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.
Last week I demonstrated how to set up a training session so a horse can learn to stand still around something that scares them even when allowed to spin, trot or canter away as an initial response. I focused on the expression of the flight response not presenting a roadblock to calm, relaxed behavior if it happened in the context of a positive reinforcement paradigm. To be clear, though, the training session I set up for Tarot had many more components than simply allowing a flight response. Just allowing him to run away wouldn’t have helped him access behavior change. The other crucial elements in setting up this session for Tarot were choice, stimulus predictability, reinforcing active coping skills and presenting only one component of the stimulus per training session.
The word “choice” is thrown around a lot in training circles these days. As we humans become more sensitive to treating our animal companions more humanely, we are learning to consider what choices we can safely offer our horses and what truly empowering training scenarios might look like. With Tarot, in particular, who has had a life where he started out completely free until adulthood, making choices that felt right according to his instincts and sense of self-preservation, even seemingly benign training set ups can quickly make him claustrophobic. Choice, for him, is monumental
What choices was I able to offer him within the structure of our session? I left him loose so that he didn’t have the halter and lead putting physical or emotional pressure on him to stay, as had been done in his past. He could run as far and as fast as he wanted from the spray and he didn’t have to come back if he didn’t want to. To be fair to him, I wanted him to volunteer to work with the spray. He would vote with his proximity. Just like a human at a therapy session who can say “I don’t want to talk about that right now, I’m not ready,” I wanted him to be able to choose not to “talk” about his fear of fly spray. If he had left and not re-engaged after the initial spray, I would’ve put the fly spray away and worked on familiar exercises he knows and enjoys.
If I were able to go back and change one variable in the training session, I would have conditioned the word “Spray!” to the lift of the bottle and then the active spraying three to five times outside his paddock, so he understood the predictive relationship between the two. He understood it within the span of the session but it was a small hole that could have and probably did undermine his relaxation.
Reinforce active coping:
Research from 2001 has shown that when animals utilize active coping strategies in response to previously negative (ie: scary!) conditioned stimulus, their amygdalas actually re-route their wiring from moving to the more primitive and fear-maintaining brain stem to the active, conscious, motor circuits. This re-route doesn’t occur if the animal remains passive or “frozen”. According to the research, “It is ‘learning by doing,’ a process in which the success in terminating the conditioned stimulus reinforces the action taken.”
In Tarot’s case, when he chose to walk toward the fly spray, an active strategy, I clicked the behavior, a yes answer, and stopped spraying and lowered the bottle (terminated the stimulus). For him, the sound, smell and feel of fly spray elicits a deep, conditioned fear response. Just teaching him to stand still or be passive and allow the spray to happen doesn’t give his brain a new response to code and use in the future. He has to be active in the process. He has to do something.
Present only one component of the stimulus per training session:
Fly spray isn’t one dimensional. I can’t ask Tarot if the sound, smell or feel of it is the most alarming to him. So, to avoid making it too difficult for him to change his behavior, I have to make sure to “split” the presentation of it. In our first session, I only present the sound and visual of the spray. I have the bottle filled with water so there’s no unfamiliar scent and I only spray NEAR him to avoid the physical sensation of the fly spray hitting him. Once he is completely relaxed with spray near him, then I will move to actual spray with scent near him, then then spray with water directly sprayed onto his body and finally real fly spray sprayed directly onto his body.
Those are the components that make up Tarot’s session from last week. It all makes lovely sense in print. But, as Alexandra Kurland says, “We don’t know what the horse has learned, we only know what we’ve presented.” In order to find out how Tarot processed his lesson, I went out and repeated the same training session to see where he was emotionally and what behaviors he was able to offer. Here’s what happened:
Not only was Tarot more relaxed this time, he never chose to leave. Because there was no flight response, I couldn’t reinforce walking back toward the spray as his active coping strategy. Instead he offered incremental movements of his head-down behavior as a new strategy. You can see him begin to offer the head lowering almost immediately upon initiation of the spray. This behavior is totally uncued and is completely self-directed by Tarot. He is driving the session. Another horse might choose a totally different behavior and that would be acceptable too.
For Tarot, head-lowering says a lot about his emotional state.
Horse’s heads tend to shoot up when they are nervous, their backs invert and their muscles tense and are ready for action; this makes Tarot’s choice of active coping particularly lovely, as a signal of relaxation. By lowering his head, he is reducing his binocular vision, less ready to flee and adopting the beginning of a “grazing posture” which only happens when there is no threat. He gives several long blinks during the session, very different from the wide unblinking eyes of fear. In addition, on the last repetition with the spray, he even gives a long sigh, indicating a release of tension.
When I assess what Tarot learned in his session, the measurable changes are: he is able to be voluntarily in proximity to fly spray, he is able to stand near fly spray and he is able to offer head-lowering while fly spray is actively spraying. These are huge changes that took place over only two training sessions. Learning to offer our horses scenarios to practice active coping and learning to offer them real choice gives fearful and anxious horses a chance to have a better quality of life. Using these tools can help them access both safer and more functional responses so that living in our human world feels more predictable and easier. We all deserve a chance to re-route our fear rather than be trapped by it.
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.
When I decided to purchase my mustang stallion, Tarot, I knew I had a long road in front of me. He had been in one home for each year he was captive. That made for six different homes before he finally made it to our farm. I knew he was what most people call a project and I wanted what he had to teach me. He was eleven years old and had yet to meet a human who could teach him what they wanted him to learn.
