Monday, December 26, 2011

Being a Good Receiver

Every horse is a nonstop transmitter of data about his state of mind. Ears show us what has captured the horse's attention and the intensity of his feelings at the moment. Up and forward tell us he's focused on something ahead. Ears swiveling casually about suggest that the horse is checking out what's going on around him. Ears pinned back accompany physical exertion or aggression. Ears that are loose and floppy go with a relaxed, comfortable state of mind. Other signs of relaxation include blinking eyes, loose mouth, quiet tail, lowered head, and a leg cocked. Signs of tension are just the opposite: Wide eyes, tight mouth, swishing tail, high head, and all four feet on the ground, ready to take flight.

Good horsemen take all of this in and filter it with a sort of sixth sense born of equal parts empathy and experience. They are highly effective receivers of what the horse is transmitting at any given moment. How they use the information is another matter, of course, but the best of them strike a balance between support and challenge, between nurturing and demanding.

Next time you’re around a horse, try to figure out what he’s saying with his body. And see what you can tell him with yours. Awareness is the first step in the journey.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Christmas Story

I seldom pass on stories like this but today I'm making an exception. Keep the tissues handy. This story was sent to me by my old friend, Jonathan Abel. The author is unknown.

A brother and sister had made their usual hurried, obligatory pre-Christmas visit to the little farm where dwelt their elderly parents with their small herd of horses. The farm was where they had grown up and had been named Lone Pine Farm because of the huge pine, which topped the hill behind the farm. Through the years the tree had become a talisman to the old man and his wife, and a landmark in the countryside. The young siblings had fond memories of their childhood here, but the city hustle and bustle added more excitement to their lives, and called them away to a different life. The old folks no longer showed their horses, for the years had taken their toll, and getting out to the barn on those frosty mornings was getting harder, but it gave them a reason to get up in the mornings and a reason to live. They sold a few foals each year, and the horses were their reason for joy in the morning and contentment at day's end.

Angry, as they prepared to leave, the young couple confronted the old folks "Why do you not at least dispose of The Old One." She is no longer of use to you. It's been years since you've had foals from her. You should cut corners and save so you can have more for yourselves. How can this old worn out horse bring you anything but expense and work? Why do you keep her anyway?" The old man looked down at his worn boots, holes in the toes, scuffed at the barn floor and replied, " Yes, I could use a pair of new boots. His arm slid defensively about the Old One's neck as he drew her near with gentle caressing he rubbed her softly behind her ears. He replied softly, "We keep her because of love. Nothing else, just love."

Baffled and irritated, the young folks wished the old man and his wife a Merry Christmas and headed back toward the city as darkness stole through the valley. The old couple shook their heads in sorrow that it had not been a happy visit. A tear fell upon their cheeks. How is it that these young folks do not understand the peace of the love that filled their hearts? So it was, that because of the unhappy leave-taking, no one noticed the insulation smoldering on the frayed wires in the old barn. None saw the first spark fall. None but the "Old One". In a matter of minutes, the whole barn was ablaze and the hungry flames were licking at the loft full of hay. With a cry of horror and despair, the old man shouted to his wife to call for help as he raced to the barn to save their beloved horses. But the flames were roaring now, and the blazing heat drove him back. He sank sobbing to the ground, helpless before the fire's fury. His wife back from calling for help cradled him in her arms, clinging to each other, they wept at their loss.

By the time the fire department arrived, only smoking, glowing ruins were left, and the old man and his wife, exhausted from their grief, huddled together before the barn. They were speechless as they rose from the cold snow covered ground. They nodded thanks to the firemen as there was nothing anyone could do now. The old man turned to his wife, resting her white head upon his shoulders as his shaking old hands clumsily dried her tears with a frayed red bandana. Brokenly he whispered, "We have lost much, but God has spared our home on this eve of Christmas. Let us gather strength and climb the hill to the old pine where we have sought comfort in times of despair. We will look down upon our home and give thanks to God that it has been spared and pray for our beloved most precious gifts that have been taken from us. And so, he took her by the hand and slowly helped her up the snowy hill as he brushed aside his own tears with the back of his old and withered hand.

