I am a firm believer in allowing my horses to have a choice in what we are doing, anything I work with actually, children, cattle, our dog, anything. When allowed the option to say no we feel more in control of our lives and generally happier to say yes. Being able to say no makes us much more likely to willingly say yes.
As with all things there are conditions and the answers must be considered carefully according to the individual situation.
Right now the horses are all being worked in halters. They have the option of saying no, the goal is to never actually pull on the leadrope. All options are not available to them though.
There is free choice and there is true choice.
We all have the option of staying in bed all day, deciding not to go to work. There are consequences though. When making choices we are always aware of what each choice means.
Few horses would choose to turn down the first hints of spring grass. How can any treat begin to compare with that? Going out to graze freely whenever they want isn’t a true choice though, any more than staying home and giving up work is for us. No matter how fun that would be.
By putting on a halter I am taking away that option that is not truly a choice. If they weren’t working with me they wouldn’t be out grazing in the yard, they would be in their pen hanging out with friends and eating free choice hay. That is their other option. They are fat little ponies, all of a breed prone to founder. The grass is young and tender, grazing now isn’t good for it either. Working with me or going out and causing damage to them and the future grazing is not true choice. That is not the other option.
Choice is very important but that doesn’t necessarily mean a choice between working or anything else in the world. We can offer actual, practical, choices. A choice between doing two different behaviors, a choice between different treat, the option of not wanting to work just now. The other options should be good ones. A choice between doing what you want them to or doing something they don’t like is no real choice.
We need to find that sweet spot in the middle. True choice.
That doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy any of that yummy green grass. What better way to end a session than by rewarding with some hand grazing!