Joining Up or Learned Response

Joining Up:

A young strap­ping cow­boy comes walk­ing into the barn.  Every­one.  I mean every­one stops to take notice.  Admit­ted­ly, it’s his hand­some good looks but it’s also the intrigue.  He’s here to work with the rogue horse that just came off the trail­er two weeks ago breath­ing fire and dump­ing every­one who was brave enough to sad­dle him up for a ride.  The horse is a beaut him­self so every­one is hop­ing that some­thing can be done to sal­vage him as a rid­ing and per­for­mance horse.  

Mean­while, the own­er is no new­bie but she’s nev­er had a horse quite this dif­fi­cult.  Nev­er has she expe­ri­enced a horse so deter­mined to get rid of his rid­er.  It’s almost like he was taught to do that.  So much so, she looked deeply into his back­ground.  On close exam­i­na­tion, it wasn’t all that sketchy.  He had two own­ers, both decent rid­ers.  The pre­vi­ous own­er was too busy with her kids to spend the need­ed time with the horse, so he was sold.  Along came Jane and scooped him up.  Now, she was regret­ting it.  He had dumped her three times in two weeks and she was sore and scared.

Eager­ly, the entire barn was secret­ly peak­ing glances out towards the are­na to see how the cow­boy was get­ting along.  “A horse whis­per­er” he was called which only added to the roman­ti­cized allure.  

At first, the horse was just worked in the round pen free with no sad­dle or bri­dle.  You could see the fire in the hors­es eyes… or was that fear or con­fu­sion?  The horse soft­ens and starts com­ing to the cow­boy when asked.  You can see his eye change.  You can see him bond­ing with the cow­boy.  They call this join­ing up.

Then in sub­se­quent days slow­ly the horse was restart­ed to tack.  As the days turned into weeks, the horse whis­per­er was able to get the horse calm­ly inter­act­ing with him, calm­ly being sad­dled and rid­den in the ring and calm­ly rid­ing out.  

It was a mir­a­cle the barn ladies thought!  Swoon­ing over the tall cow­boy.  He tru­ly does whis­per to hors­es.  


While the age of the “horse whis­per­er” has fad­ed, the age of nat­ur­al horse­man­ship has not.  Peo­ple still look to those tech­niques to solve their horse prob­lems and to learn how to train.  And right­ful­ly so.  It works!  How­ev­er, while the tall, dark, hand­some cow­boy with his qui­et ways seems to be work mag­ic and whis­per to hors­es there is a more real­is­tic expla­na­tion.  

Learned Response:

Every­thing the cow­boy, the nat­ur­al horse­man or the lady tak­ing the Par­el­li train­ing does is just a sys­tem­at­ic way of train­ing learned respons­es.  Learned respons­es are con­tin­gen­cies.  If I do this then you do that.  Most­ly this is taught with pres­sure and release (aka neg­a­tive rein­force­ment).  Some­times you will see some con­se­quences (aka pun­ish­ment) mixed in.  What you see lots of is very pre­cise tim­ing of aids and very clear com­mu­ni­ca­tion to the horse.  This is where the whis­per seems to hap­pen. Once the horse fig­ures the train­er out, the horse can pre­dict what the train­er is going to do and the horse LOVES that.  It is very com­fort­ing to the horse.  If they do this, the train­er does that.  So while it may seem like mag­ic, it’s real­ly just good behav­ior mod­i­fi­ca­tion.  

For those skep­tics out there, if you have seen poor nat­ur­al horse­man­ship and yes it does exist quite fre­quent­ly, it is because some­one has learned the method with­out learn­ing the why.  Unfor­tu­nate­ly, because of the mass pro­duc­tion of the nat­ur­al horse­man­ship tech­niques, some horse han­dlers nev­er learn the rea­son why they do what they do and there­fore they get it all wrong.  They nev­er under­stand the under­ly­ing behav­ioral prin­ci­ples and nev­er can think their way through a prob­lem that doesn’t go like a text­book.  But I digress.

