I recently read the following problem on a group page, posted asking for solutions. We have all seen many variations of this issue, it’s fairly common.
The question (paraphrased) was: how do I desensitise my horse to pass calmly through a hot tape electric fence gate? In this case the horse was afraid of touching the hot tape, for good reason as it’s meant to deter contact. Here’s my response.
Rushing through tight gaps is the issue. What is bracketing the space can be anything.
The gap doesn’t zap your horse. The fence/hot gate does, as it should, when it is closed. You don’t want him desensitised to that unless you don’t want him to stay behind it when shut.
A horse that says ‘no’ and/or rushes through a gap because it’s scared of being zapped, will do the same through any tight gaps it has anxiety about. Eg narrow doorways, over uneven ground, under lintels, into and out of trailers, over kerbs, across waterways, and jumping obstacles as a few examples.
Horses are claustrophobic by nature and many have to learn to be ok in negotiating tight proximity where they have to pass under, between, over or through.
So to stop the rushing, or balking, you need to generalise all tight spaces, and set up a pattern of behaviour that the horse knows is safe and that is going to solidify a safe passage.
In nature, when a horse is scared he will run as fast as he can until he feels he is far enough away to be safe, then will turn, face, and look to assess if it’s safe. In order to assess he needs to be able to think, not just react, and so can you see that a horse in flight is hard wired, when he stops turns and looks, to switch his thinking ‘brain’ on instead of his reacting instinct (flight stress responses)?
So something you could do is set up a whole bunch of obstacles. Barrels to squeeze between. Low jumps. Tarps you’re walk over. Pedestals, bridges, short railed corridors out of poles at various heights.
Then choosing the easiest one for your horse, have him cross through it at a walk, and turn, face up, look at what he just passed through, and WAIT. Look for signs he feels ok- if it was stressful he may rush through, then freeze on the waiting part, but eventually he will show some attempt at resetting his parasympathetic nervous system – a lick and chew, lower head, blinking, yawning, some sort of sign that he feels better. If the first obstacle isn’t scary for him he may not go any of those things because he didn’t feel stressed out to start with, in which case watch his ears for changes in focus- if he can look and think about other stuff calmly and is not fixated on the thing, or trying to avoid looking at it (both signs of stress which need to be waited out) then ‘good boy’ and go do something else for a bit, and then rinse and repeat.
The WAIT is crucial, esp when first training this. There are two immediate benefits. The horse needs to really process that he survived the crossing, especially if he was scared about trying to start with, and even if not scared gets the reward/release of resting as an immediate consequence afterwards.
Even when trained, for every single gateway I ride my horses through, I turn, face and wait a few moments afterwards. This is immensely useful and a powerful pattern to train. Usually on going through a gate I need to first open it, then to close it behind me. This takes a moment or two. A horse that stops, turns and waits enables this to be easy. It’s especially handy if leading three or more horses and negotiating a gate if they all automatically know to pass through, turn, and wait. Then everyone gets through one at a time, and I get to close the gate with no rushing or entanglements.
You can teach this in hand to start with. Make sure you can send your horse forwards and can yeild his hind to turn and face you first. When that is solid, try it over/through the easiest obstacle until it’s no problem. Then the next. And the next. By the time you get to your electric gate he will already know the answer when you ask him the question.
Ok so I have a question which I would love your thoughts on when you have time.
This one is really important for me to understand and get right because this situation makes me anxious and as a result I have been inconsistent and not able to help my horses in the past.
Yesterday I was working on the crab walk with my mare ( but it could be doing anything, anywhere at any time )
We were in the roundyard and the other horses in the paddock suddenly all start having the crazies and running around, my mare got completely distracted and stood stock still, frozen with her focus 100% on them, she had gone into the sympathetic nervous system and was trying to work out whether there was something she needed to flee from ( my take on it )
So when this happens
If the horse is just standing still you match their focus, so spend a minute focusing on the same thing breathe deeply , do you then
1) wait for them to come back down before quietly asking for them to move their feet as a way of asking for their focus to come back to you ?
Or do you move your body a bit to see if their focus can come back to you and if so all good and carry on with whatever you were doing and then draw them in and look for twitching to see if they need to let down ?
So basically do you wait for them to reset themselves or do you help facilitate that or does it depend ?
If they were to start moving around in an anxious way and hit the end of the leadrope, use the flag ( calmly and with as little energy as needed ) to try to redirect their attention ?
If they are moving around in an anxious way in towards you create enough energy to just keep them off you ?
The reason this makes me anxious is because I don’t know what to do
I would really like to have a clear picture of what to do in each situation because then I can stay calm and confident and help my mare to find her way back to that place.
I hope that makes sense
As always, I will clarify that as I am not there, it’s impossible to know a situation properly without observing it first hand, and that my answer here is just my speculation on what might be happening and what I personally think is appropriate in a situation like this.
The answer is yes, it depends.
The stress responses that we know best are flight, fight and freeze. This situation describes very well a case of a horse going into freeze. It could also describe a horse just observing other horses playing – sometimes we watch interesting stuff without getting upset about it!
So all of your suggestions are good ones, depending upon the situation. There are also other solutions that may be more appropriate depending upon what is really going on this time.
In my early days of learning about natural horsemanship, I was taught to match the horse’s energy, and to add a few ounces- in other words, just do what they are doing, but a little bit more than they do. This rule of thumb worked out ok for me most of the time.
Eg: My extroverted mare gets playful? A simple send gets a massive farty buckitybuck yeehah? Great! Let’s play- no shutting that down, I encourage and urge her on…just a little longer than she may have decided to play for otherwise, and only then I would offer up my own idea (settle) which is now a lot more attractive. And it’s not about punishing or ‘making the wrong thing difficult’. It’s more ‘you’re idea/my idea!’ which is a handy little way to remember not to just automatically correct every independent thought the horse might have, but to instead convince the horse that you liked his idea and playfully encouraged it…and that now your alternative idea matches his idea too. It’s an extension of the idea that ‘first we go with the horse, then the horse goes with you, then we go together’.
If she’s gone into flight however, because she’s feeling scared, then I remember that movement helps these moments to resolve into feeling better too. However I don’t chase her and accidentally add to her fear. Just let her move, and when I can, encourage a change of direction. Every time she does a 180 and the scary thing reappears from behind her, it’s an opportunity for her stress to reduce.
As for freeze: One of my fb friends has coined the term ‘Standing Still Olympics’.
That would have been very similar to my ‘adding a few ounces’ to standing still.
I love freeze. Of all the stress responses, it gives everyone a moment to think -providing of course that there is not a real lion out there stalking us.
These days, I still use my rule if thumb, but with more nuance. I read my horses and decide what is most appropriate, and as your relationship, feel and timing improves, you can often get pretty good at ‘doing less sooner’ to avert stress arising in the first place.
So if your horse gets fixated on some thing, and is clearly freezing, then yes, stop and wait is always a better option than pushing them past it.
However the plot has thickened a lot from there.
I used to stare at the thing as well, and this would usually work out in that I didn’t initiate any explosions by pushing through.
However the caveat is that horses are pattern animals.
We also need to differentiate between whether we need to provide an actual feeling of safety for a horse, or if it’s merely comfort which is needed to help this horse feel better right now.
When we match steps and copy the horse as an exercise in helping him feel better about us, we ought to consider that we are following that horse, not leading him. I think this is good to do sometimes, as horses themselves switch modes and roles with each other a lot. However, not always. Sometimes you need to take charge in order to keep everyone safe.
The appropriate time to match and mirror is when you are both already feeling safe. It’s a confidence building game; but confidence in YOU as not a threat, not always confidence in YOU as someone who can actually keep her safe (a leader is the one who makes decisions in the moment; but good leaders make decisions that hold safety of the herd in mind).
So she’s grazing, I match her steps, and maybe as a mindful safety top up, keep an eye out for any predators. That is a passive leader strategy. A passive follower strategy would be to ‘graze’ as well. See the difference?
Matching/mirroring provides something that horses crave- harmony. They get comfort from it. However when she’s scared, you don’t want to match and mirror fear. You are providing ‘comfort’ as an answer to a ‘safety’ situation, see?
Comfort is trumped by safety issues, every time. No one naturally feels comfortable when in mortal peril, or in nature gets to survive very long, if they do.
Usually going that will be ok, but you will not be noticed as being part of a solution to the fear. You may even become completely irrelevant if the fear stimulus is very high.
If you’ve done a lot of matching, you will find that usually your horse starts to automatically feel better when you are doing it. Sometimes this might help you bring emotion down through a lot of of habitual conditioning, like stimulating the hyoid release causes the physical act of mouthing, which is what a nervous system reset often evokes as well. Or how lowering the horse’s head lowers the heart rate. But if he’s really frightened, making him ‘relax’ via his body is as effective as telling a terrified person to just chill when the threat is still very real. It’s futile. In those cases, matching a posture of fear is not one you might want to mirror. You don’t want to reinforce that feeling of fear, because the ‘familiar’ practice can work against your best interests.
An extreme example- a terrified horse released from a burning barn turns around and runs back into the barn- because the conditioned ‘familiar’ has created a positive reflex – he wants to feel better, he cannot think because he’s terrified, so he falls back on doing what has helped him feel better in the past.
If you are consistently providing comfort regularly by mirroring your horse, it becomes a soothing reinforcer. It becomes ‘familiar’ and ‘comfortable’. Comfort is desirable, but not always appropriate. Sometimes the world is TOO interesting (ie your neighbouring horses freaking out as described in your example) as opposed to familiar or comfortable, and demands real safety to be provided, not comfort, to help.
I myself have a very reactive damaged horse that I have rehabbed. He used to go straight into panic mode at the slightest hint of a threat in the environment, herd or leadership areas of focus (fear of what the human would do to him if he put a foot wrong in his case). During the process of getting to know each other, we managed to get his violent outbursts to at least a warning freeze first as an option. To achieve that, every fear threshold was honoured religiously. We would stop and stare at ‘the thing’ together, I wouldn’t have to choose between dying and getting off, and he became braver. He ‘felt felt’ and was ‘getting gotten’. Like me sitting in the dentist chair, he knew he could throw up a signal that says ‘stop!’ and I would always say ‘of course.’ I would even add my few ounces by backing him away from it before he felt he had to flee.
However while my horse became braver and more confident as a result of that, the stopping and staring stayed a constant- it got to the point that we would stop and goggle at the slightest thing of interest on every ride.
I was providing so much comfort by matching him, that we fell into a pattern of it during every ride, and it was being reinforced to become stronger and stronger a pattern because of the comfort he got from it. So any thing that is remotely interesting would warrant a game of standing still Olympics! Yet he was not necessarily scared. It was just what we did when we encountered ’Interesting’.
So I discussed this with one of my teachers, Elsa Sinclair, and she talked a bit about the difference between Familiar, Comfortable and Interesting, and reminded me of how ‘going into flow’ with our horse becomes a reinforcer.
