Sunday 15 December 2013

Scary solutions to fear issues...

I’m repeating myself now, have said this before in many different ways, but worth another shot!

Let’s say your 5 year old daughter is scared of the dark. After a few unsuccessful home bred solutions, you decide to get her some help, and go to see a therapist who specialises in overcoming fear issues.

She says she can deal with this, no problem. How? ‘Oh, send your daughter in here, I’ll take her by surprise, we won’t tell her what is happening, I’ll just restrain her and leave her in the dark until she stops struggling. That works most of the time. She might hurt herself or get a lot more upset before she is fixed, but being scared of the dark is silly anyway she has to learn’

Hopefully, you wouldn’t be too impressed with this solution, and would seek advice elsewhere!

So why do we still do this kind of thing to animals all the time? Your horse is scared of plastic bags, a schooling whip, the saddle, getting her legs hosed – we’ll just give her no option but to face her fears, and call it a good job when she gives up struggling.

There are much more humane and effective alternatives – so please don’t  let a ‘trainer’ restrain your horse (or dog) while they ‘get used to’ something they are genuinely scared of.  

Monday 4 November 2013

99.99% of Terminal Cancer Patients have 10 toes

How did you react to the title?

‘Poor Felicity, she’s finally lost it’?

Or just ‘that’s weird’.

Whatever your reaction, it probably wasn't fearful, and you’re probably not at this moment contemplating chopping off one of your toes to avoid the risk of dying of cancer!

We know the two things (having 10 toes and having cancer) occur together most of the time, but we also know they are not related - having 10 toes does not cause cancer. 

However, a similar title might get a very different reaction:

97% of Terminal Cancer Patients Previously Had This Dental Procedure…

It’s a clever title – it makes you want to click and read, to find out if you’ve had the ‘killer’ treatment (its root canal treatment).

I spotted this title on a facebook link the other day, and, even with my sceptical outlook on things, my immediate reaction to this was unease – not far off ‘I’ve had root canal treatment, therefore I'm much more at risk of terminal cancer’.

Most of us reading this will initially assume that there is a link between the dental treatment and the cancer. 

But, we’re not told (maybe no-one knows) what percentage of the population have had root canal treatment. In the US, apparently 25 million root canal procedures are done per year, so over 15 years that’s 375 million, an average of more than one root canal treatment per person!

So, maybe 97% of the population have had root canal treatment, and therefore this scary statistic is exactly what you would expect, and no more meaningful than having 10 toes…

‘Lies, damn lies, and statistics’ – great phrase. I’m susceptible (momentarily) to this kind of headline, most of us are. And occasionally these scare tactics are used by well meaning people who genuinely want to get a message across. But more commonly, they are after something, often your money, so don’t let them scare you :-)

Not directly relevant to a blog on equine behaviour, but horsey people are targeted for this stuff as much as any other group 
'your horse will get mud fever (and then probably die horribly...) if you don't use this lotion'
'your horse will misbehave and hurt you if you don't buy this head collar' 
and so on...

Friday 25 October 2013

‘If you love somebody, set them free’

A sentimental title, but I’m feeling sentimental.

On Wednesday I was teaching at Horse Haven Riding School for the first time since I became ill in July. I’ve been very touched by their care in returning me to work gradually - first day back was one gentle 1/2 hour lesson, perfect.

Even more touched by the care shown to their horses and ponies. 

One of their little ponies, Peaches, who had been with them for many years, had taken ill. The love and attention she was shown could not have been better if she was somebody’s beloved only horse.  
The decision to have her put to sleep, although emotional, was taken unselfishly, rationally and with full focus on what was best for Peaches. 

Letting your horse go can be one of the hardest decisions to make, and although this was a sad occasion, it felt like the right thing was done at the best time, and you couldn’t ask for more.

With love to all who loved Peaches.  

Sunday 20 October 2013

A little bit about a big word - Anthropomorphism

Firstly, what is it? The Oxford English Dictionary defines anthropomorphism as

‘the attribution of human characteristics or behaviour to a god, animal, or object.

There is a prevalent view that we shouldn't anthropomorphise about horses. From behavioural scientists to natural horsemanship gurus, all sorts of people will emphasise the dangers of attributing human desires, emotions and characteristics to horses, as doing this can lead us to dangerously inaccurate explanations of our horse's behaviour and to managing and training them in ways that are ineffective, dangerous and bad for their welfare.

I am 100% behind the idea of avoiding anthropomorphism. Like most of you, I've noticed that horses are a bit different from people, and we shouldn't make assumptions about their motivations, needs, or feelings based on our own. Indeed, we know that their needs are often significantly different from ours.

To keep it simple, I’ll just deal with emotions here, and start with a real example.

I'm chatting to a client, and she says she feels her horse was grieving when her field-mate died. Then she apologises and says that another trainer has already corrected her for saying this, telling her that she shouldn't attribute human emotions to horses.

This isn't an isolated example – I hear this quite a lot – people are defensive, apologetic or a bit embarrassed to say they think their horses feel love, grief, happiness – a whole range of emotions.