The journey up the hill was hard for their old bodies in the steep snow. As they stepped over the little knoll at the crest of the hill, they paused to rest, looking up to the top of the hill the old couple gasped and fell to their knees in amazement at the incredible beauty before them. Seemingly, every glorious, brilliant star in the heavens was caught up in the glittering, snow-frosted branches of their beloved pine, and it was aglow with heavenly candles. And poised on its top most bough, a crystal crescent moon glistened like spun glass. Never had a mere mortal created a Christmas tree such as this. They were breathless as the old man held his wife tighter in his arms. Suddenly, the old man gave a cry of wonder and incredible joy. Amazed and mystified, he took his wife by the hand and pulled her forward. There, beneath the tree, in resplendent glory, a mist hovering over and glowing in the darkness was their Christmas gift.

Shadows glistening in the night light. Bedded down about the "Old One" close to the trunk of the tree, was the entire herd, safe. At the first hint of smoke, she had pushed the door ajar with her muzzle and had led the horses through it. Slowly and with great dignity, never looking back, she had led them up the hill, stepping cautiously through the snow. The foals were frightened and dashed about. The skittish yearlings looked back at the crackling, hungry flames, and tucked their tails under them as they licked their lips and hopped like rabbits. The mares that were in foal with a new year’s crop of babies, pressed uneasily against the "Old One" as she moved calmly up the hill and to safety beneath the pine. And now she lay among them and gazed at the faces of the old man and his wife. Those she loved she had not disappointed. Her body was brittle with years, tired from the climb, but the golden eyes were filled with devotion as she offered her gift---Because of love. Only because of love.

Tears flowed as the old couple shouted their praise and joy... And again the peace of love filled their hearts.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Neighborhood Parade

I have to brag a little about our horses. Last night I rode Candy and Diana led Fidla in our neighborhood Christmas parade. It was the first time we’d done this. Come to think of it, it’s the first time we had done anything of substance with our horses at night. And what a night it was. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Our neighborhood is a hodge podge of old and new homes, most on an acre or more of land, and, until a couple years ago, there were no activities that brought us all together. The Christmas parade changed that and now it's followed by a potluck dinner and live music. We love it! The parade gets more colorful each year. The route is about two miles. There are cars, trucks, boats, flatbed trailers, golf carts, kids on bicycles, and lots of people walking. Every vehicle and many of the walkers are covered in lights and decorations. Christmas carols blare, horns honk, bells jingle, people sing, and giant blowup characters sway back and forth. Get the picture?

So into the midst of all this, we take our horses. Everyone was happy to see them. They are popular fixtures in the neighborhood. Diana did great with Fidla, who was calm and unconcerned. Apparently it was just another night on the fjord for her. Not so much for Candy. She was fine at first but the half-hour delay in getting going – apparently a fuse problem – took its toll and she got fidgety. She wasn’t doing anything wrong, mind you, but I did need to manage the situation. It turned into a great opportunity to practice what I preach: Control the horse’s feet and you control her mind. There was an additional challenge in that this was all happening in a tight space with lots of distractions and lots of kids running around.

First, I consciously relaxed my entire body so I wasn’t fueling Candy's fidgeting with my own energy. That helped but she still wanted to move, so we moved. Forward a step, backward a step, sidepass left, sidepass right, flex laterally, flex vertically. I talked to her in a calm voice, sang a little, stroked her at every opportunity and repeatedly gave her a chance to stand quietly if she wanted to. Asking her to listen to me and think about her feet was just what she needed. The parade finally started moving and we fell in behind a tall cargo van full of kids. Candy had a real spring in her step, which was fantastic! Gradually her energy level dropped and by the end of this two-hour sensory feast, Candy was as unimpressed by the sights and sounds as Fidla was. I was very proud of both of them.

One little tip if you join a neighborhood Christmas parade: Don’t line up behind the diesel truck …

Monday, December 5, 2011

How horses think

If I were to make a list of the most fascinating people I've interviewed, Dr. Temple Grandin would be right at the top. I find her life story inspiring (and it made a great HBO movie), but even more interesting to me is her explanation of how horses think. We talked about this before a packed house at the Minnesota Horse Expo. Don’t miss this thought-provoking two-part interview.

