ID tags are attached high on the neck with thick climbing cord.
When I adopted Pendle, I opted to leave her id number from the BLM tied to her neck rather than stress her in the loading chute with its removal. I planned to take it off once she was already tame and would be relaxed about more intensive handling. All my other mustangs had had their id tags taken off before they left the BLM facility, and more than once I felt badly that she still had her id number attached even though she was home. As she grew more tame and allowed me to touch her, I suspected that she would allow me to handle her enough to remove the tag. What I didn’t want to happen, was to begin the process, loosen the cord, and then have her pull away and end up wearing a too big “necklace” that could get caught on a fence post or that she could catch her hoof in when she went to scratch an ear with a back foot. If I was going to attempt to remove the tag I needed to be confident I could complete the entire process.
Even mustangs that can be touched all over and seem relaxed with people can suddenly panic when faced with any sort of physical pressure on a rope. Horses in general can be worried about being trapped, but a mustang who is still learning how to feel safe around people can be downright dangerous if they think they can’t get away or experience a novel sensation. So, I was cautious. I wanted to untie the knots in the cord rather than cut it – I wasn’t sure how she would respond to the noise of a scissors so close to her ear – and I didn’t want her to end up with a scissors attached to the cord around her neck. I also knew I had to be really careful untying the knots, so if she pulled away my fingers would not catch on the cord and I would not be dragged with her. With a wild horse, you must be aware of everything before you begin. Safety comes first.
So I practiced a bit scratching her all around where the cord was on her neck and moving the cord back and forth and putting pressure on the cord. She absorbed all of the different sensations with relaxation and curiosity. It was time to remove her number.
The nervous, over-threshold horse I met at the adoption location was never who Pendle really was. That horse, the one who crashed into the pen and almost went over the top, was just a combination of an untamed horse and a confinement situation too small for her current level of fear. Every day, horses are labelled “crazy” or “reactive” or “hot” based on behavior they offer in response to set ups that we humans control. In so many ways, we are responsible for the behaviors they end up practicing. In Pendle’s case, what she ended up practicing this time is relaxed engagement for handling. I chose to work on the other side of the fence so she could leave if she wanted. And so she could stay if she wanted, too.
Taking off her number felt like removing the last vestige of her captivity. She isn’t a wild horse anymore, of course, but she is part of our herd here, and our family. We are working on many more things now – she is tame enough to be turned out into a larger area to pick at winter grass- and she is quickly learning to lead with just a rope draped around her neck. She is sensitive and intelligent and social with humans. Everyone that meets her feels special, she offers that sort of attention. Her energy is warm and soft and she glows. That is who she is at her core, a sensitive, social, curious soul.
In my last blog about Pendle, which you can read here, I shared how combining habituation and daily remote food delivery can quickly create relaxation and foster curiosity during the taming process. Using these passive strategies allows the horse to approach when they are relaxed and ready for further learning, rather than forcing them to accept touch before they would have chosen on their own.
When we last left her, Pendle was actively approaching to investigate me AND very much looking forward to her daily tub of grain. It was time to see if she was ready to accept food from my hand.
Aside from the advantage of being able to actively teach skills once direct food delivery is available, the horse also furthers their own desensitization to humans by touching the hand for longer and longer to acquire all of the grain. A useful side process!
First lessons using food are simple. Touch a target. Follow me. All initial lessons are done through protected contact (with the horse behind a fence), so the horse has the choice to interact or not. The behaviors themselves, of standing quietly near a human and choosing to follow out of interest, continue to work on the horse’s overall relaxation around humans. In a way, they are done in service of that goal. Yes, they also teach rules around food, and what humans might reinforce, but their big picture value is still in fostering relaxation.
With Pendle, all of her caution, all of her wildness melted away at once. I was standing right next to the fence, and I felt an intuition that if I touched Pendle, she would not move away.
I was right. Unlike other “first touches” where the horse pins their ear, or stomps their foot or stands tense but still, Pendle relaxed into the touch like she had been tame all along. I felt the whole universe in than moment, yielding, melting like spring snow into the possibility of soft black earth. Consent. This won’t matter to everyone. For some, obedience is enough. It’s functional, it’s safe and if the horse stands to accept touch because they feel there are no other options, that is ok with them.
But for me, in all relationships, consent matters.
I talk about all the science: habituation, classical conditioning, operant learning, not because I’m obsessed with deconstruction, but because it is knowing your process that allows miracles. Learn the rules so you can forget them. Then, re-explain them so others can learn them and forget them too. Everything on this gorgeous earth follows a law: ethology, learning, the turn of the earth itself. It’s not romantic, but it is the elegant skeleton that underlies it all, including the transformation of a horse from wild to tame.
To me, tameness isn’t a set of skills. It is it’s true dictionary definition, tame: an animal not dangerous or frightened of humans.
I am not looking for a replica of tameness.
