I’ve just cancelled one of my classical riding lessons because the client in question has just bought a young horse and it is an exceptionally wet and windy morning. I was always taught that you should ride whatever the weather, particularly if you compete, because the horse has to know that they should knuckle down and do what they are told no matter what is going on. However, that viewpoint, for me, belongs to the old training paradigm. The one based on aversive stimuli, in which conformity and obedience is everything. This old paradigm is the ‘No’ paradigm. The one in which we say don’t do this,  don’t do that, and our attention and focus is always on the ‘wrong’ behaviour so that we can spot it and correct it, whilst we are quiet and ignore all that goes well.

The new training paradigm is the one based on appetitive stimuli. The one in which we look for willing partnership, free choice and enthusiasm. This is the ‘yes’ paradigm. We ask ‘ would you like to do this?’, we say thank you when it is freely given, we are focused on all the tiny tries and are quick to say yes, that’s it!  Thank you!  Well done!

Obviously to say that there is only one or the other is a bit of a false dichotomy, there are of course many shades of grey in between. But I know that my horse training life now (compared to twenty years ago) is very much focused on the ‘yes’ paradigm.

More importantly, I believe that we want to focus on building a relationship with the horses we train that they enjoy, so that they seek out our company, they do not do what we ask through compulsion, but because they find it pleasurable. I want any horse I train to feel good when they see me coming with my riding hat and tack, not avoidant. I learned this lesson best of all from my old mare Geri, who used to refuse to be caught if she thought riding was in the pipeline. Thankfully I was able to turn things around for her, but it was a long, slow, delicate process.

So back to the cancelled lesson. Did I make a heinous mistake, refusing to let my client ride her youngster on a wet and very windy day? Or did I make a decision that was in the best interests of their long term relationship?

Let’s take a moment and think about what aversive stimuli the mare might have encountered, had we brought her to the rather exposed arena to ride.

1. Horses in the field will naturally take shelter from the wind and driving rain by standing by hedges or anything that provides a natural windbreak. They will not normally choose to move head on into the wind (would any of us?!).

2. Gusty wind can make horses very spooky. This is because it effects their ability to hear potential predators, and to identify exactly where they might be. So a horse is much more vulnerable to predation in the wind, and therefore becomes hypervigilent and very reactive.

3. Getting cold and wet is just plain unpleasant. Being in the field is different, you can keep eating to stay warm and you get to choose where you stand.

4. If you are feeling spooky and uptight, chances are your rider will be too. So your herd of two will feel even more vulnerable. To add to that, if you do jump at something that particularly worries you,  you might get a jab in the mouth, or have heels grip your sensitive ribs as your rider fights to stay on.

Ok, so the best of riders will be able to stay calm and relaxed, no matter what,  so point four may not be an issue for them. Beyond that,  we would need to really ladle on the appetitive stimuli in order to find some balance to these aversives.

When a relationship is new, you don’t have much in the way of good credit or ‘money in the bank’. You haven’t had the opportunity to build up trust. The emphasis needs to be on filling that bank with positive experiences. I don’t believe, in the early days, that there is any such thing as ‘chickening out’, or ‘letting the horse get the better of you ‘. You should only be attempting to do things that you are both happy with.

Your focus should be on relaxation, willing cooperation, and thanks (in the form of verbal praise, scratches and food) for good effort. That way you build up the credits, the bank balance.

If you throw an unpleasant experience in to that too soon, for example, attempting to hack out on your own before the horse is ready, or over facing them with a training session that is too physically demanding for their level of fitness, you will not just reduce the amount of credit, you could send yourself into debt. The relationship will have been knocked back before it had had a chance to properly establish itself.

Remember that first impressions last. It is much much harder to rebuild credit after a bad experience in the early days.
However, down the line, when you have built a strong positive relationship, a strong credit history, you will find you can (accidentally!) knock that back and it is far far easier to remedy, there is more willingness to ‘forgive and forget’. In fact, aversive stimuli like bad weather etc may actually appear less aversive, or perhaps not even be noticed at all, because the trust is so strong and the relationship is so positive.

Just because we don’t do something, now, it doesn’t mean we can’t ever do it. But the focus should always be ‘everything in good time’.

Foundations are best built slowly with good attention to detail. After all, without them, even the best built walls will struggle to stand the test of time.

Dr Helen Spence 6th November 2014.

http://www.helenspencehorsesense.co.uk

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