When we talk of training, we tend to think of a specific event, something we have planned for, prepared for, something involving equipment or special area.
But really all interactions we have with our horses are an opportunity to train, for example, how we expect our horses to behave around us, at liberty, or haltered, or in the stable, during grooming or at feedtime.
But what can we train by deliberately not training?
Because of the separation anxiety issues I have been helping my horses with over the last couple of months, ‘training’ has been in a specific area, with a specific set of circumstances or antecedents to promote the best learning experience. This has been, so far, hugely successful, my ponies are willing to interact to the point of waiting to be let into the area. I am over the moon, there is nothing better than willing ponies. But this also got me thinking when observing them recently.
Routine is good, it can build calmness and security especially in anxious equines, but there is a downside, it can create anticipation which can have consequences.
Following a rigid routine can in itself cause anxiety, if for some reason it cannot be followed.
For instance if you feed your horse at an exact time everyday, but one day your car breaks down and you are an hour late, anxiety, shown in displacement behaviours can appear.
Anticipation around a certain event can also have consequences.
My ponies are willing to come and interact and I attribute that to fact that I no longer train with aversive methods, but what if I did, then the training event and area could be seen in a negative way and anticipation could cause anxiety.
On the flip side of this is what I have actually witnessed in my own horses, I let Merry into the area to hang out whilst I finished a few yard jobs. Immediately he began looking for me and coming to closest part of the training area to where I was. He was anticipating what was going to happen in an excited way. This also had an effect on Ember who was pacing the fence, not in her old anxious from seperation way, but in an anticipation of training as she loves it too.
One of my antecedents is to promote a situation for calm relaxed horses and they were not this, I had created the training event into a big thing, so I decided not to train at all.
Instead I decided to let them hang out, I left Merry in the training area to mooch about, to graze or eat the hay there, and I left Ember on the yard to go back to her hay and relax. This they did and after a while I let them share the training area which is a different activity in a familiar environment.
There are still more things I could do to vary the training such as create a alternative training place, do different activities in the training areas, change the order they train in etc, all with a view of keeping them relaxed and calm.
But by not training I am actually training to:
- Build resilience to routine change to prevent anxiety
- Prevent anticipation which could be either negative or excitement
- Promote a relaxed state so learning can be more effective
This has reminded me that training is not a discrete event but an integrated part of the whole relationship we have with our horses and needs to be managed that way.