Monday, April 04, 2011

Is Your Horse Learning Disabled or Just Disenfranchised?

ears ago, back when learning-disabled and emotionally-disturbed kids were my stock-in-trade, my daughter was given a horse with…uh…”training issues”.  It didn’t help that the story that came with the five-year-old TB mare was missing a few cogent details, like that she’d never actually been saddle-broke, but as time went by it became obvious that the mare had one or two misfiring cylinders.  

With great glee at having an excuse to do so, I called a psychic (that would be my friend—real and Facebook—Ginny Palmieri) who informed me that Dolly was a SpEd horse.  This awesomest of animal communicators explained that we needed to treat the horse as if she were one of my students because she had a raging case of ADD.  In a trice (that’s the time span that comes after the doubled-over laughing part), I made the suggestion to my daughter (no mention of psychic intervention at that point as she was already referring to me as “Weirdo Magnet” in the loving way daughters will) that the horse might learn to make a circle, which till then had been more of a loopy-meander kind of thing, into an actual round shape if only Jess made the concept concrete by putting a cone in the middle.  Thereafter followed some truly intriguing training episodes as the circle-center cone gave birth to jump-line cones and center-line cones and stop-cones and go-cones, and learning went on at top speed.  It didn’t stop the mare from having odd, terror-filled moments in the pasture when she would round up the herd and make them run laps to escape from something only she could see, but under saddle she was quite the nearly-normal horse. 

Honestly, I would never have bought into the idea that my students had any more in common with my horses than the ability to ignore my instructions.  What a revelation it was to watch Dolly go from confused sluggard to winning show horse with just a little change of approach.  

If you aren’t wondering if there’s actual scientist-induced research to back up my wild musings, you should be, and there is.  Naturally most of the research involves mice.  In fact, all of it does.  They’re a lot easier to pick up and stick in a maze and paste electrodes on, so they tend to be the bottom line for most studies.  I spent four happy years poking at mice in the “Rat Lab” at my college to earn my psych degree.  The college was happy to spring for hundreds of rodents each semester where hundreds of horses might have been over budget.  

Still, there is no mention of equine studies in this realm, so I will leave the conclusion in limbo.  Having seen what I have seen, I find it difficult to say there’s no basis for this idea.  Equine intelligence research is still in its infancy, with recent studies focusing more on learning ability, memory, color discrimination and other rudimentary learning theory basics than disability.  My advice is to keep an open mind.  If a brain can be damaged, it will be.  If genetics can run foul, they will.  If you have a horse that seems to have a mental blockade against what you’re trying to teach him, it may not be stubbornness (on either side of the clicker) or bad attitude.  It could be that he’s just not quite average in information processing or some other aspect of learning.  Don’t beat him or chain him to a cot in the attic like that weird uncle your mother told you about.  Try a new approach.  

Concrete is always best when you are working with a horse.  Given that English (or whatever Human tongue you practice) is a second language for him, pictures and examples will have more impact than yelling and screaming.  When he hears, “Blah BLAH blahblahblah cookie? Blah blah blah DAMNYOU! Blah”, he isn’t going to learn much.  When you show him what you want, even if it means gentle use of mechanical devices like side reins or dragging him behind you over cross-rails, and give him time to absorb the concept, you’re on safer ground.  

Always remember that no learning can happen without mistakes.  If he does the Samba once on command, it could have been an accident.  If he does it twice, it could be coincidence.  When, on the third try, he switches to Cotton-Eyed Joe, you can correct him and let him know that the Samba is what you wanted.  And thus, Learning happens!

The Disenfranchised Horse
[and a plug for someone other than me]

Go forth and remediate!  

But while you’re investigating the possibility that your equine buddy rides the short trailer, consider another variable.  Have you taken away his voice?  Not the one that screams to his femme du jour while you’re asking for a shoulder-in.  The one that tells you openly and honestly that whatever you’ve asked for is not his cup of tea.  The one that shouts opinion after opinion, confusion upon confusion, and fear upon fear which you studiously ignore.  That voice.
"Hello!  Can you hear me?"

I’m sure like all of us you were taught that you’re in charge and it’s up to you to make the horse do whatever it is that’s required for whichever discipline you’ve chosen.  When he doesn’t measure up, you add a smidge of force or a lot of four-letter descriptions of his ability level.  But according to three excellent books I recently read, taking that voice away leads to a loss of confidence—yours in the horse, his in you, and his in himself—that spells disaster for training.

The books are Empowered Horses by Imke Spilker (Trafalgar Square, 2008), What Every Horse Should Know by Cherry Hill (Storey, 2011), and The Horse Seeks Me by Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling (Cadmos, 2010).  Regular readers know I don’t make a habit of recommending other authors’ books, so you can take this to the bank:  Buy these books!
A chapter from the Cherry Hill book was reprinted in one of the horse mags, and that’s what got me thinking.  The chapter was on the subject of “Attitude and Attention”.  It might as well have been titled “How to Repair the Damage You’ve Done” and could have mentioned Zip and me by name.  The Sour Horse can so easily tell his trainer what the problem is if only the trainer would shut up and listen.  Searching for more approaches to the same situation, I ordered the other two books.  If you already have Horses Behavin’ Badly by the McCalls, the four together are all you need for a training library that will sort you out and relieve your horse of his owner-induced learning disability.

The awesome part (for me—and that’s not the good “awesome”) is that I’d read the McCall’s book and thoroughly got that convincing a horse that you’re an idiot is easy to do and hard to fix.  I thought I was doing okay.  Shit happens.  I screwed up, and the unscrewing is going to take some effort and patience on my part and a leap of faith from Zips Gotyournumber.  I did, by the way, enlist communicator Ginny’s aid again on this one, and she found the usually laid-back horse to be in such confusion even she couldn’t translate his questions.  That’s some major screwage!

You don’t have to abdicate your position of seniority to hear your horse.  You need to be a tad humble.  That’s hard for humans.  We don’t do humble well.  Today I started humbling myself, and I must say I feel better.  So does Zip.  We shared a Diet Sierra Mist to celebrate.  If this goes according to plan and along Zip’s and my normal learning curve, by 2028, we’ll be back in the groove.  

I can hardly wait!

But there's a very good chance that the groove we'll be in won't be the one I've been aiming for.  This time around Zip gets a say.  Some horses have "cow sense" and are great at roping and team penning.  Some have very level heads and lots of enthusiasm and are great for dressage.  Some are quiet and unassuming and make great lesson ponies.  Zip is none of the above, but he's awesome at Zip-ness, so that's where we'll start.  


Anonymous said...

Very good post - it's amazing what horses can tell you if you just take the time to listen.

Liked the book recommendations too.

I'm a big fan of using cones - they're helpful for horse and human concentration. I've got one horse who could charitably be described as a "slow learner" - she had trouble learning and didn't retain things well, and had a "fussy" personality to boot. I made some progress with her, but always found working with her frustrating - I just never managed to find the best ways of working with her although I listened to her plenty. She's now retired and enjoying grazing full time.

Joanne Friedman, Freelance Writer, ASEA Certified Equine Appraiser, Owner Gallant Hope Farm said...

Kate, I am right there with you! In my case, Zip appeared to be such a fast learner that I overlooked his loose screws until it was too late. The "fussy personality" definitely resonates! ;)