Tag Archives: Horse

Meet Swift

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!

Loading… Because we want to

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!

Right Turn Clyde!

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.

4 Key Behavioural Attributes of the International Sports Horse #RoadtoRio

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.