I believe there are no bad horses, just horses with bad training.
I am often approached by owners whose horses have an array of behavioral problems. Some buck, others rear, still others bite, kick, weave, crib and head shake. All of these owners want to know what caused their good horse to go bad.
When the horse displays these potentially dangerous behaviors, the owner invariably asks what the heck happened. Was it the horse, was it someone else’s training, was it the horse’s environment, is there something physically wrong? They wonder if their horse could be fixed, changed, and rehabilitated back to the green zone. Each time I answer with a resounding YES!
No horse is beyond rehabilitation.
By using proper training techniques, good observational skills, and thorough physical exams, all bad or conflicted behavior in a horse can be identified and changed. If you have read my articles, you know I use a method called OEPA (Observe/Evaluate/Plan/Act) to determine what may have caused the horse to develop this conflicted behavior. My Five Elements of Connective Horsemanship show you how to act on what you have observed.
How Do We Get Rid of This Conflicted Behavior?
As trainers, the ‘deletion’ is an important tool used as a way of stopping and changing an incorrect response to a cue. The horse cannot determine by using reasoning if their response to the cue was correct or incorrect. So we are obligated to design our language, our cues, in a simple, clear manner. In this horse/rider language, there are cues that tell the horse what you want (for example, go and stop) and cues/actions that tell the horse that the response was incorrect.
The Deletion Cue
The deletion cue extinguishes incorrect behavior, so that the horse no longer displays that incorrect response and doesn’t “store it” in his mind. Think of ‘deletion’ as the backspace key on your computer keyboard. When you are typing a letter and make a mistake, you backspace and correct the misspelled word. The same technique applies to the horse. By using ‘deletion’ you prevent the horse from making a habit of the wrong response. Responses like tension and aggression can also be changed by using this simple and clear language of request and deletion.
How Do I Delete?
To delete the unwanted behavior, you must immediately initiate a downward transition right after it happens. For example, if the horse shows tension at the trot, initiate an immediate downward transition to the walk or even a stop. Then cue the horse to go forward again immediately. There can be no lapse between the downward transition and then asking for the correct response. This simple method is clear, concise and easily understood by both horse and rider. It does not create more fear, tension and aggression, but rather helps the horse understand what you are asking.
Are You Willing to Take Responsibility?
Have you considered that your horse may be confused because you aren’t giving the cues properly? If you think that perhaps the answer may be ‘yes,’ to that question, have a professional assess your riding skills. The horse may not have a clue as to what you want! Taking a lesson or two may help you hone your communication, language and cues. Reviewing my Connective Horsemanship DVDs will also help you understand and execute correct cues. Your horse will undoubtedly appreciate it.
Prevention is Preferable
In almost all training situations the most effective way to avoid negative behaviors is to prevent them from happening in the first place. In speaking with folks who feel their horse has “gone bad,” the most prevalent reason for this “gone bad” situation is the method of training used with the horse. Allowing the horse to exhibit fear, tension, and aggression will only strengthen those negative responses and these behaviors may become habitual. And-—no surprise—the most prominent training method that promotes fear and tension in the horse is round pen training. Round pen lessons tend to build fear in the horse—a fear that he then associates with the human. Bottom line? Don’t train in the round pen!
The Fear Response
If the horse is fearful and you allow him to continue to be fearful, you are strengthening the horse’s fear response. When we properly use deletion techniques, it’s possible that animals can completely forget (and therefore not display) some undesirable behaviors. However, this is not the case with fear.
Joseph le Doux (professor of neuroscience and psychology at New York University and Director of the Center for the Neuroscience of Fear and Anxiety) has proven that fear behavior is exempt from deletion. Interesting! Sadly, this discovery has somehow missed the horse industry.
This is really important to understand: We can use deletion on numerous negative behaviors, but not in the case of fear. And the use of fear-based training has been prolific in the horse industry for years and years. Many horsemen take training techniques for granted, and never question them. For instance, techniques such as lunging and round penning may appear harmless, but in reality hold the long term implications of teaching fear and tension.
Is Deletion for All Horses?
I use deletion on every horse, young or old. Deletion tells the horse that he has made an incorrect response to my cue. By using deletion, the horse can’t practice the incorrect response or make it a habit. Behavioral modification is nothing more than restructuring specific responses to specific cues. In most cases, behavioral problems result from confusing communication, which then leads to incorrect responses. In assessing these responses, be sure to evaluate whether you are the problem in this miscommunication, not the horse. Be honest!
For Instance . . .
Bucking begins as an incorrect response to a go-forward cue. The horse is confused over the request and he displays a fear response, which in this case is bucking. So what do we do? We try to ride it out. Yeehaw . . .
And what does that promote? Riding the bucking horse allows the horse to practice bucking! Each time the horse bucks, he’s perfecting this behavior. It’s not prudent to allow the horse to buck—ultimately you’ll get hurt.
What should you do? Do a downward transition to the stop and then a back-up cue each time the horse begins to buck, and you’ll delete this behavior. Then give the ‘go’ cue immediately, and you’ll recondition the horse to the correct response.
Allowing the horse to buck itself out only hinders the training process by strengthening the bucking response. Delete those negative behaviors and allow those responses you want to become more consolidated.
This is the basis of good horse training: Allow the horse to express the correct behavior and don’t allow him to express the wrong behavior.
21st Century Thinking
The integration of modern psychology and traditional horsemanship has the potential to bridge the language barrier between horse and man. It allows us to further communicate with the horse in an understandable manner, and breaks down those walls that keep us from truly connecting with each other. The use of ‘deletion’ to convey to our horse that he has made an incorrect response will help to clarify this language, and therefore our relationship. It will develop more consistent, long-lasting relationships and has the potential to cause far less conflict between horse and rider. The next time your horse is giving you the wrong response, simply delete that response and try again.
I know you’ll discover that you don’t have a “good horse gone bad,” but rather a confused horse trying to give you the correct response.
As always, be safe and have fun.
For more information on Ryan Gingerich, his Connective Horsemanship program, and how you can improve the way you communicate with your horse, call 800.359.4090.