Sunday, 15 February 2015

Walking in Their Shoes

More than once you might have found yourself thinking about how lucky your horse is. They are loved, fed, kept and are only expected to put in a little bit of effort in return. But do they see it that way?

The problem is that this view is very human. Our logical human brain has a concept of time, of past present and future, of debt and repayment, of obligation and gratitude. This is so natural to our way of thinking that it is common to simply assume our animals should see it the same way. But they don’t. And when we think about it it is laughable that they would.

Horses live in the present. They have different priorities to humans and this comes from their evolution as the ultimate prey animal versus our own as the ultimate predator.

So how can we look at things from our horse’s point of view, surely it’s such a huge gap? Well fortunately that amazing brain we’re so proud of is capable of abstract thought, languages and imagination, so we are born equipped with the tools to be great not only with people but with all animals if we take the time and make the effort.

Now imagine you are your horse. You have food, water and herd mates, you have a routine and pretty much do as you like. And then the human arrives. And they take you from your friends and food and water and expect you to work.

Horses are not being deliberately ungrateful, they have no idea about the stress you put up with at work or the juggling you have to do with your family and friends to ensure that your horse is cared for every day. These concepts are just so foreign to them they can’t understand it. And it’s this difference in thinking that leads to horses running off in the field when they see someone approach with the head collar, or putting their head up to avoid the bridle, or biting when they are girthed, or refusing to stand at the mounting block. Go to any stables and the likeliness is that these behaviours are so common it’s viewed as a normal part of life with horses.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

There are a number of things we can do to learn more about what our own horses really like, what makes them tick, and how to make those precious moments we do get to spend with them as fun and productive for them as for us.

Hang out

What’s the difference between a boss and a friend? You might have the nicest boss in the world, one who pays you well and recognises your hard work and gives you all the training you need to do your job the best you can but they are still your boss. You know that if you stopped putting in your part in the relationship by not working you would very quickly be fired and replaced. Your friends, however, spend time with you because they enjoy your company, you enjoy doing activities together, perhaps you have mutual hobbies, or are on a team together, but the real pleasure of what you do together comes from the relationship you share with each other.

These days it is more and more common for horse owners to be more interested in the relationship they have with their horse than competition. Even those that own horses purely to compete can see the benefit of having a willing partner that enjoys their job and puts effort into doing things with their rider.

So take a little time now and then to hang out with your horse, enjoy their company just for being who they are, not for what they do for you. The benefits will be well worth it.

Show you understand

The best relationships are the ones where you intuitively know what the other person needs, what they’re thinking. It’s so true that it’s all the little things that count. Lead your horse to water, swat that biting midge, scratch that itch, but most of all learn when they need you to stop. Horses seek safety and comfort before reward and play so when they feel unsure or uncertain or just plain confused show you understand by pausing and giving them the time to process and get their emotions under control. Finally, when your horse is in the mood to connect and engage with you don’t ignore them, make the most of the moment. There’s nothing worse than the people you love being too busy to be with you and our horses need to socialise as much as we do, it’s in their nature.

Listen to their ideas

Horses are intelligent inquisitive animals and when they feel safe and trusting their curious and playful natures begin to show. Just like a child, if this natural curiosity is reprimanded or curtailed the horse can lose confidence, or withdraw from interaction, or rebel and make games of a less positive nature.

Some horses are naturally more exuberant and playful than others and having the opportunity to let their energy out and show their creativity makes them feel extra clever. This has been acknowledged for years and I believe it is the reason why so many people lunge horses before they ride, but lunging can turn into a battle and how boring must it be to have so many creative ideas and be limited to just running in circles. These horses really benefit from groundwork sessions, both in hand and at liberty, in order to develop their relationship with their human on a level playing field. When you both have your feet on the ground and can be eye to eye the pathway to communication opens up. Your horse is free to express himself and, with appropriate techniques, you can not only be safe when your horse opts to display their physical, exuberant prowess but learn to shape their ideas to create an improved partnership and create a happy, willing equine athlete.