So I made an adjustment. When he stops now, I still don’t push him past it or insist upon getting on with his job. I still wait, but I don’t stare at ‘it’ too, I don’t join him in the freeze. I do not ‘flow’ or harmonise with the freeze. Instead, I fiddle. I twiddle my hair, or his mane, or check my gear or adjust my clothes. I shift around a little without actually demanding he do anything else, I use the time to watch the horizon for any real threats. It’s not a bid for his attention, I’m still waiting him out, but I’m just not joining the freeze- and pretty soon he will give me at least an ear, or sometimes a look of astonishment that I’m not matching, and sometimes a complete let down/sigh/yawn etc.
Any will do. All I need is to know is that he can change focus and not fixate. Then I can ask him another question, and expect a good likelihood of a ‘yes’ answer, and we can move on together.
Too finish with a recap of the other two modes of stress responses:
If they go to flight- you described ‘hitting the end of the leadrope’ – my instinct is usually to allow as much room as possible and help them move more. Changing direction helps- not just running round and round, which many horses can do a lot of for a long time and still not feel better. The physical act of stopping and looking back at ‘it’ helps the reset. In the wild, evading attack, a horse will run just fast and far enough to be safe, but he has to check that the predator is left behind at some point or he will run himself to death, so ‘stop turn and face’ is an instinctive pattern that needs to happen before they can relax again. Each time he does it, he has to assess; and thinking requires a momentary change from ‘react’ to ‘think’. A change of focus that is relevant to the danger he feels that put him into flight in the first place, not an irrelevant person saying ‘look at moi!’ When there’s maybe a lion in the grass.
If pushing into you (fight) then you have a choice. One is to simply not engage, walk past him and off his tail end. However sometimes circumstances mean that this is not possible, and yes you do need to be able to get them off you if you need to save yourself.
There is also a ‘clumping up’ behaviour when they are scared-.it can be misread as ‘fight’; but is often more a ‘find’ response- an expression of stress that takes the form of looking for safety and hiding behind your herd/leader. The safest place in an emergency is in the middle of the herd! While this speaks to his trust in you, obviously half a ton of terrified horse trying to hide in the middle of the herd, when said herd only consists of the two of you, is not that good an idea.
This is why we want to teach basic yields extremely thoroughly starting when the horse is calm, so that even when he’s up, you can still get him off you without frightening him or offending him. It needs to become as natural to yeild to you as it is to find comfort with you.
I have found the truth and the usefulness of Elsa Sinclair’s answer to stress; which is to turn fight into play, freeze into think, and flight into yeild. Above are some of my interpretations of how that can be achieved. Can you see how each of the techniques described above could potentially do this?
Elsa Sinclair; with Kaimanawa stallion Hawk; photo by his owner/trainer Jane Lenaghan of Riverbank Farm and Equine.
Thank you Jane Lenaghan for hosting our weekend!
Elsa Sinclair of Taming Wild– my second clinic experience ever with her last weekend, four glorious days of profound learning. So much unpacking to process; but I can honestly say if you get a chance to learn from this marvellous woman, seize it with both hands!
What follows is my interpretation of what I learned from our time with Elsa this weekend.
Two of my own beautiful horses, McCoy and Apache, both got to attend, as our friend Sandy Beardmore travelled down to participate too, and she needed a pony to share the experience with.
Elsa has a unique way of looking at the world which has resonated strongly for me, and hugely influenced my way of being with horses (specifically being, not doing).
I think of it (my translation/interpretation) in the context of taming, vs training. Not because we are not ‘training’ (everything does affect behaviour eventually and there is actually an agenda; just not about performance, just feedback at the early stages) but because this stuff is more about establishing mutuality in terms of trust, communication, and leadership; before we use any human tools (halters, leads, sticks, food, ropes) if at all.
Taming Wild is indeed about taming our own wild streak inside- the impulse to control, to do, our own lack of patience.
This type of work started for me with working at liberty with a little chestnut wild Kaimanawa mare in 2012; and I have been lucky enough to have the validity proven by several horses since; including those that I have worked with from the wild, and domestic horses from my own herd and those of my students.
When I discovered Elsa, my whole world exploded open with new possibilities. Here is someone who lives and breathes this work. Not only does she exemplify the experience, she provides and teaches a beautiful structure that scaffolds the whole experience, to help us stay focused and mindful and progressive. Her depth of understanding, due to dedication and literal years spent in solely practising this stuff to the degree of gaining assertive leadership via building trust and passive leadership, is quite frankly astonishing.
Under Elsa’s incredibly discerning eye, I underwent something transformative this weekend, as did McCoy. In dropping my assumptions, and in allowing him total free choice without the weight of my concerns, he showed me a side of himself that I had never seen in our 8 years of knowing each other.
Bravery. I never knew how brave he could be.
To see this horse full of curiousity about something new and interesting, instead of being filled with fear, was gobsmacking. To see his thresholds dissolve, to have him insist on leading an exploration into areas that usually would send him into a spin- I don’t have adequate words to describe how huge this change was.
Me, trying to be as interesting as the excavators.
McCoy is smart, dominant, cheeky, larky and playful at home. His main interests are herd, and environment. Take him out of his home territory and he’s spooky, tense, reactive, and hits many thresholds.
This I have dealt with from the start point 8 years ago of likening him to riding a knife edge- one slip and there’s blood- to the point today that we ride (or wander) out together happily, and usually have fun, but always in the back of my mind was the conviction that he relies upon and gets his confidence from me. He usually looks confident from the outside, but I knew that to scratch the surface was to reveal a reactive prey animal. His life seems full of thresholds; which I knew how to honour, and wait out, and overcome.
Our typical ride out would usually at some point hit a threshold, which we would deal with by me waiting, breathing, maybe initiating a retreat, before we could advance.
This weekend was entirely different. It was the first time ever that I have been in a clinic with him, and at the end of each session, he did not want to leave the arena.
I get this at home in my own little arena, which is familiar and comfortable to him, and often means fun play such as clicker training or walking meditations together as well as practising and building upon our abilities to play, yield, and think. However at away fixtures, anything too new or interesting; the prey animal comes out and he tends to flash back to twitchiness and concern, though as time together progressed, he would hold his act together and cope, because he feels safe with my leadership.
At outside fixtures such as clinics, the feeling I am used to is that he will tolorate or accept the clinic work, but not really enjoy it to the point that he would prefer it to being allowed to rest in his familiar yard, and really he would just like to go home.
This clinic however, was different. There were no behaviours instigated or asked for from me; he got to make all the choices, and he was so into it, that even in between forays out of his yard to graze, the urge to do more was so strong that grass was ignored and he was pulling me towards the arena for more!
A bit of context:
Behind the arena (which we have visited before the changes so he and I both were surprised by this) the beautiful forest of trees we were used to seeing there is being decimated by Transpower, as it is a fire risk to power pylons.
Consequently, the whole place looks entirely different; wide open sky, the river stop bank visible, pylons themselves revealed, stumps and logs instead of the familiar trees, and big yellow excavators, diggers and bulldozers dotted around as the job wasn’t finished. Fences had been torn down and rebuilt, all changes that would have usually caused massive concern in this horse who typically has trouble getting out of our own front gate if the neighbour puts a wheelie bin out, or (horrors!) turns on a sprinkler.
I first saw this devastating change, and I must admit my heart sank. Not only sadness for the loss of the trees, but also an expectation that this huge change would definitely bring up some stress in my environmentally challenged horse.
Well, goes to show how wrong I can be. What a contrast.
At the outset this weekend, he was cautious, curious and a little concerned; but instead of freeze/flight we had exuberant play, and by the end of his first session he was welded by fascination to the closest barrier between him and the devastatingly changed landscape, and did not want to leave to return to the boring safety of his familiar yard at all, where he always stays when at clinics at this property.
The ‘interesting‘ was for once not desperately, frighteningly ominous, but piquing, positive and playful.
For the first time, I saw him react positively to something ‘interesting’ instead of his usual apprehension and need to cling to his far preferred ‘familiar’ and ‘comfortable’ zone.
To start with I turned him and Apache out in the arena to settle and have a look round while we started the clinic with a presentation from Elsa. They immediately started to investigate the boundaries, neighbouring horses, and the far end where the diggers were parked up amongst the clearing work.
By the time we humans got back to the arena, he and Apache were already as close to the changes as the fence would allow. When our turn was over (an hour of intense matching play, curiousity, mindfulness and creativity flew by in what felt like 10 minutes!) as I took him back towards the familiar, comfortable but boring yards, he dragged his feet, and was clearly yearning to go back to properly investigate the changed landscape.
That afternoon, when offered an opportunity to get out and graze while we audited others, he instead opted to take myself, Sandy, and Apache our on an adventure. I was at his tail, and he went straight past the arena to the far gate, and very obviously requested that I open it! He then pioneered an exploration through the actual landscape beyond the arena, all his idea, where we closely examined and sniffed every stump, log, and machine, and then forayed even farther on his urging. We entered into spaces unknown; and ended up in a jumps paddock hidden from view from all by the remaining trees, where he wanted to play exuberantly around the obstacles. We couldn’t linger, alas, as I knew Jane was about to do a liberty walk along the same route with her stallion Hawk and Elsa for their session (see first pic of this accomplishment) so we needed to get out of their way.
McCoy did not want to come back, and on returning to the familiar area, tried his best to repeat the circuit we had just travelled.
Mind blown. What had happened to my threshold fearing horse?
The following morning, I got there extra early. After a night of processing, I had decided I would offer him a chance to have another early explore before the clinic started.
However, it was now a working week day, and alas the diggers were already in action by 7am, dust and logs and roaring machinery and whirring saws, moving sometimes close, sometimes away, and of course no chance of going into the actual work space. My hopes of sneaking him out for another exploration dissolved- I even doubted that he would go anywhere near that arena that day- the machines were going hard out right next to it! A changed but still landscape is one thing. An actual forest deconstruction zone full of noisy moving hazards was surely on a whole new level of ‘interesting‘, and surely would tip into the ‘too frightening to look at’ zone.
I was wrong.
McCoy couldn’t wait to drag me to the arena, again ignoring lush grass, and he spent the first hour of the morning pressed against the arena fence closely watching the operators work as his preference.
Maybe he wants to be a digger driver when he grows up!
This horse, who I have never seen roll or lay down away from his home turf, who was terrified even of cars when I first met him, and who flinches whenever a motor vehicle passes him, actually lay down and rolled, twice, in front of the diggers as they roared and whirred just meters away over the fence.
He was also not the only one. Apache was less fascinated but just as brave- she initiated the rolling.
All of the horses at the clinic were totally chilled about it.
Sam and Poppy in their happy place.
So what happened?
Why, after all our time together, was this such a huge difference this time?
I already knew eight years ago not to push him through thresholds of fear. He was such a scared and shut down horse, he used to hold his breath if I looked at him. Through retreat, we had inchwormed into advance via pauses and two steps backwards whenever he grew tight. I have seen how athletically his flight and fight can come up, and I had been determined that with me, he would know that I am the person who doesn’t shove him off any cliff, but who holds his hand and waits for his courage to come up. Over time, I became his ally and support. He relied upon me and my leadership.
