The point of training a horse to load is so that they want to. At least that’s my point of view. This means it’s not just training. It’s creating a succession of experiences that allows the horse to adjust to and enjoy loading in their own time and head. You can lead the horse onto the box and just go. And a calm and confident personality may well get used to it and never have any objection. If they are cool and logical enough to discover there is fun at the end of the journey then so much the better. But not every horse is a happy customer, they might be naturally timid and such experiences would make them sensitive to travelling and even phobic. Others may have a traumatic experience and experience fear every time they are presented with the box.
In these instances, systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning can be your friends, especially when you allow the horse to dictate the pace of their new learning and make it possible for them to explore. The first is to simply make it a lot easier to be near the box – just graze or eat a meal near it without making the horse feel afraid, or so if they are spooked they can return to eating. Over time the meal is enjoyed over progressive steps onto the rampand into the lorry. The counter conditioning part is the meal itself, the horse chews and enjoys emotions incompatible with fear, so the two events of desensitisation and counter conditioning run together, slowly.
The images and film here demonstrate what that might look like.
This one is very closely related to a question that came into my inbox, so if you are reading this you know who you are 🙂
Ordinarily most riding horses learn to turn left or right through pressure and release (or negative reinforcement). Early on in breaking in the rider opens the rein in the desired direction, causing pressure to increase on the bridle. When the young horse makes the correct turn the pressure is released and the young horse learns to repeat the behaviour, and form a habit of turning in response to lighter aids that indicate the pressure will increase if they don’t turn. But, if the young horse, or even the older one, is in anyway emotionally aroused, unbalanced (due to their own lack of gymnastic ability, and/or their rider’s poor posture) or anticipating pain (present or past), then the usual order of events may fail to come about. The key to pressure and release or negative reinforcement is that the behaviour coinciding with the release is that which is reinforced and repeated! In a horse more motivated to regain balance, escape a greater fear, reach a greater reward, or escape from pain than to relieve some bridle pressure, then they may well run through the increased rein contact and get reinforced for a behaviour other than making the turn. That can very quickly become the habit, in response to strong negative emotions triggered by the increased bridle pressure. The horse will also become alert to other warning signals in the environment that predict that strong bridle pressures will occur, and so can become wound up in advance, primed and ready to perform escape and avoidance behaviour.
The keys to rectifying such issues are to eliminate pain through veterinary examination and necessary treatment. It is often advantageous to use physiotherapy (http://www.acpat.org) to help further reduce pain, to re-educate balance and movement, and have a positive impact in the musculoskeletal system. Making sure you have a good seat and balance will also help as in our frustration to get a response we can unbalance the horse and help maintain the problem.
It will of course, also help this to change the horse’s behavioural and emotional responses to the bridle and your aids; emotional state and arousal always impacts posture, and not always in desirable, healthy ways. One place to begin is with the horse in a calm state, and to practice using the aids in a way that enables the horse to respond softly and easily until this way of responding is more habitual. The next step might be to add an increase in challenge, something that causes more excitement to the horse such as a faster gait, a change of location, or inclusion on a jump. The idea is to introduce the challenge while the horse is calm and responsive, practise the new way of responding in the presence of the challenge such as one turn over the jump and go back to schooling to maintain or regain calm before jumping again. This way the horse begins to learn that the jump (or other challenge to their emotional state) comes when they are calmer, and that they are returned to this quieter way of going before being challenged again. This helps to prevent the horse from over arousal and going over the threshold that drives them to more extreme escape and avoidance behaviour.
Using this approach helps with emotional management, but still uses pressure and release as the primary motivation for compliance with the rider’s aids. This can mean that there’s not a lot in it for the horse, and can leave them still feeling negative emotions, even if they are calmer ones. The addition of positive reinforcement (a reward such as scratching and/or titbit) can improve their motivation to perform and change their way of going to something that is more optimistic and less defensive. For steering and contact related issues, rewarding the horse when they are relaxed and in the channel of your aids is one approach, target training your horse and having an assistant call them to their target for a reward (even over a jump) can seriously increase their motivation to pay attention and respond to your signals provided they are called to the target as they (attempt) to respond to you. The net result of this is a new and optimistic association with the ridden situation, and experience of positive emotions helping to improve the performance and the horse and rider experience.
