A few months ago, I read a blog that confidently stated, “Using feed to tease a horse into the trailer might work on a sunny day with no wind or challenge, but attraction to food fails when the stakes go up. When faced with multiple horses or injury or natural disaster, a relationship with treats will never save your horse. He needs a relationship with a leader for that.”
I felt the familiar sensation of frustration and exasperation rise together in my chest as once again I saw a chance for clear explanation of learning, stress and reinforcement histories traded in favor of a moral interpretation of horse behavior.
The laws and details of learning are a science. They are clean, spare little laws. Bare bones. They are always there, clear, unafraid and consistent.
I want to take apart the story about the horse and the trailer and the food and leadership, so we can see the actual laws at play within that situation rather than the story created around it. It’s only when we see clearly, that we can make informed choices for ourselves as trainers and for our horses as learners, so let’s begin.
First, we have to look at the nervous system.
I like to describe the nervous system to my clients as the scales of justice, a scale on each side hung from a central point. When one side of the nervous system gets heavier (or activated!), it hangs down a bit lower and the other is lifted a bit higher. The two sides counter-balance one another.
Essentially, one side is for threat preparedness, and the other is for return to homeostasis and relaxation. To make it easier to remember, think of your horse having a “survive” side of his nervous system and a “thrive” side of his nervous system.
Officially, the “survive” side is called the sympathetic nervous system or SNS and the “thrive” side is called the parasympathetic or PNS. We all have both and we need both to be alive.
Based on your horse’s behavior, you can observe which side of their nervous system they are operating out of. It’s good to know, and it matters a lot when you are trying to work on re-training something previously stressful like trailer loading.
On the thrive side we have: rest, digest, feed/eat, and breed.
On the survive side we have: fight, flight, fidget, faint, and freeze.
When we are truly worried about our survival, we don’t: lay down to sleep, stop for a bite to eat or to check out a love interest as we run for our lives.
When we feel safe and unthreatened, we do not: fight, run away from others, pace around, faint or remain frozen or immobile (like standing in front of a trailer.)
So, in the story about the horse who loses interest in food when asked to get on a trailer, what that detail really tells us is the horse was worried enough about being asked to step onto a trailer to be pushed into the sympathetic side of his nervous system.
His survival instinct just got triggered and when that happens, eating goes offline.
But does that mean food is useless when it comes to teaching and maintaining the skill of trailer loading? Oh my gosh, NO! It means you have to know how to use it. And to really understand the power of food, you need to understand reinforcement histories.
So, imagine this: Each time you ask your horse for a behavior, they perform the behavior and you feed them (ABC). Each time, they experience a little jolt of pleasure in relation to the behavior you asked for. Over time, your horse will grow to have a general impression, or “classically conditioned emotional response” to being asked to perform this behavior.
This emotional response is the composite of every time he performed the behavior and the consequence that followed. So, if each time you asked your horse to walk forward on a lead and they complied, you stopped and reinforced them with some grain, they would have a very positive emotional affect when asked to walk forward. Walking forward predicts good things. So, they feel good when you ask them to walk forward. This is their reinforcement history for going forward on lead. It contains the depth of multiple repetitions, rather than the shallowness of one bucket of food in the present moment.
So, cool! It would seem you were all set to walk your horse forward, which they LOVE, and into the brand new trailer you just bought!
But here is where folks go wrong. Walking forward near the trailer or into the trailer, ALSO needs to predict good things. This is a separate reinforcement history. (This is compound now. Walking forward+trailer = ?) If every time I walk into the trailer, my person closes me in and takes me on a long bumpy ride and then I’m away from home and my friends for days, then my reinforcement history for walking forward and onto the trailer is going to be poor. Getting on the trailer will predict unpleasant things.
To fix this, just breaking the ratio of loading to actual trips helps tremendously. If I load up ten times for every one time that I actually go somewhere, then I won’t worry so much about getting on the trailer. I’ll probably get on quite easily as it usually will predict a nice big flake of alfalfa and then unloading to go back to my paddock. And I’ll eat the whole time, because I’ll be lounging around in the “thrive” side of my nervous system.
So what of the horse who refused to get on the trailer and ignored the nice bucket of food? He wasn’t lacking for a leader and he, contrary to the post, DOES find the trailer to be a the problem. Trailers are small, often dark and when a horse steps in they don’t know how long the ride will be and where they will end up. Unpredictability is, by nature, punishing. Think of blindfolding an adult human and telling them you are taking them in the car for a “birthday surprise.”Lots of people panic, pull off the blindfold or get really angry about the situation. Honestly, it’s no different for the horse.
They see the trailer, their survival mechanism gets invoked and they go into (often) an extended freeze response to avoid loading up.
Their reinforcement history is insufficient to the task being asked.
So what do horses need?