So, this other trainer was quite right, in my view, in saying that we shouldn't attribute human emotions to horses. BUT who said that grief is an emotion that belongs to humans? Well, humans said that of course, and we've got an impressive track record for claiming ownership of things that should not be exclusively ours J

How humans claimed ownership of emotions is beyond the scope of this article – and, to be honest, beyond the scope of my knowledge! Philosophy, science, politics and religion have all influenced our reasoning over many centuries. In the 17th century, Rene Descartes argued that animals are automata that might act as if they are conscious, but really are not so – all their behaviour can be explained in purely mechanistic terms, and to this day academics are still putting forward arguments that animals do not necessarily even experience pain!

Maybe we can’t ‘prove’ what emotions our horses feel, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. We don’t even know much about the emotions other people feel – how do we know that two people who say they feel upset are feeling the same thing? But we listen, we observe, we draw on our own experiences and we (hopefully) do our best to understand what other people are feeling.

So fine, don’t attribute human emotions to horses. But be very sure that the emotion you are talking about is definitely exclusive to human-kind before you decide your horse couldn't be feeling it! 

And don’t let people make you feel airy-fairy or sentimental for considering that your horse may have a more complex emotional life than we generally give them credit for.

Thursday 17 October 2013

Who knows what makes a horse happy?

On the way up to where my horses live, there are two ponies in a small paddock. They have been there for the 9 years that I've been there, and I know they don't go out. I've always felt a bit sorry for them, imagining they have a rather dull life. But actually, although I could not say for sure that they are 'happy', they certainly show no signs of discontent, and are progressing into a healthy old age.

So, I was thinking about them the other day when I was talking to someone who was feeling guilty about not getting her horse out much, as she had read that feral horses can cover large areas every day, while her pony was stuck in a comparatively small paddock. Her pony has company, ad lib hay and grazing, and 24/7 turnout.

It seems to me that we often confuse two things - giving our horses a natural life, and giving them an 'enjoyable' life. There is a big overlap between the two but they are not the same thing.

For example, if we observe a population of feral horses, and all of them travel at least 8 miles a day, it doesn't actually tell us anything about whether they enjoy doing this! If someone had observed me 2 winters ago, they would have seen me walking to visit my horses, about 1 mile through deep snow, every day - if they then concluded that I enjoyed this and arranged life for me so that I could do it every day, I'd be distinctly unimpressed - I did it because I had to :-)

Likewise, horses may travel to find water, good grazing, protection from the weather or from flies. They may also do this because they enjoy it, but we shouldn't assume so. We can think about what is physically or mentally good for them, what is natural, and what is enjoyable - all different things and some fairly impossible to measure! I'm pretty certain that many horses do enjoy wandering far and wide, but I also think that some would be perfectly content to do the equine equivalent of staying home and watching TV.

Yet again, it is down to assessing the individual, and trying not to make assumptions, whether they are based on traditional horse management methods, natural behaviour, or human preferences. There is a baseline from which, I feel, you should always start - that horses need adequate turnout, equine company, and lots of forage, but beyond that the ways in which we can enrich our horse's lives are many and varied, and very individual.

So, who knows what makes a horse happy? Your horse knows, and if you listen to him you may find out too :-)

(with no apology for using the apparently anthropomorphic term 'happy' - more on that later...)

Thursday 29 August 2013

Are you too heavy for your horse?

I just read a piece in a horse magazine about the maximum weight of rider that a horse should carry. This is a topic that has cropped up in the equine press quite a bit recently, and it would be easy to get confused. The British Equestrian Veterinary Association (BEVA) say that riders should weigh no more than 15% of their horse's weight. A recent study in Japan might lead you to believe that this figure is actually 29%!

To take a practical example, say your horse is 15.2hh and weights 500KG. BEVA would say the rider should weigh no more than 75KG (11 stone 11), the Japanese study would say the maximum weight was 145KG (22 stone 11)! A huge difference, and not very helpful.

The Japanese study looked at one breed of horse only, in walk and trot, and so it would be dangerous to generalize from this. But can we find some general ‘rule’ to work out how much weight a given horse can carry?

The short answer is no - every horse is an individual, and there are so many factors that determine how much weight an individual can carry that it is, in my opinion, impossible to generalise. 

Considering a practical example of the weight carrying abilities of humans may help to clarify my point of view. 

Two brothers, Jack and Jim, used to deliver hay to me. They were both in their 80’s, probably about 5ft 8 ish, medium build. They would merrily unload 100+ small bales of hay and stack them in the shed, at an impressive speed. So they were able to carry much more weight than you would expect, and for much longer. Why?

Mainly, I guess, because they had been doing it all their lives. Their weight carrying technique was clearly good, they had the right muscles for the job and so on.

I’ve seen bigger, younger, fitter people who definitely couldn't do this without risking an injury.

The same applies to horses, I think. You can’t just look at their weight (or height/breed/build) and say how much weight they could carry. You need to look at their physical condition, the work they are used to, their weight carrying technique and so on. 

Looking at a couple of my horses may (or may not, who knows!) be helpful.
Benson is in his 20’s, is quite arthritic, and has been in light work only for years – including 2 long breaks for tendon injuries. This picture was taken after a full year of rest. You can see he is putting a lot of weight on his front end even without a rider. On a walking hack, he can comfortably carry a 13 stone person but I wouldn't ask him to carry this weight if he was trotting and cantering in the school. So I would not even ask him to carry 15% of his bodyweight.

I would however still ride him – he’s not one to exercise himself in the field, and during his extended periods of rest, he has become noticeably stiffer and more on the forehand, so I think that light hacking or light schooling with an appropriate rider is good for him.

