Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Spirited Away: Connection Makes the Difference

      I haven't been able to spend as much time with my boys this past month as we've been planning for our wedding this coming weekend... But I got to take my Mum with me yesterday to help hold her baby, Spirit, while he had his feet done. And I got an energy off of him that I've never really noticed before.

      He was considerably more calm with her there; more relaxed and just generally more positive. Usually he is a bit of a rude boy for the farrier; not by any fault of his own as he came to us with particularly painful looking feet. And he's been getting better with every trim, but this trim was so noticeably different. He perked his ears at her, and while she was timing her treats for him to positively reinforce his trimming session... he wasn't just perking his ears at her giving him treats. His eyes were so much brighter and he was just happy!

      My Mum is still learning a lot through the beginning stages of Parelli and natural horsemanship lessons with me. And someday we will get Spirit to a point where she can ride him too. But I can't help but feel that these two were destined to come together. His hurt heart and aggression to the world simmers and settles when she is around. Her innocence and ignorant confidence in her actions makes him feel comfortable. I think this is what kicks in for many horses who "take care" of little ones in camps and lessons; they know they need to be safe and be a leader to protect them. It's really touching to know that this energy can be felt even after the so called innocence of childhood is gone. She's found a connection with him that so many will never even know existed, by unknowingly just being herself with him. What an incredible feeling...

     It's put a deep motivation in me to push my intentions and hesitations out of my being and become only that innocent being, that perfect confidence of just living in ernest. I believe it's what our horses are asking of us from the beginning... And we get so bogged down in ideas of how to train them, that we forget how beautiful their souls really are underneath all that glimmering muscle.

And look how lost she is with him... Beautiful.

For anyone looking for this connection; I implore you to watch the following documentary!
It changed my entire perspective and fueled a very important fire for my passions...

And don't forget to check out our website Nature's Run Equestrian

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Making Yourself Interesting for a Left Brain Introvert...

      The past few months I've been working on and off with a client's left brain introvert(LBI) gelding with some sassy rearing and cow hopping fits. He's great on the ground minus the occasional head toss and snaked neck when doing circles; but under saddle he gets quite upset about asking him to move forward away from his precious grass. Not that he does anything "big" by any means, but it's a battle I'd rather not leave for his 2 little girls to deal with. He's a very sweet soul; but he's learned what he can get away with.
      There are many ways to approach this issue, but I think it comes down to 2 basic values of what you'll decide: encouragement to do the right thing, or punishment for doing the wrong thing. Now I know it seems weird, how do you encourage a horse to not rear? When it's simple really. Go back to the basics. Instead of trying to fix the rearing while you are already in the predicament of a rearing horse; you need to find a way to encourage him to do the right thing. So he would never even think of rearing in the first place.
      So this is where I decided to implement a treating system for positive reinforcement. I also invoked a "no eating grass" rule while we are working rule; so eating encouragement only ever comes from me. In one ground lesson I taught him how awesome I am with my treats; always treating him after he had tried to give the right answer to me, and always being very specific on how he gains a treat from my hands. No mugging, no pushing, no teeth. Only when he was relaxed and standing out of my space would he get a treat to his nose. This is also where I start "tag up" training. Basically before they can have a treat, they have to touch their nose to the top of my out stretched hand. It's how they tell me they are done and are ready for a treat. I stumbled on this behaviour by accident when working with my first horse, a RBE. Now it's a ritual in our work and he uses it as a way to show me he's done thinking about something outside of us too. He'll spook, be gone for a few moments and then when he comes back to connect, he touches his nose to my hand and says "Ok mom, what are we doing next? I'm ready."
      This starts very simply as what you would ask from them when you are playing "join up". Every time your horse comes to you, you reach a palm down, gentle hand for them to touch, and as soon as they do; you lower that hand, wait a few deep breaths and then offer a treat. This allows for 3 very important aspects of trust to occur; you offered a physical connection, a spiritual connection and then a sensational treat. During this time remember to defend your space, once you drop that hand your horse needs to stay standing where they came to a stop in the first place. They cannot walk in to you to get a treat, it has to come to them. This is also a great time to use a "rest" as a reward too. Maybe you just did a 1/4 mile run around and it's time for a breather. Hanging out with you is a great place to have a well deserved rest, and it strengthens your ability to motivate your horse for other things. A horse is much more motivated to work for someone who will let them breathe after a hard work out, rather than a drill sergeant asking for the same boring work over and over.