Listen to part 1 Listen to part 2

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Irish author, James Joyce (1882-1941), noted that, “Mistakes are the portals of discovery.” As horsemen, we can learn a lot from mistakes, both our own and those of others.

A case in point is Pat Parelli’s "Road to the Horse" buckoff, one of many memorable RTTH moments shown in this week’s TV show. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, Pat failed to properly prepare his colt from both sides before mounting – that’s his analysis of what happened – and the colt bucked him off. It made a good lesson for us all. However, an even more important lesson came after. As we pointed out on TV, Pat got right back to work and had his colt coming along beautifully by the end of the event. He didn’t win – Chris Cox chalked up #3 – but Pat deserves big kudos for how he handled himself in a difficult situation.

Seeing mistakes as learning opportunities is not license to be careless or unprincipled in our actions, but it does put a positive spin on the honest misstep.

By the way, Pat teams with 2010 champ, Craig Cameron, to take on Canadians, Jonathan Field and Glenn Stewart, and Aussies, Dan James and Guy McLean, in the first ever International Road to the Horse. Dates are March 9-11, 2012. Get your tickets early, my friends.

Watch Road to the Horse Retrospective on The Horse Show
Get tickets to Road to the Horse International

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Bombproofing Police Horses

Shortly after 9/11, a client treated me to an Arizona Diamondbacks baseball game. At the entrance to the ballpark, police officers mounted on big bay geldings quietly watched the crowd. There was something vaguely primal and distinctly comforting about their presence. This week on radio, officer Chad Brinlee (second from left) takes us inside his mounted unit in Texas, sharing a training approach useful to all riders. Special: Learn what Chad's human students are expected to do on day one. Listen.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Gimmick or Tool?

In horse training, one person’s gimmick is another person’s tool. So before I dismiss a particular technique or device, I want to take a long hard look at it. What problem is being addressed? What principle of behavior modification is being used? How much expertise does it require to be effective? Does it elevate or diminish my relationship with my horse? What does my gut tell me about this approach? As you might guess, I seldom find reason to pronounce something a gimmick. It seems like there is always some redeeming value.
Look at this drawing from the 1896 book, Jesse Beery’s Practical System of Colt Training and Horse Breaking. To cure a horse of pawing, a small block of wood is suspended from the horse’s upper leg. If the horse paws, the block bangs his leg, so the horse punishes himself. Gimmick or tool? Personally, I find this an ingenious tool for helping horses learn to stand quietly. Is it foolproof? Of course not! It would be most effective in a confined space with a quiet horse and it would be inappropriate for an overly reactive or timid horse that might panic. And I would never use this device on a horse that wasn’t being monitored regularly.

This week on radio, Mike Kevil weighs in the subject of gimmicks and tools. Listen.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Lonely Number

When I see a horse standing alone in a field, I’m reminded of Harry Nilsson’s lyric: “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.” Just how important is it for horses to be with others of their kind? You decide. Dr. Bob Miller (of imprint training fame) tells of visiting a Canadian Premarin facility where scores of pregnant mares were confined in short-walled tie stalls, side by side, for hours on end. Confinement is a natural stressor for horses, yet these horses were happy as clams. Apparently, being in a herd was more important to them than being free to move. The converse is also telling. At New Bolton Center, University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, horses sometimes present with an odd symptom: Collapsing for no apparent reason. What the horses have in common is that they live alone. No herd. No companions of any kind. In my radio show this week, you’ll learn how going solo can affect a horse.

Listen to interview with Dr. Amy Johnson

Monday, October 31, 2011

Behind the scenes at RTTH

Road to the Horse has grown from an unlikely idea – a colt-starting contest built on natural horsemanship principles – to the must-see event of the year for students of horsemanship. For Diana and me, it’s something more. It’s a chance to be at the top of our game before a huge live audience (she announces and I host), a chance to party with friends, fans, and sponsors, and, of course, a chance to learn from the finest horsemen and horsewomen around. Now, being part of this phenomenon since day one, you’d think I would be privy to most that’s gone on. And you’d be wrong. After a recent spa day at the Boulders Resort in Carefree, Arizona, RTTH creator Tootie Bland shared a few behind-the-scenes stories that surprised even me. I’ve included some of the G-rated ones in this week’s radio show.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Riding, roping, and remembering Monte