Today I got to see the benefit of having put these guidelines in practice. Today I had a groundwork session with my thoroughbred, Paris. He hasn’t done much at all over the winter and was looking bored. I went into the field and caught his attention and invited him to come over to me. This is how I always “catch” my horses, as if they don’t come to me willingly I do not believe I have their permission to continue. It is feedback on our relationship and how I ended our last session. I wouldn’t want to have to trap my human friends to make them hang out with me so why is it acceptable to do it to a horse? Paris came over and I slid my hand into his rug and scratched his withers. He really enjoyed having a scratch where he could not get to himself and started mutual grooming with me. I then held out his halter for him to put his head into. This is another opportunity for feedback. He nibbled the lead rope and then put his nose into the halter and followed me as I lead him from the field. I took his rug off and scratched him all over but I know Paris doesn’t like grooming as much as our other horses. He can be a bit like a young boy not wanting his mother fussing over him. Knowing he had a lot of energy to burn and that it had been a while since we had done anything I decided to stick to groundwork just for today. Paris is getting to that age when a little more effort is needed to help him stay supple and athletic and I have seen the benefit of groundwork for his physical carriage and movement as well as his state of mind. I ran through a series of activities with us interacting with obstacles and having him perform circles and turns and changes of gait. I set him free and told him he could run and buck and do whatever he wanted and gave a high energy “send”. He leapt into the air and arched his neck and headed off in an elevated trot and began circling me. I stood and did nothing. I didn’t turn and watch, I just waited to see what he would do. After several perfect circles I ran backwards and he came trotting straight to me, ears up, eyes bright and stopped in front of me. At that moment I realised what a gift that horse is to me. We have come such a long way and it is thanks to all I have learned about how to communicate with him and what is important to him that I have been able to build this incredible relationship. I’m not ashamed to say I shed a tear of happiness knowing that I had not asked him to do this, I had not made him do anything and he chose to circle and interact with me because he wanted to.

The sky really is the limit when you take the time to walk in their shoes and learn to look at life from your horse’s perspective.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

A Second Chance at Life

This article is a little bit different to my usual articles. It comes after my time visiting Second Chance Animal Rescue (SCAR), based in Crockenhill, Kent.

I found out about SCAR though a friend of a friend... on Facebook. I decided to contact them about a young horse they have recently taken in and the possibility of adding him to our team at Horse and Rider Naturally in order to help him develop mentally, emotionally and physically.

What I discovered on my first trip to SCAR opened my eyes to a world I had only glimpsed sparingly before. It is a world full of animals, of all shapes and sizes, animals that did not ask to be brought into our world but who were at some point or another invariably failed by their human guardians.

SCAR rescue, rehabilitate and rehome horses and ponies, but they also help other animals... cat, rabbits, guinea-pigs, ducks, chickens, geese, turkeys, goats, sheep, pigs, cows, they even had peacocks and magpies. I've been to commercial petting farms that have less animals. But SCAR is not a petting farm. None of these rescue charities are. The work they do is serious, it is not to make money for themselves but to try to make up for the injustice in the world and the poor way that many humans choose to be with animals.

I could go into trying to work out how people find them selves unable to provide adequately for the needs of animals in their care, or what is going on in the mind of people that abuse or seriously neglect an animal but I can't. I don't understand. There are a few clear facts though. One, too many animals are being bred into a world that cannot provide for them. Two, too many people take on animals without realising the commitment they are undertaking. Three, without support the kind hearted and generous people like the volunteers that run SCAR would not be able to continue the work they do.

Take the story of Victor, for example. Victor is a young cob colt that was abandoned on the road outside the premises of SCAR with a Shetland pony (Rosie). The volunteers at SCAR managed to catch Rosie and Victor followed them up the lane to their sanctuary. He was terrified of being touched and had no idea that the humans were trying to help him. His hair was heavily matted with lumps hanging from him. His tail and mane were a complete tangle. His skin was rough and flakey, his coat dull and weathered. His hooves were massively flared with chips and cracks from neglect. His ribs stuck out for the world to see. And he was a baby. He had suffered all this and had yet to learn that humans are capable of being caring, loving and affectionate. He had never learned that a human could provide for him, nurture him and value him. He was a baby and he had already been abandoned.
Six weeks of TLC have already done young Victor so much good but he's a long way from the condition he should be in.

And then there is Lilly. Lilly was a little pony mare that arrived at the rescue in foal and with a foal at foot. Over night the rescue had to find provisions for three more lives that depended on them. Lilly was wearing a headcollar that was so tight it had cut into her head and she cold not bear to be touched. Months on she still cannot be lead or handled around the head. She is nervous of people and has taught her foals to be wary too. Her older son has learned that attack is the best defence! The treatment of his mother in his early days, and possibly his own treatment, has meant that as an infant he has already decided that humans are bad news and should be resisted at all costs.
After a little healing, Lilly and her son, Oliver. Oliver was born at the rescue but looking after such a young foal is tricky when his dam has known nothing but fear of humans. 

