My ‘Introduction to Behaviour’ talk begins with a look at equine evolution, an ever growing catalogue of what came before and what behaviour it has resulted in. Whilst the old saying ‘behaviour leaves no fossils’ is true, behaviour has certainly left its mark on both equids and hominids (horse and human families) such that studying their history can shed light on much present day behaviour.
What we know about horses from their past helps us provide the best living and handling conditions for them today. If you’re looking for proof that innate behaviour has its roots millions of years ago then look no further than the semi-feral equines close to where you live. Today there are only a handful of wild equid populations in the world most being zebras or asses and, whilst there remain some feral herds in the world, here in the UK we have a few well-known semi-feral herds. These herds, whilst managed, still display many of the innate behaviours that we might expect to see in a wild herd.
Whilst behaviour is interesting to watch at all times of the year this wonderful spring season makes the job of amateur ethologist easier. Light early mornings and a more moderate temperature give the opportunity to sit for longer without being disturbed with the added bonus that my husband (photographer) can accompany me to record things in permanence. Living on Exmoor can bring its challenges but (along with Dartmoor and The New Forest) it is a rich ground for pony watching.
It is most important is that we remain at a distance from the herd and well below the threshold of the ponies becoming startled; we should be observing behaviour rather than creating it. What do we look for with our pen poised above notepad?
The nature of the herd; members get on (affiliative)and there is generally very little aggression
Movement; how far do they travel, who instigates movement and how do the herd follow
Space; how much does an individual maintain, how is it maintained
Eating/drinking; how, what, when, who goes first?
Contact; closeness between pair bonds or smaller groups within the herd, mutual grooming, resting close to each other.
Sleep; standing up, lying down, anyone on guard?
Reaction and response to potentially fearful stimuli; who sees things first, who moves first, could you see the trigger?
This is by no means an exhaustive list but it will get you started (and get you hooked) on herd watching, find a herd local to you or get in touch for guided herd watching sessions.
Equine training and behaviour offers for spring 2018.
In the UK this is the first week that has truly shown any spring-like promise for us equine lovers. It therefore seems fitting to be making a fresh start with my business just as everything comes to life after what has been an awful long and wet winter.
This blog is now part of my brand new website please go and check it out!
To my wonderful clients who have supported me through the last six years I’d like to say a huge thank you. I literally couldn’t have done it without you. So what will change for my clients? First of all I now offer behavioural consultations for anyone struggling with unexplained or unwanted behaviour. I am now a qualified and insured behaviour therapist. As a result I also offer clinics, talks and workshops based on behaviour.
Contact me in confidence if you want to know why your horse behaves in a certain way and want to adopt force-free methods to improve behaviour.
Summer talks, clinics and workshops
My diary is already quite full so do get in touch if you would like to host an event. I travel within the UK and always strive to offer good value; dressage, in-hand, clicker training and now behaviour.
I’m pleased to be presenting a talk at Lynmouth Pavilion, hosted by Exmoor National Park on 2nd June.
Two Special Equine Offers
As part of my relaunch I’m offering two special offers. Take advantage of an online video assessment completely FREE of charge! Usually priced at £30 this offer is available to anyone who has not used my online service previously. I am offering two free assessments to two lucky people who have first liked my Facebook Page and second shared this post and commented on here or on Facebook by 29th April. I am happy to assess ridden dressage, test riding, in-hand, clicker training and of course bitless. Winners will be informed on 30th April. Videos of up to 10 minutes will receive in depth voice over assessments with exercises to improve.
In addition I’m offering two behaviour consultations at half price! As the usual price is £90 so that’s a special price of just £45! Travel will be charged for distances in excess of 10 miles from my home in TA22. The first two new clients to get in touch will receive this special price.
What’s up next?
Over the coming weeks I will be sharing more of my website content on FB. There’s lots of free content already with newly formatted articles and I will be adding new blog posts here. So do take a look!
One thing that most of us have struggled with at some time is allowing the seat to find a good natural balance; we might find it in walk but we still have the faster gaits to master.
My current preoccupation with archery atop a horse has got me revisiting my own balance in the saddle. Imagine keeping your balance and shooting an arrow whilst the horse moves! Forget hitting the target, just letting an arrow go seems a difficult task right now and the idea of doing it all in good balance even more tricky.
I recently spent an illuminating time with Felicity Mann who is an Alexander Technique practitioner using an equine simulator to correct balance issues for riders. Again I was reminded of the intrinsic link between rider balance and horse balance.
