Archives for posts with tag: horse training

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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

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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

Dr Helen Spence
March 2014

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Rosie wears a shower curtain as a hat, at liberty, in the field.

I just discovered I’d prepared this post earlier this year and not got round to uploading it! So here it is :-).

In the last decade the equestrian community’s understanding of learning theory and training terminology has improved enormously. When I first started out as a professional trainer over a decade ago, I found that few people had heard of ‘flooding’ as a training technique, let alone understood what it was, despite the fact that at the time it was widely utilised by a wide variety of trainers.

Nowadays, however, most people are aware of the term, and, more importantly, aware that it should be a last resort rather than a favoured approach. However, I often find that, although people are aware of the theory, in practice they are not always so good at recognising flooding when it is actually happening. In this post I will discuss what flooding actually is, what psychologists think about it, and how to recognise it.

Species specific defense reactions (ssdr) are innate escape avoidance responses made to aversive stimuli- in horses, these include freeze, flight, fight or faint. Horses are innately neophobic, which means that they naturally find novel objects/ situations frightening. Given freedom of choice and space, most horses will flee, even if only for a short distance.

Panksepp has suggested that the freeze response occurs at a slightly lower level of fear, however in a confined space/ when movement is constricted by ropes or reins, horses may not demonstrate flight or even an attempt to flee. Why might this be?

Exposing a horse to a novel stimulus, whether in hand or under saddle, in most cases (subject to history) will lead to stimulation of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, the flight response: increase in heart rate, respiration rate, release of adrenaline, noradrenaline and corticosteroids in preparation for physical exertion and potential injury.

Given freedom of choice and adequate space the horse will flee to a safe distance and then recover to a parasympathetic state (‘rest and digest’)- think of a horse in a very large pasture, something startles them, they will spook and run, stop, turn, have a look, and once they are sure the threat is gone, they will return to grazing.

In some cases, once fear is gone, horses may exhibit curiosity in response to novelty. Panksepp would describe this as activation of the SEEKING circuitry, and the behaviour is characterized by interested approach. Please note that this occurs through choice and NOT under compulsion.

With repeated exposure to the novel stimulus, in this way, with sufficient respite between each exposure and no negative consequences, i.e. no pain or injury, the horse will ‘habituate’ and there will be a gradual diminishment of the flight response until it is not triggered at all. However, in some instances, the horse may instead become sensitised, and the ssdr may become stronger rather than weaker.

What happens if we attempt to make the horse ‘face his fear’? This often happens in the horseworld, whether intentional or not, because of our tendency to block their ability to perform the flight response.

For example, when out hacking, the horse freezes when they see a road sign. The normal response is to apply aversives in the form of pressure from the legs. This may in fact also be accompanied by increased pressure on the bit as the rider shortens the reins, anticipating a spook or a bolt.

If the horse continues to freeze, the aversives may be escalated, perhaps by increasing pressure from the legs, or with the addition of a smack from a whip or shouting from the rider (which the horse has learned to associate with another aversive stimulus such as the sting of the whip).

The horse is, in effect, caught between a rock and a hard place. If they turn away or back up, or even just stay where they are, they are experiencing increasingly aversive stimuli. But if they go forwards, they have to approach the frightening object, also an aversive stimulus. What does the horse do?

Inevitably, it comes down to which is more aversive- the object (the road sign in this instance) or the driving aids?

When riders are successful in ‘making’ horses approach in these situations, it is because the rider has managed to be the source of the more salient (more meaningful) aversive stimuli. With repetition, the horse learns that, when ridden, there is no point in executing the normal ssdr, escape avoidance doesn’t work.

This is what is known as learned helplessness. In future, even if the opportunity to escape is available, the horse will be unlikely to attempt to do so. It doesn’t mean that the horse is no longer frightened of the object, simply that they are more frightened of the rider and what the rider might do if they fail to pass.

Any scenario for dealing with a fear evoking stimulus in which the individual is exposed to it without the opportunity to escape is known as flooding.

Another example of flooding, frequently used in natural horsemanship training, and often incorrectly labeled as habituation or desensitisation, occurs when a horse is exposed to a novel stimulus while on line, or enclosed in an insufficient space such as a pen. The exposure to the stimulus triggers the flight response, but the horse is unable to run far enough away to settle and relax, due to the constraint of either the line or the pen. In addition, when on line, the horse runs into the pressure of the rope, and so experiences another aversive stimulus. This scenario is no different to that of the horse out on the hack. It may produce a horse that stands still and will appear to accept the novel stimulus (eg tarp, cracking whip, flag, stick and string or even a chainsaw) being moved around them and even touching them. However, careful examination of the body language will reveal a horse that is ‘tucked up’ (holding their breath) and carrying a lot of tension through the muscles, particularly obvious around the muzzle and eyes.

