Communication or Motivation? Which do you think you need?

Often when I am asked to help people with horses, or when I teach small groups about how horses learn, I ask the people participating what they most want out of the lesson or class.

Very often the first thing people say is that they’d like a better relationship with their horse and usually when I ask what that means they say that they wished their horse would listen to them more or they complain that they don’t seem to be able to get through to their horse or to communicate with him.

If your horse does not respond when you ask him to do something, generally or in specific situations, it is really useful to think about this from two angles.

Think about whether you have a need to improve your communication skills, or whether you need to improve your motivation skills. And in the moment, when you are with the horse, think about whether you have a communication issue or actually whether it is a motivation issue.

I was sent a great sketch today by someone who had done a course with me a few weeks ago and who had really taken to heart that suggestion. She had evaluated her predicament – the horse ignored her cue to walk on out of the stable – to look at what might be the problem.

Is the issue that the horse does not understand what to do when you give the cue, or is she confused about which behaviour is required? Or is it that the horse does understand the cue but is either not able to “hear’ it or is simply unmotivated to respond?

Because when we say that the horse does not listen, that can sometimes sound as if the horse is intentionally ignoring or disobeying what the handler or rider is asking.

But why would that be? Could it be that the horse does not understand what we want? Or is it more likely that the horse is just not motivated to do it right now?

If the horse is accustomed to experiencing correction when he gets things wrong, could it be that he is not motivated to try, for fear of making a mistake?

Could it be that he is actually so distracted, attending to other things in his world, that he can’t actually hear what you are asking anyway?

Could it be that responding to what you ask could in fact result in some pain or discomfort for the horse? Could responding result in him having to move away from something he is very attracted to, such as his friends, his hay, or the safety of home? Or would it mean going towards something he finds worrying? So is something more motivating – attractive or repellent – working against you and what you have to offer?

What two things do we need to be able to train horses?

In order to train any animal – horse, hound, husband, hamster or hippopotamus – we need a minimum of two things. We need both communication and we need motivation.

Communication is about having a way of explaining to the horse what it is that you would like him to do.

Motivation has to do with convincing him that it is worth doing. But it’s also about keeping his attention so that he is not distracted by other things that could deplete his motivation to stay focused on the trainer and what she has to offer.

So motivation encompasses two aspects – it is both about having the horse want to do what you want, and having him not feel a stronger urge to do things you don’t want, instead.

Communicating and motivating using positive reinforcement – rewards

Training equines using positive reinforcement involves explaining what you want the horse to do, using non-aversive ways to cause the horse to choose to perform the behaviour, and then marking and giving a reward for tries in the right direction. It’s the addition of the reward that makes it positive reinforcement – the positive meaning that something desirable is “added” in this context.

We then gradually improve the performance in stages. That could include increasing the amount of time the horse can do whatever it might be, or the distance from which he can be asked to do it, or some other qualitative dimension such as energy, enthusiasm, relaxation or posture. Once we have the behaviour beginning to happen reliably that way, we can introduce a cue, which is a signal that tells the animal precisely what behaviour will be rewarded. Once we have behaviour on cue, we can get that behaviour again in the future, just by using that cue.

This part of the process is largely about how we explain to the horse what we want – so the communication has to do with having a way to first show him what to do and then getting it on cue so that we can communicate what we want again in the future. All the while making it worth his while to do it by using rewards – things he likes – for his efforts. Once he learns to like doing that behaviour because it feels good to do it, we can fade out the food or scratches – the things that kick-start the behaviour (without kicking of course 😉 because once the horse learns to like that behaviour he will want to do it for its own sake and we can randomly and periodically top up that feeling with a thank-you bridge and treat.

For example, we can form behaviour by using a target prop, which shows the horse where to be and / or how to move himself. We can use any object as a target to teach the horse to stand still. One way to do that is to teach him to stand on something such as a mat. Or we can teach him to put his nose on something in front of him, such as a Jolly ball, and gradually increase the time he can spend doing this. I teach horses to touch a tie ring or I hang something on the tie ring to teach them to keep their nose near or on that target for an increasing amount of time, in preparation for teaching them to stand quietly and calmly when tied.

Both kinds of targets show the horse where to be to get rewarded – either by having his nose on or near something, or his feet in a specific place.

