As a young girl, I could not wait to run to the barn after school. I would spend hours sitting on the fence or wandering through the pasture as my horse grazed. I felt content grooming or just spending time with her. Riding or working was never the main goal; I wanted to feel connected. At that time in my life, I felt I could communicate with my horse. We did not need words, it was more like a dance - two partners moving fluidly through space, speaking a language all our own.
As I got older, this connectedness began to fade. Could it have been only the imaginings of a young girl, or had I caught a glimpse of hidden potential? It would take a few more years for me to know the answer.
Growing Up with Traditional Training Methods
By the time I was old enough to start making decisions about my horse’s training, my ideas were more so shaped by the people around me than by my own intuition. For instance, I was taught the Dominance Theory - my horse would never “respect” me if I did not prove myself the dominant one - which lead to the belief that every unwanted behavior was a form of disrespect and should not go without punishment.
That is not to say I was taught to outright abuse my horse. No one in my circle was tolerant of hitting, misusing bits or spurs, or implementing equipment that has no purpose other than to inflict pain. However, I started to see holes in the training methods that are still so widely accepted. Was labeling my horses' behavior as bad or disrespectful, without any thought as to why she was exhibiting those behaviors, actually sound knowledge?
I eventually began to question why we consider such behaviors bad or disrespectful. I questioned what respect even means between horse and human. Do horses understand respect in the same way we do? Is it just another case of anthropomorphism?
Projecting Human Behavior
I had not considered that my horse may be pulling away to eat grass because she is hungry due to her not having access twenty-four hours to food. I was blind to the fact that her refusal to load in the trailer was a fear response due to her being kicked by another horse when she was trailered last. It never even occurred to me that she may be moving away from the farrier out of anxiety or undetectable pain.
By projecting human behavior onto my horse I was actually ignoring her communication signals, which can lead to more extreme behaviors such as kicking and biting. It can even create a horse who is shut down emotionally because they know they will never be heard.
Once I began to truly listen to my horse and see her behavior as entirely natural, rather than a personal offense, everything changed - even my training method. I wanted to be her partner, not her puppeteer. I wanted to rediscover the connection we had in my early childhood.
Discovering Positive Reinforcement
My search for a training method that would allow my horse and me to find a deeper connection led me to the discovery of trainers who use positive reinforcement: the addition of something good (i.e. a treat or scratches) when the horse performs a wanted behavior. Positive reinforcement eliminates the use of pressure or punishment in training. I simply invite my horse to perform a task and when she does, I reward her. There are no consequences if she does not do what I have asked.
The first time I read about positive reinforcement and using treat rewards with horses, I felt nervous. All my life I had been told to never give my horses treats because it would lead to aggressive behavior around food. I was desperate for change, though, and many people seemed to be successful.
So, after a little more research, I bought my first book on the subject, The Click That Teaches. This book provides step-by-step instructions on getting started with positive reinforcement using target training.
I began working with my horse using the steps in this book. To my delight, she did not turn into a volatile monster over food rewards. There are some precautions I took beforehand to alleviate her food anxiety, though. Horses are natural foragers and can spend seventeen or more hours a day seeking forage.
Behaviors such as pulling away to eat grass while leading can be due to the anxiety of not having all-day access to a food source. An important change I made was to ensure she and her herd had full access to hay in their otherwise dry lot.
Once we started working with food rewards she no longer exhibited the anxieties she had in the past and, since we have our sessions in a pasture, she knew at any moment she could walk away to forage.
For the first few weeks, she did walk away from sessions fairly frequently. This can be frustrating or even hurtful. I wanted her to want to be with me, but I had made it my goal to stop taking her actions personally. My desire for her to work with me was not as great as my desire for her to know without a doubt that she could say no to anything I was asking her to do.
Tuning Out the "Neigh" Sayers
Of course, other people tried to discourage me by saying I was letting her get away with too much and I would never be able to make her do anything anymore. I had to laugh because that was the whole point. I did not want to make her do anything anymore.
My goal in using positive reinforcement was to give my horse her autonomy. I wanted her to find intrinsic motivation in movement and rediscover what a power-house she truly is. I did not want our training to be about what she could do for me or how she makes me look, that is not a partnership.
I let her walk away without following or enticing her to come back. If she returned in a few minutes interested in resuming, we did. If she did not return, I went about other chores around the barn. This probably sounds bonkers to most horse people; after all, it goes against everything we have been taught about horsemanship, but I believe there are times where radical change is necessary. I could no longer cling tightly to tradition and let my horse go unheard.
Lessons LearnedOne of the most important developments from this journey has been the realization that I do not always need an agenda when I go to the barn. As I let go of the idea that my horse and I always need to be working toward something, I began to spend more downtime with her - wandering through the pasture, stopping to brush her or give her scratches. I was doing the same things I did with her all the time as a child and to my surprise, she seemed to enjoy our time together.
I noticed her following me when she could have been grazing with the rest of the herd or waiting for me when I would stop to look at a plant. It was such a simple act, but my mind was blown. This was the connection I had been longing for.
It wasn’t long before she began to engage with me even more, offering movements we unlocked during a previous play session while out on a walk or unexpectedly presenting movements I have never asked for. After weeks of inviting, but never forcing her to take part, she was actually inviting me to dance with her.
My bright and beautiful girl has undoubtedly taught me more than I have taught her on our journey. She already had all the moves, I just needed to get out of her way so she could show me. I, on the other hand, had a lot to learn about listening and being present. I think that is all our horses ask of us, to show up.
They will meet us there and invite us in deeper and deeper, but we have to let go of everything we think we know and listen to their needs. We have to be mindful of horse people, accepting the radical change our horses are inviting us into.
In case you are interested in learning from trainers who practice positive reinforcement, here are the Instagram accounts of the people who have influenced me - @unbridledgoddess @littlepistolannie @pantherflows @mustandmaddy @thewillingequine - they offer countless resources that will help you on your journey.