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The Theory of Training


Getting a hawk used to scary things, like the dogs it will be worked with, is not much different to desensitising a horse to what it might normally fear.

Here I am with a young goshawk I bred myself being introduced to my working English pointers.









Evolution, Training, and Bumble Bees

Someone reading this web page has queried how anyone would go about training a bumblebee? And what has that to do with training horses anyway? In fact, what has training any species, other than horses, to do with training horses?

My reply to that is to ask the questioner if they accept the theory of evolution? If they do, then I assume they accept that living creatures have become modified over time so that they can exploit a particular ecological niche. In that way, they gain an edge on other species because if it is the successful, it will survive to breed.

Nature is frugal and does not demand change where none is necessary. The lobster, for example, has remained unchanged for hundreds of thousands of years because it is perfectly adapted for the lifestyle is has. The horse, on the other hand, has evolved from a small creature about the size of a rabbit to what it is today. I think most reasonably intelligent people accept the theory of evolution.

But what about the mental behaviour of animals? Has that remained unchanged? Of course not. Bearing in mind that Nature does not change things unless it is necessary, behavioural processes have also evolved. Some by a lot and some by very little.

What is behaviour? Roughly, that can be defined as the action initiated by some stimulus or trigger. An animal is hungry, so it seeks food. Simple! The behaviour (or psychology) of many animals is similar to other species, but sometimes they are different. Again, that is surely simple. The differences have evolved because of some of the pressures applied by the environment. Those living things that did not change died out and became extinct. The specialists, who have become modified to exploit a loop hole in their environment (think the giraffe's long neck!) survive and go on to breedthe next generation. Has Man's intelligent evolved from the Neandetals? Maybe best not to answer that one!!!

Training Bumble bees!

I do not claim to have initiated this research. I read about it in a scientific journal and, as I was teaching biology at the time I, thought, "That sounds fun. I'll try it and if it works, I'll show it to the kids!"   Actually, it is very simple demonstration of a conditioned response and it did work. Catch a bumblebee. Keep it in a small dark box for a few hours. Let it out in a closed room. Ten to one, it will make for the window (attracted by the light).

With a careful bit of manipulation and using a pipette, direct it's proboscis into some sugar solution.  Prompted by hunger, the bee will drink. Repeat this every couple of hours. After a while, the insect will become used to drinking from the pipette. Now make a small hole in a piece of cardboard and poke the tip of the pipette through the hole. Draw a target, a simple flower, what ever you like, on the front of the card with a few bright colours and position the tip of the pipette in the centre of your target. Again, train the bee to drink from the pipette. Very soon, by gradually increasing the distance, the bee will learn to fly across the room to the target to get its meal!

Exactly the same process happens when a pony learns to feed from a bucket. In a short while it will come running when it  hears the rattle of the bucket and sees its owner coming to feed it. Pavlov, the Russian behaviourist performed similar experiments with dogs. Basically, a lot of training involves a similar process. How long does it take a Highland pony to learn that an open gate can lead to fresh grass?  Of course, there are other factors involved and hopefully I have wetted your curiosity to use Google to find out more.  Of course, the luddites of the horse training world (there are always some!) will be along in a moment to tell you that it is all nonsense and won't work. But once you understand the principles behind the training process you will begin to understand why the old methods work on some species, but not all. If you want to become an intelligent trainer, you will analyse each problem and work out what is making the animal behave as it does and how that behaviour can be modified and it can be trained to do what you want.

Comparative psychology: What has training dogs, hawks, and bumble bees to do with training ponies? Well, quite a lot actually! At vet college, we learnt about all the other species, especially about evolution and how animals evolved from primitive creatures with a single chambered heart (e.g. earth worms) , then with two chambers (fish), then a three chambers heart (birds and amphibeans), and finally to mammals with a four chambered heart.

Of course, there are differences. Give a human morphine and he goes to sleep. Give morphione to a cat or a horse and they go hyper! But suggesting that there is nothing to learn from the psychology of other species is just plain silly. Try Googling "comparative psychology" and you wil come up with lots of interesting stuff.

Since writing the above, I got a book by Monty Roberts out of the libary. In that he discusses his thoughts that children should be taught like horses and vice versa! "Actions bring consequences". Enough said!


A client was worried that her new pony might be upset by shooting parties. But horses in cowboy films don't seem to be bothered unduly by shots. If a horse can be trained to come to the rattle of a bucket, it can be trained to come to the sound of a shot. So that's what I taught the pony. Simple.



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