So how does this all work.  While dis­sect­ing each and every nat­ur­al horse­man­ship tech­nique would be too encom­pass­ing for this blog, let’s take one as an exam­ple… gain­ing con­trol of the hors­es feet.  This is accom­plished by teach­ing the horse to move off on cue and to stop on cue.  Then you can use this tech­nique in var­i­ous cir­cum­stances to con­trol the horse no mat­ter what.  They are spook­ing.  You go back to con­trol­ling their feet and vio­la they are con­cen­trat­ing on you, not the scary object.  They refuse to enter a trail­er, you con­trol their feet and vio­la they get on the trail­er.  They don’t lunge, you con­trol their feet and in no time you have horse that lunges instead of bolt­ing and buck­ing off with the own­er in tow.  

So how do they teach this?  Lets use just one exam­ple.  While there could be mul­ti­ple ways this could go, for sim­plic­i­ty sake we will take the most direct route.  So, the train­er puts a nat­ur­al horse­man­ship hal­ter on the horse attached to a twelve foot lead and heads out to the round pen with a car­rot stick in hand.  The train­er faces the horse’s left shoul­der, put a lit­tle implied pres­sure on the horse by look­ing at the horse’s shoul­der intent­ly then step­ping toward the horse’s shoul­der then gen­tly shak­ing the whip at the shoul­der and as soon as the horse steps side­ways he releas­es all pres­sure and lets the horse relax.  Soon the horse is mov­ing his shoul­ders away as soon as the body lan­guage of the han­dler tells him to do so.  Four impor­tant things to keep in mind.  

  • The han­dler has a pre­de­ter­mined body lan­guage that he is going to use (noth­ing mag­i­cal, it could be any­thing)
  • He uses the same body lan­guage each and every time (con­sis­ten­cy)
  • He always starts soft­ly and only increas­es pres­sure if he doesn’t get a response (the cue becomes the first move­ment of the han­dler makes, the soft one.  This is just learn­ing the­o­ry at it’s best)
  • He instant­ly releas­es all pres­sure when the horse responds as the han­dler wants.

Now let’s talk about how he stops the feet.  Same set­up but he uses a glance at the hindquar­ters, then a shake of the whip towards the hindquar­ters and the horse has to slow down and turn to look at the han­dler because his hindquar­ters were just dri­ven away.  He stops.  The pres­sure releas­es.  With rep­e­ti­tion the horse learns to stop and face the han­dler when the han­dler just looks at the horse’s butt.  Again seems like whis­per­ing mag­ic but it is just a learned response.  Grant­ed not all hors­es respond so eas­i­ly.  The “mag­ic”, if there is any, is in the handler’s abil­i­ty to put the horse in a posi­tion where he will suc­ceed and will have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to get the release of pres­sure.  It is then that the horse will learn the cue based on the sci­en­tif­ic prin­ci­ples of learn­ing the­o­ry and oper­ant con­di­tion­ing (neg­a­tive rein­force­ment aka pres­sure and release).

See, hors­es love to avoid pres­sure.  They will try super hard to find the path of least resis­tance.  If they find that path doing some­thing we want then we have a well trained horse.  If that path is some­thing the han­dler doesn’t want then we have a rogue horse.  This is the #1 way that hors­es learn to be rear­ers, buck­ers, bolters, poor load­ers, cross tie break­ers, uncatch­able and every oth­er bad behav­ior.  They have had pres­sure released on them when they have done some­thing bad.  Either inten­tion­al­ly or unin­ten­tion­al­ly.  This goes to the ole adage “when­ev­er you are with a horse, you are train­ing it”.

So it is this basic prin­ci­ple that can be applied to any behav­ior and can teach a horse any­thing phys­i­cal­ly pos­si­ble.  While this is a real­ly sim­pli­fied exam­ple, it isn’t horse whis­per­ing.  It is just teach­ing a horse a learned response from a cue.

So while the out­come might look mag­i­cal, if you under­stand how hors­es learn, you can under­stand why any train­ing tech­nique is work­ing or not.

There is no mag­ic.  Why some train­ers seem to work mag­ic is in their abil­i­ty to set the horse up for suc­cess.  Because the faster the horse makes the cor­rect response, the faster the train­er can release pres­sure and the faster the horse learns.

Now in reward based train­ing we add anoth­er lay­er where a reward is offered for the cor­rect behav­ior and speeds the learn­ing process up even more all while build­ing enthu­si­asm in the horse for try­ing and learn­ing.  That’s when the mag­ic real­ly starts to hap­pen.