Horses—Back-up from Behind

“Horses—Back-up from Behind” shows you the importance of clear and uniform signals and reinforcers and the use of auxiliary signals. The trainer, Tilde Detz-Jensen, a tutor at the institute, does not make one unnecessary sound or hand movement. The auxiliary signal, one we remove as soon as possible, is the Back-up signal consisting in pulling the rope ever so slightly. Technically, that is a positive inhibitor that, when removed, becomes a negative reinforcer. With repetitions, it becomes a signal (SD) for the horse, not an aversive any longer. We associate it with the signal Back-up employing sound and arm movements and remove it when it is no longer needed. Voilà, as simple as that!

The odd-looking annotations you see running in the subtitles is SMAF, a language to describe learning. You can learn more about that in our course Applied Animal Learning.

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"Horses—Back-up from Behind" Video Quiz

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Animal Training — I Didn’t Fail, Just Discovered 34 Ways That Don’t Work!


Success and failure are relative measures. Success tends to boost one’s self-confidence and improve subsequent performances; however, failure tends to toughen one up and increase persistence in the face of future missteps.

To go from one success story to the next feels good, but may give one a false sense of comfort. On the other side, moving from one failure to the next isn’t any good to one’s morale.

So what’s the best? I’m going to tell you a short story.

Once, when I was young and never said no to a new challenge, I accepted a job consisting of trailering a horse. Horse trailering was at one time the number one problem reported by horse owners, much like the home alone problem is for dog owners and inappropriate urination and defecation for cat owners.

Trailering a horse, or not being capable of doing so, can be a considerable problem. If it happens when you’re at home, it’s annoying not to be able to move the horse but that’s what it is. When you’re out with your horse, 300 miles away, and you can’t take your horse home, then, you got a real problem.

These horse owners had the horse 200 miles from home. They went out for some kind of equestrian event and when it was time to drive back home, the horse simply refused to get into the trailer. Try as they might, they couldn’t get the horse into the trailer. In the end, they gave up, left the horse in a stall, and drove home. That’s when I came in. They called me offering me all I wanted if I just could get their horse home. After hearing how many horsemen and how they had tried to solve the problem, I should have refused. As I said, I was young and thrived on challenges.

I drove up to the farm where the horse was. We let if free in a small arena, drove a trailer in, and I sat on the fence just watching the animal. It was a beautiful quarter horse mix, a mare, about 4 years old. The owner told me the story of the horse. Basically, no problems except trailering. Usually, they succeeded in one of maybe 20 tries, but only after much hassle, and it was getting worse.

I will spare you for all the different methods (if you can call them such) they have used while trying to solve the problem—a long list of force and abuse that have nothing to do with horse training, just reflecting human frustration and thoughtlessness. Don’t get me wrong: the owners were not bad people. On the contrary, they were nice, educated, well-mannered—they were just poorly advised, in my opinion.

Some dog people, these days, get their blood pressure up to dangerously high levels from barely hearing a faint whine from a dog, and they fight bitterly over which collars are right and which ones are so totally wrong. Well, you should visit the horse world from time to time, and I promise you that you’d begin focussing on what is important and would not even give minor offenses a thought. Except for a few (and marginalized) brave horseman and women attempting to show that there are other equally (or more) efficient ways to handle a horse than sheer force, I’m sorry to have to say it, but horse trainer is still a long narrative of abuse masked under the names of fancy techniques.

I stepped into the arena bare-handed, not even carrying the horseman’s tool number one, his rope. I liked the mare straight away. It’s with animals like with humans, some you have that feeling of liking instantly—and others, unfortunately not. I think she liked me too, if not right away, then maybe 10 minutes after we both just walked slowly around, each tending own business, pretending not to be bothered at all by the other. The owners left at some point having to run errands downtown, which I think suited us both (horse and me) perfectly well.

After a while, the horse came to me, and we stood for a moment just inhaling and exhaling deeply. This is a horse thing when they meet others. I do the same as the others when I’m in a foreign territory—when in Roman, be a Roman. So, when I’m with a horse, I become as horsey as I can. It may look silly for some, but it works for me.

We walked around in the quiet arena for about two hours. We had a great time. The owners came back and asked me if I had had the horse in the trailer.

“No,” I answered shortly.

“Oh, we’re so sorry you’ve failed and wasted your time,” they replied like offering their condolences.

“I didn’t waste my time, and I didn’t fail at all. I learned 34 different ways that don’t work to trailer the horse.” I replied.

A couple of hours later, both the horse and I were in the trailer eating carrots and happily inhaling/exhaling one another. Not at one time did I use a rope or the halter, not once did I touch the horse. The first time we had body contact was when we had been in the trailer for a while and had eaten 3-4 carrots.

