Each new horse that meets us at the Colorado Horse Rescue is greeted with a quick training evaluation to see who they come to us as. We find ourselves asking them: what are your current behaviors, and why do they exist? Often, when we find ourselves with these animals in our protection, we are not given their full story or, as in our mare Fern’s case, any story at all. When we first start this process, we hope for the absolute best. We hope that they come to us as willing and happy animals, carrying no prior baggage to hinder their views and behaviors towards their human companions. We hope that nothing in their history has gotten in the way of them listening to their base horse instincts of being respectful and calmly responsive of pressure and release, just as they would have learned in a typical equine herd. These are the horses that we find the easiest to work with and give an education to. Likewise, these horses are the easiest to adopt out into their forever homes. As we discussed in our last article introducing Fern, this is not always the case. Sometimes horses come meet us with memories that prevents them acting from natural impulses, but instead through learned behavior that has helped them survive in their specific environments. Knowing that Fern has started out as an angry, non-responsive, and potentially hazardous horse, today we are going to be talking about the tremendous amount of progress that she has seen. We will also be breaking down the process used that has led to her success.
Focusing heavily on the use of positive reinforcement, we have already seen favorable change in her attitude towards humans in this short amount of time. First, we began simply by entering her space with exceptionally low expectations and using absolutely no pressure in her training- as this is where we continued to see aggressive behavior begin. Instead, we started to teach her a word cue (“good”) to look for when she is about to receive a food reward by doing simple targeting exercises. We use this game to introduce her to this signal as something to recognize when she has completed the desired action. This was done simply by asking her to touch her halter with her nose. When she made contact, we would instantly say the cue word and give her a small reward. Fern quickly learned the exercise and became enthusiastic to play. It was clear that she was both highly intelligent and food motivated. This eagerness was a great sign for us. We were quickly able to create an environment for her that she genuinely wanted to partake in without having to go back into her combative demeanor.
To prevent food aggression and to start teaching her to respect our space, we gave Fern another task to work on as well. In this one we would stand by her shoulder facing her head and when she turned her head away from us, we would signal and reward her – but only if she stayed turned away when receiving the food. In this way, we were able to teach her that whenever she was nosy or pushy about the treats, the reward would never come. They could only be obtained when she remained polite and respectful.
Using the same rules that we had set up in these first two exercises, we moved to more tricky subject matters for Fern: pressure and release training. We opened with very slight pressure, asking for her to make small movements in response. When she did so without adding her typical aggression toward the stimulus, we would signal her and reward her right away. As with everything else, it took no time at all before she understood what to expect. We were able to continue this process until she could go through the basic groundwork movements without kicking out, biting, or being pushy towards us. Instead She began to come to each new session with more positivity towards us as her handlers. This month we ended on a truly high note. We were able to get her used to wearing saddle for the first time since she has arrived. It was clear that she had some earlier idea of what it was, though again not in a positive view. The pressure of the cinch caused her to try to kick out, but after using our reward method when she was able to handle the touch calmly, she quickly stopped the behavior and packed the equipment around wonderfully. Granted, when round penning, she would buck or kick with the saddle every now and then – but no longer are those actions directed towards us. Even so, she remains a long way ahead in her progress from where she began.
Fern has become such an inspiring horse for us to work with as trainers. From her we have learned that when facing an aggressive horse, it may take thinking big and building up patients to create newfound trust. And building a clear communication out of what we are looking for has made all the difference with her. This mare has turned out to be one special horse underneath all her learned behavior, and an unbelievably willing partner when she understands what is expected of her.