I’ve been called a bit of a rare breed in my time. Funnily enough, the person who said that was English and unaware of the use of the term ‘rare’ in Northern Ireland to imply anything other than ‘unusual’. She went on to explain that, in her line of work (working in a large and well known animal welfare organisation) she came across many horse trainers but very few that had relevant academic qualifications. She also came across academics, but very few that had substantial practical horse training experience. She suggested that I was bridging a gap in the horse world, given that, as well as a psychology degree, I also have a behaviour/ welfare based PhD (my research was on ‘The Influence of Owner Personality and Attitude on the Behaviour and Temperament of the Domestic Horse’ and involved me doing behaviour assessments on over seventy horses and questionnaire surveys on a couple of hundred more and their owners!) yet I had followed this, not with the usual academic path, but by going back to my original love, which was working in the horse industry.
That comment was made maybe seven years ago. By that stage I’d already been in business doing horse behaviour consultations, training horses, teaching classical riding and lecturing on horse behaviour for a number of years. I began my business in 2003, and at the time I was one of only a handful of behaviour consultants specialising in equine referrals in the whole of the UK. I was also one of the first to look at alternative, more horse (and welfare) friendly ways of training using techniques based on a sound understanding of learning theory and the psychology of training, along with a firm base in horse ethology (or the scientific study of natural horse behaviour).
That was over twelve years ago, and at the time I was told I was crazy to even contemplate setting up a business doing that kind of work. Here I am now, and I’ve lectured on a series of postgraduate courses in clinical animal behaviour, I lecture on horse behaviour to the vets at Liverpool University on an annual basis, I’ve travelled all over the UK and Ireland and as far afield as Finland to teach workshops on practical horse behaviour, training and problem solving. I’ve been invited to speak at conferences from the first UK Equine Clicker Conference to the BVNA congress and I’ve delivered CPD on horse behaviour for the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors. Most importantly, I’ve worked with a wide range of behaviour problems, from severely abused rescue horses right through to the most pampered of ponies, dealing with issues from serious aggression to spookiness and everything in between. I’ve been involved with everyone from happy hackers to Olympic level competitors. I’ve met great owners along the way, all really motivated to get to the bottom of what’s going on with their horses and reach a better understanding, all willing to make the necessary changes and learn the skills they need in order to improve the relationship they share.
Over more recent years, I’ve spent a lot of time travelling to work in England, while still maintaining a small but loyal client base here in Northern Ireland. I’ve chosen to focus more on training and problem prevention, particularly in working with young horses. This is still something I’m passionate about, since I believe that prevention is always better than cure, however now I’ve decided to turn my focus back to doing behaviour consultations here in Northern Ireland.
I’d just like to take this opportunity to highlight the work I do and explain the benefits of consulting an experienced professional about your horse’s problem behaviour.
Firstly, all methods employed by those that work with behaviour problems are not equal. They may work, but just because they work, that doesn’t make them right. For example, we used to send children up chimneys to sweep them. It worked a treat, but the fact that it worked doesn’t make it right. Nowadays we know better. The horse world is experiencing what we call a paradigm shift. This is a shift in attitude towards the types of techniques and equipment that are considered morally acceptable.
In my work I teach people how to read and understand the emotional state of their horse, and how to recognise the impact that various training techniques and equipment can have on their mental and physical wellbeing. I help people improve their ‘feel’, emotional and physical balance and ability to tune in to their horse. I explain how the management regimes that they follow also affect the horses stress levels, and how this then has an impact on performance. I discuss safety and how training techniques and tools can increase/ decrease the risk of injury.
Secondly, you may not actually consider that you have a behaviour problem at all. After all, problems are only problems in the eye of the beholder. What is a major issue to one owner is nothing to another.You may be experiencing a major issue with your horse, you may even be contemplating selling or giving away your equine partner. Or perhaps you have a very minor change that you’d like to make, maybe training your horse to stand at the mounting block or be more relaxed for the vet or farrier. It may be that you don’t actually consider you have a problem at all, but you do feel that there is room for improvement in your horse’s behaviour/ training. Perhaps you’d like me to come out and do a general assessment, a kind of Behavioural Health Check and give you some pointers that you can work on, to help you and your horse have your perfect relationship.
If you feel any of this may be of interest to you, please do give me a call, with no obligation to book, in order to discuss your options. I am also offering a limited number of ‘meet the behaviourist’ opportunities for riding clubs/ yards to book me free of charge for an evening to come and talk about my work, look at some of my case studies, videos etc, hear my anecdotes and ask questions. These will be booked on a first come first served basis so please contact me if you would like to explore this option.
Ring Dr Helen Spence on 07773 157428 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss. Behaviour consultations must be booked by telephone, not by email, although I’m happy to receive email enquiries, these may not always be promptly responded to due to the level of my work commitments.
Thank you for taking the time to read this and I look forward to hearing from you/ meeting you!