Archives for the month of: November, 2014
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Choice is the best starting point......Photo by Joanne Gray

By Dr Helen Spence

What do you think is the best way to teach a horse to load?

Motivation
There are two types of stimuli that motivate movement in horses. One is the motivation to move towards something. For example, to search out fresh grazing or water, to move to a comfortable resting place, to approach a friend for a mutual grooming session.

The other is the motivation to move away from something, for example the flight response triggered by a threatening noise, or lifting the head high to avoid bridling, or even just quietly walking away to avoid being caught.

Things that we are motivated to move towards make us feel good. Things that we are motivated to avoid tend to have the opposite effect.

Ethology
From an ethological perspective, horseswill naturally be safest from attack by predators when they are in open spaces, with their herd, so that they can easily take evasive action if a threat or potential threat is spotted. They will not naturally seek out small, dark, confined spaces and they will certainly not naturally feel safe or comfortable in these kinds of spaces. This is something that is only learned through experience.

So when working with a naive horse, it is safest to assume that their instinctive, natural reaction to a trailer will be one of avoidance.

Competing motivations
That means that trainers are faced with a choice. Do they take advantage of the motivation to move towards something, or the motivation to move away? Breeders that teach the young foal that it is safe to load on a trailer by following mum or a friend that has already had positive loading and travelling experiences are making use of the motivation to move towards something.

Those that use a bucket of feed to reassure and encourage the young horse are also making use of that motivation to go towards something. At the same time they are associating the process of loading with a pleasurable experience, eating.

On the other hand, any use of pressure at all, whether it is pressure on a rope or driving pressure from a whip, stick, barrier or body language, is making use of the motivation to move away.

In both cases, we have competing motivations- the natural motivation to avoid the trailer is in competition with, in the first scenario, the motivation to approach the positive stimulus (the attachment figure or the food). Whereas in the second scenario, the motivation to avoid the trailer is in competition with the motivation to avoid the pressure.

Approach-Avoidance conflict
The first scenario can create an approach avoidance conflict. All we have to do here in order to resolve the conflict (or stress) is make the appetitive stimulus (the nice thing that the horse wants to approach) more powerful than the aversive stimulus (the trailer). More on that later.

Avoidance-avoidance conflict
The second scenario creates an avoidance avoidance conflict. In essence, the horse is caught between arock and a hard place. In order to motivate the horse to enter the trailer, they have to want to avoid the pressure more than they want to avoid the trailer. Since both are aversive stimuli,  i.e. things that are uncomfortable or unpleasant and that create a degree of sympathetic arousal (the fight or flight response), either way, whatever the horse chooses, they are in for a stressful time, and the training experience will not be a pleasurable one.

In order for the horse to choose to enter the trailer, the pressure must be significantly more aversive (unpleasant/ frightening) than the trailer. This approach does not change how the horse feels about the trailer, it simply teaches them that they must load onto it no matter what.

The main advantage of this approach (from the trainer’s perspective) is that, because there is no need to change the emotional state of the horse, the goal of loading the horse can be achieved very quickly, sometimes in a matter of minutes, and in most cases within an hour or two. This makes it very appealing to both trainers and owners.

Trainers using this approach will often school the horse to the pressure away from the trailer. During this process the horse learns that if they don’t yield to light pressure, the pressure will be escalated (I.e. made more aversive). This produces a horse that will yield to very light pressure, because the light pressure is, in essence, a threat of more to come. The trainer can then use this seemingly light pressure to teach the horse to load, despite the aversiveness of the trailer. If the horse chooses to load, it always means that the pressure (or threat of pressure) is more aversive than entering the trailer itself.

The downside of training with aversive stimuli
When working with aversive stimuli, there is no change in how the horse feels about the trailer during the training process, because both the trailer and the pressure are aversive stimuli that work on the flight response. So a horse being trained this way will remain in a state of sympathetic arousal throughout the process. The only way the emotions will change is with repetition of loading and travelling after the training, during which the horse,  provided nothing else unpleasant happens (such as a return to escalated pressure, or bad driving, or an unpleasant experience at the other end)  will ‘habituate’ to the process, in other words get used to it.

Ethical concerns
However, from an ethical perspective, is it acceptable to create an avoidance-avoidance conflict? This can only be assessed on a case by case basis, andwill depend on just how aversive the horse finds the trailer loading experience, and how aversive they find the pressure.

