Teaching horses to stand still by allowing a flight response

stud chainHow many times have you heard the phrase, “You better make him stand still!”?
It reflects a common belief system in the horse world; if your horse is afraid of something, the clippers, fly spray, a new blanket, he can only get used to it by being held in position, until he realizes it won’t hurt  him, or that he cannot get away. Common equipment like stud chains and twitches are used to inflict severe localized pain in order to deter horses from moving when the stakes are high. It’s part and parcel of the way things have always been done.
Part of this impulse to make a horse stand still reflects a reasonable safety concern. Horses are large animals and when they are scared and unaware they can be dangerous. Teaching them to stand still makes them safer to be around. Wanting to hold them in position is often just a natural human response to control a volatile situation and make it feel safer.
Another part of the impulse to make a horse stand still is lack of empathy. Humans just aren’t flight animals. A horse’s many fears can seem unreasonable to us brave humans, so we dismiss their legitimate concerns and over-power them with force. They learn that whatever they are scared of is less worrisome than the human with a chain over their nose. They choose between two evils, so to speak.
There is  a horse training book by Andrew McLean, The Truth About Horses, that clearly states that any “hyper-reactive flight response” (ie moving away, spooking or bolting) should be immediately “disallowed” by demanding a downward transition through the rein or lead with “as much force as necessary.”  The theory is, if the horse is allowed to express his flight response, he will become increasingly conflicted and difficult to handle. When talking about getting a horse used to clippers or other scary stimuli,  he states,” When dealing with nervous horses, care must be taken not to allow the horse to increase the distance between itself and it’s handler.” The horse must be made to stand still.

But is this really the sole truth? Could there be other ways to teach a horse to relax without inhibiting his flight response?

My stallion, Tarot, as many of you know, is an extremely cautious horse. He’s grown to accept many things – shavings bags flapping near his feet, ropes dangling, and me in my raincoat. But fly spray is something I’ve avoided. He allows me to wipe him down with a washcloth, so I’ve chosen to do that and get the job done rather than go through the process of getting him used to the sound, tactile sensation and smell of the spray. But, the other day, I thought I would see if I could create a training session for him that would allow him to offer standing still near fly spray by his own choice. I knew I had to set up the structure of the session so he could understand what I wanted, and offer him enough choice to foster relaxation. I knew he had to be loose, because I didn’t want to be holding on to the spray and his lead rope. He can bolt when he is afraid AND trapped; he runs off when he hears fly spray even outside his paddock, when I am dousing the wash cloth, for instance.
I decided to have Tarot loose and go in with my fly spray and my treat pouch. I would raise the bottle of spray up and say the word “spray” then begin spraying continuously, parallel to but not on his body. That way he would know when the spray was coming and not be surprised. He would be free to express as much flight distance as he needed to, he could gallop 300 feet to the other end of his pasture. He could also choose not to return and play the game if he didn’t want to. My clickable moment, if offered, would be when he either stopped moving away or chose to turn and move toward the actively spraying fly spray. Here’s what happened:

To be honest, this video begins at repetition number six. The first five went so well that I stopped training and went into the house to get my little video camera. That means I missed the really dramatic spin and canter away that happened on the real first lift and spray. The dramatic flight response also never reappeared, despite it being allowed and fully expressed. Once he returns to me, he gets a click and a chance to play a targeting game with my free hand, both as a bonus reward and a way for me to gauge him mentally. (Tarot “checks out” and does very weak targets when nervous.)
After three or four targets, I raise the bottle, announce, “spray”, and begin to spray again. From the video you can see that Tarot very quickly decides he can stay near the spray on his own.

So what gives? Why, when I let Tarot  put distance between himself and me with the scary stimulus, does he not get more reactive and, instead,  becomes more relaxed and quiet around the fly spray? The truth about horses is that allowing your horse to put distance between himself and you with a scary bottle of spray only causes problems if you train with negative reinforcement. It’s not a truth about horses at all. It’s a truth about a training method. Horses working in the negative reinforcement paradigm experience release of pressure or gaining some distance as relief. It’s the currency of that paradigm. Because Tarot is working for a click and a treat, something he actively wants, instead of to avoid something he doesn’t, he is willing to approach and look for what I want once he’s moved far enough away to relieve his fear. Using a positive reinforcement paradigm, the rules change. He can express his flight response and still learn how to stand still.