Just when I despair that the late great Monte Foreman is being forgotten I run into someone else who knew him, studied with him, and is committed to keeping his methods alive. This week on radio I talk to my newest acquaintance from the land of the Basic Handle and Balanced Ride saddle, Becky Mahoney, who took her first lesson from Monte in 1963. She went on to win just about every riding and roping prize you can win and today she brings the same commitment to teaching. You’ll like her.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Honoring WWII Vets

More than 1,000 American World War II veterans die each day. One group committed to thanking those still living is Honor Flights, which brings them free of charge to Washington, D.C. to see the memorial built in their honor. Senators Bob and Elizabeth Dole greeted my dad, brother, and me, along with hundreds of other vets and family from Kansas and Kentucky, on a recent fall day. (Click for details and a message from Senator Dole.)
What struck me about these veterans, all in their 80s and 90s now, is how ordinary they are; ordinary men called upon to do extraordinary things to protect our country and way of life in the 40s. They were young farmers, factory workers, and fresh-out-of-high-school mechanics like Dick Lamb. Six decades of movies have defined for most of us what that war was like, but I suspect the day-to-day reality was a bit different. Homesickness, boredom, fatigue, uncertainty, discomfort, fear, horror … it’s a wonder those who came home found their way back to any kind of normalcy. But like Dick Lamb, most did. They had jobs to do at home, too. Calling theirs “the greatest generation” is fitting tribute, but I think of them as the model for every generation.

To learn more about the Honor Flights program, visit

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Reflecting on the week of 9/11

Ten years ago today was September 15, 2001. It was the day I picked up my mare, Candy, at the Parelli Ranch in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. It was also four days after the 9/11 attacks on our country. Diana and I had planned the trip for months, but suddenly the world had been turned upside down. Like everyone else, we struggled to process what had happened and what it meant for the future.

At first it was unthinkable to tend to everyday matters, but as the days crawled by, people not directly affected by the attacks began trying to put a little normalcy back into their lives. For us, that meant going to get two new horses.

Signs of patriotism were everywhere, especially along old highway 666 in western New Mexico, where American flags flew proudly and Navajo women gave away swatches of red ribbon from their roadside jewelry stands. At the Parelli Ranch, the mood was somber, but it was good to be with our friends and fellow horse lovers. The next day, with new horses in tow, Diana and I headed for our home in Phoenix. Dark skies and pounding rain gave the drive a surreal quality and made conversation nearly impossible. Neither of us felt much like talking, anyway.

It has taken ten years for me to feel fully connected to Candy. I suppose I could have pressed the issue but somehow that didn’t feel right. The depth of the relationship we have now was worth the wait. I enjoy this beautiful, sweet horse every day, and never far from my mind is the memory of our first week together. It’s a bittersweet memory for me, but I want to keep it alive. It’s important to remember how that week felt.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Extremes of Horse Behavior

Casting the horse as the ultimate prey animal and the human as the ultimate predator is a useful teaching device to drive home the important differences between our two species. However, it’s also important to remember that both horses and humans move up and down the behavior continuum, demonstrating the capacity for everything from tenderness to savagery. Equestrian explorer, author, and Long Riders’ Guild founder, CuChullaine O’Reilly, examines the dark end of the spectrum in his new book, Deadly Equines: The shocking true story of meat-eating & murderous horses.

Listen to my interview with CuChullaine here.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Green-broke horse

Question: My seven-year-old green-broke horse has been out to pasture for the past three years. Can he be retrained? I want to ride again.

Answer: If you have a lot of experience and confidence riding (even after a three-year absence) get busy and start riding that horse! If not, get back into riding with more experienced horses first. Take lessons at a local stable or go trail riding on a friend's horse.

