I’m not a professional trainer. I do not do it for a living. But I am a student of what works. Logic and common sense to a fault, I suppose. Which lead us quite unexpectedly to the discovery that horses can develop a vocabulary.
Horses can learn the meanings of words and, like children, as their vocabulary grows they can put those words together into different phrases and sentences. Even actual conversations. That’s not supposed to be true according to most, but Kathleen and I have found it to be absolutely true. And now there is even a scientific study proving it.
But why, I’ve been scolding myself, especially after decades of working with our canine superstar Benji, did it never occur to me to use verbal vocabulary with our horses, or to expect the horse to be capable of rational thought. I suppose it’s because so many of the trainers and clinicians we studied at the beginning of our journey eschewed the use of words and preached that we should stick to body language.
They felt the same way about training with treats. So why would we fly in the face of virtually every trainer I’ve ever been exposed to who are all in lock step on the subject. Use treats minimally, and never as a training device they say in unison. But when we discovered that training with treats seriously enhances and speeds up communication; and for the first time it gave our horses a way for them to speak to us, to initiate conversation… that’s when everything changed. With traditional training, we humans arealways the ones doing the talking. Telling the horse, one way or another, to do this or do that. Never do we ask or listen to what the horse might want. And for the most part we teach with negative reinforcement. Release of pressure. In other words we stop doing something that is uncomfortable for the horse when he does something we’d like him to do. And we call it a reward.
Positive reinforcement would be something that the horse considers… well, positive. Good. Desired. Even fun. You do something I like and I’ll do something you like.
Whoa! Hold on there. Have we stumbled onto something that actually teaches the horse and the horse enjoys it, thinks it’s fun?
Yes, we did.
Fun is a key word here because once basic natural training – what I call leadership training – of a horse has begun in earnest, after the horse has been given the choice of whether or not to be in relationship with us, the work is all about maintaining leadership and relationship. And learning to communicate what we’d like the horse to do. So much typical training is based on the horse’s genetic desire to be safe and comfortable that the usual learning process is heavily slanted toward giving the horse the choice of either doing the behavior or being uncomfortable. Like the simple request asking the horse to lower his head. It’s either lower it, or feel the discomfort of halter pressure on top of your head.
The horse learns. There’s no pain or cruelty. But not much reasoning either. And not a whole a lot of fun. And the horse has no real choice in the matter. Respond appropriately or be uncomfortable. But with a treat, it’s all his choice. Nothing uncomfortable happens if he doesn’t do what has been asked. He’s perfectly free to ignore you completely.
At no other time, other than perhaps a frolic in the pasture, do we ever get to see the horse having fun. Especially while his brain is engaged and he’s learning.
What’s that about?
Most folks grow up assuming that the horse’s capacity to reason and his ability to have fun are just not part of his genetic make up. And unfortunately those subjects just never come up.
Didn’t with us.
We never really thought about it. I was so focused on becoming one of the herd, using their language, directing them away from the reactive side of their brain, teaching them to move their various body parts as Clinton says, “backwards, forwards, left or right” – all of which is absolutely necessary to establishing a positive relationship with the horse, and necessary to clearly establishing my leadership role, which in the herd is based upon who moves who – that it just didn’t occur to me that a horse could grow into reason, much like a dog can. Or that the horse could develop a verbal vocabulary, like Benji. The caveat is that, with the horse, all the basic training must come first, because neither reasoning nor vocabulary will occur until the horse trusts you enough to stay on the thinking side of his brain, and respects you enough to choose you as a herd leader. And until you have lived up to that leadership role this means working from the horse’s end of the lead rope first. Understanding and using his language, and the way his herd dynamics work.
Without that there is no opportunity for communication in either language, his or ours. With or without vocabulary.
Unlike a dog, a horse is a a flight animal. Only when a horse knows that you understand his language and he has accepted you as his trusted leader will he feel safe and secure with you. Only then should you offer him the opportunity to now understand your language. To play the way you play. To learn the way you learn. Only then can he feel secure enough in his trust in you to truly embrace and understand these new ways and new things, and give himself fully to the effort.
