Can you remember learning something new? Perhaps learning how to ride a horse, drive a car, touch type or scuba dive… Take a minute to reflect on a skill you have learnt. Were you instantly confident? If not, how did you gain confidence as you improved your skill? How long did it take you? Did you have a good teacher?
Most of us learn a new skill gradually. We don’t start to learn to drive in a race car, by riding a horse around a jump course or scuba diving to 18ft. We tend to start gradually, take things step by step, gain confidence as we improve, and learn from small mistakes. Hopefully we do not get put off by minor setbacks, as a good teacher would ensure that any mistakes aren’t too big. In time, we get better, faster, gain confidence and eventually the skill becomes habit so we don’t have to concentrate quite so hard.
What might have happened if we had been pushed too far too soon? How would it feel if after one driving lesson we were asked to race around London, or if after one riding lesson we moved on to jumping? We would probably feel nervous, frightened, and not want to try. If made to go too far too fast we might have a bad experience and never want to try again.
So how does this relate to horse behaviour? Well, for many horses instead of training them in small steps and ensuring that their confidence is nurtured, it has become increasingly common to rush them: the equivalent of teaching them to drive and on their very first driving lesson taking them to Piccadilly Circus. Instead of building up step by step we start with the big stuff and then expect to refine more subtle responses. Consider the difference between starting a young horse slowly and gradually and a rodeo approach where a horse is ‘thrown in at the deep end’ – a rider is introduced and the horse eventually learns that nothing he/she does will work to make the riding end. Both might result in a ride-able horse but which one has been the more positive learning experience? And which has fostered the best association with humans? Another example is teaching a horse to have their legs hosed down, something most horses do not like at first. One approach, often used, would be to tie a horse up and hose their legs down, taking care to avoid being kicked or squashed as the horse tries to avoid the water. A more learning-friendly approach would be to first introduce water on the legs by ensuring the horse is totally fine having his/her legs brushed and touched, then use some water, perhaps with a small sponge, and introduce the feeling of water trickling down. Gradually the amount of water used can be increased, whilst ensuring the horse is not scared of the hose when he/she sees it on the floor at a distance. Then the hose can be moved closer, first with no water flowing, then with the sound of water coming out of the hose and so on, building up to hosing the legs down. This is not necessarily a slow procedure, just a gradual one.
Taking things step by step is called shaping – successive approximations towards the behaviour you want – and is used by most compassionate, appropriately qualified trainers. Often the analogy of a ladder is used – each rung of the ladder is a step closer to the goal. For example, training loading might start with walking over a surface in the school, and then entering narrow gaps, and then habituating to engine noise for 5 then 15 then 30 seconds. Each ‘rung’ is part of the final behaviour and a step closer.
I tend to consider shaping as a spider’s web, with each section of the ‘web’ being a different element of the behaviour, and so you can work either from centre to the outside for one section at a time or do all the centres and gradually move further out, or a mixture of the two. For example, with loading one section might be walking over different surfaces incrementally approaching a ramp-like surface, and another section might be habituation for increasing time to the travel boots typically worn when travelling. Other sections might cover steps towards becoming habituated to the sound of an engine in close proximity, being confined, or being responsive when being led.
As an equine behaviourist I am keen to keep the horse and human safe and enjoying interacting with each other – ensuring we create positive learning experiences for our horses is a big part of this. Behaviourists advocate taking things slowly and shaping new behaviours, not metaphorically throwing horses in at the deep end and seeing if they sink or swim. And this approach means that the owner is learning in a positive way too – they can see their horse calmly developing new skills in a relaxed engaged manner. So, this article is a plea to consider how you are teaching your horse – are you expecting too much too soon? How could you better break down the steps towards what you want to achieve? Are you being a good teacher for your horse?
By Suzanne Rogers, , IAABC certified horse behaviourist. www.learningaboutanimals.co.uk