Weaving, and related behaviours of head nodding/tossing, box walking and fence pacing are all about frustration, frustration because there is an obstacle blocking the path to the horse’s goal. That goal might be to get more room to exercise, many horses let rip with a kick and a buck after being cooped up. But it’s even more fun with friends. Many stables don’t allow for physical contact between neighbours, and almost as many only allow a limited view of others such as only when the horse pops their head over the door. Research demonstrates that such living conditions are indeed a source of chronic stress http://www.sciencedirect.com/…/article/pii/S0031938415001146. Other research shows that horses choose to stay active and be out for longer when turned out in company. Since incidence and duration of weaving behaviour can be reduced by careful use of stable mirrors and/or windows to neighbouring stables and other surroundings ( https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10856785 ), the social aspect of this frustration related behaviour is highly significant to the horse – hardly surprising since they are social animals 😉 Mutually compatible group housing had the best effect on reducing stress in Yarnell’s research in the first link above.
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.
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.
I’ve been prompted to think a bit more about these. I don’t usually, because they are always there, right on the noses and other whiskered parts of my horses. I see them everyday so I don’t really, if you get my drift?
Whiskers are important sensory tools for horses, helping them feel their way as they bring their noses and mouth parts into close contact with edible and non-edible parts of their environment. Feeling what can be pushed vigorously aside or what can be pulled into the mouth by those tough, prehensile, finger-like lips of theirs. Also feeling for what ought to be avoided, brambles in the long grass perhaps?
So whiskers are really useful; an integral part to happy, functional horse lives. I like to think of them as being just like our finger tips. We use them in much the same way, to guide our grasping fingers towards or away from items as required. They stop us burning our hands, remind us to clean our touch screen devices, even enable to help us pick blackberries without squashing them or pricking ourselves. Blackberries?! Oh yes! My horses are keen on those too, and their leaves and soft shoots. Their whiskers help them in just the same way as our finger tips do in that seasonally delicious activity!
When I first wrote this my son Sam was 16 months old, and was exploring the possibilities of scaling the sofa. I was grateful for the spellchecker as I divided my attention between writing this article and supervising my eager toddler. Now he goes into nursery school and just about remembers to give me a kiss goodbye!
Naturally horse mothers have the same job, in the wild this is often shared with the band’s stallion and older brothers, sisters and cousins, aunts and grandmas. The mother isn’t just a food source, but that secure base for the infant horse to explore the world from. The foal feels brave enough to do this because he knows his mother and all the herd family are there for him, as his protectors and comforters. It’s perhaps no surprise that after any excitement a foal always goes to his mother to suckle. This isn’t just for nourishment but for comfort too. Nursing is associated with the effect of “appeasing pheromones” secreted from between the mares’ udders in the early weeks that both facilitate bonding, and have a calmative effect. Suckling will always be associated with these two things as a result, and will balance out life’s stresses, restoring the ability to relax.
*You can use Confidence EQ – a calming pheromone product to help the artificial weaning process be less stressful. The American equivalent, Modifier Mist has been tested.
Clearly weaning is a very significant life stage for the horse; it’s about nutritional and emotional independence! Being able to cope without Mum, the secure base. Normal biological adaptation is for foals to move entirely onto solid food anytime from 10 or 11 months, just before a little brother or sister is due. But like everything natural there is variation! Some youngsters may still nurse as yearlings and two year olds – often as a quick comforter.
Natural weaning happens in two stages. The nutritional phase comes first. Mum begins to get more impatient with her big baby and begins to walk off more often and behave aggressively, usually around a month prior to giving birth to the next foal. This is because milking and the last stages of pregnancy come at a high energy cost to her. The key thing is it’s the foal’s attempts to nurse that are rejected, not the foal. The mare will still accept her offspring’s close contact and enjoy other interactions.