Things like walking up to be haltered, being fly sprayed in the summer, accepting a saddle without exploding and being led without bolting. But Tarot’s biggest issue from his past is allowing foot handling. He has a long history of kicking people that picked up his back feet but also of pulling away and being very uncomfortable with any of his feet being picked up, cleaned or trimmed. Most people just gave up and let them grow because he was dangerous or unpredictable when his feet were handled. It was uncomfortable for everyone. One of his past homes had a trainer out to help him learn to be handled but he took the “cooperate or run” approach. If Tarot kicked he made him run. Eventually Tarot would give in out of sheer exhaustion and they would get a few feet done, not always all four on the same day. It worked as a method outwardly, he did surrender his foot, but Tarot never learned to be more open to having his feet handled. Instead he learned when a human reaches for your hoof they are likely to turn unpredictable, demanding and obsessive. Hoof care for Tarot is deeply poisoned. It’s also our winter project.
It is infinitely easier to teach a behavior correctly from the beginning than to teach a new response in place of an undesirable one. Once a neural pathway has been mapped it can’t be erased. You can only build a new one and help the learner choose it over and over and over until that pathway becomes the habit. It sounds kind of simple but in practice it’s not so easy. That’s why I love my untouched mustangs so much, they are blank slates waiting for good information. Tarot has already been “programmed”, so to speak, and it is up to me to avoid the expression of those old responses while teaching something new. Learning can be bound up in a tactile sensation, which is unfortunate, because picking up feet can’t happen without some touch at least once you get down to cleaning out feet or actually trimming them. So how to approach the subject with him?
One of my favorite writers, Jeanette Winterson, writes, “Jung argued that a conflict can never be resolved on the level at which it arises – at that level there is only a winner and loser, not a reconciliation. The conflict must be got above – like seeing a storm from higher ground.”
I started out by teaching Tarot to target his knee to the end of a whip. Whips are something he isn’t afraid of – I guess there aren’t a lot of cowboys with whips – and more importantly, whips aren’t hands. I wanted to teach him to pick up his own foot and hold it up with a verbal cue. I wanted to split out the layers for him and just start with the subject, “Can you pick up your foot with a human near you?” instead of, “can you pick up your foot and surrender control of it to me?” Staying outside the depth of the conflict and above the storm. Here’s a video of where we are starting from today:
I have already faded the whip to just a finger point, mostly because I am incredibly clumsy walking with it by my side in the slippery snow. So my cue for the foot lift is to say the word “foot”, switch my lead to my left hand and point to his knee. When he raises his foot I drop my hand and I click when he seems relaxed. I’m not working on teaching him to pick up his feet, he knows how to do that now. I’m working on building relaxation like bedrock into the skill. The foot lift is the motion but the relaxation within it is the goal.
How do you speak to a horse about relaxation? You need both a clear training language and good listening skills. Tarot has to have the freedom to refuse my requests and the safety to express his conflict or anger without punishment. I have to know how to stay safe and non-reactive myself when he is upset. I need to be able to read small expressions of conflict/tension so I can see how well he is handling the work and make adjustments accordingly. I also need not just a “yes” answer (the click), but a “that was spectacular” answer so he can more easily understand the work. Right now, any foot offer without any tail swish or head raise is clickable. But sometimes he kicks his foot backs when he goes to set it down because he is tense and frustrated. I have already clicked so I am going to feed him because I don’t want to seem unreliable. But, when he softly offers his foot and lowers his head and sets it down softly he gets a click and treat and a chance to do a few nose targets. The nose targets are an easy behavior where he is sure to earn reinforcers and they offer the functional reward of a break from focusing on his feet.
Here’s a video of his right side where he is significantly less comfortable:
Here you see he is unable to lift his foot without extreme tail swishing/tail wringing. This tail movement shows how conflicted he is about me being on his right side and asking for his feet. He also leans his head and neck off to the left which is another conflict behavior he offers when he is uncomfortable and thinking about leaving. In it’s extreme form Tarot would spin away and present his hindquarters to me in a kick threat. He also is hurriedly offering me feet over and over even though I haven’t even said the cue or changed my lead rope to my inside hand. I’ve found with my mustangs when they are still nervous about their feet they offer them quickly and often instead of waiting to be cued. I’m not going to fuss about stimulus control when I am working on relaxation. So what to do? My rule of thumb is if he can’t offer a quiet response I will feed him for any foot lifting response despite the conflict he is showing. If he can eat he will begin to relax. So even though he is full of angst I feed him for each and every time his foot is in the air regardless of his emotional state. I do make a few mistakes because I was surprised at the level of conflict he displayed and had to change my plan on the spot. I should have just reached in my pouch and began feeding him immediately, sans click, the moment his foot left the ground. This is called counter-conditioning. Once he is able to offer a more relaxed response, then I will click that response and ask him to target as a reward. That response will become my new criteria. He raises the bar on his own at his own pace. By the seventh(!) repetition he offers a relaxed foot lift with no tail swish. I click, reward him with an opportunity to target my hand, and go back to his left side to give him the ultimate functional reward of leaving his right side.
You can’t force relaxation, you have to draw it out like a shy animal. You create the conditions for it to exist.