      Back to our LBI in training. I got him knowing to tag up and how to respect my space to receive a treat. These were two huge achievements for him; he was interested in listening to me! That made teaching much easier. From there we progressed very fast; he was no longer herd bound in any matter when we went missioning away from his buddies, his spook response was to look at what was scary then look to me for direction and tag up (which was always rewarded with a treat and a new objective), he even went for a walk through a puddle (after some serious thought to self preservation, and followed by a loving reward).
      When we went back for some liberty work in the round pen, I noticed a change in him. He was still a bit snarky to one side (though that could very well be his weaker side needing some muscle work), but he was finally in tune with me, not finding ways to fight against me or ignore me. We could walk, stop, turn, trot at liberty; he was interested and motivated. Perfection. He stopped leaping up into transitions, stopped snaking his head and getting angry with me, and instead looked at me with perked ears like "ok lady, what's next?" And best of all, he rarely if ever, tried to reach down to eat grass while we were working!
      That was the best part, because now I know when I go to saddle him again we'll have a plan and an expectation already set in place. No eating grass during work time, and you'll be rewarded for working. And better yet, this is a relaxed and willing partner! He isn't going to tense up and wait to be punished for eating grass during our lessons because he'll be motivated to work instead. He knows that I give good for good, and wait for good to happen patiently. I won't ever punish him for doing the wrong thing, but instead continue to ask different questions until I get the right thing. And then always reward that decision for the better!

      I will update you all next week on how our saddling goes.

      PS, this client of mine has the two cutest mini donkeys in the world! We got to play "donkey join up" as we tried to bring them in for deworming. It's so interesting to see their natural instincts at play with response to us, and how bloody smart they are! After some fine tuning to my body language, we got them to relax in a corner and allow us to cuddle and deworm them. So. Cute!

      As always, keep on keepin' on!

Monday, June 9, 2014

3 Important Values for Equine Stress Management and Mental Enrichment

1 ) Consistency
            The biggest issue I have seen at just about every barn I’ve been to (with a few amazing exceptions) is that horses are first and foremost not treated with any kind of consistency in their daily life. And I know what most are thinking, if they are fed at the same times everyday, and turned out at the same times everyday, and ridden the same every day and so on, how is that not consistent? And the answer is that it is consistent, but only in the physical tense… What’s not consistent is how he is handled; for instance: the person who feeds him is likely different than the person who turns him out, or even who mucks his stall when he is left in, who is likely different than the person who grooms and tacks him up, who is likely different than the person who “trains” him, or rides him. There is a lot of room between all of those people for a whop load of inconsistency. 
            That creates a lot of stress for a horse, they never know exactly what to expect from anyone, and especially when you are talking about a high stress environment like the show world… tempers get lost on a daily basis and for most of us that doesn’t mean a whole lot, we’ve learned to deal with emotional outbreaks because that’s who humans are.. but that’s not who horses are. Horses don’t have emotional break downs in the herd, they have incredible discipline when it comes to their herd hierarchy, and they would not risk being sent out of the herd for having a bad hair day.  
            Here is where we need to become patient in everything we do, we need to leave our humanistic responses on the sidelines and never be a predator to them. Predators are not partners. They are danger. And as long as you are considered a source of danger, you will never have a fully relaxed and willing horse to work with. You are a factory for stress.