Emotions should always matter more than behaviour. Anyone can teach a horse to do something, but it takes skill and thoughtfulness to produce a horse that is genuinely relaxed and ‘happy’ with the process.

Flooding should be a tool of last resort, only to be brought out when there is no other option. It should not be used routinely for dealing with fears and phobias.

The best (and most ethical) way to do this is through a process known as systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning. More on that another time!

Here is a video that illustrates the final stages of a systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning process. Many thanks to my clients Janet and Sally for allowing me to show this footage. http://youtu.be/qAlwc_uywMs

For a great free app that illustrates body language, go to https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=info.awinhub.HorseGrimacePainScale

http://www.helenspencehorsesense.co.uk

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Have you ever wondered how you could put a little more sparkle into your tests?
Perhaps you feel your horse needs you to continually nag and niggle at them to put more effort in?
Or maybe you find you are treading a fine line between impulsion and explosion?
Maybe you’d just like to feel that you both have a smile on your face as you school!

To discover how to make dressage more rewarding, for both you and your horse, sign up for this workshop with Dr Helen Spence. From getting a square halt every time, through to developing lateral work in hand and beginning piaffe and passage, this will be of interest to dressage riders of all levels. Discover just how important relaxation is to the scales of training.

Helen will talk about how simple issues like management styles and feeding can impact on behaviour. More importantly, she will explain and demonstrate just how important it is to train in a way that the horse finds truly rewarding. This will include, but not be limited to, an introduction to training with a clicker and food (known by some as clicker training!).

This workshop will be hosted by Claire Sedgeman at her yard near Dromore, on Saturday 12th September from 10am to 5pm. Cost for the day is £40 and places are limited so please book early! To book your space please contact Helen by email info@helenspencehorsesense.co.uk or phone 07773 157428.

Dr Helen Spence has a degree in Psychology and a PhD in the field of horse behaviour and welfare. She has been in business since 2003 as an equine behaviour and training consultant and over that time has taught workshops for everyone from happy hackers to professional trainers, has lectured in horse behaviour to postgraduate level, and is recognised as an expert in the field. http://www.helenspencehorsesense.co.uk

http://www.helenspencehorsesense.co.uk

To race or not to race…. Is that the question?
By Dr Helen Spence
Thursday 3rd April 2014
http://www.helenspencehorsesense.co.uk

I’ve just discovered a new sport. They strap monkeys to the backs of deer and race them round a track. The deer are clearly showing a flight response, and the monkeys carry little whips that they use to urge them on if they slow down at all. The deer have bits of metal through their mouths that the monkeys use to control them. Ok, so I made that up. No one that I am aware of has tried that… yet. But what were your first thoughts on reading about it? Horror? Bemusement? Or did you think ‘Oh, that’s just like horse racing then’. Sometimes it is hard to see the wood for the trees. When something has been around for as long as horse racing, it is easy to become immune to what we are seeing on a daily basis.

You see, at the moment, there is a lot of debate about welfare in horse racing. But most of it centres around physical welfare, and the numbers of deaths and injuries in a ‘sport’ in which the horse clearly has no choice over whether or not they participate.

For me, although I agree that there are many questions that should be asked about the physical welfare of racehorses, including the way in which they are bred and managed, the burning issue is psychological welfare. I have a degree in Psychology and did my doctoral research on the horse human relationship. I have been in business for over a decade educating owners and equine professionals about the psychology of horse training, with a particular focus on psychological welfare. My main focus in that period has been explaining about appetitives and aversives and how they relate to training.

Psychologists know that, in a learning situation, care should be taken when using aversive stimuli to reinforce or punish behaviour. This is because aversives work by acting on the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, more popularly understood as ‘fight or flight’. Aversive stimuli are unpleasant stimuli that create escape or avoidance responses. In other words, in their presence we experience pain, discomfort or fear that we would rather avoid or escape. Our education system has changed dramatically over recent years to reduce a reliance on aversives and to increase the use of appetitives (rewards). Appetitives act on the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, more popularly understood as ‘rest and digest’.

