As long as I have had Tarot, I have had him sedated for hoof care. Between his deep fear of unfamiliar people and his past life history of tension and fighting over just having his feet lifted and cleaned, much less trimmed, it was easier and safer to get through the process with a drug that helped him be calm physically and mentally. Over time, though, I was becoming less and less of a fan of the frequent jugular sticks and the the expense of the drug every six to eight weeks. It would be more ideal to have Tarot collaborate in his care. I already had most all of the pieces in place for a successful “awake” hoof trim, but then the final piece fell into place: my wife, Sara, started to study with hoof professional Ida Hammer. Tarot now had a familiar and trusted person available to work on his feet. Still, this was not going to be a traditional hoof trimming session, I needed to create a structure that felt safe and empowering for everyone.
As my guiding principle, I used “LIMA” or “Least intrusive, minimally aversive“. This principle challenges the trainer to choose a strategy that allows the learner the most control and choice possible in a situation while using the least aversive methods to modify behavior, ideally utilizing positive reinforcement. The animal learner, not the human trainer, determines what is reinforcing. Fulfilling the “least intrusive” principle was simple; Tarot would be left completely loose. No halter or lead rope to hold him in position or suggest he remain in place. He needed the choice to leave, or to never come over in the first place in order for choice and control to be preserved for him. To fulfill the “minimally aversive” requirement, the entire skill set needed for a real trim had to be re-taught beforehand using positive reinforcement. Tarot had to know how to lift his foot on cue, allow his hoof to be held in multiple positions and allow it to be held while both a metal rasp and a “nippers” were used to shape his foot. Except, Tarot wasn’t learning these behaviors for the first time as a naive learner or a blank slate. He was re-learning a new association with the very same behaviors that had been poisoned for him in his past. All the traditional cues and prompts associated with foot handling triggered frustration and varying levels of defensive behavior. The process of un-poisoning these behaviors needed to be complete before I even thought about adding another handler to the picture. I had worked the last twenty-four months on building new emotional associations with foot handling and creating a new skill set. Now I needed to see if Tarot could transfer those skills to a less familiar human handler. Here’s a video of our session:
It looks simple enough, but there are strict contingencies operating here, both for the humans AND the horse. Let’s look closer at them.
Initially, I stand near Tarot’s head and wait for him to offer a hoof lift. This is very likely, because he has been reinforced for the behavior so many times in the past twenty-four months. I click and reinforce him for several repetitions so he knows this is the “hot” behavior. I then bring Sara in by my left shoulder, NOT in an active handler position. I wait to see if he will offer his hoof lift and I use this information as guidance about whether or not we will go deeper into the process. If Tarot can offer the foot lift with a second person standing by my shoulder, I know he is still relaxed enough to continue.
After reinforcing three or four hoof lifts with Sara at my left shoulder, I ask her to move to my right shoulder and into the more active handler position. This is much more vulnerable for Tarot. If he were to move away, back up or leave, we would go back a step in our process and end where he was comfortable. If he offers his hoof lift with Sara in a more active handler position, which he does, he is clicked and reinforced. He has given us permission to move forward in our process.
After three or four repetitions of the hoof lift, I give Sara the green light to take a hold of his hoof when he lifts it. If he pulls it away, it is given to him. It’s his foot and he is allowed to say no. If he allows her to support his hoof, I immediately begin a “continuous feed” to provide huge reinforcement for his choice. I continue to feed him as long as his foot is in Sara’s hands. When Sara sets the hoof down, the feeding stops, and Sara steps away.
At that point the session is over unless Tarot cues Sara to do more hoof care by offering his foot again. Which he does.
Tarot controls at what level he interacts with the hoof care professional and how long the session lasts. If my set up is ideal for my learner both individually and species-specifically and I have included all of the necessary component pieces, the session will go smoothly, the animal will remain calm and the humans will be able to accomplish their tasks easily. Per Tarot, the session contained all the components for him to collaborate in his hoof care. Success!