And who could forget Bluebell? Bluebell was a sweet and beautiful pony. She had given her best years to pulling traps and trying to please the humans around her, to the point that her hind legs are wrought with problems. And then she got sick. Bluebell was abandoned whilst at death's door. She was in foal when SCAR came to her rescue but the poor mare was as thin as a hat rack, critically ill with Salmonella and Colitis. She is still fighting for life with the loving help of her rescue heroes, but her vet fees so far have already racked up to £5,000 and she is not out of the woods yet. Many people would give up on a horse like Bluebell, but she is fighting to have a chance at a normal healthy life being a horse in a herd. As we speak Bluebell is on a tailor made diet, trying to help her recover from the debilitating illness she has suffered. Her digestive system is damaged and the road to recovery is long and unsure. At least Bluebell is no longer alone, but there are many more Bluebells out there.
 Bluebell gave her all and was abandoned when she needed help the most.

Rescue centres like SCAR work tirelessly. They work year round. They feed and clean up after other people's neglected and abused animals. They campaign tirelessly to raise funds for food, care and maintenance essentials, vet bills, worming, passports, microchipping and more. They work endlessly to find safe, loving homes for these animals to move on to.

The story of how a modern society, that prides itself on how well it treats others whilst the most vulnerable and dependant are failed day after day is a tragic one. It is a tale that does not seem to have an end any time soon. But there is a small ray of hope.

With the work of charities like SCAR these animals can learn what it is to be loved, that they are valuable and treasured, that they are protected and provided for.

SCAR, and charities like SCAR cannot do this alone. They rely on donations, on volunteers and on finding foster and adoption homes for these beautiful souls.

We can all do our bit, no matter how small it may seem. If we all touch one life, even for a moment, we bring purpose and meaning to our own lives. Maybe you have old equipment? Maybe you can make a financial donation or organise a fund raiser? Maybe you know someone who is looking for a special friend and can suggest they adopt? Maybe you have skills you can offer from mucking out or building enclosures to promoting awareness or managing a website. There are many people out there ready to take advantage of the kind hearted people behind these rescue centres and so they need even more people to support them and help our world to become a better place.

Paul McCartney once said “You can judge a man's true character by the way he treats his fellow animals.” The same can be said of a society. 

Let us be a people who love, a people who look out for those less fortunate than ourselves, a people that stand up against injustice and cruelty. Let us be a people that give those that have suffered a second chance at a life worth living.

To find out more about Second Chance Animal Rescue Click Here

Horse and Rider Naturally

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

How to Handle Head sHy Horses

Does your horse lift his head when you bridle him? Or maybe you have to hold his head to brush his ears? Head shyness is very common in horses and frequently misunderstood.

A horse that freaks out when its ears are touched is pretty easy to identify as "head shy" but often the more subtle signs are mistaken for cheeky or bad behaviour.

A horse can be considered "head shy" if it is not content with having its head handled without restraint. Horses do often seem to have a sense of humour and exhibit cheeky or dominant behaviour but watch horses play and you'll see that they want to get into each other's space, to touch and push their play mates around. Horses move away from other horses when the games are getting too rough, when they feel uncomfortable. Of course we don't want our horses pushing us around or being rough, but my point is that horses will not try to get away from you if they have no fear of you or what you are doing. A horse that will not let you scratch its ear does not have complete trust. It's a hard truth for many people, so we apply our own human explanations for their behaviour  in order to make it nicer. "He's trying it on", "he's trying to wind me up", "he's such a comedian".

He's not.

He's trying to stay alive.

Fear varies in intensity and many horses serve useful and functional lives but are never truly free from fear and emotional discomfort. It is completely understandable that horses are particularly wary of being touched on their head. Predators, such as lions, often kill wild equines by leaping onto their backs and biting the top of the neck by the poll. This is because this is the least protected part of the horse's spine and so the easiest way to immobilise a large prey animal.

Your horse might believe you are not about to eat him, but his instincts do not allow for too much thinking time, he reacts before he can make a decision. Have you ever heard "my horse was fine and then all of a sudden, for no reason at all, he completed flipped!" This happens because horses will put up with things they are not comfortable with until it becomes unbearable. It's the "straw that broke the camel's back" principle in action. So if your horse is having problems with having his head handled you could very well have a bigger problem in the making.

But there is good news. Horses are able to learn to overcome this fear and to have confidence in being handled by humans.

So how do you help the head shy horse? Instead of standing on taller and taller stools to bridle your horse, or tying them up to brush their ears and faces, there are many things you can do to help your horse develop confidence and overcome head shyness.

