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

A Tale of Two Horses – The Book

I’ve just received an advance copy of my book, A Tale of Two Horses.

To see all those pages of plain type become this wonderful book is amazing.

Huge thanks to Jude Brooks and the team at Hubble & Hattie for making this possible.

It tells the story of my first year with my two Thoroughbred ex-racers as they make the transition from reactive horses with behavioural issues to content, well balanced horses. My teaching is force free both physically and psychologically, enabling free will and ensuring the emotional mind is content, showing the reader how to apply the same principles and methods. If you know anyone who may be interested in it, please let them know.

You can buy it here http://www.hubbleandhattie.com/shop/HH4794/

“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.

One Word Inspiration

Today’s post requires an explanation! I am currently taking a writing course and today’s assignment is called One Word Inspiration. These are the words to choose from, interpret and write about as your mind is inspired.

treasure ~ regret ~ home ~ love ~ uncertainty ~ secret

LOVE..I love my job. I get great satisfaction from making a difference to the animals and owners I work with. I would love to do more, share more, enlighten and teach. But I am comfortable in this place, which is..HOME..This is my comfort zone, where I don’t need to challenge myself. I can stay here, doing the same as I always have, and feel safe. I don’t need to do more, I can choose not to. Doing more leads to..UNCERTAINTY..Something that befalls most of us, in many different ways.Writing my first book. There are the questions that stop us starting something new, or progressing something we already do. Can I actually do it? Can I stick with it for however long it takes? Do I have enough to say? What if I get stuck? Then there are questions that make us doubt our decisions, and want to stay in our comfort zone. Will it be any good? Who will read it? What comments will I get? Will people like it? But this only leads to..REGRET..If I don’t do it, will I regret it? Will I regret not giving myself permission to be the best I can be? Achieve all I can in this life? All the knowledge I have. It’s not a..SECRET..It deserves to be out in the world. It’s right to share knowledge, experience and help others achieve all they can be. And if I do this I will..TREASURE..The journey. The self-development to be better, wiser, more confident. The fulfilment of my soul. I will treasure each and every time a person and animal has benefited from anything I have to give.

Things I’ve learned along the way through life

1 Time

Training animals takes time. Teaching your horse or dog movements, tricks and routines takes time. The brain has to get used to the new movements so they become familiar, then your horse or dog has to learn the voice or visual cue associated with that movement, and only then can be sure that he knows what to do we ask him to give us that movement. Changing behaviour takes time. One of the key things when working with horses and dogs who have issues, is to change their perception of the issue. And that takes time. The horse, who is not confident enough to hack out alone, will not change his mind on this very quickly. It takes time for him to build his confidence and not worry about being away from his friends. The dog who is over-excitable around other dogs will not simply decide he can be calm and collected. He needs time to learn this new response when he sees a dog and anticipates play.

2 Prioritise

Life is busy. There is never time to do everything, so you have to prioritise. My puppy, Wolfie, is 5 & ½ months old. He needs a fair amount of guidance and teaching, as there is a lot he needs to know at this stage in his life. On the other hand, my horses have been with me for 2 & ½ years, and know a lot of things. We were starting to take things to the next training level before Wolfie arrived, but now he is here, his teaching takes priority over Charlie and Star’s, as their training is not time critical. For those of you following their training diary, apologies for it being sporadic at present. I also like to cook, but there is only so much time in the day, so this doesn’t always happen. I have a combination of short-term and long-term writing projects on the go, along with clients who have different needs and time-scales. My priorities roughly remain in the same order, but with a fair amount of short-term adjusting for upcoming deadlines. Being able to identify when a priority should change position is essential for keeping things together and getting everything done at the right time.

3 Setting realistic goals = setting yourself up for success

Recognising that you can’t do everything all the time, and choosing what to do means you are much more likely to achieve the items on your list that day. Let go of feeling that you should do it all and realise that it’s not a problem. If dinner is not prepared, if other things remain undone, or you didn’t get around to something you wanted to get done, it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

4 Set your horse or dog up for success

This is essential to being a great teacher and trainer. You want your horse or dog to enjoy learning and be good at it. Learning can only be effective and enjoyable if it is rewarding and something that the horse or dog wants to do again. Setting them up for success means that you teach them in small steps, so they are able to understand and progress. Rewarding and praising them is essential to their perception of this being an enjoyable activity. It also means that you should create an environment where there is no fear, pain or coercion.

5 We’ll get there when we get there/ It takes as long as it takes

A great lesson to learn. Too often we have a set time-scale in mind, and feel that we must reach our goals at this point. Unfortunately behaviour does not work that way, and neither does your horse or dog. Each animal is different, and each will learn at a different rate. Some things will be easy and quickly learnt, some will not. The same applies to other things in your life.

6 Focus on the positives

We humans do tend to think about what was not right, did not go well, and was not good. Of course being aware of these things enables us to improve on them. However, there is a lot of negative energy attached to thinking in this way, so changing how you assess what you’ve been doing to look at the positive elements makes you feel good, which transfers to how you approach the next interaction with your horse or dog.

