When Tim and I first met little Senor we knew we had our work cut out for us. His owner Elaine took Senor and several other horses out of a pretty grim situation. Tim and I had been looking for a project horse to train using a Heart Rate monitor to guide our training protocol. We wanted to test our hypotheses that by reducing stress or emotionality as reflected through heart rate and using positive reinforcement behaviors could be successfully reshaped. Our supposition was that by using positive reinforcement we could help a horse figure out what is being asked of him by shifting his emotional or stressed state to a cognitive state where learning could occur.
Senor turned out to be quite a character when we got to know him. He was imported from Peru and was a stallion. He had magnificent gaits and flashy brio that was coveted. Sadly his life took a turn for the worse when he was sold several times and he became more difficult. He was ridden and trained harshly and he began to exhibit severe signs of stress that were deemed by the macho crowd as something to be conquered. Many different people tried to ride and show him but he would bolt and became unmanageable. Senor decided he wasn’t playing the game anymore. He was sold again to a woman who lost interest and had the bad boy gelded at age 9. He was kept in a pen for several years with marginal care and was in rough shape when Elaine bought him. You can watch Elaine's testimonial video about Senor under our videos or go to https://vimeo.com/138980347. He was thin, his hooves were a mess and his skin had been eaten alive by flies. The muscles were atrophied and the skin on his chest hung in giant wrinkles. He was shut down and the light was out of his eyes.
The winds of fate didn’t blow in Senor’s favor until he won the lottery with his new owner Elaine. She was new to horses and sought out help and boy did she get it from all sides. A new trainer soon was in place but it was the same old macho nonsense. Senor was well cared for and loved but his training was harsh and produced the same results. When we met Senor his mouth was in bad shape from severe bits and rough hands used to hold him when he would bolt. Elaine was at her wits end with what to do with Senor. When we meet Elaine and Senor we pitched our idea do something entirely different with Senor. We’d use a Heart Rate monitor and use positive reinforcement. I think Elaine had her doubts but gave us the green light to go ahead as she was getting desperate.
Senor had grown to love and trust Elaine and followed her around like a puppy dog on the ground but he would get fearful when anyone tried to ride him and when a new human showed up he got scared. Senor was very suspicious. His anticipation of what was to come led him to the fight or flight response as reflected in his heart rate. He would turn his butt in the stall and whip through gates. It was no surprise that his HR went through the roof. When Tim first caught him and lead him to a stall Senor held his breath in anticipation of the worst. He showed signs of flight with a tightly clamped tail, wide eyed, hollow back, quick steps and boy was he fast in telling us to back off.
Tim taught him a marker signal using a click at first which meant a reward was coming and then the rules of food behavior. Tim taught him to target anything and everything! It turns out Senor was the equine Einstein. He caught on quickly. We used the Heart Rate monitor to show us the way one step at a time. Soon, we had two very eager students on our hands, Senor and Elaine. Senor began to trust Tim and they had a great “bromance” going on! Senor had Tim in his sights and for the first time in his life Senor truly relaxed with a human. When Senor would see Tim’s truck or Tim he would get very bright eyed and appeared to enjoy their time together. Tim started riding Senor using positive reinforcement and before too long Tim taught him how to kick the ball and chase it. Senor loved to play ball. For Senor the ball was a function of reward but there were many steps before "ball" became his favorite thing to target.
An interesting thing about Senor is he is bombproof to the environment. He loves tractors, trucks and is fearless in that respect. It was people that he didn’t trust at all and with good reason. Tim’s a gifted horseman and he was the perfect trainer for Senor and their journey to a place of trust was a beautiful thing to see. The last day Tim rode Senor before heading north for the winter was else something to see.
Senor was calm and engaged with Tim in a dance of two partners. Tim rode Senor on a soft floating rein and Senor showed us his stuff with remarkable gaits and action. I have to admit I had a tear in my eye to see that heartfelt ride that last day.