I’ve struggled for days how to deal with the unfolding events in our mustang training project. Do I report the facts or do I train like mad, hoping to make the problem go away? How much should I blame myself for glossing over what looked like a small problem? Brutal honesty is more my style, so let’s get the problem on the table where we can dissect it.
First, some background theory.
Whether you call it “classical” or “respondent” conditioning, the idea is that a response to one thing can be generalized to another thing if it predicts it. The response of concern is most often emotional. So the underlying concept is that the emotional response to anything can get generalized to anything else when they occur together. The story we learn in school is about Pavlov’s dogs learning to associate the bell with the presentation of food, which ultimately led to the dogs salivating in response to the bell. We also might have been told about Little Albert, a baby who generalized a frightening sound paired with a white rat to result in a fear of any fuzzy white things, including a Santa Claus beard.
Bravo turned out to be Little Albert. I noticed he wasn’t comfortable about the little English saddle when I first brought it to the pen. He stared at it in a tense way from across the pen. I had set it in a green hopper. Green hoppers are associated with Bravo’s favorite thing… food. He strained to figure out if this black object in a food dish was worthy of panic. The horses watching from just outside may have been enough of a safety cue, that Bravo concluded it was okay. He allowed himself to be approached with it and quickly learned that touching it would be rewarded with high-value (kibble enriched) alfalfa. When we could casually put the saddle on from both sides, I thought Task 44 (Saddling) was complete.
Bravo was adopted by some professional horse wranglers last year for a riding string in Santa Fe, NM. They had adopted horses from us in years past and we considered them a good home because the horses were trained well enough anyone could ride them. It is kind of life insurance if a horse is broke to ride. But in April when Bravo and Lizzy were returned to us, the wrangler was facing indefinite closure of the tourist economy. The horses were very thing. They said they had ridden Lizzy quite a bit but that not Bravo. Bravo had been being a pain in the ass was the impression I got, maybe somewhat aggressive.
I had a better idea of how things went down when on one pleasant afternoon, John brought Bravo into the pen, where I had set a bigger brown saddle in preparation for practicing mounting him. Bravo snorted, sidestepped to the edge of the pen, and went bolting around the edges looking to get away from that brown monster. You’ve seen Bravo enough by now to know that this is out of his normal response to the world.
The psychologists had poisoned Little Albert to all things white and fuzzy with nothing more than a rat and a disturbing noise. Bravo apparently had nightmarish associations with the presence of the saddle. He was very afraid. I can only assume his wrangler adopters had managed to pair saddles and anxiety in some training-gone-horribly-wrong event.
Okay, we can systematically desensitize him to the monster or counter-condition him to even associate saddles with fun and food. I am a trainer, I know how to do that.
First we asked him to just look at it to earn a reward, then to touch it with his nose, then to touch it with his body. He knows these behaviors well for non-monstrous targets, and he struggled, but he managed to finally offer his hip to touch the saddle. I thought we made progress.
I was holding the saddle. It weighs 18.2 pounds. It had to be held out from my center of gravity. We worked on this training for maybe 45 minutes. I was exhausted. That that does not kill you, only makes you stronger, right?
The next day there was no evidence of any desensitization. We started over.
Day three. We started over. I must be stronger by now, right?
Day four. We admitted that it wasn’t working. We tried retreating to blankets and girths. Everything became contaminated, fear generalized to anything, including arm-over-back. Santa Claus was poisonous. Well, actually John wasn’t poisonous, just me, the saddle-holder.
I invited Bravo into the training pen with me yesterday afternoon while John had gone to town. The most lovely alfalfa and kibble mix available in New Mexico was in my pouch. Six feet of knotted rope was in my hand. It slipped around the mustang’s girth before he had much time to think about it. I started reinforcing ears-forward.
It reminded me of many years ago when Donna Ramsden and a dimly-remembered volunteer helped me with Jemez Dancing. Jemez (pronounced “hay-mez”) was terrified to be ridden. I had worked for more than a year to deal with his issues, using every Natural Horsemanship method I knew or could find. Nothing helped. His neck was high and tense, his ears rotated to listen to my every move, ready to blow up. Kris Anderson suggested trying positive reinforcement. It was something I used on dogs.
Immediately I saw that it was making a difference to his attitude. The day I was ready to try riding him, I asked Donna and the volunteer to help. They would walk in front, the volunteer leading Jemez, while Donna was ready with horse treats. I had a clicker in my hand and from my mounted position, I would click every time his ears went forward. We walked in a high state of tension for the first five minutes or so, then finally, ears momentarily went forward. Click.. treat.
After about 45 minutes, the horse relaxed, walking with his rider, ears on the humans leading him. It changed his life. He became a big lesson horse with a floaty trot. He changed my life. I became a mustang trainer.
Bravo’s Path Forward
I know that Bravo can get past this saddle phobia. He learned yesterday with me that ears forward with a girth earned him luscious treats, and then, with John, that ears forward made the blanket hardly scary at all. Once we are quite sure that he understands the ears-forward criterion under a variety of conditions, we will start introducing saddle-like objects and then saddles themselves. We are going to be slowing way down. Have patience with us, kind readers.
p.s. Tomorrow, I want to devote some time to telling you a new story of Little Albert’s history as I learned some disturbing things today in researching the topic. We have class module on the Magic Mustang Tamer that covers Little Albert in depth, and now I find out it’s sadly only a half-truth. Time to rewrite.