Be Polite

Touching your horse on his head without asking permission is a total no no in horse society. Horses that meet each other will extend their noses toward each other and sniff each others breath and invariably one will squeal. Horses will nip at each other's heads in boisterous play but it's usually not too long before one backs down. Horses that want to groom each other, or invite physical contact, will do so my touching a neutral body part, like the withers. This is a lot like the human hand shake. Whilst you are building your relationship to the level where you can play "boisterously", it is best to be polite and ask your horse for permission to allow you to make contact. You can do this by offering your hand out for him to sniff. If he does so, and does not immediately pull away, then you can safely take that as a sign that he permits your approach for contact. If he does not, then maybe you need to wait longer, or gently touch the horse's withers and wait there until he relaxes. If your horse is tense when you touch his withers he will not be happy with you putting your primate hands, which have all the characteristics of a predator, all over his face.

Approach and Retreat

There are many articles, videos and clinicians that do a great job of explaining the process of approach and retreat. I have found, however, that some times people get this method a little wrong and the result is that it does not work or even makes the problem worse. The idea behind approach and retreat is that you start with something the horse is comfortable with. Let's take the example of a horse that does not want its ears touched. You start by gently rubbing and massaging the base of the neck (or where ever your horse will permit) and stay there until your horse gives signs of relaxation. When your horse is dropping his head, breathing normally, blinking and licking and chewing you can slowly work your hand up closer to the horses ears. As soon as you feel a little tension, perhaps the horse stops blinking or holds its breath, you must stop advancing. You can use circular motions to retreat a little but stay in the area where the horse got tense and wait there until he relaxes. This method can be very effective and work well but it requires excellent reading of the horse. You need to tune into your horses energy to get the best out of this method.

Flooding v Pressure and Release

The method of "flooding" has got a very bad press and this is not without justification. Flooding is the method of overloading the horses senses until it gives up. Some horse people have been known to funnel a horse into a narrow tunnel, fill it with sand so only the horse's head sticks out and the horse cannot escape, and then rub the horses head until it gives up fighting. The clear problem is that there is no room for the horse's dignity in these kind of practices. The horse is essentially traumatised to the point where its spirit breaks and the desire to fight for survival is extinguished. But taken in a much more moderated form, the concept behind flooding is based on principles of sound horsemanship.

There is a phrase used by many good horsemen "pressure motivates, release teaches". The idea is that you provide a stimulus that causes the horse to do something and you quit when the horse responds in the way you want.  For example when I brush a horse's head I will follow their head with the brush when they move away and when they move toward me, even slightly, I will take the brush away to give them a breather. A moment's peace is a huge reward for a horse. Obviously this means that initially brushing takes longer but soon you won't need to worry because your horse will start to enjoy being brushed. It's a funny thing. When you give a person or an animal a choice and they learn they can control their situation they develop confidence. Confidence also grows when we know we can depend on something to be consistent. So when our horse's learn that we really will not become strong and forceful, but that we are clear and consistent, the very thing that once frightened them can become reassuring.

I have a horse that used to move away if anyone tried to stroke his head. he barely tolerated having his ears brushed and would lift his head when bridled. I certainly could not scratch his ears. Now he closes his eyes and drops his head with a look of absolute relaxation and happiness as I scratch the itches from around his eyes and ears and I can even scratch in his ears (never go too deep), which is such a huge difference.

Paris was nervous about things touching his face and ears, now he can enjoy the festive season with confidence!


Once your horse is granting permission to have your hands on his face you have made one big step on the road to overcoming head shyness, but to establish true confidence your horse needs to be able to remain calm and rational when he feels different sensations on his head. It's not fun to be riding a horse that gets a rein stuck on an ear and spooks, or freaks when you pull something over his head.  A good place to start is with a stick, something that is not too bendy so that the pressure you have in your hand is the same at the end of the stick. when you can gently rub your horse with the stick all over you can begin the process with a rope. Drape a rope over the neck, hold it in your hand, you can use the rope to massage the horse and allow the draping parts to hang and hug the horse. Take your time, it's not a race. The right speed is the speed your horse is ready for and some horses need a lot more time than others. You can carry this on with endless objects. My horse can now stand completely under a tarpaulin, be rubbed on the head with plastic bags, carry a saddle pad on his ears... what you choose to use to develop your horse is limited only by your imagination.

 Is it worth it?

Maybe your horse is not too bad. You have your routine and ways that the pair of you cope with his little "habits" and that's just fine. I would recommend anyone who's horse has any tension around the head area to spend a little time building their horse's confidence. The result is not only a horse that is a pleasure to groom and bridle, but one that is less likely to have a panic attack if he steps on his rope and feels sudden pressure, more confident in being approached and develops more of a stop and think response to situations that would naturally cause him to react without thinking. Most importantly the bond between you and your horse will get so much stronger and your horse will certainly want to be around you more.

