May 132016
 
Greg with Harry
Greg with Harry

Greg with Harry

I had not ridden regularly for many years, but took up riding again recently.  In early 2013 I bought Harry; an un-backed 15 hh chestnut Crabbett Arab gelding.  Harry’s registered name is Magic Magnet, by Ibn Silver out of Bint Magnetta; born 1st June 2009.  He lives out with a rescue pony, Dobbin; neither is stabled but both have access to a barn.

As a companion parrot behaviourist, I’m familiar with learning theory and a scientific approach to behavioural work, but most of this has been done with birds not horses.  I have never had any formal training in riding, but learnt informally many years ago on my friends’ horses.  I am still not familiar with the language commonly used by many horsey folks and find terms such as ‘being firm’ and ‘discipline’ etc. both vague and anthropomorphic.  Like most, if not all animals, horses seem incapable of making intentional or malicious errors, so notions of ‘discipline’ seem irrelevant.

Harry is very inquisitive.  While I was still working on finishing various jobs in his barn, he would frequently come to see what I was up to, inspecting the tools I was using.  I generally encouraged these investigations and would show him new things as I worked near him.  Before starting any formal training sessions, I asked Harry to come when I called his name. This seemed preferable than having to ‘catch him up’ from the field.  Within 3 days, using food rewards, Harry’s recall was quite reliable.  He would also come without seeing me, so long as I used the same cue, a whistling call and saying ‘Harry, come here!’  After some routine vet’s checks and settling in for a few months, Harry proved to be sound and ready to be backed.

Training ride

Greg and Harry; training ride for camping trip.

Training problems

Harry had never seen road traffic, or been ridden, or saddled, though he had worn an in-hand bridle with a nylon bit.  So, I was in at the deep end, and needed help to start training him.  I went to various horse events and spoke with other horse riding friends about training methods.  I booked a trainer who used conventional methods which relied on negative reinforcement, even during basic groundwork.  After a few minutes of this I could see Harry was not happy, so I ended the session.  I had to check myself and what I was doing.  When working with any animal, the first thing to ask ourselves, is not ‘Will this work?’ but ‘Is this right; is it humane?’  These conventional methods were failing this test.  I felt I had let Harry down, but how does one apologise to a horse!

I sought help from several equestrian societies here in the UK.  But none seemed to either accept or understand learning theory.  Instead, they relied on traditional aversive methods for most training.  Sadly, this also seemed to be the case with many horse welfare groups.  Indeed, watching other trainers at work, it seemed horses were being trained while in their barely-controlled flight response.  This seemed an eminently dangerous practice with such large powerful animals.

Eventually I made contact with a few equestrians who were clearly familiar with more humane training methods, and took up their suggestions.  McGreevy and MacLean’s book, Equitation Science seemed very good, but still too reliant on aversive stimuli.  Emma Lethbridge’s Knowing Your Horse was very good, as was Mark Hanson’s Your Hidden Horse.  So at least I knew there were horse-friendly methods used by some equestrians.  These training problems prompted me to look into other aspects of traditional horse care as well.  I could not find a scientific case for shoeing, (but plenty against!) nor having to use a bit.  So I thought it best for Harry to be ridden barefoot, bitless and with minimal contact.  Harry’s training was to be based on positive reinforcement wherever possible.  Negative reinforcement would be as mild and brief as possible.  Positive punishment was to be avoided.  I also wanted to avoid Harry getting too excited or fearful while being asked to learn new things, as I felt a calm approach would make things much safer, particularly when I would eventually be riding in traffic.  To teach walk, trot, stop, go back etc, I used mild negative reinforcement via the lead rope on his head collar, paired with a verbal cue, for the action asked for.  Within a few weeks he learnt to accept verbal cues only on most occasions.  Unlike my work with birds, horses seem to be very poor at generalising from novel experiences.  I could get Harry used to novel objects in the yard, like traffic cones and moving wheelbarrows etc., but these same objects 100 yards down the road would be treated with suspicion.  Only repeated exposure in different locations seemed to work.

First outings.

Next, Harry was introduced, in-hand, to local quiet lanes and traffic, while led in his head collar.  Walks were up to 12 miles long, 3 to 5 days a week.  He was walked along routes I would eventually be riding him, accompanied by my partner and the ‘experienced’ Dobbin, also on a lead rope.  This process took nearly two months before he would consistently and calmly accept most vehicles.  Later, still in hand, he was introduced to larger, faster traffic a few miles away.  This was carried out by gradual exposure to large vehicles in a 30mph zone along a stretch of the A38.  Initially he was asked to stand and view these from a distance he found comfortable.  If he remained reasonably calm (head not raised) he was rewarded using food and praise.  His distance to heavy traffic was slowly reduced over a few weeks, at a pace determined by his level of acceptance.  Following this he was walked along this road, in-hand, first with Dobbin, then alone.  Occasionally we had a few scary moments.  While Harry is not perfect in heavy traffic, he is pretty good.  This desensitisation to heavy traffic, prior to riding has been extremely valuable.

Introduction to tack.

Using food rewards Harry was asked to accept wearing his tack.  Training sessions were short, usually about 5 minutes, but sometimes several times a day.  This process took about a week.  The bridle used was a Dr Cook’s cross-under bitless.  The saddle was shown to Harry, so he could smell it and explore it with his muzzle to get used to it.  Then it was placed on his back, without the girth and he was asked to stand still for a few seconds, after which he was rewarded with a carrot and verbal praise and the saddle removed.  Later these periods were extended, and the girth fastened loosely, later still the girth was tightened, and stirrups were introduced.  Unwanted behaviours were rare.  But on two occasions Harry showed some inclination to mugging.  Here, I walked out of his sight so he could not earn any rewards for a short time (negative punishment).

Grazing break

Harry takes a grazing break during a day’s ride

Backing

This seemed like a major challenge (for me!) since I had never backed a horse before.  But Harry’s progress had so far been rapid, and he remained calm in training sessions.  I had a friend help me who held his reins while he was placed next to a mounting block.  I then asked Harry to ‘Stand’ (remain motionless for a few seconds), while I put some pressure from one foot in a stirrup, or leant on him, belly flop style, over the saddle.  I did this from both his nearside and offside.  In later sessions, I got astride him and remained in the saddle for a few seconds only; dismounted and rewarded him with food and verbal praise.  Later still I rewarded him while mounted.  My helper then led him around the yard, while I was on board.  Sometimes he would fidget prior to me getting on him.  In this case, I walked away and left him tied up alone, returning to try again a few minutes later.  I refused to get on board, or give rewards if he moved.   Now, when asked to ‘Stand’ he stands like a rock to be mounted from either side, wherever we are.