The thing is, aversive stimuli are every bit as effective at teaching loading as appetitive stimuli. In fact, they may appear more effective, given than they get a quicker result. In some cases food might not appear to work at all, but that is always because the trainer hasn’t broken the process down into small enough steps.

The question should not be whether the approach works or not – both approaches are highly effective in terms of achieving the end goal. The question is whether or not it is ‘right’ to use an approach that does not alleviate stress, and, most likely, creates more stress.

It is rarely all about the trailer
No matter which way the horse is taught to load, it is absolutely essential that after the training they have regular and consistently good travelling experiences so that they can habituate to the whole process, in other words, learn that it is a safe and comfortable thing to do.

In the case of horses that have developed a loading problem as a result of bad experiences, it is essential that the trainer is aware of the root cause of the problem and that this is what is addressed. This could for example be a seperation anxiety related issue, or a balance problem, it could be a traffic phobia, or related to what it is they are travelling to, or even a bad driving issue. There could be an underlying physical problem, such as  lameness or back pain, which is why a vet check is
essential before training commences.

Recognising signs of stress
I find that horse people are not alwaysas good as they should be at recognising when a horse is stressed. It is easy to see when they are stressed to the point of attempting to escape or fighting, and most can see that. However, that’s really too late. By that stage the horse is way over threshold. Before the horse ever reaches that point they have been whispering signs of discomfort, beginning with the tiniest of signs, a slight increase in tension around the base of the ears, the eyes, the muzzle, the tiniest elevation of posture, the tiniest freeze (which is simply a ‘quietness’), a slight tucking up or shallowness of breath. You have to really look carefully to see these things. Things that we don’t consider pressure can be perceived as pressure by the horse, and that’s what matters here.

The professional viewpoint
I have a psychology degree, and a PhD, I have lectured on horse behaviour and rehabilitation training to postgraduate level and have been in practice for over a decade offering advice on behaviour and training issues to horse owners of all levels from amateur through to professional. In my view, the only way to truly ethically work with a loading problem is at liberty (or at the very least on a completely slack rope) without any use of pressure, whether in the form of drive or via a rope. Rather than using aversive stimuli, I focus on appetitive stimuli, so that, instead of the horse remaining in a state of sympathetic arousal (fight or flight),  I can bring them to a parasympathetic state (rest and digest).

The advantage of using food
When you use food, you simply cannot take the horse too far over threshold, because a stressed horse will not eat. Nor will a target trained horse target. So it is a simple guage of emotional state for those that struggle with reading the finer detail of body language.

And there is one other wonderful gift that comes when you use food to teach a horse to load/ to rehabilitate a loading problem. You teach them to associate the previously aversive stimulus (the trailer) with something appetitive (the food). With time and repetitions, you literally rewire the brain,  and change the emotional response of the horse when they see the trailer. The trailer becomes associated with a parasympathetic state (rest and digest) instead of a sympathetic state (fight or flight). And with enough time,  the trailer and the loading process start to make them feel good.

I saw this beautifully illustrated the other day with one of my clients. Her horse has had a long standing loading issue which has taken a large number of sessions to date to address. The horse now loads easily at liberty. Something else had slightly stressed the horse, but, as she entered the yard where the trailer was, she visibly relaxed and was eager to approach and load. The counter conditioning has been so successful for her that the trailer has become a place that she likes to be. Not because it means she is safe from pressure that happens outside it, but because she actively enjoys the whole loading process. She has yet to have worked far enough through the rehab programme to be happy with travelling, but she is well on her way towards that. With careful steps appropriate to her emotional state and progress, she will eventually be as confident about travelling as she has now become about every other aspect of the Loading
process.

Sometimes the handler has a loading problem
Something else that I’ve also found over the years is that people that own horses that have loading issues often feel quite stressed themselves when it comes to loading. The beauty of working with food and/ or targets is that you can stand back and teach the horse to ‘self load’, but without pressure. The focus on what the horse is getting right helps the owner to feel more positive and confident, and of course a calm horse is, generally speaking, a safe horse. I have helped a number of owners transform not just how their horse feels about loading, but how they feel about the whole process. That’s what I call job satisfaction!

The temptation of the quick fix
Please don’t be tempted to choose the quick fix offered by pressure based loading methods simply because it gets the problem fixed quicker. How the horse feels about loading and travelling has not changed, and at the end of the day, from an ethical perspective, that’s what really matters.