      So how do we create consistency for them? For me, it’s pretty simple; your team needs to be on the same page. And they need to have the same core values and learned skills so they can apply them on a daily basis in a similar fashion. Everyone has an idea of what training a horse should be like, and how to do it, and that’s fine. But if you don’t have any consistency in that, you aren’t going to get much past a stressed horse with issues.
      My team is small now, it consists of myself, my family and a few specialized individuals of whom I bounce ideas off of and get valued information from. And while we all have our own place in the horse world, we all follow the same core value. The horse comes first, always. We aren’t in this for the ribbons, the fame, or the fortune (what fortune?! ;) ) we’re in this to make our horses lives the best to what they deserve, so they will work for us in return. By understanding how a horse would react in situations allows us to tailor how we act in situations, so we don’t evoke the wrong response. You cannot expect a horse to be anything but what he is, and first and foremost, he is a horse. Not a sports athlete, not sports equipment or your best friend, he’s a horse. But he should also be your partner. Respecting those two things above all else, will get you farther in training than any amount of years in the saddle will. You respect he’s a horse, so you need to learn to understand what being a horse means. You respect he needs you to be his leader, so you need to learn to understand what being a “horse leader” means too. You can’t just show up and expect a horse to understand you are the boss and he should do what you say, just because. You have to earn it. And you have to work and learn and study for that. But here’s the difference in perspective, a horse expects you to know how to communicate if you want something from him, because otherwise you are just another predator trying to get a free meal. And he isn’t going to stick around for that for long. This is where patience can dwindle for many, and fear and intimidation strike for some… it’s a sad idea that such a large and powerful animal can be so easily intimidated.. But intimidation and punishment only further complex the issue; you have confirmed you are in fact danger. And you have created a more tense horse. More stress.

2)   The Use of Positive and Negative Reinforcement
      In traditional horse training, negative reinforcement has been proven to be the quickest way to train a horse to do anything. There are books and books about how to use negative reinforcement over anything else, because it evokes a response that we perceive as what we want, and that’s good enough for us! Wrong. While negative reinforcement has a very important role in horse training, it also plays a very bad one all on it’s own.
      So what do I mean by negative reinforcement; in school I was taught it is the removal of a stimulus when the desired response is attained. So an example would be; removing a leg aid when the desired response of moving forward is attained. It’s the removal of a stimuli that creates the term “negative”, as it reinforces the action we want. Now this is great, we all use this just about every minute we are around a horse. But here’s the issue; in traditional training methods, that’s ALL they use to train. So what’s in it for the horse? "Oh great, you stopped cropping my side because I decided you were so annoying that I would rather trot forward than stay at this comfortable walk with your annoying tapping"… Is that a mind set we want for our partners? Is that the energy we’re going to take with us into the show ring?
      This is where the most important aspect comes in, the other half of the equation. Positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is the addition of something a horse likes to reinforce a behaviour. So giving a treat to a horse who has performed the correct response on cue. That is how we exclaim YES to our horses. Giving them something in return for them giving something to us.

      Before I continue about positive reinforcement I want to tangent into a quick discussion about giving horses treats, because I get in trouble with this all of the time. People tell me all of the time about how they can’t feed their horses treats anymore because they become nippy, and pushy and grabby.. and my response to that is that you aren’t "treating" right. 
            My favourite example of this is with a marked dangerous horse I worked with last fall. He had injured more than a few people form his sudden outbursts of right brain introversion and was likely going to end up in some pretty terrible hands. I worked with him at liberty extensively before I got in close for anything, as his reactions to any kind of stimulus was to strike, rear, and buck at the cause of the stimulus, and that terrified me. He was the first aggressive horse I had ever worked with, so I was at a bit of a loss. But I put his actions into order, I began to understand him.. and it was clear after a few sessions he was just scared. He was so afraid of everything, he had no thought process and his natural instincts took hold of it all. His kicking and striking was because he had no idea how else to deal with the world around him, no one had taught him anything was ok, just that everything he had done so far was terribly wrong. 
            So anyhoo, I got to work with him on the ground for a bit everyday, and I learned that the way to his trust was with treats and “safe places” to retreat to when he got scared. When I gave him treats though, I was SUPER specific and precise about HOW that treat was attained. He always had to lower his head, infront of his body, not towards me on the side of him, and to relax. He got a release of stimulus when he did the right thing, and then was asked to lower his head, waited for a sigh of relief, and then had a treat appear at his lowered nose. I don’t know why I decided to do it this way, I think it had a lot to do with how scared I was of his front feet and if he decided he didn’t like getting a treat that way, he might’ve struck out at me.. but it became a beautiful thing. I taught him how to breathe, how to relax by lowering his head, and how to have self discpline and to wait for a treat to come to him. He never learned to go looking for a treat, because I never gave him one unless he was relaxed and with a lowered head. Any time we would move away from that position we would just continue working, or I would re ask for him to lower his head and wait. The consistency and precision in this simple task, became the ground base for everything I did with him after.
      Now that said, there are some interesting exceptions to my treat rules; many left brain extroverts can get a little over zealous with their treat motivation; and can become so lost in the idea of finding the right answer for you to give them a treat, that they forget to wait to be asked for something and just start going through ideas that they know gave them a treat before. This can be a little dangerous after awhile, and is not quite what we want, the motivation is for sure, but the auto fire response is not what we want. We want to encourage our horses to wait and listen, wait and ask, and then do. Not just do do do… So some LBEs need a slightly different model, and it really depends on who they are. Some need intermittent treats that are not by any schedule, some need no treats at all, some need other ideas of positive reinforcement.
      Other ways to positively reinforce your horse include allowing them to make the next call, petting their ego a bit and allowing them to make a few decisions, let them know they are still the 49% of this equation. Giving scritches and rubs in their favourite itchy spots, or even just standing beside them and just breathing deeply and relaxing can be enough. Make the decision to do the right thing the best thing they’ve ever done, so they’ll want to do it again. And not just because they have to due to negative reinforcement, because they want to be rewarded, they want to be acknowledged.

