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...