Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Building Blocks to Breed Bravery - Part One

In my last post I talked about how curiosity breeds bravery, and how important it is to encourage and reward curiosity in your horses. Today I want to talk about different approaches you can take to bring out the curious nature in your horse. Specifically when dealing with a "spooky" object.

Today I had the fun job of defreezing the pipes to the automatic waterers with a heat gun/blow dryer. I knew this scary new attachment to my arm would spook some of  the horses while I was in their stall, so I thought of some silly ways to approach it to make it interesting to the horses instead of scary.
I started by first entering the stall as me (no heat gun of doom), and made sure each horse was ok with my presence while they were comfortably eating hay. From there I stood outside their stalls with the dryer on, so they could get a good idea of what sound it made before it got too close and too overwhelming. From there I walked up and down the aisle a couple of times with the dryer on (my own little approach and retreat from afar)... Yes I looked pretty silly. Luckily no one was watching! The first time I walked up the aisle, I had a few snorts and a couple loud half step escapes from the dryer of doom.. but the second time down I got a lot of heads poking out of stalls... "What the heck are you doing lady?!" Curiosity had kicked in!
Once I had their attention, I started out on each stall to defreeze the pipes. It was very interesting to me to watch the reactions as I was working away. I have found that the majority of the horses were most interested in the object when it was just working away at it's job, and with no direction or intention laid at them. So I put my back to the ponies and worked away. A couple of them decided a corner away from me was safest, until they wanted to eat their hay... then they would mission over ever so slowly, keeping full attention on me at all times, grab a nip of hay and then rush back to their corner of solitude. Now here arises a cross roads, do you work with the spooked horse with intention to have them desensitized to the dryer or do you let them approach and retreat their way around it? Both ways can be positive, but I believe allowing the horse to make the decision to get close to the scary object themselves over time is always the most positive option. It gives the horse the time to think it all through and then decide when they are comfortable to approach it. This also gives them much more confidence to follow the drive of their curiosity! And in this action of their own choosing, you get the opportunity to reward their bravery too!
Another great one I love to play with the horses, especially with clippers, is the "peek a boo" game. In this game you show the horse what is scary while standing near them, then before they can even think about it being scary, you pull it away beside you, nearly out of view. Then you show them again, allow them to almost sniff it, then pull it away back to your side. If you keep doing this, you'll notice something begin to happen... The object stops being scary, and the horse starts being very interested in the object instead. It's a little bit of reverse psychology; "what you think this is scary? Well good, because you can't have it anyway!" Sooner then later you'll have a horse neck wrapped around you in search of those scary clippers, which have unwittingly become a new toy! Try it with your own horse, if you are going to play with clippers, make sure you work with them off first. Then work your way up to having them on. And always make sure you approach new objects as if they are brand new, especially ones that turn on and become something different. Clippers off and silent vs clippers on making noises are completely different things to a horse.
Make it playful! Horses deserve to be treated like the kind, playful kids they are at heart, don't let the instinctual prey animal get the best of you! Instead, bring out the fun!

A great one from two wonderfully intelligent men of our time! I owe so much of my inspiration to Pat Parelli, and my natural horsemanship coach Lindsey Partridge for putting me on this path.
Keep on keepin' on!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Curiosity breeds bravery!

Nature's Run Equestrian is finally on it's way to full fruition! And it begins, publicly, right here.

Each week I will be posting new articles based around Nature's Run Equestrian's horse training model; curiosity breeds bravery!

So to start everything all off, I'll start with a very basic idea of what this all means. And from there we'll build and build each week!

Today's training methods are based on the idea that horses are "fight or flight" prey animals. Which is totally correct, but it's not exclusive! Horses are also very curious and playful creatures, and more often than not, this playfulness creates a very brave animal. Have you ever watched horses out in the field after introducing a new hay feeder? They are absolutely terrified at first, and run in the opposite direction... but after awhile, curiosity sets in and they start to approach and retreat their way over.. until they are basically trapped in it trying to play with every piece of it! So at first, they are a flight animal, but what brought them over to that scary object that sent them running in the first place? Curiosity!
Curiosity is what we need to be encouraging in our horses, so we can breed bravery! But what are we really doing in our "classical training methods"? We're doing the exact opposite! We are telling horses to keep walking, keep bending, stop looking and keep plodding on. In this method we are discouraging curiosity and telling them to shut down. Breeding introversion. We are using "flight zones" to push horses around; which is strengthening a flight response... but then when they use their flight responses to something else that triggers their flight zones (that scary umbrella at 4 o'clock) , we get mad and punish them for doing exactly what we trained them to do!
Anyone else seeing a pattern here?

So how do we breed curiosity? How do we encourage our horses to think before they put 4 feet on hyper drive? We encourage it, experience it, and reward it!

Too often do I see people pulling their horses away from something they are trying to get a better look at. Pushing them past a particularly smelly poop in the arena, or away from the flower decor at a horse show... Your horse is being curious, experience it with them. Let them look, let them sniff, and let them get it all in. And once they've literally stopped to smell the roses (poops in this case), rub on them, take a deep breath of relief, and keep on your way. You can never be in too much of a rush with your horse that you can't allow them these small simple pleasures that will breed great things over time. Giving them this little bit of non-demanding time, which is entirely their idea, gives them a sense of partnership out of the regular dictatorship of horse training models. To breed confidence, a horse needs to have a sense of their own ideas and how having thoughts of their own is a good thing. They need the opportunity to learn that things they stop to look at, stop to smell and stop to experience are safe things, and you will be right there to prove it to them. Horses don't like to have sneaky predators (us) pushing them around things they are nervous about without a good review.

Don't believe me? Next time you are out working with your horse, give it a try! Let them stop to look at that scary shadow in the back, stand safely with them and get some deep breaths out. Reward them for stopping to think about that scary thing and being so brave, rather then pushing them around passed it. Once they've checked it out, experienced it, and realized it's not going to eat them... keep on keepin' on.