When is it appropriate to block our horse from wandering down the wrong neuropathways?
I like the word ‘block,’ instead of ‘correct.’
Language matters, because it shapes our intention, and our intention shapes our interactions.
I’ve learned that there are some situations where letting the horse’s mind and feet wander is not ethical, because sometimes they can’t explore new neuropathways of self-regulation and relaxation until we put up a road block to those old pathways of tension.
Old pathways can be highly self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing, sometimes even more so than new positive patterns and reinforcers, so interruption is key.
I’ll note that not all old tension pathways are fear-based, but over-arousal of the nervous system in general, including over-arousal with social engagement, and even over-arousal with SEEKING.
I have some ideas about how interruption works with Dorsal Vagal braking to allow the self-regulation ‘orienting system’ to engage, but that’s another post for another time.
There is also a lot to be discussed as far as building NEW pathways, with operant counterconditioning/cat-h, positive reinforcement, and other relaxation techniques including tapping, and how that works with social engagement Ventral Vagal braking to allow co-regulation, but that’s a novel…
It’s also become obvious to me that being able to have a discussion about interrupting behavior means there’s a need to eventually have an honest discussion about the scientific definition of any stimulus that stops behavior: Positive Punishment, and that, in order to best serve the horse, we should neither apply it like nor confuse it with our cultural definition of ‘punishment.’
Using the two definitions interchangeably is still done by even well-respected behaviorists and science-based trainers, and the resulting stigma and lack of discussion and education is neither scientific, nor in the horse’s best interest.
But again, that is another post for another time.
On to interrupting…
DO LESS SOONER INSTEAD OF MORE LATER:
The mind wanders down the old pathways before the feet do, so if we can interrupt that, bring the horse’s mind back to us and back to themselves- the ear, the eye, the nose if needed, we can often prevent the feet from following the mind in the first place, being proactive instead of reactive.
DO LESS SOONER INSTEAD OF MORE LATER:
Simply interrupting the very FIRST step will often stop the snowballing forward drift. If we need to, we can ask that single foot to step back to where it was.
On the ground, this first step is generally into us, so we can often simply re-establish distance.
ESTABLISH DISTANCE AND INTERRUPT FLIGHT
For anxious horses, I believe that proximity and milling around a handler mimics the crowding instinct we see in a herd FLIGHT response, so establishing distance and interrupting the flight response seems to help horses ‘get back to grazing,’ where a herd spreads back out, and slows down, and everyone relaxes back into the grazing stance.
This is another reason to explore relaxation techniques.
Proximity and crowding and hypervigilance seem to go hand-in-hand, and sometimes, when a horse is really distracted, it’s like they forget someone is even on the other end of the lead rope, which can be a safety issue.
I used to use a lot of escalating pressure to establish distance and interrupt wandering and flight, but nowadays, I generally like to use a shaking flag to create a visual interruption and a visual ‘barrier,’ instead, and it can often serve as a form of ‘protected contact.’
If the horse’s feet are moving around us instead of into us, we can ask them to switch directions to interrupt them as well, until the pause between directions becomes a stop.
Many horses only need a few adjustments to build new pathways, but for some, building positive behavior and positive associations and avoiding trigger stacking and trying to tactfully navigate thresholds isn’t enough, and it comes down to us to decide the horse has had enough, enough is enough.