I wanted to be able to ride him in walk and trot, before riding him along the same quiet lanes he’d already been used to while in hand.  So the following steps were done in the yard and his field.  Since he was used to responding to verbal requests when in hand, he still accepted these when ridden.  So I combined gentle pressure via legs and/or reins, as needed with the requests to ‘stand’ ‘walk’, ‘trot’ ‘go back’ etc.  He was slow to trot on request and his first attempts at this with me onboard felt very wobbly.  But within a few weeks, we both accomplished a reasonable posting trot.  The bitless bridle has been a boon.  I feel much safer without having anything in Harry’s mouth.  Verbal cues are used first for changes in gait and direction.  Only if these cues are not accepted do I use my legs and reins as needed.  Even then the pressure is mild and with Harry’s quick reactions the pressure is also brief.  So we were now ready to go out for his first ride.

First hacking sessions.

Clad in hi-viz vests, we took Dobbin with us on a lead rein.  The first few rides were short, again along familiar lanes.  Harry did not mind most traffic, as he’d got used to this during many earlier walks in-hand.  But cyclists induced a threat response, with his ears held back tightly if they came too close.  I ignored this, just asking him to ‘walk on’.  Some noisy motorbikes and large vans which came too close or approached too quickly caused a fear response and Harry would start to shy away from them; so with a raised hand I asked these drivers to stop for me.  Harry was asked to walk past them in his own time.  I have also had do this with police cars and ambulances with sirens blaring while ‘blue-lighting’ past me.  Where Harry felt unable to pass a vehicle while staying reasonably calm, I dismounted and lead him past.  Gradually he learnt to accept these vehicles, though he is still not confident with large loud tractors and it is difficult to get regular, predictable exposure to these which would help with his training.

Dr Cook Bitless Bridle

Harry wearing Dr Cook’s cross-under bitless bridle (noseband has been padded) and Biothane headcollar. Dunkery Beacon, Exmoor, Somerset.

Harry remains barefoot, bitless and is not subjected to reprimands or positive punishment.  I feel much safer without him wearing a bit and I ride with little or no contact, giving verbal cues before resorting to physical aids.  After backing and basic schooling, Harry was ridden 12 to 20 miles a day, several times a week, as part of his training for a forthcoming camping trip.  On long rides I dismount every hour for about 10 minutes and walk with him.  This gives him a rest from carrying me and helps me keep fit as well!  I also dismount on ground that might be too difficult for him, where he might lose his footing.  Harry took some time to get used to crossing water and squeezing through narrow places on some of our more tricky bridleways.  But he remains calm, he makes a point of coming to see me when I go to his field, and he seems to really enjoy being groomed.  He stands still as his tack is put on him and when being mounted.  When out riding, he’ll go almost anywhere I point him, without making a drama out of things we encounter on our rides.  He is happy to be tied up for an hour at lunch-time to graze, or for a while at a pub or café while I get my own food.  He has turned out to be very co-operative and calm, and I feel this is the best insurance for both my safety and his welfare.  I am convinced that more horses and riders would benefit greatly by using gentle training methods based on learning theory.

Copyright:  Greg Glendell 2014

 In part two, Greg describes his camping trip with Harry over Dartmoor and Exmoor.

Jul 122013
 

As I was sitting outside this morning, enjoying the sun, I watched two workers relaying a pavement. After a while I realised there are many similarities between laying down a pavement and training a horse. Every tile is part of the whole, if you leave one out there will forever be a hole, disrupting the connection between both ends. You need some necessary skill and knowledge, familiarity with the technique, to lay an exceptional pavement, but learning by yourself is not out of the question, if your eyes and heart are willing to see your mistakes. Sometimes you might have to go back and repair your error, sometimes you might have to start over from where your pavement was still sound. Just like a tile laying only slightly askew, it might be hard to locate your mistake by sight, but you will feel its presence every time you walk over the path. Training a horse is a process, it takes time and effort, you can’t miss a step and you need to evaluate regularly. Others can help you see the things that need improvement, so don’t turn them away, but remember that perfection is is just a state of mind, and that you can only reach perfection in your own eyes.

20130712-160058.jpgThis view of training as a process, building blocks and making connections, is not a new one. Take a look at the Scala of dressage, of which I prefer the version put into a pyramid form. The rider is added at the bottom, because the rider, being the worker, controls the whole process and carries the responsibility of completing every step and reaching the top. After all riding a horse is a partnership, equal parts of human and horse, so why should the Skala concern only the horse?

Apart from the rider, relaxation is for me the first and foremost step in training. Lack of relaxation is not only signified by tension or nervousness, but also by a certain amount of resistance against being manipulated by the rider. Relaxation means the horse is willing to let go, both in his body and his mind. This is achieved with trust and feel, force will only create submission, never true relaxation. This is where the relationship between horse and rider stands or falls.

Rhythm, or tact, is the basis of the horse’s movement. We all know walk should be four beat, trot two and canter three, but can we feel the difference? Can you help your horse achieve this purity of gaits? Rhythm comes naturally to a horse in freedom, which can easily be messed up by adding a rider on top. Rhythm is for me not only the beat of the gait, but the horse being able and allowed to move at his own natural potential, which means the rider should not get in the way with his own riding, or force the horse to move in an unnatural way.

Contact is not just the tension in a leather strap between the horse’s mouth/nose and the rider’s hands. Contact is the connection between rider and horse, which includes all physical, verbal and ‘mental’ cues, with understanding coming from both. A horse shouldn’t be afraid to take up this contact, and the human should let go of everything standing in his way to achieve it.

Impulsion is both the power and strength of the horse’s body, specifically hindquarters, achieved by correct conditioning, and the horse’s willingness to lend all this power to his rider. Impulsion is what the rider feels in his hands when the horse’s movement flows from back to front without blockages.

I think the term straightness would be better served by balance. As a horse, like every living being, will keep his own preferences for one side or the other, I don’t think any horse can be truly straight. However, the horse can be brought into balance, with assistance from the rider and his acknowledgement of these preferences. Balance is what keeps the horse healthy, an even loading of each foot, each bone, tendon and muscle, will ensure there is no overexertion of either. Balance is physical balance of the horse, but also balance in his training and a resulting balance in his mind.

Back to the original pavement. Every tile is the same size, it doesn’t matter where exactly you put each of them. However, small irregularities might make them serve better when placed at a particular time and place, to improve the strength of the whole. Just like that, horse training is individualized and every horse will need different things at different times. That does not mean, though, that every horse’s path won’t need to be complete and laid entire to reach the end result: collection. Ability to carry both himself and the rider in a way that doesn’t harm him.

