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  • Lauren Fraser, CHBC

Training Horses Tip #1: Behaviors vs. Labels

Why do you need to know what a behavior is and what a label is, and how can knowing the difference help you when training horses?

Identifying Behaviors

A behavior is anything a horse does that can be observed or measured. If it can be observed and measured it is something we as trainers can affect.

When training horses we are usually trying to teach horses to reliably perform wanted behaviors on cue. We may also need to address unwanted behaviors - behaviors we would like the horse to stop doing, or do less frequently. Either way, we must first be able to identify the behavior.

Here are some examples (in bold) of behaviors (ignore the things in parentheses for now) that a horse may do:

  • (approaching X) changes canter lead

  • (a puddle blocks the trail) sidesteps to the left

  • (performs an exercise in a horsemanship clinic) yawns four times

  • (before a cross country fence) stops from a canter

  • (while being ridden in field) puts head down to graze

  • (whistle sound comes out of the barn) gallops towards barn

  • (the farrier moves towards foot) kicks with hind leg

  • (horse A moves towards horse B) horse B pins ears

  • (visitor approaches horse) nudges visitor's pockets with nose

  • (human lifts bridle towards horse's head) raises head

  • (rider swings left leg over horse to mount) bolts forward

  • (flies land on a leg) stamps foot

  • (tied in the barn) paws the ground

  • (human leads horse to trailer) starts backing up

  • (rider cues horse to trot by squeezing legs) bucks

  • (rider reaches for girth under horse's belly) bite threat directed towards human

Note that the behaviors describe what the horse is doing, without any judgement or emotion attached.

As riders and trainers, some of these behaviors are ones we may want to happen again, and some clearly are not. Either way, they are all behaviors we could influence to happen more or less frequently, should we want to.

Identifying Labels

Sometimes when people want to address unwanted behaviors they end up using labels in an attempt to explain or describe what they are seeing. Labels are descriptive words, that often have an emotional charge to them: Stubborn. Competitive. Mean. Pushy. Dominant. Submissive. Wild. Bossy. Disrespectful. Arrogant. Spiteful. Lazy. Devious. Silly. Cheeky. Crazy. Obedient.

One of the problems with using labels is that they are very subjective: what you may label 'spirited', I may label 'frightened'. But if we independently observed that same horse looking for behaviors, we would likely both say, 'standing still, elevated head, whites of eyes visible'.

Affecting Change

Affecting labels is difficult. How would you affect Cheeky? Or Dominant? Spooky? Disrespectful? And what if your label is different from my label? Affecting behavior, on the other hand, is much easier when you know how. That starts with being able to identify a behavior that you want to see more of, or less of, in the future.

Next time we will look at the things in parentheses - the things that 'set the stage' for the behavior to occur. Being able to recognize - and understand - what set's the stage for a behavior to occur is another important thing to know if we want to successfully train horses. Until then, happy horse training.

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