Break it Down

This week I learned the importance of breaking the steps of a maneuver down for a horse. I’ve been told that it makes it easier for a horse to see what is going on by taking each section of a maneuver apart and teaching it that way, then putting all of the steps together. But I never really understood what that looked like or how to do it.

Well, in this situation, it looked like letting the horse do something ‘wrong’ in order to get another part of the process ‘right.’ Then I did the part that he had done ‘wrong’ separately, after.

The only reason I looked at breaking steps down a second time was because Joker is a horse I only see once a week for about 20 minutes. Our sessions are therefore very limited, and the only thing he has a problem with is bridling, which we only work on for less than 5 minutes each week. In between, lots of other people work with him, reinforcing his bad habit. With such limited resources for this horse, I have been forced to be creative.

Joker has a severe aversion to the bridle. He has figured out that, being a tall horse, he can lift his head up and point his nose to the sky to avoid the bit, and his nose literally touches the ceiling of the barn. Through repeated negative* reinforcement—the bit leaving—this behaviour has been reinforced so strongly that when he sees the bridle coming, he begins to look away, which in itself is a form of negative reinforcement. With horses, ‘out of sight out of mind,’ actually is true.

Usually I put one hand on his poll and one hand on his nose and ask him to bend around to the left and put his head down. Usually he resists strongly and starts backing up. So this time I took the steps apart and essentially performed them backwards. While I still insisted that his head remain at a tolerable level for bridling, I moved with him around to his right, where he wanted to have his head. This way he could not swing his head violently all the way from the left to the right, gaining momentum the whole way and losing the bit each time. Also, he was unable to raise his nose as far.

The bit was in in a much shorter time than it was before.

Then I began working on politeness.

I brought his head where I wanted it, curved to the left (but I still did not ask for his head to come down). Here I did up the throatlatch and noseband, insisting on the head position that I wanted. When I was finished messing with his face, I began training the head down. Without all of the distractions of the bridle being in my hand, he understood my request with only three repetitions within about 20 seconds and dropped his head immediately to a position lower than I have ever seen him go from light pressure on his poll and nose.

I will continue to break these steps down for my obstinate friend and see how we fare. I expect that this very smart horse will make great progress from here on in.

The Horsegentler

*please note that negative reinforcement means ‘taking something away’ such as pressure or an object, not punishment or something with a negative connotation.

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