So, let’s stop laying only stepping stones and risking the health of our horses. It is each owner’s responsibility to care for their horse’s well-being, and correct, useful training is very much a part of that.

The pyramid in this article is sourced from http://www.ridingart.com/balance.htm.

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/

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

Sep 062012
 

I was recently asked to do a question and answer session for the Facebook group Equitation Science (http://www.facebook.com/groups/equitationscience/). The questions asked were very interesting so I thought I would do an article including some of the Q and A session. I would like to note that there were many fantastic comments made by the other members of the group leading to some great discussion. These comments haven’t been included here for reasons of anonymity and credit, should you wish to read these discussions simply request membership to the group.

QUESTION 1 – Negative reinforcement and avoidance learning.

In horse training, negative reinforcement involves moving away from pressure or in essence avoidance learning. When a horse has a strong disposition towards a flight response or is inclined to quickly move away from threatening stimuli, what training methods are most effective and what research is there to support their efficacy?

Answer – Firstly in this situation I would ask – why is the horse exhibit such a large stress response to the presence of such stimuli? Is the disposition really a personality trait innate to the horse or is the sensitised stress response indicative of the horse manifesting a higher base level of stress or is the response learnt? If the stress level of the horse is higher than ideal even at rest (this could be tested by heart rate or salivary cortisol) the the horses environment needs to be adapted to lower the horse’s base stress level. If the horse’s stress level is higher than it should be this will likely present itself in greater stress reactions to stimuli; this is because the threshold for such a reaction is closer to baseline level of stress in the horse. Isolation of the environmental stress will require some work but, again, analysing whether the horse has access to forage, friends and freedom is a good place to start.

Secondly, if the response is learnt training the horse using positive reinforcement methods will help reduce the stress response. Targeting could be used to train the desired behaviour and put it on a cue, subsequently a secondary cue of a very gentle pressure cue, such the horse would not try to escape it, could then be added if required. Such a training strategy would eliminate the need for stressful aversive stimuli through the use negative reinforcement training but would allow a gentle pressure cue if needed. If the horse has become more generally fearful of an environment/object/situation, rather than just the stimuli used to implement negative reinforcement, counter conditioning stimuli associated with fear will be helpful. Desensitisation could also be used to reduce the stress experienced by the horse through not over facing the horse with them the stimuli they are fearful of.

Evidence for positive reinforcement methods:

http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/ufaw/aw/2007/00000016/00000004/art00007

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168159107002869

http://www.springerlink.com/content/4122111x7620v040/

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0003347209006034

One for targeting: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1284337/

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.2746/042516406778400574/abstract

Additional comment – In this case we were examining a horse with a large stress response to negative reinforcement stimuli and thus would require training to eliminate this response to pressure (or the stimuli used for negative reinforcement). Although I believe we can use very gentle negative reinforcement without too much stress to the horse, you raise an interesting point because unfortunately positive punishment (the addition of an unpleasant stimulus to lower the likelihood of a behaviour reoccurring) has to of occurred in order that the stimulus can be removed for negative reinforcement. If the stimulus did not start it could not be removed. The two concepts, although distinct, are not mutually exclusive, they work in tandem (see http://www.theequineindependent.com/home/?p=103).

QUESTION 2 – Equine Learned Helplessness

The American psychologist Martin Seligman published most of the early work on learned helplessness. This is the technical term used to describe a condition in which a human/animal has learned to behave helplessly, failing to respond even when there is an opportunity for it to help itself by avoiding unpleasant circumstances or gain a positive reward. In people, learned helplessness is associated with depression and other mental health problems. I am just wondering what the possible epidemiology of equine learned helplessness might be, the “symptomatology” and possible health ramifications.

Answer – Learned Helplessness is a psychological phenomenon which occurs when an animal, be it horse or human, no longer tries to escape an aversive stimulus (or in some cases multiple aversive stimuli). Such behaviour usually manifests because the horse has repeatedly been exposed to an aversive stimulus, tried to escape it, and failed. Eventually the animal stops trying to escape and thus behaves in a helpless manner. Often the horse may only exhibit this behaviour to one or two stimuli, however, sometimes you can see this helplessness response generalise in the same manner as other behaviours may generalise. Therefore, the helplessness may not be stimulus or situation specific. In the horse world sometimes such horses are considered ‘shut down’.

Specifically in horses restraint, pressure and punishments have been considered a potential source of learned helplessness if incorrectly utilised. Examples of potential sources of learned helplessness include the incorrect use of riding gadgets such as draw reins, strong bits (even kinder bits in the wrong hands), spurs, whips … I am sure we can all think of more. Some specific training techniques e.g. leg tying and dare I say Rolkur, rely on learned helplessness, however, any technique that uses aversive stimuli can be at risk of inducing such a response if wrongly applied.

Symptomology:

*The most obvious symptom is a lack of escape behaviour in response to an unpleasant stimulus. The stimulus may be pressure, fear or pain based.
Other symptoms that have not been examined closely in horses but are documented in humans include:
*Sensitised and adapted stress response. If a prolonged period of exposure to an inescapable unpleasant stimulus it experienced, the results can present in the form of both the psychological and physiological symptoms of stress. These may continue if the horse if exposed to stimuli associated with the inescapable stressor, even if the stressor itself is no longer present.

*Psychologically the horse may experience anhedonia, lack of motivation, disrupted emotional processing, unusual stress responses (fight and flight) and inhibited learning/cognitive ability.

*Physiologically the horse may experience increase stress, a reduced immune response and an increased risk of the disorders associated with a high stress environment and life experience (e.g. stomach ulcers). It is possible that these symptoms could all occur in the horse although I stress little specific research has been done in this area, and given that most learned helplessness studies on animals were not entirely ethical this may not be a terrible thing.

There are theories of depression which concentrate on the role of learned helplessness, however these are widely debated, certainly there is a cross over in both symptomology and neurological activation if you are interested in reading about any of the above a quick google search will find you a lot of information.

Specifically with regards to horses I can recommend the paper – “Is There Evidence of Learned Helplessness in Horses?” Hall et al, 2008.

Neurology :

I don’t have time to write out all the neurological information so you will have to forgive me quoting.

“Evidence suggests an important role for 5-HT neurons in the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN) in mediating learned helplessness (see Maier and Watkins 2005, for reviews). The DRN is a midline brainstem structure that contains a high concentration of 5-HT neurons that provide 5-HT to higher brain centers via multiple fiber tracts. …5-HT neurons in the DRN have long been associated with depression … anxiety …and behavioral responses to stress… The DRN projects to structures involved in fear, anxiety, and depression, such as the cortex, amygdala, periaqueductal grey (PAG), and locus coeruleus (LC)” Greenwood and Fleshner (2008). You can see that stress can affect the functioning of these pathway.

