A Tale of Two Horses – Book Review

My first review has just come in. The very talented and lovely Sarah Fisher has given it a fabulous review. Read it here.

‘I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and found Kathie’s honesty and self-awareness, as well as her true love and understanding of the glorious Thoroughbred, delightfully refreshing. This is more than a tale of two horses; it is a celebration of the harmony that can be achieved when we take time to observe, listen to, and learn from animals whether we are experienced guardians or not.

Kathie combines her knowledge as an animal behaviourist with an innate sensitivity to liberate two ex-racehorses from anxiety, and enable them to lead happy, healthy and fulfilling lives as valued companions. She explains how scientifically proven positive reinforcement can be used successfully to educate and rehabilitate troubled equids thus negating the need to employ all too commonly championed aversive techniques (stemming from misguided conceptions and beliefs) that rely on suppression, fear and force.

Anyone who has a passion for horses or an interest in animal behaviour will find this publication a peaceful, inspiring and rewarding read.’

Sarah Fisher

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Emotional Learning in the Performance Horse.

Whatever activity you and your horse engage in, be it eventing through to showing your horse, you start at the start, and aim to progress in your chosen activity. Some horses show a real talent for the activity you do with them, and can progress very quickly up the ranks. Time is spent teaching yourself and your horse to improve and achieve more.

These are two of the three essential elements to continuing to progress and realise your goals. The third is the one that is often forgotten, or not even known. And that is your horses psychological development.

If he is gifted at what he does, he may well find that his abilities put him in situations that his emotional mind is not yet able to cope with. To avoid this, and help your horse be the best he can be, add sessions that develop the emotional mind.

Give him different experiences so he gets used to the many different things he may be exposed to. Use some competitions as emotional development training, teaching him how to manage himself and cope with whatever novel things are in the arena/course, without pressure to perform. Finally, take emotional learning experiences at a pace he is comfortable with, and he will be reliable and confident wherever you go.

“If a dog will not come to you after having looked you in the face, you should go home and examine your conscience.” —Woodrow Wilson (28th President of the United States)

A true statement, and one that reminds us to always treat our dogs with compassion and understanding, regardless of what they may do or how they behave. This caused me to think of my puppy, Wolfie, who is going through his teenager stage. It is not easy to remain calm and composed when dealing with the resulting behaviours, but how people deal with this difficult period makes a huge difference to how your puppy’s personality develops as he becomes an adult.

Wolfie is 5&¾ months old and his hormones kicked in about 4 weeks ago. Living with any teenage puppy is difficult, and there are a few more considerations when your puppy is a giant breed. Wolfie is an Irish Wolfhound, weighs about 45kg and is the size of an adult German Shepherd. He still has a lot of growing to do.

Puppies are often very boisterous when they play, biting and growling, racing around, pouncing, and trying to engage with anything and everything, in a very happy and excited manner, flopping to the floor when they are worn out. When your puppy becomes a teenager, his arousal and frustration levels go up, and his tolerance level goes down. This results in the same type of play, but with a different emotional state, due to hormones and changes in his brain chemistry. He is restless, unsatisfied, and doesn’t know what to do with himself. Play is not so pleasurable, he gets frustrated, and as he tries harder to resolve these emotions, he tips into mania. This is not a balanced state of mind, nor is it one that can be easily distracted or calmed.

When Wolfie has a hormone surge, I am the obvious target for venting that frustration as the only moving object to interact with. He’ll use toys or branches of the trees as a means of getting it out his system and calming down when on his own, but not when I am about. Normal behaviour for a puppy going through the teenage period, but strategies need to be put in place to help him calm down. The emotions he is experiencing mean that he tries harder to achieve some relief, but gets ever more frustrated when that doesn’t happen. Your puppy is not enjoying this, he is trying to reach resolution, and that may mean an increased drive to interact with you, resulting in reverting to puppy biting behaviour, but without the restraint that he had when he was younger. It looks like he is intentionally trying to bite you, and this is when the relationship can break down. There is also an increased chance of injury, more so when the puppy in question is a giant breed.

