La Vie en Rose: observing the pace

Of course every week at work is interesting but some sessions just twang your heart strings and this last couple of weeks there have been a few.

The amazing Dancer and his (equally amazing) mum had an epiphany (me too) when we stripped everything back to zero. Turns out she had always felt she should have some progress to report, some big achievement at each meeting.

How wrong could she have been! This incredible person who draws on her lifetime of experience to guide her towards the absolute truth from her horse had no need to feel the need to perform.

We looked to ourselves. Our timing. Our tidiness in cues and reinforcing. We changed the environment and watched for the signals from Dancer and acted on them. I have no video but if I had it would be unlikely to convey anything close to the emotion we all felt as Dancer created his own cues for us. Just to observe him setting the pace was uplifting.


Back to Rose where we have been allowing her to lead the pace too. To some it might seem counter-intuitive to allow the horse to control the pace of learning. Increasingly these techniques are being referred to as start buttons which is a great handle and clearly explains how they can be used.

Observation is key. The horse deserves our full attention, how can we expect their attention if ours wanders?

Observation is key. Cuing, re-cuing, throwing of the kitchen sink to get behaviour when the horse’s mind is elsewhere (chewing, listening to things we can’t hear etc) is a pointless waste of time and energy.

Here’s Rose beginning a new behaviour- putting her head into the cordeo. I’m working hard at being the same every time I set up the behaviour, that’s really important. No hand in the food (unless that is part of my cue), no offering the cordeo before Rose signals that she’s ready, no spurious additional tics from me.

At 12 seconds she clearly tells me she’s ready to go again. At 21 seconds she tells me again. At 34 seconds I felt I missed a subtle yes, at 40 seconds I didn’t miss it a second time. The last, at 52 seconds, came after a big distraction but with no cuing from me (aside from the fact that I was there) she came straight back with the continue signal.

La Vie en Rose: take my hand, soft leading

Whilst Rose and I continue to develop cues at liberty with our R+ target work (luring, which has such a bad rap but is often in play whether we know it or not) we are also beginning to advance our ‘on rope’ work.

When Rose arrived at Jenny’s she was quite typical of a lot of cobs (horses in general) I meet. See a blade of grass and off to eat it…oh there’s a human on the end of my rope, really hadn’t noticed! There was no agenda of offending (horse’s don’t), no disrespect (nor this) in fact no human constructs at all. Just grass being higher up the interest scale than the human on the rope and a lack of knowing how to behave around us.

Much of her determination to get somewhere was fuelled by wanting tasty morcels but also a lack of understanding of the human world and fear of the unknown. Whilst it’s just great to let horses be horses there are times when, for practical and safety reasons, horses need to understand how to hang out in the human world. This requires a good deal of clarity from the human. No verbosity, no random physical movements, clean cues, clean reinforcement.

Yes, I know, horses learn to feel what’s in your heart, they can ‘sense’ what you want. They really can. And no I haven’t given up my last semblance of sanity, I’m still rooted in science but that’s what it feels like sometimes. The reality is that they are so darned clever at spotting things in our behaviour that we don’t realise we’re giving the signals. Heck who gives one whether we see that in my cold light of day or in a mysterious out of body way, the end result is that horses attach meaning to throw away behaviours that we exhibit.

Day one…horse I love you, I will bury my head in your mane and laugh or cry as you are THE only thing in my world…. Day two…I will share our space with other humans and almost ignore you while I give them all my attenton… Day three…human, I am confused and will just get on with being a horse…human determines horse lacks respect! What’s a horse supposed to do with all those mixed messages? Likely do what they want to.

Anyway I digress. Long and short of it Rose had learned that it was easier to do her own thing, at least she was reliable. Jenny has worked really hard on giving all her attention to Rose when they are together. Equally importantly she’s been careful to be cleaner with her cues and her food delivery. Every horse/human partnership is different and depending on the path they want to tread together will have different essential basics to put in place. For Rose and Jenny one of the essential basics was soft rope walking with easy turning, stopping and starting. We began a long way from there with Rose bracing her neck and leaning on the rope.

In the video we start by putting the headcollar and rope on. I was pleased that Rose interacted with the process and remained soft and calm, she waited patiently for me to finish. This is a big change and credit due to Jenny for working with this as well.

