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Tricks of the Trade; Smooth Operator

Behaviourist Jenni Nellist shares her go-to equine behaviour problem solving strategies for success. As featured in Welsh Rider Magazine.

Horses who pay attention to the consequences of their behaviour quickly learn how to look after their best interests. Natural “operant” learning behaviour is what we often rely on to train horses.

Behaviour can have four possible outcomes:

1. It gains a reward, like company, food or being scratched.

2. It escapes or avoids pain and pressure, like tension on the reins, or uncomfortable or irritating procedures.

3. Missing out on a preferred activity, like getting attention, or being brought in for feed.

4. Receiving a painful or frightening result, like a zap from the electric fence or crack from a whip.

The first two benefit the horse, and encourage him to repeat the behaviours that led to them. The first is “positive reinforcement”: the horse gets a scratch for standing still to be girthed. The second is “negative reinforcement”: the horse finds that snatching his foot away avoids having to stand on three legs for hoof care.

The second pair of outcomes are detrimental to the horse and both are types of punishment. Punishment suppresses the behaviours that coincided with them. “Negative punishment”: the handler stops hand feeding as consequence of biting. “Positive punishment” is the addition of something painful, like being zapped by the electric fence for leaning over it.

Both punishment and reinforcement have emotional impacts on the horse. Reinforcements tell horses what to do, and are generally encouraging and empowering. Punishments often make horses feel frightened and frustrated, and don't tell horses what to do.

Basically: keep calm and reinforce your horse for the behaviour you want, and you can't go far wrong.

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. Please visit the website or call Jenni’s assistant Jo Priede on 07421 828742

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