7 Don’t beat yourself up when things go wrong

Hindsight is a great thing. We can spend our time berating ourselves for the choices we made, or we can learn from them and make different ones next time.

8 Adjust as necessary

This relates to all previous points; 1 to 7. By recognising our performance, strengths and weaknesses, we can adjust each point accordingly to achieve success.

1 – take the time needed for each job, and don’t rush it. 2 – improve your ability to prioritise. 3 – you can improve your goal setting when you have some experience of what you can achieve each day. 4 – if teaching wasn’t easy, assess how you can change things so your horse or dog is successful. 5 – don’t try to force learning to happen quicker than the horse or dog is capable of. 6 – train your mind to see the great things you are achieving, so it becomes normal for you to think this way. 7 – let go of what has happened, and adjust for the next time.

9 Celebrate progress

We don’t do this often enough, and whilst modesty is a good trait, we should also recognise and celebrate what we have achieved. It leads to a content mind, and feelings of satisfaction.

10 Use what you’ve learnt to improve

following all these points and using them to assess who you are, where you are going, and what you want to achieve on your journey through life will help you realise your ambitions and dreams. It leads to a happy and full-filled life for you and your horse and dog.

Why do I write?

I’ve always enjoyed writing.

To get those thoughts down on paper, before they’ve flown away, out of my mind.

To return to them, remember them and gain inspiration from them.

To challenge my perception, develop, and grow.

To explore possibilities.

Now I write with an audience in mind.

Can I give others inspiration?

Change their perceptions?

Help them explore new possibilities?

Writing is to share, to learn, to teach, to help each other.

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.

Hello world!

Welcome to my blog and my first post.

Where to start? I thought about explaining who I am and what I do, in the first paragraphs, but that’s covered in my about page. If you haven’t seen it, hop over and have a read. I don’t want to jump straight in with learning theory, or in-depth techniques, so I guess I’ll start at the start. Which is with the principles of the behaviour and training of animals.

I mostly work with horses, dogs and cats, but there is the occasional bird, sheep or other animal in the mix. The first thing to say is that I do not have a different ‘hat’ for each species, or have different values and ethics. The same guiding principles, which form my philosophy, are adhered to for every animal I work with. Obviously one species is not the same as another, but the underlying mechanisms are the same. The principles of how we learn, where in the brain motivational drive, emotions and responses are formed, how these are executed and reinforced are the same for all mammals. What is different is evolutionary development, natural environment, prey or predator role, and what is important for survival and living. All these things make up the unique perspective of how each species sees and interacts in the world. I account for differences in species by understanding what is called species specifics. This knowledge gives me the ability to adjust techniques and methods for the unique outlook on life each species has.

So, what you will find on my blog?

You will not find negative, aversive or punishment methods here. This is a strictly positive blog.

You will find up to date, scientifically proven positive reinforcement methods and techniques, theory and hands on knowledge, all applied with compassion and understanding, ensuring that high standards of emotional and physical welfare are always maintained.

Which leads me on to how important and often overlooked this concept, and one of my guiding principles, actually is;

To always leave an animal better off than when you started interacting with him.

By using positive reinforcement methods you have made a really good start, but there is more to it than just using the correct techniques, you have to look at how you apply them, how they affect the emotional state of the animal and what is actually reinforced.

When you teach and train you want the animal in question to be successful, but you also want to be successful yourself. You feel as though you know what you are doing if the animal does what you ask, and feel like a failure if he does not. It is immediately obvious that there are two aspects to every encounter with an animal. That of the animal, and that of the person handling him.

What does this actually mean? It means that you have to be able to separate your own emotions and drive for success from the situation, and not let it influence your judgement as to what is right at that particular time for the animal you are handling. And that is not easy. There will be many instances where my advice is to go and have a cup of tea, think about how to solve the particular problem, and start again when you have a plan.

Time out for tea is an invaluable training tool for you, although I would caution against too many biscuits accompanying that cup of tea! It gives you a different option to carrying on regardless, or quitting completely. First you have to train yourself to recognise when you are losing an objective viewpoint, and do so before you make training mistakes with the animal. Then you have to choose not to continue if you have lost your objectivity and are feeling frustrated, angry, or irritated. The decision is made to take the tea option; go have a cup of tea and think about why something didn’t work and what you can do differently to resolve the issue.

This takes us to the next concept, and guiding principle;

It is always the handler who needs to adjust if something is not working, not the animal.

You are teaching that animal, and if he doesn’t understand, then he doesn’t understand. Continuing to do the same thing will not necessarily improve this, you are likely to continue getting the same result. To achieve a different result you have to change something in how you present the data. It’s no good expecting the animal to spontaneously change his response to the same stimulus. It is up to you to make the change in order to facilitate a new response from the animal.