Are appetitives always slower?
sing the type of training that I advocate isn’t necessarily always a long slow process, in some cases issues are resolved within just a couple of sessions. But the number of training sessions required, and the speed with which the training steps are worked through, will be directly in proportion to the level of aversion that the trailer creates for the horse. Therefore, more severe problems will (and should) take more sessions and more repetitions to shift the emotional state of the horse to one of relaxation, acceptance and even eagerness. The end product will be a horse that is truly ‘happy’ with the loading and travelling process, rather than one that has simply learned to ‘behave’ or ‘comply’ regardless of the level of stress they might be feeling.

Think Carefully!
So please, the next time someone suggests that you use pressure, even mild pressure, to deal with your loading problem, think carefully about what you’ve read today, and consider instead contacting myself (or another trainer that uses the same methods and understands the importance of history and who recommends a vet check prior to rehabilitation training) and learning how to do it positively!

Understanding loading course
In the New Year I’ll be running a short series of evening classes on how to methodically work through loading issues using these principles, so if you have a problem and you’d like to better understand what’s going on, watch this space! Or email me info@helenspencehorsesense.co.uk to register your interest.

Finally, this is what loading can (and should) look like:

http://www.helenspencehorsesense.co.uk

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I am often asked how I believe we can best support change in the horse world. The change I am referring to is the shift in paradigm from a training approach that focuses predominantly on the use of pressure and release (aversive stimuli),  to one that instead relies mainly (but not exclusively!) on rewards (appetitive stimuli).

Please note, before you read any further. Some individuals may feel uncomfortable with this, because it might feel manipulative. I believe that if you are working for the greatest and highest good, with a genuine interest in the best interests of all, then it is never manipulative. If, however, you use these principles for your own personal gain, and at the expense of others, then yes, that is manipulation. What we all need to remember is that we (knowingly or unknowingly) use appetitives and aversives every day in our interactions with people. Every time we criticise, we create discomfort and we shut people down. Eventually we teach them to avoid sharing experiences with us. On the other hand, every time we give support, acknowledgement and praise, we open them up and help them to become more creative, more willing to try new things.

So that said, just how can we support owners and trainers through the evidence based changes that we believe will improve the welfare and ‘happiness’ of their horses?

If we ourselves have fully committed to the new paradigm in our own work with horses, we can do a number of things.
Firstly, we can lead by example. This means that, in our own training, we can demonstrate just what the possibilities are for the horse-human relationship.

Secondly, we can take all the principles that we have learned that help us create behaviour change in horses, and apply them to the people that we meet.
This is what I call ‘Being the Change’ and is inspired by that wonderful Gandhi quote “We must be the change that we wish to see in the world”.

So what does that mean?

Be nice. If you are naturally, genuinely warm and approachable, people (and horses!) will feel much more comfortable around you.

Have integrity. You can’t fake it. People (and horses) are incredibly good at spotting emotional incongruence- in other words, people that say one thing, but are actually feeling something completely different.

Diana Cooper has a very useful way of helping people to tune into this. She says that everyone, no matter how good or bad, has an angel inside, and that we should talk to and see that inner angel in our interactions with them. Counsellors call this unconditional positive regard.

Avoid alienation. It’s so easy to use terminology that helps those ‘in’ the group feel involved, while those on the outside are left floundering and isolated because they have no idea what you mean. So talk in simple terms and use examples that everyone can understand and identify with. Unless of course you are directing your communication to a specific audience, who you know will understand the terms.

Use the principles of shaping behaviour. Recognise the smallest try, and be quick to generously (and genuinely!) reinforce it. (See this post on shaping https://clickerhappyhorse.wordpress.com/2012/05/14/some-thoughts-on-shaping/).

Avoid aversives where safe to do so. So if you can safely ignore behaviour that you don’t want, then that means you can use an appetitive (food, physical contact, social recognition, verbal praise… Choose what is most salient (meaningful) and appropriate for the individual in question!) to reinforce the behaviour that you do like.

Always be willing to answer questions, no matter how silly they might seem.

Beware of the guilt trap. Often people taking their first brave steps into this new training paradigm become paralysed by guilt as they realise just how many aversives they have unwittingly used with their horses.

I do my best to help people through this by pointing out just how empowering their new knowledge is, because they can use it to move forwards. There is no need to focus on what is wrong, when we can focus on what is right. How beautiful is that! People need us to repeatedly articulate that. Don’t forget, they have only just stepped away from a societal framework that focuses on mistakes and wrong doing. They need to know that it really is okay to ignore that, and it is even better to focus on what is right, and build from there.

