We often see the most creative and effective methods of behaviour management coming from those dealing with exotics and wild animals. (Perhaps because you can't put a choke chain on a parrot or a shock collar on a dolphin, and "whip taps" simply aren't effective on a rhino?)
Earlier this year a group of kea (a highly intelligent and notoriously cheeky New Zealand alpine parrot) began entertaining themselves playing with road cones in Milford Sound. They were shifting them around and tipping them over and generally causing havoc in the one-way tunnel where roadworks were underway. The delightful and very sensible response by the authorities was to give the kea their own roadside playground in a bid to encourage them to invest their time in less disruptive hobbies. The kea gym was regularly updated with new toys and treats to keep them interested.
On my way to a clinic recently, I passed two cyclists complete with packed panniers, travelling along rural State Highway 2 (a narrow and dangerous 100km/h road). My attention was drawn by the bright yellow pool noodles they had strapped to the back of their bicycle seats, extending a metre or so out into the road towards the cars.
This is the first time I've ever seen this, and it really struck me as it is such an innovative example of influencing behaviour. (Apparently this is a thing - I found this photo by googling "pool noodle cyclist").
I just LOVE these sorts of elegant management solutions to problems! These people were taking personal responsibility for their own safety, and had found a simple and quick way to effectively prevent unwanted behaviour by the vehicle drivers (that of driving too close). The kea playground shows a pragmatic acceptance of the playful nature of these birds and a tidy redirection of that play drive onto something more appropriate than the roadworks.
"Prevention is one of the greatest tools in force-free training. When something goes wrong, don’t ask yourself how can you punish your animal. Ask yourself “How can I prevent this in the future?”
A very common question I get from dog owners is "how do I stop my dog from getting into the rubbish bin?". The obvious answer (obvious to the trainer, at least!) is "... put the bin somewhere the dog can't get to it?". It doesn't matter how good a trainer you are, or how much time you have to devote to that one animal, you can't train ALL. The. Things.
Yes, it's possible to train an animal to do just about anything it is physically capable of doing. However we all have limited hours in our days, and we can't train every single thing to the nth degree. We also want to set our animals up for success, and prevent them from practising the behaviour we don't want. Therefore management and prevention is a critical tool. In the dog example, this might mean removing the object of interest or using baby gates or crates to limit your dog's options around the house. With a new horse it might mean putting him in a yard or behind a gate when doing initial training, so that he doesn't get to practice any mugging behaviour. (And then of course, in all cases, we reinforce alternative, more appropriate behaviours, because no animal can exist in a vacuum, right? If we want to eliminate a behaviour we need to fill the space with something else).
“The learner is never wrong. When an animal doesn’t do what we expect, it’s the program. And, the solution is to change what we, the trainers, do. To change behavior, change conditions. The animal changes himself/herself.”
One of the keys to successful behaviour change is (in behaviour-speak), arranging your antecedents. Or in normal talk, set the environment and the animal up for success. There is no "should". He is either doing it, or he's not. If not, that's your problem not his. Change the conditions to better enable success. Break it down further and explain more clearly what it is you want. Motivate him sufficiently. And then he'll do it.
Remember that whatever behaviour it is we're asking our animals to do, it's all our silly idea. It isn't hard for most people to grasp that if an animal is giving us a genuinely unwanted behaviour then we should immediately act to prevent that from happening (because it's in our own interests). However what if the behaviour isn't "unwanted" but it's just a "wrong answer"? Well, same deal. If for no other reason than the sake of the animal's enjoyment of the training process, we don't want to passively allow them to repeatedly make the wrong choice over and over, waiting for them to randomly land on the answer we're looking for. It's not efficient training and they'll likely get frustrated and eventually switch off.
However, if I simply stand outside the rail and hold the target in such a way that it's easy for her to do the right thing and she can get multiple rewards in a short space of time, then when I enter the paddock and stand right beside her, what will she do? She'll very likely do what she's just been rewarded dozens of times for doing - touching the end of the stick. Problem solved. Less time spent, more success.
Take this concept to any behaviour you're training. If you want square halts when riding, you could ask for dozens of halts (which would give you lots of variability) and just reward the ones that are vaguely square... or you could train your horse to stand their front feet in balance on a mat and then put the mat in the arena when riding. Do a little more practice from on top and when you take the mat away they're very likely to halt square again. All that repetition and reward has greased up the neural pathways in their brain to produce "muscle memory" for balance and straightness in the halt.
Ethical training can (and should) also be efficient and effective training. Dragging out the process by not communicating clearly with the animal, or allowing them to make endless "wrong choices" which result in a low success rate, is not fair on them. Nobody wins. So keep your eye focused on the end-goal, your remarkably creative and logical brain focused on the steps needed to get there, and through it all maintain an unwavering dedication to proactively helping your animal partner to succeed and have fun.
Time. Or rather, the lack of.
