Sometimes a horse shows undesired emotions during training, like biting, mugging, signs of frustration or even aggression. What can you do to change it? My mentor always told me it is foolish to keep doing the same thing over and over and expect different results. How do you break this circle?
Change the setup
Take a break and rethink your approach. Go back to the point where the behaviour (emotion) was still desirable. Do do know what has changed? Change it back and see what happens.
Maybe you have to change the setup of your training entirely so you won’t trigger the undesired emotion/behaviour(s). In this way you can first ‘work around it’ until there is a more desired emotion or behaviour associated with the behaviour.
Find the cause of the undesired emotion
If you change your training approach you might find the cause of the frustration, boredom or other undesired emotion/behaviour in your horse.
When I encountered a lot of frustration in a horse I used this approach. I didn’t realize what had changed at first.
Change one variable at a time
At first I experimented with a different target, a different area to train, hand feeding instead of feeding her from a bucket and so on. I talked it over with someone who watched the whole session and we figured out it might be the high value food I was using as a reinforcer.
The mare got so excited by the very yummie treats, she couldn’t wait (anymore) until the target was presented to earn a click and reinforcer. Because she ‘couldn’t wait’, she started to display all her impatience by pacing up en down the fence, tossing her head and pinning her ears. She soon got so frustrated she couldn’t pay attention to what behaviour lead to presenting the target (ears forward, standing still, head at medium height or below) and a click. She went back to her ‘old ways’ to get what she wanted: displaying her unhappiness. This worked for her in the past and she just went back to her default behaviour, as we all do from time to time.
It was only when I changed the food reward to a lesser value food that we immediately saw a huge difference in her behaviour. Apparently the food I was using was really high value for her, so she literally couldn’t wait for another opportunity to earn more clicks and more high value treats. That’s what caused her frustration.
As soon as I offered her much lower value treats, she went back to thinking mode and she was open to learning again.
I never met a horse that showed me so clearly that a high value treat can cause so much frustration.
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How interesting that treats with a too high value can lead to negative effects. I have never realized that the high value can ‘distract’ the horse so much that it doesn’t do its job anymore.
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