But here’s the deal. In Elsa’s Freedom Based Training(TM) we provide what horses crave by matching and mirroring their movements, orientation and positioning, just as we see herd animals do for each other. They are profoundly aware of the space between each other, and how each of us add or subtract harmony in how we behave in that space. They use this to communicate, to establish trust, and to define leadership via choices made in every moment.
At every threshold, McCoy would halt and stare. And I would wait.
I was habitually matching and mirroring and providing the Flow of Harmony with him in those tense moments. Yes I was doing the right thing by not nagging or pushing or insisting, but inadvertently I had classically conditioned my horse to associate that sense of freeze as something we two did together. I was providing synchrony with his freeze.
Also, the thresholds always happened on my watch.
What I mean by that is that usually when out of the familiar and comfortable zones, we would be there at my behest; meaning I was in the leadership role. McCoy and I have a good relationship based on years of time and training together, and my leadership for him is usually very easy, the longed for ‘assertive leadership’ in Elsa speak which simply means that when the leader asks a question, the answer is ‘yes’. So when he stops and stares, and I do to, he knows from all that shared experience that eventually he will stop fixating and will be able to change focus or let down, and when he does, we will overcome that threshold.
I think that just knowing that end game of the pattern that we had repeated so many times was in itself a factor that added to or even created the freeze. The freeze was his comfort when I was in charge.
At this clinic, I wasn’t in charge. There was no request to go closer, no gentle expectation to wait longer and eventually overcome. Instead all the approach and retreat was his own idea from the outset, and I simply was along for the shared experience.
Thankfully, Elsa went into this for me, and while I know this was my very first experience with consciously bringing this aspect of our truth up to play with, I think I have just the corner of a deeper understanding that I can now tease out in our interactions.
So- in practical terms, what to do when it is my turn to lead, when I make the decision to head out into the wilderness, and when a threshold does arise?
Yes wait; but don’t be associated with that freeze. Wait, but don’t synchronise. Time to adjust my gear, braid my hair, or his, look around and keep an eye on the other horizons, fiddle, anything but match and mirror the still freeze without actually asking for him to change focus or do anything. I know I will get that ear flick when he is ready- I’m here, waiting, but that freeze has nothing, nothing to do with me.
Elsa has said that familiar, comfortable and interesting are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Things can be familiar but not comfortable, or familiar and comfortable for example. A horse who is used for police work would be very familiar with interesting! It’s my conviction, for another example, that a horse who is obsessed in a good way with learning new things (I have this horse too) is very comfortable with ‘interesting‘.
In Freedom Based Training(TM), we are accomplishing many things, but one is to teach a horse to self soothe. McCoy showed me last weekend, that he can indeed cope very well with ‘interesting‘ and not only accept it, but actually, truly enjoy it.
I cannot wait to meet our next threshold, and to practice not freezing. But funnily enough, in our two rides out since the clinic, we simply haven’t hit any thresholds at all.
I have lived on the lip
of insanity, wanting to know reason,
knocking on a door. It opens.
I’ve been knocking from the inside.
A glorious dawn ride down the beach this morning with my good horse McCoy, and my friend with her beautiful young warmblood, who I call The Unicorn because he is simply too pretty to be allowed. McCoy is innately a ‘react first think later’ type, and the young horse was green as grass, but very well prepared for his ride by his savvy owner.
The tide was in and the beach was stony, so we decided to come back through the tracks behind the dunes, a hilly, brush covered area with narrow paths, good firm sandy footing and lots of bushes and plants. The track is fun and McCoy felt full of himself as he surged up hills and gave some beautifully walk/canter transitions. We have hooned that track before, so he has exciting associations with it, but today we had the baby Unicorn with us, and I myself was very aware that McCoy was fresh too, and hadn’t been out for a while, so we were keeping it generally to a walk apart from the occasional hill.
As we were walking along in single file, McCoy and I in front and The Unicorn behind, suddenly Something Happened. We don’t know what ‘it’ was, and being in NZ with no crocs, bears, or wolves to worry about, I expect it doesn’t really matter; though later in the inevitable raking over, we surmised it may have been one of our own dogs.
What does matter though, is what happened to our horses, as they both went from a walk to a flat out gallop in a single horse moment; which is equivalent to the one quarter of a second that it takes a horse’s reflexes to kick in.
Both horses panicked and both riders, within four strides, had already applied our one rein emergency stop, so both horses, in synchrony, stopped, bent to the left, disengaged and ended up looking back the way we came.
All of us had bounding heart rates and a massive adrenaline hit from the near miss, as we assessed the danger and reset our nervous systems.
This could have gone wrong in so many ways. I think that had I been travelling with a less experienced rider on the Unicorn, or had she been riding with a less experienced combination, that the story would have been quite different. If either one of our horses hadn’t had a good one rein stop installed, or if either rider wasn’t so conditioned that we instantly reached for it instead of pulling back with two reins, it would have been a flat out bolt for home, taken longer to stop, been much more dangerous as the speed increased, and other combination would have been in much more trouble as well as the bolting horse departed. Most likely it would have been two horses running for their lives.
So the lesson is this. Preparation has been drilled into my by my mentor Russell Higgins.
Or as the good man Warwick Schiller also succinctly puts it- ‘you need to create a tool to use a tool’.
Lateral flexion is a part of the picture. Your horse needs to instinctively respond to one rein with a soft yield, even if his fear is up. Hindquarter control is another part.
There’s a train of thought that tells us that hindquarter disengagement is not a good thing biomechanically for our horses, and this is true. It requires that the weight go to the forehand in order to move those hind feet. However it’s pretty critical in moments when you need to take the power away from the engine that is that powerful, pushing hind. For this reason I have a little routine when I mount up, that I run through every time. Lateral flexion to left? Check. Hindquarter disengage to the right? Check. Weight change, lift forehand, step forefeet around hind, move forward out of that, Check. Backup, weight back on quarters? Check.
Repeat both ways.
This little routine solidifies my muscle memory for each move, and checks out how responsive my horse is at it too. It reminds me to use different rein, leg and seat cues to affect different parts of my horse’s body. It’s a great game as you can test how little it takes, every time, and it’s a little prerequisite test to every ride to ensure my horse and I are in tune.
I think it saved my butt today, and helped my friend save hers too, just as her own prior preparation meant that she too could bring her horse swiftly back under control, in what could have been the perfect storm.
In a discussion forum recently, an article written by a professional positive reinforcement (R+) horse trainer on the meaning of the lick and chew came up for discussion.
It was bursting with science about learning, and the nervous system, and it was discussing the connection between stress and the lick and chew. So far so good.
However, references were also made in comparison to natural horsemanship (NH) and traditional horsemanship (TH) training, specifically comparing ‘reward based training vs ‘dominance based training’ and how in the author’s opinion, using dominance causes a rise in stress (hence the lick and chew) and that this was bad for the horse.
That point became a central one for discussion in the ensuing thread, and a few horror stories and the resultant bashing of NH and TH at its worse ensued.
This bothered me, a lot, because it is very common, no matter which camp you are in, to see articles and blogs that point out and criticise the very worst seen in any other method than that of the given author. It bothered me because of the generalisation too. ‘Traditional’ and ‘Natural’ horsemanship both stand alone as terms that encompass a vast variety and level of techniques, knowledge, skills, tools, and attitudes within their scope, let alone lumping them both together.
This tendency for ‘us vs them’ seems to pop up in A few (not all!) R+ articles right now, I believe, because clicker trainers are the new kids on the block and they have had to struggle to prove that clicker training is relevant to horses (and oh boy, it is!) in a world that is steeped in the tradition of centuries without a click.
I can actually recall seeing Natural Horsemanship articles making similar comparisons to Traditional Horsemanship twenty odd years ago, and it didn’t help much then, either. One of the worst things Pat Parelli, as the man who coined the phrase ‘Natural Horsemanship’, ever said, despite it being more true than not in many places, was ‘watch what everyone else is doing and do the opposite’. The immediate effect that had on the ‘everyone else’ was not to embrace his ideas!
I personally love clicker training, but I myself have recently experienced the raised eyebrows and dismissive comments from the yet uninitiated on hearing me click, which was entirely reminiscent of similar incidences with TH friends in the past when I first crossed into the ‘darklands’ of NH.
I am forever the filling in the sandwich!
But, regardless where your thoughts lay, putting each other down stands directly between any student who feels judged by this sort of opinion, and new knowledge that could help them become a better horseperson.
It encourages division between us, and the ones that suffer most from this are the horses.
So, why do we do it?
I think that the reason why this type of sweeping judgment occurs is twofold.
Firstly; it’s self defence. In the case I’m speaking of, clicker training and R+ is relatively uncommon and rather different from the traditional horsemanship methods, and some practitioners are naturally defensive because they have been scoffed at. (Anyone who started NH 15 years plus ago will also know the feeling well! I lost friends over it.)
It hurts and irritates, especially when you know your thing is a really good thing (and CT is!). If you have been wrongfully belittled, it’s even understandable to want to demonise the belittlers in return. Even if you don’t, just the inherent subtext that ‘this is a better way’ implies to others that the very thing that they are doing instead is being judged by you, even if it genuinely isn’t intended.
Remember, we are talking about people’s life passion in many cases. And so the conversation devolves as everyone gets defensive and puts the shields up.
Science is one way to validate what we do, and it backs it up very well. Most clicker trainers I know are extremely knowledgeable people. Their shield is made of science, but that shield also can imply that the other sucks, when it is skewed by assumptions about what exactly ‘everyone else’ is doing. Which leads to the second reason.
Secondly: ignorance and assumption. Many of the disaffected really do believe NH/TH is fear based training, and usually for very good reasons. They have seen it happening. Or they themselves were taught it by someone who didn’t understand the principles (and there are principles!) and therefore found it didn’t help them or their horses. We’ve all seen the mistreatment of horses at shows. Emotions rise with expectations, practises such as Rollkur for dressage, rapping for showjumping, and soring for the Big Lick all effect. It’s a sad truth that because horses are associated with horse sports, that people judge winners to be the epitome of good horsemanship, and obviously this is not the case when horses are suffering for their ribbons.
We all make easy assumptions that fit with our own bias; and this is not just with horses; it’s an issue in every polemic argument that exists. I am suggesting that perhaps the method is not necessarily the problem, but rather it’s the polemics thinking itself.
Any ethical trainer, wanting to differentiate from unethical practice, knows what she doesn’t want to do, and that is training that uses force, fear, and intimidation. Yes, abusive training does exist, but that does not mean that everyone with a rope in one hand without a clicker in the other is abusive.
Force, fear and intimidation are a subset that fall under the term ‘dominance’; and even the perpetrators themselves who do abuse, justify this abuse by saying ‘dominance is natural’. The word ‘dominance’ is reduced and misunderstood by both the people using it badly, and any people looking for them to use as an example of what not to do.
Words easily become misused when we are looking for extremes to fuel our polemic points of view.
The word ‘dominant’ is a perfect example. If you look in the dictionary, it actually means ‘to use power and influence over others’, not specifically to abuse power and intimidate. Yes, that is still definitely a subset, but it’s not what the word is meant to express in its entirety.
eg as a salesperson I dominate my market, but not by bullying.
