How to Develop ‘Heart’ with your Horse

I was just beginning to learn about training horses when my friend first told me about the concept of “heart” and that all the best horses have this desirable attribute. Since I was unfamiliar with the term “heart,” he explained. He told me “heart” had to do with willingness, trying, wanting to please. Mostly, as I understood it, he was describing a cooperative atti­tude that demonstrated exactly what we taught the animals at Sea World. The marine mammals have to like what they’re doing. If they don’t, they’re not going to perform reliably and might cause their trainers seri­ous injury. Coercion is not an option, so trainers have to cultivate a good attitude when they interact with animals — they need to teach them to channel their energy into their performance, not use it in an unproduc­tive way.

I’ve seen a lot of horses channel their energy toward nervousness, or worse, resistance. A fundamental difference between the results of reward-reinforcement and removal-reinforcement lies in the question of training the animal’s attitude. I would say most of the marine mammals I worked with were taught to have “heart” with reward-reinforcement. Yet, currently in the horse world, “heart” is regarded as a lucky fluke, not something that can be developed.

Hourse Training

You can train your horse to have heart. Slow down and pay attention to the kind of attitudes I mentioned earlier that lend to “heart.” Think about the removal-reinforcement versus reward-reinforcement. Removal-reinforcement gets minimal compliance while reward-rein­forcement brings about remarkable results. Animals try harder for reward-reinforcement. When you see your horse exhibit the attitude you want, reinforce him.

I should point out that our own horses were not the brightest, bravest, or most focused horses we have trained. They did not have the best atti­tudes. When we started working with them, they were in fact, the two worst horses in our program. Mint was a two-year-old when we met him and clearly a quitter. He wouldn’t try hard at all. In fact, he would shut down or walk away even when all we were doing was basic training. George was a rather precocious weanling with a minimal attention span. I reinforced Mint for trying, while George got reinforced for concentrat­ing. Since we bought the horses from John Madden and have continued to spend time working with them, no one, myself included, recognizes those undesirable characteristics anymore.

We allow our horses to think and solve problems themselves. Then, we reward-reinforce the effort and thought process. Each time I teach them something particularly difficult, I keep in mind their different per­sonalities. When we first worked with Mint, he clearly wasn’t mentally involved in the training process. Now, he tries harder than any animal I have ever trained. George, on the other hand, eagerly tried to do what­ever we asked. The problem was getting him to slow down and pay atten­tion. He would try a hundred different things until he happened upon the correct answer. Standing still has been one of the hardest things for him to learn. With Mint, we reinforce for energy and enthusiasm, while George is reinforced for focus and deliberate behavior.

If you want your horse to relax, reward-reinforce him when he exhales or when you feel him relax. If you want more energy, reward-reinforce him when he does something quickly or energetically. Figure out what characteristics you want to see more of in your horse’s behavior.

Filed Under: Pets & Animals


About the Author: Fred Goodson has a passion for pets and animals. He has 4 dogs and is planning to have another one. He is also a blogger who writes about pets and animals. Currently, he is living in New Jersey.

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