Are we teaching habits or training our ponies?

I ask myself this question often. Especially since I read the book "The Power of Habit" by Charles Duhigg. It's my opinion that teaching/supporting habits is the same as training.


Every morning when I go out to feed the ponies they see me come out of the door. They wait a second, to be sure it's me they are seeing and not one of my boys (who would NOT be there to feed them) and then they nicker and start towards the gate to greet me and let me know exactly how hungry they are. I walk into the track and pick up the two hay nets and then take the nets into the hay shed to fill them.


This seems to be the trigger that tells Zorro he needs to go to wheel barrow and scratch his belly. Every. Single. Morning. He does this without fail.


He also knows to walk in front of me, once I come back into the track with the hay nets. He walks along in front of me, waits patiently while I tie the first net at the first feed station. Then I tell him to "walk on" and we go together to the second feed station where he again waits patiently for me to tie the hay net. Then I stand up and tell him Good Boy, give him a cookie and tell him he can now go eat at the net. Every. Single. Time. Morning and evening he does this at feed time.


This came about because he went through a phase where he was aggressive at feed time. He would pin his ears and try to push me around when I came in with the hay. For a very short time he thought it was a great idea to KICK at me when I was carrying hay nets. That behavior didn't last long at all. LOL.


So every time I fed I would tell him to get back. If he had to run away and stop and watch me that was fine at first. I just needed him away from me while I fed. Over time this became him just walking a short distance away to stand and watch me patiently. Then I started to work with him on ground driving, at liberty, and he learned that standing quietly while facing away from me earned a cookie when I told him to whoa. So he started to walk in front of me during feed time and then he would stand quietly facing away from me until I told him that was good! I felt that was a very good habit to get into as it would translate into driving and standing patiently in cart later. (And it DID!)


Let's think about different habits we may be encouraging in our ponies. When you remove the halter from your pony do they immediately turn and walk away? Do they spin and race away? Do they stand quietly and let you give them one more pet, while you thank them for the time with them? Do you walk away from your pony first or do they walk away from you first?


All these things are habits. It's a habit, and a BAD one, for your pony to spin and run from you as soon as you remove the halter. It's dangerous for a pony to do this. I know people that think it's pretty to watch their pony gallop away from them so they taught them to do this by removing the halter and then smacking them with it to encourage them to leave. I have NEVER understood this. To me it's a truly horrible way to end a session with your equine. However it is something that quickly becomes a habit. And this habit will translate into being hard to catch in no time.


Believe it or not, a pony that is easy to catch is just following a habit of coming up to you in the pasture because of a series of events you have done that show it just how nice it is to be caught by you! This can be because you give them a cookie, or because you spend a lot of time grooming and allowing them time to eat the grass that grows just out of reach outside the gate after you catch them. Or because your training time is so enjoyable that they can't wait to spend time with you so they will literally put their halter on themselves. Training? Sure! A habit you have instilled? YES!


So this leads me to...

what habits do you want to encourage in your pony today?

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© 2023 by The Essential Horse. Mindy Schroder.