3)   Making Everything a Positive Experience
      This is the biggest break through you will ever have for a show horse. The constant drilling of flat work, jump schools, flat work, flat work, flat work.. it gets draining, and worse off it gets bloody boring! We all hate going to work our 9-5 jobs, why wouldn’t our horses? You don’t get Olympic athletes from working a desk job you hate, you get Olympic gold medalists from passionate fire driving every second of your life! We get up extra early to go train because we crave the thrill of the chase, the thrill of that next jump, the adrenaline that pumps us up and keeps us flying. But what keeps a horse motivated? What makes them want and need to work for us, rather than just because they have to… My answer to this is play and curiousity. Horses are driven by curiousity to do just about everything in their lives. 
            Have you ever watched a herd of horses investigate something new and scary? Their ridiculous run back and forth and pause, and stare, and spook and run away and run back and pause.. and stare.  Approaching and retreating, approaching a bit closer, retreating again… until they are stuck in the bloody hay feeder and you swore just an hour ago you were going to throw out because you never thought any of the horses would eat out of it because it was the end of the world as they knew it? But turns out they’re fine?
      How do they make that end of the world moment change into a fun play moment? When does it finally click in their brains that it’s fun, and they should be investigating and playing with it instead of running away from it? That is our ticket. That is what we should be striving for. To be so interesting and exciting that a horse can’t wait to come be with us again, because the last time they were out they partied all night and didn’t wake up with a hangover!
      We need to use this model in our training for showing so we can have enthusiastic horses step off the trailer at each horse show, excited and interested in the day before them. By making every trip to the show grounds, show ring, jump school, anything; super positive and interesting, we can ensure that response in the future. There is a gentle balance here; between asking for discipline and directing that enthusiasm into our pursuits, but also directing our competitive nature into calm patience with an encouraging tone. 

      A prevalent example I see every show season; when we start taking horses out to school at shows, we think we are doing them a great kindness by not participating in any events at the first couple of shows, by just riding them around the grounds and getting used to everything. But what is making them get used to everything? Just because they are there? What have we instilled in them before leaving home that is going to reassure them at this new place; that everything is still good. We’re still safe. 
            By taking time to prepare before the show, before even getting on the trailer; we can ensure a positive experience at the show itself. So how do we do that? Well we know what happens at shows right? There are lots of people, lots of noises, new scenery, new scary objects that in the first second will likely kill us, but could very well be our favourite toy in a few minutes… So what if we made an effort to play with our horses at home with new things every day, until they got so used to seeing new things and loving those new things; that they began to relate new things with something good. We had created that partnership at home with natural horsemanship first, laid the ground work, laid the path with every interlocking trust brick we could, and THEN got on the trailer. But we still didn’t go to the show yet, we just drove the trailer for a few minutes, then parked it in a different place at home, and got off and made that an awesome experience too. And repeated that a few times until it was so exciting we wanted to be on the trailer.. and then when we finally did go to the show, we loved getting off the trailer because there was something new to try outside of it. And better yet, our horses are so excited to be with us because we are so positive, encouraging and helpful that they can’t wait to see what we think of next!

