Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Only one way to train a horse?

I found this quote on another blog recently.  Its not a blog I normally read, but the post in question was being highly praised so I went to have a look at what was being said.

"The only way to train a horse is to inconvenience him when he exhibits a behavior that you disapprove of.  You just want to inconvenience him as humanely as possible. "

Is it me, or do you agree that this wrong in so many ways?

Why on earth would I want a relationship with my horses which primarily consists of me "inconveniencing" them?   Of course, there are some "inconveniences" that are part of life - shut feed bins and closed gates probably rank pretty high on the list for some of the horses here - but I'd like to think that, much of the time, my horses are doing things because they find them rewarding and enjoyable, not  because I've made every other option impossible.

I don't have to inconvenience either myself or my horses by chasing them round the fields when I want to catch them - they come when I appear and holler at the gate and (as they aren't short of grass overnight!) I take this to mean that they are pretty happy to spend the day on the track, eating breakfast, hanging out with their friends and munching haylage.

I don't have to inconvenience either myself or my horses when I want them to travel - I am very fortunate because mostly, when my horses go in a trailer, its because they are going hunting and so even the ones who were difficult to load when they arrived at Rockley now self-load, despite our horribly twisty, steep lanes, presumably because they enjoy being out hunting. 

I am fairly sure that this isn't anything to do with "training" and its certainly not about inconveniencing them - even humanely; there are more effective ways to influence behaviour.

Felix is a really good example (as always!)...the other horses here look to him as their leader, as you can see from these photos :-)
Its not because he is bossy or aggressive.  He doesn't "inconvenience" other horses or keep them away from feed or water.   He does, however, seem to provide calmness, safety and confidence and other horses just feel happier  and more relaxed if he is around and in charge.   

Horses find it rewarding to be around Felix  and this is a much better way of influencing behavioiur (in my opinion) than Angel's rather crude approach, which basically equates to "I'm going to chase you and bite you on the bum if you don't do what I want".  Angel (in the foreground above) can inconvenience the other horses but, (perhaps not surprisingly), horses have NO opinion of Angel as a decision-maker and view him (quite rightly) as a muppet who has no future in the diplomatic service - good for a game but not for much else.

Occasionally I have to force my horses to put up with something that is unpleasant or annoying - being shut in to keep another horse company, or having vaccinations or their teeth done, or dragging them out on exercise when they'd rather be sleeping in the sun - but on the whole I try to respect their likes and dislikes and they seem to respect mine.

I don't think I am a pushover, and my horses aren't bolshy, but I don't expect to be the only one who has things to communicate, either.

When we are out and about, my horse has to be able to deal with rough terrain, steep slopes, bogs and treacherous ground; I may well ask him to carry me safely and competently over jumps, do gates or stay with me when other horses have gone on ahead or stayed behind.  Every day, there are big elements of what we do which are HIS responsibility - I'm not riding a quad bike, I'm riding a horse, after all :-)

Lucinda Green has always described how, over XC fences, the rider is in charge of the line, the speed and the balance but - if the rider does their job correctly -  everything else is up to the horse.

Its the same out hunting or even just hacking out over the moor  - the horse has his areas of expertise and I have mine and it needs to be a partnership - if I am asking something unfair or stupid, I need feedback from my horse.

I vividly remember once hacking home across the moor and taking a route which I thought was safe.  When my horse refused to go forward, it was out of character and I was puzzled but ignorantly I thought he was napping.  I gave him a kick and he still refused to go forward, then he deliberately put one front leg out, which sank up to the elbow in a bog, pulled it back, turned his head and gave me a Paddington Bear stare... I got off, apologised and we found another way home.

I want to do more than "inconvenience" my horse in training - I want communication and though there has to be respect, it has to go both ways.


Barbara said...

This sounds like someone who has misunderstood the idea of making the right thing to do the easiest thing to do. I use this explanation especially in training jumping. If the speed, pace, balance and straightness are correct, then it is easier to jump than to stop or run out. If the horse stops or runs out, the rider was probably making it too hard to jump. Take that approach and twist it around into a negative way of dealing with animals (or life) and you get the 'make it inconvenient' approach. Like you - I prefer the whole thing to be much more positive and cheerful. :-)

jenj said...

