Pets & Animal Horses

In Horse Training, Timing is Everything

A horse is a prey animal, and this very fact is vital to understanding horse behavior.
One way this manifests is that while as predators, our central goal (whether we are conscious of it or not) is securing a large amount of resources, as a prey animal a horse has a different agenda.
A horse wants to remove threats and feel secure.
You probably want that too-but for a horse this is first and foremost in his mind.
After all his ancestors went about their day to day lives worried about being eaten.
Its a constant worry and that's why horses appear so high strung to us.
Horse training is often focused on getting horses to overcome this instinct.
A horse lives with a run-now-ask-questions-later approach to life.
Horse training is focused on teaching horses to replace this with a stop-think-and then act point of view.
Your horse is probably relatively secure, but this fact (that he wants to run from every threat) manifests itself in many little ways when it comes to horse training.
The first thing-and any horse owner knows this-is that a horse is hyper-aware of his surroundings.
Part of that awareness is being aware of you-for example a horse can detect the emotional state of a person instantly.
If you're angry or nervous, you're not going to hide this from a horse.
Something else horses do is they are fully aware of every body movement we make.
It turns out that the run-now-ask-questions-later approach goes beyond bolting or spooking when a horse feels threatened.
Every aspect of horse behavior is dictated by this approach in lesser degree, which we might call an avoidance of pressure.
On a basic level working with your horse you are often dealing with this avoidance of pressure.
My favorite example is your walk into the barn and a horse is sitting there with his head through the stall door.
The impulse of most people is to walk up and pet the horse.
And where do lots of people like to pet the horse? Right in the center of the head, between the eyes.
What many people aren't consciously aware of is that the horse instinctively sees this as a threat.
Right between the eyes of the horse is one of his blind spots.
If you're a prey animal, what are you going to feel like if you get touched on your blind spot? That is going to instinctively feel like a threat.
Sure the horse knows you're not attacking him in the barn, but his instinctive wiring is to avoid being touched in his blind spot.
So what do many horses do when you go to pet them there? They pull away.
People say the horse is "head shy", but this is a perfectly natural behavior for a horse.
When it comes to horse training, its all too easy to make mistakes that actually create bad behavior, and dealing with a head shy horse is a perfect example.
When a horse pulls away as a person goes to pet him in between the eyes, what do lots of people do? They don't want to threaten the horse, and so they pull away too.
It goes like this.
You walk up to the left side of a horse, lift your hand to pet him, he turns to the right to avoid it, and you pull your hand down.
This happens so fast most people are barely aware they pulled their hand down.
But what happened here? The horse is using his run-now-ask-questions-later approach to remove a threat.
He turned from your hand to get away from the threat, and by pulling your hand back down, you did remove the threat.
The end result is that you just taught the horse to turn away when someone tries to pet him between the eyes-he learned that pulling away caused the threatening stimulus to go away.
Instead, we want to teach the horse to approach the world in a different manner.
Our approach to horse training to remove spooky behavior is to get the horse to stop-and-think first.
We want the horse to think about the situation and evaluate whether or not its really a threat to him before he gives in to his instinct to flee.
Surprisingly, horse training to promote calm and responsive horses starts right here with small things, like teaching your horse he isn't going to die if someone pets him between the eyes in the barn.
One way to do this is to not remove the threat when he engages in his avoidance behavior.
Working in two stages, start with raising your hand to pet him, let him turn away, but keep your hand in position to pet him.
Hold it there until he turns back facing your hand, but don't pet him.
When he returns his head to a position where you could pet him, then drop your hand.
This way you're showing him that the threatening stimulus is removed when he does not engage in his instinctive avoidance behavior.
In the second stage, actually go ahead and pet him.
This may take gradual escalation, because he may flinch or turn away as you actually pet him.
But do not ever drop that hand-until he lets you touch him.
Soon he will realize that not only is he not threatened by someone touching his head in the barn, but that it is actually pleasant.
This can be applied to all aspects of head shyness like touching his ears.
Now see in this small example we have gotten the horse to wait for a moment, use his brain to evaluate the situation instead of just instinctively avoiding it.
This will carry over to all aspects of horse training and make him less spooky overall.
Here is another example.
Get your horse on halter and lead rope and stand directly in front of him with a whip or carrot stick.
Start swinging the whip vigorously over his head.
I've heard this called "extreme friendly game" by Parelli devotees.
Its a very good way to get your horse to be calm and promote resistance to spooking, and if you haven't done it before your horse is probably going to find it very unpleasant.
I have been doing this with my horses, and the first time my horse Henry kept coming right at me when I was swinging the carrot stick over his head! A horse coming right at you is not a safe horse in the least! My impulse was to stop swinging the carrot stick and then use the lead rope to back him up out of my space.
For safety reasons, I had to back him up out of my space, but think about the head shy example we just discussed.
By stopping the swinging of the carrot stick each time he came forward, I was inadvertently teaching him to remove the threatening stimulus by coming forward.
Just like you don't want to drop your hand, the correct response in this situation would be to keep swinging the carrot stick over his head while simultaneously making him back up, and then stop swinging the carrot stick when he backs up out of my space.
With horse training, timing is everything as we've seen in these two examples, and the slightest mis-step in the way we approach our horses can actually program them to engage in bad behavior.
But by thinking about how horses view the world and respond, we can minimize the impacts of our actions and in fact turn them around to promote good behavior in horses.

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