We need to stop punishing our horses for not understanding what we want.
I caught myself just the other day – I was working with Vodka on practice for halter skills, and he would NOT stand still. He was constantly moving his feet, or offering a rear (his favourite trick), and I got frustrated and reverted to old habits, I told him NO when he moved and gave a snap of the lead rope a couple times, before my brain kicked in, and I realized he had no idea what I actually wanted. I hadn’t TAUGHT him to stand still, and the rearing was a great sign that he was confused, so he was reverting to a skill he knew well and had been reinforcing for him in the past.
I switched to feeding a high rate of reinforcement for four feet on the ground not moving, and very quickly he figured out what I wanted – because I was actually teaching him what TO do, instead of punishing what I didn’t want.
Unfortunately, for most of us in the horse world, that’s our default approach. We know what we want the finished skill to look like, and anything that doesn’t fit is punished, but we have never actually explained to the horse what we DO want them to do.
We are lucky our horses are so forgiving – if we started a new job, and no one explained what was expected of us, but instead just hollered at us when we got something wrong, we might eventually figure out what to do to avoid the yelling, but we definitely wouldn’t enjoy our work, and would always be worried about making a mistake because we never really understood what was right, only what was wrong.
The next time your horse isn’t doing what you’d like them to do, before you do anything to discourage the wrong answer, stop and think – have you actually taught them what the right answer is?