At the other extreme, Elvis the exmoor pony is in good shape physically. I don’t know his exact weight, but he’s carrying something like 20% of his body weight here, and I’m quite comfortable that that is not too much for him.

So, I don't believe there is a nice neat formula to tell you how much weight your horse can carry

The best advice I can give in this area, is the usual - listen to your horse. I only worked out percentages when I was writing this, and never think about them normally! I know, for example, that Elvis can manage my weight because he can walk, trot and canter in a forward, relaxed manner with me on his back. If he seemed to be getting tense or struggling with his work in any way, weight might or might not be the issue - and my focus would be on working out what the issue was and resolving it. 

Tuesday 20 August 2013

For Humans who have behaviour problems when Loading their Horses!

Horses that are difficult to load seem to bring out the worst in us.  
Often we approach this problem by simply trying to make the horse go into the trailer. Pressure is applied to the horse’s face, mouth, hind end, sides, escape routes are blocked, and often, depending on our level of skill in the questionable art of making horses do stuff they really don’t want to do – we ‘succeed’.

Until the next time..

‘Making’ a horse go into a trailer is sometimes necessary – in an emergency situation you may have no other option. But don’t confuse it with reliable training.

Our goal when dealing with loading problems is for the horse to be relaxed and comfortable about going into the trailer every time we ask him to. If we can ‘make’ him go into the trailer, but he is tense and worried about it, his behaviour will never be consistent.

This brings up a very important point in all horse training – if the horse is worried, he will be looking for ways to feel better, and that will probably be his main focus. He won’t learn well, and he will be unpredictable as he tries to make himself feel better. His efforts could include rearing, running away, planting, backing up, kicking, barging – you name it.  

So, often what goes wrong during training is that we focus on the ‘into the trailer’ bit and forget about the essential ‘relaxed and comfortable’ bit.

The first loading case I ever handled is a classic example. By the time I got involved, 5 other professionals had been out to work with this horse, and the owner had just about given up hope. All had got the horse into the trailer, some had repeated the loading several times. All had provoked some pretty extreme behaviour from the horse, but, if you like, had won the argument and made the horse load. Unfortunately, once the owner was left alone, the problem was no better than before.

Despite this lack of success, it took quite a bit of effort to convince the owner that short, calm sessions, in which the horse took a step or two more towards the trailer was rewarded for his progress would work – she wanted to see him in the trailer during every training session. Fortunately she gave it a try and within about 10 days he was loading perfectly, and has done so ever since.

So, when training, we need to be very clear about what progress towards the goal is. A session which consists of having a big fight with your horse, and ending up with a sweaty, anxious horse inside a box, is most probably not progress.
A session during which everyone (human and equine) keeps calm, and the horse gets closer to the trailer, or further up the ramp, than he has before without getting worried is progress – and is safer for you and your horse, good for his welfare, and good for your relationship with him.

Wednesday 14 August 2013

Does your horse always come when you call?

Recently someone ‘admitted’ to me that her horse didn't always come immediately when she called him. She felt that this was a sign that their relationship wasn't as good as it could be, and was relieved and surprised that, when she explained his behaviour in more detail, I thought it was a sign of a healthy relationship and good management.

Of course it seems nice when your horse is waiting for you eagerly at the field gate, or comes galloping up the field as soon as he hears you coming. My horses still come up to the yard when I arrive, but not in a desperate hurry, and mainly because the first thing I do is provide food! They are all perfectly willing to spend time with me; sometimes they approach me; at other times they are more interested in playing, grooming or just hanging out with each other and I need to ask them to come to me.

To me, this is a good thing. Above all, I want to give my horses as happy and healthy a life as possible, and if they are perfectly content out grazing with their equine pals, and not depending on me to provide all the good things in their lives, that is great. After all, I'm only there a few hours a day. In fact, I'd prefer it if they were at least as content with their equine friends as with me.

This has been reinforced recently - I'm currently at home on 'box rest' following an unplanned operation. I probably won't see my horses for a month; in the last 10 years I've never spent more than a few days away from them. So it is a great relief to know that they don't depend on me - although I think they enjoy my company, many of the good things in their lives have nothing to do with me, and I doubt that they will suffer from my absence.

Clearly, if your horse is heading for the hills every time you show up, or retreating to the back of his stable, there is a problem. But if he simply takes his time coming when you call, or you occasionally have to go and fetch him, it may simply mean that you've got his management right and he's happy!

Monday 5 August 2013

Building a relationship with a horse - quiet beginnings

Lovely feedback from a lovely woman, Susan, who came to visit my horses a couple of weeks ago. We didn't have any fixed plans - she has dogs and cats, but had not been around horses for decades. Turns out she has an interest in animal communication, and decided she would simply like to spend some time with one of my horses, Benson, and see what they made of each other. So, I let Benson and Susan loose in the school, trying to give as little guidance as possible. It was actually really interesting to watch - how as she changed what she was thinking and feeling, Benson moved between being slightly worried by her, to ignoring her, to being calm and interested in her, and on occassion even looking to her for ideas about what they could do together. For me, it is always fascinating to really slow things down and see how a seemingly small change in attitude from a person can make such a huge difference to how a horse percieves them, and whether they are a welcome prescence or not.

To use a human analogy, they looked like two strangers introduced then left alone at a party, awkward at first, then discovering they quite like each others company.

