• Laura

The role of emotions in horse training


There are many different (and good) sources of information that will all say the same thing regarding the role emotions in horse training--they should not be allowed in our work with animals. This is almost always solid advice to try to heed, although it's not always practical or possible.

Ask yourself, why did you get involved with horses to begin with? I'll bet it wasn't for all of the logical and practical reasons to be involved with horses (I have yet to hear one of these since maybe the 19th century)! Most of us, or indeed, all of us have some emotional or sentimental reason to have horses in our lives, so it's silly to say that these emotions are not welcome in the saddle with us.

This is why I have a bit of a different take on emotions and their role in horseback riding and horse training than many other equestrians. I believe that emotional responses, as long as they are controlled, measured and appropriate, can have a positive effect on our horsemanship in a few different ways, and that trying to eliminate emotions entirely as soon as we arrive at the barn is neither practical nor prudent.

Take, for example, excitement. Excitement is a common human emotion that we would be hard-pressed to omit from our dealings with horses when we are about to embark on a horsey adventure, and I think that a feeling of excitement can transmit to the animal with good results. A horse infected with a little bit of this energizing emotion from its handler can be an awesome sight in the show ring, and it can pull an otherwise grouchy old trail horse out of a dull funk.

Overexcitement, on the other hand, can be a difficult thing to contend with when the horse hits the ceiling because it's feeding off of its handler's neurotic expression of this emotion. Additionally, a super reactive or spooky horse may find themselves overstimulated if a person is communicating to them in a state of hyper-excitement. But as long as we control our expression of excitement and keep our heads on our shoulders, there's no reason to try to repress our feelings of anticipation or thrill when we are around our horses.

Anger is definitely the most controversial of emotions that humans encounter, whether we experience it at the barn or in another location. I think the rules regarding anger are quite similar at the barn as in everyday life. Anger is not unnatural nor should it be totally ignored or repressed, but it also shouldn't be allowed to rule our actions or responses to people or animals. Just as anger might be the impulse one needs to confront an out-of-line boss or stand up for someone getting bullied, anger that we experience when handling our horses can be the push we need to really change something about their behavior that's problematic.

Small doses of justified, controlled anger can also help convince our horses to take us seriously in some instances. To illustrate this point I will share an anecdote about a dog I was once taking care of for a friend of my brother's. The dog was very smart, but almost without any manners whatsoever. Every day, we would walk the dog, sometimes for several hours at a time, and the pooch would relentlessly pull on the leash. For the first two days I tried every patient, positive method I knew of for remedying the pulling (stopping and waiting to continue until after the pulling subsided, using treats, overtaking and releasing the pressure, and so on), all to no avail. While she seemed to understand what I wanted from her by the end of the first day, she simply didn't care to comply.

On day three of hound-sitting, my hands were beginning to suffer from blisters from tolerating so much leash pulling, and I was starting to get frustrated. Partly as a result of this frustration, when the dog started pulling on my raw, aching hands, I pulled back against her harder than I would have done without the influence of this emotion on board. I immediately felt ashamed for having reacted to her malbehavior with any sort of emotion at all since, like most of us who handle animals, I had been taught that emotions and training do not mix and that any training performed while frustrated or angry will not be effective. She is, after all, only a dog, and we can't expect simple-minded animals to understand and appropriately respond to human emotions.

But miraculously, the previously aloof canine looked remorseful and penitent after my mini-outburst of frustration in response to her actions, and she hardly pulled at all the rest of our walk. When she would forget about her newfound resolve not to pull and start to surge ahead, all it took was a firm voice command to return her obediently to my side.

It was during this exchange with the dog that I experienced an epiphany about the role of emotions in training. While some might argue that she was simply obeying out of fear, or that she was cowed into the correct behavior, this didn't at all seem to be the case. She was no more or less afraid of me than she had been previously, but rather there was a shift in the way she valued the behavior I was seeking. Because of my stronger-than-normal response, which was in part fueled by my frustration and sore hands, the behavior that was unimportant to her before became as important to her as it had been to me all along. My frustration allowed me to share some of my discomfort with the dog in a meaningful way that made her realize that staying by my side was important, and in a way that treats could not.

It is here that I feel I must include a bit of a disclaimer--I do NOT claim to be a dog trainer and I recognize that there is a significant difference between training a dog and training a horse. I also realize that the more expertise a person has in a given subject, the less likely it becomes that he or she will experience frustration or anger when handling a situation related to that subject since, more often than not, these negative emotions arise as a result or symptom of feeling impotent. The more you know and the more tools you have at your disposal, the more likely you are to find a solution early on and there will be no need to become angry. That being said, sometimes a little anger can be just the solution one needs in a training conundrum, which I will attempt to illustrate below with a couple more anecdotes, and I will also talk about how and when not to use anger in training.

