The horse before me

Trudi Dempsey Equine Behaviourist

It’s easy to see a horse for what they represent to us rather than what makes them individual. Language rich in anthropomorphism ascribes personalities that exist only in our fairy tales. Of my few rules, number one is human respect for the horse. That’s not just respect for their needs but respect for their evolutionary history.

Trudi Dempsey Equine Behaviour
Feral Exmoor ponies

what’s in it for them?

This is the question many of us might have asked ourselves; it’s a good question. Keep asking it.

Domestic horses continue to try to adapt to the conditions we keep them in. In spite of the common thought that we offer them love and luxury by rugging and providing deep bedded stables many of them struggle to adapt. Not least because we provide everything. Anyone for pizza in your bedroom, toilet and drinks within arm’s reach? Barely room to swing the proverbial moggie and often solitary confinement for hours on end?

It’s hardly surprising that at times they find adaption hard and with seemingly few benefits.

Trudi Dempsey Equine Trainer
My dream stables in France quickly became redundant

adaption friendly

So how can we facilitate adaption? Using simple methods that help mimic the horse’s natural way of life, the life that the wild horse (that still exists deep inside the domestic horse) would live.

I hear many screaming at me now…but he stands at the gate, he wants to come in, he loves his stable…oh yeah and you and I can find umpteen reasons to support this but the truth is that they are creatures of habit and if we do something daily it forms a habit. Not all human habits are good for horses so they try to adapt, some horses are more successful adaptors than others.

This leads to the questions that always hang in the air at consultations…why my horse? Why does her horse cope? How does my other horse cope? Why did he cope last week? And it leads to the answer, well it depends.

Trudi Dempsey Equine Behaviourist
A track with different feeding stations to encourage movement

it depends

It depends on so many factors from evolutionary and inherited factors (genes and epigenetics if you want to Google some geek) to what happened at weaning, what happened 2 years ago or maybe what happened one hour ago. Horses, just like humans, are a product of their innate inheritance and their life experiences. There is no single blueprint. We and they are individuals.

Of course it would be amazing if we could all keep our horses running as a herd on some rewilded area. I am extraordinarily grateful to my wonderful friend Larri for providing a closer to natural mixed herd where my boys live (check it out here). But if you don’t have the facilities or means to provide a more natural free ranging life it doesn’t mean you can’t help adaption to domesticity.

Trudi Dempsey Equine Behaviour
Change of terrain for ponies on a track system

It’s not about having incredible facilities but what you do with them. I have friends and clients managing small areas wonderfully well for their horses and ponies. In future I will write a more detailed post on ways to enrich the life of a domestic horse and make the most of what you have.

Trudi Dempsey equine Behaviour Consultant
Mobile feeding stations offer variety

needs must

Some simple measures help fulfil the essential maintenance behaviours . Company, food, water, shelter, sleep, grooming (self and each other), peeing/pooping and movement in line with a natural life being the bare minimum. Enrichment takes these a step further. Choice of food and where/how it can be consumed, a range of surfaces and shelter, safe access drinking areas that encourage movement, brushing posts for grooming.

Trudi Dempsey Horse behaviour
Scratching station

Very often attention paid to environment and enrichment can make a big difference to behaviour. Days filled with interesting food and company can improve adaption potential. It changes the pizza munched in a bed with direct toilet access to a choice of tasty food (enough for everyone and more) served in different rooms with mates to share it with. A much better scenario is emerging but it is still very much man-made and choice is limited. The instincts and problem solving abilities utilised by a wild horse are pretty much redundant.

brain training

If horses learn to adapt to an environment that suits their basic needs better then the job’s done. Or is it?

Even in stimulating and enriched environments there is something missing. An element of natural life that we can stimulate further. Brain training. Problem solving. The equine equivalent of Sudoku or crosswords or language learning. In removing situations that require problem solving (by providing food, water, shelter etc) we need to remember to add it back in by way of brain training. Coupled with a programme of physical wellbeing and exercise a training plan based on puzzle solving games can really help behaviour change.

Beginning with simple tasks of touching novel objects, standing on novel surfaces and manipulation of an object with nose or hoof can develop into more complex behaviours. Ultimately shaping these to resemble more closely those behaviours we have traditionally known like leading and riding.

