Clicker Training Horses – Does Your Horse Know How to Smile ?

Does Your Horse Know How to Smile ?

Happy Faces

Happy Faces

‘Happy Faces’ (from The Click That Teaches Step By Step Guide in Pictures book , Alexandra Kurland)  is very much intended to be along the same lines as head lowering….the behaviour and emotion are neurophysiologically linked so when you change one you influence/change the other.  By teaching ears forward (happy faces) you can change the emotion around the situation and as such are training for happy emotions.  This by no means stops their real emotions coming out as we can’t force it (they always have a choice), but for the horses who have practised grumpy faces for a long time it is such an important lesson.

As with all things we teach with the clicker the horses then use that in other situations, the horses learn how to apply it to other behaviours without our guidance and so it can alter their outlook on life in general.  I guess it is about teaching them the emotional control around when they should and should not use ears back appropriately.

Some horses learn that ears back is effective so they start to use more and more until it becomes their immediate reaction to anything they don’t like.  Soon they get known as the grumpy horse.  All that has happened is that the behaviour pendulum got stuck too far in one direction (grumpy faces), it struggles to swing back the other way to happy faces.  All we are doing with ears forward is teaching the horses how to get the pendulum back in balance and swinging in each direction appropriately again.  So it’s no different to behaviours such as stand on mat; we teach the horses to step on to the mat and when the pendulum swings too far and they start to get stuck on the mat then we need to figure out how to re-balance the pendulum swing so that they smoothly come off the mat.

Horses initially behave out of instinct.  Once they learn that that behaviour works then they may keep using it (the behaviour is reinforced), and sometimes to an extreme.  If we look at kids having a tantrum…..the tantrum will go on for longer and longer the longer it is ignored and then followed by attention because the kid has inadvertently been taught duration.  The behaviour needs to go on for longer to get the attention from someone.  In other words….the parent has ignored them until they can’t stand it any more and finally give them attention (not always good attention but it was attention and we can see how that built duration).  So the kid has learnt to persevere (the pendulum gets stuck), the adult will break at some stage if I just keep going with this.  Grumpy faces in horses seems to work the same way (at least for most of the grumpies I have worked with), if the horse is ignored and ignored then the grumpy faces gets good duration built-in because usually someone will give in and give attention or move away (what the horse wanted; the behaviour is reinforced).  And when they realise they get attention (reinforcement) for it then they will start to use it more and more often, for more situations.

The golden rule….if a behaviour continues it is somehow being reinforced.  Often for grumpy faces when we are around, it IS the person reinforcing the behaviour.

I was working with a Welsh section A a while ago who would ‘protect’ his owner so strongly that he would attack the other ponies quite viciously.  What I was seeing was learned behaviour that was inadvertently taught by the owner.  The owner was baffled as to why this was happening and had no idea she had trained it….the pony would attack another pony and trot back to the owner who would pet and hug him !  Attacking behaviour reinforced.  The harder he attacked and the faster he got back to the owner the faster he got attention so his attacks got more vicious.  You could see he looked very pleased with himself for protecting his owner, but it was so out of hand it was frightening to everyone else.

While working with grumpy faces it is important to figure out what it is the horse is protecting (resource guarding).  If we can work that out then we can start to change the emotions around that particular situation.

In my experience, happy faces is a very important lesson for some horses to not only prevent their grumpiness getting out of hand, but also to allow them a happier life all round (even when we are not there).  We need to reduce the massive urge to resource guard to the point of it being obsessive and teach them to share happily.

We want our horses to know how to smile.


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