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Posts tagged ‘at liberty training’

Debunking Myths: The Whip is an Extension of My Arm

There are so many myths in the horse world it is hard to choose where to start debunking them. Since I have seen several advertisements on Facebook with videos of horses at liberty and instructors talking about ‘freedom’, ‘connection’, ‘positive training’ or ‘friendship’ while carrying a whip directing a horse with a swishing tail and a lot of tension in its body, I will start with the whip (it-is-an-extension-of-my-arm) myth.

The Whip is only an Extension of My Arm

Equestrians say this and often they add ‘… but I don’t use it to abuse my horse‘ or ‘I only use it to get his attention‘ or ‘It is a useful tool in the right hands‘.

Unfortunately the horse just sees a whip. Or a stick. And your horse has made an association with this tool based on his experience. I think I can generalize here and say most horses have aversive associations with whips and training sticks.

_carrot_or_stick_hippologic

You can call it ‘carrot’ stick, but to the horse who knows perfectly what a carrot looks like, tastes like and smells like, your carrot stick is just a stick. With a string. And it is (or has been) used to touch the horse, not only in a good, friendly way (to give scratches) but also more than once in an aversive way.

That is what negative reinforcement training is: taking away an aversive in order to strengthen a behaviour. The whip or stick is meant to and used to apply aversives with.

Aversive: something an animal actively wants to avoid or escape from

Who hasn’t seen wonderful clinicians that work at liberty with one or more horses. Their horses seem to do everything he wants. They have that magical bond and offer to teach this to you too! But they are carrying a whip or a training stick. Sometimes it is really thin or white. It is designed to be almost invisible to human eyes. But horses watch those tools, those ‘extensions of arms’ closely. You can see that it is that tool that gives the cues what to do, or else…

A whip is (has been) used in the past to apply aversives with. Yes, I mean inflicting pain or discomfort (I mean pain). By waving your whip or ‘just carrying’ it, your horse will anticipate this behaviour because of his learning curve, the association with the whip is based on his experience in the past. Whips can hurt.

Ní Dhuinn Imagery

Image by Ní Dhuinn Imagery

This is exactly why clinicians who work at liberty carry one or two whips in their hands while working at liberty with their horses. It is not magic and it is certainly not positive reinforcement: the horse can tell what is coming next if he does not follow the clinicians orders… There is no magic in at liberty work in natural horsemanship! It is science and it is based on negative reinforcement training.

You are being fooled by the music in the videos, your eyes are distracted by what your ears hear. The music is purposely chosen to trigger wonderful emotions in you and is meant to distract your eyes from what they see: a horse that displays tension in the muscles, swishing its tail, stressed expression in their eyes. or horses that vent their tension on the horse next to them.

Then there is often a voice-over or words to read in the video (also meant to distract your eyes from what the horses’ body language is telling). We all want that magical connection with our horses so badly that we want to see ‘the magic’, we want to believe what they are saying. We all want to hear that we too, can achieve this. We believe the ‘leadership’ and ‘friendship’ myths that they are selling us.

Then, after we bought the program, we refuse to see what it really is: negative reinforcement training. No place for the horse to have a say in their training whatsoever.

We humans are heavily positively reinforced by the Oh’s and Ah’s and admiration from our friends at the barn, so we carry on with it. It also gives us a powerful feeling that a horse -an animal 8-10 times our own size- obeys us. And on top of that, who wants to admit that they are forcing their horse to work at ‘liberty’? ‘No, no It Is An Extension Of My Arm’, I explained to every one when I changed my whip for a training stick. ‘I am just being a good leader’ and ‘I am mimicking the behaviour of the alpha horse or lead mare’ and so on. I believed it myself! The more someone asked critical questions the more I repeated the marketing nonsense I bought into myself. I couldn’t be further from the truth.

Ní Dhuinn Imagery

Image by Ní Dhuinn Imagery

But my heart…. my heart couldn’t be fooled by the smart marketing one-liners. It was that little voice in my heart that kept telling me ‘This is not friendship, this looks more like a dictatorship to me. It is not magic when the horse walks without tack, he really knows that if he runs away from you and your whip/stick that you will react with, more pressure, more running around than ever.’The horse just chooses the smart choice: self-preservation. Being near the human simply means getting rid of the pressure.

