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The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.
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Marcel Proust


Reoccurrence of behaviour

Following a home visit, I received this email about some recurring behaviour and as it is a common problem I thought it would be useful to ask the owners permission to reproduce it here for your learning, I have however changed the horse’s name just to avoid identification.


I have started to have problems bringing him in from (and to a lesser extent, taking him out to) the field. He has started to really try to pull for grass, and when I prevent him from eating, he becomes very cross - pulling back, kicking out, even bucking and rearing and striking out with his front feet (not funny when you're on the other end of the leadrope.....). I've been thinking about how to handle this, but I've not really come up with a solution. Some of the thoughts I'm having are:

- I'd like to deal with it using positive reinforcement
- I don't want to let go of him as when I do, he gets to eat the grass, which clearly reinforces the behaviour I don't want. But neither do I want to get hit by his flailing legs, so I have had to let go on occasions. He is smart, and I think he's learnt that the more unruly his behaviour, the more likely it is that I have to let go, and he gets to eat

I'd normally think, OK, rather than just think about the behaviour I DON'T want, think about what I DO want (i.e.Bill walking calmly next to me on a loose lead rope and not pulling for grass) and train and reward that.  But I HAD trained that - we trained it about 5 months ago, when he first went out to the summer turnout field.  It has been in place since then, and it's only deteriorated over the last couple of weeks.  So - what do you do when a previously-trained, and seemingly well-ingrained behaviour suddenly deteriorates?  Just train it again, as if it's a new behaviour?  (The first time I trained it, I did it using CT - rewarding for a few quiet, calm steps, then slowly building it up until we walked the whole distance without a click/treat).


What would you do?


By the way, I am really enjoying your book "Elements of Horsemanship" - it's a great companion to "The Horseman Within" (which I still re-read regularly).  They're the kind of books you never come to the end of, as there are always extra layers, and different aspects, of each topic which strike a chord at different times.  So, I'm really looking forward to your clicker training book


Hope all is well with you.  Best wishes,



…Regarding his behaviour on coming out of the field, remember that you can never remove a behaviour only build more attractive behaviours or ones will are more desirable to the horse. Old mental pathways still exist and will reoccur. It is a different time of year to when you trained him 5 months ago, so desires for grass and increased stabling may cause old behaviours to reoccur. If you think about us humans, ex-smokers who haven’t had a cigarette for months or even years can suddenly start smoking again, people who have lost weight put it back on through over eating and unfit people who have got fit suddenly stop exercising. Spontaneous recovery is another possible cause of this reversal of behaviour in Bill, it has been reinforced as he has succeeded a couple of times, understand for your safety that when changing his behaviour, his behaviour may get bigger before it changes, so he is likely to try more of this successful behaviour to get grass. You have also changed your relationship with him so that may affect other areas of your work together as he tries to establish where then new boundaries lie.


I think you are absolutely right to just train the desired behaviour again as frustrating as that might be. It worked once and it is very likely to work again, but a little faster this time because he will understand what behaviour he can offer to receive rewards. It is really quite a common pattern of behaviour, often seemingly well established behaviour falls apart, possibility because of changes in the trainer or the environment, sometimes it can be caused by a temporary slip in concentration or allowing the rules and boundaries to be blurred too soon can cause a relapse.


I think you will soon be able to bring it back under control and then having learned it twice it will be more ingrained in his behaviour patterns. Sometimes we just have to go back down the shaping plan and cover the steps again hence the first chapter in The Horseman Within is about enjoying the journey even if sometimes it is seemingly covering old ground.





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