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keeping the horse in the conversation

Maybe dogs and horses aren’t so different

I’m not a big fan of tricks for treats. I was steadfast in my resistance to this with horses through all the “new and improved” training techniques over the decades that heralded food as a “positive training” motivator. That’s good for creating muggers and distracting the horse from what you’re trying to communicate, but not very good at creating lasting understanding with your equine pal.

I’ve never really been a big fan of food bribes with my dogs either. Due to a couple of recent events, I’m digging my heels in deeper here too.

Maybe horse and dog training isn't all that different
Morrie, the puppy monster, giving Remi a roar as he celebrates his conquest.

Curiously, when I tell trainers that Morrie (my seven-month-old pup whose smarts can make him a tough one), is fixated on treats, they say “Yea!”. I say neigh. I’ve learned in working with both horses and dogs, using food as a motivator isn’t very good in the building rapport and a thinking animal department. It’s hard to get the full array of communications working when attention is singularly focused on the treat location.

Don’t misunderstand – I’m not against giving quick and ample rewards for the responses you seek. A scratch in a favorite place, “good boy,” a break with something your horse (or dog) finds great fun or a release are all great ways to offer gratitude for understanding. It’s the food lure that bothers me.

Sure, I get clicker training became the rage and redirection vs. correction is a great sign of the times, but you won’t convince me that treats represent the best way to build a communications bridge.

With horses, you lose that critical aspect of training that creates a team of two minds working together to solve problems. There are many times I’ve welcomed an equine cohort ready, able and willing to get me out of a sticky situation I’ve gotten us into.

With dogs, I’ve found you might gain a happy and groveling companion, but you don’t get a partner that enjoys having a job. Sure, domesticated dogs became so because they learned to please for food as a survival instinct, but like horses, I don’t think most people give them enough credit for having independent minds.

Gatsby was the best assistant horse trainer I ever had (and I still miss him terribly). Of course, he had spent enough time on the city streets before the dog catchers wrangled him that his skin had grown around the collar on his neck. So, he had a pretty strong independent streak and knack for finding (killing) his favorite “treats”. I realized almost immediately with him (he was always the dog obedience class “don’t do” example), the standard obedience school technique of bribing with treats was a bad idea.

Morrie’s now learned to leap for treats (not the plan) and ignore simple commands like “sit” without a visible reward. When I stopped using treats for the pre-agility training class we’re in (I pretend for the teachers he’s getting them always, as I did with Gatsby), his understanding and performance improved dramatically. He loves to train. Getting rid of the treat reward made him more excited about the activity understanding and “good boy” accomplishments.

Remi (my 11-year-old mutt), quickly transformed from the most trusted and obedient dog I had ever known to an unresponsive and aloof brat after spending time with a couple and their Vizsla playing the in park. The Vizsla would only respond to treats. Remi delighted in the daily hour of gorging herself on cheese then decided she wasn’t coming when I called without a bribe in hand. This was a dog I trusted enough to let her off leash in public places with no concern she’d return to my side immediately on request. No more.

I’ve made the argument before that horses aren’t dogs and what works for canine compliance isn’t a good standard for young horse training. I’ve since decided tricks for treats isn’t a good teaching method for any species. Just look at what’s become of the generation of kids who have grown up on the “everyone wins” philosophy.

All that said, I was delighted to watch this video Colleen Kelly shared about a clever dog who set records for understanding and performance – without food bribes.

 

If you have trouble viewing this video here, the direct link is: https://youtu.be/_6479QAJuz8

Young Horse Training Tip #1: Listen to what your horse is trying to tell you

So much is lost when we focus more on telling a horse what to do than what he’s trying to convey. The joy that comes from making a connection can’t be fully expressed in words. There’s that ah-ha moment in young horse training when human and horse understand.

It’s surreal and often sudden. You’ll never find this place if you don’t learn to listen. Often the simplest things can mean the difference between an amazing rapport and grudging compliance – or dangerous resistance.

Young horses usually misbehave because they don’t understand what you want. If you give them a chance to be a part of the conversation, most will get excited about figuring out how to please you. When you’re both in synch – able to predict the others’ needs or thoughts before they are spoken or shown, it’s an incredible feeling that will change the way you approach every young horse you meet in the future.

young horse training tip #1That doesn’t mean blindly following a horse’s lead or caving the moment they push back. True rapport comes from a partnership where you are willing to listen to what your horse is trying to tell you, but are also able (and courageous enough) to know when it’s right to stand your ground.

There’s been an interesting development in recent decades masquerading under the moniker “natural horsemanship” encouraging people (especially novices – very sad) to establish themselves as the “alpha” by aggressively asserting demands on a horse. This often backfires (particularly with true alphas but also timid horses) with either violent responses or lost trust.

Most horses enjoy the opportunity to relax with a leader they believe will keep them safe. You can’t earn that kind of respect and trust by being a dictator. Wild horse watching convictions aside, if you carefully observe the interactions of a domesticated herd, most embrace an alpha that’s kind, confident and often only aggressive when they see another herd member being treated unfairly, or getting cocky and demanding in ways that undermine herd harmony.

Frankly, in my experience, most don’t want (nor ask for) the leader designation – they’re appointed.

I had a farm herd of 10 – 20 horses running on about 30 acres for a number of years. The lead mare (it was almost always a gal) changed almost as much (sometimes more) than the seasons. I even had a yearling filly assume this position. Each former delegate seemed to enjoy the break, although took their turn periodically.

This whole idea of equine domination by intimidation seems wrong-minded, particularly given how most lead mares assume the position in a farm herd.

Sure, there are the violent, domineering, selfish horses that demand they drink first, eat first, have a single shelter area to themselves (until a true alpha says no with non-aggressive confidence) and be first, but most of the time, this behavior is fear-based. They’re not leaders. These horses are masking huge insecurities with bravado.

I’ve found the same holds true with people who subscribe to a philosophy that that best way to reach a horse’s mind is to forcefully control his body.

These people have considerable monetary successes to brag about (and huge marketing machines to promote their status claims). They are adept and artful at getting horses to do what they want.

The problem is what they don’t tell you: even with a domineering approach (not my preference), they’re adjusting what they do based on what they’re reading from the horse in real time. There’s also the issue of the horse checking out.

It’s very sad to see so many novices and even experienced horsemen get blindly focused on formula to the point of spoiling the horse (or getting hurt as the horse acts out to be heard amidst rigid and rote demands).

The systems created around these trainers’ experiences and the associated products have worked well for a good number of people (not so sure what the horses would say). Not too many, though, are dealing with Thoroughbreds – nor alphas.

Working with hot breeds (Arabians are even more challenging with their sensitivity and smarts) gives you a very different perspective on how to really reach a horse in a way that convinces them to want to help you get where you’re trying to go.

That said, keeping your young horse in the conversation, no matter what breed or mix he may be, will give you a much richer experience and a more able partner willing to give you more than you imagined. If you’re lucky enough to be working with a horse that doesn’t have issues associated with prior handling, you’ll be building the foundation for all future reactions to the challenges this equine encounters.

Done right, your ability to listen and customize your approach will create a horse that loves training, a bond beyond what you could have envisioned and an equine ready and able to protect you from your stupid mistakes in ways you never would have considered to ask for (or demand).

Listen to what your horse is trying to say. If you think young horse training is all about telling a horse what to do, you’re missing the joy of making a connection. Your equine will teach you amazing things if you’re willing to pay attention. The bond you build will give you tales to tell that last a lifetime.