Trudi Dempsey Equine Trainer
Brain training with the boys

Whilst I’m not suggesting that horses have to be trained physically or mentally on a regular basis I do believe, that for some horses, abandonment to an impoverished environment should not be the default. As always it is about considering the horse before you. Thinking through their needs and designing schemes to enrich their lives that will no doubt enrich yours!

If you would like help in designing a more fulfilling lifestyle and training programme for your horse, or you have enrichment ideas you’d like to share with me for a future post, please get in touch via my website, Facebook or comment on this post, I’d love to hear from you!


Of methods and madness

There exists thousands of different methods to train horses, from those that declare they are based in science to those that say they utilise the language of the horse and many between.

cowboys and whispering

The ascendency of natural horsemanship methods in the 80’s puzzled me along with a new term ‘horse whispering’. Modern cowboys appeared to have repackaged the traditional systems known to me as a child. These were methods using physical or emotional pressure to provoke a reaction from the horse. One way that natural horsemanship methods differed was their slick marketing and adherence to a strict path towards the apex of their training pyramid. Years later and having worked with several clients who have studied these methods closely, I see merit in their observational skills . I can also see how they provide a place for people to belong, a group to be part of, fulfilling an inherent need for many us.

Trudi Dempsey Equine Behaviourist
cowboy moment with the lovely Kitty

a good fit for the horse

There are good and bad practitioners of all methods – individuals placing on a continuum that makes it hard for prospective students to determine the benefits, to the horse, of any method. The benefits to the human of a group system with novel terminology and a clear pathway to success are obvious but how are they perceived by a horse?

 It is for each of us to determine the natural horse and decide whether the methods we choose are a good fit for them. To determine the true nature of horses we must look to their ancient past, their innate selves and not rely on the domestic myths they have become. Using this knowledge coupled with an understanding of how animals learn we can shape our vision of a relationship.

truth, misunderstandings and the excitement of novelty

Can a method based on the misunderstanding that there is some kind of equine ‘pecking order’ be relied on to build harmony between horse and human? Is a method that relies on teaching ‘who is the boss’ underpin your relationship with your horse? My advice is not to ask me but to observe your horse.

Trudi Dempsey Equine Behaviourist
Moo throwing some observable behaviour to his field mates

When we find a new path it can blind us to everything else. I remember the exhilaration when I first discovered that clicker training (I had previously dabbled with my dogs) worked with horses too. I was so excited that I made crappy little videos and shared my excitement with anyone who would listen. Very few did listen back then and even now there are far less trainers using positive reinforcement than traditional methods.

Trudi Dempsey Equine Behaviourist

finally clicking with something

I fell in and out of love with the clicker as I struggled with the difference between dogs and horses. What I often failed to see were the parallels not just between horses and dogs but between all living beings in the way that they learn.

The greatest and worst thing about positive reinforcement training is that it highlights trainer error. Not only do you have to learn the mechanics of a new system but you have to become sharply aware of managing the environment. Managing the training environment is so important and often overlooked. I think the natural horsemanship era came close to addressing this and perhaps this is why their crossover trainers (trainers changing to positive reinforcement) are often so good at the detail and have good observational skills.

Trudi Dempsey Equine Behaviourist
Liberty games , Jenny and Rose playing ‘buckets’

Not all of my students use purely positive reinforcement in their training. This can be for a number of reasons; the student may not be ready to adopt a new system or may not believe their horse is ready. I rarely turn students away and find that over a period of time they begin to see the true nature of horses for themselves. My aim is to remain open and enquiring so that they might do so too. I’ll admit I’ve been dismissive of other methods in the past but it has (rightly) got me nowhere. Who wants to be told they are wrong? Almost everybody has a worthwhile opinion that I can learn from.

everyone likes a label!

I’m aware that I pepper my writing with mention of clickers, positive reinforcement and learning theory, for those that don’t understand the terms it may be confusing. One friend is most irritated by my behavioural speak and has kindly informed me so. I’m grateful to her because without such honesty I wouldn’t be aware of how others perceive my training.

The truth is that I struggle to stick a label on what I am. I am a clicker trainer (sad geek level) and I use the principles of learning theory. I guide students towards a better understanding of ethology. I help partnerships develop sound principles of gymnastic dressage and balance in their riding. But above all I am a pragmatic trainer and coach blending principles to suit each horse and human on the path they find themselves on.

