Updated: Dec 13, 2019
Everything we do with our horses is training them or de-training them. We call it training when the horse ends up doing something ‘better’ than they had previously, and we call it de-training when they end up doing it ‘worse’. Horses don’t know the difference between training sessions and just hanging out. Everything we do when we are around a horse will affect its behaviour in the future, for better or for worse. This is a very important point.
When people buy a new horse they have often been trained by a professional or an experienced horse person. The horse is quiet and easy to handle and knows what to do when asked. Around 2 months later, I get a phone call. The beautifully behaved horse has changed and the situation is deteriorating rapidly. This is extremely common. Younger horses de-train faster than older horses, which is why for beginners I always recommend getting an older horse. ‘Young humans with old horses and old humans with young horses’ is the saying but you can put the words inexperienced/experienced in there too.
Here are a few examples. A common one is picking up the hooves. Initially the horse picks up their feet beautifully. One day it pulls when the human is holding the hoof and the human lets go respectfully. The horse can stand with all feet on the ground, which they prefers. The next time the horse does it again and it works! The human lets go. This situation deteriorates until the horse refuses to pick up any feet for cleaning and/or pulls them out of the person’s hands. This is de-training. In this situation the human needed to hold onto the foot until the horse stopped moving, and then to put it down.
Another one is when the horse becomes aggressive while being groomed. It usually starts the same way. One day the horse moves when being groomed. The human stops grooming. The human starts grooming and the horse puts their ears back and moves and the human stops again. Very quickly anytime someone goes to groom the horse all hell breaks loose. The way to re-train this is exactly the same. Put your hand or brush on the horse and keep it there until all the moving and narky behaviour stops, even if only for 1 second, then remove your hand. Repeat this as many times as necessary, removing your hand every time the horse is still. In this way you are rewarding the standing quietly, not the moving or aggressive behaviour. Not doing something and removing pressure is a reward for your horse.
In both these scenarios it’s important to be aware of your physical safety. If you are unable to do this safely call in a professional horse trainer or experienced horse person. While re-training it’s important to be very calm and have lots of patience. There’s an old rule of thumb that if a horse does something 3 times they has learnt it. I have found this to be true. If I am working with a horse/human combination and I see the human do de-training twice with the same thing, I usually ask if I can step in and re-train then ask them to try again. Sometimes de-training situations can result in very dangerous behaviours in horses. It’s important to get professional help before things deteriorate too far. One inexperienced rider I knew had purchased the perfect horse and in a few months this same horse was chasing them out of the paddock with its teeth bared. This type of situation starts out with the smallest little mistakes and escalates.
Being aware that everything you do influences your horse, and rewarding only the behaviours you desire can ensure that de-training doesn’t happen. Good luck and feel free to contact me with any queries you may have.
Suzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc.
Happy Horses Bitless
Lismore, NSW, Australia
Ph: 0401 249 263
Facebook: Happy Horses Bitless Bridles