I was sitting on the bus headed to a friend of mine when I started thinking about her living situation. Every time she leaves her apartment, she has to walk down six flights of stairs – and then she has to walk all the way back up when she comes home. It got me thinking that if I were in her situation, I would sort of dread leaving the house – because I would know that in order to get home again, I would need to walk all. those. steps. Call me lazy, but I don’t think anyone enjoys the sensation of feeling their life leave their body one flight at a time!
And then I thought – what if I lived at the bottom of ten flights of stairs! And had to walk alllll the way to the top before leaving my apartment. Now that would be even worse. I would have to really WANT to leave the house in order to bother doing it. I would definitely not do it to go buy a pack of noodles – maybe not even for a chocolate. My motivation (or what I gain for doing it) would need to be bigger than the dread.
Imagine living in this apartment. What feelings would you associate with leaving the house? With going through the door? With opening the door? With moving towards the door? With thinking about the door? You’ll probably not feel all warm and fuzzy and joyous.
“What has this got to do with not being able to catch my horse?!” Humor me for a minute, please.
If I asked you to do something really boring, exhausting, pointless or painful, and by doing so you would have to leave a party with your friends, how would you feel about it?
A horse is programmed to associate stuff with other stuff. This is how horses survive. It wouldn’t be very practical if the horse from time to time “forgot” that a predator is dangerous for example.
So your horse will make connections between things that happen, and the consequences those things produce. This is why he gladly gets “caught” in the evening when the horses are brought in for the night (he most certainly doesn’t want to be left alone, and there’s often a bucket of food waiting for him inside), but runs away when you try to catch him at other times.
SO! Lets say that every time you get your horse, you do stuff that he doesn’t really like. Stuff that is boring, exhausting, pointless or painful. Stuff the horse would NOT choose to do if given the chance. Is it strange to you that he doesn’t come running?
A lot of people try to fix this “problem” with treats. They go to the paddock while shaking a bucket of food. It might work the first time. But pretty soon the horse will come to associate the bucket of food with leaving the paddock, which is already loaded with negative emotions. This is what happens when you try to cover up the symptom and not deal with the problem. He might snatch the food, and run away before you get the halter on. Or he might start running at the sound of the bucket shaking. No matter what, it does NOT change how he feels about the situation of coming out of the paddock.
What is the problem? Motivation. The same problem as the many flights of stairs.
What if I told you you could remove the stairs? Would you feel better about leaving your apartment? I certainly would. So how do we remove the stairs from the horses perspective? By making it motivating and desirable to come with you out of the paddock!
By associate yourself with only good stuff, you can change your horses emotions – and when you change his emotions, he will change his behavior. It’s really that simple.
This change does not come over night, however. You may change your training to positive reinforcement, only do stuff your horse thinks is rewarding, and never put your horse in uncomfortable situations. Your horse may still be hesitant to come to you. I have a little anecdote on that actually!
When I was little, my mother used to give me and my siblings crushed vitamin pills mixed in with raspberry jam. It tasted like hell! Every morning it was jam with vitamins. To this day I can’t eat raspberry jam without thinking about that horrible taste, and I still sometimes “taste” the vitamins.
Changing emotion and association takes time and determination. But it is SO worth it!