While you're doing that, your horse needs to be getting some experience, too. This is the tricky part. Who's going to ride that horse? If you hire someone, be sure you're comfortable with the approach he or she takes. Be there and watch. At some point you will feel that both you and your horse have the experience necessary to be good partners.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Trekking in Iceland

Our recent trip to Iceland was billed as “The Vacation of a Lifetime,” and it was. Twenty of us spent four days at Landsmot, the big dog of Icelandic Horse festivals, three days at Holar University in a riding clinic with training guru Gudmar Petursson (at right), and four days “trekking” in the magnificent Vatnsdalur Valley with “Hawk” (at left). That's me in the middle. A trek is like a cattle drive, except you’re herding horses instead of cattle and every few hours you trade in the horse you’re riding for one from the herd. It’s a great way to hone your tolting chops and see some spectacular countryside.

We got lots of video (including some very cool helmet cam footage) and you'll see that when our new TV season kicks off in November. In the meantime, this week’s radio show is my audio diary from the trip. Listen.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Off to Iceland

Our two-week trip to Iceland is almost here. (The pic was taken in Montana but it is an Icelandic horse.) I’m not worried about the white stuff. This time of year highs are in the 70s, plus they have hot springs and beverages you drink from flasks. Woo hoo! You may have heard that the Vikings deliberately misnamed Iceland and Greenland. It's true! Iceland is green and Greenland is icy.) A horse festival, clinic, and four-day trek are on the schedule, plus we’ll be grabbing interviews for TV and radio, so I’ll have lots to share when we return. Until then, “Bae!”

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Pedestals and beanbags

I want to put my horse on a pedestal. I mean an actual pedestal, like the one here. It’s a favorite tool of trick horse trainers Allen Pogue and Sue De Laurentis, who've also promoted the common beanbag from dorm room furniture to training aid. I love how these folks push the envelope with their program, and I love how relaxed and attentive their horses are, especially at liberty. The benefits of pedestal and beanbag training start at birth and extend throughout the life of a horse. Check out for pics, videos, articles, and construction plans. But first, listen to our interview. It’s a good one.

Radio interview with Allen Pogue and Sue De Laurentis

Friday, June 10, 2011

Can every horse gait?

Already I can hear the uproar from aficionados of our beloved gaited breeds. “No! A gaited horse is anatomically different from a non-gaited horse!” I agree that there are differences. However, I have also experienced firsthand an Appaloosa that preferred a four-beat amble over a trot (I rode him for a week on a cattle drive) and our former pinto mare, Savannah (pictured), who I could keep at very fast walk for as long as I wanted. Both of these were stock-type horses doing a fast, smooth, four-beat gait with no suspension. That’s pretty darned close to gaiting, in my opinion.

But can every horse be taught to do this? I wouldn’t go that far. I think that many can if – and this is a very big if – the rider knows how to train for it and is willing to put in the time. Several years ago, I interviewed David Lichman, a five-star premier Parelli instructor and gaited horse specialist. He addressed this very issue.

Listen to interview with David Lichman on gaited horsemanship

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

National Cavalry Competition

Imagine throwing eventing, cowboy mounted shooting, and re-enacting into a big pot and mixing in riders from the military, law enforcement, and the general public. What you'd have is the tenth National Cavalry Competition, held at the Annual Bivouac this September 28-30 at Fort Reno, Oklahoma.

Learn all about it, plus some startling stats on the popularity of re-enacting, in this week's radio interview with Jeff Maahs from the United States Cavalry Association.

Listen to radio show

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Situation

One of my favorite bits of horsemanship advice comes from the late Ray Hunt, who said, “Adjust to fit the situation.” Let’s drill down a bit on this simple prescription.

Every moment with a horse is a “situation” with a unique character to it. The first order of business is recognizing the situation for what it is. Second is having an alternative course of action that you can adjust to. And third is making the adjustment at the right moment.

An example that comes to mind is teaching a foal to lead. Since horses have an “opposition reflex” (a.k.a. positive thigmotaxis), foals tend to pull back when we apply forward pressure on a lead rope. That is a common situation. An alternative when they resist forward pressure is to immediately pull more to one side. Foals have less power to resist lateral pressure and are likely to take a step to the side, which can be rewarded and parlayed into movement on a curve and eventually straight, forward movement.

One of the reasons a good horseman adjusts to fit the situation is that he is always looking for behaviors that can be rewarded, and he is always looking for a good note to end the day on.

