Horse Training Is A Piggy Bank
Whether you're human or animal, events or environments you're exposed to in life work a lot like a piggy bank. The individual experiences you have in those environments or during those events are the coins in the piggy bank. Each experience is going to have a different value, and some experiences will withdraw while others will deposit. Every time you have a good experience coins will be placed into the piggy bank, and every time you have a bad experience coins will be removed from the piggy bank. What's more is that negative experiences are worth more than the positive experiences, so if a positive experience is worth ten cents than a negative experience is going to be worth fifty cents. Every time you have a bad experience fifty cents will be immediately withdrawn from the piggy bank... and when the piggy bank runs dry, or worse has a negative balance, you'll have nothing left to withdraw, and you may even be left in serious debt.
So what does this have to do with horse training? Everything.
Every moment of every day your horse is learning what's good and what's bad. Every single time you expose your horse to something new, take your horse somewhere new, ride your horse, walk your horse, feed your horse, or even just groom your horse you are either subtracting or adding money to that piggy bank. Horses, just like humans, are continuously changing, adapting, learning. Every single situation is either a good or a bad learning experience, and there is no such thing as "neutral", because even neutral is positive in it's own way.
To express what I mean a little more clearly let's look at three different outcomes for the same training experience. A positive experience, a neutral experience, and a negative experiences. After, we will explain the piggy bank analogy a little further.
Let's say we have a horse that has never been worked in a round pen. For the first example the human knows this is a great opportunity to set the horse up for success and spends a lot of time rewarding very small efforts, allowing the horse to explore the round pen and take things slowly. The human even decides to use a second human to assist in leading the horse around the outer perimeter at a relaxed walk while they use positive reinforcement to capture desirable behaviors, like calm walking, lowering the head, and maintaining a happy expression. They never demand anything of the horse and are very patient. Ten to twenty minutes later the horse walks away from the round pen with an extremely good first impression of round pen work.
Now, let's rewind and start again fresh with this same horse that has never been exposed to round pen work. This time the human takes the horse to the round pen and just places the horse inside then does nothing. The human expects nothing, does nothing, and just remains neutral. The horse just wanders around calmly waiting for something to happen. Ten to twenty minutes later the horse is removed from the pen without ever having done something. Still, this is a good experience for the horse since nothing bad happened and it survived the experience. It may not necessarily "look forward" to being in the round pen the next time, but it certainly won't worry about it either.
Last we have our negative experience. In this situation the inexperienced horse is placed into the round pen, but this time the human immediately begins driving the horse around, making him suddenly start running in a panicked kind of way. For the next ten to twenty minutes the human uses their body language and possibly a whip to move the horse around the pen then leads the horse away, sweaty, tired, and probably pretty anxious. This horse will not look forward to going back into the round pen next time.
Using those examples let's talk about the piggy bank of training a little more. In this particular situation the round pen is the "bank". Or you could even argue the human was the bank, but let's just use the round pen for simplicity's sake.
With the first experience the human successfully placed ten cents into the round pen piggy bank of the horse's mind. The horse now has had one great experience in the round pen. When the human decides it's time to work in the round pen next time the horse will be immediately aware of the ten cents worth of good experience he has saved up in the round pen. Each time he has a good experience there will be ten more cents added to his savings, eventually with enough good experiences he may have a very full piggy bank. The fuller the piggy bank, the more the horse will enjoy and look forward to working in the round pen.
For the neutral example I mentioned how really this is still very much a good experience, but maybe not as good of an experience. So let's say the horse only stores up five cents for this experience, it's more like an "okay" or "good" experience than a great one. For most horses, having more experiences like this one will eventually add up to a very full piggy bank as well, but it will take much longer to save up money than if the horse were having great experiences.
However with the bad experience example we've set up the round pen piggy bank and then immediately started over drafting. This horse will not feel comfortable, relaxed, or happy about being in the round pen the next time, and each time a negative experience happens the more the over drafting will continue. Eventually the debt will be so great it'll be hard to get out from under it. The horse will learn to fear and distrust the round pen, and since bad experiences cost more (fifty cents) it will take five times as many great experiences or ten times as many neutral experiences to even begin to overcome the weight of one bad experience in this round pen.
Setting up an experience to be a good, neutral, or bad experience for your horse is a daily and minute by minute decision, and sometimes outside factors change our original intentions and things go awry. However, the concept of a piggy bank is an important one to remember no matter what's going on. Whether you're working with a horse that has a very very over drafted piggy bank for almost every situation in life (a horse with a lot of baggage from poor training and possibly abuse), or a young inexperienced horse with a good start on life, you need to set your horse up for success.
