Positive Loading

The perennial problem, the horse that won’t load, not for love nor money, or even a well-aimed lunge line.

Where there are problems there are solutions! Can you turn your horse’s loading problem into a successful learning experience that lasts both of you a lifetime?

With behaviour comes attitude. According to cognitive behaviour science, behaviour is part of attitude, along with thoughts and feelings. So if your horse’s behaviour states that he does not want to go in that box, chances are that he feels he does not want to go in that box, and that he thinks he does not want to go in that box. Whoa, that box must be bad!

So it must follow that to change his behaviour, his whole attitude has to change. He hates and/or fears the box. He needs to move from unwillingness and sensitivity, to feeling more upbeat about the whole thing. He needs to view the box with a smile! He can do that if he can find out that the box holds nothing but good outcomes for him. At a pace where he can also move on from his fears.

So, he’s not going to believe that in one hit. He hasn’t so far, and if things carry on as they are, chances are he’ll never make that change. Right now he is downright pessimistic about that box.

An intelligent approach could be to reduce his pessimism by not following through with all the things he dreads in relation to the box. Just let him discover that he can be near the box through his own free will. This won’t be giving up as through his own free will he’ll be able to be a calmer horse. Then he’ll be receptive to learning new, positive ideas and be able to come to a place where he can be an optimist. No one I know can readily find an optimistic thought when in the fits of despair, but most can from a less gloomy place.

But do horses really get moments of pessimism and optimism? There’s not a lot of concrete proof within the covers of the academic journals that’s for sure, but it’s growing: Psychological factors affecting equine performance. But horses can learn about good and bad outcomes, they can be negatively affected by pressures and they can look forward to pleasurable experiences when they know they will happen. These pressures and different quality outcomes all affect and change horse behaviour (and attitude!) in ways that anyone can influence once they know how.

Learning skills that can help you influence your horse’s behaviour is possible if that’s what you want to do. You can not only affect what your horse does, but how he does it – his whole attitude in fact! And you may find that you will be, as Billy Connolly puts it, “better for it”.

New skills might include learning how to find the ‘beginning’ for your particular horse. Not all horses start their retraining on the same page.

Another new skill might be reading the finest points of your horse’s attitude, such as when he changes from pessimist to optimist and vice versa.

And of course there is learning the knack of timing ‘reinforcement’ – outcomes of your horse’s behaviour that motivate him to do that same behaviour again and again. And there is knowing what kind of reinforcement to use and why. You might already know about pressure and release, or you may not, but what other forms of reinforcement do you know about?

Learning to retrain a problem loader or any problem behaviour really can be quite an adventure, with new, personal discoveries around each corner. And since it is your journey, you have it in you to have a well traveled one.

Way Beyond Method

It was over a decade ago, I was spending some time with my friends, Anne and Paul over at Cefn Mably Lusitano. My favourite hoof bloke, Peter Laidley was visiting, leading a hoof care clinic. We were all taking a closer look at how hooves function, so we can care for this vital part of equine anatomy more effectively. Not a set method or school of barehoof trimming, just how my horse’s feet work, and what is needed for them to be the best they can be – so was born what Peter called the “Jenni and Penny trim”. Other owners and their horses had something else, what they needed, not what me and Penny needed.

So it is the same with horsemanship. There are lots of methods and schools of horsemanship, but good horsemanship is good horsemanship, and here’s why. Horses have the same basic biology (including psychology) in common, but they are all individuals. Good horsemanship recognises the individual, that individuals respond differently to the same stimuli, because each has slightly different biology, and each has their own life experience. This means some horses are more reactive, or more optimistic, or more fearful, or simply recover more quickly.

This doesn’t mean that the claims that one method works on all horses aren’t entirely untrue. For example proponents of equitation science, who consciously apply learning theory according to the International Society of Equitation Science’s principles, find that careful application of their most usual methods work. The horses learn the correct responses to simple stimuli, and learn to do so reliably. The operative word here is ‘careful’, the trainer must be aware of the horse’s emotional state, and how aroused they are, in order to choose what to do and how in order to have optimal effect. Quite simply being aware of how the horse is feeling, how alert they are and how reactive they are likely to be, while sensibly applying learning theory (whether the trainer is aware of these common, natural laws of learning or not), then the basis for good horsemanship is there.

That basis requires one to reach a certain level of competence that may be more easily reached for those who lack intuitive feel, and even for those who do, by learning more about horse behaviour – from sound, evidence-based sources. This is what I’m talking about with ‘way beyond method’. Learning the method without learning the reasons for how the method works (or doesn’t), or why and when to apply them (or not), only paints half the picture and increases the potential for failure, threat to animal welfare, and increased risk to the safety of all. Way beyond method is about knowing what individual horses are cognitively, emotionally and physically capable of – what actually constitutes natural behaviour, how the horse actually learns (that’s not just by rote), how the horse’s feelings affect what he learns, and crucially, how our actions influence all of the above. To be ready to be a good horseman means being open to new learning always. The biggest take-home message I have ever received about horses is that one should always be learning about them. I’ve sworn by it, and lived by it ever since I got that gift aged probably about 9 years old!

Going back to that tranquil afternoon of learning hoof, good horsemanship is about being able to create the ‘Jenni and Penny method’ (or ‘insert other names here method’). In fact it’s co-creation – we need to be open to our horse’s input too! There’s no ‘one true path’ but as we’re often reminded, ‘many roads to Rome’ so in the words of my friend, Rachel Beddingfield, “seek wide and deep” when you seek new learning to fill in that jigsaw and help better your horsemanship. I may also be able to help you in that. Soon I will be running training workshops at an exciting new project, Equate, where young people with additional educational needs will be able to gain skills for the world of work, and horse folk will be able to come to sessions dedicated to sharing horse behaviour and learning knowledge and building attendees skills.