It is widely recognised in animal training that it is more ethical to train using appetitives. Zoo animals are taught to participate in a wide range of husbandry procedures using reward based techniques, as are marine mammals. Regardless of the arguments for and against keeping these animals in captivity, there is no doubt that appetitive training techniques are more conducive to good welfare than those relying on aversives.

‘Clicker training’ has become an increasingly popular approach for training not just dogs, but sheep (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YKnSls3zz9A), rats (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7g2rxtWu_FM) and horses (http://youtu.be/qAlwc_uywMs).

In fact, animal welfare legislation recognises the importance of promoting ‘Freedom from fear and distress’. Any training system that relies predominantly on the use of aversive stimuli is failing to meet this standard. Although training for other species is increasingly moving away from the use of aversives and towards the use of appetitives, the horse industry is slow to change. However horses are not ‘a special case’, it is not necessary to rely on aversives when training and handling them, so my question is not ‘To Race or Not to Race?’, it is in fact ‘How should we train racing’?

It is possible to teach a horse to gallop a course, including jumping (Here is an example of showjumping being trained using appetitives:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7H4Phzy8_rQ) using appetitives rather than aversives. Of course we know that conventional racehorse training relies on two things: the horse’s natural urge to stay with the herd (ie their panic to avoid social isolation), and their (also natural) urge to avoid experiencing aversive stimuli by an escape/ avoidance response. Imagine a race that didn’t need whips, bits, or even jockeys. One in which the horse could choose whether or not to participate. Would that not be the truest test of the speed and courage of the horse? I know what I would rather watch.

Let’s get operating

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about operant (also known as instrumental) conditioning and it’s relevance to horse training. More specifically, about negative and positive reinforcement. Lots of discussion on how much of traditional horse training, European and American, and natural horsemanship is based predominantly on the use of negative reinforcement, and how those that use the ‘clicker’ focus on positive reinforcement. Lots of kneejerk reaction to the terms ‘negative’ and ‘positive’. Lots of confusion, because the end effect on behaviour is the same- reinforcement, or strengthening. Lots of articles written explaining what these terms mean, both in theory and in practice. Lots of division between trainers and justification for why they prefer one or the other as their focus in training.

A mechanistic approach

But for me, there is a big danger in focusing too much on operant conditioning. Yes, we most certainly need to understand it in order to train. BUT, focus too much on it, and training can become mechanical, treating the animal (or person) like a machine that is being programmed to follow instructions.

Why does that matter, you may ask? For many reasons (not least safety) we want our animals to be able to follow instructions. So do I…. But I don’t want to treat them like a machine. Like humans, there is growing scientific evidence that animals are sentient beings, that experience emotions just like ours.

We may not ever know what it is like ‘to be’ a horse, or a dog, or a fish, but the physiological evidence supports the idea that they can experience fear, joy, form attachments and grieve over losses. They share many of the same cognitive processes as we do. In fact, much of our understanding of human behaviour is based on animal studies. We are all animals!

A little detour through history

For a number of years now, I have been teaching my students and clients the importance of understanding classical (also known as Pavlovian, associative or respondent) conditioning. You may have heard the term ‘Pavlov’s dogs’ bandied about.

Pavlov was a Russian physiologist whose studies involved the collection of saliva from dogs. Like all good scientists, he was an observant man. He was aware that saliva production is a reflex action, not under conscious control. The reflex is triggered by the presentation of food. So in order to collect the saliva, the dogs were given food. Pavlov began to notice that the dogs started salivating BEFORE the food was produced, when the lab assistants appeared.

How could this be? It couldn’t just be because the dogs ‘knew’ that food was coming- salivation is a reflex, not under conscious control, that should only occur in response to one stimulus- food. Yet a new stimulus, lab assistants, was provoking the reflex response.

Pavlov had discovered that it is possible, through ‘association’ to pair  the stimuli, so that a new, previously neutral, stimuli could lead to the response.

But what does that matter to us?!

Salivation isn’t the only reflex we have. There are all kinds, relating to self preservation and survival, including observable external reflexes such as the eye blink (to protect the eye from injury), choking, the knee jerk, and more interestingly for us, internal reflexes such as endocrine responses, such as would happen in response to rewarding or aversive experiences.

So this means that emotions are subject to the same possibilities as salivation. Emotional responses can become associated with stimuli that wouldn’t normally elicit them.

