I have been training dogs since I was a very little child. Decades after I grew up and moved away, the neighbors talked about my family’s 40 pound Cocker Spaniel mix pulling me down the sidewalk on my skateboard. Using a neighbor’s dog (because our family dog was too old) I won the 4-H Dog Obedience class. However, I have far less experience in training horses.
There may be some similarities in the way horses and dogs think and learn, but there are some dramatic differences in how each species must be approached. My dogs aren’t the prey, they’re the predators. Still, some tenements remain the same. Good animal trainers for any species must be consistent, patient, and timely in their responses. They should remain calm, attempt to end on a positive note, never ask for too much, and never train when stressed or impatient. Training methods can include either positive or negative reinforcement, or both. Interestingly enough, there is a surge of interest in using positive reinforcement (such as clicker training) on horses as opposed to the tried-and true approach of pressure/release of pressure which is negative reinforcement.
Google offers up “Arabian” if asked “What is the smartest breed of horse?” I concur! My Arab Kadeen is one smart cookie, and that is both a plus and a minus. He will never make a good man-made obstacle horse because he is way too much of a thinker. (I used to compete in ACTHA events although the organization is now defunct.) Why on earth would Kadeen go through a gate in the middle of the field when there is no fence attached to the gate?
I did have a very talented gate-opening Quarter horse at one time. These awesome door guards have been installed in many of my barns over the years. They fasten using a spring-loaded latch that inserts in a receptacle. Java figured out how to pull back the latch and I had to add an additional chain latch that he couldn’t open. After I bought a mini-horse, I added two more panels to the existing single panel stall guard. With two spring-loaded latches to open, I assumed Java wouldn’t be able to get the door open. It took him two weeks to figure out how to do it. I reinstalled the chain backup!
Over the next several blogs, the horse’s intellectual and emotional intelligence will be examined. This article lists nine key insights into understanding how a horse thinks. Often a horse’s first line of defense is flight, which can be very frustrating for his passenger or ground handler. But as a prey animal, that is an expected response. In the wild, the horse that is most adept at that behavior is the one who lives to reproduce. There are certainly training methods that address this behavior, but we shouldn’t be frustrated with a natural reaction.
The horse’s senses are incredibly well-developed, which is a prerequisite to taking flight in a timely fashion. My boyfriend was taking a lesson on Kadeen and my trainer badgered him to “look in the direction you want to go!” He retorted, “What difference does that make?” She said, “Try it!” He did, and to his amazement, the horse turned in the direction he looked. Turning his head turned his shoulders, which turned his seat. My super sensitive gelding responded accordingly.
Horses learn and are desensitized quickly. Once a horse learns a potentially threatening stimulus is truly not a threat, they adapt and ignore it. Much time, energy and resources would be wasted if they continually responded to a non-threatening stimulus. We use this response to our advantage. Kadeen used to have major issues crossing over a tarp. It seemed as if we would conquer this problem only to have it resurrect again at the next encounter with a tarp. Each future encounter with the tarp was a new, never-before-seen threat. Our relationship is solid at this point, and tarps are no longer an argument. Was this more about not being desensitized or not respecting me?
In next week’s blog I will continue to discuss how a horse’s thinking impacts how we relate to them. Check back for Part Two!