Friday, August 3, 2018

Emotion and Consequences for Predator and Prey

 by Mary Gallagher

Mary Gallagher and student.
I was reading this week’s excellent short article by Grace Mitchell, one of my students, on consequences in horse training. She pointed out that effective consequences—our actions—in communicating with our horses needed to be appropriate in degree and timing to correct or reinforce behaviors in the horse. Importantly, Grace also reminded us that consequences are either positive or negative, and that we create consequences intentionally or unintentionally which impact our horse’s learning.

That got me to thinking about consequences in nature. When action leads to reaction in nature, we can call it consequence or cause and effect, and we should notice that nature has no emotion attached to these events. It just is. Why is this important in horse training? Because we human predators are prone to reacting with emotion.

Calm and collected.
In training, we need to be mindful when it comes to delivering consequences in response to our horse’s behavior. Our attitude must reflect nature’s in order to keep the horse in a learning state of mind. If we are not in control of our emotions, we are likely to overreact when correcting our horse, summoning fear in him and triggering the fight or flight instinct, which in turn causes the horse to distrust us, taking him out of the learning state of mind. Once trust is lost it is a longer road back to where learning can happen.

Emotions are tricky things between predators and prey. We predators tend to grab and attack, while horses tighten up and seek escape. Horses test escape routes all the time. Put them in a pen with a predator and you can see them work on plans to find a way out. Put an emotional rider on them, and you’ll see much the same, should the rider manage to ‘grab and attack’ on some level, triggering the horse’s anxiety.

Know it for certain that when the emotions of the predator come up, the prey animal takes notice.
Grace Mitchell and Cysco, in conversation.
Even more so when the predator’s emotions are directed at the prey animal—learning is not the result. It cannot be.

So what can we do, given our nature as predators? We can take nature’s example, and learn to recognize and manage our emotional responses in horse training. Cultivating detachment and non-judgment in communication with our horses is a good thing, allowing us to stay in a good place, having a productive conversation with our horse. As a result, we will be better able to take advantage of Grace’s advice about degree and timing of consequences, far more likely experience the rewards of effective communication, and along with our horse, come out the other side feeling like winners.

Practicing positive patterns.

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