I actually agree with both of you.

The key to the quote you posted is "when he exhibits behavior that you disapprove of." If a horse is being nasty at feeding time, I will "inconvenience" him by playing boss mare until he backs down and only comes toward his food when I invite him to do so. If he has to think twice about loading (Saga sometimes gets stuck halfway up the ramp), I'm going to "inconvenience" him by patting him on the butt to ask him to go forward. Basically he's not getting his way, I'm getting mine.

But I also agree that the majority of the time, I don't want my horses to think of me as an "inconvenience". I want them to respect me as a herd leader and stay out of my space, and if that's an "inconvenience" to them, that's the price of them living at my house! ;) Riding is definitely a partnership, and we've each got our own parts to fulfill. I want to trust my horse to make decisions, but I also need for him to trust me to make decisions (i.e. no, that trash can does not contain a scary horse-eating monster, so you can walk past it and live).

Handling horses and riding requires a good dose of common sense and listening to your horse. You can't just lump every horse and every situation into a single catch phrase (make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard, or whatever). It's a great deal of learned experiences, but sadly, there are too many who want the quick fix or a one-size-fits-all solution. Life sure doesn't work that way, and horses don't either.

Olivia @ DIY Horse Ownership said...

I agree that inconveniencing hardly seems like the only way to train. I think it works for discouraging negative behavior, like biting or digging, but it won't do anything to create encourage the behaviors you like.

Currently both of our horses come eagerly to the gate and want to work. I can't imagine this would be the case if they were constantly inconvenienced.

Val said...

Interesting points, which reminds me of a recent training experience. When offering my horse carrots as a reward, I was told that I was "cheating". To this I said, "There's no rule book. And it's called reward." My horse definitely did not find this type of motivation an inconvenience. ;)

Gina said...

I have a question I have a TB that has feet much like the one in the previous (x2) post. I believe I have talked you about going barefoot before and I like the idea more and more. However, 1. I board which means he is only out at night now from 4 pm to 7/8 am, 2. He is the kid of horse that tends to get 'hot' off of work and is eventing fit and 3. I can not manipulate the surfaces he walks on. Is it possible to take such a horse barefoot successfully with these issues? And how long does a horse usually go if they arrive with no lameness but very unbalanced feet to workably sound in a groomed arena or paved road?

Nic Barker said...

Jen, Val, Olivia - so true - and I totally agree about the dangers of quick fix one-six-fits-all solutions :-) I also love Olivia's phrase of wanting to encourage the behaviours we like - exactly what I was trying to say!

Gina, I am afraid the answer, as so often, is "It depends" - on how long your horse has been shod, and how well, how motivated and tough he is, what his nutritional status is,whether he has any underlying healthy issues.

To give you a gross generalisation, though, a sound, healthy horse on an appropriate diet whose feet have not lost too much integrity with shoeing (and are reasonably well-developed caudally) will be sound in an arena and across the fields straight away and will cope with a reasonable level of roadwork within 4-6 weeks.

ka_knock said...

I think the original blog was quite probably refering to negative reinforcement, which is the foundation of MOST forms of horse training, bar purely reward based systems, like clicker and treat training.

The title was worded crudely, perhaps deliberately so, but the fact remains that every time we put a leg aid on to a horse, every time we take up contact on a lead rope, it is negative reinforcement and putting, or at least pre-warning the horse of impending pressure which says "don't do that any more". The horse learns by finding a way to make you put as little pressure as possible on and working out what new behaviour to exhibit to make you take it off. But it is all, at the end of the day, inconveniencing him from exhibiting a behaviour which you no longer require.

A purely reward based system without ever inconveniencing a horse is hard to achieve and is really inefficient in terms of time. According to some studies, reward combined with negative reinforcement is the most humane, and its certainly what I see in the most kind and effective horse trainers.