Does your horse “have to?”

Many traditional training methods rely on force and pressure. The animal has little choice and if the animal does not perform a command, the trainer asserts her leadership and shows the animal who’s the boss. Clicker training and other positive training methods try to give the horse a voice and a choice. I want my horses to be eager to learn and eager to please me, not dragging their heals and performing only to avoid being punished.

I recommend stopping and listening to your horse when your horse says “No.” Try and figure out why the horse is acting this way. Is he confused, frustrated, scared, or in pain? Often when horses don’t “obey” it is only because they don’t understand what the trainer is asking. If so, it’s best to ask in a different way or keep working on training that behavior. Also, forcing a horse who is scared or in pain can really backfire on you in the long run.

However, sometimes things “have to” get done. Your horse has to cross that creek so that you can get back to the barn. Or, he has to get on that trailer so that you can get him to the vet clinic. And so on. We’ve been discussing how to deal with “have to” situations recently on one of the horse clicker lists.

My friend Jane, over at Bookends Farm, wrote a really nice blog post summarizing her own views on this topic. I highly recommend that you check it out. Here’s the link: Do I Have to?

I’ve been thinking about this for the past week and want to share just a few thoughts on this topic.

1. Don’t Wait Until You Get to “Have To”

Sometimes, for medical or safety reasons, we must get something done. The trail horse must stop at the busy intersection so that neither of you gets hit by oncoming traffic. The sick horse must get on the trailer so that you can go to the vet. Don’t wait until you get into these situations to start teaching trailer loading or a reliable woah! Plan, prepare, and anticipate. Spend time practicing and training skills that you know are going to be important later.

2. Assess Your Own Motivations

Jane talks about this in the post I linked to above. Why does the horse “have to” to this? Does the horse have to get on the trailer this afternoon because he’s hurt and needs to go see the vet or because you need to go impress your friends at the local horse show?

When you find yourself saying “must,” or “have to,” or “right now,” think about your own motivations. Do you have the horse’s safety and best interest in mind? What personal motivations are influencing your decision? Understanding your own behavior and motivations will ultimately help you become better a better trainer.

3. Even during “have to,” you still have options

Even when something has to get done, you can still choose how to go about doing it. We had a new foster family come last weekend to pick up two of the mares at our rescue. The mares needed to get on the trailer, but were pretty skeptical about the family’s metal stock trailer, which was very different from the rescue’s trailer. One mare, as well, has a history of bad trailer loading experiences.

We could have used ropes and whips and gotten both horses on the trailer fairly quickly. Instead, we spent about an hour and a half working with both horses with the trailer. The foster family helped some and was incredibly patient about letting us take the time to work with the horses. We had to get the horses loaded, but we chose to go about it slowly and calmly, rather than pushing and forcing.

When “No” is really “Yes”

Here’s one final thought and example about why this topic is so important. Horses are often trying to do right and trying to please us. When a horse says “no” or disobeys, this is often because of miscommunication or lack of communication, rather than the horse purposefully trying to be disobedient.

Here’s a great example from a gal I recently met on facebook named Tamsin.

“The other day on our way home from a hack, my pony stopped and refused to walk on when I asked. Eventually, I worked out that he was telling me to climb aboard. We’re doing a lot of in hand work at the moment as he’s coming back to full fitness. He had stopped next to the post I’d used to mount up as we went out on our hack! If I’d seen that just as him being disobedient, I would have missed a really important moment. That was the first time he’s ever asked me to get on!!”

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