What happens when you make too many withdrawals from your horse’s good will?
Many years ago, in one of my psychology classes, we listened to a guest speaker who worked with autistic children and adults. This speaker discussed how she is always aware of her balance sheet with her autistic son. When she can provide him some fun, some joy, some relief, she is depositing into the bank account of goodwill and positive feelings towards her. When she has to ask him to do something uncomfortable or stressful, or just plain annoying, she is making a withdrawal against the balance in the account. Not only did this require attention on her part to know how her son felt about regular and irregular occurrences, but it also required that she could determine the potential value of each event.
I recently read a quote on social media from the venerable and jaunty Dom Schramm discussing your withdrawals against an account with your horse when you put them to a fence poorly, or give them a difficult spot. This isn’t the only time we make withdrawals against the good feelings our horse has towards us; this balance sheet is impacted by all of the things you do with your horse.
Sometimes we are adding to the good feelings and other times we are withdrawing against those good feelings. Often we are completely unaware that these transactions are taking place, because they are so routinized within our relationship with our horses. We mostly notice them when a serious shift happens in our horse’s behavior as a result of a slow leak or major withdrawal.
Each horse places different value on different events so we must know our own horses and what they are programmed to find pleasurable or fun, and what they are likely to find abhorrent or torturous. Most of the horses I work with place a LOT of positive value on eating — especially on the delivery of food and on the experience of grazing, either in hand or in a herd. Some of them love to be groomed, often in specific ways or places, and some dislike it. Some love to go for trail rides, some don’t understand why you would want them to go on a long hike full of potential death monsters. Some of them get an adrenaline kick while doing a big course, or practicing their tempi changes and like a sky-diver learn to crave that rush, while others just want to avoid big feelings or drama and just hang out.
It is important that you know when you are drawing against the goodwill account, so that you can keep the balance positive. When you find them sour, avoiding you in the field, trying to kill you, etc. it is a good assumption that you have overdrawn the goodwill account and need to do some hard work to reestablish your credit.
Here is a short list of things that might add to your positive feelings account balance (note: this is a generic list, certainly not all horses will feel positive about these things.)
- Eating: feeding time, treats, food dispensing toys, grazing
- Grooming: scratching itches, helping shed out hair, reaching places they can’t
- Hanging out with the herd: just being around, not demanding or asking anything. (Bring a book and a camp chair and just be around while everyone grazes and naps)
- Being the bringer of fun: taking your horse out to his friends, bringing your horse in for feeding time, bringing your horse’s friends to her. Anticipating and satisfaction are both highly rewarding
- Combating scary things on their behalf: removing flapping bags, balloons, tarps, barking dogs, etc. — even if imaginary
- Presenting opportunities for self-worth: giving your jumper a great ride to big fences, setting your horse up for the perfect trot departure, asking for and receiving the perfect half pass, generally making your horse feel like a rock star
- Playing games: some horses love a game of soccer, others are hay net bocci ball players, some like tag, or fetch, or chase the dog. If you can be a part of anything that makes them loose and joyful, even from the safety of the other side of the fence, you get points for that!
Some things that horses might consider withdrawals:
- Leaving friends: almost any time, there is at least a small withdrawal
- Removing things they love: taking away the hay, feed, friend, pasture, etc. or removing access to those valuable things, such as putting on the dreaded “Denier of Founder” (aka the grazing muzzle)
- Seeing the dreaded __________ : insert annoying drudgery here, such as farrier, vet, masseuse, braider, saddle fitter, rider, etc.
- Doing some uncomfortable: Schramm is right in tht a bad spot, a poor position, anything that hurts, sucks, or is generally un-rockstar-like will withdraw a bit of goodwill
- Doing scary things: walking past the flapping tarp, riding near the weed-eater, loading into the dark and dangerous trailer-beast
- Asking too much: if you are a perpetual needy owner who demands “do this, now do that, me me me, my my my, because because because” you are for sure annoying your horse and will need to do lots of credit-building activities to stay alive
Our horses, both domesticated and wild, are extremely adaptable. They can learn to handle just about anything we ask them to handle. That isn’t to say it is ethical to do so, but they try so hard to do what we ask, and we ask a lot of them on a daily basis. It is possible to make your horse happy about every single daily interaction, every single monthly interaction, even every single unpredictable interaction like a vet visit. But it all begins with knowing the balance on your horse’s good will account so that you don’t get hit with overdrafts.
Lauren Bond is a Certified Equine Behavior Counselor who has loved horses since she was 5 years old. Lauren has worked as a groom, lesson barn manager, riding instructor and behaviorist. Lauren loves science and has been using it to train animals since 1998. Clicker training inspired her degree in animal behavior. Lauren works with a wide variety of client horses, including rescue horses, lesson horses, and competition horses all the way up to International Grand Prix. Lauren offers online consults, phone consults, in-person sessions and clinics. If you have a behavior question or if you would like to discuss a behavior issue, please email [email protected]. Read more about Lauren by going to www.equinesmartmd.com.