Here’s another short video of the same training session:
Teaching the animals in our care to be active participants in their husbandry procedures has a positive effect on the quality of their life and magnifies the bond between us. Preparing them for the procedures that are necessary for their health and well-being is humane, reduces stress and increases safety for owners, vets and professionals. These are facts. But for me, there’s something larger and more serious on the table. Trust. Charles Feltman defines trust as “Choosing to risk allowing something you value to be vulnerable to someone else’s actions.” With Tarot, there wasn’t a way to love him into trust. He was too mature and too wild and too skeptical for such a human conceit. But by setting him up for success in relation to myself and other humans, over and over, in small and measurable pieces, something generous and expansive and lovely has appeared out of only small, unassuming layers.
When you see magic portrayed in books and movies, it is often used as a short-cut around reality. You can clean up a room with a wave of a wand or turn a man into a goat to pull your cart. This sort of magic is superficial: a trick, a deceit. Over time or under certain conditions, it usually degrades to reveal the true nature of reality underneath. It turns out it was only a thin veneer. An illusion. There’s lots of training like this, too. My friend Shirley is neighbors with a man who competed in the last “mustang makeover”. He used lots of short-cuts to get his horse ready to compete in ninety days and even placed well in the competition. Superficially, the horse looked “trained”. The only trouble now is that the man can’t even catch the horse from the pasture. The reality underneath was the horse was never comfortable, just trapped between hard choices. In my world, I think of these techniques as dark magic, illusions. Spells that seek to control without any regard for the horse.
Real magic, or transformation, requires quiet, incremental work in deep agreement with reality. It allows no short-cuts and if you work skillfully, the changes made are quite real. With Tarot, I wanted to help him transform his emotional landscape from fearful and trapped to trusting, engaged and joyful. I wanted to offer him healing and the vast space that healing can bring. Lastly, I wanted to stretch my own soul. I knew that real magic always works both ways; I couldn’t transform Tarot without transforming myself. I needed a clean, white magic, clear and fluid as water. Clicker training.
If you had a magic wand what spell would you cast?
I wasn’t naive enough to think I could go directly at a spell for riding with Tarot. I knew that underneath everything good, everything healthy between humans and horses lived relaxation and engagement. Without that as a foundation, everything else would be compromised. This summer, Tarot started to be outgoing, silly. He started to canter up from the bottom of his pasture, shaking his head and demanding attention. He put on new pieces of equipment like he had always worn them, without worry. The smell of leather used to send him snorting into the distance, now he arched his neck and stood quietly to put on a saddle. He began to feel, well, like all my other horses. Relaxed. Happy. Engaged. A few weeks ago, I woke up and thought, “Today I will sit on Tarot.” I’m used to following my intuition, so after I finished my horse chores, I took the mounting block out to Tarot to see what he thought of it. I used something I call an “asking loop” to assess his comfort and make sure I didn’t skip any important steps in the process. An asking loop splits a larger process into all it’s component pieces and checks in with the learner at each step to assess their comfort. Here’s a video of our “asking loop” on day two:
At twenty-one seconds, you can hear Tarot blow through his nostrils as he lowers his head while my leg is over his back. This is a low level sign of fear and something he used to do all the time when I was even near him. He’s saying this is hard for him! This is a stop sign for me and means I shouldn’t progress further until Tarot shows he is relaxed. The other detail to notice to compare with my day four video (below) is that Tarot’s head stays relatively high during this session and he really has to work hard to offer a bit of head lowering until the end.This is tension and also registers as tension in his back. These are small details, but they are crucial. People and horses lose confidence in one another when these small behaviors are ignored and the horse is forced to show discomfort through larger behaviors like spinning away, bolting or bucking. I want him to know I can hear him when he is mildly uncomfortable and he never needs to escalate to get my attention.
The most charming detail, however, is that Tarot doesn’t leave the mounting block even when I do. He’s obviously decided by the end of this session that the mounting block predicts a fun game. Why leave when that lady keeps coming back to feed him just for standing still?