So does this mean that the animal is always right? And you are wrong? Aren’t you teaching him that whatever he does is fine, even if it is not what you asked for? How will his behaviour ever be controlled by working in this manner? Besides, he can give the correct behaviour, so he is just being difficult.

All valid questions.

So does this mean that the animal is always right? And you are wrong?

Yes, of course the animal is always right. How can he be otherwise when he is responding as his species, instincts and prior experiences tell him he should? He does not have the cognitive abilities of a person, he does not choose to do something out of spite, to annoy you, to be deliberately difficult, especially when he knows you don’t have time for it. An animal is not aware of these things, and not capable of such forethought.

As for you being wrong, you are not, you are fact finding. If what you do has not had the desired effect then something was not understood. What you thought was a sensible approach was not viewed as such by the animal, so use that information to adjust what you do. As much as it would be nice to get a great result every time, nobody does. You have to do all you can to enable the animal to respond and learn what you wish to teach him. After all, he would not choose to offer a different response to the one he already uses if there is no reason for him to do so. He would continue to respond from his individual perspective, within the parameters of his species.

Aren’t you teaching him that whatever he does is fine, even if it is not what you asked for?

Whatever he does is fine, again it comes down to cognitive awareness; as far as he is concerned he is behaving in an appropriate manner. Now that may be completely inappropriate in a human environment, but he doesn’t know that. Your job is to teach him how he should behave in the environment he is in. Also, you are only reinforcing that whatever he does is fine if you respond to it in a manner that reinforces the continuance of it. I’ll go into more detail in a future post, but behaviour can be reinforced by both positive reward based actions and negative aversive/ punishment based actions. It can also be stopped by both methods. You may view an action as a positive or negative action, but that is only true if the recipient interpreted it that way.

The result of behaviours you want usually gets a reward, so there is a positive reinforcement for the animal to repeat it in order to receive that reward again. The result of behaviours you don’t want usually gets a negative response or a punishment, which on the surface may seem like a deterrent for the animal, so he is less likely to give you that behaviour again. However, what we see as a deterrent is often perceived as confirmation that the behaviour was correct, which acts as reinforcement to continue it. So it is just as easy to reinforce that a horse nipping, or a dog growling was the desired response, as it is to reinforce that it was not the desired response.

How will his behaviour ever be controlled by working in this manner?

By taking things one step at a time, and not rushing to get to the end result. You are both learning to understand each others language and how to communicate effectively. This is no different to learning a foreign language, you would not start learning Italian and expect to hold an in depth conversation in Italy when you are still learning the language. It is the same with animals. You have to learn their language well enough to converse effectively, and once you’ve done that, you have to get to know the personality of who you are having that conversation with to get the best out of it.

It’s very quick and easy to hit your dog or horse to stop them doing something you don’t want them to do. And you will get a fairly immediate response to this method. But, whilst this has no place in my strictly positive blog, and neither does it have any place in modern teaching methods, it deserves the following explanation.

Whilst I do not consider aversive, negative and punishment based methods as teaching, technically they are, as the recipient will learn from them. However, what they learn does not produce the same results as positive reinforcement methods. The results of aversive methods are avoidance, suppression of behaviours and emotions, and a fear of the handler, which going back to my first guiding principal, most certainly does not leave an animal better off than when you started interacting with him.

You can never truly control another beings behaviour, and there is rather a misplaced perception that a person can achieve total control through these methods. The reality is that behaviour is subdued, and so perceived to be under control. In some situations, this is a time bomb waiting to happen, and quite honestly, I would not want to work with an animal under these conditions. They are far too unpredictable, there may be little or no warning that the emotions are about to explode, as they cannot continue to be subdued, and the result is likely to cause significant injury or even death to themselves or those around them. Of course there are other outcomes such as perceived helplessness, shutting down, and heightened reactivity. None of which are anywhere approaching acceptable standards of emotional welfare.

To me teaching means to improve awareness and understanding to achieve greater ability, confidence in oneself, and a sense of contentment. This reflects the first guiding principle in this post – to always leave an animal better off than when you started interacting with him. When done properly positive reinforcement methods do just that, whilst maintaining the highest emotional welfare standards.

By making the decision to adopt this philosophy, and work within the guiding principles will be the best thing you can do for yourself, and the animals you live or work with. You won’t have all the answers – does anyone? And there will be many necessary tea breaks as you start your journey, but there is support and advice, from me and those who have already embraced this way. We all have to start somewhere. Your might be taking the time to think about this philosophy, what it will mean to the animals you handle and how to begin applying it. You may be on your own positive journey already, and are progressing to using it in all interactions. Wherever you are, you are not alone, and there will always be help available and a way of finding a solution if you get stuck. The last thing to say is that your animals will thank you for it. In fact, you will thank yourself too. The differences you will see in your animals personality and your relationship really will warm the heart, and keep you on this path for life.

© Copyright Kathie Gregory 2015