Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Getting the "Should" Out

Duke "should" eat Dillon, but there's no accounting for taste.
I can still see her in my mind’s eye, her face red with frustration, glaring at her young gelding across the barnyard.  “He should know better by now!” she fumes.  The “she” in the picture is yours truly.  The horse’s refusal to walk quietly on the lead was the behavior in question.  The statement was pure idiocy.  Zip was three and had been handled, by me,  since birth, and after such a long training period, one would have thought he’d have learned not to pull the lead out of my hands.  I was furious.  He was laughing.

He would have known better if I’d taught him better.  I would have known better if I’d paid closer attention to his body language and the setting around us.  The point is, we were two animals capable of learning and capable of teaching but unclear in our goals and bound up by expectations.

If there’s anything that contributes more to abuse and frustration in the world of horse and rider training, it’s the word should.  He should be more forward, walk freely, stop standing on my foot, not mug strangers for treats, avoid beating up the older horses in the pasture.  I should be thinner, smarter, more balanced, confident that my horse won’t try to kill me.  But without  some sort of direction, no horse or rider will reach any goal except by chance. 

All animals learn in basically the same way.  We do something, watch what happens, and if there’s a reward, we do that thing again some other time.  If there is no reward, we may or may not repeat the behavior.  If the result is negative, we are still likely to repeat the behavior because most of us aren’t sure that we see a connection between what we just did and what happened.  The first time you call your horse in the pasture, and he ignores you, you call again.  And again.  You may not make the connection between his refusal to come to you and the fact that you left him sore or frustrated the day before.  He should come to you.  That’s your expectation. 

In turn, the first time your horse refuses to come to you in the pasture, and you call again and again, he may or may not make the connection between his decision to ignore you and the anger that he can hear brewing in your voice.  You should know that he’s not interested in being worked today.  You saw him flinch when you brushed him yesterday after your ride, so you should know that he was a little sore.

What’s lacking in this simplistic scenario is real communication.  You’re both communicating, but neither of you is doing so clearly enough or in the right medium to allow the other to understand. 

If we take the should out of that scene, we also remove the frustration.  We have the opportunity, then, when our expectations are more realistic, to assess the behavior and determine how best to modify it. 

The term behavior modification is familiar as it is used regularly in educational and therapeutic settings.  Training is both educational and therapeutic.  In order to modify behavior it is necessary to figure out exactly what the behavior is.  That’s not as simple as it sounds.  Zip running through the lead had at its root his essential being.  He happens to be a horse with a sense of humor.  The first time he ran through the lead he did so because he wanted to go out with his herd mates, not work with me.  He didn’t actually win that battle as he was still stuck in the ring and still had to work, but he did earn a short period of pure humor as I followed him around trying to catch the end of the lead.  He never moved farther than lead-rope distance away, which was a dead giveaway that there was something more going on than an attempted escape.  Had I been paying attention instead of “should-ing”, I’d have seen that.  Instead the behavior  became a game that was repeated ad nauseum until I caught on and ended it. 

Rider training works the same way.  A trainer shouting down a student who can’t remember diagonals or who persists in bumping the horse in the mouth with hands that are too busy isn’t teaching that student anything.  Get rid of the should, and among them the student and the trainer and the horse may be able to determine the cause of the problem and find a solution.  There is always a cause. 

This advice is doubly important for rescued or recently-acquired horses.  That a horse has survived to the ripe age of, say, 14 years, doesn't mean he's at the same training level as the other 14-year-old horses you've known.  To assume that your new BEFF (Best Equine Forever Friend) is being stubborn or has residual issues from prior mishandling, real or imagined, is to ignore who the animal truly is and where you need to begin with his training.  Training is ongoing, for you and for Sparkys Misdemeanor.  You say "Whoa!", he says "Wha...?" and walks through the lead.  Could be misbehavior but it's just as likely missed communication because he speaks Natural Horsemanship or was raised in a foreign land (like Pennsylvania or Texas) and just doesn't understand your cue.  It never hurts to start from scratch.  Never.

There is one area where should is a very important concept, however, so let's not ignore that.  If you are dealing with a horse, old or new, and there is common horse behavior that you expect him to exhibit which he is not exhibiting, that may be cause for a call to the vet or to a horse professional of some other ilk.  Horses should eat.  They should drink.  They should like to amble around the pasture and nap in the sun.  They should look worried when something new appears in their comfort zone.  If Sparky is missing any of these behaviors, then concern is valid and calls should be made.

One final caveat:  There may not always be a successful solution.  If you approach each training situation with an open mind and a willingness to work with the horse toward a compromise and recognize (and admit--that's the hard part) that you share the problem equally, that’s as successful as most of us will ever hope to be.


Crowzma said...

this SHOULD be published ... save this one for your next book.

Suzanne Clothier said...

Outstanding! Whether horse or dog or man or parrot or... a must-read for anyone interested in getting it right with Others (whatever the species!)

Amy Shojai said...

A behaviorist colleague posted this link. I don't do horses (love them! just don't have the opportunity...yet) but deal with cat/dog behavior. This is a must-read for anyone dealing with any animal behavior/training issue (human, canine, feline, equine...) Bravo! And thanks.