Here’s a video of our “asking loop” on day four, the day Tarot invited me onto his back:
In this video you can see that Tarot starts out very relaxed, with a low head and no blowing. His eyes are soft and blinking throughout and his ears are floppy, listening for my click. He looks so relaxed it’s hard to imagine him fearful or afraid. You can also see that he keeps on chewing the grain from his last reward while I sit on him the next time. If he was tense there would be a momentary freeze response which would stop his chewing. He is calm and present. What is fascinating to me is that there was no point in the process where I consciously decided to get on. I just proceeded through my asking loop and as I felt his body relax and felt his solid connection to the ground through his back, my body made the decision for me. And then, there we were, me sitting on my horse, he with a person on his back, completely relaxed and on the edge of a brand new world, together.
Five weeks ago, Glasswing’s foal, Rune, was born. Sara and I were there at her birth to towel and dry her off, dip her umbilical stump in iodine and make sure she found Glasswing’s udder for her crucial first colostrum. It was a brutally cold evening, -18 by midnight, and we wanted to give her every chance to thrive. She was long-awaited and much wanted.
Before Rune, I always imagined that my mustangs were as pure of a slate as you could find in a learner. They grow up free and only have limited experiences with humans when gathered and then adopted out. Otherwise, their opinions of humanity and learning are ours to shape.
But seeing Rune, meeting her hoof by hoof as she entered this world, I realized she is even more of a blank slate than my mustangs. She will grow up immersed in relationship to humans. Every day, every interaction, she will be learning.
As my favorite writer, Jeanette Winterson, writes, “This was the edge of time, between chaos and shape. This was the little bit of evolution that endlessly repeats itself in the young and new-born thing. In this moment there are no cars or aeroplanes. The Sistine Chapel is unpainted, no book has been written. The moment between chaos and shape and I say her name and she hears me.” Everything is yet to be decided. Everything is possibility. A foal is a chance to begin again, tabula rasa.
What should we teach? What is important in the beginning?
Often, a foal’s relationship with humans begin moments after birth through a process called “imprinting” developed and promoted by Dr. Robert Miller, DVM.
“Miller begins the imprinting process by kneeling in the straw, or on the ground, with the foal’s back against his knees and the head flexed so that the foal is unable to get to its feet. He controls the head by grasping the youngster’s muzzle, careful not to obstruct breathing in either nostril, and tipping the nose back toward the withers. It is important to keep the foal’s back to you, says Miller, in order to prevent being kicked if the youngster should lash out with front or rear feet.
With the foal in that position, Miller towels it dry, all the while allowing the mare to sniff and lick her offspring. Once that is done, he begins the desensitization process.
However, even before desensitizing begins, the foal is learning something that it will carry with it all through life–submission to a human handler. By not allowing the foal to get to its feet, Miller explains, the handler is establishing himself or herself as the dominant force in the foal’s life.” (The Horse, January 1, 1998)
From there, Miller begins a process of flooding the foal with tactile sensations (fingers in the ears, mouth, nostrils, mouth, etc) systematically all over it’s body until it shows no reaction/stops struggling and then moves to rubbing down with plastic bags, a blow dryer, a vibrating clippers and other novel stimuli. All of this happens before the foal is allowed to stand, suckle or spend time alone bonding with it’s mother. Over the next few days, the process is repeated once or twice.
The theory is that foals are in a limited critical learning period in the first few hours after birth. The premise maintains whatever stimuli is presented to them within that window will be accepted as routine and non-threatning throughout the duration of their life. The technique is essentially presented as a shortcut to a relaxed, easy to handle adult horse.
Here is a video of a foal being “imprinted”:
We did not imprint Rune. The entire process interrupts bonding time between mare and foal, and puts undue stress on both. Every animal deserves social, private time with it’s own baby at birth. It is a human conceit, I think, to consider another species’ baby our own and to begin training it before it has even gained it’s feet in this world. New born foals have powerful survival instincts that cause them to struggle against restraint and to pull away from novel stimuli.
Eliciting these survival instincts in the name of training and then overpowering these foals with brute strength teaches them powerlessness as their first lesson in relation to a human and powerlessness in relation to their own new body. We need to ask ourselves why this lesson seems attractive or necessary. To me, it is troubling and reflects a lack of imagination.