Sorry, I am distracted and getting carried away, let’s get back to the whip myth.

I am not saying you are using it to apply aversives with, but in our world I don’t know any horse that has seen a whip but never has had an aversive encounter with it. None. Not even my own horse.  And it is that what I am referring to: every horse in this world will encounter a whip as an aversive tool sooner or later in his life.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

A whip is simply designed to be used as an aversive tool! It is designed to inflict a lot of pain without causing a visible injury. Every equestrian who ever accidentally (or on purpose) has been whipped by herself or someone else knows what I am talking about: it hurts!

What equestrian has never been so frustrated that they used their whip to motivate their horse into the desired behaviour? What equestrian has never used a whip to flick the horse with in case of emergency or to get out of a very dangerous situation? Horses remember those things, even years later!

When you don’t carry a whip around you feel suddenly less powerful and maybe even very vulnerable. I know this is how I felt when I decided to work without a whip or a training stick. Have you tried it? It makes you think about other ways, more creative and hopefully more friendly ways to ask your requests to your horse, your friend.

The reason that a horse responds to a whip ‘as extension of your arm’ is because it has been used as an aversive in the past. And it is still carrying this value. If it hasn’t, your horse wouldn’t respond as well to it.

The riders who claim to ‘only hold it-but don’t use it’ why are you carrying it?

Why is nobody using a peacock or ostrich feather as 
'extension of their arm' in training or riding?

People who claim they ‘don’t use the whip’ are still signalling a threat to the horse ‘behave or else…’ Why else would they carry such a useless device? Isn’t that distracting and interfering with the hand-rein-connection?

_whip-as-extension-of-arm-myth_hippologic

Does it make sense to you? Does it make sense to the horse?

If you need a tool to act only as an extension of your arm why not use something that is not designed to dispense aversives? Something that makes it even impossible to inflict pain, something long and soft like a peacock or ostrich feather? I tell you why: the feather does not have the same power as a whip or stick. As soon as your horse finds out that it is useless to dispense aversives with it will lose ‘its purpose as an extension of your arm’.

It is the same with some dressage horses who will quickly learn that their rider won’t use their whip as soon as they are riding within the small white dressage ring fences. They become instantly dull to the leg aids because they know there will not be a ‘follow up’ with the whip. The rider is negatively punished by the use of the whip because it can cost points. The horse has learned that he is ‘safe from the whip’ in the dressage ring. Until that one day the rider gets so frustrated and decides to use the whip ‘really good’ to show the horse who’s boss in the ring….

Most people complain if they have to start carrying a whip or clicker in their hand during riding or training. Why not get rid of it if you don’t use it…

Or, admit the advantage of your whip. Not to me, to yourself. And to your horse (although your horse already knows why you really carry it). Be honest!

_Kyra_en_ik_hippologic
Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
My mission is to improve horse-human relationships by educating equestrians about ethical and horse friendly training. I offer coaching to empower you to train your horse in a 100% animal friendly way that empowers both you and your horse.
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[Riding lessons] Why do kids start with a whip?

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How to… shape behaviours

In positive reinforcement training one of the techniques to get behaviour is called ‘shaping’. In shaping the goal behaviour is achieved by splitting the desired behaviour into many tiny steps. Each step is trained separately (clicked and reinforced).

A criterion is only raised if the previous tiny step is confirmed. In this way you can build a behaviour from scratch (free shaping). You can also shape existing behaviours. This is when elements like distractions, distance or duration are gradually added.

Shaping plan
It is not very common in horse training, but writing down your training steps in a shaping plan is a very valuable tool. It will help you become better at splitting behaviour faster.

If you think before you train, you know what to do when things don’t work out the way you expect. It is much easier to understand/find which steps you skipped and what you can do next time. Even if you don’t bring your shaping plan to the barn, it is much clearer in your head once you’ve written it down.