Horses are very object-focused and naturally investigate new objects in their environment, which means that when they spot something they have not seen before they will be drawn to investigate it. They do this as part of natural investigative behaviour, the purpose of which is for the horse to work out what is good, what is bad and what is neither.  It’s the way we all have of deciding how to classify objects and situations and events for future reference. Targeting makes use of the natural tendency of the horse to take an interest in and investigate novel objects with nose and feet. No pressure is required – we just mark and reward the first attempts at investigation and shape the behaviour in small increments from there.

Targets give the horse a good reason to move or put himself somewhere in space. The bridge signal – the marker we use to say “Yes! That’s it!” to the horse – gives him information about the moment in time he did something we want more of.

That marker – for which you can use a clicker, a whistle, a tongue cluck or any unique, short sharp sound made with your voice – is called a bridging stimulus or bridge for short, because it bridges the small time lapse between when we mark the behaviour or the “try” that we like, and the moment we deliver the reward. It buys us time between the exact moment when the behaviour happened and the moment we can deliver a reward and it makes for a very precise mechanism for communication – letting the horse know exactly which behaviours and emotions we want more of. We can use that signal at a distance or when riding or long lining – when we aren’t right next to the horse – to mark the precise moment in a stream of behaviour. The horse learns in literally minutes, to repeat what he was doing when we bridged, and that the treat or scratch will follow.

The target is the way we have to communicate – to explain to the horse where we would like him to be and being bridged and rewarded for going to or staying at or following a target motivates the horse to do so again, for what he has to gain.

We can also use a target to teach a horse to move – he can follow a target held by a person – forwards, backwards, left or right, up or down – and he can be taught to move along a line or circle of targets on his own. This can help us to teach the horse non-aversive, no-pressure cues for each of the gaits – walk, trot, canter for example, or to halt. We can also use targets to teach the horse to respond to rein cues for turning or for lateral or vertical flexion, for lateral movement, for straightness, or to form biomechanically healthy posture when moving. An example of that would be the use of a target to teach the horse to stretch down and forwards when ridden.

The other way to form behaviour so that we can mark and reinforce it is by setting up a situation in the environment of the horse so that the behaviour we want is the one the horse is most likely to perform (without using pressure to create that situation). This is usually called free shaping. There is no way to show the animal how to do what we want – we just set the environment up so that it is most likely to occur.

So for example, pole work can be used to help the horse to learn to stretch down and forwards or to pick his feet up more or to be relaxed about jumping. When he is learning to go over poles or a small jump because he wants to go towards a target rather than to move away from – to escape or avoid – pressure, his emotional state can also be more relaxed and his posture will tend to match.

Training the horse to ignore distractions – things that compete for his motivation

Force-free, positive reinforcement (reward) based training also involves desensitising the horse to all the things that might compete for what we have to offer as a motivator. A horse will be interested in doing what we ask if there is something he can gain by doing it, but he will also weigh up the value of that relative to other things in the environment that he has to deal with.

A horse is going to be much more willing and mentally and emotionally able to respond to our cues if he is not distracted by other things in the environment that he might find frightening or worrying or annoying, or indeed more interesting and attractive!

Force-free training involves introducing the horse, without restraint, to new, potentially frightening – and therefore attention grabbing – things at very low strength, allowing him to become totally confident with something at that “hardly anything at all” strength before gradually increasing the intensity, all the while making sure that the horse is aware of but does not feel the need to move away from the stimulus.

Strength can include distance, size, noise level, position in relation to the horse, touch or smell sensation, general energy level or commotion. One small dog standing quietly 10 yards ahead might be a weak stimulus. Three big dogs barking and running up behind him is likely to be way too strong a stimulus for a horse that is wary of dogs.

Adding positive reinforcement into that process of confidence building, can, if used appropriately, have the horse associate good things with new stimuli and events that might otherwise be frightening, or to stimuli and events that we know are distressing for our horse.

If the horse discovers that whenever a particular type of event happens or whenever he encounters new things, then good stuff happens, it can change the horse’s expectations from skepticism and wariness, to enthusiasm and eager anticipation of new or existing experiences. It can actually change how he feels about the process and prospect of encountering new things as well as of the new things themselves.

A horse that is not distracted by things coming and going in his environment is going to be much more easily able to focus on what you are trying to communicate and much more interested in the motivators you have to offer. So training horses to ignore irrelevant distractions is key to keeping the horse focused on you and on the task in hand.

Motivation trumps communication

I would go so far as to say that motivation trumps communication every time. You can communicate all you like and you can be great at it, but if there’s nothing in it for the horse to listen, or the horse isn’t listening anyway because he is too distracted, why would he do anything you ask at all?

