Optimal Balance: A Human-Horse Enrichment Program


“Settled bodies invite other bodies to settle”
– Resmaa Menakem

A Horse-Human Enrichment Program

Training for Optimal Balance is the general name for everything I teach under one umbrella. It is a program of sorts if you want to start at point A and work methodically to point Z, but that is not required, nor is it even recommended. It is still pretty common for horses to be perceived as vehicles for our enjoyment that must be trained into compliance more than as companions that deserve a mutually beneficial relationship with us. Changing these paradigms about horses and horse training has been part of my personal mission.

Balance is something we discover ourselves and help guide our horse into discovering in any situation, during any task, every single session, every day we see our horse and in a million gazillion different ways. Learning to work conceptually and dynamically with our horses is exactly what I share through Training for Optimal Balance, in order to empower both person and horse. But the word training, and especially horse training, always conjures up images of tasks, with established steps, that individual people and horses either pass or fail. The underlying message is that the individual has to fit into a set program and any failures are the fault of the individual, not the program itself. So maybe we need a better word, like enrichment instead of just training.

I think the strong associations with the word training is why the more modern concept of enrichment took hold. The term enrichment program is a way to express that our work with all animals, which may involve some training, is intended to enrich the lives of the animals we love and take care of in domestic environments. My first encounter with the term, “enrichment program” was an extensive tour at the Pittsburg, PA zoo that kept a smile on my face all day long! 

Zoos across America have made a huge change from the old days. Many zoos are transforming from animal confinement and display into sanctuaries for all kinds of animals, especially those that are heading towards extinction. There are better environments, simulating as closely as possible each animal’s natural environment. There are more mixing of species, like in nature, but with added safety precautions. The overall mission of zoos has been changing in order to enrich the lives of all the animals in captivity instead of diminishing it. Isn’t that a great way to think about the lives of all our domesticated animals too? 

Operant Conditioning training is used at zoos as a way to avoid stress and increase safety during routine health care. Operant Conditioning as a training strategy involves only positive reinforcement, and so it is utilized during every feeding. By asking different animals to respond to hand signals as a way to get fed multiple times a day, the OC training provides mental stimulation and serves practical needs. For example, the big cats learn to come to the safety divider and follow a hand signal to open their mouths for a dental check, or lean their necks against the barrier for blood draws or IV injections, or present paws to check for or treat injuries. The same was true with the polar bears, rhinos and elephants. If any animal began showing signs of stress, then a handler would spend time with that animal waiting for any signs of releasing the stress and finding contentment. As soon as the animal’s energy began to calm down, a yummy treat was instantly offered. As humans, we often forget that we are a part of nature. These zoo handlers really demonstrated how we, as humans, can have a positive impact on any animal’s life when having to live in our domestic environment for any reason.  

Positive reinforcement, which is the basis of Operant Conditioning, is one type of training method. This method involves saying “yes” by offering a reward, usually food, when some kind of behavior or emotional state is spontaneously volunteered by the animal. Negative reinforcement, which is what the word training can bring to mind, is another type of training method. This method involves saying “no” by offering resistance of some type, usually leveraged pressure, when some kind of unwanted behavior or emotional state is spontaneously volunteered by the animal. When we pull on a lead rope or while we ride, our aids are a type of negative reinforcement. Punishment is an extreme example of negative reinforcement. 

With the zoo animals, especially the large predators and marine mammals, it makes a lot of sense to use only positive reinforcement. We would have to wait a really long time for our horse to choose to stand in the wash rack and wait quietly while being tacked up without first being haltered, led to the wash rack and tied, all of which involve negative reinforcement. With our horses we use both positive and negative reinforcement methods all the time. But no matter what methods we employ, it is our intentions that really make the difference between working on an “enrichment program” with our horse or just the usual “training program” we all consider traditional horse training.  

As I played with the idea of calling what I do a human-horse enrichment program, I remembered my experience at the Pittsburg zoo. I suddenly realized that the words we use matter. I have struggled to get across that finding balance with our horse is much more than what we think of as horse training. And yet, it is still training for both people and horses, that also uses both positive and negative reinforcement methods. Using this more modern term, enrichment, is now becoming a frequent part of my vocabulary because I think that word makes us consider our intentions with our horses. 

When our primary intention of training is enrichment rather than obedience, everything changes. Instead of slogging through problems in order to reach a goal, we start to relish the process. Moving towards our goals feels more fascinating and a lot less frustrating. Finding joy in simple, daily interactions with our horse becomes an objective of the work instead of lost because of work. Even the meaning of “work” transforms from drudgery into fun! 

Finding joy with our horse again, feeling interested, excited about simple, small changes and turning work into enjoyment, knowing we are helping our horse, is what I try to share in Training for Optimal Balance. When we think of time with our horse as a horse-human enrichment program, we begin to navigate our way into a mutually beneficial relationship with our horse that feels so much better than the “inside leg to outside rein” or “heels down” kind of training . 

The entire process of training can be an enriching experience for us and for our horse that begins with a very simple intention on our part. I encourage you to check out this website if you want to know more about enrichment programs and what that term means in more detail. You can explore more about enrichment programs for all animals and what our modern zoos are doing at the Smithsonian Institute’s website  https://nationalzoo.si.edu/animals/animal-enrichment

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