Jun 102016
 

First of all, we would like to thank everyone that took part in our survey. There were one or two dissenting voices and, sadly, one person descended into a personal attack on one of the survey’s authors; nevertheless, in general, the reception was positive.
Just to clear up one or two points raised:
We are sorry that not all the answers in the multiple choice questions suited everyone – occasionally choices have to be made when setting questions and, as anyone who has taken part either in professional psychological tests or simple online quizzes will confirm, at times we are given to choose from something not entirely appropriate to our own situation. We could possibly have given an “other” option a little more often…
A few people felt the questions to be biased. The questions were reviewed by equine professionals, amateurs and even the veterinary profession and we have made a concerted effort to avoid bias; the personal opinions of those involved in the survey should have no place in the actual results. One source of confusion over this matter may be the fact that questions were “streamed”; where there was an either/or choice, subsequent questions would relate to the principal answer. However, the questions remained essentially the same (for example, someone who used a bit was asked why, someone who didn’t was asked why not). Again, maybe some explanation at the start of the survey might have been better.
The results are not intended to reflect what is good nor what is bad: we are not seeking to divide opinion nor to take any side in an argument with this survey; we simply want to present a picture of the current welfare situation of the horse. Remember, welfare is not the same for everyone: one considers stabling essential, another an abomination, one considers barefoot to be the right choice, another finds shoes a necessity. Whatever the personal perception, we have tried to portray the variety of ways horses’ welfare is approached without being judgemental.
Although the survey has been posted within differing disciplines, the actual demographics are a little more complicated. Just which discipline stables more or shoes less, who feeds what and when, these things are neither represented nor asked in the survey. This alone prevents jumping to conclusions about who might be “better” for their horse – a question that, as has already been stated, is not being posed.

So, what are the initial results?

Stabling:

  • a larger number of respondents indicated that they keep their horses out 24/7 with only 1/5 stabling their horses; from reactions to the questionnaire, it is probable that a number of owners responded with 24/7 since they do not stable all year around.
  • of those stabling, nearly 90% stable at night, although more than a third of these said they reverse the situation at certain times of the year, keeping their horses in during the day and turning out at night.
  • only one person said they always turn out at night.
  • more than 10 % of respondents said their horses are never turned out.

Turnout:
of those horses stabled

  • a small majority has between 6 and 12 hours turnout
  • a little under ⅓ of stabled horses being turned out for up to 18 hours
  • just under 10% are turned out for somewhere up to 6 hours a day
  • only one horse is shown as spending more than 18 hours a day on turnout
  • as already recorded, more than 10% are never turned out

for all horses, stabled and not stabled – but, of course, not including those not turned out:

  • just 5% are segregated in their own paddock or field; the reasoning was not specifically questioned
  • a very small majority is turned out with one or two other horses
  • more than 40% is turned out in a larger group – these two last groups account for over 90% of the horses represented
  • 5 horses have the company of other animals including donkeys, cattle, chickens, goats, sheep and dogs – although two are apparently also in the company of a different sort of horse!

Feeding:

  • nearly ⅔ of horses has unrestricted access to grass, slightly more than those with unrestricted access to hay (57%)
  • more than 20% of owners restricts access to grass whereas just over 10% restricts hay access
  • about 6% of owners allow their horses brief grazing with slightly fewer not allowing any grazing
  • between 4% and 5% of owners each fed hay once, thrice or four times a day with a very small majority in this group that feeds twice a day
  • more than 5% of owners never feeds hay

grains/cereals:

  • just two horses are fed grains/cereals ad lib – the authors are not sure whether this is actually the case, or whether the answer was misunderstood.
  • 17% feeds their horses restricted grains/cereals – this could possibly be categorised with the following:
  • over 40% feed once or twice a day – the numbers being divided almost equally
  • a large number but by no means a majority (38%) never feeds grains/cereals

supplements:

  • nearly ⅔ of owners gives their horse supplements, of these
  • ⅔ give once a day and ⅓ twice (just 1 and 2 people respectively give 4 and 3 times a day)
  • the supplements given vary widely although often they appear to be of a “general” nature. Very few owners indicate that they use specific makes. Magnesium and turmeric (curcuma) feature fairly regularly, as does vitamin E – only one instance is given of giving vitamin C. Other fairly specific mentions worth noting are biotin, zinc and copper and selenium. Although nobody specifically recorded iron, there was one owner that gave seaweed.

salt/mineral licks:

  • 4/5 of owners give their horses access to a salt lick – a third of these also offer a mineral lick
  • the remaining 1/5 give a mineral lick alone.

Activities:

  • Few people seem to take part in competition with any regularity, harness racing being almost completely absent!
  • A slightly larger group rides in harness recreationally but by far the most popular activity is recreational outdoor riding over short distances
  • Freestyling is fairly evenly spread among the occasionals, sometimes’ and the mostlies – although, when considering other demographics, a slightly surprising 35% never practices freestyle

frequency:

  • More than a third of respondents is active more than 16 hours a week with just under 40% active between 8 and 16 hours
  • Just 7½% fall into the category of less than 4 hours.

Feet:

The singling out any group within this survey was never the intention and probably nowhere is more prone to the pointing finger than within the sphere of the horse’s hoof. For this reason, although the figures are extant from the point of channeling the questions, the actual split shod/unshod is not discussed.

the shod horse:

  • a fairly even split – more than 60% total – indicated that their horse would go lame or his feet would wear down too fast without shoes
  • just over 10% felt their horse needed them for competition despite it not being a requirement, with less than 5% citing competitions that do require shoes
  • a fraction under 9% cites poor/crumbly/split hooves as the reason for needing to shoe
  • nearly 18% had been advised by a professional to apply orthopædic shoes – more than 10% being the vet
  • a small number cited comfort as a reason for shoeing; arthritis and acute laminitis being others

the unshod horse:

  • less than 5o% has always been barefoot
  • more than ¾ believe shoes to be damaging to the horse
  • over 12% cite the restricted amount or absence of riding as a reason for not shoeing
  • maybe surprisingly more farriers advised barefoot than vets but the total number of cases was appreciably smaller than advice to shoe.
  • transition experiences varied, some took a long time, others were almost instant. In general, 6 months seems to be a normal period
  • more than 60% considered using hoof boots of which nearly 20% ended up not
  • the overwhelming majority cite the reason for boots as being difficulty on stony or rocky terrain with ¼ citing transition difficulties.
  • nearly 25% has stopped using boots; 50% still use them but only on difficult/long rides.