We have to be willing to look for new answers and revise our long accepted beliefs about these magnificent creatures. When we think outside the box, horses like Tarot, who panic in traditional training scenarios, are able to succeed beautifully. The truth about horses is they are brilliant learners if only we know how to set up the lesson.

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How to create a training session: part one

First ride of spring

Happy after our session.

I’ve had numerous conversations lately about how to structure a good training session. While the initial mechanical skills of training are fairly simple to learn or be coached through, the larger picture of structuring a session is more complex. In The Little Book of Talent, by Daniel Coyle, he discusses hard skills versus soft skills. Hard skills or “high precision skills are actions that are performed as correctly and consistently as possible, every time.” In horse training, hard skills would be: click/treat order, treat hand remaining still between dispensing rewards, skilled rope and rein handling, and consistent and intentional body language on the ground and in the saddle.  Hard skills can and should be  learned from a live coach, if possible. They are finite and very measurable; they form the foundation of your skill set as a trainer.

Aesop rein mechanics

Using the rein to ask the shoulders to move over.

But, as you master your hard skills and move from working your horse in lessons to teaching him by yourself, you will need to have more soft skills so you can create useful training sessions for your horse. Soft skills are about flexibility, recognizing and creating patterns, breaking patterns when necessary, reading situations and adjusting accordingly. Soft skills are both what guide you in making a training plan and help you change that training plan in the moment so your horse can be successful. Soft skills are harder to learn because they are very subjective to the individual horse and learning situation. Keeping notes about each training session, being aware and responsive to your horse’s body language during training and videotaping yourself while your train for review later are all practices that will help you develop your own soft skills. They take time. So where to begin if you are just getting started?

Aesop on his mat

Aesop standing on his mat offering bend.

Kay Laurence, a talented dog trainer who runs “learning about dogs” differentiates between a teaching session and a training session. A teaching session is a short session where the entire time is devoted to teaching the horse one new behavior.  You will still be shaping or using successive approximations, but your focus will be on teaching your learner just one behavior or motor pattern. Teaching sessions are necessary and, in the early stages of training, make up a majority of your sessions. Think of your teaching sessions as installing the foundation or component skills of your horse’s program. You will use these components in more complex sessions later.

Aesop- rftg, right

Maintaining our line (duration).

Training sessions are focused practice where you will work on multiple behaviors in one session, usually toward a larger unified goal. Initially,  you should work on  moving smoothly between repetitions of your component skills. Even very advanced  training  sessions are made up of component skills, they’ve just been layered skillfully together. If your horse knows two foundation behaviors, you could do five repetitions of the first behavior and then five repetitions of the second behavior, clicking and treating for each repetition. The larger goal is just to teach your horse emotional flexibility in moving between different skills and to teach yourself how to gracefully transition between multiple subjects in one lesson. Make sure you can do this simpler training exercise before biting off something more complex. If you aren’t sure what component skills your horse should have, a coach or trainer can help you identify and teach those individual pieces.

Below, I have  video of Aesop, my 2007 BLM mustang gelding in a more layered training session preparing him for riding. I’ve listed the component skills we utilized so  you can watch for them as they come up. All of these are behaviors I will click and reinforce:

  • bend to the inside from a balanced slide down the rein
  • go forward from slight touch on your side (my ribcage)
  • bring your shoulders toward me from an opening slide down the inside rein
  • move your shoulders over and away from me from a lift on the inside rein
  • maintain your line once started unless another cue is give (duration)
  • stand on a mat
  • offer bend when standing still
  • target poll to fingers when raised above head
  • trot on a verbal cue

Combined together, these component skills add up to a horse who understands the cues needed to be responsive under saddle. He knows how to respond in multiple ways to the rein, how to use my body as a target, how to stop and stand quietly and how to offer the beginnings of softness. He’s ready to be ridden. In part two, I will explain and detail how to set up a training session to transfer these cues to a novel situation – riding!