As I pick up the rope she doesn’t move her head- I’ve worked on a neutral response to this so that she understands random rein cues mean nothing. She then responds softly to a cue we’ve added recently; a light feel towards me (originally lured using a target and the rein cue attached later) to ask her to be with me when she becomes distracted. I loved her soft ears after this. This is a cue to be used when there is no time to wait for her to bring her attention back to me, say on a road when traffic means we might need to move quickly.

What I loved even more…I know I’m an excitable geek…was the cue she then gave me that she was ready to go at around 40 secs. There is a lot of talk lately of start buttons giving the horse some control in the training but I always look for the horse to check in first before asking more and in modern parlance this cue is a start button. Rose gives obvious cues to me that she is ready to continue. Sometimes these signals are tiny, observation is everything.

At 54 secs I again add the soft rein cue to bring her attention back to me, softly flicking ears suggests she accepted my request. Towards the end (around 1m) I included a little startle reaction from her, she impressed me with the way she just came back alongside and softened into the walk. All this with builders to her right, Pete the peacock strutting his thing and racehorses exercising up the lane alongside!

So pleased with her progress!

La vie en Rose, more ways to deliver the reinforcer

I try to video every time I work with Rose. Mainly to observe from the outside (it’s too easy to feel the comfort of staying on the inside) so that I can improve but also to document here. I have lots of video to look through. Some of it we’re not even on screen or only every 10 seconds or so! There are some interesting minutes of my back or Rose’s peachy bum. This little snippet has me playing with the reinforcer. I will write about reinforcers in more depth on my blog but this just caught my eye as we were actually in shot. I will one day find time to sort through it all with the editor and publish more progress.

We’re just working on some clean ‘loops’ so that the behaviour happens and is followed by the reinforcer in a smooth recognisable pattern that leads us back to the behaviour again.

I’ll come to you or you come with me?

I’m not so concerned about the behaviour although this is part of a ‘come to me and wait’ loop that I’m building and it’s coming along fine. I’m more interested in the pattern of reinforcement from my hand being smooth, using both hands and with me in different places in relation to Rose. I’m adding in a ‘go to the bucket and get reinforced’ which is different for the ‘wait and I’ll come to you’ pattern.

The difference is that in the wait for me to come to you protocol I click, keep my feet still, hand goes in bag and I feed. In the come to the bucket I click and move my feet first and put my hand into the bag as I get to the bucket and throw in the food.

And why take her to the bucket?

Back at the bucket we get the chance to set up a new loop and the whole process starts again.

La vie en Rose, clean and calm food delivery

In my first entry I mentioned that Jenny wanted to help her horse Rose with her anxiety in the arena and when hacking out. Before embarking on behaviour change Rose was checked over by Jenny’s vet to rule out any physical problems that could be triggering her behaviour. Also given the go ahead by dentist, saddler and physio we got started.

I think most of us understand the need to ‘listen’ to the behaviour of horses but often we miss the less obvious, more nuanced conversations they try to engage us in. When we begin to develop a relationship with a horse it can be tempting to ignore some of the obvious signs because we are, after all, human and have an agenda. Horses don’t share our agenda!

When we began clicker training with Rose it was obvious that she struggled to keep calm around food. That might have been because she had a previous history of being hungry. Perhaps she was pushed off food by other horses. Maybe she had come to understand that hand fed treats could be ‘nudged’ out of the human with her nose. It’s usually impossible to know for certain the reasons for behaviour happening. The first protocol is to avoid any potential triggers for the behaviour. The obvious trigger to avoid in this case was hand feeding.

The purists might be shaking their heads at me (they shake their heads a lot). I should be good enough as a trainer to design protocols that allow for food reinforcement that avoid triggering Rose’s anxiety. Yes that’s true and often I would be in agreement but if you have a green horse and a green clicker trainer, what then? My remit as a certified behaviourist is in line my ethics; to apply the LIMA strategy with all clients, horse and human.

Improving Rose’s anxiety around hand feeding for clicker training was going to need more training competence than Jenny had at that time. To avoid the whole training scenario becoming highly aversive to Rose (and therefore Jenny) we needed to cover some basics first. We had already begun the bucket game so Rose could begin to associate food with Jenny but without the stress of hand feeding. This becomes helpful later when different food delivery techniques (like throwing food into a bucket or on to a mat) can help build movement into the training (more in future on this).

