Welcome to my blog - a diary about living with donkeys, notes about care, my training sessions and the absolute pleasure of donkey companionship.

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Friday, June 24, 2011

Horse training demo

Went to watch a horse training demo last night ... natural horsemanship style.  A young trainer was showing how she works with a halflinger mare.  She did a mounting block session as well as trailer loading.

What I really liked was that this trainer remained quiet and calm and had infinite patience.  However my exposure to clicker training has made me especially sensitive to HOW pressure and release of pressure is used and I came away feeling a tad uncomfortable with what I saw.

In no way was the mare "hurt" by the training ... it was more about "poisoning" the tools for the horse.  For example during the mounting block session, the trainer was trying to teach the mare to position her back and stand square next to the mounting block.  When the horse moved too far forward  or turned, she indicated that this was the wrong answer but she did that by using the Parelli carrot stick in an abrupt fashion, snapping it in front of the horse's face to show that direction was closed.  This is a correction by using the crop in an aversive manner as opposed to blocking the horse's way through use of the crop as an extension of her arm. 

Rewards came in the form of stroking, so when the horse responded correctly, she got lots of strokes by the trainer's hand.  This particular horse didn't seem to mind that  (treats would have made the process so much faster!) but it wouldn't have meant all that much to my donkeys, especially from a stranger.

Trailer loading is hard for this horse and took a long time.  The trainer was very patient and when finally loaded, she allowed the horse to get back out, rather than close the doors ... nice.  But this time, she used the carrot stick crop across the back of the horse's rump - again, not painful per se, but you could see the horse quiver, so definitely aversive.  In my opinion it didn't speed up the process and I left before the horse loaded a second time, the first couple of times obviously not reassuring enough to repeat the process!

It was an interesting session and the trainer clearly has a calm, clear way with horses.  But the relationship was "boss- subordinate" as opposed to "partner" and this seems common amoung equine people, the idea being that you have to let them know that you are the boss at all times, so don't try any funny stuff. Watching this horse's body language, her anxiety was always close to the surface, although she had moments of relaxation too.  It's been proven that fear closes the pathway to learning - we can "obey" when we're fearful but behaviour doesn't necessarily change under duress. So clicker trainers try to avoid putting an animal under stress by rewarding the animal for even the smallest "try" towards the correct behaviour.

There were no obvious bonuses or jackpots at the end of any sessions - the horse did whatever was asked, finally and that was that.  This particular horse HAS had the benefit of some clicker training, her owner loves the process, so it made me especially sad to see that rewards were withheld, as once an animal learns the "YES answer system" of positive reinforcement, it seems almost cruel to change to a form of training where now the same animal is NOT being rewarded for doing the right thing.  She must have wondered why.

I am not an experienced trainer, but having now attended 3 clinics with Alexandra Kurland, several with Monty Quinn and Sola Wolff plus Clicker Expo, I do understand the extraordinary benefits of the positive reinforcement rewards based system of training and while I recognize that many people choose other training methods, I can't really understand why!

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