Bits:

The use, or not, of bits was fairly even – a tiny majority choosing bitless over a bit.
Most people seemed to prefer the bit for the control they experienced, but this was also the general reason given by those who didn’t bit ! Several people expressed a desire to go bitless but said they hadn’t (yet) got the confidence. Nearly 60% of those who used a bit, said that they also rode bitless. The most used bit was the snaffle or a derivation thereof while the most used bitless setup was the sidepull.

Finally, 97% of people said that the horse weaned naturally from its mother between 6 and 24 months with a small majority indicating 6 – 12 months.
Although a clear majority, well over three-quarters, said the horse was fully grown at between 5 and 8 years – with 3 – 5 and 8 – 15 each taking a 10% share –  nearly 40% considers a horse capable of being ridden at between 3 and 5 years with 55% choosing 5 – 8. Just two people felt 6 – 12 and 12 – 24 months to be possible.

Over 47% considered a horse to be old at between 22 and 27 years with just over 30% placing the old horse between 27 and 35. Just 6% placed the old horse above 35 years, considerably less than the 15% that felt the 15 – 22 year old was old; although only two people put the age at 8 – 15.
These figures tend to correlate with the perceived average age at which a horse dies, 36% saying 22 – 27 and 33% saying 27 – 35. The latter seems to be something of a limit – just 11 people thought the average age of death to be over 35. It was rather disheartening to see how many people chose a lower age, well over ¼ putting it at under 22.

Most people again placed the life expectancy of the horse in the 27 – 35 bracket although now a third went for the 35 – 42 age range. Just over 5% considered it to be over 42 – nobody placed it below 15. This last was surprising since 1% felt the longevity to be in this bracket. In general, it appears that respondents felt longevity to be one bracket higher than life expectancy although 12.5% put it above 50.

Responses were received from, in no specific order, Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Hungary, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Tanzania, UK, USA

 

We would like to thank everyone that has taken part; the survey is still open and will remain so until the last week of June and the final – full – analysis should be available by mid September.

Jul 082014
 
This article was first published by Sabots Libres: Ban on Stabling Horses in the Netherlands

In a public ordnance dated 5 June 2014, published in “Het Staatsblad van het Koninkrijk de Nederlanden” issue 210, year 2014, is a clearly defined ban on the keeping of horse in stables or boxes.

Specifically:

Article 1.6 The Keeping of Animals 

1. An animal’s freedom of movement may not be restricted in such a way that the animal experiences unnecessary suffering or injury.

2. An animal must be provided with adequate space for its physiological and ethological requirements.

 

Article 1.8 Housing

1. A building where animals are kept, must provide adequate light and darkness to fulfil the ethological and physiological requirements of the animal.

 

In order to fulfil its ethological and physiological requirements, a horse cannot be kept in a box or stable. Lighting and darkness in stables and boxes and the space they offer is inadequate for the requirements of the horse.

Sadly. the law, and the interpretation thereof, are two different things. It is unlikely that the animal police will take any action where the majority of horses are stabled, even where the boxes are too small.

Apr 242014
 

This article was originally published on the Sabots Libres website

20140424-152122.jpg

We live in a world of almost endless possibilities. The internet has given us access to information in a way that only twenty years ago was impossible. Vast libraries of books have found their way onto the electronic highway and although not always absolute in its accuracy, Wikipedia is almost as expansive – and accurate – as that highly revered (if fictional) publication, the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
Add to this the gigantic increase in the popularity of social media in the past 5 years (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr etc.) and the ability to research and exchange information has outgrown our ability to process it all. And suddenly a host of dangers present themselves; we don’t always possess the discipline to pursue a line of thought before publishing it as true – and millions more people believe every word of what they read without question. Case in point is all the hype around Monsanto; without wishing in any way to condone Monsanto, it is notable that people are starting to attribute all manner of disputable products with the company despite Monsanto not having anything to do with them!
And similar things are happening in the field of barefoot horses (I use this phrase to avoid associating with any particular trimming method). Hundreds of photographs are posted daily in fora and on Facebook of variously trimmed or untrimmed hooves asking for advice or confirmation. And a world of “specialists” is sitting on the sidelines waiting to dispense varying diagnoses, suggestions, warnings and arguments – purely on the basis of a (frequently poorly shot) photograph!
Obviously the horse owner has the choice to ignore all this commentary – then again, why did he post the picture in the first place? Usually for confirmation that he is treading the right path, only to be inundated with – often fatuous – remarks about this hoof, a history of hooves and just about any hoof in general… But worst of all are the “…you need to…” comments dishing out advice that most owners would be better off without.
Not that all the advice is necessarily bad, but it is often conflicting, frequently confusing and usually conjecture. Trim a bit more here, rasp a bit more there; the heels are too high/low and the frog should be shorter/longer/thinner/thicker… And here is a magic template to solve all your woes. But these people have never seen the hoof in question live.
20140424-152233.jpgI have a dark raised mark on my arm; if I was to post a picture of it on the internet I would get all manner of reactions declaring it to be a mole, to have been jabbed with a pencil (my mother’s favourite!), to be a malignant melanoma or an alien implant… In fact, I have no idea what it is other than I have had it for longer than I remember and it never changes – so I leave it alone! Which is what we should do with all these hoof photos on the web… If you’ve been there, touched it, scraped it with a hoof knife and been able to evaluate with your own eyes, ok. Otherwise, try and refrain from speculation and conjecture. I know of at least two people who have ended up crippling their horses, admittedly through their own stupidity, but at the behest of all these internet advisors.

