Intelligent Disobedience, The Disobedience You WANT...

Intelligent Disobedience is a phenomenon wherein an animal makes a choice to act directly against the instructions from the handler/owner/trainer/rider in order to make a decision that is ultimately better. Intelligent Disobedience has most often been associated with guide animals who make decisions to keep their handlers safe. Such as when a guide dog for the vision impaired ignores a cue to cross the street during a time in which a car is coming. However, this phenomenon is not only present in the horse world, it can help to increase safety in a perilous sport. During a recent lesson, all was going well until one moment the horse stopped in her tracks. We politely cue'd her to continue along and she let out a frustrated snort, and turned her head opposite me. This was odd for her as she usually looked directly into me to signal a need for a break, and never with a snort. Something wasn't right, and she was not one to refuse cues. This mare has a number of ways in which she communicates rider errors, and stopping in her tracks was usually a signal that the rider had come off balance. This was one of the desired results of training the "Default Halt" behavior, in which she became conditioned to expect reinforcement when the rider fell off balance. The problem was that the rider appeared balanced as far as I could see. I walked around to get a better look, only to find that the stirrup leather on the side opposite me had come undone, and was slowly lengthening about ready to unravel completely!  In this case the rider was off balance, but ever so slightly that I could not see it,  just a few steps away from disaster. Once the stirrup was securely back in place she was given a small piece of apple for accurately identifying a problem and both horse and rider went on their merry way. 

Horses are intelligent creatures who can make decisions, and gather information. This mare had been trained using exclusively force-free methods based in positive reinforcement since 2014. One of the most important aspects to the process of cultivating intelligent disobedience is allowing an animal to have freedom of choice. For traditional riders this can be an incredibly tough pill to swallow, I would know as I used to be one. Giving the horse a choice means giving up punishment and force completely in an effort to provide the horse with a voice that they are never afraid to use. Cultivating a confident cooperative horse capable of independent thinking and problem solving can help prevent loss of control, because now the burden of control is not the sole responsibility of the rider.

Empowerment Can Overcome Resistance.

The key is to motivate and to engage the horse in a way that makes training and working the horse's favorite activity. Motivation comes from the internal drive to participate, while empowerment is established through an effective line of communication. She spoke and we listened.  Of course superstitious behaviors can arise, and it is easy to reinforce inappropriate behaviors. To be clear the instructions here are not to reward  a horse for behaviors that you do not want to repeat, but rather to drop the idea of punishment from your repertoire.  If  this horse had been punished simply because I could not see what was wrong, the rider would have likely fallen off. Instead focus on rewarding the horse for making independent decisions, and don't fail to recognize that the decision to cooperate is a rewardable one! Say the horse halted and after examining the situation no problem became apparent, withhold reward and cue something you would like instead. If the horse chooses to perform, reward that decision! This is where a clicker can help to mark the moments that you like and make training and problem solving easier for you and your horse through clear two-way communication. 

From reading this post, you may be thinking that I am encouraging blatant disobedience, and I can tell you from experience that couldn't be farther from the truth. Rather than punishing what you don't like, don't reward it, and teach your horse what you would like them to do instead. This mare loves to work. She is never forced to work, and yet she gives 110% effort every time we give her the opportunity to work with a cue. To her it is a game, she behaves in a certain way and earns treats, access to her favorite activities like jumping poles, and attention. For her to refuse to perform a cue is a highly rare occurrence because it is so pleasurable for her. This is due to the reinforcement history for desired behaviors over undesired behaviors. Matching Law states that the probability of an animal performing a certain behavior is directly proportionate to the behavior's relative history of reinforcement, in other words how often that behavior has been rewarded. Adding behaviors that we like and prefer gives the horse more appropriate options to choose from, with a higher probability that he/she will choose these behaviors over undesirable behaviors in the future. 

For example: 

A horse has a habit of halting to receive food (B1). The horse is taught to walk forward with impulsion on cue. (B2). 

(B1) is reinforced only when the halt is cue'd or has valid reason for being performed (B2) is reinforced with treats and intentional praise 10x more often than (B1).

Because (B2) has a reinforcement history that is 10x that of (B1),  (B2) is 10x more likely to be performed over (B1). 


All in all the mare is more likely to perform desired behaviors because those most often lead to reinforcement. She does not necessarily want to stop for the sake of stopping, instead the reward comes only when she accurately identifies that something is out of place, unsafe, or otherwise doesn't fit into the circumstances in which the behavior is usually performed. Punishment in this situation wouldn't have fixed the stirrup leather, it would only have made the horse afraid to speak up. I have seen many instances in which a horse makes an intelligent decision not to perform, such as when jumping a fence because both and rider are not ready at the same time. These choices can either be built up or torn down depending on the behavior of the handlers. Punishment can lead to Learned Helplessness* (Ramirez, 1999), and therefore an increased risk of accidents as the horse no longer tries to speak up. As an instructor, I have not had a single student fall off of a horse in the last 3 years, and I credit that wholly to working cooperatively with the horse, rather than dominating the conversation with my own thoughts and opinions. With freedom of choice the horse becomes the teacher, and has another method of clearly communicating when the rider, equipment, or environment may be inhibiting the performance in some way. Rather than continuing on a plateau, we can use this information to further refine our performance. After all humans aren't perfect. It's time to let our horse's own a larger piece of the partnership to take riding to the next level, by learning to utilize the information the horses can provide, and cultivate horses that are both intelligent, and confident enough to speak up!


*Learned Helplessness is defined as, "The state of considering oneself helpless because of the failure of attempts to control a situation. Some animals will eventually quit trying. This is why it is important for a trainer to set the animal up to be successful - so that it will gain confidence and believe, through generalization, that since s/he could solve any situation presented to date, s/he could solve any situation that could ever be presented. Thus s/he will work hard to meet challenges rather than give up and passively accept consequences." (Ramirez, 1999)

Works Cited:

Ramirez, K. (1999). Animal training: Successful animal management through positive reinforcement. Chicago, IL: Shedd Aquarium.


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