Riding the labyrinth

English: The labyrinth at the island of Blå Ju...

I started trotting Dragon under saddle last week after all our balance work in the walk. I did it just as a “data gathering” exercise to see where he was both emotionally and physically in the work. While he remained round and engaged with me, I was disappointed that he still fell in on his inside shoulder and took giant Standardbred type strides that covered the arena in about six strides. He needed more guidance than I thought he would. The softer, slower trot I have in-hand was not yet available to me under saddle. On my end, I didn’t offer him a lot of help with his balance and my rein mechanics were far from perfect and mostly absent. I was just waiting for his other, more desirable trot to appear. If he could blog about me he would probably write about how surprised he was by my lack of support and information.

But the real issue is, deep down, I wanted Dragon balanced in his trot  so we could progress forward in a facile and linear fashion. I became so frozen in my disappointment about having “something to work on” that I was unable to ride him well for the rest our session. Oops.

Triple spiral labyrinth

Labyrinths, used by humanity for the last 4000 years, are a form of walking meditation. They often describe spirals and as you walk the labyrinth you find yourself revisiting your old footsteps and describing soft, curved lines. It’s not a maze to be solved but geometry designed to help you let go of your mind’s chatter and be present. There is one way in and one way out. There is no real goal, except the process itself. It’s soul work. Labyrinths have rocks to mark your path or are carved into stone so you don’t have to think too hard about where you are going. You are free to let go of your thoughts while you meditate on following the path set out for you. Feeling each foot as it touches the earth. Breathing as you move. It’s a place to inhabit your body and allow yourself to be fully present. Body prayer.

Arena work is  based on geometry too, circles, diagonal lines and different tracks but these are conceptual rather than physical. When we school our horses it can happen that we lose our geometry as we think about balance or we forget our balance as we think about our geometry. We can forget to be present with our horse when we get stuck in judging our performance or theirs. It’s a lot to think about, especially when we are teaching something new or learning something new. We all learn better without multiple points of focus. So how to make it easier?

I am building a labyrinth for Dragon and I – not a permanent structure but a visible, physical labryinth made of colored plastic cones and mats placed at different intervals. It will describe circles and straight lines in different configurations and offer us the opportunity to reflect on tempo, shoulder balance and the “balance beam” beneath us. A physical reminder for our trotting meditation. I’ll teach the labyrinth in-hand a few times first so it feels familiar and offers both of us information. And then we will ride it.

I am continually surprised by the parallels between mindfulness and good, transformative animal work. It’s not even metaphor, it’s direct correlation. It’s not a pretend labyrinth I will be building, but real structure, designed to provide deep meditation on physical balance. Designed to remind me to be present in every step of our work because the process IS the goal. Each new exercise Dragon and I encounter can have it’s own labyrinth built for it: one for canter, one for shoulder-in, one for haunches-in, piaffe and passage. Labyrinths for collected trot work and transitions. They’re not something you have to use permanently, but they help you to focus on balance through geography until the balance work is effortless. Eventually, of course it’s all just competencies in your body – knowing your geometry, riding every stride of your horse and helping him balance, moving between both awarenesses easily and changing the labyrinth in your mind to suit the geography that will best fine-tune your horses balance. Dragon and I are far from that kind of competency though, so for now, I’ll be building labyrinths.

Horses regularly trained with ground work are more relaxed when ridden

Natalie and HarrisonA recent study of dressage horses in Germany that looked at rein length and tension revealed a surprising finding: horses who were regularly trained in ground work/in-hand  work had lower heart rates during ridden work than all of the other participating horses. This wasn’t what the researchers were investigating, but it was clear in the results. From this, the researchers concluded that, “Perhaps horses trained in ground work had more trust in their rider.”

So why would it be true that horses who regularly learn via ground work/in-hand work are more relaxed? There are a few possibilities.

1) Horses trained regularly with ground work are more relaxed because their trainers are more relaxed. It’s possible that humans who take the time to teach their horses from the ground are less goal oriented and more concerned with the process. They may be more relaxed in general and foster this same relaxation in their horses. As you are, so is your horse.