Next time you notice someone say "don't be a jerk, I'm just brushing your ear", remember it's the horse letting them know there's another great opportunity to become an even stronger partnership.

Find out more at Horse and Rider Naturally

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

To Treat or Not to Treat? That is the Question!

Do horses really become rude if you give them too many treats? How do you know when the right time to give a treat is? Does your horse make you feel like a carrot dispenser?

After watching Luca Maria Moneta's interview with Horse and Country TV, following his success at the 2013 Puissance at Olympia, it struck me that the use of treats in horse training is something that is often not fully understood. Click here to watch Luca's video.

I've met trainers that say that they never feed their horse from their hand and met many more people that dish out the horse candy like it's going out of fashion. So who which way is right?

The answer is neither!

A common issue with using treats without understanding the psychology behind them is that people soon find themselves in situations where their horse will not do things unless he is given a treat. I know horses that will check you out and if you don't have a treat they won't let you catch them.The horse has become the trainer and knows that next time the human will make sure they have plenty of treats. Conversely, if you make a rule of never using treats you lose a very useful training tool.

When do treats not work?

There are situations when the use of treats is completely pointless and ineffective. Dealing with a horse that has a fear or comfort issue is one. How often have you seen people using treats to coax a horse into a trailer? Most people have tried it, I know I have, but it comes from not understanding what is important to a horse. When a horse is afraid for its life, or even just doesn't trust you, the last thing they are thinking about it their stomach. An example in the human world would be how people often lose their appetite when they are under great stress, such us facing an important exam or interview. If you are walking alone in a forest in the dark, with strange sounds coming closer behind you would you really think "hmmm? I'm hungry right now!". There is a simple biological explanation for this phenomenon. Eating slows you down, a full belly weighs you down and it takes energy for the body to digest. When you brain is picking up environmental cues that signal danger it begins preparing you for "fight or flight", and that means emptying the digestive system, not filling it up. That's the reason people that have a sudden fright may mess themselves! There's a lot more science to it but you get the principle.

Even if you manage to get your horse to take a treat, if he is stressed and his mind is on the stressful thing, eating is unlikely to help him make a meaningful mental connection. Some horses start grass munching when they feel pressure. It's a quick "grabby" kind of munch, as if they need to get as much as they can in their mouth. Sometimes food literally falls out of their mouths where they eat so fast. This could be compared to comfort eating in humans. The sensation of eating gives them a temporary release from their stress but it does not help them really feel any better about what is causing their stress. Eating your weight in ice-cream after an argument with your boyfriend (or girlfriend) might make you feel a bit better whilst you're eating but it doesn't address the reason for the argument and the problems in your relationship. This is why it is often better for people that do not know how to use treats to not use them at all. You can cause a horse to go farther with a treat than it would without but when the treats stop the stress is sill there and then the horse is much further past it's threshold and you have a very upset horse on your hands, or worse, you think the problem is gone but next time it is only worse.

So why bother giving treats at all then? Because when a horse is calm and confident he will start to ask for reasons to do things, the "why should I?"s and "what's in it for me?"s start coming out. It's much easier to remain friends with someone that makes you feel great and knows the things you like. We tend to ask horses to do the same things over again. Their lives don't tend to have as much variety as our own, and horses are quick to become bored. Showing a little appreciation can go a long way toward making them feel better about yet another course of jumps or putting effort into transitions.

If your horse starts to become rude about getting treats it is a sign that you are giving too many for too little effort. Treats should be used as rewards for the horse putting more effort than normal into something. If you keep giving the same reward for the same amount of effort soon the horse will start to make less effort in order to find out how little he can do to get the same treat. It's a sign of their intelligence but ironically people accuse these horses of being stupid because they seem to be going backwards in their training.

Personally I advise against showing the horse the treat before he has made the desired effort. If your horse does something because he knows he will get a treat then it is a bribe and will not lead to the horse doing it without the treat. If you surprise your horse with a treat when he makes a big effort then he will begin to link try with treat and will have the hope of a reward. This is far more likely to lead to a bigger effort next time. Hope is a powerful motivating factor, even more than receiving a guarantee. This is the reason so many people develop gambling addictions.

I've heard people say that giving horses treats is not natural because horses do not give each other treats. I disagree with this. A mares milk is very sweet and her foal knows its life depends on her milk to survive. A mare will push her foal away if he is too rude and will not permit him to drink until he behaves in the desired way. This is natural leadership at its best. When the foal has calmed down and asks nicely the mare decides whether to allow the foal to drink. The lead mare will carry this lesson on with mature horses. She controls who gets to eat what, when and where. If she decides that she wants to share the hay pile she will. If she feels that another horse needs to be more respectful she'll keep them away.

