I was probably ten years old the first time I saw counter conditioning. My friend had a young, black and white paint colt who was very skittish and head shy. She sat on the fence with a bucket of grain and let the horse eat out of the bucket while she petted his neck and slowly worked up to touching his poll, jaw, and face. Every evening she would sit on the fence with her bucket and touch him all over while he ate. I don’t think either one of us exactly understood the science behind why what she was doing worked, all we knew is that it did.
Flash forward eight years later and a young, skittish, black and white paint colt came into MY life. Gabriel was a yearling when he came to the farm. He didn’t have any handling and to make matters worse, he was born with bilateral cataracts, so his vision wasn’t the best.
I tried to stay away because I already had two other horses and I didn’t need to get involved and attached to a third. But, after he stood at the back of the pasture without moving for almost three days after being chased off by the other horses, a fellow boarder convinced me I had to do something.
I coaxed them in from the field with a bucket of feed. When I got them up into the paddock by the barn, someone suggested I use her horse to lead them into the barn. It worked. From there, I stalled my horse beside the black and white paint colt. And after they had some time to get to know each other over the stall, I led my horse with the baby following to a smaller field where they could be by themselves.
I couldn’t touch the colt. He wouldn’t let me pet him or halter him. So, I did what my friend had done with her colt all those years ago. I sat on top of my feed bin and held a bucket of feed. He started coming up to eat out of the bucket and when he was used to being close to me, I started petting his neck, and up towards his poll, and eventually his jaw and face. I did this everyday until he was no longer afraid of me.
It wasn’t long after I got the colt gentled down enough to catch and halter that I got into Natural Horsemanship. I attributed much of my success with this horse to the program I followed, but I wonder, would I have ever been able to touch the little guy if it weren’t for counter conditioning?
Counter conditioning is pairing something the horse doesn’t like with something he really loves to change their association from a negative one to a positive one. In this case, touch was what the horse did not like. He was afraid. Touch=fear By me holding the bucket for him to eat while I petted him, he learned that touch=food. This is counter conditioning. It is a great way to change bad associations with objects, experiences, places, behaviors, people, etc. to good ones!
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Chrissy Johnson shares her personal experiences and lessons learned training horses with reward based methods.