Yes, you read that right, you can train a horse in two minutes. If you do a good job of training a horse in two minutes, it only takes seconds to reinforce that training in the future. But, once the horse is trained you might discover that’s not how you meant to train it or what you meant to train it to do. Then it can take many, many, hours to un-train or recondition that behaviour.
I have seen several different people in several very different environments with very different (bred and trained) horses train their horses to behave in a way they didn’t intend. It’s not that these are bad trainers or poorly trained or motivated horses, it’s just that the trainers were lacking awareness of how their behaviours were setting up the horse for “unexpected” success – which may also have been interpreted as a failure.
When I use the term trainer I mean anyone who interacts regularly with horses. Even the smallest interactions we have teach the horse some sort of expectation or permissible behaviour. Unfortunately most people have innate difficulty taking responsibility for negative outcomes with animal behaviour, perhaps because we are wired to blame exogenous forces like the “stupid horse”.
Here’s the observation I’ve seen played out again and again.
The rider bridles (or halters) the horse in a hurry and might clash with the horse’s teeth while putting the bit in its mouth, or perhaps they just didn’t plan ahead, thinking where the horse was at mentally or if it was even ready to be bridled. The horse might have had an uncomfortable experience and reacted by pulling away, the rider, in turn, may react by stopping what s/he is doing and allowing the horse a break to settle back down. The cycle just began – the horse was rewarded (relieved of pressure) for its reaction. The horse thinks it did the right thing.
Even if the rider gets the bridle on, the next time they approach the horse with the bridle it remembers it had some luck dodging the bridling and might give it another shot. This time the rider notices the horse getting ready to move its head and stops trying to put the bridle on until the horse puts its head back down (again rewarding the wrong answer by relieving pressure). The horse settles its head down again and the rider again prepares to put the bridle on, so the horse pulls away again and the game is on. It really isn’t a game for the horse, he just wants to be left alone and has been taught that if he reacts a certain way that happens.
Now the biggest problem that arises from this scenario is “attribution” the rider can’t see what s/he is doing wrong, so s/he attributes the problem to the horse. But because s/he hasn’t had the problem before (they just conditioned it into the horse’s routine) s/he blames something else – “the horse has sore ears and won’t let me touch them”.
Although the behaviour I described was conditioned into the horse in about two minutes it might take a lot longer to recondition the horse to again allow the handling necessary to get the job done. And so, it is with all the things we do with horses. Making “the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult” is the most fundamental aspect of horse training but it takes awareness and open mindedness to be truly effective – we must “see it from the horse’s point of view”.
This very basic idea of training can be applied equally well to a whole range of problem areas. Why does your horse always walk off when you mount? Why does your horse throw its head? Why won’t your horse stop? All these problems can be traced back to what we have conditioned into the horse and sometimes we condition in one area and the horse figures out a relationship between the conditioned response and a similar scenario, so the response pops up unexpectedly somewhere else.
There is an old adage I quite like that seems to be applicable: ” those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music” – Friedrich Nietzsche