It’s amazing the subtle pressures we can put on a halter even when we are paying attention. If you haven’t tried it, close your eyes and hold a halter while someone else picks up the line that is attached. Have them move the lead and feel the effect in your hands. It is truly amazing how a very subtle pressure can be felt on the halter. It is the same if not more for our horses.
Even when we are consciously trying to train rope cues to our horses, there are times when we send a mixed signal down the line. The situation is even more confusing for the horse when we aren’t quite paying attention. And truthfully, this is a common issue. Often people just aren’t aware of what they’re doing when they’re with a horse. They might be easily distracted or just not fully tuned into what they’re doing and this creates confusing halter cues for the horse.
While no one wants to think of themselves as unaware, I think it’s worthwhile to self-check by setting up a video camera and watching our training as well as day-to-day routines. It’s a good way to see just how often there is pressure on the halter and we just don’t realizing we’re adding it.
Another factor with halters and horses is that there are plenty of horses for whom the halter means “surrender.” I’ve heard many people say “Well, all of those behaviors go away once he has the halter on.” To me, that means there is a distinct possibility that the horse gives up trying to communicate with the human once it feels the halter. The halter becomes associated with lack of choice.
These are some reasons why I’m a real advocate of training at liberty. But what can we learn from ourselves and our horses by training at liberty? Well, we can learn when our horses don’t want to play with us! If the horse can walk away what does that tell us? For me personally, it puts me into an analytical mode. I have a check list that immediately goes into play if I don’t have my horse’s attention. And if I don’t have the halter/lead to “make” him bring his attention back to me, then I have to figure out how to be a better trainer. Was my cue clear? Was there a distraction? Did I over-face the horse or frustrate him with my training? Was my rate of reinforcement too low? Is my horse physically compromised in any way. Can I quickly rebuild the behavior on the spot? These are just a few things that are on my checklist.
I didn’t formulate this checklist overnight. When I gave up ropes, halters, wands and body pressure I was left with the bare truth. My training had been based on pressure and without pressure my horses showed me what was meaningful to them. But you know, going through this process of training without a halter opened a door to the most wonderful world I could have ever imagined with my horses. Now when I give a cue I can expect that they WANT to do the behavior! Why not? I now build behaviors using the gifts of their efforts, given willingly with enthusiasm. They learn that I am INTERESTED in their guesses, their curious attempts to get me to click or their sometimes timid, but fully invested efforts.
They also learn that my gestures or words can have a GOOD outcome for them. My attempts to communicate with them via these gestures are ways they can get what they want. And the other most amazing thing is that they learn I am listening to their subtle physical gestures designed to cue ME to do something. I mean how amazing is THAT; a horse is trying to cue ME. If I’m hanging onto a halter sometimes I just may not be able hear the horse.
So I invite you to try training at liberty. Do it safely. Do this where you have room to leave if the horse gets expressive. Do this with a safe horse. But do this if you can, there’s a lot to learn from the process.