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© 2007 Cherry Hill © Copyright Information
How Horses Learn
Whether or not there is action, there is always behavior. A sullen horse, rigid and unyielding, is behaving just as much as the wildly pulling one. Behavior that is repeated becomes habit, even though it was not formally designed as a lesson. Horses are constantly learning as a result of the environment and their handling - in spite of or because of human intentions.
Although horses are not ranked very highly as problem solvers, they are respected for their keen power of association and adaptability. The horse's strong power of association (ability to link a stimulus with a response) is what allows them to learn. Aided by a memory said to be second only to an elephant's, the horse rarely forgets his lessons....good or bad. Once a horse has learned a particular behavior, and is confident about the order of events, he begins to anticipate incidents before they happen. This is evident in horses that cooperatively pick up a hoof as soon as you or your farrier stands near a particular leg. Unfortunately, anticipation works against us a good share of the time. A horse that once reared, broke a halter, and escaped when its leg was extended forward on a hoof stand, will likely be ready to replay the scenario each time his leg is drawn forward. That's why, as in other facets of horse training, it is essential to plan ahead to make positive associations with farrier work and avoid mishaps.
Modeling or mimicking the behavior of other horses takes place in herds as well as during formal training sessions. Young horses that observe successful shoeing sessions are less likely to be alarmed by the process when it is their turn.
Trainers use the principles of habituation or flooding when they want a horse to accept a certain procedure or object without fear. "Gentling" or "sacking out" a horse to farrier equipment and procedures is a way of gradually diminishing his apprehensions about and response to an object by repeated exposure.
When a horse behaves consistently with our desires, we want to encourage him to repeat such behavior in the future, so we need to reinforce that behavior. When his behavior is undesirable, we discourage the behavior and show him the way we want him to act. Then we positively reinforce the new behavior.
Whether we use positive or negative reinforcers, they should be immediate, consistent, appropriate and brief. A good horseman is an objective observer, only describing actual behaviors, not interpretations of a horse's actions. Saying things like "He was a real pig" is colorful but what really happened?
For sake of discussion, we can effect behavior modification in four ways: positive reinforcement, punishment, negative reinforcement, and extinction. In real life, these methods are often involved in combination.
Rewarding a horse for good behavior by giving him something pleasant following a desirable behavior is positive reinforcement. This encourages the horse to repeat the behavior in the future. Although not handy for routine training situations, giving a horse a treat is an example of reward. Letting a horse rest when he has been behaving well is also positive reinforcement. If a horse has held up his foot for 30 seconds and you give him a rest, you have rewarded him. However, if a horse pulls his foot away and you let him rest, you have rewarded an unwanted behavior so you need to pick it right back up again. Horses also easily learn to appreciate a kind word or a scratch on the withers as a reward.
When we administer something unpleasant to a horse to discourage a certain behavior, we are punishing him. Sometimes all that is necessary is a verbal reprimand, but often, physical discipline, such as a loud clap on his shoulder or a sharp tug on the halter, is needed to make a lasting impression on a horse.
If a horse refuses to stand still for hoof care or shoeing and is dangerous to work on while tied, in the interest of your own safety and your farrier's, have someone experienced hold the horse until the horse has learned to stand tied. The handler's job is to keep the horse alert and to know if, when and how strongly to correct the horse.
With a persistently tough horse, and only if you know what you are doing, you can use a chain over the horse's nose, so that if the horse tries to pull its foot away or move on top of the person working on his hooves, the optimum amount of pressure can be instantly applied on the chain as punishment. The time for the horse to be first introduced to the feel of the chain though, is not when someone is under him. Also the chain must be set up so it releases pressure when the horse is not misbehaving, otherwise the horse receives continual punishment and has no incentive to learn cooperation. As the handler disciplines the horse with the chain, he or she should couple the physical punishment with distinct body language and a quiet voice command such as "Stand". This will allow the horse to connect punishment with the less forceful aids so that eventually he will comply with the use of normal voice and body language. (See Horse Handling and Grooming and Horse Health Care for detailed instructions on use of a chain, holding your horse for a farrier, tying, and hoof care skills.)
Removing a negative stimulus once a horse has performed a desired behavior is termed negative reinforcement. When teaching a young horse to move over while tied, you teach him to move away from pressure on his ribs. Using a finger or other object, you press the horse in the ribs until he takes a step sideways. His incentive to cooperate is the immediate removal of the negative stimulus when he complies. Each time it takes less to get the horse to move sideways. Soon just light fingertip pressure or a voice command will get him in motion. He has been trained by negative reinforcement. This is the same way a horse learns to pick up his foot.
Extinction is the removal of something pleasant to discourage the behavior it follows. The horse that has repeatedly struggled and pulled its foot away has received something pleasant (freedom) as a result of his undesirable behavior (fighting). In order to discourage fighting in the future, the horse must not be allowed to gain its freedom. A foal can be restrained manually, but older horses may well need formal lessons in mechanical restraint with a front leg strap or a scotch hobble. The application of leg restraint is not for the inexperienced - when using restraint, the horse's undesirable behavior might first get worse (pulling, scrambling, or falling down) before it gets better. Understandably, this is when many people would give in, but it is precisely the wrong time to do so as the intensification is a sign that the horse is about to give in and the behavior is about to disappear. In other words, a light bulb goes on.
A horse learns some lessons all at once while others take time to sink in. Once a horse has a pretty strong notion what a particular set of aids is requesting, you want to begin to ask for gradual improvement in form. This is called shaping or reinforcing successive approximations to a desired behavior. This is especially important to keep in mind when working with young horses.
Using standing still on three legs for five minutes as the goal, keep these principles in mind as you proceed with the young or inexperienced horse.
By presenting all of this behavior and training information, I encourage you to be knowledgeable, open minded and communicative with your farrier. Learn what you and your horse need to work on. Then do it.
© 2007 Cherry Hill © Copyright Information