Then, on checking the animal behaviour science definition of the word, it tells us that to be dominant means no more than ‘to have preferred access to resources’.
So by those two official definitions, literally any and all ‘training’ is ‘dominant’. Including positive reinforcement.
It’s a subtle point, but an important one. And it’s the reason I put ‘dominance based training’ in inverted commas.
We don’t usually call any training outright ‘punishment based’, but that is the implication of differentiating between ‘dominant based’ vs ‘reward based’ and as we know, labels do filter our view of things. It’s a mental trick that takes the ‘reinforcement’ out of the vernacular- it’s now reduced to either positive or negative in all the lay associations- and then puts the spotlight on the positive ‘punishment’ that is the alternative to the negative ‘reinforcement’.
Of course we can do the same thing to R+ and reduce it to all be about the need/desire for food, and infer that it’s only through the withholding of food that the animal performs. ‘Resource management’ is a term used in labs to describe starving the rats before an experiment so they are more desperate to try an R+ based experiment; and that is not exactly a kindness, right?
However, it’s also a cheap shot to imply that is what all R+ trainers are up to (they most certainly are NOT) and we need to stop taking cheap shots.
Most people I know are not deliberately withholding food OR threatening to physically harm their horse. Yes, many other people do use punishment, but those are not the ones who will change because they read an article shaming them. More usually the reaction is to double down and to deny.
We know not to label our horses, and yet we do it to each other.
We see what we expect to see. And by this I do not mean that we cannot recognise real abuse when we see it.
What I mean is we can mistakenly label anything ‘dominant’ as abuse; and that that is an error.
Today we have so much information freely available at our fingertips. Behavioural science has reached the laity, and is out there for all to discover, and people from all over the spectrum eagerly read and absorb the information and reflect upon it…and all too often, through partial understanding and various forms of bias, start putting some sort of spin on it. Not understanding as much as we think we do is one part of the problem.
There is much misunderstanding and making of assumptions between the ‘us and them’ mindsetters.
One very common misperception is that NH/TH does not include any R+; or that if it does, it’s ‘pressure with a click’. This can be true, but it’s a mistake that knowledge can easily rectify. You can do both, provided you and your horse are very clear on which you are using and when.
I personally know that it is very possible to be a mixed methodologist without poisoning cues or charming aversives.
However that is true today, before the science hit the mainstream, we didn’t think in terms of R+ vs R-. We just trained horses. Sometimes we used pressure, sometimes we used rewards. Most people who were interested in partnership and connection did a bit of both, completely unaware that there were scientific labels that differentiated the practice. Yes, without a doubt our methodology was flawed. We didn’t know about bridging/marking, we didn’t understand any of the scientific terms either. But those who did well with horses learned to have good focus, feel, timing and balance in all aspects of interaction.
I know that for many traditionalists, using food rewards was a no no; because they did not understand R+ as a method, or even how to give a treat without causing issues with biting. That is a symptom of ignorance and incomplete horsemanship, and even protectiveness as in not wanting to model behaviour to others that might get someone else bitten, or not wanting to risk teaching it to a horse who may get in trouble for it later in less experienced hands. Mostly I think it came down to habit, belief and preference.
What it is not, is a prerequisite to being a traditionalist.
Nevertheless, most traditional people I grew up with still hand fed their horses, and rewarded them for trying.
With the advent of NH, for me, came actual overt permission- we were encouraged to use food rewards, specifically as an alternative to pressure, especially with horses that needed to find their motivation. We did trail rides with carrots hidden at certain destinations. We would ask for go once, take what was offered, and on arrival at the cache, let the horses find the food. Or we would take a long focus on a clump of grass, ride to it, and wait, and now allow him to graze. Doing that alone has made a vast difference to how all my horses view heading out for a ride; as it addresses go and whoa, and teaches the horse that it pays to follow my focus, and a cue for when it’s ok to eat. Win win.
What I was actually told not to do by NH was to kick my horses to go (I was told that if I kick, I deserved to be bucked off), pull the reins to stop, or to nag nag nag with pressure. By the time we were riding, our horses understood the cue for ‘go’; because we had thinly sliced the lessons beforehand in groundwork to make it clear. Yes, successive approximations, even if we didn’t know the term. If we needed to start two steps in front of a barrel loaded with carrots, that’s what we did.
I’m not saying that is the only way, but it was a part of the menu, to be chosen depending upon the horse and the circumstances. And circumstances and how the horse is feeling in the moment is very relevant to this conversation, because anyone who spends any time with practically any horse knows that when they get scared, then food becomes much less motivating. Sometimes, in a scary situation, that horse can’t even see me, let alone my treat pouch, and while I’m waiting for a behaviour that I can reward, I could get killed by my horse panicking in the process. So that brings up another aspect.
So let’s talk about another badly misunderstood word; stress.
This is another thing to consider. Not all, but some R+ purists (such as in the article I was reading) are perpetuating a myth that in training, any stress experienced at all is ‘bad’.
The reasoning is that it is unethical to use fear and intimidation to force an animal to comply.
I totally agree with that.
However, it is very seldom that I read any opinion that makes this point without it also implying that not only is ‘dominance based’ training unethical, but that the creation of fear is actually the central point of natural or traditional horsemanship.
The words ‘dominance based’ and ‘pressure based’ training are used to describe NH/TH; but the translation implied for both terms is ‘fear/pain/intimidation/force/punishment based’; in a manner that suggests that is the intended lever. ‘Do it or else’ in other words. A threat in every interaction. While this certainly is true of some people, I posit, that for many others, that this is more an accident born of lack of skill and knowledge, rather than by design.
I think it’s incorrect to imply any differently, and it needs to stop if we are truly wanting to change the world for the better for horses.
There is often a deep misunderstanding of the necessity of stress to provoke any action in life. The word ‘stress’ usually signifies to us one single subset; that of extreme/acute distress.
Google it- ‘workplace stress’ is the first that comes up. We know that prolonged stress is not good for any creature, and because we tend to live like that, and suffer for it, we are wary of it and think it’s all bad.
Think of it this way: survival is stressful.
Stress lives on a continuum stretching from mild discomfort and desire/urge for change (eustress) to full out panic (extreme distress). But no one ever disturbs the status quo of comfort, without some sort of stress, even if the stress concerned is a mere boredom or lack of stimuli. Stress is literally a mechanism for change and for survival. Because of it we seek comfort and love, and avoid discomfort and fear. If being hungry wasn’t a form of stress, we would never bother seeking food. It’s how we survive, learn and grow. It’s natural and normal and necessary, and coping with life is equivalent to being able to deal with stress.
For horses, even more than many creatures because they are prey animals, safety is a very large concern, and therefore stress is a large part of their lives. They know they taste good! From the moment they are born they are ready to run- that’s how evolution has provided for them. They are a precocial species. In order to survive, they need to know how to respond to danger in a manner that serves them. In the wild, the best strategy is to run, or if that fails, fight. Push through the pressure of predation and maybe you’ll be scarred, but you may live.
In the human world, in direct conflict to this instinct, survival usually boils down to knowing how to yield to pressure when their very nature is screaming ‘Fly! Fight! Or Freeze!’
We must be very clear that yielding when stressed is NOT natural to a horse. They need to learn to yield instead of flee, play instead of fight, and to think instead of freeze; and because we create the constraints that they may otherwise harm themselves with (stable doors, fences, bridles, boundaries, roads with traffic, busy competitions full of obstacles and people…absolutely anything that we are responsible for that can create pain and mayhem if crashed into in fear) it’s up to us to teach them.
One inbuilt assumption in the specific article/discussion about the lick and chew that started this ball rolling in my mind, was that the training method itself was the cause of the stress in the first place.
It was not considered that the NH trainers are looking for a way to lower an existing stress (which is usually the immediate goal of looking for the ‘lick and chew’) in order to start training, or that they are methodically building resistance to any future stress (the long game) in tiny increments, whilst honouring thresholds, and knowing full well that before any learning can take place, we need a baseline of calm.
It was not considered in that article that the ‘dominance based trainers’ are working towards creating a resilient learner who knows he can turn to his trainer when the world is on fire. Or perhaps that they are creating a tool so that when they need it, the horse will understand it.
Let’s not wait for the truck to be about to hit us before finding out if our horse can respond to us under stress, in other words.
It was obviously not known to the author that these ideas have been specifically taught to NH students for at least a decade (that was when I first heard the term ‘threshold’ in the context of training horses- despite it being a relatively new discussion for many people today).
Look, far too many purists of any method go the route of badmouthing everything ‘horsemanship’ that went before ‘their’ thing.
The most obvious and common form of this is strawmanning. Basically, they take a caricature ‘worst’ version of a ‘natural horsemanshit’ practitioner (who round pens to death, who recognised no stress thresholds, who frightens, who takes R- to ‘do it or else’ P+ and who never stops escalating -basically an ignorant person who has zero of the NH principles that were the original template- to see the world from the horse’s POV -and instead produces shut down robotic horses) and puts that picture up to harpoon, as if it is actually what all NH’ers aspire to.
Those folk obviously do exist, but they do not represent the ideal. But NH is now a melting pot of all sorts, and pointing out that guy’s flaws and calling it NH or TH is a slap to everyone else who is not out there torturing their horse.
This particular problem is less so in R+ horsemanship so far because it’s so new, but it could easily happen that some variants will not follow the vital tenets that make R+ so great, and it would be equally unfair to judge the whole by that variant.
It’s basically like taking the worst student of any school, and holding their meanest version up as the gold standard for an entire field of learning.
It’s exactly as unfair and uncalled for as saying ‘all clicker trainers create spoilt horses’.
This is a problem. Not only is it deeply insulting to many people, it causes a divide amongst ethical trainers that is in no way a service to the horses. If people are too defensive to speak to each other, how can we share knowledge? It creates a divide to any learning of NH, or traditional methodology, that is tried and true best practice, and it also cuts off the desire to learn more about R+ in alienated practitioners because the impression is that the critics therein are perceived as so ‘holier than thou’.
And this stuff cuts deep- we are all passionate about what we do and we all have skin in the game.
It also does our own studentship no good. I personally once lost a 10 year life changing head start on my own journey, because I believed a mentor who despised the school that was finally the one to accelerate my learning beyond anything I had ever experienced before. That was a massive lesson in checking my sources and being open minded, and it cost me dearly. Ten years, at my physical peak, wasted.
So if we really want what is best for all horses, we need to stop it. Stop the straw manning, stop denigrating others, stop deliberately inferring that ‘they’ are wrong, no matter which method you support. Every method has its flaws and it’s strengths. Anyone can totally screw it up, and that doesn’t mean they represent the ideal form.
Training is preparation for life, and life is stressful. If you have a layer of bubble wrap between the real world and training, (I’ve heard it being distinguished as ‘management’ vs ‘training’) then what happens when you finally take it off? Likewise in my opinion, anyone who resists R+ in their own training is missing some of the absolute best moments you can possibly have with your horse, including incredible opportunity of bonding, problem solving, and not to mention classically conditioning the horse to just love the sight of you.
