Our brains are constantly developing, even into old age. It only takes a few repetitions of a certain behaviour to create a neural pathway of nerve calls in our brain. Every time that behaviour is repeated those pathways become stronger and wider and gradually they become superhighways and a habit or addiction is formed. It is just the same for horses.
The definition in the Oxford dictionary for ‘Habit’ is:
1. A settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.
‘he has an annoying habit of interrupting me’
‘good eating habits’
‘we stayed together out of habit’
1.1 Informal An addictive practice, especially one of taking drugs.
1.2 Psychology An automatic reaction to a specific situation
A behaviour repeated just 3 times can form a habit.
Habits and routines can be very beneficial. A large proportion of our everyday actions are habits and 95% of our brain activity is unconscious. In animal training we strive to create good habits by using operant or classical conditioning to teach desirable behaviours in response to controlled stimulus.
As horse trainers we aim to bring ourselves, and our horses, to a level of unconscious competence, a state where we have developed a high level of skill that has become second nature; good habits we can do without even thinking. A lot of practice and many many repetitions will form the mental superhighways we need.
Bad habits are formed in the same way as good ones. These could be our own, or our horse could have developed a bad habit, even though the original stimulus that caused the behaviour in the first place has long gone.
Deeply ingrained habits can be difficult to change but being aware of the way neural pathways are formed can help.
Ignoring an undesirable behaviour often just makes it worse because the horse continues to practice the behaviour which in turn strengthens the neural pathway.
The trick is not so much to stop a bad habit but to replace it with a good one.
“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” - Henry Ford
A change in routine will help to change the circumstances that lead up to a bad habit. That means noticing what happens before what happens happens - and changing your response to it. Interrupting the chain or pattern of behaviour.
Bad habits in horses are almost always inadvertently created by the handler or trainer. The causes can be obvious, or very subtle: too much pressure, constant pressure, lack of release of pressure, poorly timed aids, lack of leadership, misjudged timing or dosing of food rewards or otherwise somehow unintentionally reinforcing an undesirable behaviour, and all of these can be due to a lack of self-awareness.
The best prevention is to stop bad habits from forming in the first place.
To avoid unintentionally reinforcing undesired behaviour we need to be self-aware; to notice our own habits - all the time. Not only what we are doing but what we are thinking; how we think and when; our attitude to ourselves, our horse and to others; our physical way of moving; what our inner voice is telling us. All these things can be habitual and they massively affect our horse when we come to train him.
Finding self-awareness is about constantly observing ourselves and our actions. But it must be done without judgement, and without beating ourselves up or making ourselves feel bad or wrong. This includes noticing things like:
Let’s help our horses out by making it a habit to notice our own habits, and be proactive to change them into habits that will empower us and improve our training as well as our lives.
There is a mine of valuable information about training horses and dealing with undesired behaviours, easily accessible within the Straightness Training Mastery course. More information here. The list of Straightness Training Instructors worldwide is here.
Boy oh boy it can be tough training horses at this time of year! The dark evenings, the cold, the wet and the mud. If it’s not raining and blowing it’s freezing. It can be hard to get motivated, sometimes leading to feelings of failure. As if we need to add negative thinking to our struggles!
If this rings true for you, read on!
When things are difficult, instead of focusing on the problems look instead for what can be done – today - however small.
A wet or windy day will often make our usual training routine difficult or even impossible. But, because we know this, we should change our expectations and set a new, more realistic goal. It's a fantastic opportunity! We can teach a horse how to relax, how to behave when he is stressed. We can set up a "safe spot" in the arena that we can gradually expand. And this will improve the trust in our relationship. How wonderful will it be when we can go out and train without even having to think about how the weather will affect our horse!
And if time is short it is perfectly possible to make progress with just 3 x 15-minute training sessions in a week. Successful, short training sessions can be hugely rewarding for both you and your horse.
Here are 3 simple things to help you keep momentum:
Achieving our goals, however small, makes us feel successfuland allows us to make progress, and that, in turn, brings motivation in difficult circumstances.
And if it is all impossible, as long as your horse has adequate turnout on dry ground and good equine company to keep him stimulated it is perfectly fine to give him a break from training. After a 4-6 week break he (and you) might even come back better than before!
Check out Marijke de Jong's 4 part Facebook post for some really awesome advise about goal setting in 2018 below.