As a certified behaviourist with the IAABC I actively apply LIMA principles that allow horses some control over their training and respects the innate horse within. In this organisation I finally found me!

Trudi Dempsey Equine Behaviour
Jenny and Rose riding ‘buckets’

what’s next?

In future posts I will continue to clarify the way I work with horses and will explain more about my use of learning theory as both a trainer and changer of behaviour. For now I urge you to be observant. Study your horses and understand why things happen in your work with them. Remember that behaviour is being changed whether you realise it or not. The environment and your actions create behaviour so why not embrace the fact and find out more. If you would like help in changing behaviour and building amazing relationships with your horse do get in touch via this blog, Facebook or my web site.

Ethics, should horses have a say?

Trudi Dempsey Equine Behaviourist

How good do I need to be for my horse? Aren’t horses there for human pleasure? Should horses have a say in their care? Do I have the right to ride a horse?

This is the first part of a series of blogs looking at my personal ethos and methods.

Trudi Dempsey Equine Behaviourist
Chapiro rolling in the sand

I’m sure as a child, captivated by the aura of a pony, that I wouldn’t have asked myself these questions. I was born in an era where ponies were still at work underground hauling coal and racing horses was considered the sport of kings. In those fifty odd years so much has changed especially on my own ethical radar. Today I think we should ask these questions of ourselves.

The latest buzz is all about giving choice to horses. Asking, rather than demanding, that a horse presents itself for care; cooperation rather than enforcement. Watching for subtle signs of agreement from a horse that it is ready to continue with a task. Engaging willing partners in our training mission; spotting predictors of unease.

Am I alone in resetting my ethical stance? You have to believe I’m not but as I write there are still many more not yet even aware of these new paradigms. It is for them and those yet to come to caring for horses that I write.

Full disclosure

If horses are a mirror to us why do we so often choose not to look too closely at our reflection? Horses are exposers. They tell the truth about us, full disclosure. Horses are heart-breaking in their honesty. Our selves, some say souls, are bared in our interactions with them but we can choose to look away, control what the mirror reflects of us. When we choose to see the truth it is an instant from which we can’t turn back, a moment of time that leads us on the most incredible path. It’s a tough road and one which I have often wished I hadn’t embarked upon. It was so much easier when the reflections were blurred and my moral compass not yet aligned.

Mirror, mirror

The joy of sharing

Being a pragmatist I look for evidence in solutions and right now my solution is to train horses as ethically as I can using the most up to date science of learning. As a teacher of people and their horses I have many levels of approach but the goal is always the same – through clarifying ‘why’ to teach an understanding of ‘how’. Both the why and the how have strong ethical connections. If we choose to ride a horse the answer to ‘why’ might be ‘because it gives us pleasure’ and then the importance of ‘how’ becomes crystal clear. If we refuse to offer the choice of being ridden to the horse are we refusing to look in the mirror?

If training is the ‘how’ then ‘why’ is a moral question for the individual, being no philosopher I’ll leave that for the individual to wrestle with.

Training for the modern day

What is training? In its simplest definition it is the acquisition of a skill or behaviour. If we choose to live close to domestic animals then training gives us a system of communication that enables us to care for them and hang out with them safely. Beyond basic care giving training leads us into the domain of relationship building but only if the training works both ways.

Acquiring behaviour using models that apply to all living organisms, including horses and humans, can at first appear mechanical and soulless. As with all models or methods of training the more you understand them the better you begin to apply them. That’s when the magic starts to happen, digging down to understand what makes a horse tick, why they behave in a certain way and how that behaviour can be encouraged or changed.

Making mistakes

Trudi Dempsey Equine Behaviourist
Chapiro keeps a close eye

Is there anyone that looks back at their training progression without at least a hint of ‘I wish I’d known that back then‘? It is a constant shift of knowledge between horse and human that sometimes leaves you feeling (sometimes, who am I kidding?) that your life is way too short to complete your understanding. We owe huge thanks to others in the field that share information to shorten the time spent in this direction.

The incredibly affiliative nature of horses allows us to build relationships that can be harmonious and balanced. Willingness to associate can lead horses to be overpowered and stripped of their true character by us, we look to our reflection to know our true value to a horse.

With so many seemingly different methods of training available to the modern day human how do we choose the best for our horses? In my next post I’ll explore some of these methods and explain how my own methods have grown into what they are today.

