By Susan Chandler, CHR Trainer
Colt starting. This term is thrown around the equine industry in order to explain the process of making a “green” or unexperienced horse rideable. But what do these words look like to you? Is it the cowboy – hat and all – out on the open range, riding the bucking bronco with a hand waving in the air? Or is it a fantasy experience where the handler seems to have a moment with the majestic being, then suddenly that previously untamed animal accepts their rider? While daydream-worthy but impractical at times, both of these scenarios do exist at the opposite ends of the training ideal. To educate an equine companion, there is truly no “right” or “wrong” way to approach the situation. However, when we elect to look out for the animal’s wellbeing and strive to be their advocate, we can break down our methods into categories such as “fair” and “unfair”. Keep in mind that there are a multitude of practices that can fit into both divisions. It is our job as trainers to pick and choose which ones are effective and suitable for each animal in our care. We must also remember that no two horses are the same. This being the case, we are required to be flexible in our training strategies in accordance to the individual.
No horse on our property has made us more aware of the importance of adapting training methods to the individual than our beautiful gelding, Sven. Acknowledged in Sven’s previous blog, the Colorado Horse Rescue was able to save this Belgium cross from a local livestock auction with only the information that he was “untrainable”. How is it that this now lover boy and eager pleaser could be labeled in such a way? Once we brought him home, we could only guess what his past might have been. As with many horses from the livestock auction, and even some horses from private owners, we are not always given the whole story – purposefully or not. In this case, we have grown to believe that Sven was entered into a training program without being considered for what he was: a highly sensitive and unconfident individual. When pushed too hard to the point where he would have felt trapped, surely he would have done whatever it took to escape the situation. And with a big guy like him, it wouldn’t have been hard at all for Sven to intimidate his human handlers. It is likely that his over-reactivity eventually led Sven to be considered too dangerous to handle, which led him to the auction house.
With all of this in mind, when Sven finally reached our gates it was no surprise that he was traumatized and convinced that humans were only predators out to trap and hurt him. Mentally rehabilitating a horse like this took patience and time so Sven could adjust to each environment that we placed him in. After the slow process of making sure he could accept a halter Sven was placed into one of our “Welcome Pens,” a setting where he could have other horse interactions but also where humans became a large part of his daily life in a non-threatening way. In addition to volunteers coming in to muck or feed, this pen was also close to the front of the property where eager visitors could get their first horse fix. While this may have been worrisome at first, Sven grew used to the attention and even started to appreciate it.
After much time of Sven simply being allowed to learn how to be a horse again, we started his training. This was definitely a trial and error experiment as he seemed to fall back on old habits of intimidation the instant he felt trapped. Slowly though, we were able to find a method that worked in a way where he began showing up to each session happy and wanting to participate. This was the use of positive reinforcement. Once introduced to the technique of food rewards, Sven’s personality changed completely! For the first time, he would actively think through what was being asked of him instead of going straight into the fight or flight response. More so, he was going far beyond all of our expectations with the amount of effort he was now willing to put forward. Using positive reinforcement, we now see Sven doing tasks that would have been hard to believe when he first arrived. With time, patience, and the willingness to think outside of the traditional training box, we gave Sven the opportunity to be the wonderful and joyful horse that this big boy is today.
For the magnificent Sven, this method of positive reinforcement was a miracle worker. Yet, as a note of caution, it may not work the same with every horse! As mentioned at the beginning of this tale, we must treat each horse as the individuals they are. What is fair for one equine may not be the same for the next. Like we have seen with Sven and many of our other rescues, when we take the time to be flexible and give each horse a chance to leave their labels behind, we may actually be saving their lives!
We are thrilled to say that Sven will be going to his new adoptive home in early June!