Rehabilitating the learned helplessness horse:

Here are a few idea for undoing the learned response, remember the brain is plastic even when the horse is old and thus often the horse can relearn/unlearn their response to stimuli.

*It’s cliché but time is a great healer, especially time in a stress free environment where they no longer experience the stressor which induces the learned helplessness response. Ideally the horse will be out as much as possible, be eating for 16hrs-ish a day and have a stable peer group to socialise with. The old adage of forage, friends and freedom can go a long way towards the rehab of any horse. The brains stress response will often (but not always) ‘reset’, if you like, in such an environment making further training much easier. Removing the stressor(s) is the first step!

*If the stressor is something which the horse has to come into contact with in their environment, a training strategy including counter conditioning and desensitisation combined will help the horse to relearn to be relaxed and even enjoy the presence of the previously stressful object/environment. Obviously you would only do this for objects and situations associated with the aversive events/helplessness and not the events themselves! For example, if the horse had become helpless when ridden you could work on encouraging the horse to enjoy being ridden by training without the use of large aversive stimuli but instead with positive reinforcement. I have found that reward inhibits stress in the horse. Indeed research shows that activation of the reward pathways of the brain actively dampens stress responses and therefore will help the horse to be without a heightened stress response and the psychological and physiological manifestations of increased stress.

Additional comment – Grass is included in the forage part of the phrase. The phrase is applicable to the horse as a management system as it describes the most prominent innate needs of the horse in order that they can be without stress. Therefore, as you say, it is necessary at all stages of the horse’s life. I was describing it as part of the rehabilitation for learned helplessness because I suspect that none here would drive a horse into learned helplessness but they may acquire such a horse or be called out to one. A slightly more complex version of the same paradigm might be an adapted version of Maslow’s heirarchy of needs. Regarding the relationship between submission and learned helplessness it would certainly be valid to suggest a behavioural parallel between the two psychological states (unfortunately, I don’t own the Equid Ethogram). Possibly it would be accurate to say that all learned helplessness could be described as submission but not all submission is learned helplessness, of course this depends on your definition of submission. The relationship between these two psychological concepts seems to be complex and their isn’t a huge amount of research available, however, this paper is worth a read (again I don’t agree with the methods used) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17708544. Hope this answers your question.

QUESTION 3 – There seems to be a lot of confusion out there with regards to definitions of negative punishment (response cost, time out). Do you think horses actually understand negative punishment ? What research has been done in this area?

Answer – Negative punishment is possibly the trickiest of the four primary learning theory concepts to apply well to horse training. The removal of a desirable stimulus in consequence to an unwanted behaviour in order to punish said behaviour requires both timing and an understanding of frustration/defensive behaviours. Obviously, removing a highly desirable stimuli from the horse could trigger unwanted behaviours over and above the original unwanted behaviour, so care is needed. For example, removing food from a horse with food related issues may trigger defensive aggression, but this technique may not unduly stress another horse, therefore each horse and behaviour needs to be considered with regards to their individual personality. So yes horses can be trained with negative punishment, it’s the human understanding of punishment and the side effects which can occur when such methods are used which is key. Rewarding a incompatible behaviour in place of the unwanted behaviour may be an effective alternative technique, circumventing the need for punishment.

Research in this area is thin on the ground, probably because the ethics of such research would be hard to navigate, similarly to work on positive punishment.

Additional related question – So when I am clicker training my horse and withhold food whilst I am waiting for the correct response, is this negative punishment? As I have not actually taken anything away, rather I am withholding a positive reinforcer?

Answer – This is a tricky question, if positive reinforcement is being used the reward should never be given to the horse and then removed creating negative punishment. However, sometimes this is case when the trainer is not sure whether to reward or not, so the trainer needs to be definite with the timing. The trainer also needs to be aware that if the horse is too hungry or gets anxious regarding food negative reinforcement could also come into play as the food removes briefly the aversive stimuli of hunger(interestingly there are theories of drug addiction which focus on the role of negative reinforcement). These effects can be reasonably simply averted by observing the horse for signs of stress or learning disruption which might suggest their role and changing strategy to ensure the positive reinforcement acts exclusively.

Additional comments –

The training strategy should be defined before it occurs however, within the training observation and evaluation should be regularly considered to ensure that the trainer is training in the manner they intend and that the horse is happy and progressing in said training.

To clarify the negative punishment with food stimuli does not occur simply by the presence of food because you have not removed anything from the horse, the horse never had the food. It would only occur, as I said before, if the trainer was ambiguous in timing and gave the horse the food and then removed it due to a change of mind.

If you have a question about any of the answers or the terminology used, please feel free to leave a comment or email me and I will happily answer your questions.

Emma Lethbridge

(Emma@theequineindependent.com or E.M.Lethbridge@shu.ac.uk)

Aug 132012
 

If there was one thing I could do to improve the welfare of domesticated horses, it would be to get rid of the notion that inappropriate equine behaviour is naughtiness.

The word ‘naughtiness’ implies deliberate misbehaviour, and it’s all too common for owners and riders to assume that this is what is going on when a horse does something they’d prefer him not to do. Whether it’s refusing jumps, declining to enter a trailer, not standing still for mounting, kicking the stable door, removing his rugs or jumping out of the field, our automatic line of reasoning tends to be this: He knows what he is supposed to do. He is being deliberately defiant or disobedient. He needs a …. (insert punishment of choice). How often do you see this happening? How often do you see anyone questioning it?

But how many of these are reasonable assumptions?

If you think that a horse can be deliberately disobedient, you are making a lot of assumptions about his mental processes. First, that he understands the moral concepts of right and wrong, and second, that he knows that domestic animals are supposed to obey their human handlers and conform to a set of rules that humans have invented. How can we possibly expect a horse to know what behaviours we expect of him, or even that we expect any behaviours at all? Where would he get that knowledge? How might he know what any particular human considers good or bad? How could he even know about the existence of these concepts, let alone know when his behaviour falls into one or other category? When you think about it, these are all fairly complex abstract thoughts that we are able to have because we have a verbal language to express them to ourselves and to explain them to other people. Horses haven’t got that facility. Neither, as far as we know, are they as good as we are at rational thinking, planning ahead and reflecting on their experiences.