Every month in my tips and advice at Interdressage I give guidance on natural rider balance as a way to improve the horse’s balance and suppleness. I’m sure riders would like a ‘fix’ for their horse but until their own balance is better it is hard to make a case for attempting to address the balance of the horse; truly a case of putting the cart before the horse!
If you’re like me you can carry the troubles of the week in your body so it is essential to learn to let go of each area of muscles. Not floppy and over relaxed but decontracted; this release leads to the perfect muscle tone and lack of ‘holding’ tension.
Start with your head and make sure you don’t have the jutting chin tortoise look (working at a computer induced posture in the photo right below) but be careful to balance the head on top of the spine in its natural balance. Looking down can encourage a head down position so try to look down with the eyes (if you have to look down) not the whole head.
The head is ‘hinged’ at the human ‘poll’ as the spine meets the cranium. The cervical spine (neck) meets the cranium (skull) at the atlas- have a feel about in your neck and see how it corresponds to the skeleton below. The atlas allows us to nod and the axis below it plays its part in side to side action.
The human head weighs around 5kg (11lbs) and if not naturally balanced above the spine will create tension in the neck and back causing chronic pain over time.
Imagine 5kg and what a difference it makes to your balance in the saddle and therefore to your horse’s balance. I often find that when a rider is reminded of the correct head balance they free up their shoulders and neck, and as a result lots more below, allowing for more freedom of movement and the possibility to harmonise better with the horse’s movement.
Starting in front of a mirror (better still strategically placed multiple mirrors) assess your head balance taking care with this as it doesn’t always feel wrong if you have been balancing it that way for some time; look for the ears being central over the shoulders. If your chin is forwards take it back and down at the same time as lifting up from the top of your head. If your chin is up and the head tilted back (often a posture adopted by those who have been told to sit up tall and hold their shoulders back) again drop your chin and lift up from the top of your head- use a finger on the chin and the other hand cupped and sliding upwards from the base of the skull to feel this. Welcome to a world of double chins!
Put your riding hat on and check your balance again- notice where the peak sits and again adjust your head balance, many hats will add 600g in extra weight to your head which is not insignificant in itself.
If you have school mirrors the next check is easy but if not make sure to have eyes on the ground or video yourself to get a feel for that head balance once mounted. Check your head in all paces but don’t foget that rider balance is dynamic, don’t fix one imbalance by creating another in trying to ‘fix’ your head in one place! If you’re like me you can become fascinated by something happening with the horse and constantly look down, the first step to change is becoming aware of this and changing becomes easier once you know about it.
I can thoroughly recommend a simulator session and Alexander Technique, Pilates, Craniosacral sessions too. Be sure you get the heads up on all these awareness systems for your balance!
Next time we’ll check out shoulders.
If you would like help with your rider balance or your horse’s balance check out my video assessments with full feedback.
Note: if you experience any back/neck pain or headaches whether riding or not then always consult your doctor or physio.
I have looked at too much focus and a lack of focus previously and how these extremes of attention manifest themselves in our training but how do we deal with these extremes and can we avoid them? Whilst I’m particularly considering positive reinforcement here I think much of the answer is equally applicable to all training.
I’ve spent the last few weeks working with my own and other’s horses trying to formulate an answer that makes the whole attention scenario simple and easy to understand. I came up with some good anecdotes and real life observations but it is, as so often, simple whilst difficult to elucidate.
The saying goes- garbage in garbage out; if we continue to allow errors of input then we will continue to get results that are unsatisfactory and these may result in over or under attention. I don’t think being error-free is particularly helpful as a goal if it is even possible. I talked before of the pressures of being perfect and it is way too stressful to want to include in any training plan. But being perfect seems to matter and it is something to bear in mind when you watch alluring videos of perfect trainers ‘dancing’ at liberty to romantic music, all the time feeling bloody inadequate yourself; or that just me?
The simple bit first- cut yourself some slack. Every horse trainer/carer is working with different scenarios, knowledge, goals, raw materials etc. Remember too that the days of social media gift us snippets of the lives of others- they are not always wholeheartedly the truth of the situation they are just snippets. Shit happens and as far as I’m aware it happens to all of us whether we are trainers, carers, experienced or inexperienced but the internet isn’t generally for sharing your shit bits it is for showing your best bits! So if your horse left your side and didn’t want to be a spectacular trick horse today, don’t go home and bin the clicker just yet.
So slack cut I’ll continue. Getting behaviour on cue; it’s easy isn’t it?
