One small shift in how you think about horse training can change the way you train horses, forever. And you'll have a dead horse to thank for it.
Horse training or behavior modification is all about affecting behavior. Behavior is anything the horse does that we can observe. Cocking a leg at rest. Performing a flying lead change. Stepping into a trailer, or pulling back when approaching a trailer. Lowering the head for bridling, or raising the head when a bridle approaches. Biting. Kicking. Running when the farrier appears. The list is endless. If we can observe the horse doing it, it's a behavior, and we can likely affect it.
But sometimes horse people have trouble identifying a behavior that they wish to see. They identify what it is they don't want the horse to do, but they don't specify what it is they would like the horse to do instead:
'My horse refuses to go in the trailer. 'My horse won't pick up her feet. 'I want my horse to stop invading my space.' 'My horse won't cross the creek.'
When a trainer focuses on what they don't want the horse to do, they have limited training tools available to them, and tend to employ punishment to try and change behavior. Punishment, by it's very nature, makes behaviors less likely to happen again in the future. If the horse won't go in the trailer, a trainer may punish the horse for not going in. If the horse won't cross the creek, the trainer may punish the horse for not crossing. Punishment can be a very effective way to stop a behavior from occurring again, but it comes at a well documented cost:
punishment frequently relies on pain, or frightening the horse to be effective
when fear is triggered by punishment the fear can generalize to people or objects associated with the punishment, triggering a fear response to those objects in the future
it can make behavior problems worse
it can cause the horse to become aggressive
it can damage the trust between horse and trainer
it may effectively suppress the unwanted behavior, but it cannot address the reason it is happening in the first place
The Dead Horse Test can come in handy in these instances to help change the approach horse trainers take. Back in the 60's a psychologist named Ogden Lindsley coined the term 'Dead Man Test' to help people identify what it was they wanted their learners to do. To summarize the test for our purposes, if a dead horse can do it, it ain't a behavior. Can a dead horse refuse to go in a trailer? Can a dead horse not pick up their feet? Can a dead horse stop invading your space? Can a dead horse not cross a creek? If what you want to teach your horse doesn't pass the Dead Horse Test, you need to go back to the drawing board, and come up with a behavior you do want to teach.
Using the Dead Horse Test trainers can better identify real behaviors they would like to see the horse perform:
the horse steps into the trailer
the horse picks up her feet
the horse maintains a distance of two feet away from the handler when led
the horse walks into the creek
All of those behaviors pass the Dead Horse Test. A dead horse cannot do any of those things, therefore they are all something that can be taught to the living, breathing horse at the end of the leadrope.
How we teach those things - using reinforcement to make wanted behaviors more likely to happen again in the future - is a great topic for another blog. Until then, happy horse training.