That day, I learned how to trailer a horse, not because I succeeded after four hours, but because I had found 34 ways that didn’t work. I thought I knew it before, but I didn’t. I had just been lulled into a false sense of security by my early success.

Success and failure are in our minds. It’s all a question of criterion and attitude. The two GP camps I just held in the USA prove it beyond any reasonable doubt. They were among the most successful I ever held because of the attitude of (the vast majority) of the attendees. In Altadena with Ready Sit Go, we achieved the amazing feat of having all teams pass the double-blind test, and we learned about the all-important role of imprinting and socialization. In Battle Ground with The Wolf Park, we saw how great results we can obtain when we build a relationship of trust with the animal we train; and that patience and self-control are crucial factors.

Thank you all, my friends, for allowing me to have been your guide in this journey into understanding and harmony among all living, independently of species and race.

Featured image: Roger Abrantes working with horse—Body language and movements are very important when communicating with any animal. Horses are particularly sensitive to motion and stance (photo from the EI files).

Animal Training—When Doing Nothing is Doing Right


Years ago, my friends in the US asked me to go with them and see a horse they were considering buying for their daughter.

A couple of hours drive thru Illinois countryside, roads surrounded by never-ending cornfields, took us to a nice, clean and modern kind of an equestrian center where we found the horse and met the owner.

I liked the horse right away, a young, paint, quarter mare. The American quarter horse got its name from being particularly fast on distances up to a quarter mile. Paint horses are white with spots of black, brown or reddish. The American Paint is now a breed of its own. Most paints are levelheaded, versatile and friendly horses. This mare was no exception. She had the looks of being approachable and curious, eager to learn. I don’t remember exactly how old she was, but she couldn’t have been more than three years old. She looked young to me to carry a rider on her back, and I remember asking the owner if they had trained her to it.

“Oh, yes, she is broken to ride, all right,” she answered.

That was not what I asked, but I reckoned I couldn’t get a better answer. What I wanted to know was whether the horse had gone thru any particular groundwork to develop the right muscles and movements necessary to carry the extra weight of a rider. By the way, I don”t know about you, but I dislike immensely the term “horse breaking.” If you really break the horse, you shouldn’t even come close to a horse, and that’s my opinion. If you don’t, but instead train it stepwise, wisely and patiently, you should consider using another term all together—and that’s again my opinion about that.

The young mare was beautiful, but then again I might have been terribly biased, for my heart always beats a tad faster when I see a gentle, paint quarter (or a friendly English cocker spaniel). These are things of the heart that I can’t explain, and don’t feel I need to either.

The owner proceeded to give us a demonstration of the horse’s abilities under saddle. It was a sad showing. The mare trotted and cantered all right, and turned right and left, and stopped and continued, but she looked miserable.

After having finished, the owner invited my friends’ daughter to go for a ride, but she declined, showing the typical shyness of a teenager of her age.

“You go, Roger, take a ride and tell us what you think,” her mum said to me.

“Yes, uncle Roger, please do it,” my niece begged me with that “horsey” expression only teenagers who have been long around horses can give you. I couldn’t refuse her.

And so, I went for a ride, even though, in my opinion, she was a bit too young and untrained. We trotted and cantered right away and, then, we did figure eights and turns. The young mare was entirely different from earlier. She had regained her spirit, and if not completely, then closer to the spirit of her ancestors, the proud horses roaming the plains of the new world.

“Wow,” my friends said almost in a choir, “that was impressing.”

“What did you do?” they asked me, “She behaved totally different with you! It was like a different horse altogether.” The owner pretended not to hear that.

“I did nothing,” I answered, and I was entirely honest. After mounting, I started by having a long talk with the horse, a silent one, that is, for horses don’t understand English and what I had to say was as much to her, the mare, as to myself.

“Ok, horsey, here we are the two of us. I’m sorry, we haven’t even been introduced properly,” I said, “Just do what you feel like doing. I’ll try to be as imperceptible as I possibly can.” And she ran, she trotted and cantered, and I did nothing besides trying not to be a burden, just syncing my movements with hers.

“Go for it, honey,” I thought, “run as much as you fancy, turn whenever you like. You lead, I’ll follow.” And she ran and turned, ears forward one moment, back the next, her mane flying in the wind. “Go, baby, go,” I thought, and she went faster and freer.

After a while, I began “leading the dance,” never used the reins, only changed, slightly, my position on the saddle. I looked left, and she turned left, I looked right, and she turned right, her ears for a moment turning back to me like asking, “Am I doing well?”

Sometimes, doing more does less, doing less does more, and doing nothing does right—and I suspect this is true more often than we reckon.

Featured image: To earn the trust of a horse is the first step toward a good relationship. It takes time to earn it and only one moment to lose it.