Friday, August 3, 2018

Timing and Degree of Consequences in Training Horses

Grace and Cysco in conversation.

By Grace Mitchell

Hoof Beats Beach camp is our best horsemanship camp for our advanced students. Each summer we spend 5 days at the beach immersing ourselves in our horsemanship as well as having a lot of fun with our horses.

We combine ground skills, on line and at liberty, to test the strength of our connection, and define the weaknesses in our communication so we can progress in our relationship with our horses.

Model student Grace Mitchell had some very wise insights to share with her fellow students this camp. I was so impressed with her ability to articulate this to the other students I asked her to write her thoughts down for our online students (and wrote a companion piece). Here are her words. -MG

At last week’s beach camp, we discussed the role of consequence in horse training. It’s important to remember that that consequence is not necessarily equivalent to punishment, which carries a negative connotation. A consequence is defined simply as a ‘result or event that happens due to an action.’

In nature and in life, consequences can be either positive or negative. For example, if you touch a hot coal, the negative consequence is you getting burned. On the flip side, if you water your plants, the positive consequence is that the plants will grow.

Practicing positive patterns.

Horses are constantly learning through consequences— either ones that happen naturally or ones we provide, intentionally or not. When we work with our horses, and we apply pressure, that’s a negative consequence. Similarly, when we release the pressure, that’s a positive consequence.

So, when we say that the release is what teaches the horse, we mean that the horse learns from the positive consequence, or what feels good. That’s why the timing of the release is so crucial. Releasing at the right moment rewards the desired behavior, acting as positive reinforcement. If we release too early or too late, we may unintentionally reinforce an unwanted behavior.

In effective training, it’s also key to remember that the degree of pressure must reflect the degree of infraction. The consequence needs to match the severity of the action for it to feel just and fair to the horse.

Being aware of the balance between behavior and consequence, and honing our ability to release in the moment the horse makes the adjustment sets the horse up for success. These small successes play a big part in helping the horse learn in a way that they can understand, through effective mutual communication.

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