Unfortunately, Benson can't tell us how he felt about it in words, but here's what Susan wrote about it:

'An onlooker would see me standing near a horse, approaching and withdrawing and sometimes walking beside him for short distances.  What happened from my point of view was that Benson looked thoughtfully at me, taking me in as a new person, and then gradually accepted my presence and consented to walk beside me across the school a few times with both of us more comfortable each time.  I cannot put me experience of this into words but the sense of a relationship, however tentative, of acceptance and openness was unique.  It left me fizzing with an inner energy, humbled and grateful.  We miss so much in our clumsy dealings with non-human others.'

not Susan in the pic, by the way, this is Louisa!

Saturday 3 August 2013

How about less horse whispering and more listening?

'People ought to quit worrying so much about whispering to their horses and just start listening to them.' Greg Darnall

Exceptionally good advice!

I look back with more than a bit of embarrassment to my early days of horse owning. My first horse was one that I described as ‘difficult’. I didn’t worry too much about what she was doing – if she fidgeted when I put her saddle on that was ‘just her’. When she spun on the road and took off high speed for home I just thanked my lucky stars that I was still on board when we got there! She had ‘up’ days where I just knew she was going to buck, but again I put it down to her personality. If I thought at all about these issues, it was to feel a bit pleased with myself that I knew how to ‘manage’ her – how to ward off the odd threat to nip, how to speedily jump aboard an ever-moving horse, how to ‘ride through the bucks’ and so on. 

 I only started trying to listen to her when she finally had to resort to ‘shouting’ very loudly to get my attention – a spin and rear after which I ended up on the ground, with a skinned back, a bruised ego, and a big knock to my confidence.

Once I started trying to listen to her, rather than just thinking about how her behaviour affected me, I was amazed at how much I’d been missing.

This is how most of us are.  In the vast majority of cases I see, owners get in touch when they can no longer manage their horse’s behaviour – the horse has got to the ‘shouting’ stage. I repeatedly hear people say things like

'it was fine when she took 1/2 hour to catch, but last night it took 2 hours and  that's a problem'

 ‘I’ve always been able to manage her bucking, but now the bucks are really big and I broke my arm last time I fell off'

I’m sympathetic to this, as I’ve been there myself;  I think most of us have. Basically, the owner becomes seriously interested in their horse’s behaviour when it becomes frightening, unsafe or massively inconvenient to them.  I don't think this to do with people not caring about how their horse is feeling, we’re simply not very good at listening to them when they tell us.

So, next time your horse turns away when you go to catch him, makes a face at you, moves off when you try to mount, or throws in a wee buck when you are schooling him, listen to him. It’s far better for his welfare, and for yours, to resolve any issues while he’s still talking reasonably to you about them, than waiting until he has to really shout! 

Sunday 21 July 2013

Does your horse 'respect' you?

Respect - it's a word I hear used often to describe what a horse 'should' feel towards their owner/rider/handler. A horse who turns her back on you in the stable is often called 'disrespectful', as is one who doesn't magically intuit the amount of horse-free space a human would like to have around her at a particular moment.

So, what is the definition of respect? 

·              1 [mass noun] a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements:
·              2due regard for the feelings, wishes, or rights of others:young people’s lack of respect for their parents

I hope none of us are deluded enough to think the first definition is appropriate - that horses feel a deep admiration for us based on our abilities, qualities or achievements...

The second, a due regard for the feelings, wishes or rights of others seems to be putting a lot on the horse! 

I've met a number of horses who apparently 'respect' their owners who are simply scared of them - the horse won't barge into the person, or turn his hind quarters to them, because they fear the consequences of doing so. 

And 'disrespect' often amounts to fear or poor training. The horse who turns her back on you in the stable may simply be retreating because she wants to avoid you, or what you are about to do - for example, maybe her saddle doesn't fit and she is trying to avoid it. The horse who pushes past you in the field may be retreating from a threat made by another horse, who is likely to kick him much harder than you will if he doesn't get out of the way! And sometimes, the horse who 'invades your space' has simply learned that it benefits him in some way to do so - people back off when he does this, for example. That is the trainer's problem, not the horses, although the horse usually gets the blame. 

The words we use to when we talk about our horses really matter, and this is one that seems to me to place blame on a horse when, in most cases, he is simply trying to tell you he has a problem.  

Friday 14 June 2013

Diplomatic riding!

Apart from just enjoying hacking out in the lovely weather recently, my thoughts about riding have been fairly focussed on the whole 'non-confrontational' thing that I mentioned in an earlier post. 

Amanda and Elvis (pictured below) provided a nice example a few days ago. We were out on a hack, horses and humans relaxed and enjoying it, although Elvis was occasionally distracted or excitable - it was the first time he'd been up this particular track in ages and there was lots going on. At one point, Elvis and Amanda were walking on the verge, and Elvis suddenly decided he wanted to turn right - great decision Elvis, to the right was a deep ditch then a near vertical slope! 

It's easy to get into an argument at this point.You might feel unsafe,  frustrated or unsure about what to do next. Pretty soon you could be employing hands, legs, stick in a confusion of pressure to make the pony do what you want. Now, in fact Elvis has only had an idea about going and playing in the ditch at this stage, Amanda is his teacher - do you want your teacher to get all flustered and heavy whenever you have an idea she doesn't like? Good way to inhibit learning, that's for sure. 

