Sticks and STOP signs.

‘My horse is scared of the stick.’

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

This is McCoy’s STOP Sign-and I don’t mean the yellow label! Read the tension in his mouth, jaw, tight facial muscles, fixed eye and tight neck. Note his ears are pricked. Some might say he looks interested, and actually he is. The Scary Thing (in this case it was first sight of a terrifyingly fluffy girth!) is extremely, desperately interesting. Interesting is not familiar, or comfortable. Interesting can be good or bad.

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.

Freeze.

Spice freezes with her eyes wide open. Others will hood their eyes against you, which can look like dozing.

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

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.

Fight

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.

Process.

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!

Why?

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.

Repeat.

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.

Counter Conditioning!

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.

It’s the hand holding the stick that matters.

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