Now that you know why we should teach our horses to be curious, we can get into the real nitty-gritty of HOW to teach them curiosity. (Read about why here if you haven’t already).
There are a few prerequisite skills to teaching your horse to be curious
1. Understanding pressure release
2. Some relationship skills developed (trust and respect)
3. Breathing through their emotions
The level of trust and respect established in combination with the horses’ ability to process its emotions will directly dictate the level of stimulus it is able to cope with. Also a factor that plays a role is your horses inherent instincts to tend towards run away or be curious. The horses that are more of a bully are more self assured and confident and tend towards being curious over running away. Whereas the softer more sensitive souls, the ones that feel more vulnerable and insecure need the most guidance on this.
We also see this variance across the breeds with the more hot blood, fast thinkers being more reactive and the cold blooded, stockier horses being less spooky. Their life experience before you got them plays a role. Whether they have had a good working relationship with their people and paddock mates and known stability and safety will result in a horse that is more confident and self assured. Whereas the horses that were weaned young, known a lot of horses and people to come and go, not able to form stable relationships and moved around a lot will be more insecure and co-dependant and reactive. Having a little herd at home so they are not alone can also help, keeping in mind though if you just have 2 horses they can become very co dependent and not cope without the other.
Horses investigate things by touching them with their nose and their whiskers and smelling them. So we can teach them to be curious by teaching them to investigate things they don’t know rather than run away from them. We show them to approach it and touch it with their nose and sniff it. Once the realise its not a threat and not going to eat them they should be ok. Remember that horses have binocular and monocular vision so the same thing looks different coming at it from different angles and directions so you might need to show them the same thing a couple of times before they are ok with it. Also expect them to startle if it moves suddenly or makes a noise.
Teaching them curiosity is actually an excellent relationship building skill once you have basic discipline skills under your belt, as long as you don’t overwhelm them with the stimuli. It’s a great time to reiterate basic discipline, you’re spending time with them not in the saddle and you’re helping them overcome fear and feel more safe.
Teach them how to touch with their nose.
Teach them to touch things with their nose is easily done with pressure/release. Lets start with a fist bump.
1. On the ground the halter pressure is the pressure, touching your fist with their nose is the object and releasing the pressure of the halter is the release of pressure
2. Hold your fist out in front of them
3. Gently increase the pressure on the halter until they bring their nose to your fist.
4. Release the pressure of the halter and give lots of positive reinforcement or a treat if that suits your purpose. Ideally I like to do most of our cue training without treats, that comes after the training session but it is a stronger motivator than pats.
5. Repeat 2 more times to reinforce the pattern.
6. Change the exercise and come back to it or turn out the horse and practise another day
Once they know the fist bump you can change the object to a cone.
1. On the ground the halter is the pressure, touching the cone is the object and releasing the pressure of the halter is the release of pressure.
2. Hold the cone up to them
3. Gently increase the pressure on the halter until they bring their nose to the cone.
4. Release the pressure of the halter and give lots of praise and positive reinforcement.
5. Put the cone on the ground
6. Practicing your discipline skills on the ground (walk when I walk, stop when I stop, go back when I go back) approach the cone and ask them to touch the cone with their nose. You can pick the cone up to them and help them if you like. This is also where that extra treat incentive might come in handy.
7. Praise them for touching the cone with their nose.
8. Walk away and continue with your lead discipline exercises.
9. Approach the cone to touch it 2 more times. Giving them whatever additional support they need for a win. Set them up to succeed.
10. Turn them out and practice again within the next couple of days.
Time for an adventure!!!
Once you have this well and truly dialled in take them out exploring. The further away from their comfort zone they get the more flighty and erratic their behaviour will be initially. Don’t go too far in the first outing and don’t put them in a dangerous situation like a busy road. Use your good judgement on this.
1. As you are leading them notice their body language. If they have their head lower than yours and lower than their whither with their ears relaxed they feel safe.
2. As the get more nervous their walk will become more stiff and stilted, their head will come higher, their ears will turn to things that they think might be a possible threat. This is your cue to take them over to what their have their ears pinned on to investigate.
3. Talk to them soothingly this could be the first time they have approached something there are scared of. They may spin to run at any second and you have to show up as their leader and say its ok come on lets go and investigate it. This is also where the breathing exercises play a part.
4. Ask them to touch what they are scared of with their nose (make sure it actually is something they shouldn’t be scared of before you ask that of them) and ensure their environment is safe when you do this. Ie no trucks roaring past, ideally a boundary perimeter would be ideal if they did manage to pull away from you.
5. Once they’ve stood calmly and touched it with their nose walk them home again.
6. This is your objective until they are 100% confident with this object you can now take them further.
If you don’t have an area to access for an adventure you can change the cone for different more interesting objects and scatter them around your paddock or training area.