Are We Teaching The Wrong Thing?

Ever experience this scenario? Your horse is tied to the trailer, or the hitching post, or whatever. You pick it. He gets impatient. You know the drill. He paws, whinnies and dances around like a worm in hot ashes. What do you do? You go over and reassure him, probably pet him, try to calm him down.

What did he just learn? He learned that if you tie him up and he pitches a fit, you’ll come over and reward him. He thinks his antics were the right thing to do.

What’s a better alternative? Pet and reward him only when he’s standing quietly; maybe even take him for a short walk, then back to his station. As long as he’s safe, let him have his little fit until he realizes there’s no gain in that.Evidence Based Horsemanship by Dr. Stephen Peters & Martin Black

Dr. Stephen Peters & Martin Black, authors of Evidence-Based Horsemanship, explain the learning process in horses, which involves a dopamine (neurotransmitter) release. Our horses don’t distinguish between what we deem “good” or “bad” learning – but they are learning all the time. They’re uncomfortable, then do something to make themselves more comfortable, and learn. But we may not like what they’ve learned.

Dr. Peters uses the example of trailer loading. Let’s say you ask him to get into the trailer, he goes in quietly and maybe has a little bit of grain or hay. He’s comfortable, probably got a dopamine release and learned that getting into the trailer is a good thing. But what if he balks, pulls back, maybe even gets away and finds a grazing spot? Again, he’s comfortable, most likely got a really good dopamine release and learned. But was that what you wanted him to learn – probably not.

As Dr. Peters says, “In other words, horses don’t discriminate between good and bad learning. They will search for the dopamine release regardless of how humans interpret their actions.”

This really hit home last week in our lesson. Saint Chic’s former career was in reining, so there wasn’t much trotting. For the last year, our challenge has been to travel more forward and energetic at the trot, with impulsion. However, as I asked for more, he broke into a canter, and my natural instinct was to bring him back to the trot. This lost all our forward momentum, often resulting in a walk. What did he learn? “If I break gait, she’ll let me slow down. Whew – relief!” Good for him, bad for me.

Fortunately, we have a very astute instructor and it took her about three seconds to see what was going on. She suggested that when he broke into the canter, I push his haunches to the outside. Bingo! Back to the trot with no loss of energy and he learned that breaking gait didn’t buy him anything. He also found relief because once he returned to the trot, I left him alone. Now good for him, and also good for me.

Here’s another common setting – it’s feeding time and your horses know it. If you’re like us, you’re probably cleaning stalls, straightening the barn, and taking out trash while you’re getting ready to feed. What do they do? Maybe grab the bucket in their teeth, banging it against the stall. Or maybe pace or paw. Maybe even whinny.

What do you do? You feed them, of course, just to get then to quit making such a racket.

What did they just learn? If I make a racket, she’ll feed me. So that must be how to get fed. That must be what she wants me to do.

What’s a better alternative? Don’t feed them until they quiet down. This may take a little patience on your part ☺

I use this example because it was a particularly annoying behavior of our twelve year-old Thoroughbred gelding many years ago. His trick was to bounce his grain bucket against the stall, turning the barn into a percussion practice hall. I stood there, hay in hand, waiting for him to quiet down. The second he did, I took one step forward. It didn’t last, of course. When he resumed his banging, I stopped, even retreated. We did this little back and forth dance for over thirty minutes the first day. Each day, our dance got shorter, until he finally stood quietly waiting for his food.

The take home message – be very attentive to what you reward for, how and when. Don’t make the mistake of sending your guys and gals the wrong message. They’re very smart, and they catch on quickly.

©Pat Van Buskirk 2017. This article was first published in the July, 2017 issue of  The Centaur, published by the Rocky Mountain Dressage Society.


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