The art to using treats, as with any form of positive reinforcement, is to do so consciously. Know when you are giving your horse a reward and why you are rewarding it. This enables you to keep the leadership role and not become the horses puppet or carrot dispenser.

And if you happen to give too many treats don't beat yourself up about it, it's a sign of your loving nature and your horse is likely to have a lot of positive association with you. Just remember that you need to balance being nice to be around with being someone worth listening to.

It doesn't have to be a complicated issue, just be conscious of using treats to reward the horse for making more effort at tasks he is confident about. Hopefully this article has given you some food for thought (pardon the pun) and you have a better idea of when is an effective time to give a treat or not.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Tricks - Who Do You Think You are Fooling?

"I don't need to teach my horse circus tricks!" "It's nice but I can't see the point of teaching that to my horse" "teaching that to horses is dangerous"

There is a lot of stigma in the horse world with teaching "tricks" and yet on the other hand many people are trick training all the time without even knowing it. This week's article is going to explore the thinking and attitudes regarding "tricks" and the benefits and hazards they can cause.

A simple way of defining a trick is when a horse performs a set behaviour on a specified cue. Put this simply "trick" covers most communication with our horses. The issue is that this does not cover the level of understanding that the horse has actually reached.

Horses will always look for comfort, for the release of pressure. They learn very quickly what they need to do to get us humans to stop bothering them. In order for us to communicate with our horses we invariably use some form of stimulus which the horse will perceive (to varying degrees) as pressure. This pressure motivates the horse to perform an activity. For example applying pressure to the horses's hip bone with your hand will cause his weight to shift, his balance to move and ultimately for him to step over away from you with his hindquarters.  Soon the horse will begin to realise that you stop touching him when he moves and so, if you have been effective in your timing, the horse will learn that a light pressure on the him is the cue to move over and the pressure will go away once he does this.

Simple. So where's the problem?

The issue is that many people are not aware when they are applying pressure and when they are not. Horses learn "tricks" all the time, whether we want them to or not.

A common issue is catching. After a few times of being caught and asked to put effort into doing something that the horse perceives as pressure (often no matter how nice we think we are being) the horse will begin to cotton on to the fact that being caught is not always a good idea. Many horses will only allow you to catch them at certain times of the day. They know their routine and that there is a good chance they are being caught to go in for dinner, for example, and so perceive being caught as something they will endure in order to get what they want. But if you make a routine of catching your horse only when you intend to ride you will quickly find your horse heading in the opposite direction when you go to get him.

Horses feel our presence, our focus on them, and our intent to catch as pressure. Perfectly adapted to flight, your horse knows he can out run you any day of the week. Unless you are incredibly athletic you will likely run out of steam before your horse does if he sets his mind to not being caught. It doesn't take many failed attempts to catch your horse for this new "trick" to become a set pattern, a problem that escalates until the human is the one that is trained. Humans can be trained to leave head stalls on, provide treats (bribes), only attempt to catch at set times of the day and even give up on trying to catch their horse altogether.

So how do we fix a trick that has gone against us?

A horses behaviour is direct feedback to their perception of our own behaviour and energy. If, every time your horse runs away from you, he manages to find a way to find peace and comfort it reinforces that this is the best thing to do. We have to use our brains and our resources to ensure that the horse feels the pressure of our presence and intention all the time they are not giving us their attention. You have your horse's attention when he has two eyes and two ears on you. Now the hard part. as soon as your horse has two eyes and ears on you, you have to drop the pressure. Look away, maybe walk away, smile and breath out, sit down. Do what ever you need to do for the horse to realise that life is easier when he thinks about you and not when he thinks of everything else.

Ok, so tricks are general and can be taught deliberately or accidentally, but aren't there some things you should never teach your horse?

I have often heard people say "never teach a horse to lay down/rear - it will use it against you" . This is true when you have only actually half taught the horse something.

When we teach horses we want to reward them for doing the thing that we want. Most people start getting the desired reaction form their horse and see that as proof that the horse now knows the "trick". The problem is that horses are pattern animals, puzzle solving is not their forte so when they find a solution to one problem they will often test it out to see if it works as the answer to other problems. We see this when teaching a horse to go backward through a gateway. Pretty soon the horse will be offering to go backwards when you don't want and it seems like the only thing the horse can do is go backwards. I have seen many people give up saying "I should never have taught my horse to do X because now it is doing it all the time". The real reason is that the horse has not really finished the lesson.

Once your horse starts responding on cue fairly consistently you need to immediately set about installing an "off switch". When your horse starts offering an unwanted "trick" you need to think "oh great, now I can really help my horse understand!" Your horse is offering and should never be made to feel wrong for offering you something, unless it is creating an unsafe situation.

