Wednesday, June 19, 2013

conventional wisdom and an unconventional horse

I was taught a couple of key truths about horses:

1. Being prey animals, horses are programmed to flee danger. They tend to run first, ask questions later. We cannot change or eliminate this instinct, but we can a) teach the horse how and where to move away, and b) change his definition of "danger."

2. Horses are, essentially, lazy creatures strongly motivated by comfort. Though they initially push against physical pressure, their desire to move away from mental or emotional pressure means we can teach them to move off physical pressure and give them comfort as a reward.

3. Conventional wisdom holds that the best - for some value of "best" - way to train a horse is to make the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy. Comfort - generally in the form of removing a stimuli and/or adding a reward - is the signal to the horse that he's done what was asked.

When I started breaking colts, I used standing still as a reward. And it didn't take long for colts to recognize that the faster/better they responded to a cue, the sooner they could stand still. In the saddle, I used removing pressure as a reward. Again, didn't take most colts long to learn. Even the colts who liked to fidget, the ones who maybe liked to move around, quickly learned that fidgeting meant being asked to work harder and that standing still, quietly and patiently, meant the chance to chill out and maybe get a few scritches, too.

It wasn't all that tricky to make the transition to allowing forward movement in the direction I asked, under the circumstances I chose. Colts that liked to move liked moving forward at a brisk trot and pleasant lope, following my cues and keeping us both happy. Spooky colts could mostly learn to spook in place, or to maybe give a quick lunge forward rather than a spin-and-bolt number.

I thought I was ready to apply the same methods and principles to my first mustang, Gypsy. Only... nothing worked the way I thought it would.

She didn't want to stand still. For her, moving was the release. And there was no possible way to make her work hard enough that standing still would become a reward, because she would have gladly run herself to death first. Years on the range had taught her that survival = moving, and no amount of sensitivity, savvy, or practice I applied could change that.

I settled on an extreme program of advance and retreat. I call it extreme because it took years. YEARS. We regressed and progressed so many times I literally considered just leaving her be on the farm, a perpetually wild mustang in captivity. But after enough times of walking up, walking away, walking up, walking away over and over and over and over and over again, I managed to teach her to tolerate a halter. A saddle. A brush. Me.

(She would still rather move than stand still, so I never tie her. I do everything in the middle of the pasture with her ground tied. EVERYTHING. She knows that she is free to walk away at any time, and she also knows that if she stands still the stimuli will eventually be removed so she might as well just tolerate it until it's over and then she can move away. She trusts me because I don't confine her and because I've learned never to push farther than she can tolerate.)

The thing is, she grew up on the range, was left wild by her first adopters for years until they decided to try training her. When they discovered she didn't react or respond the way domestic horses do, they resorted to increasingly violent and aggressive means of forcing her to do things, until she snapped and they got rid of her.

I was left to piece together her fragile confidence and slowly build some sense of security. I had to accept that there would always be some limits with her, given her background. I taught her to stand still beside me only because being beside me meant that nothing could hurt her, that my circle of influence was safe. This hasn't extended to anyone else because she hasn't really internalized the lessons. She doesn't generalize - just because something is safe and comfortable in one set of parameters doesn't make it so in another. After exhausting myself trying to teach her otherwise, I finally just accepted her boundaries and decided to appreciate how far we've come.

Knowing she was an extreme case, I adopted two more mustangs myself and figured they wouldn't be too hard to train. After all, I had managed with HER, so I could manage any horse.

And Brisa was a breeze. Other than her BLM freezebrand, she behaves like any other friendly, opinionated mare. Conventional "natural" methods mostly worked, especially when I used my experiences with Gypsy to adapt them to a mustang with limited human contact.

But I also had a gelding I named Ranger to train.

Ranger wanted to go and go and go and go. I thought he was being driven by intense fear - and he IS a reactive kind of horse - but compared to Gypsy, who was genuinely terrified, he seemed inconsistent. For a fearful horse, he seemed oddly willing to play with mysterious objects, to investigate, to wander through gates and paddocks, to walk on tarps and plastic and bridges. I thought he was just afraid of people, of me, but even after using all the tools in my metaphorical box of tricks I still couldn't quite break through.

He wouldn't respond consistently to conventional natural methods. Advance and retreat methods worked - but only up to a point. I've tried incorporating clicker training, which has also worked - up to a point. But I've been feeling, all this time, like I'm missing something. Some key to him that would help clarify our communication.

It dawned on me that if moving is his release, then why don't I use that? Why do I keep trying to teach him that the real release is standing still? Or that the real reward is the removal of pressure?

Is he truly spooky, or is he just a horse with a massive forward drive?

I started experimenting with allowing movement as a reward. The catch is that it has to be cued by me. He can't just walk off when he wants, or step aside when he's confused. He has to make an effort, and then I send him away for a circle or two of the round pen. Most trainers I know use a few circles as work, as a way of expending excess energy and refocusing the brain and showing the horse that he hasn't quite got it - whatever "it" is for the moment -  yet and needs to try again. But me? Today I used it as the reward. For Ranger, work = standing still and/or performing whatever exercise I asked for. It would appear that reward = moving.

And the results, so far, have been AMAZING. The little avoidance behaviors that have always driven me batty - the way he purses his lips when his head is touched, or the way he braces his neck before haltering, or the way he rocks back on his haunches for a second every.single.time I ask him to walk forward are slowly dissolving, replaced by genuine effort and eagerness. He likes being invited to trot a couple of circles, and that is - or seems to be - translating into a recognition that work - the work I ask for - isn't as bad as he thought.

For me, this is an opposite approach to anything I've ever been taught, anything I've read. If horses are supposed to be lazy and standing still is supposed to be pleasant and comfortable, it seems counterintuitive to ask for motion as a reward, but for Ranger, it seems to be working.

My problem now is deciphering how this could apply and work from the saddle. How I can build on it to fix all the other little holes I've struggled with so long and so hard.

But right now? Right now I think I've maybe found the key to him.


*knocks wood*

1 comment:

  1. we should chat, because the more I have learned and worked with horses, the more I have come to suspect that the "common wisdom" you start by describing is not so common (and um, ya - -I didn't know you had a blog and am getting caught up).

    my reading list for you would include LTJ's new dressage book, and her Ultimate Horse Problem Solver. And if you ever have an opportunity to do a clinic with Peggy Cummings, DO IT.