Wednesday 2 December 2015

When horses don't 'live in the moment'...

For the past few years, I've felt that while I would use clicker training, or treats as rewards, to train 'routine' tasks such as lifting a foot or standing to get legs hosed, I wouldn't use treats for anything where I wanted quality in the action - for example teaching shoulder in. Mostly I've just said this is because, having trained these types of movement both with and without treats, there is a different feel to them - the quality is not there when you use treats.
So, I was really interested when one of last years students came out with pretty much the same comment last week. As happens sometimes, I had 3 separate conversations around this subject with 3 different people and finally something clicked. 

I think there would be lots of different ways of explaining this, but basically when we use a valuable reward in training, at the point where the horse has learned the task and knows a reward is coming, he is anticipating a future event, rather than being focused on what he is doing right now. 
For us people, we know that 'being in the moment' is crucial to improving our horsemanship - if we are thinking about the last poor canter transition, or wondering what we'll have for tea tonight, we are missing what is happening now. I think the same happens for horses - if they are busy thinking about the tasty carrot they will get if they complete 3 steps of shoulder in, they are not feeling the movement, and it feels different to us. 
Not saying don't use treats - if you fade them out appropriately it wouldn't be a problem, but just interesting to consider?

To put this another way, when the consequence of the horse's actions are big, whether it be reward or punishment, this will cause the horse to anticipate to consequence, which distracts their attention from what is happening in the moment. Which will affect their learning...

Tuesday 25 August 2015

All because Elvis left the field - problem solving...

In my last blog, I was talking about Tigger and his lamentable lack of social skills, more evident that usual when Elvis left the field and Tigger's social life was turned upside down. 

Not really relevant here, but this picture just sums
Tigger up for me - always a bit different!
Usually during the summer, Tigger either comes when you call, or you have to go and fetch him, and he is quite happy to come in once you’ve reached him.

A few days before Elvis and Paddy were due to return to the big field, Tigger didn’t want to come in any more. His attention was glued to the mare and foal, and he didn’t want to leave them.

What now? The first thought most of us would have is probably a training solution – carrot or stick – fairly literally in this case. But neither would be a great idea.

Treats for the wanted behaviour (leaving the foal) would most probably not work – as he gets further from the foal he becomes increasingly anxious, and treats would not be a sufficient incentive, nor would they really address the problem. Safety wise also not the best – Tigger might well move further from the foal than he is comfortable with in order to get his treat, which might the trigger an explosive dash back to his buddy.

So – maybe a schooling stick or his bridle? In this situation I’d say not. He is clearly worried about leaving the foal, and putting more pressure on him will not help matters. Firstly, safety wise it’s a really bad idea – the field is deep and muddy in places, and ‘picking an argument’ with a horse on bad footing is just daft J .  Secondly, particularly in the deep and muddy bits, you are likely to fail – Tigger will return to the foal leaving you stranded without your wellies, or worse! Finally – you might get him in from the field, but if it’s not an emergency what is the point really? You’ve risked your safety and the horse’s, done no good to your relationship, probably stressed both of you quite a bit….

Think again… another option would be to bring the mare and foal in. Tigger will doubtless follow, not get stressed, this will be safer and more likely to succeed. Nothing wrong with this solution, except than in this situation, the mare and foal aren’t mine, and I don’t have anywhere to put them once they are in! So an option in an emergency, with permission from the owner, but not ideal in this case.

And we think again… and find the lazy solution, which always suits me well J Does Tigger really need to come in at all? I can check him in the field, he doesn’t need fed, and I’m certainly not going to try and ride him while he’s so distracted. In a few days Paddy and Elvis will return to the field, and they will most likely fix the problem for me. Once field life is back to normal, Tigger should get back to normal too, and we won’t have done any damage in the meantime. If things don’t settle down, we can think (yet) again.

Sure enough, the ‘not coming in’ thing stopped a few days after Paddy and Elvis returned to the field, and we’re all back to normal now.

A good example of how each ‘behaviour problem’ is so individual – we need think before acting,  understand the causes and find a solution appropriate to that unique situation. 

Sunday 23 August 2015

All because Elvis left the field...

Tigger, whom we love dearly, spent a lot of time alone until he was 3 years old, and has, to put it mildly, very poor social skills – he just always seems to be saying or doing the wrong thing around other horses! In a stable herd he does OK, make changes to the group and anything could happen.

So, about 6 weeks ago Elvis injured his leg, needing stiches and rest in a small non-muddy paddock for 4 weeks. Paddy and Flynn were nominated to keep Elvis company, taking turns to stay in. Elvis, who has very good social skills, adjusted to this change in routine remarkably well. He didn’t show any great desire to go back out to the big field, and led out nicely in hand every day for some grazing. The only change in his behaviour was due to being fed treats while he was getting his dressing changed every day – he is much more interested in people approaching than previously, and nickers at the sight of hibiscrub and bandages J

So, all was well in the small paddock. Out in the big field… in the absence of Paddy and Elvis, Tigger finds new horses to hang out with. This causes all sorts of problems. Tigger has an ill-founded burst of confidence, and starts challenging horses whom he has always steered clear of in the past. This doesn’t work out too well for him and causes all sorts of trouble… he then becomes very attached to a 3 month old foal in the field, and doesn’t want to come in any more.

Now we have a fairly calm and content Elvis, but a Tigger who is distracted, unsafe to handle and having fights with other horses!

