To celebrate the recent launch of PPG’s Horses with Voices initiative, this article discusses how we can give our horses a voice, as well as build confidence and resilience, through motivation.
We sometimes ask a lot of our horses when it comes training. We use training for many different purposes, including specific activities, daily routines, and just spending time together. If we practice an activity, whether we have the aim of competing or not, we train our horses to repeat exercises over and over again.
Often, we expect them to be happy to continue until we are satisfied that they have perfected the movements as we want them to. We also train them to give specific responses to the routines that are part of their lives. And we train them to interact with us in a way that we like, makes us feel comfortable, and gives us a positive emotional response.
In every aspect of interactions with our horses, there are expectations they must meet. A goal that we set, and that when they achieve it, tells us we have been successful in teaching them.
But what is in it for the horse? If he had a voice, would he continue to repeat the same exercises to the same extent we ask him to? Or would he rather do something else? If he had a voice, would he go about the routines in his life in the same way that we ask him to, or would he find a different way of navigating that routine? If he had a voice, what would our own relationship and connection be?
Freedom of Choice
I expect there are many of us who know, even if we don’t say it out loud, that we do not think our horses would do what we expect of them if they had the choice. But we may not want to pursue it as it is quite possibly something we don’t want to acknowledge.
If we do actually acknowledge it, we are also unconsciously acknowledging that we could do better and this is an uncomfortable thought. Why? Because we are already doing what is best for our horse. Aren’t we?
But if we truly listen to ourselves and choose to do even more for our horse, we are going to have to do things differently, which presents a problem. Namely, if we do decide to go down this road, can we change how and what we do while still preserving the relationship, trust, and safety we currently have with our horses?
What if They Refuse?
This is a particular worry when we are working towards giving our horses an equal voice. What do we do if we give them a voice and they tell you they don’t want to do what you ask?
Many people would find this situation difficult to manage. Some interactions or activities are a necessity when we are horse caretakers, so where does it leave us if our horses refuse?
There are also things we do that are not a necessity, but are part of our shared interactions and activities. And if the horse says no to these things too, where does that leave our relationship?
The final issue is safety. Horses are large and heavy and the potential for serious injury either to us or our horse is very real. When we work with our horse in a controlled way, we feel more secure that nothing unexpected will happen. If we give him a voice, however, we cannot be sure of his actions. Or can we?
There are different aspects to giving our horse a voice. It isn’t just about listening to what he says. It’s about understanding his personality and preferences and taking these into account whenever we do something with him.
In this article, I’m going to look at how we can give our horse a voice through motivation. While an animal can be motivated to do – or not do – something, our horse needs to be motivated when we are doing things together.
Without motivation he is unlikely to want to do any, or all, of the things we want and/or need him to do. And if he is not engaged or interested, that affects what we do together and our relationship with him. We may think that motivation is about providing an incentive, i.e. a reward.
For our horses this could come in different forms including food, scratches, or time outside. But there is much more to motivation this.
For example, we can motivate our horse by our use of timing. If we know he likes quiet time at a particular time of the day, then he is not going to be motivated to do something energetic at that time. We can also lose motivation if we try to engage him at this time because we may see ourselves as lacking in expertise and not being successful.
Perhaps we approach this by increasing the incentive for our horse to go along with what we want him to do, and if that works, think we have been successful. But have we really?
If we look closely, we have motivated our horse to ignore his preference for quiet time and work for a reward. Is there anything wrong with that?
Yes and no. Assuming that we are not talking about a necessity, it’s a poor choice because we have not listened to our horse’s voice. We have decided he will do something when we want him to whether he wants to or not. And in order to achieve this, we have manipulated the use of the incentive to compel him to go along with us.
Using incentives and rewards is a good thing to do. We want our horse to have a positive experience and give him a reason to do all the things we ask of him, but rewards are not the sole reason. We are also working towards improving our relationship, and that means we want to focus on two things.
One, he does what we ask of him because he wants to be involved and not just because we give increasingly tasty rewards. Two, we need to listen to his voice and take his preferences into account.
More than Rewards
We can still use incentives and rewards as they are a positive aspect of what we do together, but they are not all of it. There will be times when our attempts at incentives do not encourage our horse to change his mind, and what then?
If we rely purely on incentives and rewards, we have nowhere to go when they do not work. This is why they are better used as part of the overall training session rather than the main way to achieve a result. If our horse is going to do something with us because he wants to, and not for the end result of a reward, he needs motivation.
If you haven’t already done this, observe your horse throughout an entire day. What does he do? When does he do it? When is he energetic? When is he quiet? When is he engaged and interested in his environment? When is he watching the world go by?