The questions are:

What is the tiniest step you can think of to train behaviour X?
Next question is: can you split that step into smaller steps?
Then: Can you make it even smaller?

It is not relevant if you think your horse already mastered a particular step. Write them all down. One day you might train another horse that needs step 1 to start.

Start shaping
The easiest way to get experience in shaping is to build on existing behaviour and modify it.

You can work on duration. Example: your horse already knows to lift his foot for cleaning but he is not yet ready for the farrier. You can shape the behaviour into holding his foot for longer periods of time. Each second can be one of the steps to bridge and reinforce.

_keylesson_target_voet2

Not only lifting his foot is important for a farrier, but also stretching the front leg forward will help the farrier trim the hoof properly. Once your horse can do that, you can also start building duration.

You can also shape ‘distractions’ into his training. Your horse can already lift his feet for trimming, but now you want to add people and or horses walking by while you’re hold your horses foot up. Or your horse needs shoes and you want him to get used to the hammering on the hoof or the smell of a hot shoe burning the hoof. Again, start with very tiny steps to implement these kinds of distractions.

Free shaping
In free shaping the trainer teaches a completely new behaviour to the horse, for instance teaching a horse to jump at liberty over a low jump. A horse will naturally avoid a jump if he can walk around it. That is why people build chutes and chase the horses over it with a lunge whip.

Wouldn’t it be great if you can teach him to jump over it because he chooses to? If you can positively reinforce him to go over a jump he learns to like it in the process. After all: there is something in it for the horse (other than the relief of any pressure or threats taken away).

In order to shape the goal behaviour the trainer has to divide this complex behaviour into baby steps. What are the tiniest steps you can think of?

It depends on the horses attitude towards jumps and his experience with them. A general shaping plan for teaching to jump at liberty could look like this.

Each step can be divided into as many steps as your horse needs, for instance moving one step towards the pole must be repeated until the horse is so close he can step over it.

  • Look at the pole
  • Move towards the pole
  • Step over the pole with one foot
  • Step over the pole with two feet
  • Step over the pole with three feet
  • Step over the pole with four feet
  • Walk over the pole
  • Walk over the pole and keep walking for 1 metre
  • Walk over the pole and keep walking for 1 + x metres
  • Trot over the pole
  • Keep trotting after the pole for 1 metre (1+x metres et cetera)
  • Change the pole for a caveletti/low jump and start from the beginning
  • Change the place of the pole/jump and move it from the rail a bit more to the middle
  • et cetera

It can help if you can use Key Lessons like standing on a mat (standing still and sending your horse off of the mat), back up and safe hand-feeding.

Until your horse can trot or canter the arena at liberty and jumps freely and enthusiastically over all the jumps.

Have fun shaping!

Sandra Poppema
For tailored advise, please visit my website

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10 Tools that changed my Training Approach (III)

This is part III of ‘What is so powerful about clicker training’? What changes have I made since I switched from Natural Horsemanship to Clicker Training? In this series I talk about my 10 favourite tools for training horses and how they changed my training approach to a much more horse friendly way of training. You can read about Training tools # 1 – 3 here and read about Training tool # 4 here.

# 5 Mats
One of the 7 Key Lessons I teach my clients is ‘mat training’. Mats are very versatile training tools. First I thought you could just teach your horse to stand on it and that was it. Now I know how much more there is to mat training. You start by teaching your horse to stand on the mat with two front feet, that’s just the beginning.

Turning a whoa-horse into a go-horse
The results of the at liberty mat training made me use the mats for other exercises. I started to ride from mat to mat. She knew standing on a mat meant a break, a click and a reward. Double bonus for my more-whoa-than go-horse.

By using the mats I changed Kyra into a more go-than-whoa-horse because she learned quickly that the faster she went _Keylessonmatwork2the faster the reward came. And the faster she went the more fun it was. Of course I had to teach her the “opposite” behaviour too: I clicked and rewarded a lot for just walking and trotting over the mats and for ‘ignoring’ the mats when I didn’t give her a sign to step on them, too.