Please get in touch, leave a comment or take a look around my web site



Priceless gems and ugly ducklings

letting go Trudi Dempsey Equine Behaviourist

Putting away the Christmas tree decorations this year I spent much longer than needed reminiscing over each of the individual pieces. These monetarily worthless trinkets hold such memories and allow me to trace my family Christmas history back from me being a child through to having my own child who is now grown up and living away from home.

Some of the pieces are perfectly chiselled gems, purchased in foreign lands at Christmas markets or given to my parents for me as a child or to me for my child. Others, my most precious, have seen better days and came to me, handmade, via nursery or school. For the most part these handmade pieces have lost their glitter and may be dented or chipped but the shop bought pieces don’t bear comparison to them in terms of emotion and precious memories. Some of the pieces are downright ugly ducklings, as a child of the 60’s and 70’s there are some plastic atrocities but they still carry me back in time and are part of what makes my tree mine.

What has this got to do with equine matters?

Well it got me thinking that my life spent with horses is a bit like that precious box of Christmas tree decorations. Individually there are some expensive pieces; equestrian properties lived in, arenas constructed, matching kit, expensive saddles, lessons and treatments with specialists…the list is endless and thank goodness the financial cost has never been calculated.

What of the financially valueless gems?

The smell of a spring grazing horse, the touch of whiskers on the back of a hand, hours spent in quiet solitude just observing horses, the soft breath of whickered greetings, taking walks on a loopy rope, exploring the way horses learn…the list is again endless but the monetary cost negligible.

before ditching the whip Trudi Dempsey Equine Behaviourist
uncut gem before ditching the whip

As lovers of horses we can spend a lot of time regretting things. I should have done it this way. If only I known this back then. Why couldn’t I see the wood for the trees? All of these regrets hint at knowledge yet to be learnt, techniques and methods yet to be known. Like the ugly ducklings on my tree they lost their appeal many moons ago but they are part of who I am and regretting them is pointless. As with my decorations I won’t place them at the front of the tree but they will be there, deep inside the branches.

Some time ago a new Facebook friend asked me why I had photographs of me riding in spurs (and without a helmet) on my page. The answer was easy ‘that was me before I knew differently’. Of course I could rip them up, delete them but they will still exist on those inside branches; better surely to acknowledge them and learn from them? It would be wonderful if we were all created as perfect partners for our horses; the factory made bauble with perfectly timeless beauty. We’re not. And I’m disinclined to believe tall tales from those that might suggest they were.

ugly duckling, acknowledge and learn

Instead of hiding our past, of regretting it and wishing we were formed perfectly at the start shouldn’t we share our ugly baubles so that those who have many more gems to add to their tree can make wiser purchases than us and so enable mainstream knowledge of behaviour and training to evolve more rapidly.

If you would like help selecting the perfect baubles for your tree of equine partnership then do get in touch.

https://www.facebook.com/CreativeEquineTraining

Trudi Dempsey CHBC Equine Trainer and Behaviourist

To compete or not?

To compete or not?

In 2013 I was asked to write a guest post for a dressage blog that would raise some kind of debate. With hindsight they were maybe thinking more of a debate on which aids to use for a movement or which noseband worked best…they asked the wrong gal! This is the blog I wrote.

Rest assured I’m not sitting in judgement; I have no perfect answer because as always it really should be the horse that stands as judge.

It’s many years since I’ve competed; in fact I’ve had a whole ‘other’ life in France and returned since I last entered the competitive dressage arena. My current P.R.E. horses have been spared the terrifying judges box/car, they have never known the horse eating flower monsters nor the horn of doom.

Call yourself a…?

Call yourself a dressage trainer but you don’t compete I hear the cry! It isn’t that easy though, at least not for me and the thing is that I’m not really sure when this all happened. I’m pretty sure it’s a number of, perhaps, random things that have conspired against my competitive spirit, battled with it and beaten it good and proper to the ground but maybe it’s actually a path I was destined to take all along.

Trudi Dempsey Equine Trainer and Behaviourist
The 90’s with Eite the Fabulous Friesian, me the brainless idiot not wearing a hat!