I am looking for the true beast, quiet, centered and unafraid.
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Earlier this winter, I did a lot of hiking out in the 100 or so acres behind our farm. There was plenty of soft snow and it wasn’t demanding on cold muscles like accurate arena work. It was a good way to get the blood flowing and as a bonus, I could wear gloves when I fed my horses and while I hiked. I didn’t need extra dexterity on the reins like I do in-hand or under saddle. As we hiked, technically on a “trail ride” as the horses and I were off property, moving in a relative line, I started to think about what a trail ride really is, to the horse, how many owners struggle with taking their horse out alone and what we can take from our daily work to make riding-out possible, safe and fun.
I was very interested in observing the general change in my horses’ arousal levels as we left our property. All of my horses eagerly volunteer to come out and learn, and all of them are used to working alone, without any other horses. But leaving the home property adds a level of unfamiliarity and a much larger physical distance from the actual herd. Because I am not interested in suppression or force as a tool for controlling behavior, my horses were totally at liberty so I would have an honest read on whether or not they wanted to come along. (Our farm is very secluded, so even if my horses were to go back home on their own, there is really no traffic or road to cross. Other people might not have this set up and will need to make adjustments to ensure safety for their horses.)
Initially, I took my horses two at a time out hiking. I knew having two together would easily increase relaxation, and I wanted to take advantage of creating positive initial experiences. I had my wife or other training friends come along and each of us was responsible for one horse.
Dragon, Aesop and Sara out on an early winter hike.
With two horses, the hikes were easy and they both stayed quite relaxed, their thresholds nearly identical to when we trained on property. Awesome! But, as we neared home, maybe the last 50 yards or so, they would speed up and canter back into view of the other horses and our barn. It improved with every hike, until it was only the last ten feet as the trail switched from the field to our property, but it was still anxiety. Small things can always turn into big things, so better to address them early. The horses were letting me know where the holes were in their emotional confidence.
The next time I brought Dragon and Aesop into the field, I had a new plan based on what I had observed. Before I took them out, I set up the field with objects I use in training sessions in the indoor arena. I dragged out mounting blocks, some large buckets I use to mark off circles when we longe at liberty, as well as a large plastic spool I got at a dog training store.
My well-loved mounting block.
I set these things up at the entrance to the field, so they were some of the very first and very last things we encountered as we hiked. As we entered the field the first time with the object set up, the change in the horses was measurable. They had felt relaxed before, but now they eagerly walked up to the familiar objects, lining up with the mounting blocks, sometimes moving out ahead to reach an object first and then wait for me to catch up and reinforce. They were focused and thoughtful.
Aesop lining up at the bucket for Sam.
It became very clear to me very quickly, that adding in objects that already had conditioned associations with them and deep reinforcement histories allowed the horses to access their best, most responsive selves immediately. Adding the objects onto our trail walks was like when we got to use our notes for tests in school: everything felt easy and suddenly test taking wasn’t nerve wracking in the least!
Dragon at the mounting block, offering stillness and his back. Lovely!
The objects you use in your everyday training sessions: mounting blocks, traffic cones to mark off circles, and buckets to practice turning around are more than just mundane objects. They become a deep and integral piece of the learning process. What functions do they serve?
They cue you to stop and ask for a certain behavior from your horse. These objects help order and pattern your training sessions. Trail walks and rides can be long and continuous. Once people start, they rarely stop, which can lead to both the horse or human becoming overfaced as they steadily move into uncharted territory. Using objects along your path can break up the pressure to go, go, go and provide better context for you and your horse.
They become secondary reinforcers to your horse. Even though these objects are neutral initially, over time, their presence becomes reinforcing to your horse because they so often lead to actual reinforcement. This classical conditioning will help your horse to feel relaxed and eager because working around these objects always predicts good things!
These objects also cue your horses for certain operant behaviors. If you have done a solid job using objects as targets and context cues in your foundation work with your horse (stand on a mat, line up at a mounting block, trot to the outside of cones, touch your nose to a jolly ball), you have a whole lexicon of visual cues you can take with you on the trail or in new environments. Rather than abandoning all of the familiar and well learned objects, bring them into your trail ride or new environments to help your horse be right!
A short trail ride alone, once we were comfortable thanks to our object work. Heading back toward a mounting block, not pictured.
Riding object to object with Aesop out in the fields.
When we work in arenas, we never ask our horses to go any further from home than they are when they enter the arena. It’s a static space, controlled and safe. But when we head out onto the trail, not only is it an unpredictable environment in terms of wildlife, geographical variation and unfamiliarity; it also takes our horses continually further from home and their herd mates. That’s pretty challenging. Getting our horses used to learning and working in novel environments should be approached thoughtfully and with attention to detail. Intentionally harnessing the power of familiar objects with deep reinforcement histories allows our horses immediate relaxation and context in what can be a fear-inducing situation. It’s just good training.
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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 theresearch, “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.