Both inside and outside influences help determine if an animal is operant or not in a given situation. If he is “out of his head” with fear or distractions, the animal is not able to think about his behavior. This is often called “over threshold”.
Any good trainer knows it is a waste of time (and very stressful on the animal and trainer alike) to try to train an animal that is ‘over threshold’. This is also referred to as ‘arousal level’. Arousal can be high for many reasons. A horse might be fearful, excited, or be experiencing other types of stress. Too much of good and bad things can lead to high arousal levels. If you can identify the causes of his arousal, it helps when retraining as you can use those triggers to teach him to be calm. (see next blog post for more information)
If you are noticing a sudden change in behavior, always consider health reasons (injury, or pain levels) and trauma (emotional or physical) first.
If those have been ruled out, what good trainers do is to reduce, mitigate or control the factors that lead to the ‘over threshold’ state so the animal can return to under threshold. In the short term they might use physical barriers in the environment to limit visual or sound access to the trigger of arousing. Or they might add distance from the trigger. For long term-retraining, they use ‘systematic desensitization’ with the specific objects, sounds smell etc that cause the stress, and/or ‘counter condition’ them so they trigger a good feeling in the horse.
Signs of Stress
One of the best things you can do as a horse handler or trainer is to learn the signs of stress in horses. The behaviors that tell you he is stressed, aroused or anxious may be subtle, so watch him closely. His ears, where his eyes are looking, his body language all convey how he is feeling. If he is showing any overt signs of anxiety or stress, you need to change how he is feeling before he will be able to learn or perform what he knows.
If you’d like to learn more about horse body language and subtle communication, the best teacher is personal observation. Watch your horse as he goes about his daily life and how he reacts to strange things. Watch other people’s horses when they are in unfamiliar environments such as horse shows. Note any behaviors you see that indicate stress.
Watch the horses on training videos (youtube.com or purchased training DVD’s) or at shows to see how they react to training or go to clinics on horse behavior. There are also many good books available at public libraries to help you learn. (some titles coming soon).
Here’s a website to tide you over in the meantime. http://www.horses-and-ponies.com/training/bodylanguage.shtml
At the Edge of Threshold
If the horse is just at the edge of his threshold, the clicker may help to bring him back to an operant state of mind. This past weekend, my sister took her horse on a group ride. 35 other horses, wagons and riders were in attendance. My sister always goes to these events with a few other horses that her horse knows as he otherwise goes over threshold and is very hard to manage.
About an hour into the ride, during a break when he was tied to a heavy post, his two buddies were driven away to transport someone elsewhere. As soon as he realized this was happening, he started pivoting his abck end around the post, throwing his head and pawing the ground, becoming quite agitated.
My sister, standing nearby, pulled out her clicker and waited for a moment of calm between the behaviors. Click and treat. Immediately, he started calming down and trying to figure out what she was clicking for. In under 10 clicks, he had calmed down completely and was standing quietly. She was able to get on and ride him on the trail until his buddies rejoined them. (The clicker attracted quite a bit of attention as people wandered what she was doing and some scoffed at its effectiveness). In past experiences without the clicker, he would have been unmanageable. Instead, she was able to get him back into operant mode. It can work and is worth a try.
I used this method when I was first learning the clicker as I had a very dog reactive foster dog. A useful book that teaches the concepts behind this approach is "Click to Calm" by Emma Parsons. It provides recipes for how to retrain reactive/fear-based behaviors in dogs, but as you can see, it can also be adapted to horses. In a nutshell: click for the behaviors you want and the state of mind/emotion comes with it.