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A couple of snippets from our 2nd lesson with Sally Ede. Mojo was calm and relaxed and focused. I used my body and a slight open rein to turn. We used scratches as reinforcement and he was forward going so only a slight touch with the leg to indicate ‘yes” that is what I want.
I now want to add verbal cues to the rein cues but that will come after I get more confident riding. At the moment Mojo doesn’t seem bothered by my riding and as long as he is under his emotional threshold all is well.
I did feel a little guilty as I wanted to use more positive reinforcement in our ridden sessions but I also need to know he can be ridden by anyone, as he will most probably out live me.
Well we only managed one session of training last week, but Mojo was much calmer at the top of the arena. I used the cones to settle him and get his attention away from the mirrors and scary pigeon producing hedge.
He was very good at his cone touching and then he stood at the mounting block and turned his head rather moving backwards for the reinforcement.
We did the mounting block at the top, middle and bottom of the school.
Here is a little montage of the session at the lower end of the school.
Another lesson with Sally Ede on Friday 17th so hope all goes well.
Mojo and I had a lesson with Sally Ede – a Ride With Your Mind coach, and great confidence giver.
We worked on getting Mojo standing at the mounting block – due to me not having done much mounting block training recently he had reverted back to swing his quarters towards me. He was at his emotional threshold once we got in the school as we worked at the top end in the shade. It just goes to show how important generalisation is in our training. He hadn’t been up that end much in our training sessions.
As he was at his emotional threshold all it took was a pigeon flying out of the hedge to tip him over in to a flight response.
This a very bad video of the event, the video was too far away and I had no help to reposition.
By the end of the lesson Mojo had calmed down and was beginning to stand still and not swing round.. I managed one foot in the stirrup a couple of times and then added some weight in the stirrup. So my homework is more mounting block training and to so this in other areas of the school.
Also to remember to breathe and do my grounding exercises before and during sessions.
To this end I have written a shaping plan. I am often too lazy to write them but it is a good idea to have a written plan. Having also just complete an Advanced Animal Training course I ought to know and do better!!
Mojo was ridden by Liz Hibberd, he was very cool today, we used the “walk on” cue and the target. Then phased out the target and Liz just cued him to walk.
He had one little spook when he trod on his own feathers – I really must cut them again.
He even had a little trot at the end, then lots of praise, scratches and treats.
Liz also sat on Indi for the first time and walked a few steps, we used my hand as a target and then the “walk on’ cue. Indi was very relaxed and we called it a day after a few steps.
What would you do if your horse had a behavioural problem?
Firstly check for any physical reasons for the behaviour – pain, ill-fitting tack, back problems, teeth, feet etc. Then check the environment is right for the horse – has he got friends, freedom and forage? Is he free from stress – e.g stabling for too long without enough forage can cause stress related problems such as gastric ulcers.
Look at the diet, is he over fed for the amount of work he is doing?
Then look at why he performs the behaviour, what is the purpose of the behaviour, is it a fear based behaviour, does he feel insecure, does he have separation anxiety etc.
Often changing the environment will make a huge difference.
Only then can a behaviour modification plan be formulated.
Training alone may never get to the root cause of the problem, at best it may put a sticking plaster over the problem, by suppressing the behaviour.
Yes you can train alternative behaviours to ones you don’t want, you can punish the behaviour e.g adding an aversive stimulus every time he performs the behaviour until he learns how to avoid the aversive and the behaviour stops. EG adding pressure to the halter every time he tries to run away. The use of aversive stimuli can either stop a behaviour (punish), or its removal can reinforce a behaviour. So are you punishing the running away or reinforcing the stopping?
Get professional help from an equine behaviourist well versed in the correct use of positive reinforcement. Behaviourists will need veterinary approval first – this is to rule out any physical cause of the behaviour.
Find one who can teach you to use systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning. This will change the emotions associated with fearful situations.
Horses are big, strong animals and we do need to stay safe but that does not have to mean using pressure halters or other controlling equipment. They may work as the horse learns to avoid the pressure but without examining the underlying cause of the problem it may reappear later.
Suppressed behaviours do have a habit of spontaneous recovery.
Horses need to feel safe, our relationships should be built on mutual trust.
I saddled Mojo for the first time this year, he was very good. He was in the school loose so had the opportuntiy to leave if he felt he needed to do so. We then walked around a bit before the bridle was presented, he stuck his nose in and stood whilst I fastened the buckles.
Mojo sidled up to the mounting block as soon as I stood on it and allowed me to get on. With a little moral support from a friend I asked him to “walk on” which he did and we got half a circuit of the school no leg pressure or rein contact.
Below are the photos my daughter took on her moble phone – as I left my camera in my car.