Well with some behaviours, some horses, in some contexts it’s a doddle. Remember the touching of a target? Simple wasn’t it? But hang on, was it? I’ve seen the joy in a student new to positive reinforcement when that cute nose lands on the target- ‘click’ and it’s captured; job done. I realise I’m over simplifying things here but go and test this for yourself- do you have the touch only on delivering the cue? Does your horse insist on touching the target regardless of being cued or not? Do you have the touch within very different contexts; different places and with different people? Does your horse bite the touch cones every time he passes? If you’re not fully there with your cues don’t go home and bin the clicker just yet, form a strategy to improve things.
Cut some slack, train clear cues…next?
Progress towards the bigger picture. When you start out the whole liberty mission is enticing but make your bigger picture just that- YOURS. Where do you want to be in a few years time? Pootling on Exmoor with picnic and blanket in your saddle bag? Entering liberty agility classes? Training piaffe in-hand? Riding out with friends and having a blast? The goal may change the journey or at least influence it and perhaps help avoid too many dead ends. Don’t be miserly with the end shot; frame it in your mind and then frame the junctions you plan to pass en route before breaking it all down into tiny pieces.
Cut some slack, clear cues, set the bigger picture then progress towards it with very small steps.
Training can start with many things but one of your greatest tools is your power of observation– nothing is insignificant. Write it down, read it over regularly. Use your observations to create a plan- shape your journey to your end picture and shape your horse’s learning. Look for and record your plan and build it from the tiniest elements possible. Don’t consider inacurate responses as failures just treat them as invaluable feedback and reassess continuously.
Don’t get sucked into a system- there are many out there but you need to develop your own. Take the courses you like the look of, attend the clinics you are attracted to but see it within the framework of you and your horse. If you give up responsibility for your own training you will not progress as a trainer. Of course it’s good to share and learn new things but by adhering to a narrow system that drip feeds information you won’t see YOUR bigger picture.
These are all very general concepts:
cut yourself some slack
create clear cues
progress towards YOUR bigger picture
observe and hone your observation skills
They are not in an order of significance or importance, on any day one may rise to the top of the pile but the biggest problem I perceive is creating clear cues. Many people (and I’ll include me in that) will think they have a behaviour on cue but when we dissect that cue it is rarely what they thought it was. A simple ‘walk on’ may be thought of as being on a vocal cue but then the hand flies forwards the weight shifts onto the forward foot, our intent changes and that’s even before we uttered a word! Be strict and test yourself, video yourself and check just what cues you use and then you might understand the confusion that can so easily arise for your horse.
To create clear cues you need to have a few things to support you, these are in addition to those mentioned above and might include:
comprehension of the bridge and reinforcer-do they truly understand the click?
clarity set clear criteria, rates and schedules of reinforcement
contiguity (closeness of behaviour and consequence; timing)
consistency on all levels- timing, accuracy, withdrawing etc
context the circumstances or setting
observing emotions and keeping below thresholds
saliency or attractiveness of rewards
thresholds of time, saliency, distance etc
withdrawal or progress the exercise and extend the reinforcer, create ‘chains’ of behaviour
food delivery clean, unstressed and consistent
For those of you already embarked on your positive reinforcement training then you will not only understand the above bullet points but you will be able to pick them apart and understand the science within. This post isn’t really for those of you who are hot on the science (except to act as a reminder) but for those starting out who may be overenthusiastic and pressing on too fast like I did, only to have to reverse the slow moving tanker to make amends. If you don’t yet understand these terms then start with my usual recommendation of Karen Pryor’s book Don’t shoot the Dog or try a Google search.
I want to pick out a couple of really important points from the list for you, saliency being one.
Fruit or cake? Not much of a dilemma and for some the cake wins every time. If you want more attention you have to make yourself more interesting to be with than any distractions; be cake not fruit. In the case of most horses your competition for attention might include the smell of another horse, the smell or availability of food (always have hay or something of low value available for them) , noises (sudden (scary) or just interesting), places to roll or scratch, another horse to play with. What one horse finds distracting may not distract another- not all of us would choose cake and even those who love cake may not choose it every day! Reinforcers compete so make yourself competitive by checking your saliency regularly.
So if you want to sustain attention in your planned learning sessions you have to make yourself more appealing than food, play or companionship with another and less scary than noises and novel events. Easy hey! But of course it isn’t easy even if you have lots of cake and your student loves cake there will be times when attention wanes. That’s why becoming creative in your training is important- cake isn’t enough but it can be the start; solving the problem can also be a powerful stimulator in itself. Introducing play and seeking within your training is another essential element to making yourself attractive and good to be around see more here. Repetitive work on the same behaviour without changing your criterion (the exact snapshot of the behaviour you are looking at- perhaps looking at softness, duration or with a new behaviour just being close to something novel) won’t be stimulating for most horses and understanding when to change your criterion or when not to is essential. When you have pushed forwards too hard it can turn horses off trying, not extending an exercise can lead to anger and stress as a result.
