Hello again and thank you for reading.
Within the horse training world, there are two basic trains of thought. One... teach the horse everything is "good." Or two... teach the horse everything is "not so bad." Although those two strategies may sound similar, they are dramatically different. Understanding how they differ and when to apply each thought pattern, could mean the difference between success and failure related to progress with your horse.
To illustrate, allow me to tell a story of a horse named Diesel. Diesel is, or rather, was, afraid of the farrier. He didn't want to stand still. He didn't like the abrupt movements the farrier made when he reached for his tools or pounded a nail. He would rear up, kick out, bite, strike, and leap out of position so quick, and always at just the wrong time. As a result, he often had to be sedated for farrier and vet work. Now you know the back story, I want you to apply one of those two thought patterns to helping Diesel overcome his fear of the fast moving professionals.
Science experiment one: Teach the horse everything is good. In other words, be kind when he gets scared. Go slower. Give treats and food to distract and calm him when he's got his foot in the air. Speak to him in dulcet tones and help him believe that having his feet worked on is pleasant, even rewarding.
Science experiment two: Teach him he has a job to stand still. If he does his job, he gets rewarded. If he doesn't... there are consequences that outweigh any negative feelings he already has related to the farrier. In other words, teach him standing still is not as bad as the alternative.
Now you have a multiple choice problem, which strategy is better to help Diesel overcome his fear? I suppose the answer you state depends greatly on your own experience and your own nature. Heartfelt people almost always revert to science experiment number one, whereas rough and tumble cowboys almost always revert to the second strategy.
But which one is right?
If you're clever, which I believe you are, you already know the answer is both. You also know that the timing and feel you offer for rewards and consequences depends greatly on the relative fear factor.
What I mean by relative fear factor is this: In general, a fearful horse reacts because he or she is genuinely afraid. But there are exceptions to this rule. Sometimes, a slightly fearful, or less fearful horse, and perhaps more disrespectful horse, reacts in the same fashion as a fearful horse but the factor of fear is much lower. In other words... he's learned to react big to get you to stop, even if his fear is lower than it looks. He's learned to react in a fearful way to things that are merely uncomfortable, rather than life threatening. How has he learned this? You may have guessed it... He's been inadvertently rewarded for acting fearful. So now, even slightly uncomfortable situations garner the same reaction as genuinely fearful situations.
It's how horse training works. If the horse does something you want, you reward them with either food, relax time, calm words, or grooming. For Diesel, unknown to his owner, he was working under the science experiment number one, getting food, relax time, calm words, and grooming while he was acting up. So what does he learn? He learns that if he feels uncomfortable and decides to react, he gets a break. Food for thought...
On the other hand, operating under science experiment number two, Diesel would get no down time, no food, no calm words or grooming, unless... he's standing calm. Not before, but during and after his calm state. If he isn't calm, the consequences become very clear, especially with mastery horsemanship techniques. When I worked with Diesel personally, I worked on what we call the "box game." See this video and learn more. If he stood in the box he got rewarded. If he left the box he was pressured, without reward, to return quickly. The pressure outside the box became much more uncomfortable than the pressure in the box and he slowly began to believe that the farrier wasn't as bad as he thought. He liked when I was calm, relaxed and rewarding with the belly of the rope hanging low. He didn't like when I was assertive and quick, demanding he return to the box. In no time at all, he stood like a pro, not taking even one extra step in spite of the noises, smells and abrupt movements of the farrier.
Naturally, I had to convince the farrier to let me do my job. I had to ask him to step back and allow me to quickly guide the horse back. The farrier kept wanting to follow the horse and pick up the foot again. I demanded he stay back and only picked up the feet when the horse was back in the box and the belly of the lead rope on the ground. I also had to convince him to offer more feel inside the box, to be a little less abrupt with his tools, less grabby with his hands and to slowly let the foot down instead of dropping it. All things that make being in the box better than being outside the box. Slowly, the farrier got the message and afterwards complimented me on helping the horse without sedation, saying that horse had never acted so good in the past, even with sedation. He even went so far as to say he might try using that with some of his other clients. To which, I said. YES PLEASE!
Feel and timing are hard things to write about. When do you put pressure on a horse? When do you reward? How long should the reward be, etc.? The answers most often come from experience and trial and error. The moral of the story here today is to give you permission to play with those two science experiments. Try rewards and consequences with new eyes and new timing. Help your horse learn to advance by helping him see it's "not as bad as he thought" and perhaps, it's even "good!"
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