      Too often people get stuck in the same old boring habits; groom, tack up, ride, untack, bathe, graze, back to their stall. Over and over. That same 9-5 job that we struggle out of bed for in the morning. And you know what, for some people that’s ok, and if it’s done right to limit stress on our horses it can be ok for them too! Not every horse wants to be an Olympic show jumper, not every horse wants to be a trail horse.. the same way I’ll never be able to work in an office again, there are just as many who would never be able to work outside in -40C weather either. But it’s important that we find a way to make those jobs our passion, the same way we need to make our horses jobs into their passions. And we owe that to them. 

      My final thought is about how we need to be thankful to our horses for everything they take in stride. Everything they give to us, and everything that they could do to us.. and don’t do. I thank my horses for everything they do out of nature for me, every time they stop and think about that scary bag in the corner of their eye and decide not to spook, I thank their ability to have self control. Every time they perk their ears and get excited about that new obstacle ahead of us, I thank them for the effort, I thank them for the thought. And after every obstacle we conquer together, I thank them for trusting in me to fly with them. To walk along side them, and to be graced in their presence… as there is nothing in the human world that could come close to the feeling of having a 1200lb flight animal trust you to protect them. That shouldn’t be an excuse to build an ego, or become dominant in your life.. it should be a reason to find vulnerability in yourself. To not just see your horse as a mirror of yourself, but see yourself as a mirror of your horse. Allow yourself to trust in them, as they so willing trust in you. Have confidence in yourself, as they have found confidence in you. Be grateful.

Babies! Babies! Babies!

      For 2.5 weeks in April, my fiance and I got the chance to farm sit for a friend... with two expecting mares! I don't know where to begin at how absolutely stressful that all is, but the rewards that we had out of it were far more important than all of the sleepless nights and cranky days...

      There is something magical that happens when the world quiets down, and a new life takes it's first breath of fresh air... when those little knobby knees stretch out and reach for the ground. When those teeny muscles flex and contract for the first time and attempt to support their own little selves high above the ground. When momma looks down at her newest addition and goes straight to work; cleaning, protecting and bonding... When they touch noses for the first time, take deep breaths of each other and bond immediately. Magic.

Baby Gaia....
      So we managed to leave the farm for maybe an hour without someone on site, that switch over between one staff member leaving to go home for bed, and the other staff member taking a wrong turn and being a few minutes late... THAT'S WHEN baby Gaia decided to greet the world. In that one hour of time span where she could've been inside, as opposed to outside in the freezing rain.
      Of course, that's when we showed up. Poor little filly, shivering in the cold freezing drizzle of a muddy shelter. Momma so exhausted and hungry. And Momma Boo (the other pregnant momma herd mate) standing guard at the door of the shelter. And there was us, flashlight in hand... Totally unprepared!
      But we got straight to work, in a half silly, half excited panic. I got the straw out, to make a safe bed and somewhat safe path to the barn so we could get momma and baby inside for the night. And Joe.. stood watch. Totally awestruck and lost in the moment before us. His entire being was so soft and lost; it made me stop to be lost with him. We stood hand in hand and watched baby Gaia struggle to her feet, with Momma Angel helping along the way. Guiding her this way and that, trying to help her find stability.... I've never been so torn with tears before, whether I was so happy, or so nervous.. So excited or so relaxed in that moment, I still can't really say. It was just the most beautiful and heart moving moment I've ever come to know in this life. And it will stay with me always.
      We managed to get Momma and baby inside; me leading Momma and Joe pushing baby along the way. Safe. Warm.
      From here our lives have been a silly bliss; the ups and downs of parenting ;) Gaia was comfortable with us from the start, and became quite the little twinkle in Joe's eye. She would knicker for us from her stall with Momma, and run to the door as soon as you opened it. She would cuddle up to you and lick you all over, grooming your hands, neck and face... once we got her outside she was a little athletic lightening bolt! Full tilt gallops all over the paddocks, over poles and around everything she could manage as a play obstacle. Even under a fence or two...

      And so her story with us will continue for her entire life; as she will be my baby girl and hopefully newest jumper mount when she's old enough...

Here are some of the best moments so far!
Her First Run in the Sand Ring

Our Snuggles

When Joe Wooed Her With The Zelda Epona Tune

First time standing, and got her blanket on!

First time out running with Mum.

First day out in the paddock with her sister!

Another day out in the sand ring.

And how she sleeps with a perfect smile on her face...

She is heaven.

Keep on keepin' on!
Don't forget to check out our website!
Nature's Run Equestrian