The Art and Science of Barrel Horse Training – Effective Techniques, Simplified and Defined

The Art and Science of Barrel Horse Training – Effective Techniques, Simplified and Defined

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Would you like to be a better barrel horse trainer?

Would you believe many of the same techniques used with horses are also used with dogs, and most other animals?

Of course a few differences and exceptions apply based on the species and individuals we’re working with, but barrel horse training doesn’t have to be the confusing, frustrating grey area we often make it out to be.

Even if you’ve been successful with the methods you apply, a firmer understanding of the techniques you’re using, and even what techniques you’re not – creates opportunity for more clarity and confidence as you develop your horses.

Being a serious student of the horse led me to studying, learning, memorizing, experimenting and experiencing what you could call “Horse Training 101.”

Truthfully, these basics don’t vary too much based on style, preference or what clinician you follow.

What I’ve shared below are the tried and true methods we all use, whether we know it or not – and they’re the exact same methods we can all apply a little differently for even better results!

It’s not so much what we do, but how and when. We’ll be better prepared for the how and when, when we better understand the what! Today I’ve shared all of the above.

If you’re overwhelmed, yet fascinated by terms like operant and classical conditioning, bridge stimulus, or would like to better understand the best ways to use positive and negative reinforcement (you’ll be surprised by this one) to create everything you want in your dream barrel horse – and none of the stuff you don’t want, then join me for this very special article.

First let’s consider WHY we train our barrel horses. This goes well beyond just getting around the barrels in record time. For someone who also LOVES horses, I want to do everything I can to help them adjust and accept the challenges and stresses of life as a performance horse, which often don’t correspond well with the instincts of a prey animal.

I want to be safe, for my horse to be safe, and to set us both up to enjoy every interaction we share as much as possible. While there is a time investment in all this, I often say that even more important is our TIMING. When we use the time we spend with our horses better, they’ll gain more confidence and understanding which supports their physical and mental well-being and athleticism.

To do this, it’s critical to Know Your Species. In order to be an excellent trainer, it’s important to deeply understand horses as a species and as individuals (I’ll share more on my secrets to that in the future)! Every species has instinctive and specific body language that is used to communicate basic information. The more we know about the species we are working with – how it lives, where it lives, what it eats, what it values, etc. the more prepared we’ll be to shape desired behavior. These details reveal the basic nature of the animal.

Next, let’s cover a couple very important terms. These descriptions are quotes from the book Animal Training 101 by Jennifer Zeligs

Classical Conditioning“The process by which something that previously had one value changes by repeated predictable association with something that has a different value. In its simplest form, classical conditioning is the process of learning that two reliably concurrent events are related.”

Example: Dot Com was always willing when it came to loading, but was tense and nervous in the trailer. I fed his grain in the trailer (with other horses at first) for 30 days. Ever since he comes running to jump in, associates the trailer as his comfort zone and is very soft, relaxed and confident when hauling. Stress is hard on horses, even though he was obedient I wanted to change how he FELT about the trailer. To maintain this new association, I usually try to have hay bags waiting in the manger before loading up.

Operant Conditioning“Describes cause and effect learning; that is, ‘when I do this, this happens.’ It occurs through the active physical involvement of the animal; the animal emits the behavior – it is punished or rewarded – and as a result the behavior happens more or less frequently in the future.”

Example: As Pistol is learning to ground tie on the EquiVibe platform, if he steps off I guide his feet back on with subtle energy and focus directed at the appropriate place on his body in combination with light pressure on the lead rope, guide his feet back on. When he offers to get on and stands quietly, he gets a Beet-e-bite! In other words, when he steps off = pressure, when he stands = reward.

Most of what we use with our barrel horses is considered operant conditioning, which is based on many years of study by scientists and psychologists for modifying and shaping behavior – although I’m always aware of how my horse has intentionally (or not) been classically conditioned to make certain associations as well.

Where the lines can get a little blurry is that in a lot of cases, we’re using both operant and classical conditioning. For example the process of teaching a dog to sit with a cue would be considered operant conditioning, but the dog’s association between sitting and receiving a treat is an example of classical conditioning.

Either way, it’s most important to understand what must come in between the cue and the behavior. Now that we’ve covered that WHAT – next comes the HOW!

Building a System of Communication
To help our horses understand what we want and even don’t want, it’s ideal to use a bridge stimulus. It’s a way of communicating “YES! Jackpot – you got it right!”

Again, Jennifer Zeligs sums it up best – “The Bridge Stimulus defines and pinpoints in time when exactly the behavior that the animal is performing is correct and desirable.”

