Spirit has clearly got a huge fear of humans, and I have definitely gained her trust in a big way, but I began positive reinforcement techniques with her with food fairly early on, because she developed awful conjunctivitis which needed treatment, and she has very overgrown hooves that really need trimming, so i'm slowly working with her and she's gaining confidence all the time...
However, I have been ever so slightly uneasy about starting this food reward training so soon with her, and my concerns were put into words really well in Ben Hart's book, "Clicker Training for Horses". I'm going to quote a section of it, from a chapter where he describes various equine characters that he believes should be approached with extra care and discretion when beginning clicker training. (Just so you know, I haven't actually started using a clicker yet, but my method is very similar, just not as accurate as with that nice clear sound of a clicker.)
"The horse, donkey or mule that is extremely nervous of humans may not initially be the most suitable candidate for clicker training. While clicker training using food can help to create a positive association of the human to food, it is not always the ideal way to build a trusting relationship. A nervous animal that is fearful of humans will want to run away from perceived danger. If the animal is also motivated by food a conflict can arise, pitting the fear of humans against the desire for food. Equines in general are not good at dealing with decisions created between to equal, conflicting choices.
I have found the horse that is truly convinced of the untrustworthy nature of humans, through past experiences will not even want to overcome this fear for any type of reward. An extremely nervous equine may even panic at the sound of the click and have to get used to the noise before the can progress. The nervous animal may not want to take food from the trainer's hand, which futher complicates the training.
If the animal's motivation for food proves greater than the fear of the human, they will learn to approach the food source. However, the animal's approach can mask the animal's underlying fear and if their approach is mistaken for a lack of fear the animal can be put in a situation where they are overexposed to a fearful stimulus and their flight mechanism is engaged and, this can lead to injury to animal or human.
When working with nervious animal I believe training is about developing trust and learning about each other in order to understand what the animal requires and what their true nature may be. Perhaps it would be best to consider this situation in human terms. If we were shy and nervous, perhaps we even had a bad experience previously with people and then a stranger turns up and starts to give us £1 coins just for being near them, how would our relationship look? The stranger does not say much but continues to give us £1 coins as long as we are near them. We want the money but what are we learning about the stranger? We are getting richer, but are we really getting to know and trust this person? If their behaviour changes and they start to invade our personal space, at what point is their behaviour no longer worth accepting the £1? I believe equines need to learn to trust humans and that the best relationships are the ones started on solid foundations of acceptance and knowledge usually achieved through the use of body language.
Trainers tend to use clicker training with nervous animals as a way of counter conditioning, which means pairing something good like food with something the animal perceives as nagative, in this case the human, so the negative will take on a positive association. Training a nervous animal is not just about being patient or nice to the animal through the use of positive reinforcement. Successful training requires the animal to expand their comfort zones to humans and being handled. The horse, donkey or mule needs to be gently stretched mentally and physically in order to reach their potential. If the animal receives food for just being near the human the animal's comfort zones are kept limited. Once the trainer wants more commitment from the animal, or for them to accept being handled, the animal's comfort zones can be massively over reached and problems occur.
With nervous horses I like to get to know them a little first, be around them, build trust so that, even without rewards, I let them know I am not going to cause them pain, or make sudden movements to trap them. In some situations a good trainer could use clicker training to get a nervous horse to come up and accept being touched but there is then a doubt in the trainer's mind. Does this horse want to be touched or does it just want carrots? As long as we recognise this possible conflict, we can use clicker training.
Wherever possible I like to work on building a relationship first with as few pieces of equipment as possible and then to introduce clicker training after gaining the animal's trust and learning about the animal's character without the distractions of food."
I hope I haven't breached some sort of copyright copying that little section up here
and I hope Ben Hart doesn't mind.So that is where i'm at with Spirit really. I know that she has far from dealt with her human phobia completely, but I can put ointment in her eyes using food rewards, put on a fly mask with food rewards, and run my hands down all four legs and she will now pick up her front feet - with food rewards. I do however, spend a lot of time 'just being' with her, and she now likes her neck and fact being stroked, but is afraid of scratches (apart from on her itchy ears!). If i'm very polite I can stroke her all over her body very gently now, without any kind of reward involved, and she does actively seek me out to hang out with now too. She'll also let me spray her all over with fly spray and touch her all over with a wet sponge...
But I am concerned about whether the food rewards did come in too soon. Of course, it would create further conflict still if I took them away altogether... I think i'm doing the right thing in just moving the goal-post slightly all the time and slowly expanding the comfort zones, sometimes with food rewards and sometimes without, depending on the situation.
I have also noticed that she goes back to square one with other people. She will only let Bill touch her on the nose, and yesterday as she was in a wonderfully wild mood, she wouldn't let Bill anywhere near her.
I know it's a very slow process, and I think i'm on the right path with this wonderful girl. I can see that she wants to trust me, but memories of past experiences are clearly quite strong. So i'm guessing I just need to gently introduce other people (carefully chosen characters at first I think..), and perhaps start at the beginning, with each person only touching her with a feather duster and slowly a sensitively coming in closer if Spirit gives permission.
What are other peoples' thoughts on this? I just feel it's an interesting one as it is so easy to begin using positive reinforcement very soon, but could those internal conflicts be rather damaging, causing the animal to be forced to make great leaps too soon?