Are horses innately interested in learning? Would they prefer to eat grass and mooch around all day or do they derive some pleasure from learning a task?
What’s in it for the horse and how can we awaken their curiosity sufficiently to enable the process of learning?
Should we know the answers to these questions or doesn’t it matter? As the controller of our horses is it fair to demand things without payback?
I guess we all like to think that our horses enjoy their training with us but is that a delusional viewpoint and one that we use in a self-serving capacity to justify our ownership and training of horses?
I think that’s enough questions to answer in one blog post, many of you humans won’t even read beyond the opening paragraphs without incentive so I think we can see how hard it is to pique the interest of an equine!
Problem solving isn’t exactly a natural gift for a herbivore like the horse, detecting subtle changes on the horizon and running from them as fast as they can is, however, a very innate behaviour. On the plus side horses are very good at making associations between things and after enough repetition they will consolidate an association such that this learned task will not be forgotten.
If we want to engage our horses in the learning process we first need to offer choice. A problem is potentially resolvable if they have a choice of solutions but not too many choices, ideally only two. Personally I prefer not to reward or punish the ‘undesired’ choice unless it is a danger to the horse or human but instead handsomely reward the ‘desired’ choice.
Make the steps in learning very small; smaller than we (who know what the task requires) can begin to imagine. Take the training of a halt cue as an example. We know that the task requires the horse to stop moving all for feet for a period of at least a few seconds; the horse does not! So praise and reward for the merest thought of engaging the brain to focus on the task would be beneficial as a starting point. As a clicker training the preference is to do this at liberty and just casually ‘pick up’ behaviours as they happen…more on that in a future post. No matter what your choice of training method the breaking it down to crumb size is part of setting up for success, manage your expectations and you will forever be rewarded.
We humans are easily distracted by external stimuli even when the subject we should be studying is relatively interesting.It ‘s all too easy to respond to a sudden stimulus like the offer of a cuppa or the dog barking. Horses are no different but remember they aren’t even that engaged in the learning task to begin with so our ability to pique their curiosity hangs by a thin thread!
So we must create a calm learning environment and in time engage them sufficiently to foster the learning habit.
Breaking down the learning into particle size, creating a calm learning environment and offering clear choice as described are certainly part of the route to success but the greatest addition to these is the creation of winners! No I haven’t decided to re-enter the world of competition I’m talking of winners in terms of us being able to say ‘YES, you got that right’ to our horses. If, like me, the embarrassment of getting a question wrong has struck you nervously dumb then you’ll understand the importance of being able to say YES. If we stop to consider the particle size of choice and the clarity of the choices on offer then it becomes obvious that to engage our horses in the learning process we must set them up for success, YES must be easy, not hard. Incredibly once a horse has learned the association of YES with a task it begins to blossom and offer behaviours more willingly in answer to new tasks and choices; that’s definitely a win/win situation.
When you next arrive at the field gate to take your horse off on a journey of joyous learning don’t be disappointed that he doesn’t canter over and stuff his head into the head-collar;unless that’s one of his learned behaviours of course. Horses can and do learn, innately governed or acquired does it matter? For me the bottom line is that my horses feel safe with me and the stimulating environment that I put them into, if they have a heightened sense of pleasure because of this process then that’s even better!