What we need to do is concentrate on what we do well, and celebrate it, share it, grow it. If and when we come up against an obstacle that our own preferred method cannot fix today, maybe then we can ask our friends on another path and maybe they will have a solution that helps us.
The bottom line is that good horsemanship across the board has much, much more in common than not. A good horseman or horsewoman has great focus, feel, timing and balance; emotionally, mentally, and physically. He wants what is best for the horse. She is intent on building a reliable, consistent relationship. She understands the relationship between trust, communication, and consensual leadership/followship/fellowship, and strives for the easy flow that occurs when we understand and have confidence in our partnership. He never forsakes ethics or practicality for ideology. His horse knows he can trust him, the horse is calm, because his trainer understands thresholds and he is accessing his seeker sense, he is curious and inspired to try.
Saturday morning began gloriously, the birds were singing, it was soft and warm. An invitation to take a ride. All three of my beauties in the home paddock were keen so we decided we would all go. Saddling was a joyful activity as Apache parked for her tack, Magic offered kisses, and inspired by a click, McCoy was handing me the pad, the saddle, a dog toy, some hay and a helpful ice cream container (which he found distressingly empty in the tack shed). It was a very interactive activity.
Apache was soon tacked up, relaxed, connected and engaged, and McCoy and Magic haltered up and ready. I put my helmet on, turned around… and everything had changed.
Apache was standing in the same space, but totally tense. Her head was twisting, ears airplaned, and actual tremors running through her body. I reached out in concern as she flinched sideways- what on earth was the matter? It seemed her focus was on her Self, and I thought maybe the saddle? I released the girth, checked for obvious discomfort, no change. At this point McCoy came over and put his chin on her withers. I have seen him do this with his herd before when they are in distress; he becomes the calm reassurance they need, the leader expressed as a Nurturer. His focus, like mine, was on Herd- specifically Apache. She flinched sideways again, away from the garden and into McCoy. He pressed her wither with his chin, breathing. I looked around.
I checked Magic, our most likely Sentinal, and she was staring into the garden, intense. That was when I realised all the bird song had stopped. But something was moving. A scurry, a pause. In the dark underbrush our magnificent black cat Jasper suddenly resolved out of the shadows and into sight, a tiny sparrow laying terrified before him, spasming. He pounced, and released. Apache flinched again.
Was it too late? I stepped between the outraged cat and his victim, and scooped up the poor tiny one, who trembled in my hand. I examined her- wings ok, no blood. Apache was now watching me. I showed her the bird, and was struck by the similarity of symptoms. She breathed, I breathed, and the bird panted. I swiftly took the little one away from the attention and lay her gently in the dog run (the wire netting is big enough for a bird to get out but not so big that a cat can get in) and closed the door. Would she make it? Shock can kill birds.
Apache was still trembling, McCoy still had his head over her wither.
We all waited and breathed, until Apache could think and respond again. A change of plan. No beach today. She started coming back to us mentally, and so I asked her to move. She could. She wanted to.
We still went for our ride, but now the motive was to just walk off the stress. We walked and walked, kept it calm. She was still hyper reactive, she wanted to trot but would frighten herself, then head flick if I picked up the rein. I think possibly she needs some toxin binder too; Apache is prone to reacting to fungi and weird grass conditions. We walked until that stopped. Eventually we found the best layside grass patch, and everyone reset to calm grazing. The birds were singing again.
When we got home the dog run was empty. Perhaps the bird lived.
I’ve heard this many times, sadly, and it appears to be true for many horses and ponies. It would be hard to deny that it’s a fact.
However, as always, there is more to this story.
I have news. Your horse is probably not scared of ‘the stick’.
How to tell for sure?
Put the stick down, and back away. Observe.
Does the horse still seem scared of the stick?
Or is he only scared if it when someone is holding it?
Do you think that your horse is, rather, scared of what he thinks you might do with it?
There is a lot of controversy about sticks. We have a variety to choose from- whips, crops, bats, training sticks, carrot sticks, ‘arm extensions’, flags, stock whips, lunge whips. There are likewise a myriad of ways to utilise them. Some people don’t use them at all but instead transfer the controversy to a roll of rope, a lariat, or the end of a swinging leadrope instead.
One aspect of the controversy says this. Call it what you will, that is a weapon in your hand, and it only has one purpose.
It’s the belief in this ‘one purpose’ that causes the fear in the horse.
It’s also a myth. A stick can have many purposes.
Here’s what I would like you to consider.
A stick is just a stick. It’s the hands that can be the weapons, and it’s a rare horse that is scared of a stick that has no hands attached to it.
I sometimes use a stick. Sometimes I don’t, too. Sometimes, I use two! However, my sticks are not intended for the purpose of intimidation.
What I would love students to discover, is that a stick could conceivably represent only clear communication to a horse, if the hands that wield it are not violent.
That depends upon our ability to communicate effectively, and the horse remaining calm while we do so.
Of all the various names we give them, I like ‘arm extension’; because it describes how I personally use it very literally. At liberty in an open field, playing with three horses, my sticks are a great way to clarify meaning to a specific horse from a distance; to signal turns, to point, to reassure, to indicate when to wait and when to go. I can reach over one to stroke another, or below a belly to tickle a leg into considering stepping closer. I can flip the string around the girth, catch it at the elbow, and ‘leg yeild’ a horse towards me from the feel of that string on the far side. I can use it as a target to chase, or to position a hip through either body targeting or yielding. I can ride one horse while using the stick to talk to another, and all of us know exactly who is being addressed.
My stick is a tool for communication.
If the horse is not scared of me or my tools, I can use my stick to touch a fetlock that has never been touched before, and play advance and retreat at the very edge of comfort for that horse, with much less risk of having my face kicked in than if I used my hand, where the aforementioned face would be much closer to the stamping end.
I can also raise a stick in defence if a more dominant horse pushes a more submissive individual over me, or if an outside threat causes a panic run my way, or to protect my body from bold horse who just decided that I was standing in his right of way.
My creed today (it changes) is that sticks are not evil.
If you don’t want to use a stick, then that’s your choice. Personally I find them useful, but I know they are not for everyone, and in some cases they certainly shouldn’t be.
Unfortunately, for the man who uses his hands as a weapon, the stick is still an ‘arm extension’…but a much more ominous one.
Regardless, I do not want my horse to be scared of me, of me carrying a stick, or of a random stranger on a beach carrying one, or of any of our tools, for that matter.
Horses are not born scared of sticks. The sad fact that many horses are, tells us how they have been treated.
So what do we do when our horse is scared of us or one of our tools?
Read & respond to STOP SIGNS
So, your horse is scared of the stick. How do you fix that?
The process is always the same regardless of the object that is so scary. I’ll outline it here in ‘stick context’. If your issue is a trailer or a bridle or some other, you’re smart enough to see how you can adjust the context and stick to the principles.
First up, set up a plan. That is this bit right here- decide before you start what process you are going to utilise and stick to it (pun intended)
Then, set up the environment for successful training. My preference is to have the horse loose in an area where he can avoid me at choice. This keeps me honest and helps find his true threshold. If that is not possible, a rope that is longer than the distance that he feels safe from the object (‘the fear threshold’) is critical. Ideally, in a space that is familiar and comfortable to the horse, without other distractions such as food or other horses that might interfere.
The edge of the threshold is where that horse very first feels the fear rising.
So step one: Systematic desensitisation.
This is a term that means different things to different people. Here is how I interpret it.
Here is where noticing my horse’s ‘Stop Sign’ is critical.
You can relate this to going to the dentist- if you’re scared he will say ‘just raise your hand if you want me to stop’. Knowing you can halt proceedings at any time gives you confidence. And that gives you courage to try. We want this exact understanding with our horses.
Trust turns fear into courage.
Of course, for this to work, the horse needs to understand that you see his signals and trust that you will respond.
So the first task is to prove it, by accurately reading your horse and responding in a timely fashion.
Feel and Timing, in other words.
Every horse had his own version of a Stop Sign, and you will have to use your observational powers to identify that which your horse prefers, but there are some common themes.
You are looking for any behaviour variation that has a root it flight, fight or freeze.
A freeze response is the one of the most common, but is the most misunderstood, overlooked or ignored, mistaken as being ‘quiet’.
Still is not quiet, it’s still; and thinking it’s peaceful is like looking at the eye of the hurricane and not noticing all the speed and pressure that created it. He may look half asleep, or even completely zoned out, a droopy eye can be a calming signal, and you may need to wait on him. Or he may look frozen in alert fear, poised to flee- as per McCoy’s and Spice’s pictures above.
His eyes could stare, or glaze over, or droop. They tend not to blink much, if at all. The nostrils may twist; or just one of them so they look uneven. He may even hold his breath.
Flight is the most obvious; but it can be subtle too. Snatching grass really fast can be an example of the flight response, if the horse is contained and can not run away.
He might start reversing- that’s flight. If he does that, know that you probably have missed some pre-signals before this, and you were already way too close.
He may turn his head away; or even just his eyes (I can’t look!- also a subtle use of flight) his head may raise, his back and neck stiffen, his mouth tighten as he prepares to flee- a mini freeze before launch.
A ‘fight’ signal might be as subtle as a slight thrust of the nose in your direction.
He could scratch at his own chest or bite an invisible fly on his leg. This is a form of fight stress response that is much more common than you’d think, and is often completely missed with horses. I say ‘fight’ because it’s an action that represents irritation, that requires an angry bite to attempt to relieve himself.
You can relate it a little like a cat having to wash after a close call- it looks similar although it is coming from a different perspective as the ‘wash’ is more of a reset to calm, or to demonstrate calmness in the body to initiate calmness in the brain. It’s a fairly universal calming signal.
(Sometimes it is just a fly too.)
If it’s more violent and if you feel unsafe; know that the horse does too, and do both of you a favour and start from behind a fence- protected contact.
Start ideally with horse at liberty, and when you first set eyes upon each other, by approaching holding the stick ‘in neutral’ (end down, held crossways not pointing at the horse, casual, not hiding it nor brandishing it) breathe evenly, and be observant. The game is, at the very first sign of any discomfort, you will stop, avert your eyes, stay relaxed, and breathe. If the horse still looks tense, back up a step. Repeat until the horse can look at you without showing signs of feeling pressured.
Once he can look, you must breathe, don’t stare, and wait.
It sounds silly telling you to breathe, but we a great at holding our breath and that is not reassuring – the horse notices. Regular breathing rhythm resets our polyvagus nerve which puts our brain, via the nervous system, in touch with all our major organs. This creates coherence in our own bodies, and it is catching! Science tells us that our own coherence can influence that of others around us. Be the calming influence, literally, by using measured, rhythmic breathing.
It also helps a lot to avert our gaze. You can turn your face away. Horses use signals like this to calm others as well as to show discomfort. Think ‘behave this way; I mean no harm.’ Be fluid and natural. Try things, so long as you stay under that fear threshold, but mostly, breathe.
If he indicates at any point that you are too close, then back away until he can breathe again too.
Breathe. One of two things will happen. It will get better, or it will get worse. I’ve discussed already what ‘getting worse’ looks like.
