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.

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