Eliminating Problem Behaviors
Updated: Feb 28
In my last article I addressed the eight common reasons that lead people to use punishment to change/eliminate/fix undesirable behaviors in their horses, and I highly recommend reading that one first. In this article though I'm going to talk about an alternative way to work with and eliminate problematic behaviors that requires no use of pressure or punishment.
However, I would like to preface by saying that this article is not intended to actually tell you how to train your horse or give you a step by step guide to resolving any one particular behavior, but rather a quick overlook on another way of working with problem behaviors. A way that isn't just a "method", but rather a scientifically proven approach to changing behavior. This isn't just "my" way of doing things, but the way behaviorists and animal trainers all over the world approach dealing with problematic behavior.
Behavior Management (aka prevention) -
Probably the most important component to solving behavior problems is management. Management of the environment, expectations, stress factors, health, etc. Every and any aspect that could be causing or encouraging the undesirable behavior. For example, if your horse begins racing the pasture fence whinnying like crazy when turned out alone, we manage this “problem” by turning them out with a buddy. Problem solved! At least temporarily. If you need your horse to be comfortable being left alone for short periods you might still need to take more steps to resolve this behavior “problem”, but in the meantime we’ve managed the issue long enough that we can come up with a low stress plan to fix it. We've also reduced the likelihood of injury or the manifestation of even worse behaviors in the future. This also lowers the general stress level of the horse so that the horse CAN learn effectively, making training efforts even more meaningful and long lasting. Another example might be let’s say your horse rears when under saddle. At first look this might be a training issue, but in a lot of cases this is a pain issue; pain from possibly the saddle fit, or from physically harmful training practices, or maybe even ulcers or liver issues. Management of this behavior problem would be as “simple” as using a better fitting saddle, changing your training practices, or treating for ulcers! To put it simply, remove the cause to eliminate the behavior. Another management issue along similar lines is when working with an easily frightened horse that might even rear or bolt. In a lot of cases this type of management would involve reducing exposure to frightening environments as we very methodically approach re-exposing the horse to frightening stimuli in a slow, positive, and progressive way through systematic desensitizing and positive reinforcement. We reduce exposure for the horse in order to eliminate fearful responses until we can address the fearful response in a more positive way.
HOWEVER, in some situations there’s a simple solution that requires no corrections, no on going training, and almost no time! That’s changing the handler’s body language. You’d be amazed how quick confident relaxed body language and some nice deep breaths will change a situation entirely. So, we've managed the behavior by managing the environment; and in this case the environment is the handler. Diving a little deeper into the idea of behavior management, let’s look at altering the training environment. Let’s say we have a young colt that is biting people. Playfully... aggressively... it’s doesn’t matter. Instead of forcing the colt to be in a situation where he’s bound to fail, since now we know horses don’t intentionally try and be disrespectful or dangerous, we could start the training process with a barrier between human and horse; such as a fence or the stall door. Of course this is a temporary solution, we’d like to eventually be able to walk into the stall or pasture without any problems whatsoever, but by starting with a fence we've set the young colt up for success as well as kept the human safe. We can now begin preparing him to be safe around humans without being forced to use punishment for our own safety. To put it simply... with behavior management the goal is to avoid putting the horse in a situation where they feel forced to express themselves with behavior we consider undesirable. By using behavioral “prevention” through management tactics we can lower stress levels and risk for both human and horse, AND we can avoid magnifying any unwanted behaviors which might lead to the use of undesirable training methods. Training methods that often only suppress the unwanted behavior rather than cure it.
Behavior Modification (aka training)
Once we’ve set the horse up for success through environmental management and the management of outside influences we can begin to approach any behavioral issues from a training aspect. Some trainers will choose to use negative reinforcement (pressure and release, -R), some will choose to use positive punishment (hitting, a quick smack with the whip etc, +P), some will choose to use to use negative punishment (time outs, removal of something positive, -P), and some... like me, will choose to focus primarily on positive reinforcement (rewarding the horse for good behavior, +R). On rare occasions there may be times I feel it appropriate to use -R, -P, or +P but my primary goal is to use +R as much as possible in order to almost (if not completely) eliminate the use of all aversives (negatives) in training. And thanks to our prior management work, this is very possible! In almost every case, behaviors such as biting, food aggression, bumping into handlers, running handlers over, dragging handler to the grass, running away with the bit, bucking, rearing, and kicking can all be completely resolved without the use of punishment or any type of aversive. And the best part of all? The ROOT of the behavior is resolved, not the symptom. Since we aren’t suppressing outward actions of frustration, stress, or pain ... but instead discovering and fixing the cause using positive training methods... we are able to show the horse what we DO want, and that we do indeed “hear” them, all in a low stress and rewarding way to them! It’s a win win for everyone involved! Different forms of training using positive methods would be forms like clicker training (+R) and counter conditioning. Counter conditioning requires no prior experience really, but it tends to take longer in some situations. Clicker training requires practice, education, and training with an experienced clicker trainer, but is by far the fastest way to achieve change in a behavior (in most cases). There are however going to be certain situations where counter conditioning is better and vise versa, and they are also not mutually exclusive and often work best together.