Rose now has confidence to play buckets alone

Jenny spent time with Rose wandering down their quiet lane to hand graze. We built this up slowly adding distance and duration to avoid triggering any separation based anxiety. We added some ridden hacks (starting off at metres rather than kms from the gate) with me on foot and rose walking alongside.

At the same time (and outside of any handling procedures) Jenny began work on safe food delivery. Using protected contact at the gate Jenny learned the protocol of cleanly offering food in an easily repeatable manner. This is so important… clean, repeatable and not contingent on any new behaviours. The only behaviour the protocol relies on is calmly waiting for the food. To begin with the food is offered at a superfast rate, to the onlooker it looks like the human is just pumping food in faster than the horse can eat it. This avoids triggering the anxiety that surrounds hand feeding. Rose quickly began to understand that food came from Jenny without any need to demand it. With my help Jenny was able to shape a soft head forwards posture while Rose waited for food. The context was moved from the gate to free in the arena; each time things changed we returned to a superfast rate of reinforcement to help Rose adapt to the changes.

It was essential that both Jenny and Rose understood the food rules. It is vital that we remain consistent when offering food. Inconsistency is one of the biggest triggers for anxiety and it is up to us to be consistent. Horses, like all non-human animals that don’t have complex verbal communication, will spot your inaccuracies even if you don’t! Videoing sessions can help identify short comings so I regularly video myself and Jenny.

Some people prefer to only offer food from a bag or container, others from a pocket or special jacket. As long as the rules are clear it shouldn’t matter. The rules are what keep anticipation anxiety low, not where you keep the food. If the training context allows for it then having secure boxes of food placed around the edge of the arena, that only you the human can unlock, often works brilliantly. If your horse only gets food during training from a bag at your waist then putting on that bag is going to suggest that food is on offer and that can inherently cause anxiety. It is our job to write the rules and stick to them. If we don’t then we’ll be caught out by the super observation powers of the horse.

Jenny also worked with the handsome Travis, Rose’s buddy, who is a completely cool dude around hand fed food. It’s so helpful to have practice with other horses and even other species! Although we are yet to start training Pete the Peacock!

Pete, always on hand to create a spooky moment!

Jenny has done a great job with Rose’s hand feeding, she is now calm and patient when given food during training from the ground and in the saddle. Our clicker training began again a couple of weeks ago. To begin with I set up an area for us to work, close to Rose’s favourite spot of her ramp – an elevated area that is rather heavy to move. Unfortunately it is right next to a building site, Rose gets distracted but is coping with it well. I have set up blocks for us to work around in what I think folks refer to as a reverse round pen. The area leads directly from the ramp and back to it. This is our first video where I began to set up the rules about the way I would offer food. Rose came to the ramp herself (this is a highly repeatable behaviour for her) once I was stood in the centre of the block area. She glanced at me so I clicked and came forwards to remove the head collar…play time.

I used a high rate of reinforcement, clicking before offering food, associating the sound with the food. Building up a good history with no opportunity for her to become anxious about the food. This is a short clip (to save death by boredom of watching paint dry) of a longer procedure. I was happy with her calmness, noted her distractions as the builders made noises and then released myself from the game with multiple clicks and some food on the ramp so that I could cleanly leave the arena without any fuss.

Important things I noted from the session:

  • Rose was happy to come to the ramp with me close by, if she doesn’t then I should consider whether I work with her
  • Rose clearly glanced at me which might be perceived as a let’s go signal, I’ll keep a look out for that and potentially develop it
  • Feeding from a big open bag at my front worked well
  • Carrots and apples seemed to be equally well accepted
  • Making a clear, almost exaggerated, hand delivery from hand resting outside of the bag before clicking to an outstretched open palm under her nose after clicking seemed acceptable to her
  • Offering the hand and food lower encouraged a lower head position
  • Offering food higher made no difference to her calmness, she remained calm throughout
  • Feeding from either side of her followed the same protocols but my left hand is undoubtedly less smooth so I’ll work on that
  • Next time I need to vary the position I stand in or that will become part of the cue for food

This progression does not comprise of huge steps ever skywards, it is painfully slow and in such tiny elements that a blog can’t really get over in its true real time. We went on to some very basic target work in the next element of the session which I’ll talk about more in the next entry. A short sweet return to the clicker.

