Emotions are an important part of being with your horse. You have a horse because that makes you happy or that is how you’ve envisioned it, right?
In reality your horse does make your heart sing, and it can be difficult at the same time have a horse:
You enjoy your horse if he’s happy and healthy
You love watching your horse in the pasture
It’s great to ride your horse
You feel proud of what you’ve accomplished with him or together
You love the relationship you built with your horse
There are also other emotions:
You want your horse to behave in a certain way and if he doesn’t live up to that expectation you might feel anger, frustration, sadness, disappointment
You worry about his well being if he’s sick or that he might become sick or injured
You worry about the way you (can) keep your horse and if you’re doing the right thing to move him (or not)
You worry about being accepted by other horse people
You worry about not getting respected due to the way you train, keep, ride your horse
You feel overwhelmed as (new) horse owner: so many ways to keep your horse, so many kinds of hay, pellets, bedding, training, trainers, opinions of everyone else and so on
Equine emotions and feelings
Then your horse has and expresses emotions and feelings, too.
Fear in your horse
Depression and unhappiness (hard to see and accept as owner!)
Horses that are in pain
How do you handle those, the emotions and feelings of your horse? Do you recognize all of them or only some of them? Most of us never learned to pay attention to them.
When I expressed fear in riding lessons, I was quickly shut down. ‘Get over it’, ‘Just do it’ (jump over the jump, canter whatever I feared) and ‘Don’t be a wimp’, are things I was often told. I learned to suppress or at least shut up about my fears, frustrations and other negative feelings. What about you?
How do you handle fear in your horse?
Frustration: in your self and in your horse?
Fear of failure?
How can you turn this into a positive thing and grow?
That’s what this month theme is in the Clicker Training Academy. “Emotions in training’ is one of the Key Lessons, Your Key to Success in horse training. If you can recognize, accept and deal with them, you’ll be a better trainer. I would love to share a few of the insights here, too.
Frustration is an easy one to prevent and to handle. Do you have a way to recognize this quickly (it all starts with awareness) and handle it?
What do you do when your horse is frustrated? What do you do when you are frustrated in training?
These are questions that traditional training never answered but positive reinforcement comes with the solution almost instantly.
What do you do in order to prevent frustration in your horse when you load the clicker/bridge? You break it down and you encourage your horse to keep trying to find the answer by reinforcing him. What is the jargon for it? This is called thin slicing or making a shaping plan What is that called in normal language? Take baby steps.
This is also true to prevent frustration in yourself. If you have a clear goal for today’s training and thought of what would be reasonable then you can think of the baby steps you can take to set you and your horse up for success.
My pitfall used to be that I had no clear goal (only a vague one) and then instead of feeling content if I (almost) reached my goal, I raised the bar! This is one way to create a feeling of failure and cause frustration, I can tell you!
It was only when I started to set a (small) goal and made a clear plan, that I really got results. I started to feel good about myself and my accomplishments. This is what I want for all my clients too. I see so much frustration and fear in horse owners. Yes, fear! This is a taboo, too: to feel afraid of your own horse. Even if it is sometimes or just briefly. It’s not accepted as equestrian. Well, I have strategies for those, too and I will be happy to share them with you.
Do you need strategies?
Let me know if you need strategies to handle fear in your horse or yourself, frustration, anxiety and other emotions that keep you from doing what you want to do or want your relationship with your horse to look like. You can ask for a strategy in the comment section or contact me directly. I am here to support you.
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How to take positive reinforcement and use it in riding? I will share practical tips in other blogs, but let’s focus on preparation. How can you make yourself successful?
Key Lesson for Riders #5: Emotions in Riding
This is a biggy! I see so many riders get frustrated in the saddle. I also see many frustrated horses! The the most common reasons riders get frustrated are: lack of a plan, no shaping plan (written steps that need to be accomplished in order to get to your goal) and lack of a proper training journal, that can be used as valuable tool in training.
I often see frustration in horses because there is a lack of clarity (riders give contradictory aids), they get punished (receiver determines if something feels like punishment) and don’t understand why or they are fearful and the rider thinks they are ‘just acting’.
