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April 02, 2018 6 Comments
If you put a dog trainer, dolphin trainer and a horse trainer in the same room, you'd have the makings of a really good joke (maybe later), and you would also have the makings of a great conversation.
Nearly twenty years ago, early in my career, I asked this question about horse trainers versus other animal trainers, to an expert horse trainer by the name of Linda Parelli. Her reply was a bit shocking to me. She said horse trainers lose nearly every time when compared to trainers of other species. Trainers of horses tend to be more abusive than others. Of course there are brilliant horse trainers and horrible dog and dolphin trainers. But in general, the average horse trainer remains lower on the totem pole of positive behavioral change.
Years have passed since I asked that question and I dare say that many horse trainers have made a good leap forward in their ability to cause behavioral change without being abusive. But what caused Linda to make that comment? Why are horse trainers more abusive?
Throughout my career, I've been fortunate enough to be in the same room with expert dog trainers and dolphin trainers. As a horse trainer, here is what I've learned.
Dog trainers (not just owners but actual trainers) and dolphin trainers typically work off-line. In other words, their animal must learn to respond via signal and reward systems to jump, spin, move forward, backward, etc. Where as most horse trainers, excluding masterful liberty trainers, work on-line (attached to a line or rope).
When working off-line, a trainer is forced to ensure the rewards equal the challenge. In other words, if the reward isn't big enough, the animal won't see the value in responding in a positive way.
I'm not talking about bribing the animal. I'm talking about rewarding for behavior recently finished. What I mean is, I see horse trainers put food in the horse trailer to make it a nicer place. A master trainer doesn't do that. A master trainer puts food in the trailer, after the horse goes in. Therefore rewarding a commitment, rather than bribing and hoping for action.
But where many trainers fall short, is the quality or quantity of the rewards. Horse trainers tend to give very little reward for far too much effort on the horses part. (I'm not talking about typical horse owners. They tend not to be progressive enough and end up with horses who walk all over them.) I am talking about horse trainers. The way they get away with not using rewards is by adding consequences for a lack of effort. In other words, if the horse doesn't want to participate, he feels the end of the rope. Whereas a dolphin that doesn't want to participate simply swims away, or a dog would simply run away.
Masterful horse trainers use more rewards and less consequences. There are still boundaries of course, even with master dolphin trainers, the pool has it's limits and allows for a learning environment, but the rewards generally occur more frequently for a trainer working off-line. The rewards must occur more frequently! A horse won't give you what you want if you don't have sufficient rewards for their good behavior. They may look like they're giving you everything but inside they're experiencing emotional pain much like a slave would feel.
I've argued with horse trainers who disagree. Famous horse trainers in fact, people you'd know if I blurted out their name. I've been told that you shouldn't use rewards, otherwise the horse will become dependent on them to do what you want. I think this way of thinking is no better than slavery. The horse shouldn't be treated like a slave. They should be treated like a partner.
Some people are afraid of too many rewards, especially food rewards, but it's worth understanding that any reward given at the wrong time will cause bad behavior. A treat, for instance, given immediately after a horse moves in a particular fashion of your design, may invite relaxation or even anxiety. It depends on the emotion, not just the foot work, because horses are emotional beings like you and me, with emotional memories that always take priority over structural memories. The reward must come at the right moment to amplify the desired emotion, not just the desired foot work. In other words, treats given at the wrong time, even if it's for good foot work, will ultimately backfire. The animal must learn that the treat comes, not just from movement in the proper direction, like a puppet on a string, but from understanding a task and relationship with the task master at a whole new positive emotional and mental level.
Great dolphin trainers know the value of positive emotional responses, not just physical responses. Great dog trainers know this too. And thanks to some great teachers, now we can say that more great horse trainers know this. I want you to be great. Even if you're a horse owner, not a trainer. I want you to think like a dolphin trainer with an equal balance of bonding and training. (I know dolphin training isn't perfect. It has holes too, but there are things we can take from it.) I want you to be better for your horses. But to be great may require leaving behind some old systems of operation. A trainer must abandon any old master/slave relationships with a horse and begin to develop a teacher/student relationship or parent/child relationship. These relationships require more thought and creativity, but ultimately leave the animal in a frame of mind where he or she looks forward to interacting on a daily level, in spite of the progressive training schedule you might have in mind.
I want you to learn to be masterful with horses. Get my book on leadership today!
PS. If you want to be masterful with horses off-line (at liberty) comment below. The more comments I get, the sooner I get a video out to you describing the 5 master steps to liberty.
PPS. I'll give you a hint. Step 1 is teaching the horse to look at you.
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