This period is one that we often find the most difficult to cope with. Our puppy who has been taught how to behave calmly, not eat the furniture, or bite us, has lost the plot, and is once again doing all those things. Worse, he’s bigger, stronger, and far more intent on this manic behaviour than ever before.

It is important to understand that your puppy is not in control of himself when he behaves like this, he is not intentionally trying to bite you or destroy the furniture, although it seems that way. It is also difficult to control your own emotional response to his behaviour. We get frustrated and upset, asking ourselves why would he do that if he loves us? Why would he try to bite those who care for him, look after him and love him? It undermines our trust in our puppy, and may cause us to behave in a way that is not optimum for either of us. But, using force to handle the situation can put you both in danger, and the outcome is never good.

What should we do? Remember the quote at the start of this piece. How will your puppy feel if you meet his perceived aggressively challenging behaviour with aggressive behaviour of your own? What will his eyes say, when he looks at you? It’s hard-wired into all of us to respond to the things we perceive as a threat. Retaliation by striking out at our puppy when he is coming at us with his teeth, intending to bite, is a reaction that can happen before we have had time to process what we are doing, and that your puppy is not a threat, rather he has no idea what he is doing.

Instead, we must suspend our emotional response and approach this with the compassion and understanding it deserves. Our puppy is at the mercy of hormones and emotions, and what he really needs from us is calm behaviour and kind strategies, based in positive methods, that enable him to get through this difficult stage as easily as is possible. Approaching things in this way ensures that the trust between you and your puppy remains intact, strengthens, and develops. It results in you both have a better relationship and understanding of each other, a true partnership, and bond that cannot be broken.

Charlie & Star’s Clicker Training Diary w/e 5th July 2015

Well, what an exciting week it has been. I’ve done theExercise Yard usual training sessions, but that is not what was exciting. I decided it was the right time to leave the yard, and go for a walk down the lane.

For those of you who don’t know, Charlie and Star arrived as very reactive and unhappy horses. It has taken a substantial amount of rehabilitation to get them to the point where they are happy, balanced and content. They are not reactive any more, are predictable and soppy!!! Although that might just be my interpretation – I can hear them saying, ‘ aw, mum, do you have to say that, it’s so embarrassing!’

Anyway, back to The Walk…

Head collars and lead ropes on. Check. Bag of apples and carrots at the ready. Check.

I walked with Charlie, and hubby walked with Star. Charlie in the lead (he’s older and wiser), and off we went out of the gate and onto the lane, with Star and hubby following. So far so good. Charlie was great, happily bopping along beside me.

We got part way along the lane, when the realisation that she was no longer in her safe, and familiar field caused Star to panic a little. True to form, she planted her feet and refused to move. On seeing this, hubby started talking to her to help her through. Charlie and I were a little ahead, so we turned around to come back to Star. Charlie, clever boy, executed a perfect turn around as soon as I said it. He was so calm and collected. Back we went to Star, who still was not at all compos mentis (being able to think clearly and be in control of and responsible for your actions)! No, Star was in emotional/ instinct mode and not at all able to think or listen.

The best thing to do in this situation is not push things, but diffuse. So, Charlie and I walked back to her, hubby continued talking and not reacting, but also not asking anything of Star. We walked past, with the cue, ‘this way’ to let Star know we were going back to the yard. Charlie was brilliant, waited when I asked so he wasn’t to far away, and walked on when Star started to respond. Star made it back into the yard, and had settled down in a few minutes.

A good first walk. Star was interested in going out, but got scared when she found herself outside of her comfort zone. She did panic a bit, but crucially, she was not manic and reactive. It was easy to get her to re-engage her thinking brain, it just took a few minutes. Considering she is still a baby, and has only had very limited experience, she did amazingly well. Charlie showed how reliable and clever his was. This now gives me my next area to work on and develop Star’s confidence, so, back to yard work, gradually progressing to the gate being open, allowing Star to be comfortable going up to it, out and back in, without going too far away.