I have heard some say that tricks are bad because they are performed without understanding. Certainly when horses start to perform set behaviours by rote, without reading the human or the situation, dangerous situations can quickly arise. True teaching, as opposed to this definition of trick training, is when your horse connects with your energy, reads your intention, puts effort into searching for the right response and responds to a change in cue indicating that the behaviour is no longer needed.

Ultimately I believe that teaching tricks is essential for a human to learn to understand their horse's learning process, which will also help the human to ensure their horse does not learn unwanted behaviour, or be able to address it if it does. There are certain behaviours that should not be taught to the horse until the human has become an effective teacher through all stages of the horse's understanding process. I certainly would not encourage anyone to teach their horse to rear, lay down or perform a dominant behaviour until they have the skill level to be able to address this behaviour when it occurs when it is not desired and can teach the horse to differentiate between when a behaviour is appropriate and when it is not.

In summary a trick is a set response to a set cue. A true lesson is when the horse understands when to perform a set response and when that set response is not expected. This concept is broad and generalised because it applies to every aspect of our interaction with the horse. We need to learn to recognise that teaching horses comes in stages and it is our responsibility to see it through to the end.

It is up to you to decide what you want your horse to learn, and also what you want it not to learn. Teaching desired behaviours not only enable you to overcome unwanted behaviours but will help your horse see the importance of connecting to you, view you as a leader and form a bond strong enough to overcome the prey predator barrier.

So next time you hear someone say "oh it's just a trick" or "I don't see the point of tricks" remember that communication builds in layers and levels and many people miss this golden opportunity to develop their communication with their horse.

Are tricks really a waste of time? Sure, if all you do is teach your horse to assume it is expected to perform a task by rote without actually communicating with you. The greatest trick is when the horse is so connected and tuned in no one can see the cues from you, all they see is the magic of your horse wanting to be with you. Now that's a "trick" worth learning!

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Friday, 30 May 2014

A Simple Case of Mis-direction!

For many, steering our horses whilst we ride is so easy that we put little or no thought into it, but is this doing our horsemanship any good?

The most commonly taught method of steering horses that I have come across is with the reins attached to the bit. People tend to learn to put a feel on one rein more than the other and the horse should turn into the direction of the rein that has most feel. Unfortunately for horses they are so forgiving and adaptable that many people get away with riding like this for years.

This method of steering makes sense if we think of the horse as a machine, programmed to perform a specific command on a set signal. However, when we think of the horse as a living creature, capable of feeling pain and also of making it own decisions, we can begin to understand why this way of riding doesn't always work and certainly doesn't produce top level riders.

Good riders know the importance of using their seat and legs when steering. Having a little more weight in the seat bone in the direction you intend to go usually occurs naturally when you focus on where you are going. Your eyes look where you are thinking about, your head turns to follow and this causes your spine to twist putting weight on the "inside seat-bone" (base of the pelvis on the side you are looking to turn).

Problems come because many people are not looking where they are going. Their focus will move to what ever they are thinking about and without realising it their eyes are not leading their body and weight in the right direction. It is very common to see riders looking at their horses' ears or neck, especially if they are consciously trying to have their horse take a certain head set. People that worry about crashing into other horses in an arena will find themselves looking at the other horses and, surprise, surprise, their horse heads straight for the other horses and riders.

Steering is a beautiful combination of physics, focus and energy.

Horses are sensitive enough to feel a fly land on a whisker so they can definitely feel our muscles tense or relax and our weight shift, whether we mean for it to happen or not. Horses have to learn which signals to respond to and which ones to not worry about. Inevitably more inexperienced riders will have more unintentional movements which is why beginners are usually partnered with less responsive horses. These horses tend to have worked out that life is better if they ignore most of what the rider does and only respond to really obvious cues. The question comes when you aim for reaching levels of excellence in your riding - how do help your horse understand which cues they are meant to respond to?

We tend to think of steering horses like steering a bicycle, pulling the "handle" one way to turn the front and expecting the rest to follow. The problem is that we've all seen people turn a horse's head one way and it still runs in the other direction. A more effective way of looking at the horse would be to think of the horse as a boat. Anyone who sails knows that to turn a boat you must move the back end over in the direction opposite to the one you want the front to go in. Horses respond well to this concept too.

Many horses are taught only to respond to the leg by speeding up but teaching your horse  to understand moving different parts of himself over when he feels your leg in different positions will not only mean you can use the powerful hindquarters to push the horse into the direction you want to go but also improve lateral manoeuvres and overall flexibility in your horse.