Jul 122013
 

With the explosive increase in people using social media, such as Facebook, I find myself being sent an array of video clips from You Tube. Usually these are accompanied by a message that says “Isn’t this amazing?”, “Isn’t this funny?” or “Isn’t this terribly cruel?”. However, often the message is totally inappropriate considering the content. Although the sender thinks I’ll be impressed, in the, grammatically incorrect, words of the song ‘It don’t impress me much’.

Flying donkey

One of the first things I was sent with a totally inappropriate comment was a photo of a donkey hitched to a cart with a load so heavy that the donkey is hanging in the air from his/her harness (www.onefunsite.com/donkey.shtml). My friend sent me this picture with a message saying “This is so funny, I know you like donkeys so you’ll love this!”. I didn’t love it or find it amusing. It so vividly illustrates some of the problems working equines face – hard work, heavy loads, often in extremes of temperatures with little opportunity for shade or rest. Their owners are usually dependent on these animals to earn enough money to feed their families. I was shocked and saddened that this was being circulated as something funny – and that my friend thought that I’d actually like it!

Nearly 10 years later I had just started working at the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and a video version of the same scenario was circulating – as a ‘funny video’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gCs8-PU4qg). I wrote to one of the newspapers that was promoting it in their online video section: I highlighted the plight of the donkey in the scene and they replied saying that it’s what their readers enjoy! Judging by the thousands of views and comments, they were right.

Last year I was visiting The Palestinian Territories in my role at WSPA, working with the Palestine Wildlife Society in their community project to improve equine welfare. They are partnering with donkey owners in Bethlehem and surrounding areas to explore together what changes they could make to the way they manage and care for their donkeys, mules and horses to improve their welfare and quality of life. One of the community representatives approached me with a mobile phone and showed me the same video of the donkey mentioned above. I thought that he also finds it ‘funny’ and that I’d use the opportunity to discuss overloading with the owners. However, he showed me the clip and then said, through an interpreter, “Isn’t it so terrible? Does the owner not care? Does he know not to load the cart that much?” I was very moved – at least not everyone finds it amusing.

Does the means justify the end?

A more recent example of a video clip with an inappropriate message is a video of a horse competing at high level dressage. Apparently the horse was trained using clicker training and I was sent this as an example of something impressive because so many people know I promote reward-based training methods.

Watching the video I observed a highly stressed horse, mouthing, swishing tail, very tense. I was not impressed. “But he was trained using clicker training” – Don’t get me wrong I think that in the right hands clicker training can be a wonderful and positive training experience for human and horse. However, clicker training can also be done in a way that is not a positive experience for the horse. Maybe the horse had learnt some movements through clicker training, but was it done well? Did the trainer work for long periods frustrating the horse to get the desired movement? Was the horse given the opportunity to walk away to graze or have a break when he wanted to? The video showed a very ‘unhappy’ horse, irrespective of if clicker training was used.

Naturally nagged

A third, and final, example is a natural horsemanship video that was beautifully edited, with soulful music, showing a lady riding a horse bareback and bridle-less. The horse lies down on command and other similar tricks – accompanied by a message “How lovely, something for us all to aspire to”. Again, what does observing the horse tell us? To me the horse looked hyper-vigilant and tense, looking for every subtle cue from his owner. This is most likely the result of being trained so extensively using negative reinforcement that the horse has stopped thinking for himself or exercising choice and has become ‘shut down’, like a robot. Impressive perhaps – but only because this shows how horses can learn to respond to subtle cues.

Impressions

Of course it is generally inappropriate to make assumptions about what happens during the rest of the animals’ lives and training sessions apart from just the few minutes in these videos. However, we should always encourage people to consider what the horses are telling us in such footage rather than the message from the person sharing it.

It is interesting and sad that people are so impressed by what we can make horses do and not by what they do just by being horses. Why do we find it so impressive when a human can train a horse lie down? Because people intrinsically know that as a prey species this is a big deal for a horse? Many people consider dressage to take the horse’s natural movement and put it under control of the rider. However, behaviour is only normal and natural if it is done in context and for the ‘normal’ amount of time. Thus a horse in a field spinning quickly to avoid a threat is natural, spinning repeatedly as a trick is not – yet people so often find such abnormal behaviour impressive.

So, what would impress me?

What would I forward on to other people as an impressive horsemanship? What would I aspire to? I think the answer goes something like this: A video clip showing a group of horses grazing in a large open space. A human approaches and one of the horses leaves the herd and approaches the person with relaxed body language suggesting this is because he wants to, not because he feels he has to. The horse is greeted with a big scratch. Then horse and owner walk off together, exploring the landscape, sometimes walking, sometimes riding. If they meet an obstacle that the horse is unsure of the human lets the horse take his time to consider the situation, rewards calm behaviour and they calmly continue on their way. The horse is allowed to graze and browse, the human might take time to photograph the landscape but the horse quietly waits because they are used to spending such calm time together and as such he isn’t having to watch the human for every small command she might give. This is the type of video I would think as something to aspire to – but I suspect it would never get a million hits on YouTube.

Jun 172013
 
foundered hooves

Foundered hooves: neglect?

A recent film published on the Internet by an equine welfare organization managed to stir up a little dust during the past week. Obviously I won’t mention the organization since in general they do sterling work but I think the film and associated comments worthy of attention.

Basically it was a short piece of film about some equids that had – principally – grotty feet. The immediate reaction from the person filming was that it was a sad case of really serious neglect; a typical and understandable reaction. Unfortunately, the film was too short to be able to make a good evaluation but the attention went almost exclusively to the feet.

So, why mention it here on this particular equine welfare site? Because I feel that all too often we evaluate from a human perspective rather than an equine one. Even large (inter)nationally renowned welfare organizations such as the RSPCA and WSPA are prone to anthropomorphism, or at least projection, when evaluating (some) situations.

There are times when we want it too good for our animals. Clean drinking water at no less than 18°C, top quality almost laboratory standard food, regularly washed and scrubbed to insure clean and pristine fur/hair… And what do our animals do? Horses roll in mud, dogs roll in horse muck… Both often prefer to drink from a pool rather than clean tap water – dogs regularly going for the most stagnant there is! Surely this should tell us something.

unattended hooves

Unattended hooves: neglect?

Coming back to the film – what worried me most was that the “reporter” had drawn personal conclusions about the situation apparently based upon one thing, the hooves. Although little attention was paid to it, there was some footage which seemed to show an appreciable expanse of ground, part paddock and part grass, with plenty of shade. No water troughs were to be seen but that is not evidence that there weren’t any.

So there was shade; possibly water; vegetation providing some, if not all, nourishment. The “only” apparent problem was the grotty feet and possibly a rather slow change of coat. Now I am the first one to admit that the hooves did not look good – they were overgrown and misformed. Having said that, I have seen enough ponies which have apparently been well looked after but have succumbed to misformed feet often through too much care than not enough. It is therefore very dangerous to stamp a situation with the word neglect simply on the basis of “having a look around.” On the other hand, at the first signs of possible neglect, then it is also wise to keep an eye on the situation and take action once things really begin to become clear.

I would like to make it very clear, I feel very strongly that animals should be kept in the best possible conditions but that they also should be appropriate to that animal. I would also rather someone reported a possible case of neglect than ignored an obvious case.

horse in water

Field under water: neglect?

Finally, a lot was played on the state of the hooves talking of the animals being in great pain, of the old adage “no hoof, no horse” and so forth. To put it into perspective, both the animals were moving around in such a way that pain probably would not be a major factor, if any at all; they were on softer ground which does not give adequate abrasion to naturally form the hooves; and “no hoof, no horse” is also a rather dated idea coming from the farriers who need hoof to be able to shoe a horse. In reality, the hoof is nothing more than a fingernail or toenail and as with humans, the nail will grow back; a more appropriate adage would probably be “no sole, no horse”.

Your thoughts and ideas on and provoked by this article are very welcome.

Jun 092013
 

There must be something in the air at the moment; I was recently expounding the virtues of delaying a horse’s training under the saddle only to come across an article last week on The Horse website talking about (race)horse performance at 2, 3 and 5 years related to lesions.

The cause was at that moment of little interest, the age of the horses was. Should we be riding at such immature ages?

Despite being worlds apart, the racehorse industry and the home-hack do have one main thing in common, the wish to turn their beautiful horse into a beautiful rideable horse as soon as possible. After all, most of us don’t just want to look at our horse…

There is plenty of motivation to start early too. In dressage, there is a minimum age at which a horse may compete; according to FEI regulations for international dressage competition, it is six years but for many national events, the rules are different with the minimum age being as low as three. And when one considers horse-racing, the ages are even lower – the racing of two-year-olds is quite commonplace which requires them to be saddled up for the first time when they are not much older than 1½.

For the professional trainer and owner, it is all a question of money. Often the horse is – or can become – quite valuable. Keeping a horse costs money (ironically, for the owners of such horses, it is often just a fraction of their earnings) and the natural desire is to see the horse earn its keep as soon as possible. And eventually, a racehorse can be put out to stud and earn yet more that way – these days not even needing to attain a respectable age with the ability to freeze sperm – but the health of the horse is never the greatest consideration.

So what about the mere mortals of this world? Most horse owners will agree that a horse should not be ridden until it is about 4 years old. A respectable age, one could say; the horse is obviously no longer a foal and is more likely to grow outwards than upwards. However, the growth plates are still a long way off being closed. The last plates will close somewhere between 5½ and eight years old – and it is specifically these growth plates that are found in the back of the horse – all 32 of them!

Most growth plates lie across the weight bearing plane – think of knees, ankles, shoulders etc. – and are less affected by the carriage of weight. But the growth plates in the back lie parallel to the weight bearing plane whereby the back is easily streched and thus can suffer under the weight of the rider.

skeleton of the horseTo clarify, this is the order and the approximate age at which the growth plates close up:

1. Birth: distal phalanx (coffin bone)

2. Birth and six months: middle phalanx

3. Between six months and 1 year: proximal phalanx

4. Between 8 months and 1½ years: metacarpals/metatarsals (cannon bones)

5. Between 1½ and 2½ years: carpal bones

6. Between 2 and 2½ years: radius-ulna

7. Between 2½ and 3 years: ulna/femur, section that carries weight above the radius; tibia

8. Between 3 and 3½ years: humerus; bottom part of the femur

9. Between 3 and 4 years: pelvis begins to close, beginning with the extremities of the ischium, ilium and sacrum

10. Between 3½ and 4 years: lower part (that carries weight) of the scapula (shoulderblade)

; top neck vertebrae

12. From 4 years: tarsal bones then the growth plates between fibula and tibia (not without reason that 18th century literature forbade ploughing, crossing of deep mud and jumping for young horses)

13. Between 5½ and 8 years: vertebrae (the larger the horse and the longer the neck, the longer it takes for the growth plates to close up. For stallions, add another six months: this means a “warmblood” horse of about 17hh will not be fully grown until 8 years old.)

Of course, all this does not mean that we cannot do anything with our horses until they are eight, but it should certainly set us thinking about our training schemes.

For the professional horseworld, time is loss – except the economics are not taken into account. Maybe not so interesting for the racehorse owner – his horse is often little more than a money factory – but certainly for the livery and riding school owners. In much of Europe, the average age of a riding school horse is horrifically low and the general life-expectancy shows no correlation with what a horse should (healthily) be able to reach. Based upon the size of the animal and the size and rate of its heart etc., the horse has a potential life-expectancy of 50 years. Realistically a little lower at around 40 to 43 years. But a horrific number of horses has already been written off by the age of 20 – imagine writing off people when they get to 38 or 40…

Take a look at the table below – and decide for yourself which of the two columns fits your way of thinking best:

Begin training 3 years 7 years
Full potential 7 years 10 years
End “useful” life 18 years 35 years
Total work period 15 years? 25 years

Just by delaying the moment we start to ride by just 3 years, we can win 10 years in “useful” life. It makes you think…

 

Growth plate information: Timing and rate of skeletal maturation in horses, Dr Deb Bennett, 2005
“Useful Life” table: based on observations by Pierre Enoff, bio-mechanical engineer
Original article published in Dutch: http://www.kobolt.nl/gezondheid/leeftijd-bij-inrijden/   https://sabots-libres.eu/site/engagement/2013/leeftijd-bij-inrijden/

Jun 042013
 

Saff223May07.........Clicker training is one of the recent success stories of equestrianism. It makes use of a bridging signal to indicate the moment of the desired behaviour, followed by positive reinforcement. We are told that training with positive reinforcement is more ethical than training with negative reinforcement and/or punishment. We are told that positive reinforcement activates the pleasure circuits of the brain, releasing dopamine in a way totally distinct from the regions activated by techniques involving pressure and release. As clicker trainers we are adept at handling the various erroneous criticisms by sceptics – that horses in the wild do not use positive reinforcement, that hand-fed horses will be encouraged to bite, that understanding behavioural science predisposes us to being unfeeling scientists who can’t work with practical behaviour. We have horses who appear to engage in their training enthusiastically, sometimes they even don’t want us to end the session. It is just one long string of clicks and treats for us!

So what’s the problem?

Firstly there is the perception that clicker training can only be positive. We are giving a horse treats which is better than him having no treats. Therefore it is good. This is a somewhat simplistic view. Skinnerian stimulus-response chains do not take into account anything about the horse’s lifestyle and environment. In fact, Skinner seemed even to deny that they were relevant. If a horse pulls faces when you put his saddle on then you can clicker train him to make a happy face instead. If a horse won’t stand still in his stable you can target train him to stand motionless while you do things to him. You can train him to adopt dressage postures. You can train him to move at gaits that would require more advanced training if taught conventionally. You can train him not to respond to all manner of scary objects. You can even train him to lie down, permit you to lie down with him and take a great photo for your website. And so much more….

The trouble is that none of these training situations take into account the underlying reasons for the behaviour. The poorly-fitting saddle may be causing pain. The stabled horse may feel worried about a neighbouring horse. He may not have the right musculature to adopt the requested positions or perform advanced movements. He may learn to tolerate the scary objects but what if his fear of them is still greater than the pleasure of the treats? And lying down is all very well if he wants to do it but what about when the ground is hard or there is something in the vicinity which means he’d really rather not?

But horses wouldn’t do it if they didn’t want to?

This is the age-old question. It has been (and is) said of race-horses, show-jumpers, riding school horses, horses trained with natural horsemanship techniques and even the original process of domestication approximately six thousand years ago. Of course, these forms of horsemanship all include aversive stimuli, both physical and emotional, which provide some level of threat to the horse – “choose to do as I say, or else”. So the horse complies, apparently willingly, and the aversive stimulus can remain invisible to all but the most perceptive observer.

Clicker training is different because we are providing something pleasurable for the horse. We are absolved from guilt. Or are we? Domesticated horses have had a lifetime of complying with our wishes and they continue to do so when we pick up a clicker. The rules may have changed and we may be permitting the horse to offer a behaviour before confirming that it is the correct behaviour, but it is still the human who decides whether it is the correct behaviour. We want the horse to choose to offer behaviour spontaneously but it has to be the “right behaviour” – such mixed messages bestow a lot of emotional pressure on an animal who has previously been so well-conditioned to do as intstructed. It is like having “creative thinking” or “independent learning” timetabled at school (as indeed occurs these days), as though autonomy can be switched on and off. Good trainers who understand how to use variable schedules of reinforcement are then able to extract more and more behaviour out of the horse in return for the reward. This “Brave New World” of horse training can often be so blind to what the horse would really choose.

And then we have repetition. Just in case the horse is in any doubt as to who is calling the shots, some trainers seem to feel the need to train a behaviour over and over again. There seems to come a point where any pleasure circuitry triggered in the brain by the treats is more than compensated for by the conflict behaviours seen in the horse – the frustration and aggression, the sexual over-arousal, the boredom, the conditioned suppression, the worry. And the reason for this repetition is typically the perceived need for the horse to respond “less emotionally” or more “cleanly”. So our goal has become something coming dangerously close to the shut down automatons of some of the more aversive training methods we have tried to leave behind. What is going on?

The trouble with clicker training is that it is incredibly powerful. The trouble with horses is that the majority are very compliant because they wish to avoid conflict. It is very easy to evolve inadvertently from a novice clicker trainer, who wants to help her horse become more enthusiastic and have a more enriched life, to a more advanced clicker trainer who is looking for perfection and control and has rather forgotten why she started clicker training in the first place. I have never met anyone who actively clicker trains her horse because it is such a good way of exerting her authority. Yet that is so often how it has become. That desire to become a better and more achieving trainer just cannot help getting in the way of what is important to the horse. Yes, with clicker in one hand and treats in the other, we can become over-controlling, aversive stimuli who are actively, albeit inadvertently, working towards reduction of our horses’ autonomy and, hence, welfare.

And we haven’t even begun to talk about combining clicker training with negative reinforcement and punishment – that was the subject of a previous article so I shall spare you that this time…..

So what do I like about it?

Despite all these concerns, I really do rate clicker training very highly and would love to see it taken up by more people. Positive reinforcement (with or without a clicker) allows us to interact with horses in a way to which no other training method even comes close. But in order to tap into this wealth of potential, we really need to change our focus. We need to start again and look at what attracted us to clicker training in the first place.

When starting clicker training we tend to offer a neutral target; either through natural curiosity or by accident the horse touches it. He hears a click and receives a reward. After a few repetitions we see that incredible “light-bulb moment” as the horse works out what is happening. The horse realises that he can turn the human into a vending machine – it is the moment of a surge of self-confidence, empowerment and autonomy. As horse-loving owners/trainers we are hooked from this moment onwards. It is why we wanted to clicker train, we liked seeing our horses so happy and expressive. We liked the moment of being able to read our horses’ minds. I like clicker training when we stay in this place, when we don’t move out into the world of training behaviours just because we can, or over-training, or worrying about excessive stimulus control or trying constantly to deal with so-called behavioural problems.

When engaged in a simple free-shaping session, such as this, we are conveying a very powerful message to the horse. We are saying that he can choose to participate or not (even better if the session is in the field so grass is always available as an alternative to training). We are saying that he can earn rewards or opt not to earn rewards and nothing bad will happen, whichever option he chooses. We are saying that we will respect the decisions he makes, rather than trying to find alternative ways of obtaining compliance. The horse choosing to say “no” is not a slur on our training or on our relationship. It can be a sign that he is in good psychological health and feels sufficiently secure in his relationship with the owner that he can say “no”. After previous years of being conditioned to do as he is told, learning that he can opt to do or not to do something is incredibly liberating. When we turn clicker training into something bordering on authoritarian, we lose the most enlightened element of it – the opportunity to reinstate the horse’s autonomy. This is where clicker training has advantages in its ability to increase welfare; any technique using pressure and release cannot increase a sense of autonomy.

Despite being a strong advocate of positive reinforcement, often to the point of being misquoted as attempting a route of pure positive reinforcement, I have come to believe that autonomy is perhaps the most beneficial gift we can incorporate into our training. When positive reinforcement training is controlling and manipulative it erodes autonomy and diminishes the value of the rewards – it becomes a poisoned cue in itself. Horses have evolved to make many decisions for themselves – the erroneous idea that the majority of horses just blindly follow a leader is outdated – and there is no reason for this to have changed over the relatively brief period of domestication. Yet the vast majority of domesticated horses have no say in what they do when, are fed a prescribed diet at specific times and have no choice as to their companions. Indeed, the manner in which most horses are managed is contrary to even the most basic ethological time-budgets.

I do not pretend to use positive reinforcement all the time, but I reserve it for when I want to encourage my horse’s autonomy, alongside careful consideration of his evolutionary needs. I will use discrete and well-defined free-shaping sessions to reinforce the message that I will listen to my horse’s opinions. This is not to say that I will never over-ride my horse’s opinions because sometimes I do – afterall, none of us has autonomy 24/7 – but within a free-shaping session it is all his choice. The balance needs to be found where the horse has the self-confidence and trust in the owner that he can offer opinions confidently without feeling “shut down” if the opinions are over-ruled. I don’t use clicker training to train away problems or to train behaviours I actually care about training. I use clicker training to build a sufficiently strong relationship from which I can later use mild negative reinforcement when I feel it is appropriate. Obviously it depends very much on the horse as to how much of a balance must be struck between the need for free-shaping sessions and the appropriateness of incorporating mild pressure. In the early days of working with a new horse it may be that every interaction needs to be the horse’s decision. The long-term shaping plan will include being able to cope with direction from the human.

Free shaping allows the horse to behave in the most open and honest way, rather than just trying to avoid pressure whichever way he can. It is a means of communication, two-way communication as opposed to formal training. As a result, we are provided with the closest insight as to how a horse might be thinking. We can use this information to improve the life of the horse – we can learn about his learning style, what he likes and dislikes, how he values things, what he feels scared about. We can apply this information to any form of equestrianism in which we wish to participate – not to exploit and manipulate but to add value and reduce conflict.

I strongly believe that this approach to horsemanship is analogous to some of the methods used in human psychotherapy, most notably, the person-centred style of therapy pioneered by Carl Rogers (e.g. On Becoming a Person). There is also a beautiful description of such therapy applied to a six year old boy, thought to be mentally deficient but given the opportunity to develop a positive relationship with play therapist, Virgina Axline, and transform into the highly intelligent and advanced boy he was (Dibs: In Search of Self). This book shows the power of free-shaping in action and is remarkable for so many reasons, not least because the therapy took place for only one hour a week with the boy returned to a fairly aversive home life in between. Rogers believed that a therapeutic relationship hinged on three key factors – empathic understanding, genuineness and unconditional positive regard. While his earlier work studied the relationship between therapist and client, he later extended it to just about all relationships. I see no reason why this should not apply to horse-human relationships as well. Working with a troubled horse requires these same three attributes – an understanding of how that horse might be feeling, the patience to allow that horse to behave how he needs to behave without trying to manipulate or creating an agenda and respect and appreciation for every try that the horse makes. I think it’s fair to say that no equestrian discipline has these core points at the heart of the horse-human relationship. Yet…..

Catherine Bell is an equine behaviourist and independent barefoot trimmer with website http://www.equinemindandbody.co.uk and Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/ThinkingHorsemanshipForum

Nov 062012
 

The round pen, rope halter and lead rope. These combination of things seem to have become as much a part of each other as bit, spurs and whip have been over the course of many centuries. As opposed to bit and spurs, the round pen and the lead rope seems to have an image of kindness and friendliness whereas bits and spurs do not. “Working the horse gentle and without violence” is what I hear people say about it. When I ask people why it is so friendly, they mostly reply that it is natural to the horse to be handled in this way. Hence the term ‘Natural Horsemanship’ that is often used to describe a way of working with a horse with rope halter, rope and round pen.

Question is, is this way of working and handling the horse really natural from the horse’s point of view? What really is the effect on the horse’s physical and mental state?

Let us take a closer look at the biomechanics and mental factors behind working the horse in a round pen. I am now only going into the round pen itself. For my views and experiences concerning the rope halter, please read ‘bitless is not always bitless’.

Round versus square

In Europe we put horses behind or train them in square or rectangular paddocks, arena’s and picaderos since ancient history. Round penning or corrals seem to be associated with the ‘Far West’, the Cowboys and mustangs. Indeed, I presume the round shape is a good choice to chase in wild horses. Here I see a clear danger with corners either for the panicky horses themselves or the humans that need to handle them. Nowadays, the wild horse scene has become a rare image. Still the round pen is used and not only in the US, it has come to Europe. More and more we see the round pen being used for just one horse and often not a wild one at all. I have asked western trainers and trainers who call them selves horse whisperers or natural horsemanship trainers, why they use a round pen and not a square pen, to me known as a picadero or simple an arena. The answer I received was: “Because the horse can not ‘hide’ in the corners.” If there are any other reasons to it that you, reader, might know, please enlighten me. But so far, that is the only one I have heard over many years from many people. The horse can not ‘stop’ in the corners, or use the corners to change direction, brace himself etc. The use of the round pen, when googling, tells me it is first and foremost to ‘break (in)’ horses. Breaking a horse would indeed need a pen where he can not hide, stop or brace so that makes a lot of sense. However, where does that leave this ‘non violent’, ‘kind’, ‘gentle’ and ‘Natural’ training in relation to the round pen? I shall come back to that later.

First I would like to explain, why, if you want to work in a way that will benefit your horse, you better use a picadero (square pen). The answer to that is: because the corners benefit the horse’s physical development.

When a horse walks, trots or canters in a square or rectangular arena, every time he really goes through the corners, he lifts his shoulders and comes out of the corner more straight and uphill. Therefore the corners are a big part of the Gymnasium (= anciently known sequence of exercises that empowers the horse) for a horse who takes a corner produces a small Shoulder In. Shoulder in, is in fact a horse walking as if going through a corner, but then keeps his shape and walks in a straight line forward. Of course, when you work a horse free in a rectangular space which is to large, the horse will often cut the corners. That is why a picadero was invented. It is a square measuring 12 by 12 or 15 by 15 meters. Within the picadero, just following the track in walk, trot or canter will benefit your horse by lifting his shoulders each corner.

Horse correctly worked in a picadero with Body language, the corners help the horse to remain straight and balance in which he can go naturally uphill. Picture horsesandhumans.com

Hide and seek

The next benefit for your horse is the very thing which was called a disadvantage by users of round pens: The horse can ‘hide’ in the corners. So why would that be an advantage? Because you can learn about the best of way of handling that specific horse. If your horse seeks to evade you, he simply does not feel comfortable with you or sees any benefit in doing what you are asking. If your goal is the benefit of your horse, you are very happy with that knowledge. For you want to adjust your question or the situation thus ,so your horse does feel more comfortable. Only this way will he truly learn to trust you because he’ll know, the things you’ll ask him are for his benefit and never will harm him or cause him pain, fear or discomfort.

Horse able to go long and low because of correctly being supported by the corners of the picadero and the body language of the human. This way, the horse will not injure his shoulders. Also see: Forward and down: the story of the nuchal ligament. Photo: Horsesandhumans.com

Turning on the inside shoulder

“Okay, so the round pen does not have the benefit of the corners”, you might think, “so what”? Well, it is not just that the round pen lacks the benefit of the corners, it presents the horse with the exact opposite of this benefit. You see, the problem with the lack of corners produces a health hazard to the horse as soon as he starts walking, trotting or cantering along the track. Going round in circles is an unnatural move to a horse. A horse is shaped to eat from the ground and go, walk, trot and canter in sort of serpentine lines, never really round and never on a true straight line. In nature, just going straight constantly or round will never happen. So, the equine body is not equipped to do circles and straight lines. In a round pen however, the horse makes continuous circles. The effect of this will produce the following: The horse will pivot around his inside front leg and shoulder. This will, over the long run produce contra collection, crookedness and lameness. The horse will immobilise himself and will become very hard to work in hand or ride in lightness. By chasing a horse in a round pen, you chase the collection out of the horse and produce exactly the opposite.

Picture number 1: Horse chased in a roundpen completely pivoting around the inside foreleg. The only way to keep moving is to contract the lower neck muscles. This stagnete the use of the longissimus dorsi (long back muscles) and will put the horse in contra collection.

picture number 2: With this horse the problem has become even worse, his whole body falls to the inside, all the weight is on the inside foreleg. He therefore needs to keep his lower neck muscles contracted as to not tip over and fall on his nose.

Working the horse in hand in lightness

To help the horse develop his body in a way so that he can carry his human without harm up till at least 25 years of age, lunging on the soft cavesson is a basic tool. For many years I never had any problem, by some simple body language, to ask a horse to walk, trot and canter on the lunge. Horses usually like this work if done correctly, for here too, the danger of working the horse on his inside shoulder is lurking, if you do not do this correctly. But over the last couple of years more and more horses that are brought to me for training are almost impossible to ask for nice, free, proud and forward movement on the lunge. The first problem is that they will not want to move. The horses do not want to leave your side and constantly turn their head towards you and their hind quarters away from you. This is due to the following causes: First of all, these horses are in contra collection due to being forced to walk on their shoulders in the roundpen as explained before. A contra collected horse litterly moves himself in to the ground with his front legs. The only way a contra collected horse can move forward fast is by lifting the head way up high, contracting the lower neck muscles, for if he does not do so, he litterly tips over. The opposite of collection in which the head and neck supported by the contraction of the upper neck muscles lift the forehand by means of suspending the four joints in the hind legs. This whole natural system which every horse is born with is completely destroyed by chasing him regularly in the roundpen.

So that is why these horses do not want to go forward, especially on the small body language cues an untrained or well trained horse would go (note that in natural reaction, both should react the same!).

The second problem is that the horse will constantly turn towards you. This has two reasons. First the contra collection in which the horse has been rendered makes him constantly lean on his forelegs by means of his triceps. There is almost no weight on the hind quarters, therefore if you ask the horse to move, only his hind legs will be able to move from their place, as the front legs are completely immobile from the weight of the horse. To top that, I have seen trainers have the horse do this movement as an exercise, in which they constantly pressure the hind quarters to move whilst the horse keeps the weight on his front legs, which of course only makes the problem worse.
In addition, even if the horse would be able to move freely and proudly on the lunge, he surely would not dare. After all, he has learned that walking around a human is punishment and standing with the head close to him or following him is what the human wants and makes the harmful and pointless movement in circles end.

Lastly, there has been used so much pressure on these horses with an enormous amount of rope swinging, that the horse has grown completely deaf for small cues. All the lightness in the horse is gone. Often the limit of pressure used has gone over the top and the horse has decided to stop moving, no matter what. No rope or whip can make him move, whether he is hit or not. The reason lies mostly in pain in the body. Moving round in contra collection has become so painful, that standing and taking blows from whip or rope has become the less distressing option. Many trainers then give up, saying the horse is untrainable and hence people call on our yard as a last resort.

Because of this more and more occurring phenomena, I and my students have to put months into simply helping the horse off his shoulders, then to microshape, so he is able to react to tiny and soft cues of body language and touch again and lastly to get the horse to understand and trust that he is allowed to move freely, proud and foreward and that asking him to move is not a punishment but a means to help him improve his body.

Having said that, a horse that has been chased in a roundpen often will keep this sort of ‘lid on his energy’. The horse remains fearful to ‘give his all’, afraid that he then still will be pushed over his limits,as has been done before. His prey instinct tells him to remain enough energy to be able to flee from predators at all time. Understanding the horse and therefore ‘the way of the prey’ means that you shall never ever fatigue a horse! Only then will he trust his human enough to ‘give his all’. Horses that have been over pressured, lost mobility in their body by being forced to move in a harmful way and have been fatigued more than once, shall almost never truly dare giving their all again.

Antoine de Pluvinel tells us for a reason we should bring the horse back to his box as fresh as we took him out!

Correctly lunged horse. The horse is straight and moves ‘as if going through a corner’. The inside foreleg is underneath the shoulder, the most weight is taken up by the outside hind leg. The shoulder is free.

Whispering?

The round pen and the rope, is often an image that comes with so called horse whispering. However, if we take a closer look to what is happening in a round pen a lot of times, whispering, from the horse’s point of view, isn’t actually what is happening. On the contrary, if we look at this from the horse’s point of view, being chased with a rope in a small fenced area, no matter round or not, is no whisper. It is – in my view – down right yelling, screaming and terrorising.

But it is about ‘leadership’, is a phrase that is often heard. But what is leadership?

Dwight D. Eisenhower has the following to say about it: “Pull the string, and it will follow wherever you wish. Push it, and it will go nowhere at all.” This, to me, says it all. Leadership is about inspiring others. This way you will lead by example. I in fact learned about leadership from horses! When we study natural horse behaviour we see, that the image we have of horses and their picking order is not their natural way at all. There is one thing that makes the difference between naturally following a leader or being bullied into coercion:
The fence.

After many years of studying the birth of democracy, (or what democracy once meant), which was around the same time when the first ‘dressage for the horse ‘training book was written, and studying natural horse behaviour, I came to a conclusion:

Horses must have been the inventors of true democracy. Horse leaders do not force other horses to ‘follow’. They have no means to do so. Why not? Simple, the other horses simply can leave if they do not like a certain horse to be in charge. After all, once again, there is no fence! So some horses have their own idea on things because of intelligence and experience and other horse learn that following those horses will bring them good fortune. This in short is their reason for following a certain horse, or horses. So, when the leading horse leave, the other follow, but they do not have to, they choose to!

So, if you want to be the leader of your horse, ask yourself, and this is crucial – from the horse’s point of view – do you bring your horse good fortune? Hopefully I do not have to add here that this not about fancy rugs and bling bling bridles! Do you offer your horse that which helps him stay healthy and improve himself both mentally and physically?

Many say: “but this is how horses treat each other, I see it every day”. Within the fences yes, we can see that the anti social bully type of horses, that no one would get near in natural environment, have the glorious change of a lifetime. It is not their intelligence or experience, it is simply their strength that makes them ‘leader’. But take the fence away and all horses would run from him and never come near the bully again. It is only logical. A bully will make stupid choices and injure horses which will make their chance of survival much smaller. A true leader however, will only do what he thinks is best for himself and will allow others to join in, on his beneficial experience. Thus pulling the string, without really meaning to.
Freedom to follow makes leaders, closed confinements make dictators. We see it with humans too. A fence can be your ‘paycheck&mortgage’. You do as you told, even though your boss makes your life hell on a daily basis. What if you won the lottery? You would be gone in a heartbeat! But what if you have a boss that takes care of you and makes you feel you can expand your potential and creativity? You’d would at least wait until your boss had found someone new before you left, no way would you leave a boss like that in trouble. Or you would not work there anymore but stay friends with your boss. But it works also on a larger scale: think about the so called ‘Iron curtain’ around the former Sovjet countries or the wall of Berlin.

When you are within the fence with your horse, next time you train, ask yourself: if the fence would disappear, would my horse remain? Ask yourself: what reason would my horse have to remain with me? Believe me, ‘buying expensive rug’ is not a related answer for a horse.

So, chasing a horse with a rope is not a way to become his leader, okay, but then what is, you might ask. Good question! Indeed what? The thing is, that if, and indeed ‘if’ your horse elects you as leader, it will be because of many small things you do and don’t over the course of time.

If your horse learns that being with you, and following your lead, will bring him nothing but good things, then your horse will follow you. Do remember that even in nature, horses have their own free mind and will, even while having the best alpha horse’s imaginable. The same will count between you two. Your horse might starting consulting you – and if that happens, you are already really far! – in different situations he will always again chose whether to follow you or not. Every horse is different, every situation is different and you yourself can feel or be different day by day. Nothing is absolute in this. So I suggest you start working on your friendship first, by providing all things your horse needs, both mentally as well as physically. Next, whatever you do, lead by example! Read more of this in ‘human manners’

One training system for every horse?

Scaring a horse out of his wits with a rope within a fence will not make you his leader, you will probably agree. It can make you his bully if the horse is young or of a certain soft nature. But if you have an alpha type of mare, stallion or even gelding, you can be presented with a really dangerous challenge and rightly so. Only losers can come out of this, either an injured human, or a traumatised horse. Horses with true leadership qualities will henceforth often be rendered ‘un-trainable’ and dangerous, as they will choose to attack their chaser and with good reason, might I add. With which I touch on the subject of the following: often many training techniques are designed for ‘the horse’. But there is no such thing as ‘the horse’! Foals, fillies, colts, mares, alpha mares, stallions, geldings, traumatised horses, injured horses, anti social horses… or mixes between all these! Every different type require such a different way of handling! And even within these groups, every individual is different. There is no training system for every horse. Each horse requires his own unique training system!
Working with many ‘un-trainable’ horses over the past 20 years, this is the greatest conclusion I have drawn and the core of why within Natural Riding Art we have success with horses, most trainers are unable to work with.

Conclusion

Before you start training a horse, first ask yourself what your goal with that specific horse is. If you, like us, want a horse to become Equus Universalis; all he can be, both mentally as well as physically, please, do not chase your horse around.

By Josepha Guillaume

www.josepha.info