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Positive Loading

Updated: Jun 14, 2018

Jenni Nellist Animal Behaviourist Horses Translated Blog Positive Loading Horses

The perennial problem, the horse that won’t load, not for love nor money, or even a well-aimed lunge line.

Where there are problems there are solutions! Can you turn your horse’s loading problem into a successful learning experience that lasts both of you a lifetime?

With behaviour comes attitude. According to cognitive behaviour science, behaviour is part of attitude, along with thoughts and feelings. So if your horse’s behaviour states that he does not want to go in that box, chances are that he feels he does not want to go in that box, and that he thinks he does not want to go in that box. Whoa, that box must be bad!

So it must follow that to change his behaviour, his whole attitude has to change. He hates and/or fears the box. He needs to move from unwillingness and sensitivity, to feeling more upbeat about the whole thing. He needs to view the box with a smile! He can do that if he can find out that the box holds nothing but good outcomes for him. At a pace where he can also move on from his fears.

So, he’s not going to believe that in one hit. He hasn’t so far, and if things carry on as they are, chances are he’ll never make that change. Right now he is downright pessimistic about that box.

An intelligent approach could be to reduce his pessimism by not following through with all the things he dreads in relation to the box. Just let him discover that he can be near the box through his own free will. This won’t be giving up as through his own free will he’ll be able to be a calmer horse. Then he’ll be receptive to learning new, positive ideas and be able to come to a place where he can be an optimist. No one I know can readily find an optimistic thought when in the fits of despair, but most can from a less gloomy place.

But do horses really get moments of pessimism and optimism? There’s not a lot of concrete proof within the covers of the academic journals that’s for sure, but it’s growing: Psychological factors affecting equine performance. But horses can learn about good and bad outcomes, they can be negatively affected by pressures and they can look forward to pleasurable experiences when they know they will happen. These pressures and different quality outcomes all affect and change horse behaviour (and attitude!) in ways that anyone can influence once they know how.

Learning skills that can help you influence your horse’s behaviour is possible if that’s what you want to do. You can not only affect what your horse does, but how he does it – his whole attitude in fact! And you may find that you will be, as Billy Connolly puts it, “better for it”.

New skills might include learning how to find the ‘beginning’ for your particular horse. Not all horses start their retraining on the same page.

Another new skill might be reading the finest points of your horse’s attitude, such as when he changes from pessimist to optimist and vice versa.

And of course there is learning the knack of timing ‘reinforcement’ – outcomes of your horse’s behaviour that motivate him to do that same behaviour again and again. And there is knowing what kind of reinforcement to use and why. You might already know about pressure and release, or you may not, but what other forms of reinforcement do you know about?

Learning to retrain a problem loader or any problem behaviour really can be quite an adventure, with new, personal discoveries around each corner. And since it is your journey, you have it in you to have a well traveled one.

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