On positive-only reinforcement vs positive and negative reinforcement in horse training:
What I think I need to explain better is that the idea isn’t just “if horses are rough, I can be rough”, it’s that horses should be approached and dealt with in a way that makes sense to how their minds work. I’ve always felt that my biggest teacher for how to treat and train horses has been the horses themselves, and this is one area in which that’s very true. By default, a human wants to mold personal relationships to work like human relationships, but just the same as that, dogs approach their relationships like they would with other dogs, and horses approach relationships like they would with other horses. I’m not suggesting that a horse actually thinks humans are the same things as horses: of course they recognize us as a different animal from themselves, and especially if they aren’t used to humans or have been abused by humans, see us mostly as a predator. But once they start to trust us and form a relationship with us, it’s going to be natural for them to apply horse logic to us because that is how horses think, that’s the only way they know how to form a relationship in their natural state. In the wild, they don’t form relationships with any predators or animals that aren’t horses. Their brains are wired to apply a certain type of logic to interactions with their herd mates, and while they can be taught over time to build up a different knowledge base for interactions with humans (and in many areas this is certainly necessary for safety reasons and for the fact that we ask them to do such strange tasks), I feel strongly that wherever one can, it is important to try to talk to them in their language. I have had results just using traditional ideas to mold horses to human mentalities, and I have had results from using a level of the ridiculous concepts that now make up what is hilariously called “natural horsemanship”, but I have had by far the best results by observing horses and speaking to them in their own language…which does include at times, in a clear and decisive manner, inflicting a minimum necessary level of pain or even a low level of fear to achieve a response.
We had one horse who was horribly, horribly abused his whole life and responded only to positive reinforcement unless you spent literally years slowly working with him and gaining his trust. I never gained his trust because he was my mom’s horse so I worked with him minimally, and I saw that as she gained his trust, he started acting like a horse would, sometimes he would try to push her around and she would slap him on the shoulder/butt and he didn’t panic on any level, just calmly stopped trying to be bossy. If I were to try something like that, he would full-on panic without fail, because he looked at me as a predator and looked at her as a makeshift herd mate.
What I remind people I’m teaching is that we simply cannot apply human mentalities and ideals to a horse, and thinking that hurting somebody to get our way is morally wrong to a human, but morally wrong doesn’t really make sense to horses who do it literally all the time with each other and still get along. I think that core concept is where our ideas take the major turn, it’s whether or not horses want to apply a completely new set of rules to their new and strange human companions. I have tended to find that they are most comfortable and it makes the most sense to them when they don’t have to. When I work with a horse, I envision myself as another horse out there guiding my horse, and while it is my second language, they seem to be glad they’re not the ones learning a new language.
This is a story of a my 13 year old daughter, the love of her life, her horse and a disease that has left my daughter devastated. On March 5, 2001 at 4:30am, a beautiful filly was born. The instant that Carolyn saw her there was a strong bond, and watching them looking into each others eyes was a magical moment. Carolyn watched as the filly struggled to take it firsts steps. She spent time rubbing the filly all over to get her use to the human touch, talking to her as she did when the baby was still in her moms belly. As time went on, Carolyn and Tory became the best of friends. Then the bad news came. The owner of Tory had her tested for HYPP, a disease that her father carried. Tory came back positive. The whole fact was, we were all in denial that this disease would affect our lives the way it did.
I had read a lot about HYPP and how with diet control it is a manageable disease. I researched online, contacted AQHA for information and found a vet that specialized in HYPP. Feeling that I had researched the disease from all angles we decided to purchase Tory just before her first birthday. Carolyn had no idea what we had done. Torys owner handed Carolyn the lead rope and said, “Tory is home now, she’s yours!”. Carolyn went nuts, crying, jumping up and down, hugging us, then telling Tory that they will never be separated again.
Carolyn spent every waking moment at the barn with her. They played and worked on her training. On Torys first birthday Carolyn made her a cake. She had birthday parties for her each year they were together. Christmas presents were bought for Tory and she had a stocking hung on the mantle in the house. Carolyn was able to do anything with Tory. At Christmas time, she would dress Tory up, this horse would wear tinsle around her neck and a santa hat on her head. She never shied away from anything because she trusted Carolyn so much.
As Tory grew older, Carolyn started working on the little things that would prepare her to be ridden. Carolyn would do things with Tory that I never was aware of like showing her the saddle pad, placing it on her back from the time she was 18mths old. Carolyn would lean on her back getting her use to the weight of a human and Tory never was afraid because she was with Carolyn. Carolyn worked her daily and once she turned 2, the real work started. Carolyn taught Tory in about all of 30 seconds to wear a bit and a headstall. She placed it on her and Tory grazed with it for 6 months for an hour a day.
In May of 2003 we sent Tory to our trainer for her breaking. Tory was wearing a saddle in about 3 days and was being ridden without incident in 8 days. Then came the day Carolyn got to sit on her back. You couldn’t wipe the smile off her face. Her dream came true, she was riding her best friend and from that day forward Carolyn rode her daily. Carolyn spent the entire summer of 2003 at the trainer’s barn, from 5:30am till noon, lunging, riding and ground working her. Carolyn and Tory worked incredibly hard, but Tory never once did anything wrong. She was the best 2 1/2 year old horse in the world. Our trainer said she had never broke a horse so quick and smooth. Tory was so incredibly gentle, especially when Carolyn was on her back.