2) Horses trained regularly with ground work have trainers who are more educated about a horse’s balance.Dragon in-hand Their horses learn to move in correct balance which allows them to be healthy and sound in their bodies and, therefore, more relaxed. Physical balance is emotional balance.

3) Horses trained regularly with ground work understand the trainer’s criteria better. They have mastered the response to an aid before the rider mounts and know the “right answer” already once under saddle. They don’t experience any conflict when the rider asks for a behavior  because the neural pathway has already been installed. They are more relaxed about being ridden because it rarely has caused confusion for them.

Natalie and Aesop in the snowWhen I got my first horse  I had the idea that ground work was important but I had no idea why or what it was I should specifically be doing. I muddled my way through some of John Lyon’s Ground Control Manual but I didn’t really understand how to use it to benefit me or my horse. I’ve learned so much since then!  Now I know there are so many things you can teach your horse from the ground. You can teach him motor patterns like walk, trot, canter and whoa. You can teach him the verbal cues for those motor patterns. You can teach him the physical aid you will be using from the saddle to elicit those motor patterns while you are on the ground. You can teach him how to move in balance so he is better prepared to carry you. You can teach him how to give at the jaw. You can teach him how to bend correctly. You can and should teach the beginning of lateral work from the ground. And finally,  you can teach him more advanced work like shoulder-in, haunches-in, haunches out, school-halt, piaffe and levade.

For us highly visual humans I think that ground work is often a better way to begin exercises because we are much better at seeing our horse doing the right thing than feeling it from the saddle. Often, my feel in the saddle is enhanced by the fact that I have watched my horse perform an exercise over and over in our in-hand work. It feels how it looks. In-hand work is also a good way to teach our horses because our own bodies are often more in balance when we are walking beside our horses. With the ground under our feet we are able to be more relaxed if something goes wrong and less likely to be so busy wrapped up in our own balance that we give our horses conflicting or confusing aids. It’s a good place to figure things out. I am a huge fan of in-hand work.

I’m glad to learn research revealed ground work is good for horses. Horses with a low heart rate are relaxed and relaxed horses perform better and live longer.  In this day and age of people starting horses under saddle in under an hour and increasing monetary rewards for  the “young horse dressage program“, everything seems to be done in a hurry. The entire horse culture seems to privilege “getting up there and riding your horse”. But as one of my favorite writers and accomplished horsewoman, Teresa Tsimmu Martino writes, “In today’s horse culture there are clinics that brag about starting a colt in a day, as if the quickness of it was the miracle. But old horse people know it takes years to create art. Horses as great masterpieces are not created in a day. An artist does not need to rush.” We need more scientific studies like this one to encourage us to slow down and take our time with our horses.

So why were the horses in the study more relaxed? Likely it was a combination of all three factors – a relaxed trainer, better overall balance and clear understanding of criteria. These are things that matter to your horse, and yes, will allow him to trust you when you ride. Take some time to slow down and work from the ground, learn a bit more about equine balance and teach new things in-hand before asking for them under saddle. You can take your riding to a whole new level and help  your horse become more healthy and relaxed in the process.

 

 

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Let your horse be right

smile like you mean it

Yesterday when I went out to train Aesop I had a clear idea in my head about what I wanted the training session to look like. I was going to practice his increasingly solid “riding from the ground” skills outside, in his saddle, and then play with a bit of balance work in trot as a reward for good RFTG. He really loves to trot now that he knows he gets “paid” for it in treats and wants to offer it any time the chance arises.

