How long will it take?

This is one of the questions I often get when it comes to solving a non-cooperative horse patient’s problem (or, in fact, any problem). I can understand why people ask this question. We have all learned to strive for effectiveness to some extend. However, when it comes to horse training or problem-solving, effectiveness alone is not what we should aim for.

“How much time will you need to teach my horse to tolerate injections? How much time will it take to train this horse to cooperate in his deworming / trailer loading, etc…”

Well, this question is not that simple as it may seem. To be honest, many times, I’m not able to tell. At least not prior to the training, and not before I see how the horse reacts, and how does he learn.

I usually want to stay away from making a general rule like: “Solving the problem takes the same amount of time (if not more) as creating and maintaining the problem took.”

It’s individual. Many horses change their behaviour really quickly after the trainer sets some rules, and the interaction becomes predictable for the horse. In other words, many horses don’t have problems communicating, and cooperating with the human once they learn that they are safe, and once they start understanding the human’s requirements.

While for the other horses (especially for those who are really fearful, or who have learned the undesired behaviour very well) it takes time. And it may take A LOT of time…

Effectiveness doesn’t equal the quality of the trainer

Yes, I have heard some trainers say: “no matter what the horse’s problem is, I can solve it in 1 session, or 1 day, or in a weekend clinic” (meaning: “because that’s how experienced, or good I am, this is how effectively I can work with horses”). Or, on the other hand, I’ve heard the owners saying: “This trainer solved my horse’s problem in one session! That transformation was just amazing!”

I think, this topic deserves a bit more space because this type of effectiveness doesn’t automatically equal the quality of the trainer.

Personally, I don’t recommend seeking help from trainers who do say something like this for one simple reason: Their methods often encounter using a lot of force and punishment, and the training results in suppressing the horse’s behaviour rather than in changing it.

Sweeping the problem under the carpet

Solving the horse’s problem within one session is very often much more about suppressing the horse’s unwanted behaviour with punishment than actually changing the horse’s behaviour. It’s rather about solving the problem we have with the horse than helping the horse feel more comfortable in a certain situation, and not feeling the need for defensive behaviour.

“But it works!” you can argue, especially if you’ve watched your horse’s transformation from pure evil to a teddy bear-like creature, all in 20 minutes. Yes, it does. Punishment is an effective way of suppressing behaviour. In fact, punishment is every consequence of the behaviour that causes the behaviour to occur less likely in the future.

But as I wrote earlier in this article, punishment doesn’t really solve the horse’s problem. The horse’s behavious is like the tip of an iceberg – it is what you can see. But under the surface, there are emotions (when speaking about “problem horses”, it’s usually fear or frustration). There is also the learning process that constantly shapes the horse’s behaviour.

Even if we manage to suppress the horse’s undesired behaviour, it doesn’t mean that its root causes aren’t still there.

Suppressing the behaviour is like sweeping all the mess under the carpet. When you look around the room, it’s clean. Apart from that there is a bump under the carpet that grows bigger and bigger every time you find some mess in the room, and sweep it under that carpet. One day, when you will be in a hurry, and “you will not have time for this”, you can easily stumble over it and hurt yourself…

A similar scenario, where you can en up injured can also happen if your horse’s problems were “swept under the carpet” rather than solved.

Solving the horse’s problem successfully takes more time than suppressing the unwanted behaviour. It takes time for the horses to process the old trauma, change the way they feel about a certain event or object, and as a result of this, to change their behaviour. It’s really important to give your horse enough time for this.

If I use the example of sweeping the mess under the carpet, a proper behavioural modification that really solves the horse’s problem without causing even more harm looks like a proper cleaning. It requires taking all the mess from under the carpet, taking it away, cleaning the floor, and many times, also cleaning the entire room.

Choose wisely

If you are seeking help for you your horse, choose wisely. Don’t ask how long will it take for the trainer to solve your horse’s problem. Instead, ask the trainer about their methods.

Prefer trainers who are familiar with modern principles of animal training, and who stand for the LIMA (the Least Intrusive Minimally Aversive) approach. Try to find out if the trainer is educating themselves continually, and if they put their trainees’ wellbeing in the first place.

And also, be patient with your horse. Just accept that it takes as much time as it takes.

"Hello! My name is Katerina, I am the equine veterinarian interested in professional and sofisticated animal handling through applied learning theory. I help the horses and their humans go through the medical care in easier, less stressful, more ethical and safer way." Read more >