Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Horse Training: Taking Advantage of the Horse Herd Instinct

Horse herd instinct works to your disadvantage when you are working with a herd-bound horse, but you can definitely use it to your advantage in horse training when introducing a new and possibly scary concept.

Call it group think or the hundredth monkey principle ... or possibly just the tenth horse principle.

Whatever you call it, the horse herd instinct can help you train a horse faster than in a solo environment. With herd instinct always at play in the background, a "newbie" horse can quickly learn something new by watching one or more experienced horses do the very thing you want to teach.

The Roping Clinic: An Example of "Group Think"
A classic example of horse "group think" was a session of a roping clinic, a while back, with my sometimes "freaky" horse, Walker. Just for a little background, this was the first session of the clinic where horses were involved. The first two sessions of this clinic focused on teaching us wannabe ropers to swing the rope ... and avoid hitting unexpected objects and people.

During this third session, the horses were introduced to the Robo-Steer, a mechanical steer on wheels guided by remote control. The Robo-Steer is covered in cowhide and looks kind of like a steer, but makes funny noises when moving ... and moves its hind legs back and forth, up and down as it moves. It also creaks. A potentially scary object for any horse.

To help ease the horses into working with the Robo-Steer, Mary and Dusty of Stirrup Cup Farm had invited Walker and I to come up and work with the Robo-Steer prior to this session of the clinic. Walker and I played with the Robo-Steer a couple of times before the clinic, until Walker was familiar with the machine and actually liked chasing it!

During the clinic, with all horses present, Mary and Dusty had me and Walker follow the steer along with my neighbor (Katee) on her mare, who had never seen such a machine. All the other horses watched. At first, Katee's mare snorted and would not get close to the Robo-Steer. However, after seeing Walker walk calmly beside the steer and touch it with his nose, she gradually got into the game.

As soon as she touched the machine with her nose, Dusty would stop it. This became a game of "cat and mouse," and the mare became fascinated with the idea that SHE could control the machine just by touching it. That got her interested in chasing the Robo-Steer, fast!

Using Herd Instinct: The Rest of the Group Joins In
Once Katee and I had followed the steer for three circuits of the arena, the rest of the horses "ganged up" on the machine in pairs. It was amazing to see how each pair of horses learned to accept the Robo-Steer. Each pair showed progressively less fear than the pair before. In other words, by seeing other pairs of horses chase the machine and return to the group unharmed, the remaining horses learned to be unafraid. What was interesting was that the horses that were watching actually licked and chewed as they watched ... a sure sign of learning and acceptance in "horse speak."

The "group think" idea worked great until the last pair of horses. One of these horses was a spooky young colt, and despite the fact that his partner horse was fine, he himself refused to get close to the machine. So Walker and I, along with another horse and rider, joined the pair up by the Robo-Steer.

Now we had a "herd" of four horses ganging up on the machine, three of whom were unafraid of the machine. With the addition of two new horses to the "herd," the spooky colt quickly learned to touch the steer. In fact, it took only two circuits of the arena for this horse, who was truly scared, to accept the machine. Once the colt lost his fear, the two of us who had joined the group peeled off and returned to the end of the arena. Then the original pair of horses made a couple more loops around the arena, touching and stopping the machine easily.

It was amazing! Even though we needed to introduce seven new horses to the Robo-Steer, the whole process took less than an hour. And each new pair that approached the machine, with the exception of the scared colt, was progressively less and less fearful.

Horse Training and Putting the Herd Instinct to Use
This example of "group think" probably explains why many horses do so well learning at clinics, in a group or herd environment. The herd instinct allows them to learn through the experiences of other horses at the clinic. It works the same for humans, too. Have you ever been to a workshop and literally leapt up a learning curve, almost effortlessly? That's because you are tapping into the pool of group energy.

The good news is that you don't necessarily have to have an entire "herd" to use the herd instinct for your horse training program. This herd instinct phenomenon works well with just two or three horses.

For instance, Mary and Dusty often put young colts in their round pen, which is right next to the arena, while they rope the mechanical steer with more experienced horses. The colts get the watch the older horses schooling, and learn that neither the steer nor the rope are to be feared. When these colts go into training they are tractable and very easy to teach, having already "previewed" the lessons many times.

In fact, this herd instinct is so powerful that they can literally rope off colt who has never been roped off of, almost from day one. Not only that, but the colts go into training already tuned into the idea that it's fun to chase the mechanical steer. Now that's pretty cool! It saves you, the cowboy or cowgirl, a lot of time and effort, not to mention decreasing your chances of getting bucked off or run away with.

Using Group Think with Traumatized Horses
The herd instinct is a particularly powerful tool for horse training for traumatized horses. Walker is the perfect example. Having been repeatedly roped as an almost-feral three-year-old, Walker associated the rope with all things bad, including castration, vaccinations, and intensive training.

Two things helped Walker get over his fear of ropes:

1. Standing in the arena (with me on the ground or in the saddle) watching Dusty rope the Robo-Steer. This taught him that we were never going to rope him, only the mechanical steer. Watching Dusty rope over and over, edging closer to him all the time, Walker finally realized that no matter how close the rope came to him, the loop was never going to end up around his neck.

2. Getting 2 capsules of Eleviv herbal supplement before starting the lesson. Since Walker would immediately go into his "fight or flight" sympathetic nervous system whenever he saw the rope, the Eleviv was useful to keep him relaxed in his normal parasympathetic nervous system. When operating from this nervous system, he was able to be receptive to the lesson and watch Dusty rope without fear. Without the Eleviv, I wasn't able to get Walker into the arena when Dusty was roping. With his herbal "helper," Walker was willing to try new things. It helped him think rather than react.

So there you have it. The 100th monkey principle works great on horses because they already operate from their herd instinct. Throw in some Eleviv for horses who have been traumatized, and you now have two new tools for your horse training tool box.

Awesome! I love anything that saves me from getting tossed in the dirt!

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Photo credit: Mary Duke of Stirrup Cup Farm

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