For more information on Ray Hunt, visit

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Vaquero

There is much we can learn from studying horsemen of the past, and the first thing to note is that there is a context for everything. For example, the vaqueros of colonial California lived in a time when getting a job done with a horse was essential. Some of the techniques used were crude and heavy handed by modern standards. Others were sophisticated and light, perfectly in tune with the highest principles of natural horsemanship. This is why the vaquero will get special attention next week at the Light Hands Horsemanship clinic in Santa Ynez, California.

In attendance will be the last of the genuine working vaqueros, artist Ernie Morris. His grandfather and mentor, Jesse Wilkinson, is pictured. Also joining us this year will be Arabian horse icon, Sheila Varian. Returning presenters include Dr. Bob Miller, Eitan Beth-Halachmy, Jon Ensign, Lester Buckley, Jack Brainard, and Richard Winters. I’ll be emceeing as usual and will kick off the event with the TV episode I did years back on the vaquero.

I hope you can join us for a truly unique and intimate event in a breathtakingly beautiful setting, where just a few decades ago, vaqueros perfected their system of cattle-based horsemanship. Special thanks to sponsor Spalding Laboratories and host facility Intrepid Farms.

To learn more about the event:
To learn more about Ernie Morris:

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Inspirational Jockeys

Even though horse racing doesn’t exactly float my boat, I find some real inspiration in the history of the sport. For example, Eddie Arcaro lost his first 250 races before going on to become the winningest jockey of all time, with five Kentucky Derby wins. This week on radio, I interview author Rick Maturi about his book on another famous jockey, Triple Crown Winner, Earl Sande (pictured), an American sports icon during the 1920s.

Sande’s stats are impressive but it was his unorthodox way of getting a winning performance from a horse – even one he was riding for the first time – that got my attention. While other jockeys were whipping their horses toward the finish line, Sande sang opera to his, rarely going to the whip. Now get this: Sande was actually a good singer and performed professionally at New York’s Stork Club in later years.

Radio interview with author Rick Maturi

Triple Crown Winner: the Earl Sande Saga

Friday, April 29, 2011

Behavior Replacement

Extinction of behavior takes time to work. Today I’ll share some thoughts on speeding up the process through behavior replacement.

First, a quick review: With operant conditioning, “bad” behavior can be modified through punishment (creating an unpleasant consequence) or extinction (eliminating the reinforcement). Punishment is a perfectly good tool in the hands of a confident and experienced trainer, but many horse owners make matters worse through half-hearted or poorly timed responses to their horse’s naughtiness. Extinction may work better for them if they can figure out how the horse is getting rewarded and eliminate that.

Still, it takes a while for unrewarded behavior to die out completely. To speed the process up, get your horse working on something good, or as John Lyons might say, replace the bad behavior with good behavior.

For example, suppose your horse fidgets and paws the ground when he’s tied. Here are some possible responses from you:

1. Give him food to distract him. Result: behavior is reinforced and continues.
2. Scold him or spank him. Punishment requires perfect timing, consistency, and intensity in order to work. Not possible here. Result: the extra attention works as a reinforcer. If you frighten the horse in the process, you’ve created a new problem.
3. Ignore him completely. This is how to use extinction. When there is no reward of any kind, he will eventually stop the behavior.
4. Ignore the behavior, but immediately put the horse to work doing something else, something useful such as backing or sidepassing or sending. Maybe you just focus on getting the horse to move one body part at a time. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as it is positive and you take every opportunity to praise the horse for doing it.

This last option is a way of supercharging the extinction principle by replacing bad behavior with good. Thanks to John Lyons for teaching me this, and for teaching me to always have a positive job ready for my horse to do, just in case I need it.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Extinction of Behavior - Finding the Reward

I promised last time that I would address the fifth “quadrant” of operant conditioning, extinction, in a future blog. So here we go.

Simply put, the principle of extinction says that, if reinforcement of a behavior ceases, the behavior will eventually die out. This is important to us horse owners because it means that punishing an undesirable equine behavior is not the only way to eliminate it. Just stop rewarding the behavior and eventually it will go away on its own. If a behavior recurs with the same or greater intensity, we know it is being reinforced in some way.

One good strategy for dealing with unwanted equine behavior is thus to find the reward. What is the horse getting out of doing this? Get rid of the reward and, in time, you will get rid of the behavior without using punishment.