But give himself he will.
My Cash learned to smile in about thirteen seconds, and now he uses it to start a conversation.
Might I have a treat please?
Never does he become a pest, nudging, digging into our pockets. He merely asks very politely with his smile. And he understands that no is an answer.
We have a routine that we follow when, for example, we’re at the end of a session and Cash asks for yet another treat. As I mentioned above, words, once learned, can be linked together in different ways, different phrases, even sentences and actual conversations. This is a terrific example of just that. Say we’re wrapping up a session and Cash lays his big toothy smile on me.
Just one more treat. Puleeze!
I’ll usually harrumph a bit, and then say:
“Well… alright. Just one more. Okay? Just …one …more.”
Another big smile.
I give him a treat.
And he actually turns and walks away.
And it always leaves me smiling.
Cash also bows, both with me and to me. He waves with one foot and no matter which one he waves with first will switch when asked to wave with the other foot (actually understanding the concept of other). He flexes laterally, touching his rib cage on both sides, with no halter or lead rope. With the word up he’ll raise his head,,, or lift his lip higher if he’s smiling… or his leg if he’s waving. He understands the words walk with me, down, move, wave, higher, out, go on, come, back up, go sideways, and more.
All taught when he was completely at liberty, using treats.
Side note: we use Omega Fields’ Omega Nibblers Low Sugar & Starch treats, the only treat I’ve found that is actually good for the horse. They are great tasting and a functional source of plant derived Omega 3 with the best ratios of natural Omega 9 and Omega 6, made from 99.9% pure Non-GMO stabilized fortified ground flaxseed and natural ingredients. That’s .9% higher than required for human food grade. Nobody else does this. And there’s no sugar or molasses, no corn or other grains that turn to sugar immediately upon entering the body, and no soy or hydrogenated fats or oils. With an extremely low NSC of 14.1. This is an amazing treat! Omega Fields recommends 15 treats a day as an Omega 3 supplement so I never feel guilty or worried about over-training.
You do something I like and I’ll do something you like.
And it’s all so much fun for both of us.
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Training with Treats
To pause a photo, hover your “mouse” over it.
Note the absence of halter and lead.
The story of our journey with horses (to date) is told in the two books that follow: the national best seller The Soul of a Horse – Life Lessons from the Herd and its sequel Born Wild – The Soul of a Horse.
And what a story it is as two novices without a clue stumble and bumble their way through the learning process so that hopefully you won’t have to. If you haven’t read both of these books already please do because with that reading, I believe, will come not just the knowledge of discovery but the passion and the excitement to cause you to commit to your journey with horses, to do for the horse without waiver so that your relationship and experience will be with loving, happy and healthy horses who are willing partners and who never stop trying for you. Horses like ours.
The highly acclaimed best selling sequel to the National Best Seller
The Soul of a Horse – Life Lessons from the Herd
#1 Amazon Best Seller
#1 Amazon “Hot New Releases”
Please list the names for each inscription in the “instructions to Seller” field as you check out!
But first read the National Best Seller that started it all:
Please list the names for each inscription in the “instructions to Seller” field as you check out!
“Joe Camp is a master storyteller.” – The New York Times
“One cannot help but be touched by Camp’s love and sympathy for animals and by his eloquence on the subject.” – Michael Korda, The Washington Post
“Joe Camp is a natural when it comes to understanding how animals tick and a genius at telling us their story. His books are must-reads for those who love animals of any species.” – Monty Roberts – Author of New York Timers Best-seller The Man Who Listens to Horses
“Camp’s tightly-written, simply-designed and powerfully drawn chapters often read like short stories that flow from the heart.” Jack L. Kennedy – The Joplin Independent
“Joe Camp is a gifted storyteller and the results are magical. Joe entertains, educates and empowers, baring his own soul while articulating keystone principles of a modern revolution in horsemanship.” – Rick Lamb – TV/Radio host – The Horse Show
Follow our latest journey with two amazing new arrivals from the wild. Kathleen’s terrific photos are worth the click.
In chronological order: