Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Barn Sour Horses - Routines Matter

Barn Sour Horses - Behavior Change through modification of riding routine.

About 25 years ago I had a very barn sour horse.  He was okay in the ring as long as he was in sight of his field and stall.  He would move around obediently changing gaits and directions and hop over little jumps when asked.  Once the work part of day was over I would take him out for trail rides in the rolling hills of western New Jersey.  This was our time bonding as we enjoyed the beauty of nature together.  Only there was no bonding and little enjoyment.

Trail riding that horse was more work than ring riding.  I’d keep my leg on him, pushing him every step as he tried to spin me around and drag me back to the barn.  It did not matter if we went out with other horses, he wanted to leave them and go home.  As soon as we turned towards the barn he’d act like a Kentucky Derby prospect showing off for the railbirds.  The ride home was a constant series of my demanding half halts, side passes and circles until I was dizzy and fed up.  Sometimes I’d just let him gallop up the trail because I was tired of arguing.  

Every thinking horse person knows this gallop home was a bad decision.  I’d let him fuss and misbehave and then rewarded this bad behavior with exactly what he wanted, an express ticket back to the barn.

Several horses later and after years of professional dog training experience and the attention to behavior modification that goes with it, I can see even more mistakes in my riding routine.

When you have a horse you usually ride with a plan.  Most people’s riding plan looks like this:

Work horse in ring.  Bends, transitions, collection and extension.  This is difficult stuff.  You are both working hard.
As a reward for this hard work you take your horse on a trail ride.  Together you meander along woodland paths or wander through fields relaxing and loosening muscles tense from work
You return to the barn, groom the horse and fuss over them.
Turn the horse out on pasture or put in stall with hay/grain.

Why would this make your barn sour horse more difficult to ride away from the barn?

Let’s break down what we are doing using dogs as an example.  

If your dog is not very food motivated a biscuit will not motivate that dog,
If that same dog really likes playing fetch with tennis balls you can train with those as a reward for good behavior.   If your dog most of all wants to go outside and sniff around the chicken coop a short, successful, training sessions before going out chicken sniffing is going to yield better results than food they care nothing for.  

Which things are rewarding to this particular dog from most rewarding to least rewarding?

Chicken sniffing
Tennis balls and other toys

The point is, you must use rewards that are valuable to the animal you are training, not rewards you think should be valuable.  So though you may think food is the best choice for dog training, in this dog's case it is not.

In training terms this is called a reward hierarchy.  What makes you very happy?  What makes you pretty happy?  What do you think is Okay?  What don’t you like very much at all?

My reward hierarchy might look like this:

Spend the day at the barn

⇓                                        ⇓

Go to the beach with friends                ͇           Explore a new town with friends

Stand around in high heels and stockings at a fancy party

Clean under the sink (yuck!)

Clearly any task that always ended with my receiving a good under the sink cleaning session would be disliked and avoided.

If you want me to do every task on the list start with sink cleaning, the sink cleaning leads to a high heel party.  Next reward me with fun and friends and end the series with the barn day.  If this is the order or progression every time I will anticipate getting to clean under the sink because it starts such a nice reward chain.

The reward hierarchy of a horse that is uncomfortable away from their barn, aka Barn Sour might look like this:

My stall, my field, my shed

Grooming, Petting, Human Attention
Ring work if my stall/field/shed is close
Trail Riding – WHERE IS MY STALL?!!

Horses That Find Being Near Their Barn Comforting Will Find a Trail Ride LESS DESIRABLE Than Ring Work On The Farm even though the ring work appears to be harder to do.  For that horse ring work is not the most difficult thing, being away from the barn causes them anxiety and is more difficult than collection, bends, etc..  These are BARN SOUR HORSES.

Why does this matter? 

Under my original riding plan when my barn sour horse adequately completed his ring work,  # 3 on his list of things to do, he was made to do something he liked even less.  # 4 on his hierarchy, trail riding.  

In behavioral terms I punished good ring work with something the horse really disliked.

I then rewarded poor behavior on the trail with grooming, food, stall or turn out #'s 1 and 2 on his list. 

The sooner he got trail riding over the sooner he got to do something he really wanted very much.  So he became frantic to end the trail ride.

Training this horse I should have worked TOWARDS the most desired thing, holding it back until the all of the less desired activities are satisfactorily completed in order of desirability from lowest to highest.

If you want your barn sour horse to be both a ring and a trail horse try a brief and low distraction (non-scary) trail ride first.  Return to the barn before the horse becomes frantic, even if the first ride is just stepping outside of the farm gate and then calmly returning. (Important see *Note)  When the horse completes the trail riding exercise he is not rewarded with his favorite thing, he goes to the thing he likes more than trail riding, but less than freedom, food or attention - ring work.

When the horse is good at a low distraction, short duration and short distance trail ride begin to expand these three variables, distraction, duration and distance, one at a time. 

Since the very best thing in his life is not put at the end of the thing he dislikes most your horse should become less frantic for the trail ride to end. Why? Because the trail ride ends with work, not reward.

New Order of Operation for the Barn Sour Horse:

*Note: you MUST first do enough ground or mounted ring work that your horse is safe and ready for a trail ride.  Do this work then go out on the trail.  When you return from your trail ride go back for more ring work.  Trail rides end with ring work, EVERY TIME.

Trail Ride
Ring work
Groom, treats, attention
Stall with hay/grain or turnout with hay/pasture.

If this program does not yield any results in about six weeks consult a horse behavior professional.  

Some places to look for a horse behavior specialist:

Happy Riding,

Claudia Black-Kalinsky, CPDT-Ka
Savannah, Ga.   Train This Dog, LLC (C)2017


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