 

I really should come clean at the start and mention that I am an Interdressage judge. The Interdressage system allows competitors to film their dressage test at home and submit their entries for judging online. There are a number of online dressage test sites all offering the chance to compete without the stress of leaving home or indeed the expense. I also undertook training as a British Dressage judge before departing to live in France. So you can already see how tricky it is for me to move my derrière from this rather wide fence I’m perched on.

Early Days

If I go back to my childhood with ponies it was probably quite a typical horsey upbringing; I hunted, jumped (show jumping (badly) and cross country, and entered gymkhana events plus the occasional showing class. I would hack for hours to a meet, pony club rally or riding club show and make the return journey after competing. I coveted the big red (or sometimes blue) rosette of first place and would almost burst with happiness when, on the rare occasion, I was awarded one. I sulked when my pony refused the first fence three times and red faced I left the arena, my Dad’s encouraging (oh yeah!) cries ringing in my ears.

 

I was very small when I attended my first horse race with my Dad and not much bigger when I picked my first winner at a point to point. I lived for some years in a racecourse heavy area of Surrey where (with my husband) we indulged our passion for picking a winner, or at least trying to. The Epsom gallops passed our garden and Derby day was a major celebration. I still recall in 1991 Generous winning the Derby and the fabulous meal we ate afterwards to celebrate. This fence I fell off some time ago and I no longer support racing.

 

Trudi Dempsey Equine Trainer and Behaviourist
Sam, Gelderlander with his ears on Inger Bryant List 1 Judge

I  spent countless hours sat in horseboxes waiting, stood in collecting rings putting up practice fences for my husband. I have plaited manes, committed tests to memory and driven myself to equestrian centres- that is until one little mare made me sit up and smell the coffee in the canteen!

The mare in question was on livery with me and had competed at novice level with varying degrees of success. The first time I took her out to compete was at Addington Manor, a large venue with indoor and outdoor arenas with all the madness of horses moving between the two. Warm up was indoors and entering the arena she just exploded into piaffe (something I may have been delighted with at home) and instantly dripped with sweat. I hastily left the warm up area amid tuts and head shakes from beautifully made up ladies on big bay warmbloods (my mate Chris and I used to joke that we would never win unless we wore more makeup!).

Plan B was a warm up hack which went pretty well…until we returned a minute or so before our ‘enter at A’. On riding up the centre line the tension returned and she ignored every pleading aid I could offer. After a 20m circle in a wall of death canter I finally admitted defeat, took polite leave of the judge and returned to the lorry deep in contemplation. The first hand was proffered from beyond the comfort of the fence!

Life in France

 

Living in dressage droughtville in France (the Limousin prizes its cows rather than its horses) took me away from the competitive world and into a burgeoning world of forums, blogs and online information. The internet saved my horsey sanity at the start of the noughties exiled in France and the free exchange of views brought me into contact with some rather diverse opinions such as those polarized views of Alexandеr Nevzorov, the anti-equestrian sport guru who is definitely not perched on any fence in these matters.

 

My own choice of equine partner may ultimately have tempted me to leave that fence or, if not, at least made me question some of my long held beliefs about competing with horses. The P.R.E has energy and character in abundance and they are truly a joy to train but the energy is too easy to misdirect and tension results. I was told many times when competing warmbloods that you should train them deep so that the tension at a competition would bring them up into an ‘acceptable’ self -carriage.  Training deep is not and never has been my thing but training my sensitive boys has made me even more aware of how tension can manifest itself and how unhappy it seems to make them.

Just because we can?

In these days of global horse competitions is it fair to expect horses to literally travel those extra miles for us to win that coveted red rosette?

Is it acceptable to keep competition horses wrapped in cotton wool and without regular equine companionship other than over a temporary stable partition?

Does the modern equine athlete enjoy his frequent trips in the lorry or is it just something he must learn to cope with as part of life.

Is it building a partnership when kids gallop round a cross country course, pony ears pointing the way?

Should we limit the stress our equines are put under, perhaps leaving them in a field to while away their hours pulling grass and rolling in the mud?

Is there an answer?

I think the answer, as in so many things, is probably to find a balance. I have had many, seemingly small, invitations to step down from the fence but I have resisted taking the huge leap to being absolutely against all equine competition. If we are able to curb our ego and consider the welfare of the horse above ALL else perhaps there is a way forwards. Or is there? Can we really justify our human need to win when it relies on the horse doing most of the work?

Did I mention my comfy fence?