrounds we know nothing about. No amount of Freudian questioning is going to reveal the truth. We may know some or even a lot about the previous home...but before that? The horse may have had several owners and homes and certainly has had innumerable experiences with people, trailers, competitions, other horses, other animals, etc. Rarely do we know this horse's parentage beyond possibly a name on registration papers- nothing about the temperament of the mare who raised him to weaning.

So it's reassuring to think that, using proper training theory, we can usually overcome any previous experiences and train the horse to respond differently to a given situation. I love to ask other trainers their thoughts about this and this past weekend was a great opportunity. I attended my first KPA workshop, part of the six-month Karen Pryor Academy Training Partner certification. The other trainers were dog trainers so it was a different community from which to learn. The instructor, Carolyn Barney, of DOGS! Learning Center, reiterated a couple very valid points which I had previously decided were critical. First, before beginning to train anything, we have to make sure that there is no medical reason preventing the horse (dog, whatever) from performing a desired behavior.

A horse who refuses to stand still for mounting should have his back checked and his saddle fit assessed, as well as the mounting skills of the rider evaluated. If the answer to "why won't he stand still" is any of these making the horse uncomfortable, he is not to be blamed for moving and the behavior can be easily modified by making adjustments to make him comfortable. Horses can be taught to stand for awkward riders of course- therapeutic riding horses and lesson horses do it all the time. But if the rider can be corrected instead, it's a kinder route. There is also the issue of whether or not the horse is enjoying being ridden, but I consider that part of the training process, so it will right itself.

The other situation Carolyn mentioned was an emotional issue. If you ask yourself "why" and the answer is that the horse/dog is afraid, then that should be addressed before trying to train. Peggy Hogan, of The Best Whisper is a Click, reminded me of this when I was trying to teach Percy to tolerate being hosed. When fear is involved, you go to classical conditioning. Many of us use Clicker Training (a method of Operant Conditioning) specifically because it does not include fear and we know animals do not learn well in a fearful state. You can scare a horse into doing something such as getting into a trailer or crossing water, but he isn't learning, he's just doing. By using positive associations with the fearful situation, you can remove fear from the picture, and then use Operant Conditioning to teach. Standing and hand feeding Percy while the hose was running (not on him) allowed Percy to change his associations with the noise and sight so that I could begin to train him to tolerate being hosed.

Some people will tell you that a horse is just pretending to be afraid, but I don't think that's part of a horse's nature.

We discussed other over-the-top emotional states like anxiety and excitement. I would say anxiety is simply another form of fear and so should be addressed in the same way. I'll need to think and observe more about excitement because my experiences so far don't bear that out. A horse who is excited is probably showing distraction which in a horse can come right back to fear- watching that horizon for the lions coming over it in a new situation. Or he is anticipating something- speed for instance- and positive reinforcement can be used to teach the horse to stand and wait but still be ready to leap from the start box (just watch Susan Garrett's dogs on the start line of an agility competition).

One of the other students at the workshop brought up a very valid reason to share the "why" if you can come up with it- to reassure the owner that it's not necessarily something that he or she is doing which is causing the problem (sometimes of course it is!). Because this course is about becoming teachers as well as trainers, it was really helpful for me to hear this. I may not need to know why an animal is exhibiting a certain behavioral problem, but if I am going to help someone else with their animal, we need to find out if they need to modify their training to prevent this problem. If it isn't related to the owner's handling, then that owner can be reassured that we can correct the problem with training and not to worry about what may have happened in the animal's past to cause it.