And the horse that is super-motivated, calm and focused is the best kind to have because even if you aren’t great at explaining what you want, or he needs to put a little effort into guessing something, he will try, because he is optimistic that it will lead to a reward eventually.

How does pressure motivate and release teach?

By contrast, when we use pressure to communicate what we want, and relief from that pressure to motivate the animal to perform behaviour, he acts to escape or avoid that aversive stimulus or event. Escape or avoidance of aversives is not psychologically and neurologically rewarding for a horse, and although sometimes people who advocate the use of pressure to get behaviour might instruct you to “reward” the slightest try by removing or reducing a pressure stimulus, the reality is that removal or escape or avoidance of pressure is not experienced in the brain of the horse as a reward.

Relief is probably the best term to use for what we feel when we are successful in escaping or avoid something we dislike.

Pressure motivates in two ways. When we apply an aversive stimulus, the horse is naturally motivated to want to escape it and move away from it because he finds it unpleasant and wants it to stop. The horse will act and keep trying different things until something he does results in him getting away from or otherwise making the aversive experience stop.

Aversives motivate the horse to act to be free of them. A horse swishing his tail to get a fly off him is motivated to do so to get rid of the fly because the fly is annoying and also because he knows from experience that it may bite, causing pain, if he doesn’t.

A horse moving back when he is tapped on the chest with a stick is motivated to do so to make the tapping stop because it is annoying or painful.

A head-shy horse moving away when a person reaches for his head is motivated to do so because he dislikes being touched or fears what might happen if he is touched or if the human comes closer.

Once the horse works out that it is his action of moving backwards that made the tapping with the stick stop, he will move away again next time he is tapped on the chest with a stick. This is because he learns quite quickly how to make the tapping stop.

This is called escape learning. The horse learns to move to escape the actual aversive he is experiencing.

Then, after a little while he will notice what happens before he gets tapped on the chest to make him back up. He will look for signs that the tapping on his chest is about to happen, because he will learn that he will be tapped if he doesn’t back up when he sees that signal. And he will begin to back up when he sees that signal, to avoid being tapped. This is called avoidance learning. The horse backs up because he learns that by doing so when he sees the signal that tapping is about to happen, he can avoid being tapped on the chest with the stick.

When he accomplishes escape from (he moves when being tapped) or avoidance (he moves because he thinks he will be tapped if he doesn’t) of the aversive, and obtains relief from that, that in turn motivates the animal to perform the behaviour that led to that outcome – the aversive ceasing. This is because all of us, horses included, value aversives (and things that predict them) when they stop.

With positive reinforcement, instead of showing the horse where not to be (“don’t be here where I am tapping if you don’t want to be tapped”), we show the horse where TO be. “I will mark and reward any attempt you make to go towards or touch this target. Now I will place the target a bit closer to your chest and if you shift your weight back a little to reach it I will mark and reward that, and if you step back to reach it I’ll mark and reward that too!” Pretty soon, the horse is taking nice confident biomechanically healthy steps of back up, following a target, and we can begin to introduce a cue for that behaviour and fade out the target and gradually increase the number of steps the horse can take once cued to back up. Horses trained in this way begin to very quickly learn to perform behaviours because of what they have to gain, rather than because of what they can escape or avoid.

Why do horses ignore us?

Now, when we are asking for the back up – and this is true whether we are teaching it using bridge and target training (giving cues) or aversives (giving commands) – the horse can easily be distracted by something else that might come into his world. If it is distracting for more than a moment or two, it will almost certainly work against what we have to offer by way of motivation.

If the horse fails to respond, and appears to ignore our cue or command, there could be several reasons for that, but they are almost always to do with motivation and rarely to do with communication.

It could be that responding would be aversive to him – frightening or painful, for example – more aversive than enduring either the aversive he is experiencing from being tapped on the chest or aversive enough to cancel out the motivating value of the reward on offer for following the target, depending on which we use.

Imagine if the horse had joint or back pain or an injury that made backing up difficult for him.

What if there is something behind the horse that he is worried about and does not want to be any nearer to?

Imagine that the horse is being backed away from something he’d rather stay close to – such as home, or another horse friend he does not want to be parted from, or his dinner?

What if he is suddenly really frightened by something else that comes into the environment and he has to give it his immediate and undivided attention?

In all these situations a horse might appear not to be listening because he may not respond immediately, or at all, or he might appear to be unmotivated because he does not put in any effort, or a lower amount of effort than we would like.

