Saturday, October 30, 2010

22. Managing the Environment

In many situations, the easiest way to keep the under horse under threshold is to use distance. For fearful situations, this is where the sound of the metallic clicker excels over other marker sounds or methods. Studies have shown that there may be a link between the sound of the click and its impact on the medulla, the primitive part of the brain.

The click appears to act as a calming mechanism and also puts the horse into the operant mode. What behavior is he doing that is currently getting clicked? You are going to select for any behavior that indicates calm or attention on you. Dropping his head, slight relaxing of tense muscles, ears on less alert, eyes held normally (instead of staring or glancing around) etc. This is where it is really useful to recognize signs of stress as you can click for the absence or reduction of them.

Horse Fearful of Cows (or other animals)

Let’s take a horse that is fearful of cows. Find out at what distance he starts showing fearful behaviors. Depending on the cows and your horse’s level of fear, and how active the herd is, you may want to work with a fence between you and the cows so they cannot get any closer.

Stand on the ground with your horse and wait for him to look at or acknowledge the cows. When he does, c/t.

Walk him parallel to the cows just beyond that distance and c/t for him for glancing at the cows but staying calm, for keeping his head low, any attention of you etc. At the other side of the field, turn back and walk parallel 1 yard closer to the cows. Continue c/t as before. Keep walking back and forth past the cows, getting a little closer each time, as long as your horse stays under threshold.

If his body language and behavior starts to indicate, he is increasing, not decreasing his threshold level, move back to the distance where he was calmer and keep training.

If for some reason, the cows are able to come closer than he is able to handle, c/t more frequently may help keep him in an operant state of mind. If it doesn’t put a physical barrier between him and the cows until he calms, then move him out of the situation.

When is able to stam calm, try cuing and c/t a few known behaviors. That is always a good test to see just how stressed he is. If he can easily and quickly respond, he is still in operant mode. If he can't, he is not. When he can do this, try getting him to do some actual training of other behaviors with the cows nearby.

Next, enlist a helper and have them move the cows at a walk. Again, start with your horse looking at them in a stationary position, then walk parallel to their path along the fence. You may need to increase your distance from the cows when you start this session as the cow movement may trigger a higher arousal level. Work your way towards the cows as before.

Next, have the cows move faster and repeat the process until your horse can move calmly by them.

Next step is to add speed to your horse. Then climb on his back and walk him, then trot. Etc.

Horse Comes Thundering by on a Group Ride and Spooks Your Horse

On a group ride, there may be individuals who find the need to gallop their horse past other horses to catch up (despite that local etiquette says that they should not do this). If your horse is sensitive to this, it could mean a bumpy ride for you!

To prepare for just such incidences, you can train for it, again using distance to assist you.

Start on the ground. Ask a buddy mounted on a horse to help. This will take several training sessions, or more, depending on your horse’s sensitivity level to sounds and startling.

Choose an open field for this exercise. Walk your horse in a straight line towards a landmark in the distance.
Ask your helper to ride a line parallel to you but far enough away that your horse can stay under threshold while he is moving quickly past. Arrange a signal (such as an arm wave) for her to move further away if you give it. This signal means your horse is getting to over-threshold point.

1. In the beginning, have your mounted friend start with her horse facing you and moving towards you at a walk. C/t for your horse staying calm.

2. Have your helper turn and come back past you on the same path (this time coming up from behind you) and increase her speed a little. Repeat as many passes as it takes for you to walk to the other side of the field.
At the end of the field, turn around and come back in a straight line, a little closer to the ridden horse, again walking parallel.

3. Decrease distance each pass as long as your horse stays under threshold.

4. Each subsequent training session, start the other horse a little slower where you left off before increasing the speed of the other horse.

5. Eventually, your horse should be comfortable with the horse thundering by at quite close range. When he is comfortable with that, ask your friend to move further away gain but this time, delaying her passing so it becomes unpredictable. Then start from behind you, instead of in front.

Don’t forget to train on both sides of your horse, if for some reason your specific environment doesn’t allow you to turn and walk back (such as you are doing circles instead of straight lines).

Repeat the entire process steps 1 to 5 from the beginning distance, but with you mounted on his back. Make sure you have practiced clicking and delivering the reward from the saddle and he is able to turn and take it from you.

Train through the process at a walk, then a gallop and a lope.

Each time, the process will quite likely progress faster (which means you can probably decrease the distance more quickly each time) as he now knows what is going to happen and what behavior you are rewarding for.

Every now and then to keep him fresh, ask a friend to come thundering by from behind you. (Preferably planning with you ahead of time).

The process you are working through is called ‘Systematic Desensitization’.


  1. "If his body language and behavior starts to indicate, he is increasing, not decreasing his threshold level, move back to the distance where he was calmer and keep training."

    This is not optimal because the horse learns that by offering stressed behaviors, he can make the aversive object go away.

    Instead, it can be very efficient /effective to move back at EVERY trial when the horse offers a calm or curious behavior.

    So, approach to point horse is comfortable at. Hang out, wait for nice, calm behavior. When you get it, go back to your starting point.

    Continue going forward and then back to your starting point, gradually increasing how close you get.

    With horses, there are LOTS of fear issues.

    If you hang a plastic bag or other object on the fence, the horses will often self-desensitize themselves to it using this type of approach and retreat.

    If we are working with something that is aversive, we should use it to our advantage.
    Present it at a level that can be tolerated, then reward (by backing off and removing the aversive) when we get calm behavior. This can be very effective with (or without) treats.


  2. Yes, ideally, you want to try to stay under threshold if at all possible. Take it slow enouhg that he doesn't he react.

    But there will be times when he goes over threshold and starts displaying behaviors you don't want.

    It sounds like you are refering to Constructional Aggression Treatment (CAT)? This can be an effective way to get calm behavior around a fear-evoking stimulus.