Changing Emotions?

Why do we allow our horses to express themselves? What if we don’t like what they’re feeling or how they choose to express themselves? Isn’t it dangerous?

We allow our horses to express their feelings because they have them. If not allowed to express them in a traditional manner they won’t go away, we don’t stop feeling because someone told us to. We can’t expect our horses to turn off their feelings just because we dislike the fact that they’re feeling it or how they’re expressing it.

If we manage to suppress emotional expressions through force or punishment, we have only stopped THAT expression, we haven’t changed the way they feel. They may now express their emotions in much more dangerous ways. Have you ever heard the phrase “Don’t punish the growl or you’ll get the bite”? It’s true, if you punish the warning signs, the animal often learns to skip those and go right to the act of aggression. If we then punish this we need to repeat this cycle of violence begetting violence again and again until one of us gives up. No one feels better in the end. If we win, the horse has no choice but to shut down, give up, or even fall into learned helplessness.

But what if their emotional expression is dangerous? We have a few approaches to this. First and foremost we want to find the source of this emotional display. If the horse has become dangerous their emotions are extremely high, we need to break this down. If the horse is in pain, we need to moderate that pain through medical care. If the horse is afraid we need to break down the fear triggers and reduce the situation. While the horse is in this dangerous level of behavior we CAN NOT train! They aren’t in a space to think or learn, they are only in a space to survive. Your priority is to get to safety and reduce the situation wherever possible. Then learn from this to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

There are emergencies that we don’t always have the option to walk away and sort things out, learn about dealing with these here:…/force-free-fear-free…/

So listen to your horse’s expressions, so they learn to keep their communication quiet and gentle. If they get loud, someone might get hurt.

But we can change how they feel about most things. Even uncomfortable, gross, or mildly painful things they may need for the vet. Through systematic counter conditioning, we can introduce small amounts of a new situation and add in something they like, making the new thing predict the good thing, until they learn to love the new thing. So even if at first they are a bit resistant to the new thing they quickly learn that new=awesome.

For example in the video of Taina with the wet towel, you can see she is visibly uncomfortable and finding the towel concerning, she even pins her ears. See we have a few options, I could throw a halter on her, restrain her, and hose her off, but she would either lash out or shut down, neither option is one I want. I want her to be an active participant in her healthcare, I want her to enjoy being cared for, or at least comfortable with it. Not have it forced upon her (barring real emergencies). So we allow her start the repetition by targeting the towel, which gives us permission to touch her with it, we touch her and she cringes, we feed a treat. She hasn’t learned “cringe for treats” she has learned “towel=treats”, which will condition the toweling as something she enjoys. Soon the cringing, earpinning and such will stop as she finds this more enjoyable. This is the difference between Operant and Classical Conditioning. Remember Classical conditioning is always happening, even if we’re thinking only about the operant 🙂

So instead of surpressing their feelings, we want to CHANGE their feelings, through counter conditioning. In this we’ve kept everyone safe because they never get pushed to the point of needing to defend themselves.

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