Last week I welcomed Blue Cross Swift to my little herd. She’ll be a temporary visitor as another step on her way to a happier and more secure future.
It all began a couple of weeks ago, the result of online collaboration helped along by social media. One of my colleagues, Lisa Ashton of EquiCoach works with Blue Cross, providing staff with training and coaching in applying modern, evidence based horse training methods. She’d been helping the team train Swift to be more positive towards people and to cooperate with handling using reward based techniques via clicker training. Lisa shared Swift’s story with her Facebook group, Coffee with Horse Lovers. The story was that Swift really needed a home where her new people would avoid pressure to coerce Swift and would use positive reinforcement to encourage her cooperation.
The story was given even more power by another colleague, also my long term friend and mutual support in the world of horses, Helen Spence at Helen Spence Horse Sense. Helen joined Swift’s story in November when she was hosted by Blue Cross for workshops exploring her ‘Golden Triangle’ of horse behaviour, exploring the interaction between emotions, behaviour and training, adding another layer to the work of the Blue Cross team and further underlying the importance of protecting and promoting Swift’s emotional life. Swift definitely needed a home with low human expectation, and space to grow. So the social media machine redoubled its efforts, I stepped in and Horse and Hound wrote all about it!
So last week Swift arrived, so ably handled by her lovely, dedicated groom, Ann who showed me how she had trained Swift so I can offer familiar signals to her even though the rest of me is clearly unfamiliar. We turned her out in one half of the field so she could see the others and them, her. Then later on I turned Penny in with her so she could begin to make a bond and feel safe.
Let the next chapter begin!
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.
Please note the vehicle is secured on blocks!
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.