"Try" and re-teaching a horse heart - The Horse Forum
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post #1 of 54 Old 10-18-2014, 08:02 AM Thread Starter
Green Broke
Join Date: May 2009
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"Try" and re-teaching a horse heart

Random thoughts, but I can't be the only one, right? Behavior folks?

I know a lot of people like a horse with a lot of "try" or a lot of "heart" in him/her. IE, a horse that will keep working for you, even if things aren't exactly going according to plan or going perfectly and are difficult. Sometimes that difficulty is on the horse end, sometimes the rider end, and sometimes it's just a tough situation, like a stream with muddy banks, uncertain footing, and no good way to get around except by going through. Some of this could even fall under the category of bravery, I suppose.

I think that poor training stamps a lot of try and heart out of a lot of good horses. I see it in dogs too. Poor training can ruin an animal's willingness to work all too easily.

My horse was initially broke to ride by some random traditional horse-trainer in South TX. He was just another late-gelded untrained 4 year old that needed to be under saddle to be at all marketable. I don't think his training was overly harsh or in any way unusual or different from what many horses get. He got the basics. He was reprimanded when he did something wrong, and not reprimanded when he did the right thing. He's a little sensitive compared to some, but not as sensitive as others, so all in all, everything was fairly normal.

I got a horse that was terrified of doing the wrong thing though. Things he knew were right, he would do quickly and willingly, johhny-on-the-spot. Ask him something he didn't know the pat response to though (like to sidle up to a gate), and he'd get tense. He'd throw his head up in the air and either try to run off like a giraffe or try to pretend he couldn't 'hear' you at all and figuratively stuff his fingers in his ears. I think those are pretty familiar responses and things we see commonly in green horses or horses with less than perfect training.

He was so scared of the punishment for being 'wrong' that he refused to try. Flight, fight, or freeze kicked in. He didn't want to offer any behaviors or attempts to figure out what I wanted because he knew, from his previous training, that if they weren't the 'right' ones, he would be reprimanded. It's tough, and not entirely safe, to train a horse that is so scared of being wrong that his entire existence under saddle is in a state of anxiety. Fear is dangerous.

I spent the first year un-training that previous life experience. Teaching an animal that they will NOT be punished for trying to do what I want, even if their response is wrong to start with, is a slow process that can be very frustrating. The biggest hurdle is getting through to them that it is okay to try. Getting them to learn that trying, by its very self, will actually be rewarded rather than reprimanded, is the key. Baby steps. The tiniest baby steps ever. The least 'try' they will give you has to be rewarded to start. Once you have a horse willing to try to give you the right answer, it's too easy to simply guide them to the correct behavior and then only reward them for what it is you actually want.

My horse still gets anxious and worried when he doesn't know the right response or understand the question sometimes, but he lives to please, and I now have a horse that will try and try and try. He has a heart as big as TX and is utterly fearless about figuring out what crazy thing it is I want this time. Even when it goes against his natural instincts, he knows that so long as he keeps trying, he will be rewarded, and that there is no punishment for not getting it right on the first (or the fiftieth) try. Having a horse that trusts he will eventually figure out the right answer no matter how nutty the situation I've put him in seems (to him) is priceless. He knows I won't set him up to "lose", and if you can't lose, you can be a very, very brave pony indeed.

That is how my spooky green gelding became a horsie good citizen and will face all sorts of monsters (real and imaginary) and challenges just because he's asked to. Maybe it's sappy, but his "try" is my favorite thing about this horse, even though he didn't have any to begin with. Cookies if you stuck with it all.
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post #2 of 54 Old 10-18-2014, 08:13 AM
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Lovely post.

I agree the key is setting them up for success from the start, and breaking everything down into the smallest increments. Then rewarding for the smallest try. When you start slow, and correct the process ends up going faster in the long run.
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post #3 of 54 Old 10-18-2014, 11:02 AM
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Trooper had been viciously spurred by some cowboy while loaned to a ranch in Colorado just before coming to us. He spent at least a year on the "You Can Do No Wrong" program, but he still worries more about getting it right. I've read that in experiments, when the horse is punished for the wrong choice, it learns faster - but at a cost. The horse then becomes more afraid of getting it wrong, and can become very hesitant. It worries more about not being wrong than being able to make a good choice. If the horse was then presented with a close call, the horse would become almost immobile. It would be too worried about being wrong to make ANY choice.
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Riders ask "How?" Horsemen ask "Why?"
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post #4 of 54 Old 10-18-2014, 12:29 PM
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That is really interesting. you have been so perceptive and patient . thank you for writing down your observations. well written.
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post #5 of 54 Old 10-18-2014, 01:22 PM
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I couldn't agree more. My gelding never got a good education. From the moment he hit the ground until he was rescued he'd been beaten, thrown around and when he turned two taken to a show and nearly beat to death with a club for not running fast enough. Through years, YEARS of work we've gotten a nice gelding who positively enjoys his job. I'm constantly amazed that he throws his heart into doing whatever I ask. I can ask something that's unfair for him and he still tries his hardest to do as I ask.

Then I look at my stud colt who has always known kindness and patience and he throws his entire being into understanding and cooperating. I can ask the largest thing of him and he goes above and beyond to accomplish it. Seeing the difference between the two and the time makes me want to horsewhip the previous owner of my gelding. >:(

Excellent post! I loved reading it!
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post #6 of 54 Old 10-18-2014, 02:29 PM Thread Starter
Green Broke
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Thank you for your kind words, but a large part of it is I was darned lucky to get the horse I did.

Sometimes I worry that he believes me too much, and I have to be smart and not betray his trust because if I tell him to go ahead and do something (go down that steep hill, into the river, whatever) he will... usually after double checking and making *sure* I really mean *that* hill, right there. A few times that has been a bad call on my part and it was only his natural instincts and athleticism that saved both our hides. There is a time, IMO, to give a horse his head and just hang on and rely on the fact that they don't want to die either. "Saving humans from themselves" is a horse job description, right? Definitely one deserving heavy praise.

I can never believe how forgiving of past mistakes horses can be. There is a reason they're so close in the hearts and minds and legends of so many cultures. It just kills me that its so easy for that to get shut down in some animals through, essentially, poor timing. The best trainers have such a sense of timing when to give that reward or release of pressure that it's like watching a magician. They seldom need to 'punish' a horse for trying out a wrong behavior because they make the right thing so easy and obvious that it doesn't get to that point. I love watching trainers or riders like that work.
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post #7 of 54 Old 10-18-2014, 02:31 PM
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oh, so well said!

it does seem like magic.
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post #8 of 54 Old 10-18-2014, 02:48 PM
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I agree with gsw5 on working in small increments. I had one that would display his anger with anything knew. Once I broke it down to small increments he'd one day put it together then excel at what I was asking. It just had to be done his way.

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post #9 of 54 Old 10-18-2014, 04:57 PM
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I so agree with this.
Its what I see as the difference between a horse that works willingly because its been trained correctly and one that works begrudgingly because its been forced and pressured and punished every inch of the way
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post #10 of 54 Old 10-18-2014, 05:51 PM
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Originally Posted by Sharpie View Post
Thank you for your kind words, but a large part of it is I was darned lucky to get the horse I did.
Disagree with you on this!

You made the horse the confident animal he is now. Unless you had understood and changed his mental attitude he would still be afraid to try.

Well done, excellent post.
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