I love Temple Grandin.
I recently finished reading “The Way I See It: A personal look at Autism and Asperger’s,” which I really, really enjoyed. It’s a collection of a bunch of short articles she’s written over the years for various publications. It was just very interesting getting an insight into how differently some people interpret the world.
It deals with Autism and Asperger’s. However, a lot of the concepts she talks about are also incredibly practical for working with animals (or for working with any person). One point she talks about over and over again is finding the root of the behavior BEFORE punishing or scolding the individual. (For instance, an autistic child who screams during class could be having sensory overload from the flashing florescent lights. In this case, you have a child in pain, and punishing the behavior would be foolish and probably just make it worse.) I find people often discipline animals without considering why the animal is acting that way or if the animal even understands how it is suppose to behave. I think we as humans often too quickly resort to scolding and punishing, without first searching for the root cause of the behavior.
For example many people become angry and frustrated if their horse starts refusing to take the bit when being bridled. Too often, the solution for many people is to get angry at the horse and then to shove your finger into the corner of his mouth until he becomes annoyed enough that he opens wide enough for you to force the bit in.
However, shouldn’t we first figure out why the horse is refusing the bit?
Sometimes, it could be a pain issue. The bit is too tight and pinching the horse, the rider is being too rough and banging the horse’s teeth while bridling, the horse hasn’t had dental work in a long time and is sore in the mouth, or any other pain related issue.
Or, if the horse knows he’s being bridled in order to do work he doesn’t like, he could become sour about the bit as well. I wouldn’t want a bit shoved in my mouth either if I knew I was just going to have some rider get on who was going to yank me in the mouth or force me to do something I didn’t want to. Horses are good at making associations and knowing what comes next. Is the horse anticipating something unpleasant when you start tacking up?
Also, some horses can become quite sour about taking the bit in the winter—this is often because we humans don’t think to warm up the bit. I wouldn’t want an ice cold chunk of metal stuck in my mouth either!
For horses that are hesitant or unsure about being bridled, food is a great motivator for teaching a horse to accept the bit nicely. (You can’t expect a horse to take the bit nicely when being bridled if you’ve never taught him how!) Honey or molasses can be dribbled over the bit. I even know people who will wrap a fruit roll-up around the bit! Once the bit tastes yummy, the horse has more motivation to take it.
When we consider the animal’s perspective and how they might see the things we sometimes force upon them, it becomes easier to see why the animal is actually acting “bad.”
For more about motivation, see this article which discusses positive and negative reinforcement.