Getting better will usually start with discharging the stress that exists physically- with a lot of tiny quivers and twitches around the muzzle that can be as tiny as a whisker wobble, or become as big as that head jerk thing we all do when we almost fall asleep during meetings. Has anyone every had a facial twitch due to nerves? I have, when public speaking. Therefore when I see that in other beings, I know they need more time, more breathing, until it’s done. Try not to stare- that’s pressure! Then there will be a mouth movement- the famous lick and chew, and hopefully a deep breath or sigh. The ultimate is a soft blow out of air from the nostrils – that delightfully satisfying sound the Dutch so perfectly describe as ‘briesen’. This is not to be mistaken for an alarm snort. However that sound is usually an expression of relaxation, and can also express satisfaction or enjoyment, and is not likely to be initiated from a starting point of fear.
So how to respond? The trick, when getting a sign of relaxation or relief from a context that has never before elicited that response, is always to retreat.
Wait- we still retreat? Yes we do! To move away as soon as it gets better, or before it gets worse!
If it isn’t getting better, then we don’t want to practice feeling bad, as that is the opposite of what we are trying to teach, which is that he can TRUST US to read and respond to his signals (the stop signal). We got that already, right?
But we also want to exit when he’s feeling better, because staying too long, or worse, advancing at first sign of tolerance, will immediately creep him out again. This is not about the task, remember, it’s about how he FEELS about it. You want him to feel better; then you give him even more space to relax into.
The answer is always the same, you will smoothly step back, turn away, go for a little walk and reapproach, with immense mindfulness and tact.
Doing this, the threshold of tolerance will move closer to the horse, because each time he notices that he can get you to remove it if he’s uncomfortable by using his Stop Sign, he feels safer allowing you to come closer, and stay a little longer. And each time you retreat when he’s feeling better, THAT is what he will remember when he’s faced with the same situation, instead of the fear he felt the first time before.
As your feel and timing grows, you will master ‘stretching the moment’ to get the best possible feeling from the horse before you move away again.
At some point, the horse will show curiosity. This will be a breakthrough moment; well done, celebrate later. When he gets to the point that he volunteers to reach out and sniff the scary stick, or the hand holding it, then you know that you have a thinking horse now instead of a reacting horse, and you can progress to the next stage.
So for the budding geeks in the audience (and fully fledged geeks, please forgive, as a relative newbie to the lab, any fumbles on my part- you know who you are!) what is happening in terms of animal behaviour science, is this.
The horse had a fear to start with. This means he has unpleasant associations with the idea of ‘human holding stick’. You have got him brave enough to maybe reconsider these associations. This is classical conditioning- the world of instinct and association, where the horse gets scared seeing a human with a stick, he cannot think, he can only know what has always happened before, and react. Between those two realms is a graduated ‘learning zone’.
Learning itself is not comfortable, and some have fears around the very process itself, usually because they have been pushed to quickly over threshold before, and they may now associate the mild discomfort of not knowing an answer and fear of being wrong etc with full on punishment. Also some individuals are by nature more timid than others. Whatever, it doesn’t matter, the answer remains the same. It’s not about the stick, task, float, obstacle…it’s about his confidence.
When he feels brave enough to become curious, this is where the training is in process of switching from classical conditioning (association, stimulus and response- not operant but respondant) to operant conditioning (training/learning through voluntary behaviour).
Once the horse is operant, you can use ‘counter conditioning’ to build new associations.
So, now your horse has reached out and sniffed the hand holding the neutral stick, or maybe the stick itself.
Allow the horse to investigate the stick. Let him do what he likes with it, and don’t interrupt until he’s done. Again, remember this isn’t about the stick but how he feels about it (so if you’re precious about your fave stick being chewed on, use an old one instead.)
Now your horse is ready to learn, and now, you have a choice.
Your horse is thinking, or ‘operant’ as in ready to train.
Everything up to this point has only been about preparing that mindset, and we must preserve it. It hasn’t become training yet- it is still all about bringing the horse to a place of enough confidence so that he can learn.
Be prepared to take a step or two back if you need to. Confidence takes a long time to grow but can be shattered in an instant. In fact, if in any doubt, step back anyway.
If you primarily use negative reinforcement, then this is the time to reward every try with a pause, or a retreat if that seems a better option for this horse if he slips back into his previous skepticism. Using approach and retreat, you will encourage the touch from the horse, and then progress to touching him, and immediate retreat- pretty much a continuation of what you have done so far. This will progress to rubbing, touching everywhere with it, and a general relaxation as the horse stops focusing upon the stick and starts noticing you, your intentions expressed through your body language. If you are good at this it works well.
I prefer to use positive reinforcement these days, as it is pleasurable to the horse, and to play with the enthusiasm that brings to learning. I realised that not only is it superb for interest and engagement; it also is extremely helpful to those horses (and people) who are scared to try- those that for whatever reason, are scared of the process of learning itself. It speeds up everything and ends on a pleasant note that has your horse keen to try again next session. It makes learning as a context a lot less scary in exactly the same way that retreating when things go well does- by creating a new memory associated classically with the concept of ‘learning’.
In itself it helps to counter condition the process of learning. Neat, huh?
So for me, at this stage I will use positive reinforcement, usually clicker training, and reward with a treat.
Back to our now curious horse.
This is the counter conditioning process; where the horse learns to associate the stick with treats and positive learning. It becomes the JoyStick. Then same deal, click/treat for touching, progress to rubbing on him with it (click treat) if he is confident and keen, go back to straight out retreating if any tension arises and honour thresholds. Do not click when the horse is scared. Retreat instead. We want no pressure associated with the click.
Touching him, all done strictly under threshold, with an eye for any Stop Sign that needs you to retreat, is built up upon successive steps. You will see for yourself how trust turns fear into courage.
The horse moves through a scale of emotions that starts at intolerance (over threshold-retreat!), then becomes tolerance (still room for retreat) then acceptance (click!) then enjoyment. I believe that enjoyment is much quicker, and more easy to achieve with positive reinforcement (though I know from personal experience that it is attainable through negative reinforcement as well if you have good feel and timing).
Whatever your preferred method, Feel and Timing are crucial to good horsemanship. A part of Feel is observation- read your horse, respond to his stop signal, prove to him that you understand his rising tension and will respond in a way that makes him feel better. When he trusts you, he won’t be scared of your tools.
I’m so over rain! All day yesterday, now thunderstorms this morning. Everyone is stir crazy, even the cats are inventing games and woke me up at 5.30 divebombing the bed from the very top of the curtains.
A funny thing happened on the weekend. I have told you a bit about Magic, my quirky 11 yo bundle of contradictions…she is the one who is most focused on learning and environment. A brave adventurer, who believes in herself.
She is the one that rages and storms at any attempted leader, equine or human, pulls faces and rears and has tantrums before just doing it anyway (this mental picture is exactly her response just this weekend to being pushed out of the arena by Joe, our doughty old timer and Most Immovable Shoulder Ever). She knows better, but others are more dominant.
She and I have had a colourful relationship. I’ve owned her since 8 months old, and started her age 4 using Parelli methods. She’s always been an interesting character- the day I went to choose her and her mum (Apache) 11 years ago, she kicked my butt the moment I turned my back on her- a foretelling! So Magic! Her horsenality chart for anyone who reads those tendency lists, is a LBE Axis point. She is a playful, reactive, momentarily frozen, food obsessed self performative contradiction in any moment. She literally can own every quadrant at any time, but her saving grace, and plenty of it, is that the behaviours, while varied, are relatively mild.
Magic has a keen mind and is very curious. She’s gregarious and friendly and wants all the attention, but gets offended if there’s a crowd and she can’t squeeze in. Her biggest worry is environment. She is deeply claustrophobic, hyper alert for ‘squeezy places’ and loves wide open spaces which she watches as much as she can. She seldom relaxes. I think this is why she challenges the leaders before complying. Maybe she thinks they are irresponsible for not scanning the horizon enough.
Out riding, she would look about and look about more. If she found something to worry her, the first instinct would be to stare, then either rush up to it or flee. None of these options suited me as her rider, and I would make a too big bid for her attention, too late; interrupt her pattern, argue, and eventually she would comply and not run off with me, but muttering under her breath all the time about it. In the early days I almost had to frighten her to get her attention at all. I found her frustrating to ride, because I like harmony, not conflict. She found me frustrating to be with, because she felt environment was way more important than I did, and she doesn’t like being told what to do by someone who plainly couldn’t pay proper attention.
After years of arguments which I always won, but which re-enacted every time she got tense and did nothing for our relationship, I heard Elsa Sinclair’s take on the five areas of Focus, and a big penny dropped for me. I have known these 5 areas for years (thanks to Russell Higgins) as ‘areas of confidence’ as in diagnosing where a horse is most bothered.
I had never thought of them as ‘focus’ areas before. That bit had escaped my notice. Places where horses and humans can habitually put their attention. We can be sublimely balanced (lots of switches of focus- good leaders are good at this) obsessive (one huge area of committed focus or concern) and a full range in between. The focus can be good or bad, as in addicted, learned behaviour, an innate tendency. A couple examples: very high prey drive can lead to obsession with environment; concerns for comfort can lead to obsession with herd, fearfulness can lead to a desperate search for a confident capable leader etc. obsessive learners are the ones who are into everything all the time, making up games and swinging their lead ropes.
The confidence in each area is also a subset. You can see how identifying this is a useful tool in helping horses to learn to trust our judgment.
Just that one tweak of the brain, from ‘confidence’ to ‘focus’ helped me figure Magic out. You see, she’s not an unconfident horse. She rides out great alone, not herd bound, curious and brave. But when she does get scared, because she spends such little focus on leaders, she just doesn’t turn to a leader for help. Instead she panics, because despite her tendencies, she’s still a horse.
Huge lightbulb moment.
Magic was fixated on environment. She overreacted to leadership from horse or human because in her mind it was always ‘too much too late’. We weren’t good leaders, because we never even noticed what was going on out there!
So I started training focus changes as subtly as I could. We started at home and I just observed how much effort she put into environment, so much more than everyone else.
Then I started matching her. She would stare out, so would I.
I started the ‘last step’ procedure. This is when a Thing of interest arises, and a horse stares at it. We stare too, and step towards to investigate, and if we are esteemed as good leaders, we can pronounce it safe (through our body language) and help the horse feel better.
I had done this before, but without commitment, and they know lip service when they see it. The often wouldn’t believe me. You have to really look, not just pretend to. I used to be so inconsistent too…not helpful.
The ‘last step’ towards a potentially scary Thing is usually taken by the bravest leader, and they get the ‘last word’ on the level of threat.
Magic is very good at having the last word! She likes learning, ‘new’ is interesting to her…and ‘interesting’ can be good interesting or scary interesting!
Her ‘famous last word’ at home is when we take turns with the ‘last step’, both unwilling to hand over the leadership, until we are both pressed up against the fence between us and ‘it’, and she wins by having the longest neck! However except for when that happens I generally held my own, and even got better at it, which meant she felt safe enough to relax with me. With me in those moments she could let down her guard. At last, someone else was taking care of business! Then I could ask for the subtlest focus change, an ear maybe, and get it without a storm of emotion. We are growing this in various situations, and now, in an emergency, she will bend as softly as when at home and as she was trained to, because she believes I might not be as useless as she thought I was about protecting the herd. This changed the feel of our time together significantly, and esp our rides.
