I’ll be frank: I don’t use my voice much when I train a horse. Why not? Well, primarily because horses themselves are not particularly vocal creatures; they communicate mainly through gestures and body language. Horses even have a limited repertoire of vocalizations that they use to communicate with one another. I wrote about that topic a few months back, so head here if you want to learn more.
But just because I don’t, doesn’t mean you can’t – if you do it correctly. Hopefully this post will teach you two different ways to use your voice when training your horse: as a vocal command; as a reinforcement for a desired behavior.
Humans, compared to horses, are quite verbose. The problem that this can create is that constant verbal ramblings mean nothing to the horse, and expecting him to pull a vocal command or reinforcement out of a steady stream of chatter is particularly unfair.
But vocal commands, and verbal reinforcement work well with another species that shares our lives – dogs. My Australian Cattle Dog, Fiver, will leap up out of a dead sleep at the sound of ‘work’ mentioned in a sentence I direct towards my husband. Or say the word ‘bird’ or ‘squirrel’ when talking on the phone, and let the anticipatory whining begin! And if I tell her cute self she is a ‘Good Girl’ she wiggles with delight, which in some bizarre feedback loop causes me to say it over and over (just who is training who here?) While my dog seems to find my vocalizations meaningful and rewarding, alas, my horses do not.
Unless I teach them otherwise…
When teaching I frequently run into students who chatter constantly to their horses, or who attempt to use use vocal commands or vocalizations in an effort to have their horse respond appropriately. Because they don’t understand what is required to have a vocal command or vocal reinforcement actually mean something to the horse, it usually doesn’t. To demonstrate just how little their vocalizations mean, I do the following: I take their horse by the leadrope, and say “GOOD BOOOOY” in a loud, soothing tone and ask the owner to observe the horse’s gestural communication. Other than perhaps some ear flicking at the sound, I’ve never had a horse respond on any appreciable level. Then I say “BAAAAD HORSE” and “NOOOOOOOO” in a firm tone. Or I gruffly say “STAND” when their horse walks off. The reaction to date has always the same – nothing.
So why doesn’t the horse respond to vocal command, praise, or reprimand? Quite simply, because it means nothing to him. In order for the vocalization to have meaning, we would have to train it to have meaning: by pairing the vocalization (with no meaning) with something that the horse already understands (and therefore has meaning to him). From a scientific perspective, this is an example of what’s known as ‘classical conditioning’ – pairing something that previously has no meaning (i.e.,’good boy’) , with something that already has meaning (i.e, eating a tasty carrot). If, for a period of time, we give the horse a carrot immediately after we say ‘good boy’, ‘good boy’ will actually start to have some meaning to the horse.
Now, whether the horse thinks ‘good boy’ means he is actually a good boy (as you intend), or whether he thinks it means ‘carrot coming’ is a whole other topic up for discussion – but I hope you get the point. The ‘good boy’ becomes what’s known as a secondary reinforcer, and secondary reinforcers can be handy things. Secondary reinforcers allow us to bridge the gap between the moment when the horse performs the behavior we are looking for, and the moment we can get the primary reinforcer (the thing he’s actually hoping to get as reinforcement – the carrot) to his lips. Primary reinforcers are any resources that the animal has evolved to want. In this blog’s examples, the horse’s primary reinforcer is the carrot (if he’s feeling in the mood for a carrot) and the dog’s primary reinforcer is my social attention and verbal praise.
There’s another way we can use our voice when working with the horse: we can teach the horse a vocal command to perform a behavior he already knows. People train horses to “Whoa”, and “Tr-Ot” and “Can-TER” through vocal command, all the time…but only after they first teach the horse to whoa, trot, or canter using what’s known as operant conditioning. Once the horse understands how to do those things, a vocal command can then be introduced, and paired with the already understood request (i.e. rein or leg aid) to whoa, trot, or canter. For example: Say ‘whoa’ immediately before you start the sequence of asking the horse to stop using cues he already knows, and pretty soon (if you do it correctly), you’ll have a nice stop off a simple ‘whoa’. (By the way, contrary to popular belief that it’s something magical and attainable only by ‘master horsemen’, you use classical conditioning when you train a horse to be ridden bridleless, too!)
Horse training is both art, and science. The art lies in understanding the horse, both as an individual and a species. It also requires we understand how he communicates, what works for him (or doesn’t), and how he perceives the world we place him in. Although a relatively new concept in how to train a horse, the science behind horse training is equally important. By understanding the science we can limit behavioral conflict in the horse, take more responsibility for training outcomes, and quit ‘blaming’ the horse when things don’t go according to plan. If you want to learn more about both the art and the science, check out the references below, or contact me to set up lessons or a clinic.
Lethbridge, E. Knowing Your Horse: A Guide To Equine Learning, Training and Behavior Wiley-Blackwell, 2009
McGreevy, P. Equine Behavior, Saunders, 2004
McGreevy, P., McLean, A. Equitation Science, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010
Lauren Fraser, CHBC offers relationship-based horse training that blends the art of horsemanship with behavioral science and the practical application of learning theory. She provides horsemanship coaching, behavioral consultations, solutions to problem behaviors, foundation training, clinics, and educational presentations.
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