Over the past few months I have been studying with the Natural Animal Centre and have just passed the Equine Behaviour Qualification Stage 1.
Now I am busy writing some generic behaviour modification programmes, these will be adjusted for individual horses and handlers.
I am not rushing in to consulting at the moment, as I wish to do some more studying and learn some techiniques to help people change their behaviour. Presently I am reading a book on Transactional Analyisis.
Now this course is finished I can get on with more saddle and mounting block training with Mojo. Just wish the rain would stop for long enough to get him clean.
The Cookbook Approach to Horse Training
There are many who would really like to know all the answers, to be able to work through a book to train the perfect equine. There are many who try to provide this service, they produce glossy ads and videos showing how you can have a rapport with your horse. Some even give you a step by step program to obtain the perfect partnership.
What is wrong with the Cookbook approach?
Well for a start each horse is different, as is each owner/rider. No horse has ever read the book so has no idea what people want him to do, he is just busy being a horse.
Any book or program can only provide a framework – the trainer needs enough knowledge to know how to adapt and improvise.
If we have a cookbook what happens if you don’t have all the ingredients for a recipe? It probably all goes wrong unless you have enough knowledge to be able to adapt a recipe or make one up from scratch.
The same can happen in horse training if all you do is watch a few videos or read a few books without a true understanding of the subject.
What knowledge does an owner need to be able to be the trainer of their horse?
They need to know how horses learn – so an understanding of operant and classical conditioning.
Some physiology and an understanding of biomechanics will help to keep the horse healthy and sound.
An understanding of equine body language and emotions is also needed.
Certain programs can teach you the basics of horse care – the BHS Horse Owners Certificate looks at the care of the horse physical needs.
Studying the learning theory and emotional side of things may be a bit more tricky. There are however excellent behaviourists around who can help and several good online resources.
However pick a course or person who is not attached to an organisation that uses only pressure/release types of training. This may have a place in training but it should not be the only way to motivate a horse. Avoid those who use escalating pressure to teach behaviours to horses. Horses are very good at learning to avoid the pressure but it can be detrimental to their emotional state.
Some organisation teach equine psychology but have an emphasis on their own brand of training, so they justify the use of aversive stimuli and ignore positive reinforcement. Some never mention that what they use is negative reinforcement so many are under the illusion of it being positive reinforcement.
We do have to be careful as any training done badly will cause problems – this goes for both negative reinforcement programs and clicker training programs. There is much more to reward based training than a clicker and some food.
To learn safely and effectively try to find someone who can come out to you or who can do some video lessons and give good feedback.
All the time I learned to ride and train via both the BHS and natural horsemanship it was never explained that I was using negative reinforcement. Natural horsemanship did teach how to apply the aversive stimulus (pressure) and that is was the release of that aversive that reinforced the behaviour. However it was never called aversive or negative reinforcement.
Most people aren’t stupid and can understand the basics of learning theory if they are given the facts. Only then can they decide what motivation to use. The horse can be motivated by learning to avoid the application of pressure (-R) or he can learn to seek something he wants (+R).
Chasing, driving, applying more pressure can lead to a horse who suppresses his natural flight response. It can even lead to complete learned helplessness. This can be seen in traditional and natural horsemanship training, the dead to the leg riding school horses, the totally bombproof horses, natural horsemanship trained ones who don’t do anything unless told (because they fear the correction).
We need a balance – a safe horse but one with character, one who feels safe to express an opinion – even when it isn’t one we agree with. How many people mount horses who don’t willing stand at the mounting block – I know I have in the past got on my horse and before I was fully onboard she would walk off.
We can of course teach this with negative reinforcement – making the wrong thing uncomfortable and the right thing easy. However do we really have a willing horse if he only performs a behaviour to avoid the consequences of not doing so?
We can equally cause conflict if using +R if the horse is still afraid but wants the food. This is why we need to learn more than the basics, learn about different rates and types of reinforcement, learn to fade out targets and clickers for established behaviours. Learn what conflict looks like and how to recognise fear and frustration and how to avoid triggering flight responses. Learn what to do if things don’t go to plan, learn to read all the very subtle signs our horses give us.
What ever we can teach using negative reinforcement can equally be taught using positive reinforcement – the difference is how the horse feels about the process. We do need knowledge and imagination and lots of patience.
Dominance, leadership, respect are often spoken about but have little place in our relationships with horses.
Trust, partnership and providing all our horses needs is far better in my opinion.
When looking at behavioural problems in horses we need to look at all aspects of the management and training of the horse.
It is rarely just one thing that is compromised. If you only take your horse to a trainer they will probably only look at the physical aspects of behaviour, many problems are due to how we keep horses, what we feed them as much as how we train and how often we train.
