Single or Multiple Causes of Problems?

Today’s topic is a tricky one to talk about for me. It’s not easy to explain in a clear way. It’s not a black and white concept and it doesn’t take too much mental strain to find contradictions or examples where the principle falls apart. Nevertheless, it’s worth talking about and considering because I have yet to find a single person espouse this idea. And even difficult ideas can be worth talking about.


I was prompted to write about this concept by a question at a clinic. A rider was trying to help her horse understand how to follow the inside rein and yield the hindquarters to disengagement. The horse was very distracted because his companion was screaming and running the fence line a hundred or so metres away. The attempt at a hindquarter yield was dismal because the horse was mentally tuned out and singly focused on the antics of his friend.


When asked to disengage its hindquarters the horse leaned on the rein, twisted his neck, spun his front feet as much as his hind feet, and struggled to think in the direction of the inside rein. After a few attempts, the owners stopped. I knew she was trying to formulate a question.


“What am I suppose to reward for? When he throws all these things at me, do I release the rein when he steps his hind feet across or when there is a moment when his neck is bent but not twisted or when he looks to the inside or when his feet slow down? Which one of those tells me he is trying and I should reward for that try?”


It was an excellent question, but I think my response surprised and confused her.


“None of them,” was my answer. “Don’t release for any one of those things to change, but for all of them to be a bit better.”


The previous day I coached on the owner to help her horse improve being lunged on a circle. I emphasized that she should concern herself more with getting a better forward response and be less worried by the horse’s lack of straightness. I told her that as the horse became more consistent in his forward we could then spend some energy worrying about straightness. But if we tried to get him straighter now, we would likely make getting a better forward from him even harder.


So yesterday I told her we would focus on fixing each problem one at a time, yet today I told her we want everything to be better at once. We were not going to break it down into individual problems that needed to be addressed one at a time. No wonder she felt confused.


This is how I explained it to her.


The reason the horse was twisting his neck, leaning on the reins, not bending and not yielding his hindquarters was because his mind was fixated on the other horse that was screaming up and down the fence line. There were multiple behaviours, but there was one root cause. If the origin of the behaviour was being addressed (the lack of focus) then you’d expect all the symptoms to show improvement simultaneously. If only one or two of the symptoms exhibit positive changes then either it’s a trick, and the changes are superficial rather than addressing the source of the problem.


If you think of training as working to reshape the thoughts and emotions that get in the way of a horse getting along with us, then it is clear that the only good training is the training that changes the mental and emotional root cause of behaviours. To change unwanted behaviours to wanted ones requires discovering the cause that triggered the unwanted responses and replacing them with incentives for wanted responses. It is a natural extension of this idea that when we alter the source of an unwanted response that we automatically alter all the behaviours created by that root cause.


So when the owner asked me if she should reward for any improvement in just one or two of the responses, my answer was “no” because she would not be then addressing the root cause, only a symptom or two.


The exception to this principle is when a horse is does not understand what is being asked. When the root cause of multiple unwanted behaviours is confusion, then it is appropriate to break down the training into simple, single steps rather than giant leaps. For example, if a horse does not know how to halt softly and correctly, then it is the right thing to do to break down the training and reward for changes in each individual component of the halt. In this case the problem is a single root cause for the poor quality of the halt (a lack of understanding), yet I am recommending a rider reward for improvement in each individual step. That’s the exception to the earlier principle.


But if a horse has learned to halt correctly, but doesn’t because it is distracted and not listening then rewarding for a change in individual components of the halt will not lead to an overall change. A rider should address and fix the problem of the horse’s distraction and everything about the halt will improve simultaneously.


The general principle that I making is that in all cases we should ensure we are addressing the true origin of unwanted responses. Sometimes multiple triggers cause these responses and in this case, we break down the training into small increments to address each cause. On other occasions, several behaviours stem from one single cause, in which case we need to see improvements in all the responses simultaneously if we are to be confident of getting to the true source of the problem.


Photo: This horse exhibited several unwanted responses to being asked to lead correctly, but were they the result of a single issue or several root causes? That’s a question we should ask ourselves when working with unwanted behaviours.

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