There have been reports in the journal Equine Behaviour (assuming that people have remembered and reported correctly) of incidents where particular individual horses do seem to show some evidence of an ability for forward planning and reasoning. I don’t think it’s possible to say categorically that horses can’t have thoughts along the lines of ‘When she comes to catch me this morning I’ll give her a surprise and run away’ or ‘I’ll swerve to the right at that next jump and she’s bound to fall off’, but it’s probably safe to say that this is not the default way of thinking for most horses most of the time. Formal experiments on random groups of horses don’t suggest that these skills are the norm. Most horses, like most animals including us, seem to base their behaviour on the principles of doing things that are rewarding and avoiding things that are not rewarding (McGreevy & McLean 2010).

Many apparently naughty behaviours are actually learned ways to avoid pain or something frightening. The horse is more likely to be acting purely in self-defence than to be going out of its way to annoy a person. How would a horse know what people find annoying, anyway?

As for punishment, all too often it is not so much an attempt to change a horse’s behaviour as to stop it. It is also a way for the rider to take out her aggression and anger, so it can easily become abusive. It’s not at all uncommon to see horses hit really hard for what would be very minor offences even in the unlikely event that the horse really was doing them to be deliberately annoying. Studies have shown that punishment can lead to horses learning to fear their handlers and to stop them trying out new behaviours, which is not what anybody wants to happen (McGreevy & McLean 2010). It can also have the opposite effect to the intended one. I’ve seen this happen when a horse was routinely hit for spooking at traffic, so that he learned to associate the approach of vehicles with pain as well as with alarming sights, sounds and smells, and would spook increasingly violently at the approach of a vehicle. If you wanted to teach your horse to be afraid of traffic it’s hard to imagine a more effective way of doing it, yet the owner acted thus in the belief that the horse was being naughty and had to be corrected.

Whatever the truth of the horse’s thoughts and motives, it’s best to treat them as if they are not malevolent, and that if they don’t want to do something, even if they have done it a hundred times before, not to assume it’s for badness but for a real reason important to them if not to us. And if they want to do something we would rather they didn’t do, again it is best not to assume that they are trying to get the better of us, or make us look stupid, or to show that they don’t respect us, but to assume that they have learned that behaviour either because it’s rewarded or because it gets them away from something they don’t like. It’s also more than likely that we ourselves have inadvertently trained them to do it.

If you think, how is my horse being rewarded for doing this? you are far more likely to come up with an effective, ethical way to teach him to do something different than if you just assume he is being naughty.

Reference

McGreevy, PD & McLean, AN (2010). Equitation Science. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford.

Alison Averis is a rider and horse owner and is the Editor of Equine Behaviour, the quarterly journal of the Equine Behaviour Forum. For more information on this international membership organisation, which is open to anyone interested in the way equines behave, please go to www.equinebehaviourforum.org.uk.

Jul 212012
 

A common criticism of those who train horses using positive reinforcement is that we are so busy discussing behavioural theory that we do not do anything practical with our horses, just a few “tricks”. Or that our training is so constrained by theory that there is no “feel”. Or that what little practical work we do with our horses takes so long it is not viable for most people. Or that we have dangerous horses who gallop into busy roads and leave us waiting desperately for them to stop so we can click and treat.

I’m not being facetious, I have been accused of all these things and I would argue that none of them is true. So what do we do with our horses?

Most of us learn to use positive reinforcement via clicker training. And when starting clicker training it is true that most of us start with simple targeting exercises that may be perceived as “just tricks” by the uninitiated. But targeting is considerably more than just a trick. It involves the horse spontaneously touching a novel object in order to earn a treat. The handler clicks at the exact moment the horse performs the correct behaviour and this helps the horse to understand which behaviour has earned the reward. In order to succeed, via a certain amount of trial and error, the horse must overcome any fear or wariness of the target, it must inhibit any other behaviours such as mugging or biting and it must make a choice to act autonomously. The horse also starts to associate us and our training with good things happening. So even in the early stages of clicker training, we are using the clicker to help the horse develop in confidence, self-control and personal growth, as well as potentially helping to improve our relationship. Not bad for a few minutes’ work.

A free-shaping session such as this (i.e. using pure positive reinforcement without cues or lures) can be particularly valuable for a horse who is reluctant to offer behaviours as a result of previous aversive training. It provides a safe environment where mistakes are tolerated and not corrected. The horse can learn to make choices, secure in the knowledge that there will be no negative consequence of choosing the wrong answer. Free-shaping can therefore be an extremely valuable tool in the rehabilitation of mistreated horses, with very strong analogies with human counselling. An acute level of “feel” is crucial, taking this approach well beyond the crude “stimulus-response” training of the 1950’s behaviourism movement.

But for the average horse-owner who is not trying to rehab a rescue case…..

Clicker training can be a great tool for solving minor problems. On one livery yard I had to take my horse across a dairy pasture in order to reach his field. All the horses would dive for the grass and we would struggle across, trying unsuccessfully to hold their heads up. I thought it would be a nice clicker exercise and used shaping to teach my horse that it was OK to graze when he heard the click. Initially I would click every couple of strides *well before* he tried to dive for the grass. He started to wait for the click because he knew he was then allowed to have grass. Gradually we increased the number of strides before the click. It wasn’t long before we could cross the dairy pasture before grazing – unlike all the other horses who continued to dive for the grass. I like this example as it illustrates nicely that, although clicker training and shaping may initially appear to be long-winded, they actually save time and solve problems more quickly in the long-term because we are appealing to the horse’s choices rather than fighting them.

Some clicker trainers choose to have a clicker with them at all times so as to “capture” any behaviour they like at any time. Thus clicker training can be used alongside any general handling or riding that people do. For various reasons (and a whole new article in itself), I prefer to reserve clicker training for well-defined clicker sessions but those sessions might specifically be for teaching behaviours such as picking up feet, loading, leading, standing still or learning to move away from light physical pressure. Most commonly I use clicker training for free-shaping over, under, through or around obstacles, picking up a toy or pushing a football for increasing confidence, patience and enhancing a relationship based on mutual trust and choice. I also use it as a way to give my horse scratches on his itchy spots without him demanding too “emphatically” – he will spontaneously back away from me to “ask” for a scratch which is much safer than his previous barging.

Perhaps another key point is not so much what I do as what I do not do. I try to be aware of any inadvertent reinforcement I might be giving my horse which encourages him to behave in ways I see as undesirable. I take note of any behaviours he gives me and, instead of trying to stop them happening, I try to ignore them* and learn the circumstances under which they arise. This takes me to the root cause of the behaviours and so I can remove the cause, rather than worry about the behaviour which typically then disappears of its own accord. Ignoring unwanted behaviours is an essential part of training with positive reinforcement and is perhaps one we tend to over-look when we are thinking about “what to train”. Learning to just sit and observe is difficult, particularly if we perceive that our safety is at risk, but the more I trust in the horse’s innate cooperative nature, the more I can avoid confrontation, increasing both our safety and our mutual trust yet further.

