Don't make or teach assumptions.
- Pat Parelli
Horses are one-experience learners. They'd have to be, or they wouldn't be able to survive in the wild.
Consequently, they learn to make assumptions or to acquire phobias very easily. It is our never-ending task to prevent them from making negative associations and to encourage the positive responses.
However, if repeated too often in the same way, even those positive associations can turn into annoying or even dangerous assumptions.
Some examples, from the horse's perspective, would be:
- Since you are mounted, I'll go ahead and move forward
- You are touching the gate, so I'll help you by shoving it with my nose
- You are taking the bit from my mouth, so I'll throw my head up to hasten it
- You've opened the trailer doors, so I'll back out now (regardless of the butt rope)
- And many more..
Today, I was feeling resistant to going to the indoor arena. If I'm feeling this way, I'd bet that Guinness is too. So instead, I decided to position the trailer as if we were going to go and initiate the loading sequence, but not leave. It has been an interesting morning.
Right now, I'm sitting here blogging as Guinness eats hay on the trailer. (I'm sitting near him just in case he has any issues.) Before loading on the trailer, we played circling game near it, and then we played yo-yo on and off of it. Surprisingly, instead of desensitizing him to it, he started to worry. So, I switched tacks and closed him up in it loose, so that he could sort out that he'd rather put his head toward the front by the hay, then to stand backward hoping to unload.
Next, I tied him in the forward position, with the rear doors (and other doors & windows) open. Over time, I've gradually given him more rope, so that a little while ago, he decided to unload himself. I'd only given him enough rope to get his hind feet off, so I allowed him to decide that was an uncomfortable position to be in and to load back up to continue to eat his hay! He is doing really well, and I'm running out of time to be outside, so we will quit soon. (I wish that he would just take a snooze on there..)
Our next task will be desensitizing to fly spray, since all of the gnats hatched out this morning. I've already done this at liberty with Smokey & Cody, using clicker techniques. Works unbelievably well!!
The upshot of all of this is that horses are natural pessimists (according to Pat P.). With them, an ounce of prevention is worth a TON of cure. It is way easier to preserve and protect confidence & trust, then to lose it and have to develop it again. (Just ask anyone who has been cheated on..)
Another reminder from Pat is that "punishment doesn't work for prey animals" - it only makes them try to protect themselves.
A great resource for this is the new Level 3 On-line DVD!