The second phase is emotional independence. The foal, who is now a juvenile only becomes completely independent of mother somewhere between 18 months and 4 years when they are sexually mature and leave voluntarily in search of their own mates. The typical wild horse novel has the band stallion drive out the young, especially colts. However I’ve been watching hill ponies go through this process and it’s a more gradual thing. Youngsters go wandering, they meet other herds, they come back home again, and then they repeat their explorations. Then one day, most of them just move out for good. Just like us really! And just like us, there is sometime a filly who stays with her mum way into adulthood.
So what about when we wean our foals? It’s October now, many will be weaned already and others will be planning to. How do we accommodate each phase of weaning, nutritional and emotional independence? Without causing undue distress and future behavioural problems? There are many blogs and articles about the negative consequences of artificial weaning: gastric ulcers, separation anxiety, onset of crib biting, increased fear behaviour – get on Google and fill your boots. But I want to be positive and helpful here! So what if we just begin by asking:
Why am I weaning my foal(s)?
How soon do I actually have to do it?
What other adult horses do I have available for my foal’s emotional support?
Does my foal already know them?
Barring accidents and ill health there is usually a right time for everything.
Here’s a case study: M was a surprise foal. Her mum, R was bought in foal, but her owner was blind to this fact, so was the vendor! It happens, the same thing also happened with a friend of my aunt. When R foaled she was kept alone in her paddock, so only had M for company. A few months later, Bay arrived, recently abruptly weaned from her mother. Now M had a playmate and the threesome took a few weeks to settle together. A while later on R, M and Bay moved to the owner’s new land, and were integrated with the owner’s gelding, Big M and not long after, C a three year old filly. Now there was a herd and they got along pretty well withing weeks. M was now aged around 6 months, the traditional time for weaning. There was a pressure on her owner to wean her – lots of advice was given, not all of it asked for. We all get that from time to time! M’s owner decided to let M get a few months older, and then an experiment was tried with putting M in the next paddock to her mum, R. Post and rail fencing and mutual desire for nursing meant that they found a way to continue – which simply informed their owner that neither were ready for this step. So the two were reunited and carried on life in the herd. At a little over a year of age the owner began to realise she wasn’t seeing M nursing, that M was spending more time with the other horses, and that she could take R out to begin work, and there was little disturbance over this. So R’s work gradually increased and life went on. Nutritional weaning complete and emotional weaning well under way.
Olympics time again! But what does it take to be a globe trotting top competition horse? What psychological abilities does a performance horse need to deal with all the travelling and constant change and still be at the top of their game?
One: Habituation. The horse must be able to relax and be comfortable enough to work, rest and sleep in a variety of locations. Horses that frequently travel long distances tend to be less inclined towards becoming unduly stressed by long haul road and air trips. Familiarity with a variety of surroundings, and enough curiosity to engage with new places without fear are also important features in a horse who needs to be attentive to a rider competing at the highest level.
How would I prepare my prospective sports horse? From an early age I would make sure they were exposed to standing and resting in enclosed places like stables and horse boxes so that they can habituate to being in them. To help them along I’d want them to have the company of their mother and/or other reliable and relaxed herd mates who are already habituated – social learning is the tops here! I’d also gear their early learning to exploring new places, surfaces, sights, sounds and smell – letting them explore, not forcing them to.
Two: Social skills. For regular competitions the horse may well be travelling with the horses he or she lives and trains alongside, and so the travelling companion is a familiar buddy. The trip to Rio involved being boxed alongside an unfamiliar companion, from another stable or even another national team. Being able to rub along with new horses without anxiety would be an advantage to a horse who will need to be able to perform at their best within days of arrival in Brazil.
How would I prepare? Allowing young horses a more natural weaning, and growing up in a herd enables the development of key social skills which will help them get along with new horses that they meet later in life. Meeting new horses around 18 months to 3 or 4 years of age matches the timing of dispersing with other youngsters from mum’s herd in the wild. These youngsters are ready to go their own way in life, with buddies old and new.