I’ll provide a few examples of different situations where you might use one or the other, but I’m not going to be able to give you specific training advice for every type of behavior. If however you are in need of training help, please feel free to contact me via my website’s contact form or email me at email@example.com
For the first scenario I’m going to use the example of a horse that bites when being cinched up. Let’s say you’ve managed the behavior to the maximum; your horse has been visited and treated by the saddle fitter, an osteopath, the massage therapist, a veterinarian, and you’ve even changed how you tighten the cinch as well as changed the cinch itself a couple of times... but STILL the horse continues to express sourness and even occasionally bites when you go to tighten the cinch. At this point the consensus is that we’re dealing with a residual negative association with the cinch. How do we undo this?
One way is through counter conditioning; in which we begin to pair something positive with something negative until the negative becomes positive. An easy way of doing this would be to feed your horse a small meal while saddling, and just barely beginning to tighten the cinch. In the beginning you want the keep the negative so mild that the horse barely notices. During the first many sessions you may never actually tighten the cinch completely before removing it again when the meal is done. You will then repeat, repeat, repeat, gradually increasing the degree the cinch is tightened while avoiding causing a negative reaction from the horse. —That last part being the most important; never moving too fast or asking the horse to accept too much that you trigger a negative reaction. Otherwise progress will be delayed. You could use this same process of counter conditioning with a horse that rears when asked to get into the trailer, a horse that kicks when you touch its back legs, a horse that panics when separated from its buddies, and so many other situations! However, in a lot of situations it’s faster and easier to use clicker training. Clicker training is technically the use of positive reinforcement training with a specific tool that allows it to be safe, effective, quick, and clear; the clicker. All the clicker does is mark the exact moment the horse (or any animal) performs the desired behavior. It requires some “set up” time, where the horse learns what the click sound means and the handler learns how to use it properly, but once the handler and horse are properly educated, this form of training is highly positive and effective. We are able to use this one tiny tool, with a bunch of scientific backing, to ask the horse to act in a way we like because they want to earn something they like. Which makes it perfect for training almost every behavior, as well as eliminating any undesirable behaviors. A perfect example of using clicker training for behavior modification would be teaching a young horse to not rear while being lead. We would start off by practicing this behavior is very short segments in such a way that we can keep a barrier/fence between the horse and the human (temporarily), so we can set the horse up for success (behavior management). Next, we would start clicking/rewarding the horse for walking calmly at our side for even just a step or two, gradually building up the length of time in between the use of the clicker and giving of reward. Very quickly the horse will learn what earns the reward (walking calmly, not rearing), and eventually the clicker will no longer be needed.
Typically, when behavior management and modification is done well, we can avoid ever triggering undesirable behavior again. With time and consistency the rearing behavior will disappear, safe leading will become normal, the fence can removed, and every day “leading horse” activities can begin or be resumed. However, like I mentioned... consistency is the key! You can’t practice it this way one day and do something different the next day. You also can’t rush it or you might accidentally trigger a relapse, failing to truly eliminate the undesirable behavior. It takes time and patience. If you rush it, just like with any training approach, you’ll loose all the progress you’ve made, and in some cases you’ll make things worse than before. It takes time to undo a natural or learned behavior, but it absolutely CAN be done without the use of punishment.
Final Thoughts -
As an experienced horse person, I'm a realist. Sometimes situations just do not go as planned. Sometimes you do find yourself in a dangerous position with a horse where your own safety is a primary concern. My hope is though, that after reading these past two articles you will realize that these are truly unique situations if you successfully prepare your horse to be safe and well behaved rather than just expecting them to know what they should do.
All too easy equestrians find themselves using punishment as a form of training rather than a fail safe in a dangerous situation. A dangerous situation that often times can easily be avoided.
In my opinion, punishment should never be used in every day handling or during training sessions. Punishment is a last ditch effort, an emergency situation, and honestly in most cases a mistake. The negative impact that punishment has on the horse is significant, and equestrians need to be aware of those side effects.
These negative effects not only effect the horse but they effect you too! A horse trained through aversives and punishment is never a truly trusting or safe animal, they are ticking time bombs or robotic slaves. Instead, educate your horse through kindness and understanding. Make your horse feel safe, be patient with them. Show your horse what you DO want from them, rather than what you don't want. Be a positive in your horse's life. Leave the use of punishment at the very bottom of your training tool box, rusted and never touched.
You can never rely on a horse that is educated by fear.
There will always be something that he fears more than you.
But, when he trusts you, he will ask you, what to do when he is afraid.
Antoine de Pluvinel