Here are some barn hacks that will make your life easier at the barn in winter. This winter is one of the coldest in Vancouver, BC, Canada since decades. We had a lot of snow too. Not the nicest weather to work in if you work at a barn. (more…)
Archive for the ‘Do’s and Don’ts’ Category
One of the biggest mistakes I see people make in horse training is that they don’t set their horse (or themselves) up for success. Once you know some basics about horse training, setting it up for succes becomes easier. A common mistake is not visualizing what the goal is and planning how to communicate it to your horse.
If you have a goal in mind to teach your horse, the first step to set yourself up for success is making a shaping plan. In your shaping plan you describe your goal, your starting point and how you are going to divide the goal into baby steps in order to built this new behaviour.
Split your goal behaviour into enough baby steps and train every step separately until it is mastered before you raise a criterion. In this way you train (shape) your goal behaviour in a systematic way. Each baby step is in fact a building block of the desired behaviour. So far the theory.
Splitting behaviour is not easy and this is a continues aspect to work on. Even me, after more than 16 years of experience with positive reinforcement training, I catch myself lumping behaviour. Why? Because every horse, every behaviour and every situation is different.
You can’t possibly know beforehand what your horse is capable off, physically or mentally. You only know that until you reach a boundary. Also the training circumstances have a great influence on the learning capability of humans and horses. Teaching your horse something new in stormy weather is probably not setting yourself up for success.
The most common mistake is that the steps trainers make are too big for the horse. This is called lumping. The horse doesn’t understand what is expected from him. When you lump, you simply have raised (too many) criteria, too soon.
How to recognize lumping
It is quit easy to recognize if you know what to look for. You know it is time to adjust your criteria or tweak the setting of your training if your horse shows signs of:
- shutting down
Your horse can get disinterested in you and your training because he thinks he will never earn a treat and simply gives up. Or he can get frustrated: ‘Why don’t I get that treat now, when I did this just a minute ago I got it.’
This also goes for the trainer. If you feel frustrated, anxious, despair, anger or other undesired emotions, just stop for a moment. Take a break and take few deep breaths. Get yourself into thinking mode again. Then figure out a way to split the training into more steps and start over.
Lowering your criteria is not the same as ‘failing’, on the contrary: lowering your criteria in order to follow your horses (or your own) learning curve is setting your horse up for success. A side effect is that you will succeed quicker, too
I don’t think it is realistic to expect we’ll never lump behaviour anymore. It is part of the learning experience: split behaviour enough until you notice a bump in the road. This is when you know you’re lumping. Then you split the ‘lump’ and go on until you encounter the next bump. That is ‘learning’ and it is fun.
Every time you notice that you’re lumping it is a sign that you have experience. Why? Otherwise you wouldn’t notice it and might try to solve the problem with a bit more tack, a whip or other ways to make the horse do what you desire. That is what most people do, I see this happening in the most experienced clinicians too.
Here is a video in which you can see what splitting and lumping can look like:
[Readers who get my blog via their email won’t see the video embedded. Sorry about this. If you want to see it, follow this link to my blog https://hippologic.wordpress.com]
Science of learning
I am grateful I have learned a bit about horse behaviour/body language, learning theory, learning processes and how to motivate a learner (human and horse). I don’t need to force my goals onto my horse anymore now that I have these tool of knowledge and experience.
If my training is not getting me the results I wanted or expected I take a break and regroup. Sometimes my break lasts for a few day or even a week. It doesn’t matter. My horse doesn’t win, if I stop training just because I don’t know what to do at that moment. I am always aiming for a win-win.
Force is never the (right) answer in my opinion. I treasure the bond with my horse too much for that.
For tailored positive reinforcement training advise, please visit my website. I offer online video consults.
Today I visited a beautiful barn with some horses and a goat. I was invited into the stall where the goat lived. The handler had warned me that the goat sometimes headbutts.