In my program dealing with Emotions in Horse and Humans is one of the Key Lessons, your Key to Success in Horse Training and Riding.
Here are 3 tips that you can use to help you deal with emotions in riding.
Tip #1 to deal with Emotions in Riding successfully
Accept that emotions will always be there. Positive ones and negative ones. Even positive emotions like joy can influence your riding aids. The magic is that you can decide how you will react to your feelings and to the feelings of your horse.
Do you get angry if your horse spooks or do you deal with the fact and go look to solve the cause of the fear and deal with that or do you simply accept that your horse can spook?
Frustration in horse and rider is more common than you think
If you feel anger or frustration coming up, a few simple breaths can help you get back into thinking mode. That can be enough to prevent yourself from taking your frustration out on the horse.
If you realize that you will be relieved from your frustration when you hit your horse, only to switch over to guilt you haven’t won anything, right? Once you realize why you’re getting frustrated you can solve the cause or accept that you’re frustrated for a few seconds and wait until the emotion disappears.
Tip #2 to deal with Emotions in Riding successfully
Context shifts can also cause negative emotions like frustration in riding. Understanding what a context shift is, how it can effect your behaviour or that from your horse will help you adjust your expectations according to the circumstances.
(Source: Pixabay stock photo)
Imagine you’re riding and suddenly you notice someone you look up to, is watching you. This is a small context shift (riding without and riding with an audience). If you raise your expectations towards your horse while you’re being nervous won’t set you up for success. Knowing this can prevent a lot of disappointment, shame and other negative emotions.
You’ll set yourself up for success if you don’t raise your expectations or criteria but do the opposite: lower them slightly so you’ll be successful. If someone is watching you, don’t try out new exercises to show off. Wiser would be to choose an exercise that you know you and your horse can do and do this one really, really good!
Tip #3 to deal with Emotions in Riding successfully
In my decades as riding instructor I saw many frustrated riders. I’ve experienced so much frustration myself when I was younger. Here is how I learn to deal with it. Most of the frustration was solved when I started riding according a training plan and had shaping plans.
If you don’t know what you’re training you don’t know if you’re hitting your goal. When riding suddenly goes wonderful and you’re in a flow you naturally want more of that. Be honest, how often did that happen? What did you do?
Most likely you wanted more and asked more and then got disappointed when it doesn’t happen. Then you’ll end up feeling frustrated and maybe even a bit angry. I didn’t know that -when this happened to me- I was actually ‘lumping’ my training. And instead of being grateful and stop there for a moment to enjoy it, I wanted (demanded) more! That didn’t work at all!
When I made an actual plan and got in flow I could see how I created that moment myself by working towards that moment together with my horse. That’s when I started to see this were moments to celebrate and enjoy. Then stop and take a moment to achor that moment and think how we created that result together. That’s when I started to duplicate those moments more often! This is where your training journal actually turns into a training tool.
I help horse owners get the results in training they really, really want with joy and easy for both horse and human. I always aim for win-win!
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In this series I will be sharing 6 interesting facts I didn’t know about when I started using positive reinforcement in training animals. This is part 3.
Some of these are common misunderstandings people have about clicker training while others are facts most equestrians don’t know at all.
The goal of this blog is to help more people understand how well positive reinforcement (R+) works in training our horses. I want every one to know that clicker training offers more great benefits besides training your goal behaviour. Positive side-effects you won’t get in negative reinforcement (R-) based training methods (traditional and natural horsemanship). I wish I had known these benefits earlier in life.
#3 Clicker training can improve the bond between horse and trainer
Clicker training improves the bond with your horse
Since the horse is at liberty and not restrained while being trained he has much freedom. The horse has the freedom to walk away when he is bored or when he looses interest or concentration. The horse is also allowed to express his emotions, without repercussion. In positive reinforcement training the trainer wants to know how the horse feels. This all contributes to a good relationship with your horse. You get to know each other really well.
