Joining Up or Learned Response

Joining Up:

A young strapping cowboy comes walking into the barn.  Everyone.  I mean everyone stops to take notice.  Admittedly, it’s his handsome good looks but it’s also the intrigue.  He’s here to work with the rogue horse that just came off the trailer two weeks ago breathing fire and dumping everyone who was brave enough to saddle him up for a ride.  The horse is a beaut himself so everyone is hoping that something can be done to salvage him as a riding and performance horse.  

Meanwhile, the owner is no newbie but she’s never had a horse quite this difficult.  Never has she experienced a horse so determined to get rid of his rider.  It’s almost like he was taught to do that.  So much so, she looked deeply into his background.  On close examination, it wasn’t all that sketchy.  He had two owners, both decent riders.  The previous owner was too busy with her kids to spend the needed time with the horse, so he was sold.  Along came Jane and scooped him up.  Now, she was regretting it.  He had dumped her three times in two weeks and she was sore and scared.

Eagerly, the entire barn was secretly peaking glances out towards the arena to see how the cowboy was getting along.  “A horse whisperer” he was called which only added to the romanticized allure.  

At first, the horse was just worked in the round pen free with no saddle or bridle.  You could see the fire in the horses eyes… or was that fear or confusion?  The horse softens and starts coming to the cowboy when asked.  You can see his eye change.  You can see him bonding with the cowboy.  They call this joining up.

Then in subsequent days slowly the horse was restarted to tack.  As the days turned into weeks, the horse whisperer was able to get the horse calmly interacting with him, calmly being saddled and ridden in the ring and calmly riding out.  

It was a miracle the barn ladies thought!  Swooning over the tall cowboy.  He truly does whisper to horses.  


While the age of the “horse whisperer” has faded, the age of natural horsemanship has not.  People still look to those techniques to solve their horse problems and to learn how to train.  And rightfully so.  It works!  However, while the tall, dark, handsome cowboy with his quiet ways seems to be work magic and whisper to horses there is a more realistic explanation.  

Learned Response:

Everything the cowboy, the natural horseman or the lady taking the Parelli training does is just a systematic way of training learned responses.  Learned responses are contingencies.  If I do this then you do that.  Mostly this is taught with pressure and release (aka negative reinforcement).  Sometimes you will see some consequences (aka punishment) mixed in.  What you see lots of is very precise timing of aids and very clear communication to the horse.  This is where the whisper seems to happen. Once the horse figures the trainer out, the horse can predict what the trainer is going to do and the horse LOVES that.  It is very comforting to the horse.  If they do this, the trainer does that.  So while it may seem like magic, it’s really just good behavior modification.  

For those skeptics out there, if you have seen poor natural horsemanship and yes it does exist quite frequently, it is because someone has learned the method without learning the why.  Unfortunately, because of the mass production of the natural horsemanship techniques, some horse handlers never learn the reason why they do what they do and therefore they get it all wrong.  They never understand the underlying behavioral principles and never can think their way through a problem that doesn’t go like a textbook.  But I digress.

So how does this all work.  While dissecting each and every natural horsemanship technique would be too encompassing for this blog, let’s take one as an example… gaining control of the horses feet.  This is accomplished by teaching the horse to move off on cue and to stop on cue.  Then you can use this technique in various circumstances to control the horse no matter what.  They are spooking.  You go back to controlling their feet and viola they are concentrating on you, not the scary object.  They refuse to enter a trailer, you control their feet and viola they get on the trailer.  They don’t lunge, you control their feet and in no time you have horse that lunges instead of bolting and bucking off with the owner in tow.  

So how do they teach this?  Lets use just one example.  While there could be multiple ways this could go, for simplicity sake we will take the most direct route.  So, the trainer puts a natural horsemanship halter on the horse attached to a twelve foot lead and heads out to the round pen with a carrot stick in hand.  The trainer faces the horse’s left shoulder, put a little implied pressure on the horse by looking at the horse’s shoulder intently then stepping toward the horse’s shoulder then gently shaking the whip at the shoulder and as soon as the horse steps sideways he releases all pressure and lets the horse relax.  Soon the horse is moving his shoulders away as soon as the body language of the handler tells him to do so.  Four important things to keep in mind.  

  • The handler has a predetermined body language that he is going to use (nothing magical, it could be anything)
  • He uses the same body language each and every time (consistency)
  • He always starts softly and only increases pressure if he doesn’t get a response (the cue becomes the first movement of the handler makes, the soft one.  This is just learning theory at it’s best)
  • He instantly releases all pressure when the horse responds as the handler wants.

Now let’s talk about how he stops the feet.  Same setup but he uses a glance at the hindquarters, then a shake of the whip towards the hindquarters and the horse has to slow down and turn to look at the handler because his hindquarters were just driven away.  He stops.  The pressure releases.  With repetition the horse learns to stop and face the handler when the handler just looks at the horse’s butt.  Again seems like whispering magic but it is just a learned response.  Granted not all horses respond so easily.  The “magic”, if there is any, is in the handler’s ability to put the horse in a position where he will succeed and will have the opportunity to get the release of pressure.  It is then that the horse will learn the cue based on the scientific principles of learning theory and operant conditioning (negative reinforcement aka pressure and release).

See, horses love to avoid pressure.  They will try super hard to find the path of least resistance.  If they find that path doing something we want then we have a well trained horse.  If that path is something the handler doesn’t want then we have a rogue horse.  This is the #1 way that horses learn to be rearers, buckers, bolters, poor loaders, cross tie breakers, uncatchable and every other bad behavior.  They have had pressure released on them when they have done something bad.  Either intentionally or unintentionally.  This goes to the ole adage “whenever you are with a horse, you are training it”.

So it is this basic principle that can be applied to any behavior and can teach a horse anything physically possible.  While this is a really simplified example, it isn’t horse whispering.  It is just teaching a horse a learned response from a cue.

So while the outcome might look magical, if you understand how horses learn, you can understand why any training technique is working or not.

There is no magic.  Why some trainers seem to work magic is in their ability to set the horse up for success.  Because the faster the horse makes the correct response, the faster the trainer can release pressure and the faster the horse learns.

Now in reward based training we add another layer where a reward is offered for the correct behavior and speeds the learning process up even more all while building enthusiasm in the horse for trying and learning.  That’s when the magic really starts to happen.