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Behavior Modification, Conditioning, Desensitization, and Counter Conditioning Horses

  edited from a presentation given by Dr. Sue McDonnell by Robert N. Oglesby DVM

Introduction

Introduction » Three Concepts in Detail » An Example » Warnings and Possible Mistakes You Might Make » Dr. McDonnell offers these other helpful hints: » More Info 

Horses frequently learn to dislike some of the routine procedures that we need to do to them to keep them clean, healthy, and ridable. Some examples are haltering, biting, pasting with dewormers, injections, nasogastric, tubing, genital examination, washing of the penis for breeding, or other manipulation about the head, legs, genitals, or hind quarters. Two of the most effective traditional methods for shaping behavior in other animal species have been conditioning and desensitization. Conditioning involves rewarding the desired behavior and punishing bad behavior. Desensitization means to become use to a stimulus through repeated exposure.

Traditional equine training has relied heavily on punishment to shape a horses behavior and with pretty good results in the experienced hand. Add to this fact that anyone who has hung around a large barn has seen bribing horses with treats as unsuccessful and it is easy to see why there is a perception you can't bribe a horse to be good. However this is contrary to what traditional animal training techniques teach us. Recent changes in training have emphasized the use of positive rewards with some remarkable if somewhat spotty success. Examples would be the natural horseman techniques and clicker training. Now, at the 2000 AAEP convention Dr. Sue M. McDonnell presented an interesting paper on rehabilitating bad horse behavior while in hand using positive reinforcement. In hundreds of cases she says she has been 100% successful with even very hard (read dangerous) cases.

Dr. McDonnell is a PhD at the Equine Behavior Lab at New Bolton Center, University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, specializes in animal behavior and frequently has dealt with behavior problems is horses that come into New Bolton. In this article I will present her ideas, edited through my own experiences.

I will place quotes from Dr. McDonnell in italics and I will use bold to emphasize points.

Dr. McDonnell says, "We encourage the view that behavior modification is just another opportunity for the horse to learn that it can work for a positive outcome. The work in this case is tolerance of a mildly aversive experience. This view puts the focus on establishing a new positive behavior pattern for the horse (and sometimes for the people) as opposed to eliminating undesirable behavior." Dr. McDonnell goes on, "The methods used rely mostly on positive reinforcement. Excessive restraint and punishment are specifically avoided." and she recommends the following equipment:

  • It is important that a large area that is enclosed with good footing and headroom is important. The area must be free of objects that the horse might crash into. It should be quiet without distractions and the horse should start out relaxed. Perhaps most important is a calm, relaxed trainer and if necessary an assistant.
  • One lead shank with a 28–40' chain lead
  • Sweet feed or other highly palatable food treat
  • A small unique bucket to offer the feed to the horse
  • Comfortable safety vest, helmet, and shoes as preferred to afford greater confidence
  • Items for the procedure that the horse resists.
From Dr. McDonnell's philosophy three related training concepts fall out that the horse should learn:
  • The procedure really does not hurt (that much).
  • A reward will follow the stimulus.
  • Resistance will not change the trainer’s behavior.
      ~Word Count: 2521 words (The average magazine page contains about 600 words);
      ~Last Updated: April 17, 2011;

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