Most of us have work or study or young kids or multiple horses (or all of the above!) and it's sometimes hard enough to find time to squeeze in a regular ride let alone "make time for training".
Good news: you don't necessarily have to! Or at least, don’t let that be the excuse you make to justify doing no training at all.
First of all, clicker training done well (with structure and a clear plan) is so effective that you can often achieve a huge amount in just a few 5 minute sessions here and there. But if you're struggling to make that happen (trust me, I empathise), you'd be amazed at what you can achieve at the same time as you change covers, feed out and shift paddocks, hold the horse for the trimmer etc. No additional training time required. And the best bit is that doing this will SAVE you time in the end as it will be easier and faster to get your "horse chores" done as your horses will calmly cooperate with you.
So with that in mind, here's my
Top 5 ways to train your horse when you don't have time to train your horse!
#1 Come to you in the paddock:
Most clicker trained horses will come running as soon as they see you at the gate. If yours don't already do that and you have to walk out to them, just wander on over until they raise their head and look at you. Stop there. Call them in a friendly, relaxed sort of way. Acknowledge them and any calming signals they might give you by turning your energy down (breathe out, turn sideways, wait). When they take a step towards you, click, and either wait for them to wander over, or just start meandering slowly back to the gate. Feed them when they catch up with you. If they won't approach or they walk away, then a) they need more time to learn to trust you, b) you need to ensure they are truly enjoying the time they spend with you, and c) try high value treats to change their associated emotional response (you = wonderful things) and speed the process along!
#2 Self halter:
Haltering is usually the first things we do with our horse each time we interact with them, and it sets the mood. Invite your horse to be part of the process. In other words, don't get all business-like and just walk up and shove it on. If you are in a rush, you can at least pause with the halter around nostril-level and give the horse a chance to put her own nose the rest of the way into it. Ask permission and listen to her answer. Many horses, if invited tactfully, will put their own nose in the halter. This is the point where you might like to reward. (If your horse turns her head away, she is giving you a calming signal. Take a calm slow breath. Acknowledge her and just wait. She’ll come back to you. If she raises her head or otherwise tries to evade the halter, then I'd suggest you need to dedicate a couple of short sessions to training this. Click and reward when your horse brings her nose to touch the halter, and build up to self-haltering (putting her own nose into it when you hold it out). Also, similar to the catching example, examine your relationship and how she might be feeling about the time she spends with you.
Your training session starts the moment you begin interacting with your horse. Therefore training good leading manners begins the moment you put the halter and rope on (and actually a great way to teach leading is without any halter or rope at all, but that’s a different subject). If your horse tends toward rushing or lagging or grass-snatching etc, don’t get caught up in a combative cycle of corrections. Focus on what you want - help him give you the right answer and actively reinforce your horse for any nice moments as you lead him from the paddock to the grooming area, to the arena, and back to the paddock. You're both going there anyway, so don't miss the opportunity to reinforce him for the nice soft moments. What you reward, you get more of. It really is that simple.
#4 Good manners for the trimmer/farrier:
If you hold your horses for the trimmer and you are not actively training the entire time, then you're wasting a massive amount of time and opportunity. I had 4 young horses trimmed this morning, and as each horse was having its feet done, I was constantly training. I marked the moments they lifted their foot on the first gentle ask, and when they stretched their foot forward to rest on the hoof stand (and when they kept it there). I was building duration while she was rasping, and I was simultaneously reinforcing park and self-control around the food. If you have young horses (or older horses that are not impeccably behaved for the trimmer), you need to actively train your horse. Don't expect your trimmer to train AND do their feet.
#5 Mounting block safety:
Acknowledge and reward your horse for lining up and standing still at the mounting block. Take a breath and thank her. (What she is doing here is much more than just a convenience for you; she is allowing you to sit astride her body, so be thankful). Pause for a few breaths on top of the mounting block and reward her for staying parked.
If your horse doesn't stand stock still when you put your foot in the stirrup and remain still until asked to move, please dedicate training time to this. It's VERY dangerous. So don’t take it for granted, and don’t just correct her when she moves - actively reward her for standing calmly.
You can click again when your foot is in the stirrup and you're swinging up, so that by the time your butt lands in the saddle she will be looking for her treat, not going to walk off. Once on board, don't pick up the reins and immediately get going. Take a moment, check your girth, make yourself comfortable, take some deep breaths and connect with her. If your horse tends to take the initiative and start the ride without being asked, make a point of fiddling about before you cue the walk and reward her for waiting patiently during this process.
(Please don't mount from the ground unless you have to - think of your horse's poor spine).
So there you go - five ways you can fit more training into your days. Little short sessions are way more effective than long ones anyway. The horse learns faster that way and it ensures some brain soak time. And don't worry, when you use positive reinforcement they retain their learning for an exceptionally long time, so even if it's weeks or months before you re-visit that behaviour they'll still be further along than they were before. I hope that helps - just remember, something is always better than nothing.