image

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

Advertisements