It was a friendly goat and she came up to me to greet and was well mannered. She stood in front of me, sniffed me and waited. I thought it was very polite, especially for a goat. They are, after all famous for their love of food and I was carrying pellets in my pocket. Then she kind of put her head gently in my hand. I thought that was so sweet…
I am used to cats and horses, and I am not familiar with goats. Because she put her head in my hands I automatically assumed that she wanted to be scratched behind her ears. Of course I did what she asked. Let me rephrase that: of course I did what I thought she meant.
The goat re-positioned her head, so a few seconds later I was scratching in between her long, pointy horns. As soon as I touched those horns I remember thinking: “Oops, Goats don’t like to be touched on their horns”. Humans are slow and animals are fast, so before I knew it I had accepted the goats invitation to play. Goat play involves a lot of rearing and headbutts. So she ‘attacked’ me. Ouch!
Although she hurt my wrist, she didn’t use too much force. So I think it was just play. She only used a bit more force than I can handle or more than I like. I don’t like headbutts at all!
I realized quickly that I had misread her invite to play for an invite to scratch her ears. I didn’t know what to do or how I could get her stop so I basically jumped out of her stall and quickly closed the door. She headbutted the door quite hard and I was glad the door was between us now. I think she was disappointed that I had left the game so soon. After her headbutting the door I turned around, because I didn’t want to encourage her behaviour in any way by giving her attention. I just didn’t know what to do.
It did make me realize how easy it is to misread an animals’ behaviour if you have no experience with the species or have no knowledge about the natural behaviour of the animal. I thought about novice horse owners and how hard it must be to be around a large animal that you know nothing about and what you know is probably outdated. Sounds scary!
Back to the goat and her headbutting. I suggested we give the goat a playmate or a punching bag to play with. If she had a playmate or thing to play with she wouldn’t have to use humans as playmates. I hope it will work and will let you know if it works.
Have you ever misinterpreted the behaviour of an animal and gotten into trouble? Share your story in the comments. Thanks!
UPDATE: this goat is adopted and lives now among a lot of other goats. 🙂
There is one very effective way to change all horses that are stubborn, dominant, don’t listen, know what to do, but refuse to obey, know their job but don’t do it, are a wuss or are playing us.
What? One solution for so many bad behaviours? Yes!
It is simple too. Change your attitude about the horse.
How would that work? Well, if you label your horse as ‘dominant’ or ‘stubborn’ it sounds like it isn’t your fault, but it also sounds like you can’t influence it. But you can. You can influence his behaviour! It’s called ‘training’.
You can only change things that are in your circle of influence. You can start changing your thoughts. If you change your thoughts in a way that can help you help the horse, suddenly there is no ‘stubborn’ horse anymore. If you can see that he is not stubborn, you can ask yourself questions like:
Why did he do that?
Was he afraid?
What is his motivation? Is he getting away form something or does he want to go somewhere?
What emotions did the horse displayed?
How can I prepare my horse better next time?
You have to take responsibility, which can be scary. The flip side is in this way you empower yourself! You are looking for things you can influence. Isn’t that great? In this way you train the horse, if he is successful, the trainer was too. Unfortunately it is not really accepted to brag about your success as horse trainer, but don’t let that ruin your pride.
One of the things that I like in reward-based training, is that you have to take the horses’ perspective into account. His emotions, his behaviour and his motivation are very important. It is never the horses’ fault anymore and you never have dominant or stubborn horses.
Maybe a better title is “Parents and children in barns”. It is so normal to teach children “Don’t run in the stables, don’t pet strange horses and don’t walk behind a horse”. Does it help? I have seen so many times that parents, mostly moms, keep yelling the same phrases for years. Without results. Why would that be?
I am not a psychologist but I did read a lot about Neuro Liguistic Programming (NLP). The brain works like this: it focuses on the most important piece of information in the sentence: “run”, “pet” and “walk”. The brain has trouble focusing on the negative (the don’t), so the brain processes the rest: “…run in the stables”, “…pet strange horses” and “… walk behind the horse”. Does that make sense? Do you see it happening? Yes, that is how the brain works. Do not think about an elephant. (I’ve always had trouble thinking of an pink elephant). A simple rule is: focus on what you do want to happen in the barn. On how you do want your child to act around horses.