She listens much more willingly to me now, instead of automatically saying ‘no’, arguing, then giving up with a sour note. Positive reinforcement peppered in was the cherry on top. I became her favourite leader.
Anyhow, I opened my round pen on the weekend to have some horse time on a surface that wasn’t under water, and the whole herd of four rushed in. They love the play pen. Apache wanted to roll, McCoy wanted to show off, and Joe was hoping for some clicker training.
Magic, being claustrophobic but brave, rushed in as well and just wanted everyone else to leave. She couldn’t get near me in the middle with McCoy flexing his muscles (he recently learned ‘crunches’ it’s still his fave thing) and Joe especially with his huge presence. So she pranced around the outside, crossing my line of vision again and again. Then I realised what she was doing! It was a pattern. She would circle the outside, then stop dramatically as if seeing ‘something out there!’ And stand staring at a gap between the trees. Then she looked at me. Then take a step or two towards it. Then glance at me. Each time she ended up pressed against the fence in her ‘famous last word’ position, staring out, before doing it all over again.
That glance! Reminded me of something the Goddess of Calm, Anna Blake, said at her clinic last year about ‘asking with her eye’. Well I had to go see. I left the boys with a jackpot each (for excellent crunches, and being polite respectively) walked around Apache, who was laying down still, and joined Magic in the race for the Last Step.
You should have seen how smug she was to have won my attention. I honestly think it was a ploy. There may have been ‘something out there’ to start with, but there was nothing by the time I got there except a very happy horse pointing it out to me! She won (long neck etc) but I got a free nose touch! She quickly pressed her muzzle against my face, and sighed. It was very touching to be so esteemed, and very satisfying seeing how pleased she was about getting my attention.
Our moment was short lived as the herd closed in, but it was a clear shining snapshot.
I think the gold in this for me was the bringing home of the idea of Focus, and my horse being able to ask for some attention, and get a reply that she liked. After all the work we had done together practicing this, she obviously likes it and couldn’t have been more obvious in how she went about getting it, despite the boys and Apache all doing their thing. I was impressed by her perseverance, and bravery (honestly, four strong minded horses in a 50’ round pen is three horses too many to Magic) and determination.
Most of all though her using a pattern that she and I had practised so overtly. It could have been conditioning, we had done those moves enough, but for the very obvious ‘ask with her eye’ that she kept casting at me. It was almost theatrical. She switched the game, asking for my change of focus just as I usually asked for hers!
Focus gives us Feel.
Focus and Feel give us Timing
Focus, Feel and Timing give us Balance. Flow. ‘The Zone’.
Please excuse my flowery descriptions- I don’t seriously anthropomorphise my horses, but I’m trying to get the full flavour across in my words for you. I so wish I had my camera running. I would love to watch the whole thing from an outside perspective, and see what else I missed.
I love the word ‘bewilderment’. Mostly because it has ‘wild’ in it. It’s innocent, like wild horses. And like wild horses, it’s not considered cool to be bewildered by our industrialised, scientific, domesticated world.
Recently I was cruising the horse forums, as you do, picking up bits of wisdom and ideas and inspiration from the tribe of horse lovers out there. My attention got caught by a question. The scenario was; the lady had a herd, and when she has to move them from place A to place B they don’t always respond to her R+ preferred method. So she will drive them instead. Once moved, she then goes and gives them a treat. I’m wasn’t sure if her motivations there are along the lines of reinforcing their doing the right thing, or a ‘kiss and make up’ thing. Probably both. Whatever.
Her question was around a concern that the horses would associate the subsequent reward (Positive Reinforcement) with the original aversive of her Positive Punishment (applying an unpleasant aversive in the form of driving) and Negative Reinforcement (taking it away once the horses moved as required).
She got a lot of very good responses that ranged from the well informed to the downright geeky; which was very cool. However most of the answers were couched in scientific terms. Now that’s not a problem- I love jargon, and the clarity it can bring when you understand it.
However I do worry on a couple of counts.
Firstly, we the lay people put our own angles on everything we hear; we queer the pitch when we do not truly understand the context in which words are used scientifically- eg ‘negative means bad positive means good’; that’s a basic one and easily corrected, but there are a morass of potential metaphorical tar pits to step into.
Secondly, that even when we understand the terms, we can get so steeped in the glamour of nerdy knowledge that we can get lost in the flatland of science. And believe me, alone, it is terrifyingly flat; black and white, no nuance or breadth or depth or heights anywhere. It’s just a process, right? It’s a way of looking at the world through the lens of absolute truth, the third person pronoun ‘it’, the effects of operant conditioning upon an organism and the bundles of conditioned reflexes that a scientist sees when he eyeballs his lab rats.
I honestly don’t dislike it. I know it’s necessary and it’s true. It’s also the process by which we describe truth. But everything we do, and are, is at least three dimensional. I don’t like reducing anything to one plane.
In medieval times they lived by the rule of the church, with its feet planted firmly in the singular rule of religion- which is the realm, however wisely or unwisely interpreted, of Morals. Looking back we know that was the flatland of Morals, and Truth, or Science, had no look in- you got hung, burned or locked in a tower for suggested such heresy. Wearing our smug retrospectacles, we call those days ‘the dark ages’.
We are currently living in a similarly flat paradigm now; that of scientific materialism. Truth is everything, and anything else is a mere epiphenomenem of the physical reality. And that can be just as horrible as the dark ages. No morals, all science? Hello nazi doctors, and animal vivisection.
I don’t think we’ve had an age of Art yet; that of the purely subjective, but I don’t doubt we will manage that faux pas as well if we survive this one.
But really, it’s all three, and who knows, possibly more.
I replied to the query post as per below. I padded it out a bit for the blog, because I can.
We are surrounded by operant conditioning all the time. If your horses aren’t motivated to go back in their paddock it’s because (as I’m sure you know) that not being in there is more reinforcing than your goody bag is, in that moment. You using P+/R- made it more motivating to move; job done. You going in and giving treats after the fact then made it more motivating to be with you in the paddock ‘now’; provided there is a gap of time – at the very least 10 seconds, but better 30- between the two. Unless you’re Quantum Woman, capable of being in two places at the same time, realistically you’re not likely to be confusing the two for your horses in this scenario, so don’t worry too much about it.
I honestly think we overanalyse all this stuff. There is a reason not to blur the edges, and that reason is ‘not blurring the edges’. It’s not clear or consistent, and that is not only potentially confusing for your horse, but it weakens the strength of your cues.
Here’s how I see it.
Basically when we give a horse a treat for ‘doing the right thing’ directly after giving a cue using pressure/release, you are weakening your R- cue. The horse will start to eventually link the two events and you will accidentally ‘charm’ the P+/R- (positive punishment /negative reinforcement) cue to ‘go away’ and cause an expectation of a treat. In other words, it stops being a powerful message to move away, and will become an indicator that a treat is coming instead, which means maybe he’s better to stay close in anticipation…and if you don’t have that treat that will also cause frustration (P-) which will destroy the moment completely in terms of clarity of intention and a clear release from pressure. All the quadrants come crashing in together and the intention you have gets crushed in the mayhem.
Scientists have proven this association with rats. Basically they ‘charmed’ rats into accepting an electric shock as a precedent to a reward. They started craving the shock (this is the power of conditioning) which weakened the aversive effect of the shock.
(I won’t go into what I think of the moral aspects of using animals for experimentation – that right there is a great example of what happens in a scientific flatland; the clash of the moral and scientific world views.)
On the other hand, you can also ‘poison’ the cue if you are a clicker trainer and you bring an aversive to play if the horse says ‘no’. Suddenly you are confusing matters, and the horse, and the horse will associate the cue with P+ (positive punishment). The only reason positive reinforcement works is the contrast between the negative punishment- which is withholding something he wants and can only get through you- and the anticipation that he will have his reward if he does what you want.
It is confusing to wrap the brain around, and if that makes your head hurt, don’t worry. You don’t need to understand it, just always put a gap between the two.
Knowing the science is helpful, but that’s only one facet of anything, horsemanship included. We are smart people and we love analysing things. However, science is only a process, and the descriptions of process; it’s a great way to think of that’s your thing, but trying on a different lens can help too if you really like to think about it holistically or if the jargon baffles you.
How about the Art of Horsemanship? The wonder of literally doing as little as possible, but being as consistent as a metronome in your timing and follow up? The astonishing beauty of getting the timing just right, the way a horse does, and starting so lightly that other people watching can’t even see your pinned ears, but the horses see them coming and say ‘sure, great idea, I’m going’. Lots of people do this without knowing the science behind it, through their feel and timing.
And yes, timing, that’s a science too, but you need to develop ‘Feel’ to use Timing, and to develop Feel you first need the ability to bring Focus; which is observation and interpretation of the whole picture in front of you…and that is undeniably a subjective process (an art) as well as an objective one (science) . Who is doing the observing? We can’t take ourselves out of the equation, and we will colour it with our own filters.
What about the lens of Morals? Should we be herding horses at all? Well probably, yes, if that’s what is required to move them, and if the consequences of not moving them means they stay in a place that’s not safe or healthy for them. Should we feel guilty for that?
I’m a philosopher, and I’m subsequently a mixed methodologist -after my own fair share of furious agonising, believe me. You can probably tell.
I asked my horses; and here’s the deal according to them.
There’s self motivation (intrinsic- doing what they want when they want) and there’s other stuff motivation (someone else making them move by using pressure/release or desire/reward- both in my books ‘dominant’ by definition; which is to use your power and influence over others).
Ultimately a being wants what he wants when he wants it.
Watch horses together. They move each other around a lot.
Yes there is passive leadership; usually preceded by a lot of trust building in the form of hanging out and taking turns and realising that this individual makes good choices, is charismatic to you, and is worth following. This leader watches the environment, keeps an eye on the herd, is brave and wise. Without even trying to make you do anything, you’re drawn to her like a magnet and follow her everywhere. If you want to be that leader for your horse it’s possible; but you can’t buy trust. You have to earn it, and that costs a lot of time and proving yourself without imposing any direction at all. Most people don’t do that.
Then there’s that horse that no one crosses. He’s a bit of a bully, he does herd you a lot, and has no compunction about moving your feet by aiming his own, or denying you access to the trough, just because. He’s rude and violent. You gotta get out his way and hustle.
Look at it from his POV. He doesn’t have other things going for him so he uses what he’s got to get what he wants. Maybe when he calms down a bit and gets some more trusting relationships, he’ll change his tune. Maybe he’ll learn that he doesn’t have to always follow through if the herd are already hustling. That’s his learning curve.
Both examples are extremes. Extremes are not usually that common (though I do think that passive leadership is a staple in herd dynamics that most herds will tend towards when we don’t interfere with them). Herding your horses doesn’t have to be an extreme act of bullying, and I’m sure that in most cases, it isn’t.