Being different can be very isolating. In the beginning of any wave of change, those most likely to step forward and blaze the trail are the people that care more about being right than they do about being liked. The individuals that don’t really care about what people think of them. The chances are, if you are a professional working already within this new paradigm, that you are a trail blazer. And it is also likely that many of your early clients fall into this category. But as time goes on, you will find, like a ripple spreading out across the ocean, you will start to pick up new people, those who aren’t as comfortable about standing out from the crowd. So create a crowd for them!  Give them social support. Introduce them to a community of like minded people. Many years ago, I instigated ‘tea and buns’ nights for my clients. We just got together and chatted about what we were all doing. It helped them to realise that they were not alone, and gave them the courage to carry on, rather than feeling that they (and I!) were the only crazy folks working this way. Nowadays, through social media, and the many wonderful groups that are available to support those interested in appetitive based training, it is easy for people to access support and not feel alone. However, it really helps if people on your yard can see that what you are doing is practical and it works.

Learn to ‘turn the other cheek’ when you are criticised. Simply ignore it and carry on sharing and being the change with warmth and openness. You don’t have to throw what you are doing down other’s throats. Sooner or later they will see the light that you shine and it will help them to do the same (Marianne Williamson has a wonderful quote about that!).

Finally, help those that you are supporting through change to learn these principles for themselves. Remember, we don’t change people. People change themselves. All we can do is provide a supportive environment and let them get on with it!

Now go my friends, and Be The Change for the Horses.

With love
Helen Spence

http://www.helenspencehorsesense.co.uk

I’ve just cancelled one of my classical riding lessons because the client in question has just bought a young horse and it is an exceptionally wet and windy morning. I was always taught that you should ride whatever the weather, particularly if you compete, because the horse has to know that they should knuckle down and do what they are told no matter what is going on. However, that viewpoint, for me, belongs to the old training paradigm. The one based on aversive stimuli, in which conformity and obedience is everything. This old paradigm is the ‘No’ paradigm. The one in which we say don’t do this,  don’t do that, and our attention and focus is always on the ‘wrong’ behaviour so that we can spot it and correct it, whilst we are quiet and ignore all that goes well.

The new training paradigm is the one based on appetitive stimuli. The one in which we look for willing partnership, free choice and enthusiasm. This is the ‘yes’ paradigm. We ask ‘ would you like to do this?’, we say thank you when it is freely given, we are focused on all the tiny tries and are quick to say yes, that’s it!  Thank you!  Well done!

Obviously to say that there is only one or the other is a bit of a false dichotomy, there are of course many shades of grey in between. But I know that my horse training life now (compared to twenty years ago) is very much focused on the ‘yes’ paradigm.

More importantly, I believe that we want to focus on building a relationship with the horses we train that they enjoy, so that they seek out our company, they do not do what we ask through compulsion, but because they find it pleasurable. I want any horse I train to feel good when they see me coming with my riding hat and tack, not avoidant. I learned this lesson best of all from my old mare Geri, who used to refuse to be caught if she thought riding was in the pipeline. Thankfully I was able to turn things around for her, but it was a long, slow, delicate process.

So back to the cancelled lesson. Did I make a heinous mistake, refusing to let my client ride her youngster on a wet and very windy day? Or did I make a decision that was in the best interests of their long term relationship?

Let’s take a moment and think about what aversive stimuli the mare might have encountered, had we brought her to the rather exposed arena to ride.

1. Horses in the field will naturally take shelter from the wind and driving rain by standing by hedges or anything that provides a natural windbreak. They will not normally choose to move head on into the wind (would any of us?!).

2. Gusty wind can make horses very spooky. This is because it effects their ability to hear potential predators, and to identify exactly where they might be. So a horse is much more vulnerable to predation in the wind, and therefore becomes hypervigilent and very reactive.

3. Getting cold and wet is just plain unpleasant. Being in the field is different, you can keep eating to stay warm and you get to choose where you stand.

4. If you are feeling spooky and uptight, chances are your rider will be too. So your herd of two will feel even more vulnerable. To add to that, if you do jump at something that particularly worries you,  you might get a jab in the mouth, or have heels grip your sensitive ribs as your rider fights to stay on.

Ok, so the best of riders will be able to stay calm and relaxed, no matter what,  so point four may not be an issue for them. Beyond that,  we would need to really ladle on the appetitive stimuli in order to find some balance to these aversives.

When a relationship is new, you don’t have much in the way of good credit or ‘money in the bank’. You haven’t had the opportunity to build up trust. The emphasis needs to be on filling that bank with positive experiences. I don’t believe, in the early days, that there is any such thing as ‘chickening out’, or ‘letting the horse get the better of you ‘. You should only be attempting to do things that you are both happy with.