When not engaging in a clicker session I am happy to use mild pressure to make requests of my horse, particularly when riding. But that does not stop me from using the basic principles of learning theory – I am careful to release pressure with good timing and I try to keep the pressure constant so that the horse has a chance to learn how to release it. And, perhaps most crucially, I continue to use shaping. Shaping – i.e. the breaking down of any task into its tiniest component steps – is arguably the factor that is the difference between keeping safe and becoming a liability. If I do not want to exert excessive pressure on my horse in order to keep us safe then I need to have completed sufficient early training that excessive pressure would never be required. It is shaping that almost guarantees that we will not have a dangerous horse who gallops into traffic because we would have never put him in a situation like that – we would have devised a shaping plan with an end goal of “riding safely in traffic” and broken the task into many training steps. There may be the odd rare occasion for which we cannot prepare, but the more we use shaping and a non-confrontational approach, the less we find that our safety is compromised.

(* it may sometimes be necessary to extract myself as quickly and as safely as possible, perhaps resorting to aversives if need be – but this would be a one-off situation into which I would avoid getting again without additional prior shaping/training)

Jul 012012
 

Welcome to my round up of some of the latest releases in equine science. These scientific equine papers have provided some interesting information sure to spark debate and inform our equine management and training practises; including a most important paper which provides evidence that horses ridden in hyperflexion may experience difficulty breathing because of airway obstruction.

Factors in Horse Training

Does learning performance in horses relate to fearfulness, baseline stress hormone, and social rank?

By Janne Winther, Line Christensen Peerstrup Ahrendt, Randi Lintrup, Charlotte Gaillard, Rupert Palme, Jens Malmkvist

“The ability of horses to learn and remember new tasks is fundamentally important for their use by humans. Fearfulness may, however, interfere with learning, because stimuli in the environment can overshadow signals from the rider or handler. In addition, prolonged high levels of stress hormones can affect neurons within the hippocampus; a brain region central to learning and memory. In a series of experiments, we aimed to investigate the link between performance in two learning tests, the baseline level of stress hormones, measured as faecal cortisol metabolites (FCM), fearfulness, and social rank. Twenty-five geldings (2 or 3 years old) pastured in one group were included in the study. The learning tests were performed by professional trainers and included a number of predefined stages during which the horses were gradually trained to perform exercises, using either negative (NR) or positive reinforcement (PR). Each of the learning tests lasted 3 days; 7min/horse/day. The NR test was repeated in a novel environment. Performance, measured as final stage in the training programme, and heart rate (HR) were recorded. Faeces were collected on four separate days where the horses had been undisturbed at pasture for 48h. Social rank was determined through observations of social interactions during feeding. The fear test was a novel object test during which behaviour and HR were recorded.

Performance in the NR and PR learning tests did not correlate. In the NR test, there was a significant, negative correlation between performance and HR in the novel environment (rS=−0.66, P<0.001, i.e. nervous horses had reduced performance), whereas there was no such correlation in the home environment (both NR and PR). Behavioural reactions in the fear test correlated significantly with performance in the NR test in the novel environment (e.g. object alertness and final stage: rS=−0.43, P=0.04), suggesting that performance under unfamiliar, stressful conditions may be predicted by behavioural responses in a fear test. There was a negative correlation between social rank and baseline stress hormones (rS=−0.43, P=0.04), i.e. high rank corresponded to low FCM concentrations, whereas neither rank nor FCM correlated with fearfulness or learning performance. We conclude that performance under stressful conditions is affected by activation of the sympathetic nervous system during training and related to behavioural responses in a standardised fear test. Learning performance in the home environment, however, appears unrelated to fearfulness, social rank and baseline FCM levels.”

http://www.journals.elsevierhealth.com/periodicals/applan/article/S0168-1591(12)00168-2/abstract

Equine Welfare

Effect of head and neck position on intrathoracic pressure and arterial blood gas values in Dutch Warmblood riding horses during moderate exercise.

By Sleutjens J, Smiet E, van Weeren R, van der Kolk J, Back W, Wijnberg ID.

“OBJECTIVE:To evaluate the effect of various head and neck positions on intrathoracic pressure and arterial oxygenation during exercise in horses.

ANIMALS:7 healthy Dutch Warmblood riding horses.

PROCEDURES:The horses were evaluated with the head and neck in the following predefined positions: position 1, free and unrestrained; position 2, neck raised with the bridge of the nose aligned vertically; position 4, neck lowered and extremely flexed with the nose pointing toward the pectoral muscles; position 5, neck raised and extended with the bridge of the nose in front of a vertical line perpendicular to the ground surface; and position 7, neck lowered and flexed with the nose pointing towards the carpus. The standard exercise protocol consisted of trotting for 10 minutes, cantering for 4 minutes, trotting again for 5 minutes, and walking for 5 minutes. An esophageal balloon catheter was used to indirectly measure intrathoracic pressure. Arterial blood samples were obtained for measurement of Pao(2), Paco(2), and arterial oxygen saturation.

RESULTS:Compared with when horses were in the unrestrained position, inspiratory intrathoracic pressure became more negative during the first trot (all positions), canter and second trot (position 4), and walk (positions 4 and 5). Compared with when horses were in position 1, intrathoracic pressure difference increased in positions 4, 2, 7, and 5; Pao(2) increased in position 5; and arterial oxygen saturation increased in positions 4 and 7.

CONCLUSIONS AND CLINICAL RELEVANCE:Position 4 was particularly influential on intrathoracic pressure during exercise in horses. The effects detected may have been caused by a dynamic upper airway obstruction and may be more profound in horses with upper airway disease.”

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22452499

More information on the above paper can be found at http://www.thehorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=20201

On the significance of adult play: what does social play tell us about adult horse welfare?

