When looking at behavioural problems in horses we need to look at all aspects of the management and training of the horse.
It is rarely just one thing that is compromised. If you only take your horse to a trainer they will probably only look at the physical aspects of behaviour, many problems are due to how we keep horses, what we feed them as much as how we train and how often we train.
Stress is a major cause of equine behavioural problems – to much aversive training, little turnout (especially in the winter), a diet not suitable for the horses work or temperament.
All these need addressing, for feeding advice ask an independant nutritionist, for physical problems liase with your vet. Look at how aversive your training is for the horse, just because a horse is obedient does not mean he is enjoing the work. Horses are very good at learning how to avoid aversive stimuli – this is why they are easy to train. They will learn cues to perform a behaviour so we don’t have to escalate the aids.
There is a revolution in the horse world at the moment with more people learning about the impact of aversive training and turning to using more positive reinoforcement.
It is not a battle between traditional training or natural horsemanship or reward based training – it is a matter of our own consciences – what we feel is right for our horses. We know our horses better than anyone else, but I do know that I am not comfortable with chasing my horse around to make him do things, or to use pressure to force or coerce.
If we remove all tack and put down the sticks and strings what we have left is how the horse feels about us. Does your horse stay with you if you don’t have any equipment?
Is he free to leave without fear of punishment, can he just be a horse in your presence?
Of course some will stay due to previous aversive training – it can take a while for some horses to realise they can do something without being asked. Many horses are too afraid to do anything for fear of correction (punishment).
You only have to watch videos of natural horsemanship training to see horses who stand like robots until cued to do anything.
The stress, caused by being always vigilant, waiiting and watching for a cue and trying to get it right every time so they can avoid correction, can be great.
Even very animated horses are often in a state of frozen watchfulness, watching how to avoid the flick of the whip, we often see liberty trainers with sticks.
At one clinic I attended with Smoke the cliinician was insistant that the only way he could train more than one horse to do a liberty demo was to use escalating pressure – so the horse had no option but to obey or be punished.
There was some excessive waving of the lead rope and extremely big movements from the trainer to get Smoke to back up.
This is so much easier with a target stick and positive reinforcement.
So much of what I do is easier with +R, but we do have to let go all previously learned behaviour in ourselves. How do you get a precise marking of a behaviour with -R when, often, our timing is dreadful? Using a verbal bridge to mark a behaviour still need good timing but I find it is easier to click or say “good” than to release pressure.
So when you watch demos or videos or read about how to train behaviours bear in mind how the horse feels. Stress is a common cause of physical and behavioural problems. A little stress (excitement) is good but prolonged stress e.g never being able to relax – either in the field (if he hasn’t a pair bond), stable ( if he can’t interact with other horses) or in training (due to frozen watchfulness) is not good for our horses.