As I started to explore pure Behavioural Science (with all its intricacies) some years back, the impact of understanding what reinforcers are to each individual animal regardless of species or breed of species in a myriad of environments, can be mind-blowing.
We all realise that air to breath, water to drink, shelter from extremes in temperature, food to eat and the desire to keep their species diversely strong through procreation, are the main primary reinforcers. However, owning the right or power of total personal choice is a huge behavioural desire for every species of animal on earth.
Here comes that magic word……CHOICE! Our choice. Informed choice. No choice. Choosing to learn, stay, leave at any time, sleep, eat, and move wherever it is we wish to move to or away from. The list is endless and it is powerful stuff. As humans, living in a democracy, we have the power and empowerment of full choice in our lives, a blessing not so if you are a captive. The world has captive populations under despotic rule, prisoners behind bars, hostages and any other form of a lack of personal freedom. It is a situation and a right we fight hard to keep for ourselves always.
As captive species, our pets are under house rule at all times. We make every decision about how they live their lives. Most are lucky with loving humans making good choices for them, so many are not of cause.
The reason for this article is because I have just had to really evaluate the power of choice in training goals with the arrival of 2 very different young horses in for training. Both are rescued black and white Gypsy cobs, found in appalling conditions and in desperately frail health. Thin beyond words, scared and fearful and covered in matted faeces. Their new owners have done an amazing job bringing them back into good physical health after 2/3 years of care. It’s their emotional health and future training which is now on the table.
Buzz is weak in frame and stature. He still feels innately scared of being caught so if he loses the headcollar, there is no way of catching him. His mum has the best relationship with him and could sedate him out in the field so that foot care, inoculations, de lousing etc could occur, but was never able to get him to break down that overwhelming fear of entrapment from being caught, head shy and body touch shy. Innately fearful of foot/leg handling, being tied up and being stabled. Escape behaviours always to the fore, unless sedated (temporary helplessness). He would rather be on his own in the field rather than be caught and stay with his friends.He could not be led reliably because he would invariably seek escape, so he was unloadable to come to me for training of cause. They tried to load him next to his mate Woody but failed to convince him to able to comply. It took a different open trailer, another sedation and 6 people to finally get him loaded and ultimately travelled to my yard. We quietly herded him out at my end and quietly lured him into a huge stable with a high value liquorice lick. He made me very sad.
Woody is a big, strong horse now, handle-able to an extent but cannot exist on his own, away from other horses. Separation anxiety is a huge problem to train away with lots of behavioural aspects, some very dangerous. He is emotionally fragile and just needs to learn how to feel safe in his own skin. Handling wise, he kicks out behind to avoid having
his back feet handled. He slams his front feet down to avoid having them handled and body slams you out of the way both tied up or held. He uses his weight to escape anything and everything. Unfortunately he felt the need to try to escape his stable, getting stuck over the door and damaging himself and the door. He had company next to him but as one horse was led past it triggered this drive in him. He cannot cope being on his own and he fears being left on his own.
This was my start point with these 2 young horses. All the training being planned and implemented required my being able to empower these 2 individuals with as much choice as was possible to implement. I do not want to trigger avoidance or escape behaviours but still need to be actively able to train. In the first week, using clicker training( marking and rewarding desired behaviours or emotions), I have Buzz self-haltering (on top of another halter which stayed on) and leading quietly by my side. He now comes up in the field to be caught cautiously, as he is very much in charge of how it all goes. By week 2 we can take his halter off in the stable and out on the yard and he comes up to put his own halter on. Next step is trusting the training so much as to remove the halter in the field altogether. This can only happen when Buzz trusts us completely (he loves target training; loves being empowered with total choice and is visibly enjoying all that is happening with him)
We have started body touch and foot lift training. He has already mastered offering his front feet into our outstretched hands on a voice cue, as has Woody too! Hind feet are a work in progress but they have both learned how to relax and feel calm in this process, which is a massive emotional shift.
Woody can now manage to stay connected with us in the school so long as the field gate is wide open always. His need to be able to control his environment and his freedom is all encompassing. Years ago, I would have trained him traditionally on a long rope, sending him around me through force of my will and being the dominant “herd leader”. This would have been violent until he came around to my way of thinking (requiring the horse to fear the human and fear making a mistake)
I am so glad I have left all this behind. Learning how to train horses on the emotional level, using proven science based protocols, rewarding every try, empowering them with choice and setting the environment so that they can succeed is so empowering to me too!
These first 2 weeks of bespoke investment have already brought forward massive changes in their behaviours, their trust of humans and their emotional wellbeing. They are so calm now and so interested in their surroundings as well as the training to which they are willingly participating in. My staff are brilliant partners here, all working from the same hymn sheet. We are sharing the training so that these 2 fragile animals can find safety and trust in everyone.
Onwards and upwards as they say.