SuzanneLAA

Aug 012013
 

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!

Suzanne Rogers
– 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

Jul 122013
 

With the explosive increase in people using social media, such as Facebook, I find myself being sent an array of video clips from You Tube. Usually these are accompanied by a message that says “Isn’t this amazing?”, “Isn’t this funny?” or “Isn’t this terribly cruel?”. However, often the message is totally inappropriate considering the content. Although the sender thinks I’ll be impressed, in the, grammatically incorrect, words of the song ‘It don’t impress me much’.

Flying donkey

One of the first things I was sent with a totally inappropriate comment was a photo of a donkey hitched to a cart with a load so heavy that the donkey is hanging in the air from his/her harness (www.onefunsite.com/donkey.shtml). My friend sent me this picture with a message saying “This is so funny, I know you like donkeys so you’ll love this!”. I didn’t love it or find it amusing. It so vividly illustrates some of the problems working equines face – hard work, heavy loads, often in extremes of temperatures with little opportunity for shade or rest. Their owners are usually dependent on these animals to earn enough money to feed their families. I was shocked and saddened that this was being circulated as something funny – and that my friend thought that I’d actually like it!

Nearly 10 years later I had just started working at the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and a video version of the same scenario was circulating – as a ‘funny video’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gCs8-PU4qg). I wrote to one of the newspapers that was promoting it in their online video section: I highlighted the plight of the donkey in the scene and they replied saying that it’s what their readers enjoy! Judging by the thousands of views and comments, they were right.

Last year I was visiting The Palestinian Territories in my role at WSPA, working with the Palestine Wildlife Society in their community project to improve equine welfare. They are partnering with donkey owners in Bethlehem and surrounding areas to explore together what changes they could make to the way they manage and care for their donkeys, mules and horses to improve their welfare and quality of life. One of the community representatives approached me with a mobile phone and showed me the same video of the donkey mentioned above. I thought that he also finds it ‘funny’ and that I’d use the opportunity to discuss overloading with the owners. However, he showed me the clip and then said, through an interpreter, “Isn’t it so terrible? Does the owner not care? Does he know not to load the cart that much?” I was very moved – at least not everyone finds it amusing.

Does the means justify the end?

A more recent example of a video clip with an inappropriate message is a video of a horse competing at high level dressage. Apparently the horse was trained using clicker training and I was sent this as an example of something impressive because so many people know I promote reward-based training methods.

Watching the video I observed a highly stressed horse, mouthing, swishing tail, very tense. I was not impressed. “But he was trained using clicker training” – Don’t get me wrong I think that in the right hands clicker training can be a wonderful and positive training experience for human and horse. However, clicker training can also be done in a way that is not a positive experience for the horse. Maybe the horse had learnt some movements through clicker training, but was it done well? Did the trainer work for long periods frustrating the horse to get the desired movement? Was the horse given the opportunity to walk away to graze or have a break when he wanted to? The video showed a very ‘unhappy’ horse, irrespective of if clicker training was used.

Naturally nagged

A third, and final, example is a natural horsemanship video that was beautifully edited, with soulful music, showing a lady riding a horse bareback and bridle-less. The horse lies down on command and other similar tricks – accompanied by a message “How lovely, something for us all to aspire to”. Again, what does observing the horse tell us? To me the horse looked hyper-vigilant and tense, looking for every subtle cue from his owner. This is most likely the result of being trained so extensively using negative reinforcement that the horse has stopped thinking for himself or exercising choice and has become ‘shut down’, like a robot. Impressive perhaps – but only because this shows how horses can learn to respond to subtle cues.

Impressions

Of course it is generally inappropriate to make assumptions about what happens during the rest of the animals’ lives and training sessions apart from just the few minutes in these videos. However, we should always encourage people to consider what the horses are telling us in such footage rather than the message from the person sharing it.

It is interesting and sad that people are so impressed by what we can make horses do and not by what they do just by being horses. Why do we find it so impressive when a human can train a horse lie down? Because people intrinsically know that as a prey species this is a big deal for a horse? Many people consider dressage to take the horse’s natural movement and put it under control of the rider. However, behaviour is only normal and natural if it is done in context and for the ‘normal’ amount of time. Thus a horse in a field spinning quickly to avoid a threat is natural, spinning repeatedly as a trick is not – yet people so often find such abnormal behaviour impressive.

So, what would impress me?

What would I forward on to other people as an impressive horsemanship? What would I aspire to? I think the answer goes something like this: A video clip showing a group of horses grazing in a large open space. A human approaches and one of the horses leaves the herd and approaches the person with relaxed body language suggesting this is because he wants to, not because he feels he has to. The horse is greeted with a big scratch. Then horse and owner walk off together, exploring the landscape, sometimes walking, sometimes riding. If they meet an obstacle that the horse is unsure of the human lets the horse take his time to consider the situation, rewards calm behaviour and they calmly continue on their way. The horse is allowed to graze and browse, the human might take time to photograph the landscape but the horse quietly waits because they are used to spending such calm time together and as such he isn’t having to watch the human for every small command she might give. This is the type of video I would think as something to aspire to – but I suspect it would never get a million hits on YouTube.