Time for some examples

Let’s imagine two horses, Misty and Thunder, and their owners, Bob and Jean. Bob and Jean are new to horses, have never seen horse training and have no preconceived ideas. They are each given a whistle, a bucket of carrots, and a lunge whip.

Bob takes Misty off into the paddock. He has this idea that he’d like to make Misty move, so he blows the whistle, but nothing happens. He blows it again, and decides this time to try cracking the lunge whip straight after. After just a few repetitions, Misty is cantering away from him as soon as he blows the whistle, and he doesn’t need to crack the lungewhip.

Meanwhile, Jean has taken Thunder off to a different paddock. She blows the whistle, with the idea that she’d like Thunder to move. Nothing happens. So she blows the whistle and picks up the bucket of carrots. After just a few repetitions, Thunder  is cantering towards her as soon as she blows the whistle, before she can lift the carrots.

After a day or two, Bob finds he is having problems catching Misty, yet Thunder gallops to the gate as soon as he sees Jean coming.

In this example, the whistle is the neutral stimulus that initially means nothing to the horses. By ‘associating’ the whistle with either a stimulus that provokes the flight response (fear/ avoidance reflex) OR with a stimulus that provokes salivation and the positive affect (emotions) that accompany eating, the whistle has taken on the properties of those stimuli. So the whistle has the power to make one horse feel good while the other feels fearful.

The whistle in Jean and Thunder’s case, has been associated with an APPETITIVE stimulus. In Bob and Misty’s case it has been associated with an AVERSIVE stimulus. And by default,  the sight of Bob makes Misty feel fearful and avoidant, while the opposite is true for Jean and Thunder.

Operant Conditioning,  Appetitives and Aversives

In Operant conditioning, appetitives (let’s call them the ‘Goodies’) and aversives (let’s call them the ‘Baddies’) are used to reinforce or punish behaviour. Reinforcement is the increase in frequency or intensity of a response. Punishment is the decrease in frequency or intensity of a response. The four quadrants of operant conditioning are normally taught with the emphasis on whether or not it is positive or negative, reinforcement or punishment.

My argument is that we are better to teach with the emphasis on whether or not it involves AVERSIVES (baddies) or APPETITIVES (goodies), because, both from a scientific perspective and from my years of observations of horses in training situations, this is what REALLY matters to the horse.

Both positive and negative reinforcement result in an increase in the frequency or intensity of a response. From the perspective of behaviour, the end result is the same.

HOWEVER, positive reinforcement involves the horse experiencing a ‘goody’ (an appetitive stimulus).

While negative reinforcement involves the horse experiencing a ‘baddy’ (an aversive stimulus).

From an emotional perspective these are two very different experiences (as anyone who has ever played the training game at one of my clinics or talks will know!). Since the evidence suggests that horses have similar emotional responses to aversives and appetitives to us humans, then  we would do well to think carefully about this.

Let’s bring classical conditioning back into the equation

So we now know that horses have an emotional response to both appetitives and aversives. We also know that, through classical conditioning, these responses can become associated with all kinds of innocent stimuli!

For example, in a training paradigm that is based predominantly on the use of negative reinforcement IN OTHER WORDS AVERSIVES, it isn’t just the tools (e.g. the lunge whip, the reins, the schooling whip, the spurs, the legs) that are aversive. By association, saddle and bridle or even the presence of the trainer themselves has the potential to become a conditioned stimuli, i.e. one that, by association, provokes the same response.

So the trainer may, in essence, make the horse feel uncomfortable just by their presence.

Many trainers are lucky to avoid this, because they also are the source of appetitive experiences for their horses, such as feed, water, scratches, treats, turnout with friends.

Here’s the crux of the matter: your relationship with your horse is, in good part, determined by the balance of appetitives and aversives that you use with them on a daily basis. Like a set of scales, tip the balance too far one way, and the nature of the relationship can change from a happy one to an unhappy one. This is all because of classical conditioning.

It may seem like a rather simplistic way to view it, and I appreciate that there are other processes involved. But we cannot afford to dismiss this.

Why does it matter if my horse associates me with aversives more than appetitives?

It matters because, by their nature, aversives create avoidance. If you are too heavily associated with them, then your horse will want to avoid you. Horses avoid mainly by flight, but, if flight isn’t an option, fight can appear. Eventually, you may run the risk of learned helplessness and a ‘shut down’ horse. This is not the groundings of a safe, secure relationship.

In training,  we talk about ‘reinforcement history’. Reinforcement hostory refers to the weighting of goodies and baddies, I.e. aversives or appetitives associated with a stimulus or situation. Well, another word for reinforcement history could be ‘relationship’.