You do this by spending a lot of time and energy saving up good experiences for every situation the horse may encounter. Whether that be round penning, being ridden, trailering, getting shots, traveling away from home, lunging, and so on they each are a piggy bank of their own and you need to work hard as saving up for a rainy day, or just to have a fully piggy bank. Chances are though, there will be poor experiences that withdraw from the piggy bank of different situations, so the fuller it is the less likely you'll overdraft.
The goal is always for the good to outweigh the bad by a lot. If you're horse always has a very full piggy bank, one bad experience will likely not send your bank account into over draft even if that bad experience costs five to ten times more than the good experiences. If you're piggy bank is overflowing, fifty cents won't seem like the end of the world, but if you only have a couple nickles in that piggy bank then one bad experience is going to run you dry. Best case scenario, you'll spend some time building back up the good experiences. Worst case scenario you'll have over-drafted your bank account and you're now dealing with a horse that is frightened.
For example, let's say you've been preparing your horse since day one to accept shots from a vet. You've been actively filling this piggy bank with lots of great experiences, practicing giving "pretend" shots followed by a flow of rewards and praise. You know that the horse's is about to experience it's first real shots from the vet and they aren't likely to be pleasant, but for now the horse thinks shots are the greatest thing! His piggy bank is very full. However, the day does come for the vet to give the horse it's real shots and what do you know, he stands beautifully and is a perfect angel for the vet.
He does seem a little surprised by the prick though, thinking this isn't so great anymore. Fifty cents is removed from the piggy bank, but it's not so bad because there's still a lot saved up. Because of the amount saved up, he doesn't panic and he readily accepts the reward for standing quietly for the shots. At the end of the day it wasn't that bad. The good experiences far outweighed the one bad one.
The next day you pick back up on practicing receiving shots again, making it a great experience, filling that piggy bank back up for the next time he may need shots and to confirm that shots are actually a good thing. It was just that one experience that wasn't, but all the good is worth it. However, if you chose to never work on receiving shots again, if you never filled that piggy bank back up, this horse may stand quietly for a few more vet visits, just hoping it's going to be a good experience, but eventually there will be no savings left. At this point, the bad outweighs the good and the horse will begin to fear getting shots from the vet.
I hope the analogy of the piggy bank makes sense, perhaps it's a little confusing or complex to try and explain, but it's how I think about working with horses. Recently I had an experience with my yearling filly River where I suddenly had to take her away from home to a vet clinic where she was to have surgery. River had never been away from home, had never even had a shot, and here we were throwing her onto a trailer for a three hour drive to be taken to a strange place where she would have surgery. Talk about a non-ideal situation!
I had two weeks to prepare her, to fill up that piggy bank as full as I could get it before subjecting her to such a bad experience. Thankfully I was able to also be with her every step of the way to help make most of those potentially bad experiences more neutral ones. Because of all of my hard work preparing her and my dedication to making that experience as good as possible she walked away from the event like a superstar, hardly phased, which was a miracle to be honest.
Like I mentioned before though, some horses come into our lives with very over-drafted piggy banks. With those kinds of horses it's more like the giant piggy bank of life has been over-drafted and it just takes time and lots of great experiences to begin to pay back the debt. It doesn't happen over night, and sometimes it's rocky and hard, but eventually the debt can be repaid. This isn't done through demanding they change, forcing them to obey, and making them perform, it's done through building back up their trust, showing them they can express themselves without fear of reprimand, and that life is full of great experiences. Paying back debt, even someone else's debt, takes time and patience. Sometimes a lot of time and a lot of patience.
On the other hand, some horses have very particular fears, but overall have a great outlook on life. The situation is the same with these horses with their fears, but the debt is more isolated to a particular event, environment, or object. Sometimes these horses come from amazing homes and had great upbringings, but at one point or another learned to fear. It's important to remember that no matter how illogical a fear may seem to you as a human, it's a very real fear to the horse. All fears start somewhere and requires the same patience and understanding from you even if it seems illogical.
My piggy bank analogy, while a great image, can be a little more complex than just simply "a piggy bank for trailering", "a piggy bank for shots", and a "piggy bank for being tacked up". Horses that experience positive and patient desensitizing (piggy bank filling) with from day one, experiencing life as one great experience after another, tend to approach new situations with more confidence and calmness than a horse that has had minimal exposure.
As prey animals, horses are naturally distrustful, spooky, and skittish, but with great training you can start to change this in your horse. In a way it's like they start off new experiences with a partially full piggy bank. It has a roll over affect from all the past great experiences and they are willing to consider all new situations as potentially great ones until proven wrong. This is honestly such a great feeling as a trainer, and a good sign you're "doing it right". The more time you can spend depositing great experiences into those piggy banks the more overall trust and confidence you'll build up in your horse.