Modelling Positive Behaviour for Youth with Horses


Spending time with horses in an training environment sets up powerful metaphorical teaching for youth about behaviour and learning. The following generalizations offer science based practices that support learning through positive reinforcement.

1.What’s my horse thinking? We can never really know what our horse is thinking, this is considered a covert behaviour, i.e. the private experience of the thinker. We can observe closely the subtle changes in their behaviour by watching their body language and be aware of how the environment and the horse handler reinforces the behaviour. Does my horse try to avoid a situation because the consequences will be negative and punishing or does my horse give me her best try because I’ve positively reinforced her small attempts to get the correct answer?

2. Give your horse a sense of Autonomy. In order to shape a desired behaviour we must give our horses choices and allow them to express their opinions. This is the difference between creating trusting partnerships and the mistrust of dominance and control, that result in a construct known as Learned Helplessness. The horse becomes fearfully obedient because of the unknown negative consequences.

3. Set them up to succeed. Working with horses heightens sensitivity to self, other and the immediate environment. What distractions could prevent my horse from successfully learning? What is my horse capable of doing and how can I support her confidence to continue her learning? By asking my horse to perform a behaviour she is confident with and positively reinforcing her, I am setting her up to try a slightly more difficult behaviour through small incremental steps and plenty of rewards.

4. Repetition Builds Confidence. The power of observant repetitions and allowing the horse to make decisions is the key to building confidence. Am I mindful of when my horse is no longer focused and engaging in play? Do I allow her to leave the arena at her own will? When our horse becomes emotional, she in no longer in the frame of mind for learning. Considering these scientifically validated principles of learning and behaviour allows for an environment that is grounded in creativity, imagination and inspiration, that is applicable to both horses and people.
Michelle Atterby facilitates experiential learning and horsemanship programs for youth and adults


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