Whether you own the horse or not, whether you intend to keep them for life or sell them tomorrow, you have a responsibility, especially those of you working with youngsters.

You are creating that horse’s relationship with the human race as a whole. You can make it or break it. I always say my job, initially, when working with youngsters, is to help them fall in love with me. But my goal, is to help them fall in love with the human race.

A trusting, happy, gentle horse generally receives kinder treatment than one that is avoidant or defensive.

New evidence also suggests that the levels of fear, grief and distress experienced in childhood can have permanent damaging effects on the brain….. now that’s a whole other blog post!!

This is adapted from an article that I wrote for EquiAds Ireland Magazine,  2008.

I would say that the question that I get asked most frequently is “Do you do natural horsemanship?” closely followed by “Are you a horse whisperer?” 

These are probably two of the most difficult questions to answer, simply because everyone has a different definition of what natural horsemanship is, and what being a horse whisperer entails! You see I could answer yes and no to them both and be telling the truth. However, what I always say to people is that I don’t believe in the ‘method’ approach to horsemanship. And horse whispering may be a cosmic art, or it may simply be the ability to read and listen to what a horse is saying- this doesn’t necessarily need a sixth sense (although it helps sometimes!).

What I believe in is GOOD horsemanship.

I believe that this entails understanding a horse’s natural behaviour (i.e. that they are herd animals, prey animals and flight animals).

We need to understand that horses are all individuals and that temperament means that they each fall onto a different point on the spectrum of being herd, prey and flight animals (i.e. some are more sensitive,  more reactive or less confident than others).

We should understand how horses learn and how best to train them, taking into account these individual differences, and take on board the lessons learned from scientific research as well as practical experience.

We need to culitvate the awareness to listen to the horse and work out what they are trying to say with their behaviour (even if this means developing a bit of a sixth sense!).

We must develop ourselves.  What are the qualities of a good trainer and how do we achieve or cultivate these? How can we improve our self awareness and feel.?

It is essential that we understand how different management and training techniques affect each individual’s stress levels and learning abilities.

By knowing ourselves as individuals and recognising our strengths and weaknesses we can work on making life easier for the horse by improving ourselves as horse people, rather than making life easier for us with the use of gadgets and quick fixes.

Alois Podhajsky (former Director of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna) said that “If a rider thinks that he has found a new method he may be sure that if it is any good he has come upon it by instinct or chance and that it was practised long ago by the old masters”.

The more I experience on a practical level in my work, and the more I study the various ‘methods’ of horsemanship, from classical and natural right through, the more I agree with this statement.

There are so many similarities, and time and again you see that great horsemen use very similar techniques, though they might be described in different ways.

However, to me, the key is in understanding WHY these methods work. When you take the approach of studying WHY, you will find that you do not follow a ‘method’ but instead are on the road to GOOD horsemanship.

The most important quality of good horsemanship is that you have complete freedom to work with the horse in what is the most suitable way for that individual, given their temperament, history and your experience.

‘Methods’ often lead to people getting stuck in boxes. When you adhere to a ‘method’ set out by a particular horse person, you have to follow their recommendations and experiences. This can be incredibly useful in the early stages because you benefit from their experience and it can help to set a structure on how you work.

However there is no substitute for understanding WHY, and often these methods don’t teach the WHY, simply the HOW. In fact, as a psychologist and having studied equine behaviour and training on an academic as well as practical level I can tell you that often the WHY of these methods is very different to what some of these horse people say it is!

Following a method can work well enough until you meet a horse that doesn’t respond to this particular method in the expected manner. I have seen some well known and respected trainers get caught in this trap. The only way to truly assess what is the best way to work with a horse is to understand the WHY. After all, this famous quote says it all: “Art ends where violence begins. Violence begins where knowledge ends”.

For this reason, my driving passion in what I do is not to create a method that people follow- it is to give people the tools to understand WHY- so that they can study every horse person and every method, and pick and choose the best bits to incorporate into their own way of doing things.

For this same reason I like to teach people to understand themselves as individuals, their strengths and weaknesses and how these feed into their time spent with horses, so that they can play to their strengths and work on their weaknesses. 

I believe that understanding WHY is empowering and inspiring people to be the absolute best horse people they can be.

If you would like to learn a little more about this and about my philosophy, then visit my website www.helenspencehorsesense.co.uk