Mats are also useful to teach a horse to stand on unfamiliar objects. Horses have ‘feeling’ in their hooves and they use their hooves to test surfaces. A squishy rubber mat will help in building trust, mounting pedestals, trailer ramps, bridges, tarps, water and so on. Instead of mats you can also use large pieces of plywood. Or use them both. Experiment!

Jumping at liberty
Then I used two mats so I could let Kyra walk from mat to mat at liberty. It helped me to make Kyra more active in walk and trot, because she loved to go over and step on the mat.

Then I placed a pole in between the two mats so she had to step over the pole. The pole became a cavaletti and later a jump. In this way I taught her to jump at liberty without chasing her with a whip or using a chute to make her jump. She got the concept of running from mat to mat. The faster she went the bigger reward she got. In this way you can create a ‘chain’ of behaviours’.

In the video the chain of behaviours is: walking of the mat, trot, jump, trot to the second mat where the click and reward follows. You can also see that the mat has become a ‘security blanket’  for Kyra when she was startled by noises outside the arena.  She runs to the mat, not to me. That’s how powerful the mat has become for her. It has become a secondary reinforcer: standing on the mat itself has become a reward for her.

The process of teaching her to jump at liberty was longer this way than chasing her over it each time, but it was worth it. She started really to enjoy jumping and became really crazy and playful, something I am sure I wouldn’t have accomplished by sending her over a jump with a whip behind her butt. Mat training turned out to be very useful under saddle, too.

Other uses
Mats are can be used to teach your horse to ground tie, it’s a good place to use as a starting point for an at liberty exercise or teaching your horse to stand patiently next to a mounting block. _keylesson_mat_training_hippologic

I used a mat in the middle of a circle to reward Kyra for walking a nice circle outside the poles.

I am looking forward to hear about your creative way of using mats in training. Let’s share and inspire one another. Thank you.

To be continued…

Sandra Poppema
For tailored advise, please visit my website

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10 Tools that changed my Training Approach (II)

What is so powerful about clicker training? Why does it work and what do you need to succeed?

In this post I will talk about one of my favourite tools for training horses and how it changed my training approach to a much more horse friendly way of training.

You can read about Training tools # 1 – 3 here.

4 Choices

A scary and yet very powerful tool you can give your horse is ‘choice’._hippologic_choices_clicker_training

When I started to give horses a ‘voice’ by allowing them to make decisions in training I started to learn so much more about them. I was willing to accept whatever my horse was communicating and act on it, too.

I learned what they liked and what not, how long their attention span was for specific exercises, when they wanted to stop training and when they lost concentration learning new things. I use that information to optimize our training. I learned what exercises were so rewarding in itself that I started to use them as secondary reinforcers. You can reward horses with exercises too, you know. See # 5 Mats.

In hindsight my whole relationship with my horse was raised to another level when I started using ‘choices’ as a training tool. Before that I was convinced that I had the best relationship I could imagine. Giving my horse a voice by allowing him to make choices works best in combination with reward-based training. Clicker trained horses in general are encouraged and rewarded for trying out things. It might be less effective in a traditional training approach.

Kyra sometimes indicates that she wants to leave the arena while riding. I take a mental note and after I am done with our arena exercises we end our ride with a stroll along the road. She loves to explore.

There is a wonderful exercise that is called ‘101 things to do with a …’ You give your horse an object, for instance a carton box or a barrel and you click and reward once for every interaction with the object your horse comes up with. For example he sniffs it, one click, he paws it with his right front foot, one click, he only gets another click if he paws the box with one of his other feet. And so on. You can teach your horse to be creative.

I’ve heard riders that give their horses a ‘Please dismount me’-signal to communicate. In the beginning the horses used their newly gained power a lot. Over time they started to use it less and less. I think I am going to teach Kyra a ‘Please dismount me’-signal and see what happens.

Do you use ‘choice’ as a tool? I am curious to hear about what you allow and or if you encourage your horse to make choices?

Read here part III

Read here part IV

To be continued…..

Sandra Poppema
For tailored advise, please visit my website

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

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