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Tricks of the Trade; Pavlov's Ponies

Behaviourist Jenni Nellist shares her go-to equine behaviour problem solving strategies for success.

Horses make emotional connections with every significant person, thing and event in their lives, especially if their emotions are already running high the first time the association is made. Like Pavlov’s dogs who learned to salivate in anticipation at the sound of a buzzer: because it “announced” food, horses make the same links. Their brain and body become hot wired to the signals causing automatic responses to everything important to them. This “Pavlovian learning” can work for us, and against us.

For us: habitually feeding horses as soon as they come in from the field creates food anticipation when people appear at the gate to fetch them in. Anticipation motivates them to approach the gate before feeding time and wait. If all horses were introduced to the horse box just for being fed near it, on the ramp, and in it, they would have a similar relationship with the lorry as they do with waiting at the field gate.

Against us: bad experiences cause the opposite association. Events leading up to pain when ridden cause anxiety and avoidance behaviour: because they act as warning signals. Halter equals getting tacked up, so avoid getting caught; saddle equals pain/riding so move away from the saddle/nip; lining up for mounting equals riding, so move away.

Key to harnessing the power of Pavlovian learning is to present all the things you want the horse to feel positive about when she’s calm; and to pair them with things you know the horse likes. So that the box, saddle, mounting and riding are both pain and fear free, as well as leading to something the horse likes, so they are motivated to do what you want.

Jenni Nellist is an Animal Behaviour and Training Council (ABTC) Registered Clinical Animal Behaviourist and a Full Member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors. Contact Jenni here.

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