Hi Shawna, I was wondering what you do about a horse that isn’t willing to try. An example is – now that there is grass outside and Mr. Horse is not as hungry, his willingness has diminished. Now, I realize that I could take him off the grass and make him more hungry. But, what I am looking for is him to be more willing whether he is hungry or not. This particular horse is also one that will constantly test and see who is the “boss” that day. So, I am thinking part of it is his way to try to be in control of the situation as well. I can “make him do it” by insisting with more pressure. But, I am wondering if you have a better way of handling a horse that likes to try to control the training session with either a complete refusal, or just a lack of energy. Hope that makes enough sense. Thanks!!!
Hi Tina, The first suggestion I have is try to find a reinforcer that your horse enjoys more than grass. Does he love apples? Carrots? A certain treat or grain? By using something that he finds more valuable the more motivated he will be. You may have to experiment a bit to figure out which he seems to prefer.
You also seem to have some other issues going on here as well. It could be a number of causes and it isn’t always easy to know what is really going on inside his head. Sometimes we read one thing as the cause when it may be something different altogether. Often times when a horse is shut down it ends up looking like different things with different horses. A lack of motivation is definitely one of these symptoms. Often times people think the horse is just quiet or obedient but given a choice he would rather not participate. Since traditional training doesn’t really give them a choice we don’t see the symptoms of a horse who has shut down. The same holds true for round pen work. They don’t really have many choices without repercussions. If they respond incorrectly they are displaced, via body position and driven around the round pen. With clicker training they are given an absolute choice and sometimes we see horses who won’t respond, unless you use some sort of pressure. They have been taught “don’t do anything until I tell you” and the primary training tool has been pressure, both physical and psychological. If he is a horse who resented his training he may balk, refuse and look at training with suspicion. He may also resent that he has been forced to submit. Whatever the cause, don’t despair there is a way to overcome this disengaged attitude.
I often tell the story of Mint and when I first started working with him. He was the worst horse I have ever worked. He would not try at all, he just didn’t seem interested. For the longest time I didn’t even think he had a personality since he didn’t seem to enjoy any part of his life. He would walk away from target training and that is the easiest thing ever. Most horse can figure it out within minutes. The horse in the next paddock would reach over the fence and try to touch the target and I wasn’t even working with him!! So, I made things very, very easy for a while. I would put the target two inches in front of his nose. One touch of the target and I would dump the whole session’s food on the ground. He needed big motivation at first to get his attention. I did this 3 times a day, after about a week I move up to two target touches and then the whole amount. I gradually increased the duration and what I was asking from him once I started seeing him consistently coming over when I arrived. Today, you don’t see the quitter Mint once was, instead he is the epitome of heart and try.
Also doing his training session just before you feed his breakfast/dinner can help. So you may go to him with his food ask for a target touch and then feed him his dinner. Some horses need to learn how to learn, think and make decisions. This takes small steps since they often feel safer doing nothing until they’re told to do something. Once they get engaged in the training process, even slightly, they move right along. There are all sorts of psychological needs that are being met when we train using positive reinforcement so they learn to enjoy the process. They will then start to work anytime and anywhere. If I ever see a break down in the training process I assume the criteria is too much and I need to re-evaluate what I am doing. They are such individuals there is not set plan to follow. Sometimes I find myself doing something that has worked 1000 times before, however, it may not work with the next horse. Instead of thinking “what is wrong with this horse?” I remind myself to think “what am I doing that isn’t working?” There is a way to teach him, I just have to figure out how. I always break it down to smaller steps and increase the amount of reinforcement and that usually always works, but there are times when I need to break it down even further. I always let the horse’s progress dictate the path.
This same process for getting them engaged and enjoying their work also puts you in the driver’s seat. He will start to look forward to the training since there is something in it for him. This includes pleasing you since you bring the opportunity to play the game (called training) that they enjoy. Your presence becomes associated with the whole process. They quickly begin to look at the training as a privilege and a highlight in their day. Often times horse start nickering when they see you and some of them nicker when they see you pulling out the saddle. All signs of how much they look forward to learning. They soon realize the opportunity is there, if they are minding their manners and focusing on what is being asked of them. They are no longer trying to challenge you but instead trying to please you. You are now the leader, not by force but by election. There is no need for overt “dominance”, in fact I never think about it. It just happens.
Also, try to think of what you can do to help set him up for success. Try to think where he is most comfortable, maybe a smaller area will help, are there other horses intimidating him, so maybe he would be better without the other horses around. Maybe try him right before feeding time when he is the most food motivated, maybe he is better after he has had some work, maybe he is better before work, or a certain time of day. Also in addition to a food reinforcement do something he likes after the good (albeit brief) session. Perhaps turn him out or offer his favorite toy or scratch his favorite place, take him to a sand ring to roll or hand walk around the property…whatever your horse seems to enjoy. It is important to make certain it is something that he enjoys and not something that we humans perceive as a reward. We humans have a tendency to assign value to things that the horse may not think of as a reward. This will all be based on your individual horses preferences and it takes some observation on your part.
Once you get him over this hump he will become much more engaged in the training and learning process. He will take food more regularly and you may start to fade out some of the things you used to set him up for success in the early stages. Okay, Tina, I hope this helps give you some ideas…as always, I am here for support along your journey so if you have questions please don’t hesitate to ask. If anyone else has questions, the same goes for you. I would love to hear your thoughts, questions or ideas. Bye for now!!