If you’re familiar with dog training, you might already know that clicker training is an example of using a bridge stimulus. I don’t use a clicker with my horses, but I DO often use a bridge, mostly in the form of my voice, and often in combination with my expression and/or the energy/feel in my body.

When my horse really does well, I aim to use the word “Goooood” as a bridge, said in the same way while often simultaneously softening in my body. Because our horses would otherwise be only guessing at what we wanted, the value of using a specific bridge and using it consistently can’t be overstated!

Remember that the bridge stimuli and desired behavior don’t have to be perfectly associated 100% of the time to hold value, however initially it’s especially important that it be timed with precision and offered with consistency.

Reinforcement of some kind is necessary to form behavior and can come in the form of positive consequences or the removal of aversive ones. I always fall back on the wise words of master horsemen like Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt, remembering to “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult.” Next, let’s consider some of the most popular and effective means for influencing our horses.

Scan and Capture – This includes setting our horses up for the desired behavior to be likely and then rewarding it when it occurs. An example is that early in Dot Com’s (re)development, I would stop and reward him with a rest when he blew out/sneezed. This is a sign of endorphin release and he would also naturally lower his head when it happened. Putting him on a repetitive pattern made it even more likely to occur. This became a huge step forward for the horse who used to carry a lot of tension and move in a short, choppy, high headed, inverted fashion. The more he discovered and was rewarded for a cool, calm state of mind and correct biomechanics, the more he seeked and craved it.

Mimicry – This is the “monkey see, monkey do” method! In other words, learning by watching someone else. Many animals learn from their parents, however there is a limit to how much this translates over between humans and animals because it can be difficult for them to relate our bodies to theirs. A type of mimicry however exists when we use what Dr. Zeligs calls momentum transfer. Meaning that we offer a fast command to achieve a fast behavior, and slow commands, for slow behavior. We can teach this by also using scan and capture and over time build our horse’s desire to connect with and focus on us, and do in their bodies as we do in ours by communicating also through touch and feel, as well as sight.

Negative Reinforcement – The term ‘negative reinforcement’ can make the hair on the back of any animal lover stand up, but it’s actually the most prominent technique used, especially for horses and livestock.

Negative reinforcement is also considered ‘avoidance learning’ because the animal learns to perform a behavior in order to prevent the onset of something they don’t like. In other words, there is an application of an aversive stimulus to cause a desirable behavior. An example would be a border collie herding sheep – the border collie puts pressure on the sheep to encourage them to move in a certain direction.

In every example where you see some kind of tool used to push an animal forward or backward, it’s a form of negative reinforcement. It’s commonly utilized because aversives tend to maintain their value more so than forms of positive reinforcement, due in large part to a prey animal’s survival instincts.

Negative reinforcement may or may not actually involve manipulation with physical contact. Think again about the border collie – he doesn’t bite the sheep to get them to move, but he will bite if they don’t move. There are gradually or sometimes rapidly increasing phases of pressure that come first, just as they should in our communication with horses. Again this technique is usually followed up with scan and capture, so it’s often paired with positive reinforcement.

Effectively using negative reinforcement requires impeccable timing from the trainer. It’s an easy technique to apply, but just as easy to mess up! Too much pressure can escalate to ‘escape learning’ – an easy mistake to make with barrel horses inadvertently taught to not only run away physically, but also mentally. Remember there’s more to developing true, two-way communication than effectively ordering body parts around!

Targeting – This involves using points the animal has learned to touch to define behavior. Targeting was first used with great success in the marine mammal industry – for example teaching a dolphin to jump up and touch their nose to a wand held by a trainer.

I’ve used what would be considered target training to build confidence in our horses by stepping on and touching objects with their feet. Because a horse’s main means for escape and survival is their feet, when they are confident about placing them and confident in us, we’ll be better able to precisely place them at top speed on the pattern.

Each barrel could be considered a sort of target where the object is for the horse to trot toward it and stop in a specific place along side the barrel for a little rest break for example. I’ve often used cones to movtivate a horse to learn to sidepass – something special registers in a horse’s mind when they understand they are to move toward an object – it’s an excellent means to focus their attention and can be combined with other techniques like mimicry and scan & capture.

Target training has been hugely valuable for causing Pistol to be an active and avid learner vs. just going through the motions without much mental connection. A horse that exercises his brain regularly will have a more healthy balance of energy and enthusiasm for their work which I described in Provide Motivation and Create Consistency in the Barrel Horse

Reinforcement – immediately follows a response and again can include the presentation of something positive (PR training) to increase the frequency of a behavior, or the removal of something negative. Keep in mind that negative reinforcement doesn’t have to be drastically unpleasant but includes any kind of pressure, even that which is very subtle or enough to motivate the animal to consider a specific behavior.

