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Your Horse’s Mind… the Most Powerful Teaching “Tool” of All!

This short and very “innocent” video clip features something that I feel very strongly about: Horses are thinking creatures. We were videotaping recently with Bonaparte, my mini, and I wanted to stand next to him and speak into the camera. Bonaparte often shows me his rump because it’s his favorite place to be scratched, and honestly, I typically indulge him. Which is also why this clip is so striking.

There’s this idea that if you are not consistent, you will confuse your horse, and this is true to some degree, but horses are intelligent enough to figure out that things may have changed in that moment, or that things change when context changes. Consider for example the very common phenomenon between two herd mates – they will stand near each other throughout the day, but they may not eat together, and one of them may be the recipient of pinned ears. Context also matters to horses, it seems.

Further, if I were to consistently ask Bonaparte to not show me his rump when we are videotaping, he would learn that in that situation, it works much better for all when he stands quietly, next to me. But when he’s out with the herd – he can discern that in that situation, that if he moves in a certain way, I will gladly scratch his tushy. HE’S INTELLIGENT ENOUGH TO LEARN THE DIFFERENCE.

But I digress. What is so interesting about this short video clip is just how quickly Bonaparte changed his behavior based upon what I was doing… and how he clearly arrived at these new ideas, calmly and after some thinking. It is not necessary to use negative reinforcement to teach ideas, nor does the change of behavior need to be treated as a response that needs to be re-conditioned. It is very possible for horses to figure out what we are looking for and simply offer it to us.

But as the saying goes: “Simple does not always mean easy.” Your horse must be inspired to seek harmony with you (for his own self-interest, not because it’s better than the lack of harmony). Your horse must have time and room and space to process, and he must know that he will be permitted to experiment with NO negative consequences to him (for getting it “wrong,” for example). And the handler must be very, very clear about what they are suggesting. Which doesn’t mean being clear on what you DON’T want, it means making what you DO want very obvious.

The most powerful teaching “tool” with horses is the horse’s mind. Horses can learn a new idea in a matter of minutes, or even seconds. Knowing this, why would ever go about teaching any other way?

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