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Regress, Re-thing, Regroup

Kate Fenner - Saturday, December 28, 2013

I have had a few days of reflection and consideration about TJ and how he is progressing with the training.

It has been looking alright on the surface; he has had the saddle on, long-reins and if he does get scared, recovers quickly. However I really don't think he is 'getting it' to the degree that I would like him to.

I have done my best to take things at TJ's pace and broken it down into steps that I thought he could manage. As an example of this, for most horses, to teach 'give to the bit' I would break it down into ten bite sized pieces, teach one after the other and the horse would have a good idea within the first lesson of about 20 minutes. With TJ I broke this down into at least 100 smaller pieces, taught it over many 10-15 minute sessions and he appeared to grasp it reasonably well. Or at least that's what I thought.

What I have discovered over the last couple of days is that although he is going through the motions he really isn't 'with me' in the sense that I need him to be. He appears incredibly attentive, and he is, but not always for the right reasons. I need him to be attentive because he is engaged and wondering what he is going to learn next not because he is even in the slightest bit worried.

Yesterday I stood with him for some time in silent contemplation. For the first time he bought his nose to me in an inquisitive manner. The only other time he has done that is in a defensive mode and he hasn't done it at all for a while.

My dilemma:
How to maintain the spirit of this gorgeous animal and convince him that what I am suggesting will be fun. You can see what I am talking about when you look at the photos taken by Rodney Pople a couple of days ago. This is another one below.

I could just work him into submission, as is so often done, but he will slip into a sorry state of learned helplessness which, of course, is completely unacceptable on every front.

My plan:
To continue at TJ's pace and see where we are in 30 days time at the competition. 

I will post a lot more video of his progress and explain my approach during the sessions.

Angie Cleall commented on 28-Dec-2013 06:09 PM
This is very interesting Kate, and I think this is perhaps a question about human ethics more than horse training principles. Perhaps this clearly illustrates why people termed it, "horse BREAKING". Perhaps when it comes to an adult, truly wild horse, there is an element of "breaking" regardless of how humane the method is, as we are asking them to abate their natural instinct and do only as we ask them. Perhaps what you are finding is that your willingness to impose human will on the wild horse, or your "ethical line" so to speak, is just in a different place to many others due to the fear that is apparent in TJ. Perhaps with domestic horses we don't recognise the fear as much, or interpret it as naughtiness. Or perhaps the temperament we breed lends itself to being more compliant. I agree with your reflections and would have the same questions to ponder. The only other thought I have is this: studies have shown that horses respond differently to negative reinforcement than to positive reinforcement. It would be of interest to see how a horse like TJ responds to something like clicker training. Or perhaps the Linda Tellington Jones body work... I find clicker training difficult with horses as we have such a tactile relationship with them...would love to hear your thoughts. Ang
Kate commented on 28-Dec-2013 07:20 PM
I have found that with horses with high levels of fear that positive reinforcement in the form of food, as is necessary initially to use clicker training, is often confusing and not at all motivating. I did try to get my first touch with TJ using food but it was never going to be worth his while to stand still for that type of reward. We all use positive reinforcement in the form of a pat/stroke or a soft word; however with untouched horses we can't even approach them at the start and they find our sound quite frightening, so it takes some time to get this across. I do see your point about positive reinforcement and I am trying to get him to a stage where that is motivating for him. You hit the nail on the head with the questions I am asking myself. I hope to find that no element of 'breaking' is necessary but TJ controls the timing!

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