Part 19 – The Hidden Language of The Horse

Let’s talk about horse language!

As I said in the previous post, it’s not easy to access – and each horse has their own version of this language.

Let’s imagine there is a brick wall between us and the horse. This is the language barrier. Over the centuries, many people have tried to break down this wall.

Most people manage to remove some of these bricks – in fact the excellent horse people may remove many of these bricks – BUT – is the horse really enjoying the conversation?

I want to stop here and get a bit sciency! My eyes tend to glaze over when I hear science stuff – but this is important. Let’s just talk about operant conditioning and the four quadrants for a minute! I will add this link

Wow! The above article includes video of dogs driving cars???? Amazing!! It’s much better to read a few articles on behaviour than me explain it… but… in simple terms, we (humans/animals) can be either positively or negatively reinforced or punished. The positive and negative doesn’t stand for good or bad – positive – is adding something – negative is taking something away

Here are examples off the top of my head.

Positive Reinforcement – If I clean the bathroom I get chocolate biscuits! (I get something!)

Negative Reinforcement – Doug hits me with a stick until I clean the bathroom! (Ha ha! not likely! ) By cleaning the bathroom the stick hitting stops….. and he would never know if the bathroom is clean or not!!! (the stick hitting is taken away)

Now the punishing behaviour – some examples.

Positive Punishment – I remember this. When my daughter was three we were catching the train into town – she raced ahead and made her way onto the platform with me screaming and running after her. And I spanked her because it was so dangerous! ( I added a smack for her to learn she doesn’t do that.) Not my finest moment – but I was terrified…

Negative Punishment – My son was being mean to his sister – he was banned from video games for a certain time. (his game playing was removed)

So they are the four quadrants – HOWEVER – there is a lot of variation and debate when you get into the nitty gritty of it. But that gives you an idea.

Now let’s go back to this horse behind the brick wall. People have used all the four quadrants to talk to the horse. How has that turned out?

How would you rather be talked to? (Mind you I will skip the chocolate biscuits – they aren’t reinforcing enough to clean the bathroom!)

Here’s an example of how I’d rather be talked to… I’m going to pretend I’m in Germany (don’t mention the war). I don’t know how to speak German and they can’t speak English (of course they can really because the Germans are very clever!)

I’m trying to find a place in a village. The only way to find it is for someone to take me there (for some reason we both can’t read a map and Google hasn’t been invented). So I’m standing there showing a villager the name of the place I need to find. This person picks up a stick and starts tapping me – the only thing I can do to avoid it is run – so I jog along – if I stop the stick tapping starts again. They get me to my destination but I’m feeling pretty stressed.

Let’s play the scene again – now another villager helps me. They stand in front of me and beckon me forward with their hand – when I move towards them they smile and nod. This feels good – so as the process is repeated I follow. I feel calm and confident to follow this person. I reach my destination feeling calm.

So the moral of this story with the Germans is that it was so much easier for me to follow directions with the second person. The first person used negative reinforcement to get me to my destination – I was relieved of the tapping when I kept moving. The second person used positive reinforcement – I received a smile and nod for responding correctly. That’s the type of language I like – and it’s also the language my horses like!

For comparison, here is a video showing a horse learning to stand at the mounting block using negative reinforcement. The pressure on the horse is removed when she does the desired behaviour. Warning – this is hard to watch…. however maybe useful for some people to see the different language styles.

Here is a video of me teaching Saadi to stand at the mounting block. He receives a treat for stopping and then for staying. When I want him to move off I beckon him forward. So I add the treat which will reinforce him to repeat the behaviour.

So the top language is much more common in horse training… but what happens when we use the language of positive reinforcement? Everything becomes calmer and clearer – IF the clicker process is done by thin slicing the behaviours we want. Of course it can still become frustrating and stressful! But that means we have missed steps in the teaching process.

For example, with the horse being trained with negative reinforcement, a clicker trainer would first look at WHY the horse doesn’t stand still. Is it off balance? Does something hurt? Has it just not gone through a teaching process to learn the desired behaviour?

I’m generalising here – but in my opinion the negative reinforcement seen in the above video comes from a place of fear. If you have to be boss, if you have to dominate, is that coming from fear of injury – or is it ego based – or both?

To me then, this language has a foundation of talking to the enemy. The horse becomes a thing to be dominated. When this happens over and over, it loses its soul.

When the horse is rewarded for a behaviour, it starts to come alive. You see it in the eye. You find a personality within that you didn’t know existed. And being respected (meaning – the human respecting the horse as a living, equal being) allows confidence to grow.

BUT – let’s talk more about the brick wall next time and why I called it the hidden language!



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