Relationship based training works to encourage communication between ourselves and someone or something else. Conceptually in order to communicate with other animals we use pressure of some sort. With horses and dogs we often use halters, lead lines, harnesses, or food reward in order to achieve our end goal of having the animal do what we want. If on the other hand we use relationship based communication, what we achieve is a partnership with our animal based not on pressure to keep them with us but a desire to be with us because we have a relationship. Cats are masters of this type of communication. In trying to understand how we communicate with cats we can begin to see how this type of connection works.
Lando and I have worked out a method to indicate when he would like to be on my shoulders. This began with me picking him up and boosting him to my shoulders when he sat and looked at me with large soft eyes. Initially I would boost him up and he would immediately jump down and I put no restrictions on that. He was in full control of how long he stayed on my shoulders. As he discovered that he was in control of that time frame he stayed longer and longer and will now walk with me through the barns and occasionally help bring in horses, or teach lessons while sitting on my shoulders. The most important piece I have found in this relationship is to never insist he come up onto my shoulders and not insist that he stay.
A small observation I made today about this relationship work with horses was demonstrated in a lesson I was teaching. The horse had been performing beautifully and responding to the rider appropriately in all their requests. Towards the end of the lesson the rider asked the horse to trot as she had multiple times through the lesson and the horse didn’t trot. She shook her head mildly and stiffened in response to the request to trot. As the rider removed the trot request and simply asked the horse to walk forward the horse responded politely and softly. There was a clear shift in the softness of the horse’s body and eye as the rider heard the horse’s offer to walk rather than trot more. This horse is working through a soreness issue in their hind quarter and lumbar region that slow regular work is assisting with, but it is important to not ask more than the horse can do within their comfort zone. The politeness with which the horse offered to walk instead of trot more was indicative of her demonstrating her physical limit today.
Being attentive to your animals requests for communication and understanding encourages stronger bonds and efforts at higher performance. This does not mean that bridles, halters, ropes etc. are bad, merely that while we use them we should be careful to not miss our animals efforts at communications with us.
Enjoy building your relationships.