Positive reinforcement to desensitize your horse
Example: when you want to lead a horse past a scary object at liberty with a target it will be clear where the horse starts to get nervous. He will stand still in order to investigate or he will get tense. Since there is no room for coercion in positive reinforcement training you have to think of ways to make the horse at ease and give him confidence that the scary object is not so scary. You can ‘meet him where he is at’.
What most of us learned to do
If we have a horse on a lead lope and we encounter something that the horse finds scary what do we do? In most cases the first thing we do is to encourage the horse to walk on with a gentle pull on the rope. What is the most common reaction if the horse balks? Pull a bit harder! So on top of ‘that scary thing’, the person doesn’t calm the horse down by pulling the horse. It can even cause more stress and pulling hard on a lead rope can also hurt the horse. Not something you want to add to an already stressful situation, right?
Usually if you let your horse investigate scary objects as long as he likes, his fear will decrease pretty quickly. This is not easy; giving your horse even only 15 seconds to investigate can feel like a lifetime.
If you connect a positive, wonderful association (click and treat) to something scary, your horse will learns it is OK to stand still and look at scary objects. He learns quickly that it can be rewarding to investigate new and potentially dangerous objects.
The next step will be teaching your horse that a click and treat will follow if he passes new objects. First it’s OK looking at the the objects while passing by, later on you can click and reinforce if he ignores new objects altogether.
Since new objects are already connected with positive associations (curiosity is a good feeling, positive reinforcement) you have built trust. The horse has learned that he can trust you (you stay calm and patient and you give click & treats) and that it is OK to express his feelings and emotions. He doesn’t have to worry about your reaction in scary situations!
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.
In this series about the key lessons (the key to successful clicker training) I’ve already talked about five important exercises. There are two more important basic lessons for the horse: ‘patience’ and ‘mat training’.
Standing on a mat The purpose of mat training is to teach your horse to stand on a mat with his two front hooves. It is basically targeting with hooves. If your horse learns to stand on a rubber mat, he learns to trust you and standing on new surfaces. Horses have a lot of ‘feel’ in their hooves and therefor it can be scary in the beginning to stand on a item that is soft and squishy, like a puzzle mat.
Other behaviours Once your horse has learned to stand on a mat on cue, you can build ‘duration’. Just like in targeting. If you train for duration in easy exercises it will be easier in the future to train duration, like in exercises under saddle. Your horse can learn to generalize. You can introduce a keep-going signal to make it more clear what you want to train.
Train opposite behaviour Always reinforce the opposite behaviour of what you are training as well. You want don’t want teach him to stand on the mat only, but you also want him to step down on command. If you don’t do this, you will create a horse that always runs to whatever mat or similar surface he spots. And expects a treat!
After introducing a mat, you can ask your horse to mount other surfaces like a piece of plywood. Or ask your horse to walk over it. The sound of his hoof beat might scare him at first, but if you reinforce every little step (literally!) or even weight shifts he will soon gain the confidence to walk over it. This is a really good preparation for walking up ramps or entering trailers or walking over (wooden) bridges. It makes it easier to teach your horse to mount a pedestal.
Mat training also helps to make clear where you want your horse to be. If you want this to teach him to stand next to a mounting block, the mat can help indicate where you want your horse to stand.
Slow horses If you have a horse with more whoa than go, it can help to teach him to walk from mat to mat in the arena. First at walk, then trot and finally in canter. It can make energy-saving horses really enthusiastic: it is clear that they have to go from mat to mat. So they know when to go and where they can stop. It can give them a feeling of control and makes it predictable for them. It can also help the trainer to be happy and content with little progress because the mats make the criteria and progress ‘visible’.
Fast horses If you have a horse that has more go than whoa you can also teach him to go from mat to mat. Place the mats close together at first until your horse knows what is expected. You can teach him to slow down, walking over a mat, but keep going. Or you can ask him to stop. Experiment!
Jumping at liberty Mats can help send a horse over a jump by himself, without chasing him with a whip over a jump. Simply place two mats on either side of a pole and ask your horse to go to the other mat. Place the mats a bit further apart each time,then you can raise the criteria by making a low jump and built from there.
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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
I help horse owners get the results in training they really, really want with joy and easy for both horse and human. I always aim for win-win!
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