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    Dear Dana: Did police posse sensory training ruin my 14-year-old mare?

    By DANA HOKANA / Horsetrader columnist - November 5th, 2009 - Q&A Dear Dana

    DEAR DANA: I have a 14-year-old mare whom I have had since birth. I have done everything with this mare including major WP shows, trail trials, rodeos, camping — you name it! Nothing had ever bothered or scared her until I recently put her thru the police posse sensory training, which consisted of every possible scary object. Since this training my mare has fallen apart and everything and anything scares her. She seems to anticipate the boogey men out there ready to attack her. I feel I have ruined a perfect all-around horse. Any suggestions?
    Diana Dobbins, Santa Clarita, Calif.

    DEAR DIANA: I am so sorry to hear of your problem with your mare. I can only imagine how upsetting this must be. You have invested greatly in this horse with time, energy, heart and soul, and money! Let’s see if we can get her back to that trusting confident horse!

    My thoughts are that the police posse sensory training was too overwhelming for her and she is still frightened. I often tell the story of Pavlov’s dog when I teach people how to train their horses. When I first heard it, it really struck me, and it still comes to mind when I’m training horses:

    Pavlov was a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who studied behavior and formulated Behavior Modification. Most of training is behavior modification. He took a dog and found that every time the dog would see and smell food, it would salivate. He then found he could train the salivating response to the ringing of a bell. To do this, he would bring the food and ring the bell at the same time and the dog would salivate. After a while, Pavlov could ring the bell without any food and the dog would still salivate. The dog’s response (salivating) became conditioned from seeing and smelling the food to salivating when hearing the ringing bell.

    Perhaps there’s insight here into what has happened to your mare. She saw a stimulus and it frightened her. Then she saw another and another and another and became conditioned to be afraid at new stimulus. Whether they be sights, sounds, or whatever, her response (fear) has become conditioned to every new stimulus.

    I feel you can break this cycle with a lot of reconditioning which will include time and patience. Also, keep in mind that some horses are more sensitive than others! What I would recommend is to do your best to change each and every negative stimulus into a positive one or at least build acceptance in your mare. If you can turn each time of fear into a positive experience she will soon forget about it. For example, if she is afraid of one particular thing don’t leave the situation until it becomes a positive one for her. At first this may take you hours, but I recommend that you stay with it until you win. If you can stay with a situation until your horse accepts it, they will get over it. Be prepared to spend the time. I will give you an example:

    Let’s say my horse was afraid of the golf cart parked next to the arena. First of all, I never punish my horse if I feel he is afraid. Remember, I want to recondition that response and if they are afraid and I punish them I only build upon the fear response. I don’t allow my horse to refuse me or refuse to go forward because then they learn to ignore me. I will, however, face my horse to what it is scared of and let them see it and think about it. So, if my horse is afraid of the golf cart and I am going along the rail and they spook, I will stop and let them see it. I don’t punish, but give them a moment to think about it until I feel the horse relax. I will go by that golf cart again and again until I know that I have truly “broken through,” so to speak.

    If I feel my horse is still afraid I may get off and tie them around the arena where they can see the golf cart and think about and realize that it is okay. If I had to I would feed my horse there and tie my horse there the next morning, but I would do my best to win.
    One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to punish your horse for her fear. Work through it and change that conditioned response. If your horse was afraid of something it may take 100 or even 1000 times to undo that fear. Negative stimulation can make a greater impact on horses and people than a positive one. So think it out and reframe that negative experience into a positive one. Most likely, in her police training many things at once were thrown at her, and it was too much. So, try to take one thing at a time. Make sure that it is a totally positive experience before you go onto the next. Good luck and I hope this helps you!

    Dana

    P.S. My training DVD, “Maximizing Your Western Pleasure Horse Vol. 1 and Vol. 3” looks into this topic!

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