The use of positive reinforcement amongst horse trainers is gaining steam these days and for good reason. Keeping things positive helps with relationship building and I would personally rather have a horse motivated out of desire more so than avoidance.

The issue as I understand it with using PR training only is that for it to be effective, it must be broken down into very small steps. For example, take my gelding Pistol. He’s very confident and comfortable in his environment. He doesn’t naturally seek humans out for leadership or desperately look to please me – he’s fine on his own! He IS very food motivated, but to motivate him with positive reinforcement only would require breaking even simple tasks down into even smaller parts, otherwise the effort just isn’t worth the exertion.

In other words, he is easier to motivate by adding a little discomfort (negative reinforcement) vs. motivating only via PR. It’s not that it isn’t possible to use PR training exclusively with horses, or that it wouldn’t be a good thing, but in his case it would take longer than I (and most people) have time for, which is why I prefer using a combination of positive and negative reinforcement, which is what most trainers of prey animals and livestock rely on.

When someone says that PR training doesn’t work, or that negative reinforcement training doesn’t work, this just isn’t accurate scientifically. Both reward and aversive techniques can be used to shape behavior. The pros and cons go back to personal preference and their effectiveness ties into HOW it’s all applied.

As much as I’d like to go even deeper, there’s one more subject I wanted to cover in today’s article and it’s that of Desensitization. It’s a term that’s become almost a dirty word in some horse training circles. But it doesn’t mean that we completely take away the very instincts that horses are hardwired to have to survive (which IMO is nearly impossible), it just means we prepare them to be accepting of things they would otherwise not be.

For example, the more I play with guiding my horse’s feet with a rope, the less likely he’ll be to panic an injure himself if he were to get tangled in wire or hung up in a panel. It’s no guarantee however, and it’s not likely that we could ever desensitize a horse to the point that they not longer register real threats. Even the most bomb proof horse isn’t likely to allow a cougar to clabber their jugular.

Essentially, desensitization is a way of changing a horse’s perception of something from negative to neutral. Sensitizing and desensitizing is about helping our horse’s understand to ignore what we don’t want them to react to and respond to what we do want.

All in all, it’s very exciting to consider the power we have to change how our horse perceives something. Understanding and utilizing the techniques mentioned above means we can influence how our horse’s feel about us, and can teach them to enjoy barrel racing! What our horses are good at is decided in part by the athletic ability God gave them, but we certainly have the power to enhance their athleticism and choose what our horses like through excellent training.

To wrap up, I was moved to share a couple more powerful paragraphs from Dr. Zeligs book about understanding horses, humans and all animals, in hopes that you would appreciate and resonate with it as much as I do.

“Listening to the animal will tell you about their understanding as well as their motivation. Many human beings, having been dulled by their verbal abilities, often find it challenging to rely on non-verbal communication to understand what someone else is feeling. The ability to ‘listen’ to what the animal’s behavior indicates is called reading the animal. Needless to say, this ability is one of the attributes of the most talented and successful trainers. Unfortunately, this is something that does not translate well to text.

Largely this empathic nature stems from a constant awareness of the non-verbal information available from someone’s body language and responses. This awareness is moment to moment, non-verbal feedback. To ‘hear it’ requires a sensitivity to the thoughts and feelings of others, rather than merely a focus on one’s own objectives and desires. It can be taught, but for many people it is an inherent talent brought about from their upbringing or an element of their intrinsic personality.”

When what I’ve shared above becomes part of you, and you understand these basics like the back of your hand – you’ll have what you need to quickly and effectively modify and shape your barrel horse’s behavior for the better, on and off the pattern.

Believe me, I used to scratch my head a lot. There were ups and downs. Breakthroughs and confidence gained, then eventually lost again. Over and over. Just when I thought I had it all figured out, something else would fall apart.

The other night Craig admitted he’d been struggling with Dot Com on something, and he wasn’t sure how to correct it. So the problem continued for a while. It was easy to fix once I helped him pinpoint the steps to take, but in the process he’d lost a few days of progress.

When you know WHY your horse is doing something and exactly how to fix it, and when you can set your horses up for ultimate success by preventing them from going down the wrong road and learning undesirable behavior, you can be patient and trust the process because you know it works. Most of all, you’ll be better prepared to ENJOY the process – and especially enjoy the end results.

May today’s article help you do just that!

If you want to get technical and go further in-depth, check out Jennifer Zeligs book:
Animal Training 101 – The Complete and Practical Guide to Behavior Modification

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