Groundwork

What does it mean to you?

Groundwork

To me it means everything that happens when YOU are on the ground.

Most of you are familiar with teaching groundwork exercises for things like showing, teaching movements you will use in the saddle, for ground based activities such as agility and for lead walking.

Things such as just being around your horse in the stable or field, vets and farriers visits, mucking out, grooming and feeding are all part of groundwork. I take advantage of these activities and use them as opportunities to teach my horses more behaviours, movements and awareness.

If you have a reactive horse, you are more likely to have taught him to do specific things when you handle him, as this is a necessity. For those with an easy-going horse, there is no need, the horse will do what he is asked. But there is a false sense of security here. What if you need your horse to do something that he usually does at a different time? Or he simply doesn’t do what is asked. Relying on the assumption that he always does this, is fine, just as long as he always does. When he doesn’t, you don’t have any cue to fall back on if you haven’t attached one to the behaviour.

Putting existing routines and movements on cue will give you so many advantages.

It increases awareness, which in turn increases self-confidence.

This is important for all animals, regardless of species or whether they are prey or predators. It is a technique that is particularly useful in resolving behavioural issues in insecure animals. If a horse knows what he is doing, he is more confident.

You have a voice cue as a back up if your horse finds himself unsure for whatever reason. Reminding him that this is a usual routine and that he does know it can help him get over any insecurity he may be feeling.

It allows you a means of teaching him to apply the same routine or movement in a different context.

When something is learnt, it is done so in context. If a movement is only practised and done in one place, chances are that the horse will find it difficult or impossible to do it in a significantly different location. In order to truly know a behaviour, it must be able to be performed in isolation, without any associations or conditions needing to be present. The movement itself is the behaviour, not the context in which it is displayed. If he knows a behaviour in one context, it is a straightforward matter to teach him it in another.

Perhaps the biggest advantage is that it is able to be applied to other situations. Modified, adjusted or the behaviour as a whole can be used to help the horse know what to do when he is in a situation he is unfamiliar with. Responses are chosen from previous experience. Where there is no similar experience to draw on, the horse does not know what to do. That can result in panic, fear, or anxiety, along with a response that is not appropriate for the situation. If you include awareness as an integral part of learning and training, you will significantly improve your horses ability to

  • manage his own behaviour

  • willingness to be guided by you if he doesn’t know what to do

  • impulse control

  • choosing an appropriate response

  • reliability

  • safety

Positive Reinforcement – What’s it all about?

Simply put, positive reinforcement means;

Adding something the animal will work for to strengthen (increase the frequency of) a behaviour.

It looks fairly straight forward, what’s the big deal?

Every being has a motivational system, so why would you not tap into that and make life easy for yourself? You can make training difficult if you like, but why would you, when there is a much more effective and easily understood way. The natural motivations for food, comfort, play and affection are already in place in the animals, you don’t need to teach them. I know that my dog will come to me if I have a bit of sausage in my hand. I know my horse will follow me if I have a carrot in my hand. This is easy. It uses built-in behaviours and emotional drives to great effect. And crucially? It is all positive reinforcement. Which means the dog or horse is very likely to want to do it again.

When you think about the various training methods and what to use, think of these sayings;

Don’t fix something if it isn’t broken.

Why reinvent the wheel?

Keeping things simple, straightforward and making the most of things that are already in place can be more effective than trying to invent it all yourself, and makes life easier.

It doesn’t make any sense to use aversion and force, as you have to teach these things. Yes, I know animals also have motivational systems for avoidance, but not as humans apply it. That is learned the hard way by the horse, through repetitive means until the horse complies. To make matters worse, it is not clear to the horse what the correct response should be, until he happens to stumble onto it. It is all very ambiguous, inefficient, and ethically wrong.