All of these things are about motivation – rather than communication. There are the things that the horse fears could get worse if he does respond to the tapping on his chest, or he is so distracted by some other potential threat that he does not even notice that he is being tapped, or even that a target is there for him to move towards.

When horses are afraid, two things happen – one is that they produce cortisol – the stress hormone, and the other is that they also produce adrenalin – the hormone that mobilises us physiologically for flight or fight. Some of the things adrenalin does are to dull pain sensation, to mobilise muscles to run or for combat and to cause us to focus on the one most important thing in the world right now to the exclusion of others – and that will be whatever we perceive as the threat. The biological function of the dulling of the pain sensation is so that in a life and death situation we will run away or fight, even when we have some pain from injury or disease, because it gives us a greater chance of escape and therefore survival.

Imagine the usual way of loading horses into trailers – which is to use some form of pressure and release. If the horse fears being in the trailer, is afraid to put his feet on the wobbly ramp, he has had bad experiences before when being loaded or being in or travelling in a trailer, or bad experiences on arriving somewhere on a trailer. All of these past bad experiences will compete in his mind as motivators to stay away from the trailer, with what we have to offer for going in there. And if we are using pressure to load him, all we have to offer is relief from pressure, by reducing or removing the pressure being applied, when he makes any attempt to go towards or in the trailer.

Imagine a horse that is experiencing some as yet undiagnosed pain in his legs or back. Imagine we have a horse that is quite unfit and we are asking him to move with energy on a difficult deep arena surface. We might find that he is difficult to motivate using pressure, to make smooth transitions through the gaits or to maintain gait. We might find that we need to use a lot of pressure to keep this kind of horse going or to motivate him to move at all. We might be able to add more pressure to cause him to move but as soon as that pressure comes off, he falls back to trot or walk or to his sluggish gait.

This can be because the pain or discomfort from the extra effort he is experiencing to move in this situation, is something he feels as a cost for the effort he makes to move to avoid or escape the aversive from us.

When he performs the cost-benefit analysis that determines his motivation to move, he might just say “no” or put in a lack-lustre effort because the pain or effort of moving is greater than the pain or discomfort of the pressure from the rider or handler.

Horses like this tend to make just as much effort as is necessary to escape or avoid the aversive coming both from the human and the environment or from within their own body – and no more. Adding more pressure does not make all of the other competing motivations disappear. A horse that moves at all in that situation can just be moving because it’s worse for him if he doesn’t.

So while he might “hear” your command to move, he might remain unmotivated to do so for many different reasons of his own that we might not even be aware of.

When we are asking horses to move using rewards, the exact same things can happen and the remedy is the same – if we want to get the behaviour we need to increase the value of the reinforcer which means making the reward value greater and building up a history of good experiences in that context. But we get a much clearer idea that something is working against us when we are training with food and other rewards than with pressure.

And we should always always eliminate pain, disease or discomfort as reasons for poor motivation or unwanted behaviour, because they will always work against any motivator we try to use.

If any behaviour is difficult to maintain or is not getting better no matter what we do – then we can know for sure that something is punishing it. Something is detracting from the value of what we have to offer. And this is true whether we are using relief from pressure (negative reinforcement) or we are providing rewards as a motivator.

When we train with positive reinforcement, without threats of pressure, restraint or force, we really do get to see a lot of the truth about how the horse really feels about doing something.

We really get a much clearer insight into what is detracting from what we have to offer as a motivator, whether that is mental, emotional or physical discomfort.

When we teach horses to learn to ignore irrelevant distractions using slow, low level exposure (systematic desensitisation) and counter-conditioning (associating good things, such as high value food rewards) to stimuli and events and situations that might give the horse cause for concern, we can completely alter the perception the horse has of those situations or stimuli. We can change how he feels about them. And when he does not feel the need to be worried, or to prepare himself to flee or fight, he will be able to focus on what we are asking, completely.

If we put effort into getting a good history of positive reinforcement as we teach the behaviours we want, and if we teach the horse how to find a relaxed, confident, focused emotional state, without using pressure, and reward him with things he will be keen to work to gain, then what we are asking will be the only thing that he will want to pay attention to. Because doing so will be worth it, for what’s in it for him. The best communication between horse and human takes place without the use of aversives, and the best motivation – and the one that feels good to all of us – is the motivation to work for what we can gain, not for what we can avoid.

That’s Horse Charming.