By Martine Hausberger, Carole Fureix, Marie Bourjade, Sabine Wessel-Robert and Marie-Annick Richard-Yris

“Play remains a mystery and adult play even more so. More typical of young stages in healthy individuals, it occurs rarely at adult stages but then more often in captive/domestic animals, which can imply spatial, social and/or feeding deprivations or restrictions that are challenging to welfare, than in animals living in natural conditions. Here, we tested the hypothesis that adult play may reflect altered welfare states and chronic stress in horses, in which, as in several species, play rarely occurs at adult stages in natural conditions. We observed the behaviour (in particular, social play) of riding school horses during occasional outings in a paddock and measured several stress indicators when these horses were in their individual home boxes. Our results revealed that (1) the number of horses and rates of adult play appeared very high compared to field report data and (2) most stress indicators measured differed between ‘players’ and ‘non-players’, revealing that most ‘playful’ animals were suffering from more chronic stress than ‘non-playful’ horses. Frequency of play behaviour correlated with a score of chronic stress. This first discovery of a relationship between adult play and altered welfare opens new lines of research that certainly deserves comparative studies in a variety of species.”

http://www.springerlink.com/content/a773802p37590541/

Training the Ridden Horse

Horse walker use in dressage horses

By T.J. Walker, S.N. Collins and R.C. Murray

“Horse walkers have become popular in the modern exercise regime for dressage horses, however recent investigations of injury risk factors have indicated a significant association between horse walker use and lameness. A detailed telephone questionnaire was conducted to document horse walker usage and assess whether horse walker use could predispose dressage horses to lameness. Information on horse walker features and use, and individual horse lameness history was recorded. Chi-squared tests were performed to identify horse walker variables associated with lameness. Although analyses failed to establish a direct link between lameness and any specific horse walker feature, the high proportion of lame horses in this study suggests that there is an underlying and, as yet, unidentified cause of lameness related to horse walker usage.”

http://wageningenacademic.metapress.com/content/j3q3511435340324/

The effect of double bridles and jaw-clamping crank nosebands on temperature of eyes and facial skin of horses

By Paul McGreevy, Amanda Warren-Smith and Yann Guisard

“Any apparatus that restricts a horse’s movement can compromise welfare. Eye temperature as measured remotely using infrared thermography is emerging as a correlate of salivary cortisol concentrations in horses. This article explores the effect on the temperature of the eyes and facial skin of horses wearing devices that restrict jaw movements. In certain equestrian disciplines, unacceptable equine oral activity, such as gaping of the mouth, is penalized because it reflects poor training and lack of compliance. This explains the wide range of nosebands and flash straps designed to prevent the mouth opening. Some of these nosebands are banned from higher-level dressage competitions in which double bridles are mandatory, possibly because they are regarded as restrictive. Nevertheless, the current international rules overlook the possibility that noseband can appear innocuous even though some designs, such as the so-called crank noseband, can be ratcheted shut to clamp the jaws together. Some equestrian manuals and competition rule books propose that “two-fingers” be used as a spacer to guard against overtightening of nosebands but fail to specify where this gauge should be applied. The vagueness of this directive prompted us to undertake a small random survey of the finger dimensions of adult men (n = 10) and women (n = 10). There were significant sex differences in the measurements of fingers of adults (P < 0.001), thus illustrating that the “two-finger rule” is not a reliable guide for standardized noseband fastening. Infrared thermography was used to measure the temperature of facial skin and eyes of adult horses (n = 5) wearing a double bridle with and without a cavesson noseband.

A taper gauge was developed based on the mean circumference of adult index and middle fingers (9.89 ± 0.21 cm), and this was used as a spacer at the nasal planum or beside the mandible when tightening the noseband. The nosebands were fastened significantly tighter when the taper gauge was used beside the mandible than at the nasal planum (P = 0.02). Wearing double bridles and nosebands that had been tightened with and without the taper gauge caused an increase in eye temperature compared with baseline values (P = 0.012), and the tighter the noseband was fastened, the cooler the facial skin of the horse (and, presumably, the greater the impairment of vascular perfusion) when compared with baseline values (P = 0.016). This study suggests that horses wearing double bridles and tight nosebands undergo a physiological stress response and may have compromised vascular perfusion. Consequently, on welfare grounds, the use of nosebands that cause any constriction of jaw movement should be reviewed as soon as possible.”

http://www.journalvetbehavior.com/article/S1558-7878(11)00143-2/abstract

Pilot study of behavior responses in young riding horses using 2 methods of making transitions from trot to walk

By Agneta Egenvalla, Marie Eisersiöb and Lars Roepstorffc

“According to the principles of negative reinforcement, when an aid has been given to an animal, it should be released as soon as the desired response has been achieved, and, if performed well, may be associated with fewer conflict behaviors than otherwise. In riding, pressure in the horse’s mouth from the bit is used to give signals to the horse, and both rein tension and patterns of releasing this tension will vary. The aim of this pilot study was to study horse behavior during 2 different methodologies used to shape relatively naïve horses to a deceleration signal while making downward transitions from trot to walk. Method 1 involved relief from rein tension at the first attempt to perform a correct response (M1), and method 2 entailed that rein tension was relieved at the completed correct response (M2). Four horses were ridden by 4 riders over 4 days (1 rider each day), and each horse made 10 transitions each day for each method, which produced 320 transitions. Rein tension was recorded, and horse behavior and rider signal behaviors were evaluated from video recordings. Horse behavior was divided into the following 3 different categories: “pushing against the bit,” “moving away from the bit,” and “decelerating.” Linear models were constructed tracking the percent of the transition time that horses demonstrated at least 1 behavior in the “pushing against the bit,” “moving away from the bit,” and “decelerating” categories, and with random effects for rider, horse, and transition number nested within horse. Fixed effects analyzed were the methods, proportion of the transition time above 30 N for each rein, and the rider signal behaviors. M1 and M2 had on average 19% (standard deviation: 16) and 38% (standard deviation: 23) of the time with >30 N per rein, respectively. In the models for the “pushing against the bit” behaviors, M2 increased rein tension and “exerting pressure on the reins” increased the level of these behaviors. “Releasing pressure” interacted with “pulling back on the reins”; this combination was associated with an increased level of “pushing against the bit” behaviors. The “decelerating” behavior was associated with lower rein tension. In the “decelerating” behavior models, “pulling back on the reins” led to decreased “decelerating” behavior, whereas “still hand” and “releasing pressure” led to increased “decelerating” behavior; however, the interaction “pulling back on the reins” and “releasing pressure” led to decreased “decelerating” behavior. “Moving away from the bit” had no significant determinants. We concluded that fewer “pushing against the bit” behaviors were created by M1 and that a lower rein tension was associated with the “decelerating” behavior. Reinforcing the horse’s attempts, to assist in finding the correct response, benefits the welfare of the horse, and importance of a light hand should be continuously emphasized during riding education.”

