Training the Young Horse – Counter Conditioning

Posted in: Equine Training, Positive Reinforcement Training, Young Horse Training

20141126_104428_resizedFrom May when she arrived, until about a month or so ago, I’ve been focussed on an in depth counter conditioning programme with Ellie (my 3 year old). Although she hadn’t had all that much handling or training, what she had had was pretty aversive and the result was A LOT of avoidance and escape behaviours with all the things that had become associated with those aversives; humans, human touch, headcollar and leadrope, brushes etc as well as all novelty producing fear and thus avoidance and escape.

This initial phase had one aim – to change her into an optimistic, confident horse who knows she has always has free choice and also knows her behaviour communications are read, acknowledged and valued. I wanted to put enough experiences in her bank account that resulted in positive, feel good, pleasurable (appetitive) consequences so that she would be able to generalise that new people, new objects and new environments weren’t something that triggered cynicism and trepidation (driven by the FEAR neural pathways triggering in the brain), but instead triggered different pathways of the SEEKING, CARE and PLAY systems; producing relaxed and curious behaviours, confidence and boldness.

As her education progresses, I will always be adding to this bank account so it will continue to grow, developing her into, i hope, one of the most emotionally well balanced, calm, curious and confident horses i have ever met.

That initial phase is now complete and we are well into phase 2, which I’ll write about another time. She is developing into such a wonderful, playful and trusting girl. Just yesterday I had a lovely experience where she responded to both the cue and offered the resulting behaviour when someone that she has only met once before cued her. All at liberty. It’s all beginning to generalise now which is lovely reinforcement for me.

20141126_104053_resizedShe is also choosing deliberately to spend time much more time with me sometimes when I am out there doing things, just chilling, grazing or snoozing as I get on with things. This morning was a wonderful example. The two older horses had decided to munch on the hay in the field shelters but Ellie left them to join me half way up the field while I was poo picking. She was totally out of visual line of sight of them the whole time.









She grazed close by and if I got too far away from her, cantered in a beautiful collected canter to reduce the space slightly a couple of times, head straight back down to graze again. She curiously investigated the barrow, picking up the end of the scoop (as she often does), picked up a glove and threw it about a bit, had cuddles and investigated the camera interspersed by grazing.

This really does say an awful lot about the relationship we share and no extrinsic rewards were involved at all today – sometimes they are but these interactions and the relationship is all as a result of how I’ve trained everything so far – with plenty of appetitives and VERY minimal aversives.