Focus on positive behaviors to stop bad habits before they get out of hand.
By Katie Navarra
Does your horse dance around when tied? Pin his ears or try to nip when you tighten his cinch? Is he overly reactive or prone to spooking?
Those bad habits might be more than ingrained personality; horses learn many behaviors through interactions with humans, says animal trainer and horsewoman Shawna Karrasch of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Shawna honed her training skills in the pools of Sea World of California, workingwith marine mammals like killer whales and dolphins. In 1992, she became intrigued with applying her methods to horses after she was introduced to Grand Prix show jumping and subsequently took her first riding lessons.
“We as humans need to put our emotions aside [when working with animals]. We need to remain objective and focus on the horse’s emotions. By teaching horses to love their jobs, we create willing partners who can excel,” said Shawna, who owns On Target Training. Her business focuses on training horses, utilizing the techniques she used when working with marine mammals.
Like a Mirror
Sue McDonnell, Ph.D., head of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine’s Equine Behavior Program, adds that horses reflect the sum of all their positive and negative experiences.
“A horse’s actions reflect those of the rider or handler,” Sue explained. “We often do things that inadvertently create problems.”
An example is a horse that doesn’t readily pick up a hoof when asked. Rather than being “bad,” the horse likely hasn’t been correctly introduced to the process, Sue says. Horses can be fearful if they’re unaccustomed to lifting and holding a hoof, which forces them to shift weight to their other legs to regain balance. Later, when a handler carelessly drops a horse’s foot on hard ground—especially after a trim or shoeing job—the horse might view the uncomfortable reaction aspunishment. Fortunately, Sue says, this bad habit offers a quick fix, with most horses able to be rehabbed with a few quick sessions.
“Start by prompting with a verbal ‘Lift’ [voice cue]. Then lift and hold the leg squarely under the horse’s body,” Sue said. “Gently place the hoof back down and repeat, holding the hoof a few seconds longer each time. This will help your horse understand what you’re asking and help establish trust.”
This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Fall 2019 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.