La vie en Rose, a road to positivity

Trudi Dempsey Equine Behaviour Consultant

In the beginning

When I first met Jenny she was searching for a new way with her horses, looking for something she just couldn’t put her finger on. Together with her horses she has embraced massive changes. The horses now live out with field shelters, no shoes, mostly without bits and with plenty of enrichment in their environment. There are plans for an area of track to be created to help with limiting grass at the risky times of year. Who wouldn’t want to be working with an owner like Jenny!

Rose exploring smells and food at the far end of the arena

Jenny has kindly allowed me to document the time I am spending with Rose her chestnut cob mare. As we go I’ll share some of my reasons for doing things the way we are. I’ll explain why some things didn’t work and how I could do better. I only ask that if you want to discuss amything (I’m always keen to learn) you do so after reading from the start.

Back story

When Jenny met Rose she was told that she didn’t like school work. Out hacking it was said she would back off unless you were confident with her. Too confident with a whip and apparently she would stand on her hind legs. I’m proud to say that Rose has never stood on her hind legs with Jenny. Nor has she reacted to a whip as we don’t carry one. She has learned to feel comfortable in an arena; not yet a completed project but underway.

To begin with Rose quite naturally reacted to every noise or distraction when in the arena. A horse getting used to her new environment this wasn’t surprising. It’s a quiet spot in the countryside with passing horses, the odd tractor, pheasant shooting and hunting in season. Pete the peacock is resident and has the knack of floating down into the arena on a breath of air when least expected or welcome!

R+ isn’t the first place to start

Some time ago, I worked with Rose and Jenny to begin some positive reinforcement (R+), clicker training. We delayed the project as Rose became tense and frustrated. Jenny is a novice clicker trainer, Rose a novice horse (in all ways) so although I believed it would work the time just wasn’t right.

So in preparation for being able to use R+ in future we continued to create the right envioronment for Rose to flourish.

Rose’s shoes were removed and along with her field friend, Travis, she was given 24/7 access to a large dry lot with access to (depending on time of day and year) field shelters and different surfaces- sand, stone and grass.

We introduced games into both horse’s weekly routine to help with confidence and calmness. As Rose was particularly concerned about the arena one of the games we played was the buckets game – Jenny would put small amounts of food into different buckets and then help Rose to discover them. The intention being to create a belief in Rose that Jenny could ‘unlock’ good things for her. Finding food in the buckets is never contingent on any behaviour other than being in the arena with Jenny. No tack, no force, just waiting until Rose finishes exploring a bucket before helping her discover another. Quite soon Rose was confident enough to explore the whole arena (even the spooky end) on her own.

Don’t give up

We still use the buckets game before every arena session and on days when Jenny isn’t planning any other work or enrichment. That’s because being worried about working in an arena doesn’t just disappear in a few weeks (listen up lovely clients who stop the behaviour strategies a week after my last visit!) plus it also acts as a barometer of Rose’s anxiety on the day. If she isn’t happy to go to the buckets at the far end of the arena and investigate then we won’t ask her to go to that end when we’re working with her. Increasingly she is happy to access all areas of the arena although the far end with its trees and view down the lane can still produce triggers for her.

Trudi Dempsey Equine Behaviourist
Jenny and Rose playing buckets

We worked with the lightest touch and lots of patience to create basic cues. These helped with in-hand walks out and short ridden hacks. Beginning with tiny walks out on a loopy rope to taste the hedgerow benefits and later micro hacks that extended over time into full circuits with me on foot or a friend on horseback. Sometimes she will stop on the drive leaving home or stop mid route. Jenny waits, lets Rose take a look and then asks her verbally to walk on. It is still very much a work in progress but it has already reaped rewards.

Hacks in-hand for confidence

Although Rose has made such huge progress there are still some areas I’d like to help her and Jenny with and so I have started her R+ work again. In the next instalments I will explain how Jenny has worked on safe feeding by hand protocols, clearer communication through her cues and explain some of the R+ basics that I’ve started with. Until the next time, Trudi