Train the Brain
Updated: Dec 13, 2019
I am very fortunate to be able to meet and work with many different types of horses. Every single one of those horses without exception has a brain. Horses are capable of understanding an enormous amount of information and are very good at retaining it. Yet constantly when I watch people work with their horses they are trying to make the horses’ body do things. They want to move that leg over, send the body backwards etc., so they expend an enormous amount of time and energy finding ways to get the horse to do something while totally ignoring the actual ‘horse’. The old school way of training horses was to force them to do something, usually with pain as the coercer, and then repeat it a thousand times so the horse remembers it. For a while this works, as the horse doesn’t want the pain and has worked out a way to avoid getting it. But they still don’t actually ‘understand’ what’s going on, so as soon as they’re left alone for a while they forget it. Then the next time the human wants that behaviour they have to go through it all again.
So the alternative is to recognize that the horse has a brain and train that. If we break the behaviour down into small steps and explain each step to the horse until they understand, before progressing to the next step, we end up with a horse who actually understands what we want. They have a chance to think about it and make a decision to do it. For this reason they retain it. I have found that if you explain what you want in a way the horse understands and then ask them for it, they pretty much always say yes. It’s almost a case of ‘well why didn’t you ask before?’, because they have no problem at all if they know what’s going on.
A case in point. I recently float trained two young brumbies. At the end of that (done in 2 one hour sessions) both horses had to be held back as they tried to beat each other onto the float. There was no fear at any stage. Every single tiny step of floating was taught to them until they understood and then the next element was added, until it all came together and they knew exactly what to do and were very willing. The following week the owners, novice horse people, loaded both horses onto a different float, without me there, and moved them to a new paddock without a hitch. A different brumby from the same herd was floated by someone else by forcing its body onto the float.This brumby also floated but it was covered in sweat, its eyes were bulging and it was terrified. The next time this horse needs to be floated it will not be easy, as the horse learnt nothing except how bad the float is. It had no understanding of the process at all. The two I floated will be happy to see a float again as they understand every component of it, I floated their brains, the bodies just came along.
Really to try and get such an enormous animal to do things by forcing its body is never going to work well in the long run. It’s so much easier to train the brain for both the horse and the human. If you train the brain and the horse doesn’t understand you need to look at how you explained it and try and find another way so the horse does understand. This process in itself is heaps of fun and is full of learning opportunities for the handler!