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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  • I had a situation over the summer where we had just gotten a new step-up trailer (our last trailer had a ramp) and although I had spent a week working with all the ponies to familiarize them with the new trailer – during an outing at a fair Minnow decided he really didn't want to get on the trailer to go home.
    During my first few attempts to load him like normal he had drawn a large crowd around the trailer – which just made matters worse because it started to make him very nervous. My family was in a hurry to get home and wanted to push him onto the trailer with a leadrope behind his rump. Knowing that this would make matters worse for my little pony who had come from a “rescue” situation and to this day is still very sensitive – not to mention this isn't really my style of training, I convinced them to give me a little time to work on this in my own way.
    I unpacked Minnow's pedestal from the trailer and placed it in front of the step-up. His pedestal is a place of comfort for him & it makes him feel bigger and more confident. Immediately he was standing on it at the opening of the trailer. I then stood inside with a target stick & encouraged him to touch his nose to it. I kept inching him closer & closer to loading and working on getting him to tune out the chaos that was going on behind him with the crowd and focus on me.
    Eventually I was able to load him while he was calm and relaxed. I spent the next month at home loading him onto the trailer just to eat his dinner/breakfast and hang out in there. He's gotten much better and more comfortable with it now – but every month or so I do a refresher course to remind him it's a safe place to be.
    Sometimes it can be hard in situations like those where you have pressure all around you to “get the pony on the trailer”. It might of been different had it been a life or death vet thing – that I needed him on there, but I'm glad it didn't come to that and I was instead able to deal with the situation in the best way possible for my pony.

    • Hi Kyley,

      Thanks for the comment.

      That is an awesome example and a great way to be thinking creatively. I love that you used his pedestal to help build his confidence.

      Your example is exactly what I was talking about in the post when I said that sometimes we have to get things done, but we can still do them in a way that is compatible with our training philosophy.

      Thanks for sharing and I'm glad that Minnow is more comfortable with the trailer now. :)

      cheers,

      Mary

      • achieve1dream

         You are so creative and smart Kyley!!  Good job being patient with Minnow.  He's lucky to have you.  😀

  • Excellent post Mary and equally applicable to dogs as well!

    • Thanks for the comment, Lisa!

      I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

      cheers,

      Mary

  • Resolutewoman

    Good advice! Often when we're dealing with animals or people, we JUDGE them to be uncooperative. Sometimes it's much more helpful to try to UNDERSTAND why an animal or a person is acting a certain way. Joy

  • So cute!!! Have you seen pics of cats doing yoga? So funny and lovely!!! I'm thinking of getting cat insurance for my beloved one!

  • achieve1dream

    Great post!!!!  And such a fantastic reminder.  I will admit sometimes I let the pressure get to me and resort back to the way I was raised, “forcing” my horse/dogs/etc. to do something.  I'm not abusive about it, but I don't let them make their own choice.  Thank you for this reminder.  :)

    • Making the switch to positive training and positive thinking I think it is very much an ongoing process.

      Even though I'm a clicker trainer now, when I get stuck, I know those old ideas and methods will start popping up in my head. Those old ideas will always be part of our history and memory. But, as we learn more and more ways to do things using positive reinforcement, hopefully we will turn to them less and less often for ideas of how to deal with situations.

      ~Mary

      • achieve1dream

        Exactly!!  When I get stuck and fall back on old methods I always beat myself up about it, but I have to remind myself I can't be perfect and I will make mistakes.  :)  I love clicker and positive training (still working on the positive thinking lol).  Like you said, I'm sure as I learn more and more positive ways to go things I'll stop falling back on old habits.  :)

  • Another great post!