Both of these stories are about real people, horses and situations, although the names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved. This first story will illustrate an effective use for anger in training. Let's call our subjects Gina (the human) and Pete (the horse). Pete is a notorious biter, and his new owner, Gina, is not known for setting very clear ground rules for her horses. Pete's biting has very quickly gotten out of control and intolerable, making it difficult to even enter his pen safely. Although Gina is a knowledgeable and competent horsewoman, her many bruises attest to the fact that she is having trouble getting Pete to take her very seriously when she tells him not to use her as a chew toy.

My advice to Gina? Get mad! So now, every time Pete even approaches her with his mouth, Gina allows her mild irritation to turn briefly into anger, just long enough to really make a lasting impression on Pete. After only about a week of this, Pete has all but abandoned the habit, and is becoming a much more pleasant animal to be around who knows clearly what's ok and what's not.

The second story involves a herding dog that we'll call Eddy, and his owner, who we'll call Sheila. Eddy has a bad habit of constantly trying to herd the horses whenever he's at the barn with Sheila. He will spend hours just skulking around them and darting about their back legs, occasionally nipping at their heels or attempting to push them around their pens. Sheila is usually either too distracted or busy to even notice his behavior, and when she does notice him doing it she calls him back to her as if it were merely an afterthought. Once in a great while Eddy will actually make contact with one of his horsey targets, hard enough to draw blood, and only then does he incite the ire of Sheila. When this occurs, she loses her temper and throws herself violently upon her unsuspecting dog, who until that moment was not made aware that his behavior was unacceptable. Eddie goes right back to darting after the horses feet as soon as his owner's outburst is over, making no connection between the crime and the punishment.

One can see how these two stories differ. One the one hand, we have a person consistently using a controlled dose of anger to make a point to a horse who ought to know better than to bite, and in the other we have a sporadic outburst of anger that is wholly ineffectual in creating the desired change.

When allowing yourself to express your emotions to benefit your training, appropriate timing and impeccable feel are indispensable (for more on feel, see my other blog post titled That elusive feeling). You do not want to allow yourself to express emotions that you may lose control over, since this may just cause more of a problem with your horse.

For example, if you're the type of person who becomes incapacitated with anxiety before a big event, it's probably best to focus on controlling any emotional expressions of excitement you may have rather than giving them free rein over your mind and body. Since feelings of excitement can quickly spiral into feelings of performance anxiety, you could be crippling your ability to effectively ride or handle your horse, which in turn will make him feel less confident and secure and before you know it, you and your horse will be feeding off of each other's turmoil. Not only can this impede both of you from doing your best work, it can also become a volatile and dangerous situation.

Similarly, if you are known for having a short fuse and a quick temper, then allowing yourself to indulge in these emotional expressions can be a bad idea. In order for emotional displays to be effective, you must be able to switch them on and off again like a lightbulb. For a good model on how to do this, watch how horses interact with one another. When the dominant horse feels one of her herd members needs to be reprimanded for some misstep (crowding her, encroaching on her feed, etc.), she will become a caricature of anger, but only long enough to get the desired response from the other horse. The second the other horse properly reacts to her show of emotion, the dominant mare's face will go from contorted with anger, bared teeth and pinned ears to perfectly relaxed and happy. She does not hold a grudge or cling to her anger the way a human often does. She experiences the emotion fleetingly as a way to communicate with another herd member, and then it passes and she is once again in neutral. If we cannot adopt this almost bi-polar emotional switch, then our human-like, extended expressions of emotion will only serve to confuse, scare or upset the horse and they should not be allowed in the barn with us.

A good piece of advice for analyzing and utilizing any emotion you may have is to first observe yourself as if you were a curious bystander, making note of when, how, and maybe most important, why you feel the way that you do. For example, are you angry because you got in a fight with your spouse earlier in the day, or are you genuinely reacting to an instance of unacceptable behavior from your horse that's happening in that moment? Are your anger responses consistent and controlled, or inconsistent and out of control? Does the way you feel and respond to a perceived blunder by your horse depend on your mood at any given time, perhaps eliciting amusement one day and annoyance the next? And most important, does your emotional expression make sense to the horse, and does it have the desired effect? If you can answer these questions honestly, you can begin to determine if you're using your emotions correctly, or if you need to find a better way of either expressing or suppressing them while with your equine companion.


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