In my last article we discussed how making our horses “feel” good, or right about what they are doing helps keep horses to retain their training, and makes our training processes easier. In this article I discuss the importance of positive and negative feedback and how they affect our horses’ training. People do not always give horses the credit they deserve for how their minds and memories work. Horses will remember something for life that repeats itself only THREE times! After 10 times that action is not only remembered but becomes a habit. To then undo that habit takes up to 28 instances of positive repetition. So always doing things properly is very important when dealing with horses.
Positive and Negative Feedback
That’s why positive and negative feedback when a horse yields under the right circumstances and at the right time is crucial to helping our horses learn. Horses are just like people – they feel good when praised and bad when they get negative feedback. Since horses learn through feel…we want them to feel great when they do something right. But I often see people giving horses the feel good feelings when they should give them the negative ones.Let’s consider picking up feet. As a trainer I get a many people asking me to make sure the horse will pick up its feet well for cleaning out its hooves. I agree this is very important however, about half of all the horses I train pick up their feet well…for me! So, then I know that when the owners come back I’m going to need to teach THEM to pick up their horse’s feet.
Getting a Horse to Lift a Foot
Here is the first mistake I see: Most often this happens with people who feel a bit uncomfortable with the fact that they are that close to their horse’s hoof. They tentatively run their hand down their horse’s leg all the while crooning “good boy, good boy.” Then they get to the horse’s pastern and squeeze but the horse still hasn’t picked up its foot. Then they start pulling with both hands, puffing for breath, still saying, “Good boy, good boy.” What have they taught their horse at this point? That if they stand there like a rock and don’t budge, they are a ‘good boy!’ In reality the person is doing this because it gives them comfort and security by making them feel like they are keeping the horse calm so as to avoid the possibility of being kicked. So at this point I have to address several things. If your horse is the type to kick or strike, you should not be bending over trying to lift a foot. If that is the case, you have to go back to step one which is of course training them to safely allow having their feet handled. This is something we can address later. In this article, I’m dealing with the horse that is already known to be safe to handle.
Rather than make your horse feel good about being bad, this is what we will do instead: Run your hand down the horse’s leg. If you get to the pastern and they have not offered to pick up their foot for you, squeeze the tendon above the pastern joint at the same time saying “Pick”. We should always have a precise one-word command for things we want our horses to do. I like that word because it does not sound like my other commands and the horse will learn to recognize it. If you do all this and the foot stays on the ground we have to up the ante…but at this point we have still not said anything but “Pick”. If the foot is still on the ground I take my hoof pick and gently press the point against the back of the pastern. I start pushing harder and harder until he gives in and lifts the foot, at which point I hold it up and say “Good boy!” Then and only then do you give that praise. With consistency picking up feet will be easy. “Good boy” is the praise; the hoof pick in the pastern is the negative reinforcement.