Teaching horses to stand still by allowing a flight response

stud chainHow many times have you heard the phrase, “You better make him stand still!”?
It reflects a common belief system in the horse world; if your horse is afraid of something, the clippers, fly spray, a new blanket, he can only get used to it by being held in position, until he realizes it won’t hurt  him, or that he cannot get away. Common equipment like stud chains and twitches are used to inflict severe localized pain in order to deter horses from moving when the stakes are high. It’s part and parcel of the way things have always been done.
Part of this impulse to make a horse stand still reflects a reasonable safety concern. Horses are large animals and when they are scared and unaware they can be dangerous. Teaching them to stand still makes them safer to be around. Wanting to hold them in position is often just a natural human response to control a volatile situation and make it feel safer.
Another part of the impulse to make a horse stand still is lack of empathy. Humans just aren’t flight animals. A horse’s many fears can seem unreasonable to us brave humans, so we dismiss their legitimate concerns and over-power them with force. They learn that whatever they are scared of is less worrisome than the human with a chain over their nose. They choose between two evils, so to speak.
There is  a horse training book by Andrew McLean, The Truth About Horses, that clearly states that any “hyper-reactive flight response” (ie moving away, spooking or bolting) should be immediately “disallowed” by demanding a downward transition through the rein or lead with “as much force as necessary.”  The theory is, if the horse is allowed to express his flight response, he will become increasingly conflicted and difficult to handle. When talking about getting a horse used to clippers or other scary stimuli,  he states,” When dealing with nervous horses, care must be taken not to allow the horse to increase the distance between itself and it’s handler.” The horse must be made to stand still.

But is this really the sole truth? Could there be other ways to teach a horse to relax without inhibiting his flight response?

My stallion, Tarot, as many of you know, is an extremely cautious horse. He’s grown to accept many things – shavings bags flapping near his feet, ropes dangling, and me in my raincoat. But fly spray is something I’ve avoided. He allows me to wipe him down with a washcloth, so I’ve chosen to do that and get the job done rather than go through the process of getting him used to the sound, tactile sensation and smell of the spray. But, the other day, I thought I would see if I could create a training session for him that would allow him to offer standing still near fly spray by his own choice. I knew I had to set up the structure of the session so he could understand what I wanted, and offer him enough choice to foster relaxation. I knew he had to be loose, because I didn’t want to be holding on to the spray and his lead rope. He can bolt when he is afraid AND trapped; he runs off when he hears fly spray even outside his paddock, when I am dousing the wash cloth, for instance.
I decided to have Tarot loose and go in with my fly spray and my treat pouch. I would raise the bottle of spray up and say the word “spray” then begin spraying continuously, parallel to but not on his body. That way he would know when the spray was coming and not be surprised. He would be free to express as much flight distance as he needed to, he could gallop 300 feet to the other end of his pasture. He could also choose not to return and play the game if he didn’t want to. My clickable moment, if offered, would be when he either stopped moving away or chose to turn and move toward the actively spraying fly spray. Here’s what happened:

To be honest, this video begins at repetition number six. The first five went so well that I stopped training and went into the house to get my little video camera. That means I missed the really dramatic spin and canter away that happened on the real first lift and spray. The dramatic flight response also never reappeared, despite it being allowed and fully expressed. Once he returns to me, he gets a click and a chance to play a targeting game with my free hand, both as a bonus reward and a way for me to gauge him mentally. (Tarot “checks out” and does very weak targets when nervous.)
After three or four targets, I raise the bottle, announce, “spray”, and begin to spray again. From the video you can see that Tarot very quickly decides he can stay near the spray on his own.

So what gives? Why, when I let Tarot  put distance between himself and me with the scary stimulus, does he not get more reactive and, instead,  becomes more relaxed and quiet around the fly spray? The truth about horses is that allowing your horse to put distance between himself and you with a scary bottle of spray only causes problems if you train with negative reinforcement. It’s not a truth about horses at all. It’s a truth about a training method. Horses working in the negative reinforcement paradigm experience release of pressure or gaining some distance as relief. It’s the currency of that paradigm. Because Tarot is working for a click and a treat, something he actively wants, instead of to avoid something he doesn’t, he is willing to approach and look for what I want once he’s moved far enough away to relieve his fear. Using a positive reinforcement paradigm, the rules change. He can express his flight response and still learn how to stand still.

We have to be willing to look for new answers and revise our long accepted beliefs about these magnificent creatures. When we think outside the box, horses like Tarot, who panic in traditional training scenarios, are able to succeed beautifully. The truth about horses is they are brilliant learners if only we know how to set up the lesson.

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15 thoughts on “Teaching horses to stand still by allowing a flight response

  1. What a lovely blog and video! You can see the change in his body posture and he realizes that he could get away at any time. He goes from ready to flee, to actually leaning in toward you and the spray.

  2. I love this approach. I find that many issues that horses have are due to claustrophobia and our tendency to ‘trap’ them.

    For example, why is it that a horse in a pasture doesn’t spook at a deer, but a horse being ridden does? I firmly believe it’s because a horse with a rider on his back feels like the rider, if given the chance, won’t let him escape from danger. Meanwhile, a horse in a pasture feels like he could escape if he needed to, so he’s not so quick to react.

    This concept is especially true with trailer loading, and I frequently ‘fix’ a problem loader simply by giving them the option to leave the situation. Often, a horse who feels he COULD leave, doesn’t feel the need to, and a horse who feels trapped fights 10x harder to escape.

    EXCELLENT entry on how to deal with a common issue.

  3. Nice work! Thanks for sharing. Yes negative reinforcement training is considered ‘avoidance or escape learning’ and whenever we can, it’s better to use +R. However, I’m curious why your training plan was not more a shaping plan? Then you could have trained it without any angst at all. Instead of just going out and spraying (something your boy is already sensitized to) you could have broken the whole spraying scenario into tinier pieces. Touch the empty bottle, fake spray, tiny sound of spray off at a distance (distance to be determined by your horse where he is watching but not over threshold), and gradually build and build rewarding every little step where he stays relaxed and in the game. Were you just experimenting with the flight? It is a really good message. And I think that’s why most +R trainers will work with their horses loose so they are always free to leave if we mess up and they get uncomfortable.

  4. I had this experience last summer with my 4 horses. I found that the spray was much less scary if they had the choice to move away, then return by choice.
    People training horses often talk about instilling respect … as in, the horse must respect US. However, I find that if I respect my horse’s intelligence and decision-making capabilities, then I end up with a happier, more trusting horse who is willing to collaborate with me. After all, I’m not interested in control or dominance, neither of which can exist in the same space as partnership. I’m interested in working together… communication, cooperation, and collaboration.
    Thanks for this piece, Jen!!

  5. Pingback: “We don’t know what the horse has learned, we only know what we’ve presented.” – A. Kurland | Spellbound

  6. Pingback: “Dead to the Leg” / Not “Going Forward” Issue | ASPIRE NEWSBOOK by www. aspire-equestrian.com

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