Elvis, Paddy and Flynn are now back in the field, and things have more or less settled down again. The video shows Elvis being turned out for the first time after his ‘paddock rest’. Elvis is a confident pony with, as I mentioned, excellent social skills, and it really shows. He enters the field, turns back for a treat, says ‘hi’ to the horses and ponies he hasn’t seen for nearly a month – all pretty relaxed. Meanwhile Paddy is back in the field also, and the drama is not Elvis rejoining the herd, but Paddy separating Tigger from the foal – and having to put a lot of effort into it – usually Paddy just flicks an ear and Tigger moves. The last clip is day 2, and you can see how much less Paddy has to do to tell Tigger to leave the foal. 

Any point to this? 
Firstly, that good social skills make such a difference to your horses social life - just as they do with people. With horses, there is so much focus on social dominance hierarchy, and how that affects their behaviour, and far too little focus on their social skills and how these may affect their behaviour towards other horses and people - and how badly a lack of social skills may affect them emotionally. 

Secondly, to be aware of how changes to the social group can affect a horse, particularly one like Tigger. He changed very quickly from a rideable, manageable horse into one you could not even safely bring in from the field - all because Elvis left the field. 


Sunday 31 May 2015

'Aggressive' mare in stable - the fundamental attribution error?

I’m not a psychologist, so forgive my massive simplification, but I came across a term a while ago that grabbed my interest – the ‘fundamental attribution error’. Basically, this means that when we see someone doing something, for example running a red traffic light, we tend to think it relates to their personality ('he's an idiot') rather than the situation the person might be in. And the ‘error’ bit would give a clue that we are often wrong in attributing their actions mainly to their personality.

Why did it interest me? Because it is so common in how we view horses. I hear often about horses who are grumpy, moody, vicious and in other ways of bad character, when often they are simply responding to a situation they can’t cope with.

Recently, I visited a client who was concerned about her young horse. Lets call the horse Milly. Milly was lunging over the stable door at people, with her mouth open, ears pinned. Going into the stable with her was a risky business, she would unpredictably lunge at you, or turn her hind quarters and threaten to kick. Recently she’d become much worse when you approached with a head collar.

So, this is a classic case where Milly might be described as being aggressive, grumpy, having a bad attitude and so on. Actually, Milly is afraid of particular situations and events, and having no option to flee in her stable is resorting to defensive threats.

If a horse like Milly is approached with the attitude that she is being, in some way 'bad', or needs to learn manners, the common approach will be to punish her behaviour - making the situation worse. If we realise she is simply showing her fear of a specific situation, we can do something a bit more constructive. 

So, what do we do? Retraining Milly to be truly comfortable with people in her stable may take a while. The most immediate problem then, for Milly’s welfare and the safety of her handlers, is to be able to put a head collar on her without scaring her. Then she can be taken out of the stable, turned out into her field, her owner can muck out safely and so on, while she is retrained.

This client very kindly did a little bit of filming while I was there, and even more kindly has allowed me to put the video up on youtube. Of course, being there to work with the horse and owner and not to make a movie, it's just a few wee clips and the progress by the end of the session wasn't filmed - we were both much too absorbed by Milly! 

We worked with Milly for a little over an hour, with several long breaks and lots of short ones. In the initial part of the film, she is clearly fearful, and trying to retreat as far as her stable will allow. The second part of the film is taken early on in the ‘retraining’. She is not looking totally relaxed, but is investigating me and the head collar, and I am giving her a very tiny food reward each time she progresses a little in her explorations of the head collar. When I move the head collar towards her, she still backs off, but if I am patient and let her choose to come forward, she is making good progress.
'Milly' before and during first training session

By the end of the session, we had put the head collar on Milly a couple of times, with her full cooperation. She allowed both of us to scratch her withers, and began grooming us back. She certainly did not look like a mare of ‘bad character’, she was more than eager to be friendly to people when she didn’t feel threatened by them.

The outlook for Milly is good – she has a very caring owner, who recognised that this was a problem her horse needed help with, not a bad horse who needed put in her place. 

Tuesday 7 April 2015

Can horses get stressed?

No, I wouldn't seriously ask that question, would have hoped the answer was obvious.

Anyway, today I noticed that there was an article about stress in horses in the new British Horse magazine.
Good to see.

The article opened by reporting on a survey, which found that 90% of horse owners questioned believe that horses suffer signs of stress or anxiety. 44% have a horse that displays signs of stress, and 84% wish to reduce these signs. The stats look quite nice like this, but looked at another way...

... 1 in 10 horse owners don't believe horses can suffer signs of stress or anxiety

More than half the horses out there have owners who believe they don't display signs of stress

And 1 in 6 owners have no wish to reduce stress signs

Long way to go apparently!

Thursday 1 January 2015

Problem solving ponies

Had an interesting situation yesterday. Some big bales of straw had been delivered to the yard, leaving just a narrow pathway between bales for the horses to go through to get out to their field. The gap was narrow enough that the bigger horses would rub against the bales on both sides as they went.

So, I took the horses out one by one, on very long lead ropes, to see what they would make of it. Benson, Flynn and Paddy viewed it with mild suspicion but walked through of their own accord. Tigger looked at it, snorted, investigated, backed off, and after about 5 minutes and some encouragement leapt through. All pretty normal so far. All of them coped, without getting overly anxious and put up with something a bit challenging to get to the field.

Elvis - approaches, stands still and looks at it. No snorting, no movement, just looking. After a minute or two, he aims at the single bale, approaches at a brisk walk, puts his shoulder into it and rolls it aside. Then walks calmly through the big gap he's opened up. Deeply impressed - one truly problem solving pony!