Horses are a blessing. Their patient presence has made a difference to countless lives. The therapeutic benefits for children and adults working with horses is undeniable, and the rewards of having a positive relationship with this lovely animal is worth the hard work it takes to build it.
Exactly how to build a strong and successful relationship with horses is a subject of debate. Some insist the horse must learn to show us ‘respect,’ while others say that the horse must be able to ‘trust’ us. The ideas behind these sentiments are valid, but it is hard to say objectively whether horses can respect, or trust, as we define and experience it.
What we do know is that horses don’t get to choose whether or not to be trained, how they are trained, or who trains them. This means it is our responsibility to build a relationship and a program that is best for the horse.
Every Interaction Counts
It is important to understand that any time we spend with horses is time spent training. Positive interactions help to strengthen the relationship and ‘negative’ encounters, that produce anxiety or fear, erode it. Thankfully, there are ways to build positive experiences for better training and better relationships.
Look at the Horse’s Whole Life
Frustration in one area of life affects other areas too. If a horse is managed in a way that produces frustration, like being in an inappropriate social group, or having insufficient time spent eating each day, training sessions are likely to also become frustrating for the horse. This is why making sure the horse’s environment is managed as naturally as possible is helpful for relationship building.
Using Learning Theory
Horses learn through the processes as described in learning theory. Making sure that every interaction aligns with the principles of learning theory will mean the horse learns faster and with less frustration as he understands what is being taught and what responses are expected of him.
For example, horses learn well from classical conditioning, allowing them to predict what will happen next. This is how horses learn to recognize their owners’ vehicles. When the owner consistently drives up, then feeds the horse, the horse builds a chain of positive associations and soon recognizes the sound of the car. In this way horses can learn, through good training, to respond to subtle cues consistently. This gives the appearance of trust and respect as they respond calmly, even in new situations.
Teaching New Behaviour
Positive and negative reinforcement, or, ‘addition’ and ‘subtraction’ reinforcement, are also part of learning theory. In positive, or ‘addition’, reinforcement something the horse enjoys is added to reward a correct response. In negative, or ‘subtraction’, reinforcement something the horse doesn’t enjoy, such as pressure from a leg aid, is removed or ‘subtracted’ to reward a correct response. Horse training is often based on negative reinforcement as most people use pressure cues from legs and reins. As long as pressure is removed at the right moment, horses can learn very well this way. Using positive and negative reinforcement in combination can speed up learning as well as improve your relationship with your horse.
In order to build a better relationship with horses, the horse has to get something out of it too. With proper care, interactions that are predictable and easy to understand, and rewards that motivate the horse, a strong relationship is possible. It is hard to define respect and trust from the horse’s point of view, but when a horse is attentive to the handler and becomes responsive to subtle cues, you can be sure there is a good relationship forming.