Instead, Amanda chose the non-confrontational, calm approach - the ideal teacher. Hey, Elvis, how about we stop instead? Then I can give you a scratch. Elvis is happy to do this. Could you put your head straight? No problem. How about we take a few steps forwards? By this time, Amanda has Elvis's attention fully back with her, with no struggle, he's forgotten all about what distracted him in the first place, and he happily turns left down the bank. And maybe Elvis has learned that when he follows Amanda's ideas instead of his own, good things happen.  

Friday 10 May 2013

A home for your horse?

Imagine you were moving house, and your horse got to choose where you live. He might have a long think, and reckon that a big, big field with lots of grass, access to fresh water, good windy spots where the flies won't bother you and some shelter from the worst of the elements would be just fine. He might not consider that you would like central heating, electricity, running hot water - or even a house!

So, our horse might not be very good at choosing a home for us. Fortunately, this situation doesn't come up too often :-)

Of course, the reverse is perfectly normal - we choose a home for our horse. Now, we're 'intelligent' and can understand the horses have different needs from us, blah, blah, blah, and are capable of choosing somewhere appropriate for him. Course we are. We know, to borrow an excellent phrase from Lauren Fraser, what horses want most is 'Friends, Forage and Freedom'. Course we do.

Those who know me might be noticing by now that I'm a little bit pissed off!

The cause? An smart advert I saw today for a nearby livery yard, advertising:
* arena
* indoor stabling
* tea and coffee facilities
* toilets

OK - that's human needs dealt with, now what about the horse, who is there 24/7 after all. Not even a mention of whether any turn-out was provided. How sad.

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Some more on motivation in horse training

So, after letting my thoughts on autonomous vs. controlled motivation settle a bit, my feeling is that this stuff does have a lot of relevance to horse training, and is a useful way of thinking about how we train horses. 

To recap, my understanding is that controlled motivation is the usual 'method' of training animals, whether it be carrot or stick. Autonomous motivation is where you don't externally motivate (I will hurt you if you don't/I will give you a sweetie if you do) but rather create conditions in which they can make choices and motivate themselves.

In the real world even the most well-off humans have a mixture of controlled and autonomous motivation going on. There are things we do, like pay our taxes, simply to avoid punishment. We may do a job we don't much like to get money, and so on. But we don't put much 'heart' into these things. Controlled motivation isn't much fun, basically, so the less there is of it the better, but there will always be some!

Pure autonomous motivation isn't going to be a realistic goal with horses either, even if we wanted it. For most horses anyway. For example, say I was training up a youngster for sale, and teaching him to stand for the farrier. I'm really looking for him to behave in a way that is regarded as good by most people, and for him to be comfortable with it. I don’t want him to be creative, or self-motivated particularly, I am simply training a particular behaviour.

So, can I think of examples of autonomous motivation, or areas relating to it? 

1. Something people have recognised for centuries – give a horse a job he actually enjoys, and he’ll probably be good at it. Take 2 horses who are starting jumping – if one seems to enjoy it (whole other can of worms there, but never mind, will move swiftly on ;-)) and the other will jump well when you hold a carrot out after the jump but not otherwise – which would you think would make the better jumper? Similarly, I wouldn't aim to do endurance with a horse who didn't seem to enjoy being ridden out but had to be encouraged to go with an external motivator. 

2. I think I had an example of autonomous motivation when I was riding at a clinic about a month ago – great connection with the horse, all going well, then I dropped my reins to give him a scratch as a reward and ruined it! The balance and ease of movement we were achieving felt good to him, he was enjoying what we were doing together and didn’t need an explicit reward – in fact is seemed to spoil things! 

3. Another thing good trainers have been doing for a long time – where possible, when the horse is learning, give them choices. This is more tenuous, but I think it’s the same kind of thing. Say your horse doesn't stop on a light aid. You could move up to inflicting pain - saying the only behaviour that is acceptable to me right now is that you stop – you are attempting to remove choice. Or, you could say ‘if you can’t stop right now, I won’t try to force you, but we will have to move in a circle. We can circle for as long as we need to, it’s genuinely fine with me’. OK, that’s a very engineered choice, but it’s still giving the horse space to think for himself and learn.

So, we can train a behaviour (such as going over a jump) using carrot or stick (controlled motivation), but if the horse doesn't actually want to jump, we won't get any quality. People are not too surprised when we see conflict behaviours in horses when we use the 'stick' approach to motivate him to do something he doesn't want to do. More surprising, maybe, is that the 'carrot' approach could also produce conflict in the horse if, say, a treat
 is offered in return for some behaviour that he finds aversive, and withheld otherwise  forcing the horse to deal with conflicting motivations.

This last point is especially interesting, maybe, in the context of clicker training. What I'm picking up on isn't new - quite a number of clicker trainers and horse behaviour people have been discussing this for a while now. It's easy to believe you can't go far wrong in terms of equine welfare with a clicker and a pocket full of sweeties (I've been there!) but if your horse isn't coming to enjoy, or at least feel OK about the actual training you are doing, you could be creating more problems than you are solving!

Sunday 21 April 2013

On Motivation - drilling horses, or willing horses?

Just watched this video - about motivation. Very interesting, and spookily relevant to the post I put up yesterday about how we communicate with our horses. What I took from the video - controlled motivation is the usual 'method' of training animals, whether it be carrot or stick. Autonomous motivation is where you don't externally motivate (I will hurt you if you don't/I will give you a sweetie if you do) but through understanding of the 'other' you are trying to train, create conditions in which they can make choices and motivate themselves. The latter leads, in people, to all sorts of benefits, such as positive emotions and improvements in psychological and physical health.