As for Rune, we made sure she was born safely and was dry and warm. When she had trouble standing, we supported her a bit at her shoulder, so she could lean and get some traction to stand. When she had trouble finding the udder, we guided her gently so she didn’t waste too much energy on that very cold night looking for food. We acted as friends and guides, the same role we will play for her in the future. Once she was dry, able to stand, able to eat, and had pooped (important with foals to know digestion is working), we left her alone to bond with Glasswing. To be a young filly learning about being a horse from her mother, another horse.
Yes, there are a million things to learn about being a horse in a human world, but those things can wait. As many great horse people have said, “Things take the time they take.” There are years before Rune can be ridden, years to be filled with learning about brushing, clipping, coordinating motor responses with a human request, leading, and learning to be still. But right now she needs to how to buck, how to canter, how to rear and express joy and power through her own body. Nothing is more enchanting than a young animal learning to move, learning to balance, learning the limits and outer edge of gravity. I want her to feel infinitely powerful, so later, she can share that power with me through riding. I want her to know she has choices, because control over your environment is crucial for security. I want her to be free to be a baby animal with all the emotionally impulsive wild disorganized movement that goes along with being young. And I want her to learn, over time and through daily interactions with me, that humans are safe, enjoyable, consistent and wonderful teachers.
I am reaching toward a world where instead of holding foals down and teaching them not to struggle, we help them stand for the first time and celebrate their arrival, because we know there are kinder and more ethical ways to build cooperation. A world where we both respect the species specific relationships animals are born into and take the responsibility of truly creating our own individual relationships and behavioral agreements with them based on systematic positive reinforcement. I am embarking on this amazing journey with Rune and I can’t wait to share it with you.
How 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.
Several months ago, when my vet was here to sedate Tarot for a hoof trim, she told me a story about an Arabian colt that was born on her farm. Silver spent his first four years growing up in her pastures and life was uneventful and good. When he was four, Silver was given as a gift to a woman who had fallen in love with him. Two years later, my vet was out at the woman’s farm on a separate call. She walked through the barn looking at the horses after she finished up and she saw a thin, grey Arabian locked in his stall. It was Silver. When she asked why he was inside when all the other horses were turned out, the woman told her that everyone was afraid of him, so he lived in his stall. He was difficult to lead, spooked at everything and had knocked a few people flat over. Heartbroken, my vet came back with her horse trailer and took him back to her farm the same day.
A couple people worked with him, and though he improved, he remained unpredictable. Dr. Mary was afraid he would hurt someone if she sold him as he was. If she couldn’t find a way to get through to him, she felt the only ethical thing to do would be to euthanize him. Did I think I could help him?
On Thursday evening, Silver was dropped off at our farm. My partner Sara and I decided to change his name to Rumi, after the the Persian poet and mystic. We wanted him to have a fresh start and a name that offered him wisdom, imagination and possibility. Lots of room to grow.
He’s an interesting horse, very social both with humans and horses and he enjoys touch. He is also hyper-aware of his environment and that vigilance can cause him to forget where he is in space and what he is doing. He has concerns. But they are fleeting concerns, truly, and his recovery is good. He will work for food and he doesn’t have any stereotypical behaviors like cribbing or weaving or pacing. Like most Arabians he is intelligent and he understood that the click predicted food within two clicks. On his very first full day here it rained steadily and because he has little body fat he started shivering even though it was nearly 60 degrees outside. He had to be brought inside. We didn’t want to stack his triggers (mainly: new environment + lead rope + walking), so we improvised by stringing a temporary lane to funnel him into the barn. Here’s a short clip:
The video shows his general concern as well as how quickly he picks up on following my fist as a target. You will see that I wear a helmet when working with him even on the ground, as a precaution. He also has the choice to leave. If the environment is too much for him, he is untethered and can retreat. You’ll see him make that choice once but then quickly return.
Helping Rumi relax is going to involve time, tons of choice, and completely non-traditional set-ups that allow him to learn without triggering his fears. Lots of targets, mats and freedom. Good food, time with friends, room to exercise and allowing him a voice in his work will be key. As will listening to him and being responsive to his needs. My goal for him is for him to understand in his body and mind what his namesake wrote: ” Stop acting so small. You are the universe in ecstatic motion.” ~Rumi
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.
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?
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.
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!