Ultimately, in taking a little time to address how you steer your horse you will not only open doors to higher levels of riding but you will prove to your horse that you understand him, you know his power comes from his hindquarters, from engaging his mind and that you do not need to pull on his delicate mouth for rudimentary control.

And how do you know that you have mastered steering? When you no longer use your reins to steer! Now your hands, reins and bit become tools for higher level communication and not basic controls. You and your horse truly can become one with each other, a new being, like the mythical centaur moving as one in purest harmony.

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Tuesday, 20 May 2014

A lesson in rapport

Hi, welcome to the first of many blog posts by Cheryl de Bie of Horse and Rider Naturally.

Some of you may have already seen my previous blogs about my experience on the Parelli Fast Track, as a natural horsemanship working student, and as an extern at the Parelli Colorado campus. This blog is a little different. Each week I plan to pick a topic and share some of the experience and ideas I have learned. Please feel free to comment and share your own ideas and if there is something you would like me to write about let me know!

So This week I have chosen to look at rapport. This has been a big deal for me recently as I returned from my three month Externship at the Parelli Natural Horsemanship campus in Colorado to find my horse had lost a lot of trust during my absence.

To put it in context Paris was the horse that got me into natural horsemanship. He was a skeptic when it came to all things human. You could do things with him but there was no joy in it for him and sometimes things were just plain dangerous. After following the Parelli program for three years we had reached the point where we were able to play at liberty and both have fun, I could ride my "runaway" ex-racehorse bare back and bridleless at a canter in open fields and, more impressively, we could stop! Whilst I was trying to qualify for the externship Paris began to have issues with his hind legs and I wasn't sure I would be able to pass the necessary tests. Paris pulled out the stops and I got through but his legs got worse again and I gave him a long rest. I was not going to transport him all the way to America for three months and decided the time off would probably do him good. Three days before my flight Paris got injured in the field and had to go to the vets. The last time I saw him, before I flew away, he was stressed out and not eating at the vets.

My mum gave me regular updates and my partner would send me pictures and videos but I really missed my wonderful horse whilst I was away.

When I returned I half imagined our reunion would be like a cheesy film, all slow motion running to each other in meadows full of flowers. What I got was him standing their looking at me. I was sad to see his coat had dulled, he was underweight and rather foot sore. He would come to me if I MADE him but he no longer trotted to me, he would not play stick to me, he just seemed to tolerate me.

It was a hard blow and it got me thinking. The last thought he had of me for three months was that I left him in that strange stressful place. I had been a constant in his life for 5 years and then suddenly I was gone, just like every human had done before me. Sometimes it's difficult to know where putting yourself in your horse's shoes ends and anthropomorphism begins.

I decided that, as it was the end of summer, my goal for the winter would be to get him back to weight, sound and re-establish our relationship.

I did lots of confidence building exercises, hang out with him finding all his itchy spots, would catch him and take him with me to watch others play with their horses and then just let him go again. Quickly the shine was back in his coat, and also in his eye.

I realised that whilst I had been away the majority of human interactions he had was to either feed him or move him around. Paris needed some time with me just hanging out so he could feel safe and realise it was not all about take, take, take, but that I would also give.

Occasionally I would  play with Paris but I was finding him rather dull and unresponsive. Then one day I went out to play with him and I said "I want to get our play drive back". I took him into his field and I began to run. I didn't use my stick to get him to keep up with me I just ran and let the rope get taught if he did not keep up. He soon worked out that it was much more comfortable to run with me than have the rope pull on his halter. And suddenly my trot draw was back, we could do stick to me again, even at the canter. Paris came alive and I realised the biggest thing that had changed... me!

I had been so focused on how my horse felt about me that I completely overlooked how I felt when I was with my horse.

I must have projected anxious energy when I had first returned from my travels, nervous about how he would respond to me after the long break we'd had. When my anxiousness had caused him to be hesitant I allowed it to reinforce my negative ideas, "see! He is upset with you for leaving him!", and this sapped all the fun and life out of me when I was with him.

Spending time hanging out with Paris was definitely worth while, but I do think it was more for me than him. He does need me to give him scratches and to spend relaxing time together, not only get him when I want him to perform, but he also needs me to have a plan, to have a goal in my mind's eye and to believe that we can do it. As soon as I decided I was ready for us to have fun again my energy changed.

Horses are mirrors to our souls, they know when we are not at peace with ourselves. Next time you feel like your relationship with your horse has gone a bit south ask yourself "am I projecting my own emotions?"

I've got my relationship with Paris back where it was and in many ways it is better than ever and all it took was for me to adjust my attitude.

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