Horses just need an observant, educated human to assess what part of their learning history needs to be re-worked if they are not loading into the trailer. The time to train trailer loading is not at the horse show or clinic or vet hospital. Yes, there are emergencies and natural disasters and other situations that come up and require urgent loading. And in those moments you do the best you can with multiple tools: chutes, panels, etc, because those are “oh crap!” situations, not training scenarios. But most days aren’t emergencies. Most days are calm and open and perfect for getting to work building deep reinforcement histories. Build yours carefully and deeply enough, and that reinforcement history will always lead right into the trailer.
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The first horses that most of us ride are already trained. When I managed the barn for seven years at my girl scout camp, the horses came to us already trained. Sure, we tuned them up after their winter off, but they came to us knowing all the behaviors we needed them to know. We didn’t even talk about training, or understand the process of learning very well. This phenomenon is pretty much true throughout the horse world, in part because horses live so long and can have multiple stages in their lives, one often being where the horse goes to a beginner or a recreational rider with their skill set already in place to offer the human while they learn the basics of horse care and riding. In effect, because our horses are so long lived, and often so forgiving about their handling and ways of being ridden, training can be something that we understand vaguely as having happened in the past, but don’t truly understand as a process. In addition, because so few people start out with a foal or an untrained youngster, many professionals included, the process isn’t immediately obvious like it is with dog owners who often start with a young puppy who knows nothing about living with humans.
Because of this phenomenon, I often see huge holes in my students’ skill set when they get their first horse that needs active training, rather than passive maintenance of already acquired skills. In particular, I observe that people struggle to understand what to teach when, so I’ve created a basic curriculum to help guide folks working at home. It’s the general progression I use with my own horses and all my students’ horses as well. It allows you to rate where your horse is in their progression of learning and to know where to go next in their education. (This progression assumes a tame horse that wears a halter and is unafraid of humans.)
- Teach your horse to be operant through introduction of target training. If your horse isn’t operant and doesn’t understand they can effect change through their behavior, then you must go back and introduce this step. Even if they seem to have many other behaviors already learned, go back and confirm they are operant and not just passively compliant.
- Go through the process of teaching your horse foundation lessons.
For me this means: Touch a target with your nose, walk forward from a cue on the lead, back up from a cue on the lead, stand quietly in with your head and neck in the center of your chest, aka, “neutral” position, stand on a mat, and offer head down from a cue on the lead.
All of these behaviors can be taught from target training and transferred to tactile cues on the lead to avoid learner frustration, but it is very important that the cues transfer from visual to tactile cues as your horse becomes more educated. If they aren’t transferred, you will be limited when you want to begin riding, especially because targets from the saddle throw the horse off balance and badly out of alignment.
Initial teaching of these foundation behaviors should occur in an environment where the horse is totally comfortable and learning is optimal.
- Establish that all of these responses are easy for your horse and can be put together in loops without “extra” behavior creeping in: walk forward – click – back up- click – head down – click, before you move on to rehearsing these behaviors in more challenging environments. (For more information on “loopy training”, check out Alexandra Kurland’s Loopy Training DVD.)
- Expand the context of your horse’s foundation behaviors. Use them in new and ever-widening environments: in the indoor arena, in the outdoor arena, on the road from the barn to the indoor, etc.
- Confirm that you can use the foundation behaviors you have taught your horse to help them balance out emotionally. In the beginning, horse training is essentially energy regulation. Each of the foundation behaviors is there to place your horse in space and offer them an alternative to increasing adrenaline or fear. Being able to help them back away, stand still, move to a mat or lower their head, suggest to them, “Do this for reinforcement rather than just react!”
Once you can use your foundation behaviors to help your horse balance out emotionally, they are safe and ready to move on in the process. This stage of training can take some time, so be patient.
- Choose a discipline.
What do you want to pursue? Now that you and your horse have built a system of communication and you both feel safe working in varied environments, it’s time to move on to new skills.
Whether you want to pursue art form dressage, trail riding, horse agility, or working equitation, there will be a whole new set of component skills to teach your horse. Luckily, your horse will now be comfortable in the arena, or the outdoor arena or at a clinic, so you will be able to get to work on teaching the building blocks of your new discipline. And, if your horse gets worried, you know you have the foundation to go back to to help them calm down.
Is your horse not even under saddle yet? Congrats! It’s time to start with the building blocks for ridden work!
Helping people identify where they are in this progression with their own horses and helping them acquire the skills to teach each individual piece forms the bulk of my work with my students. In my experience, it takes from 2-4 years to learn the entire skill set as a human, but is a much briefer process to teach to a horse once you understand it yourself, six months to two years, depending on the horse.
Where are you in the progression with your own horse? Do you know where you are going next?
Enjoy the journey.
