One of the things I like most about working with horses is the problem solving aspect. I’ve grown a lot as a person because of the lessons gleaned from looking at all the components of a situation and then, because it’s my horses I’m working with, doing things in the most positive way. It’s part of what has come of my experience with becoming a trainer who uses operant conditioning (aka, positive reinforcement training, clicker training).
It has been said that I coddle my horses, especially Pie. (I would like to add here that unlike some of my horses, Pie has never bucked in my face because I asked for a trot while lungeing, but I forgive these other horses because I don’t judge anyone who has to deal with all of their hormones.) Pie is a thinker. And he is smart. He retains information and works with it. Sometimes he uses what he’s learned to, say, open a gate that isn’t fully latched. Sometimes he uses it to remember that not long ago his saddle hurt. And even though he’s had a full treatment of ulcer meds, he may still hurt. Still other times he has learned how to manipulate his mom to coddling him.
The thing is, I can’t suddenly change who I am and for two reasons at the very least. Primarily, I’m not going to go back to uses force. . .because that would alter who I am at my core, and because the side effect on my horses would be extremely detrimental.
Before I go too much further, I do feel that a certain amount of emotional pressure is fair. I believe that a truly healthy herd has rough play, punishment, and negative reinforcement. But in a healthy herd, such things are never as severe as what humans think is fair. Because of this human failing, I try to err on the side of too kind or too soft.
Now, for the problem that I had at hand. Pie has been flinching as though he’s got ulcers at some things that he suffers from with ulcers but not others. And he’s had a full treatment of omeprazole AND U7 AND he’s on Succeed (I went all out this time – don’t judge, he’s a loyal steed). I ran it by my more down-to-earth, barnmate/counterpart.
She said, “Pie no longer has ulcers.”
“Say that again so that it really sinks in.” I replied.
Humoring me as she does, “Pie no longer has ulcers.”
I asked for her opinion and she gave it kindly. Which was that Pie has learned that if something bothers him I go into Mommy Coddle Mode which is much nicer to have than, say, Mommy Ignore It Mode or worse, Mommy Correct It Mode.
The problem that I had was that I didn’t really know how to address this without becoming someone I’m not. Thankfully I saw a video a friend shared about a bomb proof horse, which Pie once was. It got the wheels of my brain turning on how I c ould address his twitchy reactions to things in the girth area as a game. How to give him Mommy Time yet NOT reinforce the babying that was happening. He’s comfortably jumping 2′ courses right now. He’s running and bucking and rolling in the field with his buddies. He does not run the fence line when I work with Sioux.
So tonight we did bomb proofing games that were super easy for him. Wear a hat. Play “Show Me Something Different” with his hula hoop. Fetch his favorite rubber dog toy. Touch a tarp with his nose. Stand next to the tarp. And after a half an hour of goofing around, wear the tarp.
We worked on putting that stiff, heavy, loud white tarp on him over and over. We slowly worked up to it until I was putting it on him like a winter blanket and he was willing to walk, graze, and back while wearing it he had to reach back and touch it. All of which was done with such a high rate of reinforcement that my Non-operant conditioning friends would be barely containing their eye rolls. And those who are mildly into positive reinforcement would be asking polite questions, but I’m certain that Peggy Hogan would have approved.
Anyway. I feel good that I addressed a negative behavior in Pie by coming at it from a different angle while also being true to how I work with my horses. Pie had a great time, playing games, and toying with Mommy, but then also took on the challenge. He’s competitive and I use that in him. I’m excited about how this will play out when i next ride in my new tall boots.