I have discovered that
The most successful practice
Of using food rewards
With my trick horses
Is established by
Decreasing the amount of treats
Once the trick is learned
Page 18-Trickonometry by Carole Fletcher
Since I have been thinking about behavioral modification lately I decided to go ahead and publish this post despite Domo’s demise in the hopes that it might save a few horses a lot of grief some time somewhere. A calm, trusting, cooperative, and attentive horse is in a fundamentally different state of mind that one that has ‘sulled up’ and is standing still because they have disassociated from stress and abuse. Unfortunately, most who attempt behavioral modification have not experienced the difference and may not recognize when their horse is truly settled and receptive.
When I pulled an old saddle pad out of the tack room one spring day, Domo took off backwards, zipping down the barn aisle with great agility and alacrity in his attempt to escape something he clearly dreaded. Although the current fad of ‘natural’ horsemanship would interpret his behavior as resistance or rebellion and demand ‘desensitizing’ him by chasing him around in circles flapping the thing at him until he was reduced to immobility from exhaustion and confusion, I have not found that a particularly effective strategy. Even if you have a small confined area sturdy enough to withstand a panicked horse crashing into the sides it still risks injuring the horse, and all too often ends up with a horse that sees the saddle pad, or any floppy fabric as a signal to panic and run themselves into exhaustion.
In this case, Domo already associated the saddle pad with irrational, painful, and exhausting demands from the humans. Instead of reinforcing that by arguing with him, I hung the saddle pad on the stall divider and left it there.
- The first day, he refused to enter the stall and eat.
- The next morning I found the pad was on the ground, a bit tattered and stained after being thrown down, shaken, and trampled on and his food was devoured.
- When I hung the the pad back on the divider on the third day he ignored it entirely.
- After that, I could carry the pad around, and toss it on the fence without him becoming perturbed.
Putting on his back was a whole other step though. While I don’t often find simplistic Skinneristic behavior modification a very useful paradigm in working with horses, there are times when food treats come in very handy. In order for them to be useful however, it is important to consider how horses themselves might perceive the offer of a bite of food.
- In a functioning herd, bending down to snatch a bite or two after an alert is actually one of the ways horses communicate that all is well to the other horses and reassure them that it is ok to relax, eat, and socialize.
Since the round pen is a place where Domo and I relax, groom, and socialize as well as work, I figured that I could bring in the saddle pad without too much alarm and expectation. And, since I ask Domo to stand at liberty while I brush him, clean his feet, and so on, asking him to stand while I set the saddle pad on his back is not a huge change. Just to make sure he understood that, I made sure I was well supplied with snacks. If he startled, I stepped back, mirroring his alert, then asked him to stand, gave him a treat, and start over. Soon I could flop the saddle pad about, over, around, and on top of Domo without alarming him. This approach works not so much because the snack is a ‘reward’ in the Skinneristic sense, but because:
- I have acknowledged his message of alarm,
- then followed it with the treat as a signal that all is well and he can relax.
I do have to admit some treats are tastier than others. When I decided to add the saddle to the pad, what I had available for snacks was a plastic bag of chocolate-chip almond-flour cookies a friend of mine had brought over after experimenting with nut flours. The first couple of trays had charred black on the bottoms, but Domo found them delicious. So delicious in fact, that the sight of the saddle, pad, AND a plastic bag of cookies inspired him to passage circles around me with his tail flagged all the way to the round pen. The saddle and pad had become just another human foible, and he had other things to occupy his mind. He was more than ready to let the good times roll!
And right there is the very fine line where food as reward becomes at best a distraction in horse training.
To begin a horse
On a new trick
Is a fine practice.
But if you want real learning to take place,
Get rid of the treat
As soon as is feasible
If offering food is a signal to relax, than interrupted eating, or offering and then withholding treats, is a most questionable activity for attempting to train a grazing animal. Interrupted eating almost always means alert movement to a horse, and most emphatically does not inspire your horse to be calm, quiet, relaxed, or trusting. The messages of interrupted grazing include direct invitations to such horsey behavior as running, bucking, shying, rearing, striking, kicking, biting, body-slamming, and wrestling.
The most common communications through interruptions of grazing within the herd are:
- Look at THAT!
- Look at ME!
One is an alarm, the other an invitation. Moreover, when a horse says ‘quit eating and pay attention to ME’, it is also an invitation to horse around with two main variations:
- Let’s Play!
- I’ve got the Hots!
The first implies that the one initiating the behavior is coltish, a young, foolish, unreliable, individual; the second is checking for sexual responses. The prejudice against giving food treats to horses is based on the reality that people create restless, unmanageable, spooky, uncooperative, pushy, even downright dangerous horses by misunderstanding what motivates them. Blaming the horse just increases the number of ‘bad’ horses that are then abused and/or ‘discarded’ as well as the odds for the humans to be injured.
It is vital to understand the horse’s point of view as most humans are far too slow, small, and fragile to engage in genuine horseplay, but admitting that you have persistently invited such pushiness from your horse is a challenge for most people. If you have the integrity to admit your mistakes and would like a different type interaction with your horse, steadying your breathing, staying calm, and offering a scratch or pat on a favorite spot tells your horse that all is well. Usually reliable, trustworthy, higher-ranking animals initiate mutual grooming sessions within the herd, so grooming is not only calming to the horse; it is a statement that you are a confident companion.
Once the saddle and pad were familiar, making them just another part of the grooming routine anchored their innocuousness in Domo’s experience. Although this instance was a pretty quick turnaround, Domo and I had been working on our communication and relationship for some years. The sequence of ‘desensitization’ that worked for us is:
- Mirroring his alert acknowledges his perceptions
- Treats give the message that: Really, it is all okay
- Grooming gives the message that: Relax, you can trust me
- Performance (or tricks) are a way of showing everybody else that: We are doing just fine, so chill out and enjoy the show
Once you have that pattern established, it works wonders in surprising ways. Domo appeared calm, content, and mellow to most visitors even though his fundamental nature was more along the lines of hyper-vigilant over-bearing self-levitating ninja racehorse. Trick trainer and showman Carole Fletcher concludes her book on teaching horses tricks by reminding would-be trainers that:
Horses work for applause
Many horses love to ham it up
Before an audience,
As Domo loved attention, realizing that the saddle and pad was a sure sign of admiration and attention instead of abuse, pain, and exhaustion, was a big part of his motivation to become a cooperative, even eager, partner in the grooming and tacking up process. If I were into showmanship and appreciated ongoing drama, I would have presented Domo as a wild and unmanageable creature and then demonstrate my infinitely superior and magical abilities as a horse whisperer. Instead, I’ll share another trainer’s window into the secret of successful training:
You have established the basis
for his further education.
He is learning how to learn,
And to think.
He is learning how to respond
Tone of voice…
The two of you are really learning
how to communicate with each other.
You are developing a bond
You are beginning to learn
each other’s disposition
If your goal is a cheerful and willing partner, especially when working with an abused horse, take your time and maintain your perspective and your sense of humor, as you never know when some new twist on old traumas will pop up. Whenever you start wondering how to motivate your now calm horse, forget both the carrot AND the stick, and remember that horses are thoroughly social beings. If you would be a genuinely humane AND successful trainer, learn to:
- Change your own behavior to get the results you want
- All italics are quotes from Trickonometry by Carole Fletcher