Give your horse an enjoyable motivation to do what is being taught and he will learn quickly. Not only that, what he has learnt will be reliable, and transferable to many other situations. This is very different to getting him to do something by giving him the motivation to avoid something else. This is also transferable to different situations, but who wants a horse that is conditioned to avoidance? Horses are quite good at this without any additional reinforcement from us! If this is his default strategy, this is what he will do in any new situation that he finds he doesn’t want to be in, and that makes it very hard for you to achieve a different response and outcome.

So what will motivate a horse to do something, rather than avoid something?

What will motivate a dog to do something, rather than avoid something?

Every horse or dog may have different likes and dislikes, so what have you found that works? Please leave a comment, I’ll discuss this in the next post.

Impulse Control

When I am working with any species of animal, I will work to balance instincts and responses. Reinforcing innate drives and motivations will make them stronger. This is not always a good thing. It is, if you are working them and need to develop that drive, but if you think about it, you develop a specific aspect and application of it, you don’t just reinforce it as a whole, or the animal is likely to perform it whenever he wants to, regardless of whether it is the right application or not. You want to reinforce the motivation when in the correct context, not generally. It’s about putting it on cue so that you don’t get it when it’s inappropriate. That cue may be anything, it could be a voice cue or visual cue from you, or it could be cued to an environment, particular place, or specific circumstances.

A racehorse will race when he is on the racetrack. A sight hound will chase when he sees small animals moving. If that drive is reinforced without any focus, how difficult is it going to be to interrupt it? Very difficult. The behaviour is self rewarding, and the more it is practised, the stronger it becomes. If that behaviour is tempered with training so the horse or dog can interrupt it, is taught where to perform it and where it is not safe to do so, then you can balance those motivations. If left unchecked, the behaviour will not be a balanced part of the personality, but an overriding trait that will be difficult to counter. It is not much fun if your racehorse thinks that a canter always turns into an all out race, and every long stretch is for running as fast as possible. That does not make for a safe or enjoyable experience. Neither will you enjoy walking your dog if he chases off after everything in sight, and you have to continually go and find him.

Teaching impulse control is a very important part of learning, and invaluable for being safe around any animal. This means that the racehorse can interrupt his instinct to run, and the sight hound can interrupt his instinct to chase, making both animals safer and more reliable. It also means that humans have the ability to keep him, and those around him, safe. The only way to achieve this level of safety, and control of the situation and the animal’s behaviour is if the horse or dog does it himself. You are not, and never will be in control of his mind.

There is no denying it, if your horse has taken it upon himself to race, you are going to have a hard time trying to stop him on your own. And by on your own, I mean without any input from the horse. Yes, you could use all your aids with increasing force, try to turn him so that he has to stop or run into something, but this should be an emergency situation, not a normal part of your interactions. It is not safe, has a created negative associations for the horse and the behaviour is not likely to change if it is regularly repeated. Besides, any horse is far stronger than the strongest human, so there is every chance that he will be sufficiently motivated to ignore whatever force you use to try to stop him. What options do you have if you are on a horse that is immune to all you do? One. And that is to teach him to manage his own behaviour, have awareness, and learn lots of exercises and routines that you can then employ to diffuse the situation safely.

The same applies to your sight hound. Off lead, this is imperative, as there is no chance of running after him and regaining control of the situation, he’ll be gone, and your two human legs will not keep up! On lead, it may seem as though you have control, but how many people have their arm pulled off every time their dog sees something and decides to chase? His chase is cut short, but only at the expense of your arm and his neck if wearing a collar, or body if on a harness.

Control is something you perceive you have over animals, but in reality, you do not. You cannot control their thoughts, instincts, motivations, or actions. You can shape, balance and guide these things, and the best way to do this is through positive reinforcement. The result is that they will find what you teach them enjoyable, which means they will be happy, even eager to repeat these behaviours. And that is what will give you the confidence to know you can successfully and reliably manage your horse or dog, whatever situation you both find yourself in.