The student before me

Trudi Dempsey Equine Trainer

Relationships between students and teacher can be fulfilling. I’ve worked with many of my students for years and they have become a special part of my life.

Trudi Dempsey Equine Training
The wonderful Emma and Jim

On the other hand the relationship can easily descend into confusion, frustration and a breakdown of student teacher relationship. Yes I’ve regretfully had those but they have been extremely rare.

The truth can be hard; often difficult to tell and usually tough to receive. Over the years I’ve learned to be more sensitive with the truth. Boundaries of honesty may have been stretched to fit a personal vision, revealing all to a relative stranger can be hard. If a client isn’t ready to see the full picture then it’s best to proceed carefully towards it, shaping as we go. As client trust grows so does the confidence to ask questions that can be honestly answered.

Trudi Dempsey Equine Behaviour Consultant
Client and friend Jenny with Rose

Sometimes a student will take lessons and then disappear for months. The grapevine might provide information that they are taking lessons with someone else. And then someone else. Then the recall. I have nothing new to say but I must find new ways of saying it. I mustn’t be harsh when they recount new knowledge that rings all my alarm bells. As I said the truth can be hard.

Everyone loves certainty. Offering an assurance that I can change a horse’s behaviour or performance would surely bring me more customers. What if you were offered a financial guarantee? Behaviour change or your money back! Dressage scores increased or you’ll receive £500! Not only would this spell professional disaster but it implies that improvements are one-sided, trainer fairy dust cast from my magic wand. It’s simply dishonest.

The reality of behaviour change and training is that is takes a holistic approach, addressing not only physical but mental, emotional, management and welfare aspects. The client is as much a part of that holistic approach as the horse.

Client compliance seems an exacting term but it is commonly used to evaluate the likelihood of a client following instructions. Similar to the submission required from a horse in a dressage test it sounds almost military in its quest for obedience and control. Cooperation and receptivity as measures of a client’s prospect of success seem more relevant.

Reception of new information rests on many things. Past experiences with trainers can shape a client’s trust and belief in any new knowledge. Self-assumed knowledge, traditional practices and the influence of peer pressure at livery yards, riding clubs or amongst online groups can seriously hinder reception of new information. An essential part of disseminating material to a client must involve drawing a line in the sand to indicate the current position. To this end a client that I consider working with will complete either a history form or a new student form or in some cases both.

Trudi Dempsey Equine Behaviourist
Maggie and a thirsty Mr C

Cooperation with a protocol or training plan hinges on them being clearly understood. Professionals talking at a client are likely to achieve less cooperation than those that involve them in relevant dialogue. Encouraging storytelling and picture painting from the position of the client and their horse can cement that understanding. Personalised protocols and plans drawn up between a client and myself have a higher chance of success than demanding generalised procedures be adopted.

For some clients the reception of new ideas (for the reasons above) may be particularly hard. Even clients who are very receptive may find cooperation difficult. It’s one thing knowing that you have to make changes and another making those changes. Like the New Year diet plan enthusiasm can carry you over the start line, but for most, little further.

I have had situations in the past where, alongside a client, we have worked out a realistic protocol for say a loading problem only for it to derail within weeks. My trainer’s fairy dust (desensitising and counter conditioning amongst other techniques) had the horse keen to load every time at home. 

Next stage, in very small increments, would be to change the context and add duration. Homework might have been to travel the horse out for a short distance and then return home and reload (and repeat, repeat, repeat). This might gradually be shaped into unloading a short distance from home and reloading and eventually result (through many tiny changes) in arriving at an event and reloading without the stress of competing.

The excited call comes too early.

 ‘He was so good we took him to a competition today and he loaded like a dream’.

My heart thuds seeming to relocate in the direction of my stomach. Do I play the killjoy? Ask what the heck they thought they were doing ignoring the protocol? Suggest that it will likely go pear shaped in no time?

It’s usually none of those but a cautiously optimistic line suggesting that they now go back to the plan. Do they? Well it seems not as often I will hear that the horse is again not loading and now they are going to buy an expensive new lorry or a travel companion that will ensure future loading. In the end the horse may be sold on as unfit for purpose.

I can’t guarantee a horse will load in every situation but with careful plans and slow careful shaping I can load the dice in my favour. Failing to stick to a strategy is definitely not going to help but I understand, training protocols are dull and competitions, fun rides etc are not.

I work with many people who are equally receptive and cooperative. They make my life easy and often turn out to be exceptional trainers with natural insight. With these students there is a three way communication connecting them, the horse and me. Learning comes from all points of that triangle and result in harmonious relationships between all concerned.

Trudi Dempsey Equine Trainer
Jenny has an eye for detail with Dancer

If reception and cooperation prove difficult it is down to me to find a path, to keep supporting the process of change. Invariably those changes come, and with them even more opportunities to learn and grow.

There are some occasions when the honest answer is to disentangle and resign. Defeat is hard to admit to but sometimes it needs admitting.

Of course some responsibility lies with the client or student. Not just to be honest but to admit when things have become difficult. Making mistakes is inevitable but shouldn’t be seen as catastrophic. It is possible to recover and what’s more to grow in resilience (something we hope also to help our horses achieve) as a result.

If you are looking for a trainer for you and your horse, from the ground or ridden or are experiencing behaviour that you want to change take a look at my website, you can also find me on Facebook, or Instagram . Do get in touch to share a story or ask a question, I will always respond, Trudi


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?

Looking for cues

Trudi Dempsey Equine Behaviourist

Should we teach equine cues?

Where do they come from?

What are cues?

Trudi Dempsey Equine Behaviourist -teach equine cues
Moo concentrating on his cues

 

  • Cues are signals that tell us some ‘thing’ is going to happen.
  • Cues can predict things that are good or bad.
  • Understanding cues is important for carers of horses.
  • Humans might not observe cues that are highly visible to a horse.
  • Cues build a language between us that can be clearly understood by both parties or by one party alone.
  • Signals given to us by horses can easily be misinterpreted.  Confused horses become fearful and will be unable to learn.
  • Teaching and learning mutually understood cues in a calm situation is ideal.

equine behaviourist Trudi Dempsey- teach equine cues
mastermind detective Moo picking up cues!

Breaking it down

  • Cues are not one-sided we can learn from our horses as well as well as them learning from us. A horse will signal to you in very quiet ways before taking stronger action and these are cues to the human that something is about to happen. It is rare for a horse to just bite your arm with no warning but subtle clues before the bite can often be missed by humans who are often confined to complex language as a first means of communication.
  • Cues do not just have a place in riding they are a way to communicate on the ground and in every situation that horses and humans interact.
  • It takes time to teach and learn cues. Some horses may appear to learn more easily than others who might have been shut down by previous human contact and now feel disinclined to interact.
  • Horses understand many more cues than those we teach them. They are mastermind detectives and will pick up incidental information without us noticing. Environmental cues can be obvious- rattling of buckets in the feed room being a cue for dinner. Or subtle- wearing a pair of gloves might signal you’re riding today. Just know that your horse is collecting cues constantly especially when you least expect it.
  • The word aid is often transposed into cue and of course an aid (ridden or from the ground) is a signal that you want something to happen- it’s a cue to the horse to make a certain move.
  • Cues are created and kept strong by the addition of a consequence. Every time the pushy pocket nudge gets a carrot it will reinforce the nudge. The nudge becomes the cue and is kept strong by the consequence of a tasty carrot fed afterwards.

Simply put

In simple terms a cue is a signal that something is going to happen. Our horse interactions are full of cues that are not always understood, or even noticed, by us but are clearly evident to our horses.

 

 

Contact me for help with cues!