Stress is a major cause of equine behavioural problems – to much aversive training, little turnout (especially in the winter), a diet not suitable for the horses work or temperament.
All these need addressing, for feeding advice ask an independant nutritionist, for physical problems liase with your vet. Look at how aversive your training is for the horse, just because a horse is obedient does not mean he is enjoing the work. Horses are very good at learning how to avoid aversive stimuli – this is why they are easy to train. They will learn cues to perform a behaviour so we don’t have to escalate the aids.
There is a revolution in the horse world at the moment with more people learning about the impact of aversive training and turning to using more positive reinoforcement.
It is not a battle between traditional training or natural horsemanship or reward based training – it is a matter of our own consciences – what we feel is right for our horses. We know our horses better than anyone else, but I do know that I am not comfortable with chasing my horse around to make him do things, or to use pressure to force or coerce.
If we remove all tack and put down the sticks and strings what we have left is how the horse feels about us. Does your horse stay with you if you don’t have any equipment?
Is he free to leave without fear of punishment, can he just be a horse in your presence?
Of course some will stay due to previous aversive training – it can take a while for some horses to realise they can do something without being asked. Many horses are too afraid to do anything for fear of correction (punishment).
You only have to watch videos of natural horsemanship training to see horses who stand like robots until cued to do anything.
The stress, caused by being always vigilant, waiiting and watching for a cue and trying to get it right every time so they can avoid correction, can be great.
Even very animated horses are often in a state of frozen watchfulness, watching how to avoid the flick of the whip, we often see liberty trainers with sticks.
At one clinic I attended with Smoke the cliinician was insistant that the only way he could train more than one horse to do a liberty demo was to use escalating pressure – so the horse had no option but to obey or be punished.
There was some excessive waving of the lead rope and extremely big movements from the trainer to get Smoke to back up.
This is so much easier with a target stick and positive reinforcement.
So much of what I do is easier with +R, but we do have to let go all previously learned behaviour in ourselves. How do you get a precise marking of a behaviour with -R when, often, our timing is dreadful? Using a verbal bridge to mark a behaviour still need good timing but I find it is easier to click or say “good” than to release pressure.
So when you watch demos or videos or read about how to train behaviours bear in mind how the horse feels. Stress is a common cause of physical and behavioural problems. A little stress (excitement) is good but prolonged stress e.g never being able to relax – either in the field (if he hasn’t a pair bond), stable ( if he can’t interact with other horses) or in training (due to frozen watchfulness) is not good for our horses.
Winter is always a difficult period for equestrian folk, waterlogged fields, horses that have to be stabled more than usual, lack of daylight to ride and train. So many negatives but also a lot of positives.
If we can’t ride then a little groundwork goes a long way. Set up some horse agility type obstacles, weaving, poles, tarps, umbrellas and numerous other things can be used to desensitse horses to novel objects.
Clinics, lectures and demos at indoor venues are a good way to keep up the enthusiasm, choose a trainer/clinician whose ethos you share. I have just been to a talk by Alison Short, a well respected dressage trainer, on goal setting and rider strategies.
Of course there are always literature searches to do, I found this paper on the Psychology of Equine Performance
This quote is of particular interest to me:-
“The majority of training is based on the use of aversive stimuli in the form of either punishment to discourage undesirable behaviour or negative reinforcement to encourage appropriate behavior . For the latter, it is the removal of the aversive stimulus which provides the reinforcement for the correct behavior and which, with consistency, leads to early anticipation and avoidance of the training aid so the animal becomes responsive to the most subtle cue from the rider. Timing is therefore critical and poor timing may lead to the learning of unanticipated and inappropriate responses . Although employed to a much lesser extent, training can also be achieved through positive reinforcement. Because responses are associated with reward acquisition, they are much more variable as, evolutionarily speaking, it pays an animal to explore the limits of what is required to obtain a reward so it can maximise efficiency through minimal effort . However, the key issue with positive reinforcement (and where it contrasts most with negative reinforcement and punishment) is that emotional responses to the training situation are often entirely positive rather than largely or wholly negative [42,43]. This may be extremely important in shaping the horse’s perception of being ridden and the relationship which develops between the horse and rider, as a result (which may be particularly important when the rider and the trainer are the same person).”
Plus this also:-
“Firstly, long-term inappropriate application of negative reinforcement schedules may result in a chronic stress situation for the animal, potentially leading to reduced health , high reactivity to acute stressors , or, for some individuals ‘learned helplessness’ (behavioral depression) . ”
As part of my equine behaviour course I am studying stress responses in horses and the impact excessive use of negative reinforcement and forceful training has on the immune system (immunosuppression is implicated in many equine illnesses) as well as the overall psychological well-being.