When we got outside and into the training session, it was clear Aesop needed a different lesson than the one I had planned. I had planned on doing a training session where we would review what he had already learned and get in some nice repetitions of fairly stable behaviors. But his behaviors weren’t where I had left them. He had processed the go forward with someone at your side really well from our last lesson and was ready to offer it just when asked to bend or when I got near the side of the saddle. He was ready to show me what a good walk-off looks like and I had been so busy envisioning our fun trot work I was caught totally off-guard. Here’s a video of me caught by surprise and re-setting his walk off’s, which I had worked so hard for the last three training sessions:

To be clear, Aesop isn’t too conflicted about being re-set. He handles the information in stride and doesn’t get emotional or frustrated. It is an ok training choice that centers around getting stimulus control.But many other young horses would be frustrated or discouraged to be interrupted at this stage in their learning. To my small credit, I am clicking and treating these re-sets because I am at least aware they are new to him. But in my work, I am looking to let the horse be right. It’s not a natural way to look at things, and it takes practice. So how can I let him be right? I can let him walk off and click for either soft bend within the walk off or staying with me, both of which are criteria I will have in this exercise. That allows Aesop to have the right answer while I am still building skills we need for our future riding. Here’s a video of me with my changed criteria:

In this video you can see that Aesop leans down on his forehand and walks off when I ask him to bend. He’s not waiting for my breath cue against his side and he’s walking through my bend request. But instead of re-setting and blocking him, I just go with him, but I wait for him to raise his head a bit and bend more correctly before I release the rein and click/reward. He gets to be right and I get behavior that I want, too. I can go back in in a few sessions, once he’s really confident about walking off and work on stimulus control. It’s not important right now.

Aesop and IPart of what I love so much about training is the number of choices it presents at every moment. It’s both what is hard about training and what makes the training session such an infinite place to inhabit. It’s what confounds newer trainers and obsesses those who make it a life’s work. There are training mantras, though, that can help a trainer navigate their choices better. In this case, the mantra was: Let you horse be right.

How to watch a training session

Female animal trainer and leopard.

When people watch an animal trainer work it is normal for them to focus on the end result rather than the training process. We’re not taught animal training in school except on a very abstract level, maybe in psychology class, so most humans can watch an entire training session without understanding what they are really seeing. We get so caught up in the transformation from untouched to under saddle in the horse, or the calm of the trainer in the face of flying hooves that we don’t notice what the trainer is doing to get behavior change. We’re often impressed with a trainer’s bravery in the face of possible physical harm – so impressed that we value the trainer just for the spectacle and drama of their work. But when we identify just with the human component of the equation or the spectacle, we can forget to check in and see if the animal is happy and relaxed. We can forget the animal has valid feelings too and didn’t choose to be trained. The way a trainer achieves behavior change matters, especially if we put ourselves in the animal’s place. We now know animals experience emotion much the same as humans do. We are wholly responsible for the emotions we elicit in our horses through training. To me, a trainer’s oath  should be the same as a physician: First, do no harm: physically or emotionally.

There’s been a video circulating lately of some Argentinian trainers working with  unhandled horses. They’re using an unusual technique that we don’t see here in America and it’s causing all sorts of speculation about what might be going on between trainer and animal. If you look up the man, his son and the method online you can find a description of it here. To sum up:  The method is a unique approach to tame horses in the most natural manner with avoiding punishment and cruelty on these beautiful animals. It focuses on gaining the horse’s trust and loyalty. The basics of the training are to learn about the horse’s nature, behavior and psychology; the goal is to persuade the horse to do something in order for it to learn. In this type of breeding it’s not necessary to be strong, or have special skills; it is all about knowledge and patience. It sounds like a wonderful way to teach a horse, noble, even. Below is a video clip of the method in action. I want you to watch it and imagine you are a 1-2 year old horse learning about humans for the first time in your life: 

How would you feel? Would you feel like the humans in this video were trying to actively gain your trust? Your loyalty? Do you think this looks like a method that avoids punishment? Can fear or confusion be just as punishing as pain?

Here’s another video. Again, imagine yourself as the young horse involved in this training. I would recommend listening without sound as it’s hard for humans not to be influenced by verbal “explanations” of training even when they don’t match the reality presented observationally:

How would you feel as this young horse? Would this feel like a positive experience to you? Does the pen seem to offer freedom or restriction? How would you feel having a rope continually tossed at you? How would you feel being allowed to run off but made to run farther and faster for your caution as a flight animal?

One last video to review:

How would you feel as this young horse? Does he look trusting already? Does he look ready to be ridden? How stressed does he look once his owner/trainer gets on his back? Does this look like a positive experience?

