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


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.

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