Here are my rules in the barn:
- Always walk in the stable
- Use your “indoor voice”. Horses have sensitive ears.
- Ask permission before feeding or petting a horse
- Ask: “Is it safe?” and wait for an answer if there is a horse you have to walk by.
- You can give the commands to our horse, but mommy click & treats the horse.
These rules were wonderful for a 3 year old. Along the way, kids get more responsibilities and that means rules can change or other rules are added.
Have you ever had the experience that you followed your horses’ lead and you found out something unexpected?
One day my clients horse was very obstructive. He wouldn’t let her mount, he kept walking away and when she finally managed -with a lot of patience- to sit down, he bucked. That was a bit out of character, so I asked her to dismount. The moment she did, her stallion immediately acted much nicer.
I asked her a lot of questions: did she know why he was suddenly bolting? Could he be sore from the day before? Did something change in the herd? Could one of the mares be in heat? And so on. Alle the answers were ‘No’. We decided to check his saddle. In the meanwhile I asked if she had done something out of the ordinary. She said: I saddled him in the outdoor arena. I put my saddle on the (wooden) fence. We checked his saddle and we found a huge splinter/piece of wood in his saddle pad that was bothering him. We got rid of the splinter, saddled the stallion and all problems where gone instantly.
We want friendship, partnership and to be a team with our horse. We always want the horse to listen to us. But shouldn’t we listen as often to our horse as the horse listens to us in a friendship? We are a team, right? Is your partner or team member allowed to vote or have a voice?
First sign your horse wants to talk to you
‘Disobedient’. If your horse needs to tell you an important message, he always will act differently. That is his only way to communicate he needs to tell you something important. I put the word disobedient between quotation marks because I don’t believe in disobedient horses. I do believe they have good reasons not to please us, if they do. ‘Listening’ to your horse isn’t listening. It is observing your horse. He is not ‘telling’ you his message, he communicates it through body language and actions. Remember that.
How to ‘listen’
OK, I actually mean ‘How to observe, so you can get the message‘. First, let go of your own agenda! What!? Yes!
Think about what you want from your horse when he is ‘not listening’ and he is trying ‘to speak to you’, then let your agenda go for a moment. You are not ‘losing’ anything when you give up your goal in that moment. You can only win. The horse wins. It will be a win-win situation. That will strengthen the team spirit.
Focus on what your horse needs in that moment. Open your mind. Focus on what you know about horses natural behaviours and needs. He needs safety, clarity, health, his herd and so on. What do you see: Does he wants to flee, does he freeze, what does he wants to do if you let him? What clues is he giving you?
Give your horse responsibility
Let your horse ‘talk’ to you by giving him a bit more freedom to see where he is leading you. What does his strange behaviour tell you? Can you think of a reason? Focus on his needs. If he is bucking, check the saddle, the saddle pad, the girth, his back and so on. Does he refuse to go into the arena? Where does he want to go?
Figure it out
Try to think of reasons why he doesn’t want to do what you want him to do. Especially when he normally doesn’t act this way. What has changed since the last time you asked this specific thing you want him to do? Did you change something? Did you do something you normally wouldn’t do? Do you think this is related? Can you check that?
Accept ‘not knowing’
Sometimes you don’t know the answer(s). So you can ask your horse again to follow your lead. If he still doesn’t want to please you, follow your gut. Not your ego. Your ego can’t stand that you don’t know the answer to the questions ‘What is wrong, my dear?’, so it will urge you to make decisions that makes ‘you look right’ (make the horse obedient).
Breathe, check in with your gut feeling. Just take a moment or two if you need to. Accept that you might not know the answer, sometimes you will never know. You only will know you did the right thing by listening to your horse and changed your plans or goal for that day. Sometimes you’re lucky and Captain Hind Sight makes it clear to you. Then you will be very pleased that you listened to your horse, not to other people.
I have hundreds of examples of listening to horses messages. What are your horses’ stories? I’d love to hear them.