Your focus should be on relaxation, willing cooperation, and thanks (in the form of verbal praise, scratches and food) for good effort. That way you build up the credits, the bank balance.

If you throw an unpleasant experience in to that too soon, for example, attempting to hack out on your own before the horse is ready, or over facing them with a training session that is too physically demanding for their level of fitness, you will not just reduce the amount of credit, you could send yourself into debt. The relationship will have been knocked back before it had had a chance to properly establish itself.

Remember that first impressions last. It is much much harder to rebuild credit after a bad experience in the early days.
However, down the line, when you have built a strong positive relationship, a strong credit history, you will find you can (accidentally!) knock that back and it is far far easier to remedy, there is more willingness to ‘forgive and forget’. In fact, aversive stimuli like bad weather etc may actually appear less aversive, or perhaps not even be noticed at all, because the trust is so strong and the relationship is so positive.

Just because we don’t do something, now, it doesn’t mean we can’t ever do it. But the focus should always be ‘everything in good time’.

Foundations are best built slowly with good attention to detail. After all, without them, even the best built walls will struggle to stand the test of time.

Dr Helen Spence 6th November 2014.

http://www.helenspencehorsesense.co.uk

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So much of good horse training is about un-learning.

What do I mean by that?
In life, we learn that if pushing doesn’t work, you should push harder. If you can’t get to something quickly enough, run after it. If you’re pulling and it isn’t working, pull harder. In life, often if you give up on any of these attempts, you loose what you are trying to gain.

But is that really true? It may work with inanimate objects, but does it work with people? Does it work with any animal? Does it work with energy?

The truth (according to Sir Isaac Newton) is that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. I first learned this on an intellectual level in physics class in my early teens. I discovered the real truth of it during my Alexander Technique lessons with Colin Beattie and Gloria Pullan.

I remember the day Gloria taught me about the feel on the reins and how to make contact in a way that created acceptance, not resistance. The key was in self-awareness, my balance, and, more importantly, the softening that came from using my postural muscles to support myself in correct alignment, and not involving all the other muscles in my body. Before that, I’d been following the supposed truth that you had to pull harder than they did,  eventually they’d yield. Oh no, absolutely not, my friend.

Contact of any kind is like butter, it comes from a place of softness. But it also comes from a place of balance. When you are fully balanced, then the only force (if any) that you exert on anyone or anything is the force that you choose to use. The waters aren’t muddied by you throwing your bodyweight into it, intentionally or otherwise.

But it goes beyond physical balance. It is about emotional balance. Think of emotion as energy. Every action creates an equal and opposite reaction. You direct anger towards someone, their tendency is to direct an equal amount of anger straight back at you. Resistance.

During my Psychology degree, we touched a little bit upon counselling theory, including the work of Rogers. But it was in 2001 that Heather Simpson drew my attention to the importance of ‘unconditional positive regard’. And a friend, Dee Stanford, who was studying reiki, pointed out that this was in many ways what love and healing are all about. To quote Bono, “is it true that perfect love drives out all fear?”.

If we meet anger with unconditional positive regard, or perfect love, does it ever fail to dissipate?

In more recent years I got to know an amazing lady. Jacky Ingram was a yoga teacher and reiki master, and she shared with me so much about inner peace and tranquillity and how to bring the essence of unconditional positive regard to horsemanship.

Self awareness is a journey. Horse(wo)manship is a journey.
The journey begins with the first step- becoming consciously aware.

Those of you that read my blog regularly will know that I am an advocate of using appetitives in training. But this does not mean that I believe we must never use pressure. However, if we are going to use pressure in horse training, then at the very least, we should use it from a place of physical and emotional balance. With purity of intention and an awareness of leaving resistance out of the equation.

I think that the best books I have read on this are those written by Mark Rashid. But, like all life lessons, read what you like, until you experience it, you will never really know the truth.

This post is written with heartfelt  thanks to Colin Beattie and Gloria Pullan for the lessons they shared with me that transformed my understanding of ‘feel’ and the massive influence they had on my training, handling and riding. They helped change the course I was on, and I would recommend anyone involved with horses should have Alexander lessons. Thanks also to Colin for suggesting I explore Tai Chi.

Finally, this post is dedicated to the memory of a dear friend, the much loved and very much missed Jacky Ingram.

http://www.helenspencehorsesense.co.uk