The answers to these questions give you insight as to his daily routine, energy levels, and preferences. And you can use this knowledge to the benefit of both of you. There will be some things you can’t change the timing of due to work commitments or the weather, for example, but there will be other things you can do at a different time.
Working with your horse’s natural daily rhythm provides him the motivation to be involved and do things with you before you even think about giving him rewards. The physical reward becomes an added extra in what is already a rewarding situation.
If we look closer at timing, we can also change the timing within an activity. Next time you do something together, note how the activity goes. Is your horse engaged at the start, then loses interest? Is he less motivated to start with? Does he do one type of movement more readily than another? Is he more excited and less able to listen to you at any time during the activity? Is he anticipating or trying to do something when you are not ready to do it?
Once again, you can use this knowledge to adjust the timing of what you do within that activity session. This can really enhance your horse’s abilities as you are working with his own motivation. It also means that you are timing things based on where his mind is during the session.
As such, instead of asking him to do something that goes against his what he wants to do, you work with it. This makes learning so much easier.
Working like this also has a long-term benefit. You will find that as your horse has tapped into his own motivation, your sessions are an enhanced experience. As he progresses, you will find he listens to you more readily. He will also be more agreeable to doing things at times when previously he would not be interested.
Obviously, however, we still need be sensible with our timings to acknowledge his right to a voice. The reason this practice is so successful is because we have tapped into our horse’s natural motivation.
We have worked with his mind and his preferences, which creates a stronger and more positive association with what we do together, as opposed to not working with timing and, instead, fighting against his preferences.
We can also motivate our horse by adjusting the environment. Again, we start with observing him. What part of the area you are working in does he go to first? Where does he look less comfortable? What is important to him? What does he find worrying? How does he move around the area? Does he prefer one part? Does he go one way first? Where is he more engaged? Where is he quieter?
We can use this information to help motivate him. There is no point asking a horse to be engaged with us in an area he finds worrying when we first go into the space.
Horses can find changes, such as equipment, noises, the way the wind blows, etc. in a familiar space worrying when they first go in. While they soon realize there is nothing to worry about, they will not be motivated to work in that area until their brain has processed the situation and they feel more relaxed.
Being aware of and picking up on our horse’s body language means we can identify any concerns he has and work with him in a different part of the space to start with, so we can retain his motivation to do something with us.
We can also use what we observe to look at where we place equipment, such as targets, jumps, and agility stations. Matching the activity to the area of the space where the horse’s body language is relaxed makes it more appealing and can give him the motivation to engage and learn.
Setting up Space
In addition to this, we can use timing in conjunction with how we set up the space. This means we are putting the equipment in the place where the horse is in the mood for that activity, and we can time the order of using the equipment to our horse’s energy, interest, and preference for how he wants to navigate the space.
By doing this, we are creating an environment that is completely in tune with the horse – and that has a big positive impact on his motivation and his happiness.
There are some of us that formally compete with our horses, so tailoring everything to engage their motivation does not work if we need to do things in a particular order. However, whether we formally compete in an activity or do it just for fun, setting up our environment to teach in this way will be enormously beneficial because it is not limiting, and the horse will progress.
Working this way, we can create a strong partnership with our horses and increase their enjoyment of the activity – because we are working with their preferences. As I have already discussed, this means he is motivated because he wants to be part of the activity, rather than engaging just for the reward at the end.
This is important, because if we teach by creating strong positive associations without conflict, our horses learn more effectively. This in turn helps build confidence, which is important because it helps build resilience. Resilience is the ability to navigate new and different experiences without undue stress. When an activity has been learned via positive association, there is no conflict.
Now, if we look at that same activity being set up in our environment the way we have to navigate it when we compete, while the equipment may have changed position, the horse has no negative associations with either the equipment or activity.
As such, he is better able to cope with the changes and still be motivated to engage even when we are not tailoring the activity to his motivation. We have already created the motivation and enjoyment by adjusting timing and placing. Once this is established, we can change things around and not lose that motivation.
Teaching like this also has a positive effect when we are outside our home environment as there may well be stimuli that make our horse feel anxious or stressed and that we will have to work around and cope with. In such instances, if the horse feels any reluctance or a lack of enjoyment in a particular activity, we will be trying to overcome all these issues at once.
But when the horse already has a strong positive association and motivation to engage in an activity, he will already be more focused on it. At the same time, the new environment can become less important because his mind is not focused on it.
This gives us a head start and although there may be some anxiety, we only have to manage that and not our horse’s motivation to engage in the activity in the first place. This all results in a stronger partnership and a more confident, resilient horse.
Pet Professional Guild. (2021). Horses with Voices