Unfortunately, finding the reward isn’t always easy. Many horse owners are blind to what really matters to their horses. Some have never thought about it. Others project their own wants and needs onto this radically different species. Others have an appreciation for the uniqueness of the horse but don’t yet have the skills to accurately assess a given situation and find the reinforcer. In fact, they sometimes reinforce the very behaviors they would like to change.

For example, think about what often happens when a novice handles a horse from the ground. The horse will push and crowd until the novice moves out of the way to avoid being stepped on. This submissive body language – the willingness to be moved by the horse – reinforces the horse’s assertive behavior and causes it to recur. A more experienced horseman handling the same horse would defend his space and not allow that reinforcement to occur. The horse’s desire to dominate in that context, with that human, would die out with time.

My challenge to you is to begin to look for the reinforcers – the rewards – in whatever your horse does repetitively, from the mundane to the marvelous. In the words of Tom Dorrance, “observe, remember, and compare.” You and your horse will be better for it.

Next time, I’ll share how we can “supercharge” the extinction principle.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning, formulated by behaviorist B.F. Skinner, is one of those subjects fraught with misunderstanding, and even those of us who understand it sometimes misspeak, due largely to the uncommon use of common words.

The primary principle of operant conditioning is that when behavior is reinforced, it is more likely to be repeated and when behavior is punished, it is less likely to be repeated. The way we reinforce or punish is by adding or taking away stimuli.

1. Positive Reinforcement means that something pleasant is added to encourage the desired behavior. Example: The horse is given a food treat when he responds correctly.

2. Negative Reinforcement means that something unpleasant is subtracted to encourage the desired behavior. Example: Pressure is released when the horse complies with a request.

3. Positive Punishment means that something unpleasant is added to discourage the undesired behavior. Example: A horse is spanked instantly when he kicks out under saddle.

4. Negative Punishment means that something pleasant is subtracted to discourage unwanted behavior. Example: The trainer withholds a food treat that a horse wants.

These are called the four quadrants of operant conditioning. (Extinction is sometimes called the fifth “quadrant.” I’ll address that another time.)

Unfortunately, keeping all of this straight is next to impossible for most people, including me. The reason is simple. All four of the key words have narrower meanings than we usually give them. Positive means added (rather than good). Negative means subtracted (rather than bad). Reinforcing means rewarding (rather than strengthening) and punishing means deterring (rather than paying back).

These may seem like small distinctions but they can result in big misunderstandings. For example, I often hear trainers use the term "negative reinforcement" to mean creating an unpleasant consequence to a behavior. This, of course, is not what it means in the world of operant conditioning.

My advice is pretty straightforward. Use the principles of operant conditioning but be careful of the terms. They confuse more than they clarify. And when you hear someone else using them, remember, chances are very good that they are using them incorrectly. Better to clamp your hands over your ears and hum the theme to "Gilligan's Island," or at least think about something else until the moment passes. Like maybe lunch. More next time.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Being an ambassador

Thanks again to all who joined me for my first ever Facebook Q & A session Wednesday. Great turnout. Great questions. Please vote in our FB poll regarding the format of the next one. Personally, I’m voting for video. (You can answer the poll here.)

I’d like to elaborate on the question of how we should go about converting more people to natural horsemanship. My short answer in the Q & A was to be a good example. I’ve been exposed to evangelists of all stripes and my reaction is always the same: I bristle at someone telling me how I should think or behave. I get a mental brace against the very thing an evangelist is pushing on me. On the other hand, if words or actions pique my curiosity, I open right up to the possibilities. Good ambassadors for natural horsemanship set such good examples with their behavior and the behavior of their horses that people want to know more. They open right up to the possibilities.

In NH, we talk about letting your idea become the horse’s idea. We talk about making the right thing easy for the horse to do. We also talk about giving the horse time to process what you have presented to him and finding a good place to end before he sours on the lesson. I think it’s pretty easy to correlate those ideas to our relationships with people.

A Buddhist proverb tells us, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” The teacher must also be ready, so as you go about your business of being a good ambassador, think about how you can explain and demonstrate what natural horsemanship means to you. You never know when a student will be ready.