Most often in settled herds you see assertive leadership; a good leader who knows the answer is going to be ‘yes’ before he suggests it, and it’s such a subtle suggestion that usually we humans don’t even get to see it. That’s the peace we all crave; safety in a good leader and the friendship of a trusting herd. That is probably what most people see as the type of leadership that is acceptably PC for our postmodern worldview; a compliance so natural and easy that it obscures the orders issued to obtain it.
Here’s a secret- that sort of leadership doesn’t ever magically happen by itself. It has to come from either real passive leadership, or actual dominant leadership first; otherwise there is no reason to say ‘yes’ and follow.
Even in settled herds there are occasional flashes of overt ‘aversives’, occasional challenges and minor eruptions of dissent, and realistically, most domestic herds don’t even get to be ‘settled’ because of our selfishly human need to keep changing them/selling them/disrupting them to suit our wants.
However the horses don’t hold grudges against dominant leaders (and by dominant I reiterate I mean anyone who uses their influence to motivate someone else to do their will- including P+/R-, or P-/R+) they just read the moment, respond, and move on.
If we emulate the horses, we find a lot of the old sayings from wise horsemen popping up. ‘Do as little as possible and as much as necessary’ is one that gets distorted a lot- many people can only see either the first part or the second, not the whole sentence.
What exactly are we actually worrying about? When we say ‘will he associate the aversive with the reward’ is that a scientific enquiry (which is considered deeply cool) or are we asking ‘what if he doesn’t love me any more?’ (Not considered cool at all, but at best naive, but still a genuine concern for many.)
All we need to remember is to leave a wee gap between the two. And try not to be the bully- that’s the nod in the direction of morality in all this.
Most of our perceptions are way slower than a horse’s anyway- basing that claim upon the scientifically proven fact that they have the fastest reflexes in the mammalian kingdom..and my personal experiences and subsequent bruises.
Im going to choose an Art lens today and quote a Rumi poem.
‘Sell your cleverness, and purchase Bewilderment’.
Recently I was with a student and her horse. This horse has had quite a journey; from being a natural introvert, not prone to much forward and also quite shut down, to a confident, almost cheeky, engaging friend with masses of try.
My student, like me, is also a mixed methodologist. She mostly uses passive leadership to set the tone, and clicker training to add enthusiasm. She also uses negative reinforcement where she needs to. They are an amazing team, working on a well rounded education together.
This particular day we were planning a lesson together. The horse was standing close and mouthing things in an attempt for bonus attention points, variously picking up a brush and other nearby objects. Her objective was to engage her human, hoping for some clicker action. Now this behaviour may not that desirable, but as a contrast to the blank eyed pony she used to be, this gentle playing is wonderful.
However we were deep in discussion and weren’t ready to change the subject, but we both knew to play with the horse that shows up. Instead of saying no, the student gave her horse another job to do, which was to back away a little and wait. The backup was treacle sweet and slow, the wait was not happening, instead turning into a creep forwards and more mouth. A few repeats and clicking for waiting ensued.
I noticed the quality of the backup. If it was going any slower it would have been going forwards. We spoke about the quality of the exercise. The human cue was soft and slight, and the response was there, but in super slo-mo, and the minimum amount of distance – literally three steps and halt, quickly followed by stepping forwards again. Clicking for the ‘wait’ didn’t help as she still came in for her treat, or if her human beat her to it and delivered would still creep right on back afterwards.
I diagnosed that the horse had slowly reverse trained her human to release for slighter and slighter ‘tries’.
Horses being pattern animals, the mare had developed a pattern that had her boomeranging back in from the world’s slowest slightest backup, every time.
In working on improving the backup and the wait, the student worked on upping the quality by setting a different criteria from ‘release for the slightest try’ to ‘release for slow and right’.
Step one was improve the backup from the ‘treacle two step’ to a steady backup (that had more than three steps), and then the wait.
The horse was quite welded to her pattern. So to interrupt it, the student upped her cue to get a snappier response. We broke the pattern. The cue escalated, became R-, but I could tell it was a reluctantly offered, and the horse certainly could tell. The horse responded eventually, after trying to continue her normal effort only, then through resisting passively, then through crookedness (shoulders getting out and stuck) until finally we got what was required; by being calm, persistent, and instantly releasing for each improvement. Eventually we got a solid five steps back and wait.
Because we had used pressure, the student then waited for the lick and chew which would signify a reset to calm.
It didn’t happen. Instead, the mare started looking not exactly shut down, but not unlike the blank dead eye that the used to be. Was she zoning out?
While what we had originally wanted was a polite wait, we knew that how the horse felt about it was a bigger training point than the exercise itself, and we didn’t want to shut her down again. So we waited.
The mare seemed fairly disconnected compared to all the prior ‘look at me’ that had been going on, but she was still blinking…and thinking?
Then my student asked ‘do you think she’s figured out that when I use R-, I will stop and wait for the lick and chew before asking anything else, and therefore she’s holding it back?’
I had never considered this before, but I had just about opened my mouth at the same time to ask ‘is this getting better, or worse, or is something else going on?’
Now I don’t know if my student was correct, but it kind of had a ring of truth to it, I liked it, it probably isn’t common but knowing this smart pony, maybe it was a possibility. Also, one thing that tends to trigger a reset (lick and chew/sigh) is authenticity- and as the student was speaking, the mare gave the slightest secret lick and chew, inside her mouth, no tongue.
Maybe coincidence? Or not?
My own thought was also that we hadn’t actually used that much pressure. Perhaps the mare simply hadn’t actually had the sympathetic nervous system triggered, so therefore had no stress response to release? This horse trusts her human.
Everything we do is based upon confidence, communication, and mutual respect.
By mutual respect I mean leadership; though I expand that to include passive leadership which also, when appropriate, includes occasional ‘followship’.
It’s my conviction that the part of the equation that is called ‘feeling for the horse’ includes us synchronising with them, before expecting them to respond to us. This conjoins the trust, and communication, and mutual respect.
The backup had been slow, but we identified that the sticking point was actually the shoulders. The forehand yield was poor to both sides, and therefore, naturally, also in the backup.
We were reminded that a week prior this same horse had taken fright and shied sideways into me with her shoulders. No one died, or were even hurt, that time, but that is a clue to how things can go pretty bad if your horse doesn’t think your important enough not to run you over!
Trust and communication were well installed.
This meant that the third part of the equation- that of mutual respect- was where we needed to work.
We tested it out, and sure enough, the shoulders were stuck against steady pressure, and also against rhythmic pressure at close quarters.
My student was not as practised in technique, and I was also wanting to show the effect of clear intention, so I demonstrated using rhythmic pressure from a greater distance to get an appropriate response. It worked, instantly, as I fully intended owning that bit of real estate that the shoulder was set upon, no one got hurt, and we got a good yield and an instant, overt lick and chew. Not only that, but the entire expression and attitude changed. She gave great focus. She flowed forwards into a send. She was moving with power in all directions. She was with us, focused, and fully expressing herself through movement.
My student stepped up, and not only got the same result but also tried and mastered a couple of other new (to them) patterns that both include a lot of backup and shoulder yields. A lot of drive, in other words. R-.
The horse was riveted by her, had a great expression, and with a bit of persistence was licking and chewing while actually performing beautiful rhythmic backups, turns, and circling. Overall she looked like a fulfilled horse, doing what they are designed to do, which is to move!
So what was going on?
Why was this different to the prior attempts?
The difference was being effective enough to be understood, and understood enough to be effective.
This mare already knew the cue to back up and to yield her forehand. If she didn’t, it wouldn’t have been fair; and she would have needed a different criteria to actually teach the move which would have been ‘release (or reward- depending on whether using R+ or R-) for the slightest try’.
But she had moved beyond that. Now we wanted duration, and more effort put into the task rather than into how to change the game.
I’m not saying that improving the task (in this case ‘back up’) couldn’t be taught using R+; but that the principle of yielding to appropriate pressure which was behind the non compliance needed to be addressed.
If you ask ‘move please’ and the answer is ‘no, why should I’ and you’re on a road and a truck is about to hit you, then you’re not safe. The world is full of unexpected pressure. Sometimes the horse’s instinct is the best answer; but sometimes it’s only going to get them and us in deeper trouble and we need to be able to prevent that to stay safe. Unfortunately, if you never get to practice being assertive and your horse never gets to practice being responsive, then by the time the emergency happens it’s too late.
An interesting thing happens to we gentle souls when we discover the ‘no-pressure’ methods; positive reinforcement, reading calming signals, synchronising, and passive leadership.
It resonates with gentle souls, and reverting to R-when we need to can feel awkward and diffident.
I think that our horses read us like books. Our intention, our emotions, and our commitment to our actions are very clear to them. I have noticed in myself that if I am alone with my own horses or working with a student one on one, it’s easy to do things. I switch between modes and my horses switch with me, without taking offence or advantage. It’s just life. I am free to act naturally, and if I flow, they flow.
If, however, I’m in front of an instructor or a critic, then the horses might not be so responsive. They feel my hesitation and either hesitate themselves or start playing their own games, depending upon the horse that has shown up. If we are questioning ourselves, the first thing that has to happen, for a horse, is that horse questions you too- and someone needs to be in charge. It’s a biological imperative for a horse to have someone lead; and if there’s only two of you and you’re not stepping up, well there’s only one other alternative.
Horses love positive reinforcement- we all do!
It’s motivating, fun and fulfilling.
Sometimes however we need to step up and say ‘I got this’. This is imperative, because horses react by instinct.
Safety first; then comfort, then play (dominance games) then food/motivation.
Our currency needs to speak to the rung on which that horse is standing in every moment, and while it is possible to condition a horse to do the right thing despite the world going mad around him (consistent training, great timing, and power of patterns giving sense of comfort and control) one day may come where circumstances are so far out from the norm that the horse cannot associate his conditioned responses to the situation at hand.
Good leadership definitely includes ‘feeling for the horse’ and ‘feeling together’- which adds up to being considered a good leader to willingly follow. It also includes being decisive, and being worthy of regard- it’s mutual. If your horse runs me over, then I’m not worthy of her regard, right?
Also good leadership means teaching your horse the appropriate response to pressure. Life is full of pressure and if we don’t teach our horses how to yield then we are setting them up for a train wreck one day.
Good leadership is not being a bully. Is it the act of a bully to stop a child running into the road?
When safety is an issue, you need to know that your horse knows the appropriate response to pressure. Teaching this helps a horse think through a problem when it’s occurred under stressful situations as well as when all is calm.
I know of another horse/human partnership that is a beautiful friendship. She is as gentle with her horse as you can get. However she seldom gets to ride out because she can’t get her horse out the gate, he grazes and meanders and turns around and goes home repeatedly. At the halfway mark he becomes a freight train and blazes past the others on the ride at 90 miles an hour. That horse has a totally immovable shoulder. He has barged over people going through gates and riding out with them doesn’t happen any more with me because I had my knee (and my horse’s side) crushed by this horse suddenly barging past more times than I like to admit before I gave up trying.
It’s more than setting boundaries around your personal space. I have no problem giving ground myself out of good manners. Sometimes you need that horse to move NOW and if you never ever practise that, how do you think it’s going to work out for you when you really need it?