Anyway, the video says it much better than I could. And my brain is bouncing about trying to think through how I would explain how this applies to horses! Autonomously motivating a horse is clearly not easily explained, but from my observations, when you link a behaviour consistently with 'carrot' or 'stick' you may get the external behaviour that you want, but you lose the quality, and end up with something rather robotic. 

Promoting Motivation, Health, and Excellence: Ed Deci at TEDxFlourCity

Saturday 20 April 2013

A quiet conversation? - how do we communicate with our horses?

About a month ago, I went to a Perry Wood clinic at Easterton farm. I had intended to do a write-up on the clinic, but I'm not sure that my scribbled notes and observations would be hugely meaningful to anyone else, so here's some stuff I was thinking about and working on during the clinic. 

Perry probably started me thinking on these lines, at a clinic a number of years ago where he talked about avoiding conflict with your horse. At the time, to be honest, I'm pretty sure I thought of conflict as an all-out argument, probably involving feet, teeth, shouting, pushing and all that bad stuff! Now I would think of conflict as much more subtle - the little things that cause a 'disconnect' between you and your horse. 
Not Connected!! (spooking at snow falling off the roof)

I'd give Perry a good deal of credit for helping me to develop my understanding in this area, but no responsibility for where my brain is wandering off to in this blog! 

To me, the avoiding conflict thing with horses seems much the same as with people - if we want a good relationship with another person, provoking or fuelling an all-out fight usually isn't the best plan. The more subtle 'disconnects', such as a scornful look or a snide remark, can be just as damaging. 

So, my aim at the clinic was to have a relaxed conversation with a horse that I didn't know terribly well,  using diplomacy rather than war or coercion!

Lets take a concrete example before I get too abstract. Say we have established a nice connection in walk. Now I would like a smooth, balanced walk to canter transition. Before I even ask, the connection is going! My brain has suddenly got too busy, and my horse, bless him, will certainly give me the transition if I demand it, but how can he continue to have that relaxed conversation with someone appears to have just lost the plot? 

Like most horsey people,  I've got a strong 'just get on with it' attitude, and find it hard to get over the feeling that it is self-indulgent to be looking after my 'emotional' state when I'm riding.
But of course, getting yourself sorted on the inside - calm, clear and focussed on what you are doing, honest about and dealing with the things that may be taking you away from this state is not self-indulgent, it's vital in helping your horse and making being ridden by you a nice experience! 

So, I take my time, wait, sort myself from inside out, then ask. And allow myself to be genuinely delighted with the results :-)

Sadly, no video of the canter transitions, but did get this...

Calm, clear and connected :-)

Do Horses Dream?

Like humans, horses experience both slow-wave sleep and rapid-eye-movement (REM) deep sleep. REM sleep is thought to occur mostly when the horse is stretched out flat on his side, rather than resting on his chest.

During REM sleep people dream, and its a fair assumption that horses do the same. Their eyes move (obviously, that's why its called REM sleep), and they can  make movements, much as sleeping dogs do. Elvis probably isn't dreaming here, not deeply asleep enough, but there's certainly something going on in that active little brain of his as he drops off!

Elvis dreaming?

Tuesday 16 April 2013

Safety around Horses

Working with horses, I am well versed in the standard safety measures - what to wear, where to stand, do's and don't when handling and riding.

On Saturday, someone (I forget who, let's blame Elvis :-)) chased Tigger out of the field shelter. Tigger hasn't been drilled in keeping out of my space (that's another story), but nonetheless swerved to avoid me. I commented, half jokingly, that the best safety measure around horses is a good relationship!

Having really thought about this, I'd say this is generally true. A horse who doesn't want to be with you is unsafe wherever you stand and whatever you do. So is a horse who doesn't listen to you.

Apart from this small example, I can recall two incidents in the last 3 years or so where I was nearly hurt by one of my horses. One was Tigger, again being chased by Elvis, backing away at high speed. He started to stand on my foot, but as soon as he felt it, made a serious effort to rebalance himself and managed to not put any weight down on my foot.

The second incident was more surprising - I had a tooth abscess, hadn't slept all night and was standing rather dazed in a very stupid place (just where the haynet is in this picture. Elvis came in from the field at full pelt, round the corner and there I was. For some reason, I ducked. Elvis jumped me and ran himself into the electric fence! That was some serious effort to avoid crashing into me.

I'm not saying that safety measure such as hard hats, gloves, all the usual stuff aren't necessary (please don't notice the pic above where Amanda is conspicuously without hard hat!). Nor that you should do idiotic things like 'hiding' round the corner as a horse gallops up. But I do think that safest horse to be around, by far, is one who genuinely means you no harm!

If, say, your horse threatens to kick you, do take sensible precautions, but the best thing you could do long term to keep yourself safe is remove her desire to kick you!

Monday 25 March 2013

Hacking out - is it good for your horse?

Quoting Lucy Rees again:
'We have no idea what amount of space horses consider enough. Though feral horse bands stick together, they wander kilometres every day. The pottokas have over 3,000 acres to live on, but they find it small. If anyone leaves a gate open they go, up to 15 km easily. Sometimes they come back. They just like going walkabout.'

We can't give our horses unlimited space, but we can take them 'walkabout'.