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1558787811001481

Equipment and training risk factors associated with ridden behaviour problems in UK leisure horses

By Jo Hockenhull and Emma Creighton

“Ridden behaviour problems are prevalent in the UK leisure horse population and may have implications for horse welfare and rider safety. This study aimed to identify risk factors associated with ridden behaviour problems in UK leisure horses from the training approaches and equipment used with them. An Internet survey was used to collect data on 1326 horses from a convenience sample of leisure horse owners. The survey asked owners to report the frequency their horses displayed fifteen ridden behaviour problems over the previous week. Data on the frequency of occurrence of behaviour in four components of related ridden behaviour problems were explored for association with details of the horse’s working life, including the type of tack, equipment and training used, and the frequency the professional services of saddlers and farriers were employed using logistic regression analyses. Behaviour data were generated for 791 individual horses. Risk factors associated with the ridden behaviour problems emerged as three themes. One related to the design and fit of the saddle, with dressage and working hunter saddles associated with a reduced risk of ridden behaviour problems compared to general purpose saddles. The horse’s footcare and shoeing regime was associated with three of the four groups of behaviour problems. An extended interval (seven weeks or more) between farrier visits was associated with an increased risk of discomfort behaviour. Taking an outcome-centred approach to training, for example through the use of artificial training aids, was associated with an increased risk of behaviour problems while spending more time with the horse outside of training situations, a more horse-centred approach, was associated with a reduced risk of problems. Further research is required to understand the causal relationships behind these associations, with the aim of improving the welfare of the horse and the well-being and safety of its rider.”

http://www.journals.elsevierhealth.com/periodicals/applan/article/S0168-1591(12)00020-2/abstract

I hope you enjoy this collection of abstracts as much as I did. If you have a question about any of the abstracts or the terminology used, please feel free to leave a comment or email me and I will happily answer your questions.

Emma Lethbridge

(Emma@theequineindependent.com or E.M.Lethbridge@shu.ac.uk)

Jun 252012
 

As an equine behaviourist one of the common reasons people contact me for help is separation anxiety – their horse isn’t coping when taken away from other horses or when left alone. Sometimes horses form such a strong bond or attachment to a particular equine friend that even if other horses are present they can’t cope with being apart. When owners want to ride or bring their horse in from the field at different times it can be very stressful for both horse and owner – some of my clients have had to arrange elaborate yard rules for turning in and out to avoid horses jumping fences, vocalising, or cantering up and down the fence-line. I have even had cases when horses have developed the dangerous habit of jumping out of their stables to avoid being left alone when the other horses in their yard are turned out before them. Some people are turning towards individual turnout systems to prevent separation anxiety from developing but I argue that this is like throwing the baby out with the bath water…. there is no need to deny horses a social life – they can learn to be alone at times.

Why do horses not like to be alone?

Horses are social herd animals. Naturally, during the first four weeks of a horse’s life, foals associate mainly with their mothers but after their first month they spend more time with other foals of a similar age. Foals play and mutually groom together and partly because these two activities work best in pairs, they tend to pair up and form close friendships.

Horses living in stable herds usually choose a partner that is the same age, sex and size as themselves but if this is not possible they will form a relationship with any horse available – and if no horses are available they sometimes become attached to other animals – such as goats or donkeys. In the domestic setting it is positive when two horses form a strong bond because social interaction is important for their well-being. I would not recommend separating horses who are attached to each other in an attempt to ‘prevent’ separation anxiety, we just need to teach them to cope with being apart at times.

Horses have a priority of needs and if they do not feel safe they are unable to perform other aspects of their ethogram (repertoire of natural behaviours such as eating, drinking, exploring etc) and are unable to respond to training. This means that if a horse doesn’t feel safe without other horses present he will be unable to perform other behaviours, such as grazing (in the same way that we might find it difficult to eat when we are worried about something, or find it difficult to sleep after watching a scary movie). This is why having access to hay in the stable, or grass in a field, is not enough to distract a horse that has ‘separation anxiety’.

The solution…

Sadly some of the ways that people try to address separation anxiety instead make it worse. There is a growing tendency for yards to offer ‘individual turnout’ as a selling point. The main rationalisation is that this will cause fewer injuries from horses kicking and biting each other (avoidable if horses are introduced to each other appropriately and if there are enough resources so that the horses do not need to compete for them), but often individual turnout is also said to avoid problems with horses forming strong bonds and thus avoiding separation anxiety. How sad – not being allowed to make friends and do all the things that horses should do when hanging out together to avoid the possibility that the friendship will be so important to them that they will fret when they are separated! There is a better way – we can help the horse to have the confidence to be relaxed in the field, stable or yard when alone or away from other horses or their close friends.

This is a gradual process consisting of five main aspects:

* Removing the predictors of anxiety by changing the pattern of events leading to separation from the other horses. For example, it is important to identify the point at which the horse becomes anxious. If it is when a head collar is brought into the field to catch the horse’s friend we need to break the association of the head collar being a predictor of being separated by repeatedly putting the head collar on and taking it off but not resulting in separation.

* Very gradually building-up of time away from the other horses; starting from just a few metres away from the other horses for just a few minutes and building up the time and distance gradually (the time-frame will depend on the individual horse).

* Making the time alone pleasurable so that the horse learns to associate being away from other horses with positive experiences. This might include being fed, or groomed, or trained using reward-based training methods.

* Ensuring that the horse doesn’t have any bad experiences when away from other horses as this could reinforce the fear and anxiety of being alone.

* Building up the horse’s confidence in people so that he can draw some reassurance from people and not just other horses.

It is important to be able to read your horse’s body language to be aware of the point at which he is first becoming anxious so that you don’t expect too much too soon. Early signs of anxiety in horses are triangulation of the eye, muscle tension, tail swishing and displacement behaviours such as pawing the ground.

The process of teaching a behaviour gradually is called ‘shaping’ – we think about all the small stages, or steps of a ladder, that must be done on the way to the desired behaviour (being alone without being anxious). Thus, if a horse becomes anxious when he is removed from a field on his own, steps might include being caught and groomed in the field before being released again, then being caught and taking some steps to the gate before being released again, then being caught and going through the gate before turning around and being turned out etc. building up gradually to being taken further away from the herd for longer. Note that a step from being led away from the herd but in sight of the herd to turning a corner so that he can’t see other horses is a significant step. Each step should not be repeated in sequence, rather, when the horse has completed a few ‘steps’ they should be mixed up so that sometimes less is asked, sometimes more. If you need to help your horse to be able to cope with being alone a qualified behaviourist will be able to help you design appropriate steps in the process for your horse taking into consideration the set-up of your yard and other practicalities.

It might sound like a drawn out process but if done properly horses can learn very quickly that being alone at times is a positive experience – and surely better than resorting to individual turnout.

These videos from YouTube show the classic signs of a stressed horse due to their companion being out on a ride while they are left in the field alone.

1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qXrHtIAp154
2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1on309QhJk

(www.learningaboutanimals.co.uk)