They spent a lot of time working on Halter and showmanship work. But during all of her training her mild HYPP attacks were becoming more frequent. We worked through them and continued to follow the strict diet and exercise program that was recommended by our vet. She was out daily in pasture, with little stall confinement. We had started her on a medication Acetazolamide at 14 months old that could possibly help control them. I did a lot of research on HYPP and Carolyn even was making her special treats that didn’t contain the ingredients that could cause attacks.
In February of 2004, Tory had a real bad HYPP attack. She collapsed and couldnt get back up. It was the most horrific thing to watch. Carolyn immediately administered the Karo syrup that we had become accustomed to doing, but Tory was not responding this time. We immediately contacted the vet. The vet was there within minutes and started giving her the medications she needed. They started an IV drip through a catheter in her neck and ran a glucose/calcium drip for 3 hours. The vet knew Tory well and knew of the disease process. He pulled me aside and said that she could have an attack bad enough to kill her. He proceeded to tell Carolyn that she has been doing such an incredible job with controlling her attacks and she is doing a lot more than most people would do for their horses and if anything happens to Tory it is not because of something that she didn’t do. He told her to continue to love and take care of her the way she has and that it was in Gods hands now.
Carolyn, her Dad and I decided to go camping for a weekend. On Sunday, March 28,2004, we received a call that night at the campground. I called home to hear my friend, who was watching my animals, tell me that Tory, Carolyns mare only 3 years old, had died suddenly in the pasture of our home from an HYPP attack. We were devastated, but the real devastation came when we had to go back to the trailer and tell Carolyn that her best friend had died. That was the worst day of all our lives. We packed up our stuff and headed home the next morning. Arrangements had made to have her removed before we got home. I called her and told them that Carolyn wanted to see her. So they delayed the pickup till we came home. Our trainer came, as well as Torys old owner, were there to help Carolyn through this. We all stood back and watched Carolyn walk over and sit down beside Tory and cry. Carolyn sat there with her for an hour, stroking her face and neck. Kissing her muzzle and telling her! how much she loved her. It tore our hearts out watching our little girl of 13 suffering with the loss of her best friend and companion. Tory was like a sister to Carolyn. Carolyn would go to her and talk to her like she was a human, now that was gone, ripped away from her because of a disease that could have been stopped many years ago by not continuing to breed these HYPP positive horses.
I’m writing this story for two reasons. One is to help with my healing process of losing Tory and watching my daughter every day suffer over this loss. Tory has been gone for 6 months now and Carolyn still has all her pictures of them together all over her room. She still sleeps with her picture every night. She dreams of the day that she will meet Tory again and cross the “Rainbow Bridge” together. The second reason for writing this is to help people out there that are looking for horses, to understand, NEVER buy a horse with HYPP. These horses do have attacks and they are horrible to watch and yes then can die, and die suddenly. Even if the horse only has HYPP on one side of its parentage, it can still happen. Tory was N/H and now she’s gone. Don’t be in denial like we were, it’s not worth the pain you will feel when you lose them.
The horse industry needs to put an end to this disease. They need to not allow breeders to register those who test positive for the disease. Quarter Horses that test N/H will still be able to be registered. Allowing N/H horses to be registered won’t stop the breeders from still breeding and spreading this deadly disease. All AQHA seems to be doing is extending the years that this disease will continue to ruin people lives. I personally don’t care about these breeders that say that they will lose everything if AQHA wont allow HYPP horses to be registered , they are only in it for the money. What about the pain and suffering these horses go through, I think it’s the horse that loses everything. No matter how much research you do on HYPP, no matter if you follow all the instructions, the horse can suffer and die. Carolyn did more than most would do for their horses and Tory died, and on that day a part of my little girl died too. Don’t let it happen to you.
While I work on that, you can always take the opportunity to check us (read: me) out if you haven’t yet. You can find us right here.
[Image: 8-piece alternating green and brown background with a yawning paint horse. Text reads: NO, I’M SERIOUS, / IT’S GREY.]
”No, she’s really not a palomino, she’s red, she’s a Haflinger…”
Stage 1: Fall off pony. Bounce. Laugh. Climb back on. Repeat.
Stage 2: Fall off horse. Run after horse, cussing. Climb back on by shimmying up horse’s neck. Ride until sundown.
Stage 3: Fall off horse. Use sleeve of shirt to stanch bleeding. Have friend help you get back on horse. Take two Advil and apply ice packs when you get home. Ride next day.
Sta[ge 4: Fall off horse. Refuse advice to call ambulance; drive self to urgent care clinic. Entertain nursing staff with tales of previous daredevil stunts on horseback. Back to riding before cast comes off.
Stage 5: Fall off horse. Temporarily forget name of horse and name of husband. Flirt shamelessly with paramedics when they arrive. Spend week in hospital while titanium pins are screwed in place. Start riding again before doctor gives official okay.
Stage 6: Fall off horse. Fail to see any humor when hunky paramedic says, “You again?” Gain firsthand knowledge of advances in medical technology thanks to stint in ICU. Convince self that permanent limp isn’t that noticeable. Promise husband you’ll give up riding. One week later purchase older, slower, shorter horse.
Stage 7: Slip off horse. Relieved when artificial joints and implanted medical devices seem unaffected. Tell husband that scrapes and bruises are due to gardening accident. Pretend you don’t see husband roll his eyes and mutter as he walks away. Give apple to horse.
Stage 8: Go to see horse. Momentarily consider riding but remember arthritis won’t let you lift leg high enough to reach stirrup — even when on mounting block. Share beer with grateful horse & recall “good old days”.
I don’t want to live to see stage 8.