Of course, it depends how you ride out - a frantic, unbalanced charge across the fields while you hang desperately onto your horse's mouth isn't going to do anyone any good, but a relaxed ride out (at any speed)  can be good for your horse on many levels, so don't apologise for 'just going out for a hack'! And walking out in hand can be, I think, equally good for the horse, and in some cases better!

An arena is a great place for lots of types of work with a horse, but it's a real shame that going out for a ride is often so underrated, whilst a 'schooling' session in an arena where both horse and rider are getting confused/frustrated/bored is somehow judged to be 'proper work' - know which I'd recommend. 

Sunday 17 March 2013

Observing natural horse behaviour (or not...)

I recently heard about a clinic (Natural Horsemanship type of thing) in my area, where they turned a group of horses loose in the arena to let the participants observe 'natural' horse behaviour. This could be massively misleading and, I think, damaging to our view of horses. The behaviours you see might be in the horse's repertoire, but it is highly unlikely to be their 'normal' behaviour - when you put them into such an abnormal situation, you can't expect normal responses. The level of unfriendly interactions between this group of horses could (and I'm not saying it was, I wasn't there) then be used to justify us behaving in a confrontational way with our horses - its 'what they understand'.

This morning, I read a great article in the Journal of the Equine Behaviour Forum by Lucy Rees, 'Why Study Feral Horse Ethology'. Ethology, she explains, is the science of animal behaviour. She talks of students she has taken on field study trips  and says 'Watching normal horse behaviour makes them realize that they have never seen normal horses, for it is only when you see what normal is that you identify what is abnormal. Looking at social relations of domestic horses is about as useful as studying family relationships in a prison.'

She continues 'What we fail to realise is that even domestic horses kept in little, stable groups in fields - the best conditions we can offer - are considerably more aggressive to each other than are feral horses. One of the greatest impacts of feral horse behaviour is their peacefulness. They do not argue or give each other orders, but get on with staying alive together'

We do not have all the answers as to why domestic horses are more aggressive, but Lucy Rees puts forward several sensible possibilities - competition over food, overcrowding, boredom, poor socialisation to name a few.

For myself, I wouldn't discount the usefulness of looking at social relations of domestic horses - we need to understand the behaviour of domesticated horses - I watch mine all the time, and their social interactions play a significant role in how I manage them, for example, as well as helping me understand the individuals and how to interact with them. But we shouldn't confuse this with observing 'natural' horse behaviour!

Tuesday 12 March 2013

What can you learn from standing still with a horse?

Well, millions of things! But here's a wee example from today at my yard.

I was doing stuff with Benson in the yard, and Elvis decided he wanted to join in. Clicker training doesn't work too well with 2 horses in on the action, one of whom is decidedly not doing what you want, so I asked Iain, who is quite new to horses, to hold on to Elvis while I worked with Benson.

So, Iain puts Elvis's head collar on and takes him to stand out of the way. I'm keeping half an eye on them, and am aware that Iain is managing fine, but there is some discussion going on between the two of them...

10 minutes later I'm finished with Benson, and Iain asks me the best way to respond to Elvis when he tries to nip. Iain is a competent dog trainer, interested in infinite levels of detail about horse behaviour and training, so off we go!

Firstly, the basic level - Elvis threatens to nip Iain, and Iain's response to this will either encourage or discourage his behaviour. So we talked about that a bit. If we are competent enough, we can certainly stop the nipping by ensuring that Elvis gets no enjoyment from trying this.

Then we stepped back a bit - why is he nipping in the first place? I watched the next incident closely. Elvis started looking over the field at some cows; within seconds his attention was totally on them, while Iain was standing passively next to him. Then Iain pulled a little on the lead rope, to get Elvis's attention. Elvis responded with a nip threat - the request for his attention was a bit abrupt and 'big' and his response was basically to say 'back off, that was rude and I'm busy' to Iain. So we talked a bit about keeping or getting back Elvis's attention, and how to do this.

However, stepping back again, I noticed that Iain's attention had been slightly diverted from Elvis before Elvis stopped paying attention to Iain!

So, in this case, Iain 'disconnected' from Elvis, so Elvis started paying attention to something else, then when Iain asked for his attention back it was irritating to Elvis and he said so. Once we got that cleared up, and Iain stayed focussed on Elvis, in this instance we had no more nipping.

Dull work, you might think :-) But this is very relevant to any work, ridden or on the ground, that you might do with your horse. There's not much you can usefully do with a horse if you don't have his attention (or a good 'connection' with him). Often when things that you didn't plan for happen, like your horse spooking, napping or heading high-speed for home, his attention was gone well before any physical action was taken. Keeping the connection between you and your horse isn't always easy, but the first step is being aware of whether you have it or not! And realising that if you're going to ask for your horse's full attention, whilst you think about what you're going to cook for tea tonight, it's not going to work out too well :-)

Wednesday 6 March 2013

Did horses used to live longer?

Saw this today Irish draught Shayne, 51, put to sleep at Essex sanctuary.

It reminded me of an eighteenth century book on horses I read a while ago, which said that the average age a horse lived to was 51. At the time I made note of this, but didn't take it as fact - could be a misprint, or the author could be very poor at maths, or just mistaken :-)

The above article mentions that the oldest horse ever recorded was born in 1760, and lived to be 62!

