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  • Lauren Fraser, CHBC

'You can't train a behaviour at the time that you need it.'

Good training involves progressively preparing a horse to calmly perform a behaviour, often in distracting environments such as show grounds, veterinary hospitals, off-site trails, clinics and group lessons. This takes concerted thought, effort, and time.

How bad do you want it?

You can't train a behaviour at the time that you need it.

~Julie Flanery

While I agree with the spot-on sentiment of this quote, technically you can sometimes train a behaviour at the time that you need it. But how urgently you need (or want) the horse to perform that behaviour can negatively impact not only how you train, but how the horse feels about the training situation and you, the trainer.

I like to use flying lead changes as an example when explaining this concept to clients. If a person didn't train their horse to do a flying lead change at all, or only had them perform one or two at home, they likely wouldn't go to a major show and expect the horse to execute a flying lead change during a dressage test or reining pattern. Most people would agree that doing so would be putting an unrealistic expectation on the horse. Instead, most people progressively train changes at home, then go to a small, local schooling show to add in distractions and test their training, before going to a major show. Yet people routinely do the opposite with all sorts of other behaviours they wish their horse to calmly and reliably perform.

Failing to progressively train a horse prior to when a behavior is needed often leads to situations where forceful handling or excessive escalating pressure is used to accomplish the immediate goal: getting in the trailer, holding a leg up for the farrier, being clipped, receiving a vaccine, walking in-hand at a busy horse show. Unfortunately, this approach usually results in the creation of unwanted emotions in the horse, namely anxiety and fear. Once established, these emotions will be paired with future occurrences of the same situation. Such emotions can be challenging to change, and the memories associated with the situation can never be fully erased, making the emotions prone to reoccurring in the future.

What to do instead

To avoid this trap:

  • think about the behaviours you wish your horse to perform in the many situations he or she may be put in (and make sure those behaviours pass the 'Dead Horse Test')

  • teach your horse those behaviours at home, in a calm environment

  • when your horse is consistently and calmly performing those behaviours, progressively begin to add in distractions. Loading in the trailer, alone, at home is different for your horse than loading in the trailer, with a strange horse, at a hectic horse show. Make sure you train for both, and all the points in between!

If we want to be good horse trainers, we need to use our brains to train. We need to think about how we want our horse to perform and behave, and we need to create progressive training plans to achieve this. Doing this will help prevent situations where we accidentally instill emotions such as fear into training. As a pleasant side effect, this training approach also greatly enhances the trust our horses can have in us, even when life throws us a curve ball in real-world, emergency situations. Thanks to Fenzi Dog Sports Academy for the quote and inspiration.

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