If I had one gift I could give  horse owners, it would be to learn to watch training sessions with a good critical eye. If a trainer uses a method you aren’t familiar with, observe what they are doing to the animal and imagine how it would make you feel in their place. If that is hard for you, ask a friend to “train” you the same way you observed. That will clarify VERY fast how you feel about the method. It sounds funny but you’ll be amazed at the different emotions you feel as long as you take it seriously.

You don’t have to be an experienced trainer to know if certain training methods utilize discomfort, fear or threat to achieve results.  If we suspend our human-ness for a moment and imagine ourselves as the animals in these videos it’s easy to make decisions about how we would like to be treated. All animals, humans included, enjoy choice, rewards and low stress learning environments. The emotions an animal feels while being trained aren’t just fleeting things that disappear like smoke once the training session is over. They get attached to certain predictors like the sight of the trainer, the equipment used or the space used for training. This is Pavlovian conditioning and it happens whether we want it to or not. While you train your horse in what to do you are also training your horse how to feel. So learn to watch a training session not just for the results but for the emotion it brings up in the horse.

The Golden Bridle

Pegasus in the golden bridleIn Greek mythology the magical winged horse, Pegasus, can only be tamed with a golden bridle. Bellerophon needs Pegasus to slay the Chimera and he spends months trying to catch him but he is unsuccessful. Finally he prays to the gods for help and he is instructed to sleep in the Temple of Athena. While he sleeps he dreams Athena visits him and tells him how to find Pegasus at the well where he drinks and gives him golden bridle that will allow him to ride Pegasus. When Bellerophon wakes up there is a golden bridle by his side and he knows the dream was real. He finds the well Athena described and captures Pegasus when he kneels down to drink by pushing the bridle over his head. Once the bridle is on Pegasus is beholden to Bellerophon’s will.

I like this myth because I think it plainly describes how much stock humans put in equipment. If we just have the right bridle, the right bit, the right caveson then our horse will be beholden to our will and our training issues will be solved. But the truth is equipment is only as good as the training that accompanies it. A bridle is a powerful tool, but horses learn how to respond to a bridle. You have to teach them. Golden bridles aren’t gifted by the gods, they are built by good training.

Since I will be riding Aesop in the spring again, I want to teach him how to work in a french riding caveson. This is work that can and should be taught from the ground. Here’s a video of Aesop’s first lesson learning how to be “ridden from the ground.”:

In the video you see Sara working with three different cues. Can you stand still while I lift my rein and wait for more information? Click/Reward. When I slide down the rein can you soften to me? Click/Reward. When I breathe in so my rib cage touches your side like my leg will once I am mounted can you walk off? Click/Reward.

It’s important to teach your horse rein cues before you get on so that you have a reliable language at your disposal. Horses have a blind spot directly behind them so they can’t see us once we are on their backs. We literally disappear from view. For many horses, that means they lose all of the visual training language they have built with their human once riding begins. Stressful, to say the least! I don’t want Aesop to be struggling to understand me once I am on his back. I want him to be confident about what is being asked of him and enjoying our training time. So I’m taking the time to teach him rein and tactile cues from the ground. Here’s our second session in the arena:

We are doing the same exercise you see in the first video. Can you stand still while I lift the reins? Click/Reward. Can you soften to me when I slide down the rein? Click/Reward. Can you walk off when you feel pressure on your side? Click/Reward. He’s overbending a bit when I slide down the rein but that is something that I can progressively shape to be smaller and smaller. He’s trying and that’s good. He is a bit confused about pressure on his side being a cue to walk off, especially because I have always walked off up by his head. I’m asking him to move off first AND from a new cue. That’s hard. But the video shows his best and lightest attempt. For his second session he’s doing a wonderful job.

Even if there was a magic golden bridle I could get by worshipping the right gods, I wouldn’t be interested. When Bellerophon removes the golden bridle, Pegasus flies away and Bellerophon spends the rest of his days searching for the horse. To me it’s a cautionary tale: Don’t let your equipment take the place of good communication with your horse. Take the time to teach your horse what he needs to know so you are bound by relationship and a common language.