By: Joe Camp
The single most important thing you can do for your horse and your relationship with your horse is for him to say I trust you. Completely. Implicitly.
Of his own free choice. His own free will.
And the way we’ve found to accomplish this for our horses is for them to be at liberty. To not be trapped by halters and lead ropes. To be able to leave or stay according to their choice, not ours.
I liken it to my relationship with God. He gave me free will, to go and do, or stay and trust him. If he had a halter and lead rope on me I’d be a prisoner wouldn’t I?
We are big time advocates of positive reinforcement. As opposed to negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is doing something uncomfortable for the horse until he does whatever we’d like for him to do. Then the pressure is released and we’re supposed to call it a reward. Frankly, I don’t believe any horse on the planet spends his time hoping that someone will apply pressure to him so that he can get a “reward” from the release of that pressure.
Positive reinforcement would be something that the horse considers… well, positive. Good. Desired. Even fun.
Whoa! Hold on there. Have we stumbled onto something that actually teaches the horse, and the horse enjoys it, thinks it’s fun?
Yes, we did.
I tell them all: You do something I like and I’ll do something you like.
Enter the use of treats. Only for training, mind you. Never without purpose. Never just because I love my horse. Always quid pro quo.
We train with treats and use a lot of them. So I’ve been reading a lot of labels. Most of them are scary. I’ve been searching a long time for a treat that is actually good for my horses. A treat that isn’t loaded with sugar or molasses, or grains that turn to sugar when metabolized, or soy, or hydrogenated vegetable fats or oils.
Which is why I’m so excited that we’ve finally found this treat from Omega Fields. Their Low-Sugar-Low-Starch Nibbler is the singular best treat on the market as far as I’m concerned. It is the only treat I have found that uses 99.9% pure Non-GMO stabilized ground fortified flax. That’s .9% higher than required for human food grade. Nobody else does this.
But how do they decide, on their own, to trust you.
I never give them a reason to not trust me.
Kathleen and I are with our horses at least twice a day and each of those visits and all of our training are completely at liberty. Our eight never feel trapped by a halter and a lead rope. They are free to go and do, or stay, as they please. Therefore when they choose to stay, when they choose to trust, it is their choice, not ours. And that’s when everything changes for the better.
When we are joined by a new horse, one of the first exercises we always teach is to smile. Why? Because it’s quick, and simple, and establishes comprehension of concept: If I do this silly smile thing I’m gonna get something I like! Which can be quickly translated into: Hmmm… this works with more things than just smiling. Which creates spectacular levels of attention, and focus, especially helpful when we teach something new. Even better, it teaches that they can ask for a treat politely without getting pushy or trying to steal from my pocket.
Horses can learn the meanings of words, like children. And as their vocabulary grows they can put those words together into differing phrases and sentences. That’s not supposed to be true according to most, but Kathleen and I have found it to be absolutely true. And now there is even a scientific study proving it. Zeke understands the word “BIG”, emphatically delivered, I use that verbal cue to get his head or lip higher if he gets lazy. Or his foot, for waving hello, or whatever I might ask him to do.
We quickly discovered that training with treats – and words – not only enhanced communication, for the first time it gave our horses a way for them to speak to us, to initiate conversation. With traditional training, we were always the ones doing the talking. Telling the horse, one way or another, to do this or do that. Never did we ask or listen to what the horse might want. Or realize that once the horse grasped the concept that when we began teaching something new there would probably be something in it for him, and that would cause him to pay stricter attention and really try to connect the dots. It took a matter of only minutes, not hours or days, to teach Cash and Zeke to flex and touch both rib cages, or wave hello with each front foot. And Zeke learned to spin on cue, with no rider, just a hand signal and a word. It took three ten-minute sessions.
Every communication I’ve tried with any of our horses has shown better results faster using treats and words.
When trust is given, then relationship thrives. Your horse enjoys being around you, actually has fun with you, and halters and lead lines are a thing of the past. We almost never fall back on them. All of our typical ground work we now do totally at liberty. And the leading byproduct of all this is more trust.
Mustang Maddy (Madison Shambaugh) gains the trust of unhandled mustangs fresh from the wild, and teaches them everything they need to know up to and including riding the horse, all without a halter, lead rope, bridle or saddle. Usually in a week or less. Completely at liberty. And she has videos. Check them out.
I am a student of what works. Logic and common sense, to a fault, I suppose. And the purpose of these concepts, and this blog, is to provide some simple discoveries to folks who love their horses and want to give them an environment in which there can be real communication, understanding, structure, compassion, growth, and trust.
Be at liberty… and never ever do anything that could even possibly evoke a fear response from your horse. Horses remember everything, the good, the bad and the ugly. The last thing I’d ever want embedded in my horse’s memory banks is something that caused him to fear me. I can be his leader and rise to whatever task is needed without ever evoking a fear response. He has granted me that privilege by choosing to trust me to be his leader.
There’s simply no better feeling in the world than strolling along with your horse at your side… with no strings attached.