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March 12, 2018 2 Comments
Inadvertently Rewarding Bad Behavior!
By Don Jessop
So the horse is being scared... Should you pet her to calm her down or should you show her leadership and ask her to focus?
Most people in the natural horsemanship world want to pet the horse and sooth the horse. But guess what? By doing this you are inadvertently rewarding the horse for being scared! You are reinforcing the scared emotion.
Cearsar Millan (the dog whisperer) said, never pet a nervous dog. Why? Because you end up rewarding the nervousness. Instead, focus the dog, and pet him when he’s calm. Pet him when he’s in a neutral state of mind, instead of an anxious state of mind.
So why am I writing about this now? Because too many horse trainers, and students of natural horsemanship are inadvertently rewarding nervousness in their horses. Don’t do that anymore!
Are you guilty of this? I'm sure you are! I know I have been. It's easy to do and let me explain why!
When we play with horses, we can have an objective view towards what they need and how to prepare them for the potential perceived threats in our human world. However, sometimes, when we "own" that horse we forget we're supposed to "prepare" them and instead we find ourselves "protecting" them.
See if this story applies to you! And if it does, read on to the end to get some tips on how to STOP being the wrong kind of trainer for your horse!
"What a beautiful horse!" The young woman exclaimed to my student as she sat down next to her to watch the proceeding events.
I realized quickly that my words weren't penetrating my students understanding, so I asked her to sit and down while I took over the situation with her horse. Hoping she could absorb more by watching at first then performing later.
"Is she an Arabian?"
"He... not she, is an Arabian, and thank you, I think he's beautiful too. replied the older woman who owned the horse.
"How long have you owned him?
"For nearly seven years. I practically raised him. He's my baby!"
I could overhear the whole conversation as I began to play with her horse, but I allowed it to take place because I knew that ultimately my student needed the space to relax and enjoy the lesson rather than feel like she had to perfectly follow my directions.
"What's he working on?" asked the young woman about me and the horse.
"Getting him to stand on the plastic tarp. He says I'm a little to protective of my horse. I know I am but he is my baby, you know."
Hearing those words for the second time I stopped, smiled at my audience and asked for permission to speak. Both women were kind sweet natured people, the kind of people that wouldn't hurt anything on purpose. They both gave me an approving nod and I began.
"We're asking him stand on the tarp, which is obviously scary to him...and in this instance...What do you think this horse needs most? Safety? comfort? play? or food?" I asked
There was a pause then the owner spoke out courageously with her response.
"I think he needs safety and comfort right now!"
"Right!" I said.
"When a horse is fearful, and needs some comfort...should we offer the safety and comfort?"
"Well, I think so!" She said. "After all, I am the herd leader and I want him to trust me"
"OK, let's go with this thought for a moment!" I prompted. "If I offer him safety, how would I do that?"
"Well, it seems like that, what he needs is to retreat from the tarp and regain his confidence."
"OK" I prompted again. "If I re approach the tarp, will he be more confident or about the same? What do you think?"
"I think he'll be more confident" She exclaimed.
"OK! let's try your theory!"
I spend the next several minutes doing exactly as she would do, based on the horses reaction. Every time he got nervous and flighty, I retreated to a safe zone. Finally after many attempts to approach the plastic devilish tarp, it became clear the horse was not making progress and in fact was getting worse, even trying to rip the rope from my hands. I stopped! I came back to my audience and asked..."Now I've done as you would do. Retreating when the horse was unconfident and reactive, then waiting for calmness and re-approaching. Let me ask...what progress have we made?"
My student was silent for a moment then she spoke in a confused manner.
"I see he's getting worse. But why? We're using the approach and retreat techniques like I learned years ago. Why is he getting worse? He always does this! I must be a horrible leader. I don't think he trusts me!"
I asked her to stop and breathe for a moment.
"It's not you," I said. "It's your timing."
I continued. "It can't help but get worse when you retreat at the wrong time. Let me show you the same game once again only this time I want you to notice how I retreat from the obstacle at a different time. A time when the horse attempts to breathe, and relax, or a time when he reaches out in an effort to explore, but never in a time when he needs comfort. That's the worst time to give him comfort! I will give him comfort when he tries to be brave. It will be a reward. I will not give him comfort when he gets scared. This is the real kind of leadership every horse needs and you can do it too. All I need you to do is stop "protecting" his emotions and start "preparing" him for these things he will encounter in our human world. I know he's your "baby" and you want the best for him. Now be careful not to reward the wrong thing. You were inadvertently rewarding his ill behavior. His anxiousness, his pulling on the rope, his fear, was all rewarded when you retreated to a safe zone. All I'm asking you to do is wait a little longer. Persist, past the fear, past the pulling back, past the introversion or extroversion or whatever it is he's doing. When he relaxes a little. Then retreat! He'll learn to be brave. "
Do you want a brave horse or a big "chicken?"
"A brave horse of course!" She replied!
"Me too. Let me show you now the way it should be done to prepare him instead of protect him!"
For the next 5 minutes I led him near the tarp. He snorted, he pulled, he bolted sideways. (lucky for me I have patient hands and a long rope :) Then finally he paused for a moment, not more than 2 inches from the tarp, stuck his nose out as if he might consider jumping it then settled back in a quiet stance. I smoothly but immediately let him away (retreated) from the obstacle to give him comfort as a reward for his bravery. For the next 20 minutes we worked in this manner and after jumping it several times with very little provocation from me and on a slack rope, he finally stood directly on the tarp. Every time he tried to be braver I rewarded his bravery with comfort. By the end of our short session, the beautiful Arabian, was standing confidently and exploring his new tarp encrusted footing inch by inch with his nose and feet.
My student sat in silence once again then stood up from her seat and approached me.
"I see it now." She said
"I was so caught up in his emotion, I tried to make him feel safe."
"That's right!" I said "But it's not your job to make him feel safe. It's your job to make him feel brave! His self confidence grows as a result of this and he begins to feel safe all the time."
"I see that now." She said again confidently with a air of new understanding.
I handed her the rope.
"Would you take him away then bring him back and let's just test we didn't accidently end up on this tarp. Let's make sure he actually is gaining that self confidence we're talking about."
She happily complied and as she approached the tarp I could sense hesitation in her and in her horse. I coached her to not give into the horses hesitation but patiently persist beyond it. Within a few minutes her perfect little "baby" grew up and became a "noble steed". Bravely standing upon the unnatural plastic footing. And guess who was grinning ear to ear! My student. Proud as can be!
The morale of the story:
Don't "walk on eggshells" around your horses. Don't protect them from feeling fear. Instead...prepare them for tough situations such as noisy cars, plastic bags, balls, water, cows, umbrellas, tarps, fast moving hands or fast moving objects like dogs or children, anything you can think of. This will give them the confidence you always wanted.
I'm not saying "don't protect them physically!" I want you both to be safe and kept from harm. But don't confuse feeling safe with being safe! Pick a safe environment to work in and get to work preparing your horse for tough situations. Remember your timing is important. Don't inadvertently reward bad behavior. You want to reward positive emotions not stressed emotions! And believe it or not, every time you take pressure off a horse, it's the emotions they remember first, not necessarily the task. That's why it's so important to reward at the right time.
Tips to remember:
I wish you success in everything you do!
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