In August of 2021, Cami Hustead arrived at Via Nova Training to begin her journey as a Student Trainer of Via Nova’s Priority to Positive® Program. She has been studying in and out of the classroom while simultaneously training and riding many of the Via Nova horses. The time invested with one of these horses, Nico, has opened the door to positive and personal growth. In this post, she describes her discoveries.

Nico’s Anxiety and Overzealous Behavior
I have seen the most growth in my personal trainer journey through one of the Via Nova horses that I’ve been working with since December, Nico. He’s an aged Oldenburg gelding who is a sensitive type. Nico wasn’t new to positive reinforcement (R+); before I started to work at Via Nova he had been trained as a demo horse for R+ clinics. As I got to know him, I noticed that he had developed some over-enthusiasm issues and would constantly be looking for a behavior to offer. The hardest behavior for him was to stand and remain calm and relaxed when he was around food. I’ve learned that this is not an unusual reaction for a horse when they start training with positive reinforcement. So I knew this would be a good challenge for me to address.

Since food is such a high motivator for horses, they can easily get anxious around it. Nico loved playing games and anticipated the reward to the point that he would try whatever behavior he thought would get him the food the fastest. This led to an overzealous horse that was not paying attention to his manners or how he composed himself around humans. In turn, this behavior created fear that could easily manifest from horse to human and back to horse. Not the positive plan we have in mind!

Cami and her valentine, Nico

The Positive Shaping Plan
So that’s where I came in, to help him work on being calmer and more relaxed. But how? First, I created a step-by-step shaping plan for success. It began with multiple short, easy, repetitive sessions of the Calm Default Position, which is when the horse stands next to the trainer with their head straight forward, not mugging or tense. I did this over a number of days before slowly adding in some petting and scratching all over his body while he stayed relaxed.

We also decided to teach him a brand new game, so that he would associate games with this new relaxed state versus becoming over-aroused as he had in the past. Teaching him how to fetch would bring in some movement, and it wasn’t a behavior he could offer on his own.

Cami and Nico working on Calm Default Position

Cami plays fetch with Nico, using the “T” sound as a marker

My Own Anxiety
I soon realized that Nico wasn’t the only one in training. Soon after starting my work with him, I noticed that I was going into the positive reinforcement sessions with a bit of fear in my chest. Looking back, I realize that this anxiety was caused by the transition from everything I knew as a horseman to everything I had just learned about positive reinforcement. I felt like my horsemanship, in general, had taken a hit as I was transferring my practical approach to this new method.

Since positive reinforcement brings a new approach to training, I questioned my skills in reading the horse and being able to understand how they would react to my cues, and that shook my confidence. After consciously realizing that I would never get the horses to fully open up if I had any fear or anxiety, I addressed the emotion for what it was and tried my best to put it away. I reminded myself that I was taking all the safety precautions possible, and even though I was working from a new approach, I still had years of experience with these animals.

Setting Yourself Up for Success
As soon as I set that intention to myself, I could see improvements in Nico. He opened up to me and was giving a noticeably conscious effort in our sessions. My own Calm Default Position led to more trust. He started seeing me as “his person.”

This work showed me how much emotions play a part in positive reinforcement. Not only do you need to check in to see how the horse is feeling, but you also need to be in check with your own emotions. The horse can sense your fear, however it is manifested, and that definitely makes a difference! Facing those emotions and letting go of fear allows the positive work to flourish and your relationship to evolve.