In my work as an equine behaviourist one of the main concerns of my clients and potential clients is how long it will take for a problem to be resolved and how much time will they need to invest to solve the problem. Both concerns are of course completely valid and it is important that the horse owner knows and understands the process, the steps involved and the estimated timeline of progress. However, I am often surprised at people’s expectations when it comes to how long it might take to solve a problem.
Some people are very happy when I suggest, for example, that within 2 months, very often sooner, they should see significant improvement but some are taken aback and want to see quicker progress. Their viewpoint is often not linked to how much time they can invest in helping their horse or how long the problem has been going on for. For example, (the following is based on experiences but not on any one client in particular) an owner has had a horse on box rest for eight months due to a long process of veterinary diagnosis and treatment. Every day in those eight months the owner’s workload has been much more than when the horse has his/her usual regime and turnout. The owner has needed to visit the horse more often resulting in early mornings and long nights – they have had to arrange additional feed, additional support to clean the stable regularly, and time investment in taking the horse for in-hand grazing opportunities. After the horse has been given the all clear by the vet for limited turnout he starts showing distress in the field and seems to ‘want’ to be stabled. The behaviour is escalating and the horse is becoming more difficult to handle in many situations to the point where the owner calls me in for behavioural advice. In this illustrative case, we would look at the management routine of the horse, the relationship between horse and owner and would create a phased, step-by-step programme to reintroduce the horse to a routine involving turnout. I might say that if aspects of the management are changed and the owner spends often just 5-10 minutes dedicated training with their horse per day then within 2 months (often much sooner) we would expect the horse to be comfortable to spend time in the field and that if the steps are followed that there would also be an improvement in the other issues. Some people recognise that this isn’t much work needed to solve the problem that is causing them significant time investment (to manage a constantly stabled horse) and that will improve the life of the horse but others say that they don’t have 10 minutes a day to work on the behaviour modification programme. In such cases we can consider other options, bringing other people into the solution and so on but time and time again I am surprised by the reluctance to invest a small amount of time to solve a problem that is causing much more time and heartache, not to mention the compromised welfare for the horse.
The rush to solve problems nearly instantly has been pushed in recent years by various methods of horsemanship promoting their approach with the selling point that it is so quick. Demonstrations introducing young horses to tack and riders in sometimes less than 30 minutes draw large crowds and I’m sure are partly responsible for creating expectations for all problems to be ‘solved’ in a short time. Training has moved away from being seen as a gradual process to something that can change with a ‘recipe’ for quick results. However, is everything as it seems? The answer is ‘no’ – being able to ‘get’ a horse to do something in half an hour in one situation is not the same as having solved an issue. And that is before even considering the emotional side-effects for the horse of some of these methods. Effective, ethical and easiest behaviour modification and training is done through small steps – desired behaviour is ‘shaped’ gradually, building confidence as we progress through the steps.
Another key element is that learning isn’t just turned on or off when we want to define a training session. The inspiring trainer Ben Hart (Hart’s Horsemanship) very correctly points out that every moment we spend with our animals teaches them something. When a horse is tied up in the sun and a pile of hay while we chat to our yard friends the horse is learning that although they can’t move away the yard is an OK place to be as it’s somewhere you can eat and nothing much is expected of you. When we poo pick in the field the horse learns that when their human enters a field it doesn’t always mean that being caught and ridden is the result. It is easy to forget this – for example, one owner’s horse used to pull and break away when being lead from the field to the yard. Every day the owner spent around 20 minutes longer than it should have taken catching and re-catching her horse as they not very efficiently made the journey across a field. To re-train this behaviour would have only taken a few minutes a day and much of that could have been during the walk they had to do anyway but the owner claimed to have no time to do the training. What was not understood, until we explored things further, was that every time they made the journey the horse is learning – even if that is learning that the journey between field and stable takes 20 minutes and involves a break away to see other horses across the fence!
This article is a plea to think about the time we spend with our horses and what they are learning from us in that time, to slow things down and allow ourselves and our horses time to learn gradually in steps building confidence along the way. We don’t have to make time for behaviour….we just need to recognise that the time we spend with our horses is teaching them something, and we need to be mindful of what!
– Animal Welfare Consultant and Behaviourist – Learning About Animals (www.learningaboutanimals.co.uk)
– Trustee – TAWS (www.taws.org)
– Co-Founder/Programmes Advisor – Change For Animals Foundation (www.changeforanimals.org)
– Animal Welfare Advisor – CVA CPD Programme