Below I have included a link to a fascinating article. I think what struck me most was the benefits of FREE play. While we humans can become a bit too goal-driven, we know that utilizing positive reinforcement (R+) training with lots of freedom to choose is way more mentally productive, especially in the long run. As much as we try to set them up to make correct choices, the process may be a bit meandering in the beginning, yet this helps them to become better and more efficient problem solvers. The R+ keeps them thinking that this is great fun. As many of you have heard me say over and over ”slow down you’ll go faster” but it is so true! Frankly, I consider free choice an essential element of any thorough R+ training program. But even this may be too structured to meet the criteria that they discuss in this article. This free choice in training is way more freedom than most horses are afforded and it is clear that they truly enjoy it when it is done well. However, free choice in training is not the same as free play!
So how do we get our horses to free play? The challenge is that many horses don’t have very much psychological stimulation in their day to day world. Also, some horses have shut down a bit and don’t play very much even with novel objects or experiences. Horses living in a field with other horses can also become inured to their environment. There is though a great solution, which is, environmental enrichment! This doesn’t just mean “toys” just left in their environment. Horses easily become inured to these too! It means thoughtful devices to be randomly placed in their living or turn out areas. These things should stimulate their different senses. Think about what might engage their sight, smell, taste, auditory and tactile. Finding effective environmental enrichment takes some thought, as well as some effort and observation. There is SO much you can do to encourage their exploration and curiosity. Objects that involve food-seeking step up the motivation and are typically excellent for developing problem-solving skills. They have to become creative. Many horses have been told what to do and when to do it for most of their lives. This means that many horses have not really learned how to be free thinkers and engage in this way. So start simple with a lot of easy success, in other words, a high rate of reinforcement. As they get quicker and more efficient, it is good to raise the criteria and make it a little bit more challenging…just like good R+ training protocol! If it stays too easy and predictable, it can easily become less engaging. Then it becomes all about the food, and they no longer are playing the stimulating game. The game is super important and when done well, is super reinforcing.
Another thing I have noticed over and over again when horses begin a R+ training program is an increase in their curiosity. This is not a conditioned response, it is typically something I observe them doing in their free time. This tells me something about their overall emotional well being. When horses who begin a R+ training program that involves lots of freedom to make choices without any ramifications, they begin to embrace their curiosity. That becomes another reason to give them loads of choice and some training without a lot of structure.
This article also reminds me of under saddle work with our horses. We can easily perceive it as all fun and choice but that is not truly the case. As mentioned in the article, a physical education class does not constitute free play since it is too structured. I have found that developing your horse into an emotionally happy and well-balanced horse is all about creating balance in their lives. I strive to create a lot of diversity, including opportunities for free play and engagement with their environments. Opportunities for training that involve free choice and them creating the behavior, sometimes quiet times with relaxed behavior and other times it involves exciting and expressive behaviors. Then I have found the times of more structured learning(i.e, under saddle) are far more productive and welcomed. Furthermore, being cognizant of shorter sessions with physical and mental breaks is also important to maximize our horse’s well being in addition to their capacity for learning. My horse Murray really focuses and settles during his ridden work…well, usually! It is clear he enjoys it and happily engages during these sessions. The times he is more challenging typically coincide with some part of his world being a bit out of balance.
Well, this article got me thinking and I thought I’d share my thoughts and observations. Thank you, Carol Robertson, for sharing this article on my FB page. 😊
Enjoy getting your horse On Target!