Horses are getting more athletic, faster, 'better' in many ways (apparently), and the potential to treat their ailments and give them the care they need for a long and healthy life has vastly improved since 1760. So it seems very sad to me that in the last 200 years or so, no horse has managed to live as long as 'Old Billy', 1760 - 1822.

Although the thought of having Elvis around for the next 50 odd years...

Friday 1 March 2013

Could laughing improve your horse's life?

More late night musings.

Tigger pulls quite a few 'funny' faces. I taught him to 'laugh' some time ago (actually Flehmen response).

Having had a few new visitors to the yard recently, and a lot of positive feedback on my silly video of when the training of this wasn't working (Tigger Laughing), I've really been struck by how appealing people find this, and that most of us find Tigger more 'likeable' because of he does this.

Somehow, this made me think of victorian fathers training their daughters to paint, speak french, sing and play the piano nicely - it supposedly improved their marriage prospects and thus, supposedly, their prospects of a good life.

There is good evidence that horses who are 'lovable' are treated better. I am in no way saying this is a good thing, but its interesting to think that teaching your horse a few silly but appealing tricks might actually better his life. Just as the victorian girl who sung and painted was 'more appealing'...

Of course, teaching him impeccable manners on the ground and under saddle will do even more for his future prospects, but that's another subject...

Thursday 28 February 2013

What horses really want...

My horses have a field shelter in a yard (so that's really a ‘yard shelter’ I guess), which opens onto their fairly huge, hilly field. The yard is maybe 20M by 30M – a big enough space for them to move around in, but not enormous. They are given hay and feed in the yard in bad weather, as conditions are pretty rough out in the field (that whole living half way up a Scottish mountain thing again…)

I’ve been watching their use of the field over the past few weeks, in a variety of weathers – snow, wind, rain, occasional crisp sunny days. As these horses have the choice of staying in or going out, it's interesting to see what they do. I don’t watch them 24 hours a day, so I can’t say for sure what they do when I am away, but here’s what I have seen. 

Flynn, the arab, hasn’t been out of the yard for weeks! He’s quite sound, happy to go and belt about loose in the school, or go out for a walk, but just looks quite content hanging about the yard. We know he hasn’t been out in the field as he has some cream on his leg just about his hoof, and it is untouched, legs are beautifully clean!

From the mud on their legs, I know that Benson and Paddy, the other two old gentlemen have been out in the field, but I haven’t seen them doing this.

Tigger and Elvis, the youngsters, go out for short spells to play, then come back in to doze and eat.

When it was snowy, I could follow their tracks into the field, and none of them had ventured more than about 60 metres from the yard, although they had clearly run about a fair bit in this space. 

I can also tell from the amount of poo picking there is to do in the yard each morning, how much they are in - right now, unless they are coming in to use the 'indoor toilet' then going out again (unlikely!) they are pretty much staying put in the yard. 

So, although they all behave a little differently, none of the horses are too interested in wandering around a large, bare field at this time of year. Their priorities are sticking close to the hay (they rarely stop eating for more than 1 hour at a time), and sticking close to each other. They also move about a lot, within this reasonably small space – the youngsters, occasionally joined by ancient Paddy will canter, chase each other, rear, buck – in general have a play quite often, whilst the older boys usually just amble from one lot of hay to another.  

Conclusions? As usual, I can’t generalise from such a small group of horses and limited observations. But what do this bunch want most at this time of year? 

To eat in the company of good friends - all day long :-)

Space to move about is also very important, but they don't want to just stretch their legs for 8 hours at a time. Horses who are turned out alone all day with no forage are often described as 'not liking' turnout, because they quickly grow tired of it and want back in. Provide an environment outdoors that they enjoy (and that'd definitely include forage and company) and I'm sure they would quickly change their minds! Stabling 24/7 for weeks on end because they 'don't like turnout' should not, in my opinion, be considered as a reasonable management option. 

Saturday 9 February 2013

On Horses Sharing Precious Resources

Consider a question: when would you expect to see more ‘arguments’ over access to hay between a group of horses –
  • on a nice sunny day, when there is grass to be had, and everyone is getting plenty to eat

  • on a miserable, rainy winters day, when the grazing has gone, and the supply of food is much more limited?

You might well expect there to be more problems with the horses ‘sharing nicely’ on the horrible winter’s day – after all, we know that horses have a social hierarchy, and that this hierarchy determines who gets the best access to food, so we might think they will all be out for themselves and the most ‘dominant’ horses will get the lion’s share of the food.

However, what I notice with my group of 5 is that when their other needs are fulfilled (i.e. they are warm enough, not particularly hungry or thirsty, feeling safe and physically comfortable and so on), they will ‘squabble’ on and off – moving each other off the hay, competing for water, and 'evicting' each other from the field shelter. They are not engaging in what we would normally call play here (although they do this as well) – they are telling each other what to do, albeit in a fairly low-key way.

On a miserable day, when they are hungry and would rather be in the field shelter than outside, they tend to settle down and share peaceably – nobody is told to leave the shelter, not even the most minor of threats are issued, they approach each other and share hay without any issue of 'social rank' appearing to be considered. 

What does this tell us? There are lots of theories we could call on here  about  friendship, bonding, sharing and so on. But I wouldn't want to generalise - this is one group of horses, observed by one person. 

All I’ll say is that trivialising horse’s social lives into some simplistic quest for ‘dominance’ does horse-kind a huge injustice.