I’ve been accused many times of “going too slow” or “taking too many steps to teach my horse such a simple task”. What’s ironic is that I am prone to do the exact opposite! I have a tendency to progress too fast with my training criteria, but perhaps compared to what we see in every day horse training this doesn’t appear to be the case.
Those statements did get me thinking though... is there such a thing as too slow, or too cautious, or using too many steps in the training? Is there ever a point where being extremely methodical is harmful to the relationship? Does that somehow mean there’s no trust?
My conclusion to these questions might have been different quite a few years ago, before I understood how horses think, feel, learn, and communicate, but today ... with all the research and hands on experience ... the answer is a simple no. It’s highly improbable that you’re going to ever be training too slow or ever taking too many steps that you’ll risk compromising the training or the relationship.
In most cases I would say the opposite is the problem. In general we expect too much too fast from our horses. Making huge leaps in the training criteria and just assuming the horse should understand what’s being expected of it. I find this tends to result in overly anxious or shut down horses, horses communicating clear frustration and confusion that goes largely unnoticed by the majority of equestrians. Even the most well known and experienced horse trainers seem to be unaware of the emotional state their horses are in during training. Why is that?
Well, very simply put.. it’s really inconvenient. Training with the horse’s emotional state in mind is a very slow process. It requires planning, creativity, lots of patience, small baby steps in the expectations, and sometimes.... it means moving at a snail's pace.
There’s something called “successive approximations” in animal training; doesn’t matter the species. The concept was first developed and used by B.F Skinner, who is known for his theories that involve learning behaviors through reinforcement. The theory involves reinforcing behaviors that are successively closer and closer to the desired or targeted behavior. That’s technical speak for - breaking down the end goal behavior into itty bitty tiny steps, starting with the first itty bitty tiny step then very gradually adding more itty bitty tiny steps until you finally collect enough itty bitty tiny steps together to have a final behavior that’s as large and as complicated as you need it to be.
The idea is to start training with such low expectations and with such a very simple step that your horse can’t fail, then .. through reinforcing the successive steps, slowly add on until you achieve the desired goal. But here’s the trick to being successful... you can only moving as fast as your horse is ready, and sometimes... you may find that you accidentally started off with too big of a step! So you have to go back and start with an even smaller step. How do you know if you’re doing it right though? By paying attention to your horse’s emotional state!
I’d like to present you with an example of how going slower and starting off "smaller" can be in the best interest of the horse, and how sometimes you might start “too big” and need to back up a few steps.
This first video is of my filly River, I'm working on teaching her to lunge. I decided to start off with asking her to follow a target around me in a small circle. She is already extremely proficient in target following, so this seemed like an easy and small enough next step., but I want you to pay attention to her facial expressions and the over all behavior she’s displaying.
If you watch carefully you can see she’s displaying some frustration. Ears back, biting at the target, slight head rolling, tense face, and general irritation. You can also see how she’s struggling to move her body “around”, she's wanting to cut into my space.
Behaviorally she’s acting fine towards me, in regards to safe behavior around humans, but her body is tense and her emotions are tense. We can easily see how this might turn into something not behaviorally “fine” even though technically she’s doing everything “right”. If I had continued to push her on to the next steps from this point things may have become problematic, but even if I had been able to continue with no obvious problems I would have been clearly communicating to her that I could care less how she felt; damaging trust and open communication.
Now watch this video where I decided to break the behavior down even smaller by giving her a clear and supportive boundary for her body, and THEN asking her to follow the target.
As you can see she’s tremendously more relaxed, both emotionally and physically. She’s shaping her body around the bend easily, not frustrated by being asked to stay away from me, and she is catching on really quick! By session two I was able to begin fading out the target as you can see here....
From this point forward I’ll be able to start backing further and further away from her, then start lowering/removing the boundary line, and eventually attach a lunge line to achieve the end goal of “lunging”. Or, to be even clearer about the goal — making multiple balanced circles in repetition, without stop, at a safe distance from my body (approximately the size of the barrier line), at a relaxed and forward pace, readily changing gaits (including halt) to both verbal and physical cues. Eventually we will also add in being able to circle smaller and larger on request, going over obstacles, being able to lunge in a variety of environments, as well as half halts and finer gait control within each of the three common equine paces; walk, trot, canter. This will all be able to be done on a lunge line or at liberty depending on the setting.
When written out like that it makes you realize exactly how BIG and complicated of a behavior lunging actually is. There’s so much criteria involved in just one every day action we expect our horses just to “know”, but how could they possibly know all of that? We have this picture in our heads of what it’s supposed to look like, we can see it... step by step in our heads. It’s seems SO SIMPLE, but is it? What if you didn’t know what it was supposed to look like? What if you were blind and deaf and another human decided they wanted to teach you to drive a car in a circle at both slower and faster speeds... but you had never seen a car and didn’t know how to drive one? Think about how slow that process would have to be for you to not get frustrated or overwhelmed. Think about how methodical and patient the teacher would have to be to make sure you didn’t hurt someone or yourself.
Each step of each behavior we ask of our horses HAS to be taught in simple small steps in order to achieve a desirable end goal with a horse that is willing, confident, relaxed, and consistent. If we take too big of leaps in our training we risk emotional upset, which... best case scenario, can lead to inconsistent performance, and worst case, can lead to dangerous behavior.
It’s not the horse’s job to guess what you want. It’s up to us as the trainer and handler of the horse to provide them with every bit of information they need in order to drive that car as safely and as low stress as possible. Your horse is the one that gets to dictate how slow and how small you should start, not you.
So next time your horse is “acting up” or being difficult, I encourage you to stop and reevaluate the steps you’ve taken to help your horse understand. See the situation from their perspective, and do everything you possibly can to set them up for success.