Three: Resilience. Performing in one place one week, then within the month, being transported to another area entirely and performing well there too requires resilience. The sports horse needs to be a survivor, confident in their ability to solve problems thrown their way. Learning that they can predict and deal with adverse events helps them to do this, especially when unavoidable unpleasant events are sweetened a little.
How would I encourage this? Make sure that routines are predictable, that horses have reliable cues for everything humans require of them, that management is centered around the behavioural (ethological) needs of the horse, and that learning theory is used appropriately. Horses learn how to behave to avoid aversive stimuli, and to gain rewards (correct positive and negative reinforcement). That they are never trapped in frustration, fear and confusion: This will increase distress, anxiety and depression, the very enemies of resilience.
Four: Positive Mental Attitude. Horses who are optimistic anticipate they will be successful, even when presented with a new challenge. Horses who lead lives where they are frequently and reliably rewarded for their behaviour, and have freedom of choice and control over their basic living activities such as sleeping, eating, socialising, and staying safe will be more likely to have a positive mental attitude because positive emotional experiences bring about a positive mood state.
How do I make sure my horses’ glasses are half full? I enrich my horses’ living environment with free opportunities to socialise and to forage amongst a variety of safe fibre based foods (I’d use highly digestible super fibres and oil to fuel the requirements of a performance horse). Then when I train them I pay attention to fitness and correct gymnastic development, and have a hierarchy of training methods: positive reinforcement>negative reinforcement>punishment.
I wrote a blog over on one of my sister sites, the Gower Pony Experience. It was about play behaviour in the hill ponies: https://gowerponyexperience.wordpress.com/2016/02/03/horseplay/
Just after I wrote the blog I went out to work, one on one, with a young horse I’ve been producing for a client over the past year. He had me thinking about energy, how it goes up and down, and that my responsibility as a horse trainer is to keep that energy on an even keel. Just like in the natural games of the hill ponies; play ebbs and flows according to how each partner feels and responds to the other. Monty Roberts describes horses as approach and retreat animals. Using techniques that approach and retreat can help keep that energy on an even keel. But of course I am a natural horsemanship hater, so I’m being pretty generous mentioning Monty?
I watched and documented natural horse behaviour before I was ever involved with NH. I never saw hill ponies doing any kind of join up with the young members of their groups. I never saw ponies playing the seven games of natural horsemanship. But I did see play and other social interactions working in an advance and retreat, in an ebb and flow as ponies responded to each other. Because I had watched and documented natural horse behaviour, and because I knew from being a student of animal welfare science, I knew I wanted my horsemanship to be as natural as possible for what sometimes gets called an unnatural relationship – a human controlling a horse.
This brings me back to the young horse. In the past year I have taken him out and about exploring the world beyond the yard gate. The world around has changed through the seasons, cattle in a field one month, sheep the next, the hedge gets cut, the farmers harvest their silage, the telecommunications guys dig up the road, the community veg growers lay their hedge, the neighbours put up and take down fairy lights. All sorts of novel experiences for a young horse to explore and learn about, in all weathers.
Yes I have applied some learning theory so he knows some actions to go with some cues, so I can direct him about a bit. But we have gone closer to natural behaviour. I let the youngster set the pace of his discovery of the world around him. When he was keen to explore I went with him and flowed along with his energy. I did my best to be the parent, and give him a secure base to gain confidence from. When his energy was ‘stuck’ or ‘blocked’ (pick your own description) I went first with an air of quiet curiosity – he needed reassurance of safety and what better than to be a good example. So I never dragged or lured him up to anything; all his approaches were his own authentic learning. He would look and smell and touch, and get to know what was around him. When he relaxed I’d reward him – hey, it’s nice to be out, and move on. When he was relaxed I upped the tempo of our ride and helped him discover the joy of forward movement, and find that bringing him back to a more boring pace could be rewarding too. When he was unsure about his situation, but did what I asked, I rewarded him. With nurturing he became a more and more willing partner, enjoying his excursions into the local countryside and becoming braver and more knowing.
Journeys with horses allow time for nature. Natural horsemanship hater?