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In the dog world, cooperative care is a concept that is really catching on. There’s an entire “fear free” movement, and a certification for trainers, vets, vet techs and motivated owners. The horse world, though, lags behind the dog world in terms of an awareness of the science of learning and fully understanding the components of animal-friendly practices. Because most of the focus of the fear free movement is on small animals, it’s very satisfying to develop fear free protocols for horses.
My mare, Sistine, a mustang rescued from a kill pen, is the perfect horse for this work,
because of her previous bad handling. Because she is afraid of all traditional handling, she is helping me to develop new ways to approach husbandry and vet care. I don’t know for sure what happened in her earlier life: if she was ever fully tame, if she was tamed well but mistreated later or a little of both. I do know she ended up starving and about to ship for slaughter, so it’s safe to assume there was little to no attention given to her emotional states during training. What that means for us today is that I have a very large mare (easily 1350 lbs) who is afraid of: halters, ropes, basic handling, people and objects. We desperately needed to build a relationship, but I needed to approach it creatively.
For most horse husbandry and vet protocols, the base behavior is “stand still and don’t move.” It sounds easy enough until you are staring down the lead rope at a thousand pound animal who is nervous and doesn’t have the coping skills to self-soothe and stand still at the same time. Fights are born, the chain is tightened over the nose and the horse learns that the vet predicts stress.
The other problem is that “stand still and don’t move” is passive. When your only job is to do nothing, it’s really natural to worry about what everyone else is doing. It enhances fear. It’s far easier to be involved in an active behavior so that your mind has a directed focus separate from the procedure being performed. Make sense?
In order to give Sistine an active focus WHILE standing still, I taught her to touch a jolly ball with her lips for grain. At first she just needed to learn to touch the ball at all, because she was nervous of any objects humans held in their hands. Once she learned to touch the ball with confidence, I taught her to touch the ball continuously, with duration. Once she understood both of those concepts, I went through a few sessions to teach her to do the same behaviors with a ball hanging on a post rather than in my hands. And once she could remain targeted on her ball with duration on the post, I introduced the idea that I would touch HER while she was touching the ball. Below is some short video of our process:
In the above video, you can see Sistine learning to target her ball on a post. You can see by all her extra head movements, and the fact that I need to put my hand on the ball to help cue her, that she has some anxiety about touching the ball in a new context. As the videos progress, you can see these extra movements resolve.
In the above video, you can see me introducing Sistine to the idea that I am going to initiate touch while she targets her ball. The first two repetitions are nice, but you can observe that she hesitates to put her nose back on the ball on the third repetition, and when she does and I touch her, she turns her neck away. I leave my hand out, which is a mistake, I should have taken it away and just clicked her for returning to the ball. Because this repetition was too hard for her and elicited signals of stress and body irritation (lean away, head shake, tail flip), I go back to re-establishing duration at the ball.
The next video is after a few more sessions. You will easily see Sistine is more relaxed, more eager to get to the ball and all the stress behaviors – looking away, waiting awhile to walk back to the ball, tail swishes – have all disappeared. I am able to touch her while she maintains contact with her target. In addition, it’s windy and I have two other trainers observing, normally something that causes Sistine concern. Watch below:
It’s easy to see that by giving Sistine an active focus, she is able to stay quite calm when she would otherwise be afraid. Over time I will be able to listen to her heart, take her temperature, rehearse vaccinations and needle sticks. There’s a process to introducing each novel procedure, but the familiarity of the ball will serve to anchor Sistine in place and provide a sense of safety.
Teaching a nose target/ball target is a fairly simple procedure, even for newer trainers. Considering that a study out of the U.K. found that being a horse veterinarian is more dangerous than even being a firefighter, it would seem logical that we would be looking for new ways to train horses to relax and be less fearful during procedures. With a nose target, the moment Sistine removes her lips from the target, I stop whatever I am doing – brushing, sliding down her neck for a jugular stick, brushing her mane. When she puts her nose back on the ball target, I click and reinforce. In this way, she can say “no” to anything that makes her uncomfortable by just taking her nose off the ball. Rather than run off, kick, or struggle, she can just back up half an inch. And, because I take her at her word, she can relax and go quickly back to her nose target behavior. It keeps emotional spikes low and relaxation high. That is the place where safety lies.
As we move toward the next century, our consciousness about what comprises humane care for animals will continue to evolve. I suspect that in the near future, cooperative care and the fear free movement will move into the mainstream, rather than just the sidelines. Medical care for any species holds the potential to be stressful, painful and scary. With horse’s size compared to ours, restraint isn’t always the smartest or safest choice. Teaching them how to partner in their own care, so they can be as fear free as possible, is the ethical choice for horse and human lives. I am grateful for and to Sistine for being an integral part of helping develop these protocols for everyone.