When we start clicker training it is often so exciting that we get rather carried away. All of a sudden we have the horse’s attention on us and it seems as if we can do no wrong. This is just the time when we can get it wrong and putting it right later can become quite expensive in emotional terms. The good old target comes out and our horse smiles inside as it strides over and gets close. We think we’ve made it- finally found a way of getting the attention we crave. Click-reinforce, click-reinforce it starts to become frenzied and the ability to put behaviours on cue diminishes with each click.
Many will abandon positive reinforcement at this point- for those of you who haven’t, read on.
So it’s becoming obvious that saliency doesn’t exist on its own, it’s best friends are alongside it on that list. Yes we want saliency in our rewards- the best scratch makes your nails bleed, the best food might be carrot or it might be a long chew on a haylage ball but finding the reward that gets the best response is only the very beginning.
Withdrawal is always a tough decision and especially for the newbie trainer. It should always be based on judgement after considered observation. I have been on the longest withdrawal imaginable with my cocker Coz. Indoors even at a distance our recall has been great since she was a puppy but outdoors with pheasant and other distractions it had been at best sticky. At nearly three years old I began the withdrawal of reinforcement for every recall when in a 10 acre field and we are now varying our schedule of reinforcement and criteria. I have continued to test the waters for withdrawal regularly throughout this period and have changed rewards and added in a ball or tugger (that attractive play thing again) rather than food in some situations, all of which have got me to the place we are today; a solid recall at distance in most contexts (still some work to do then!). But 3 years ago I would never have believed it might take so long and I did at times give up hope; don’t give up! If I had continued with the close up recall without withdrawing and expanding the behaviour I would have a massive attention overload. It has made a difference to the way I see withdrawal for horses and I now believe that it is the canny trainer who can distinguish between the need to withdraw and the need not to. There are mistakes along the way but if you’re struggling for attention don’t be afraid to keep at it- address the saliency and perhaps criteria until you feel safe to withdraw. On the other hand if you have too much attention and it is creating an emotion overload then maybe you didn’t withdraw and extend the behaviour soon enough.
I’ll repeat that as I feel it’s important:
If you’re struggling for attention don’t be afraid to keep at it- address the saliency and perhaps criteria until you feel safe to withdraw and extend. On the other hand if you have too much attention and it is creating an emotion overload then maybe you didn’t withdraw and extend the behaviour soon enough.
If you are unsure if your horse comprehends the bridge then test it. You may be absolutely certain that your ‘new to clicker training’ horse gets the absolute association between the offered behaviour, the bridge (click/whistle/word) and the reward; or you may not. Remove elements of the equation to discover the understanding. Remove the food bag, take your hand from the bag or pocket of food, work in a different area, get someone else to test the training…lots of possibilities but try substituting elements or removing them to discover the true associations in your training.
Keeping below thresholds is discussed much more now than it was when I first started positive reinforcement training. I saw the thresholds and did retreat from them but today I make sure I observe the horse’s emotional response much earlier. That way it is less of a retreat and more of a hesitation in going forwards further. Don’t push the boundaries, don’t test yourself when you are new to this work and certainly don’t push out of your comfort zone or you will most certainly push your horse out of his.
Think of behaviour like juggling jelly….it is constantly moving not neat little blocks that you can perfectly stack. Every question you ask and response you give will become a consequence for your horse and will wobble the jelly.
When you work with positive reinforcement your horse will experience times when you do nothing whilst waiting for the moment you want to reinforce- this can elicit an angry response but may at least confuse him. When we work with negative reinforcement a period when nothing happens becomes synonymous with things being OK, signalling carry on you’re doing good. Think about ways to tell your horse it is doing OK when training with positive reinforcement even something as simple as the way you breathe could become a ‘keep going you’re doing fine’ marker. The clicker doesn’t have to be the only communicator of correctness.
It is also helpful right from day 1 to train a stand down; time when there are no clicks on offer. Remove the rewards or at the very least change something obvious that indicates this. Have a mat or target that they learn is not reinforced, drop your rope to the ground, signal with your hand, let them go to some play things or let them munch on hay but make sure they understand that time out is part of the training; a chance to relax physically and emotionally.
If you got to this point in one sitting- well done! It has taken lots of tweaks and I’m still convinced I could write much more. However I will look at elements of this further at a later time and within my online introduction to clicker training module.
Attention can be won or lost in the blink of an eye. Pay attention to the science but devote yourself to the application after observing your horse and his nuances.