Friday, February 12, 2016

Horse Mistakes

Continuing in the theme of mistakes of the rider or horse, your horse also needs to be comfortable making mistakes when trying new things.  Some horses are totally good with this from the get go.  They can be green, asked for something with an aid that is totally unfamiliar, and they will be calm and either ignore the aid or try to figure out what the rider wants.  They never worry too much about anything and are the equine equivalent of my husband.  These horses are known as "good eggs" and tend to be not super reactive, easy to deal with in new situations, and quickly become child or school horses to be treasured.  Then there is the other kind of horse.  You know, the one that is super fancy, but...

This kind of horse is reactive, sensitive to all sorts of stimuli, and worries a lot about being "wrong" and getting in trouble.  This is the type of horse you get going ok on the basic three gaits and want to add in something like turn on the forehand and it takes a month to get it down.  Seriously.  This horse won't like being put between the leg and the hand or the inside aids and the outside aids.  It takes a much longer time to convince this horse that even if he doesn't know what you want or the aids are slightly uncomfortable everything will be ok.  This happens by having the horse's trust.  This trust is built brick by brick, patiently breaking exercises down step by step, making sure your biomechanics are sound, and never punishing for an incorrect response.  Repeat, never punishing for a wrong response.

So, I can hear you asking, "If I don't punish how can I get the response I want?"  This is the training dilemma and the answer is positive reinforcement.  In the beginning of any new skill any step, no matter how small, toward the desired outcome is praised and the exercise not repeated that training session.  Then each session you ask for a little more of the new exercise.  Over several sessions you get a better and better version of the exercise.  This is the positive reinforcement.  By asking for something in a limited way, praising small improvement, and moving on you are telling the horse he did well and all is good.  

On the other hand, if the desired outcome did not happen in any way, shape, or form, the rider asks a maximum of three times and if nothing close happens the rider moves on to something else.  No praise, no punishment, no break, just calmly moving on to a known skill.  Afterwards the rider needs to think through why the desired outcome/ new skill is not happening.  Are the building blocks of skill in place?  Are the biomechanics correct?  Does the horse need an easier version of this exercise, say a walking turn on the forehand as opposed to a stationary version?  The rider then makes a plan and gives it a whirl the next training session.  Repeat indefinitely.

This leads to a horse, over time, that trusts the rider when things are not clear.  The horse knows he will not be over faced when something new comes up because he never gets punished.  The irony in all of this is that a lot of horse DO get punished when learning new exercises because the rider repeats the unsuccessful exercise over and over which is a form of punishment.  This makes the horse frustrated and tense and you can pretty much guess how that will all pan out.  If you can't get it in three tries move on, regroup after the ride, and make a plan for the next day.  Really.

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