You Can't "Untrain" a Horse
Updated: Feb 16, 2020
I often hear the phrase, “You’re either training your horse or untraining them.” I understand and appreciate the meaning, but the reality is, you’re either training desired behaviors or you’re training undesired behaviors. Maybe I’m arguing semantics, but I think the distinction is worth noting. I’ve met many people who are afraid of untraining what has been trained in their horse, so they often approach their interactions lacking the confidence necessary to help them succeed.
Horses have excellent memories—they will not forget what they’ve been trained to do. Think of training like a painting. Each layer that is painted remains regardless of subsequent layers painted over it. Painting over one layer doesn’t unpaint anything, it simply covers it. The behaviors your horse displays are behaviors that have been reinforced—even when we don’t realize it. If your horse won’t display what has been previously trained, it’s because an alternate behavior has been reinforced. That alternate behavior might even be unresponsiveness.
Whatever it is, the horse has not forgotten and the desired trained behavior can be revealed by learning how to reinforce the right thing and not the wrong thing. Therefore, it is essential to learn the mechanisms of how behaviors are reinforced.
Don’t let the idea of untraining a behavior stand in the way of practicing and experimenting with your training techniques. Be critical in a good way so that you learn to discern why something does or doesn’t work.
Be safe, and remember—It’s horsemanship, not forcemanship.