Saturday, July 19, 2014

Curiosity to Build Bravery: Part Two

      How do we get our horses to come out of their shells and be curious? And how do we recognize curiosity in our horses in the first place? In this post I'm going to give you a few examples of games to play to increase your horse's curiosity, how to respond to their curiosity and first and foremost how to recognize it so you can reward it!

What is curiosity?
      Curiosity is defined by the want or need to learn something new, to investigate or explore. If you think about horses in the field, they tend to be pretty curious when it comes to new things in their environment. New food, new branches, trees or rocks... new people or other horses too! They perk their ears, snort at the air, look up and down at every angle and eventually go over and touch new things with their noses. Curiosity can sometimes be mistaken for fear in a horse, and sometimes they can be related. A flight animal's natural response to something new is to be afraid, it's what has kept them alive on this planet for thousands of years. But we know now that a horse's natural flight instinct can be trained, and their fear can be minimized and even changed into curiosity.
      The first thing you should do with your horse before venturing into a curiosity adventure, is make sure you have the ground rules laid out in plain horse. Make sure your horse knows how to back up away from you, give to direct and air pressure, and how to move their bum away from you and square up and stand facing you. These are your basic ground rules so you can be safe!
      From here it's time to make some curious adventures in a safe environment. Set out a few new pylons, poles, barrels and jump standards all with a little treat on top; somewhere in an area that you already work with your horse often. Now lead your horse around to each new object, and show them that there are treats on every new and interesting thing! When you approach each new object, make sure you take note of how your horse is responding and don't push past their threshold. Allow them to stop if they feel the need to, allow them to look up and down, put their noses to the ground etc. All you need to do is keep them facing that object; be supportive, understand that sometimes new things are scary. Allow them to investigate, breathe easy and eventually lick and chew in comfort. Only ask for another step forward when they have relaxed where they are. Their first step to show they are starting to be comfortable with the new object, will be when they stick their nose towards it.
      Once they've found their treat, reward them with praise and take a rest with this new found object. Give some rubs, scritches and words of congratulations. It's only going to get easier from here.

      After you've mastered all the new objects in your safe place; take a break. And take some time to recount on the behaviours you just witnessed in your horse. Were they quick to understand the "find the treat on the scary thing" game? Were they weary of all of the objects, or just one? Were they stuck in fear? Did they start to get excited after they realized treats were involved? These are all habits you should take note of so you know how your horse reacts to new things. So now what will work best to help calm them? Did they calm down after having a break, or after hearing your calming voice? Did they prefer treats instead?
      When you are ready to venture outside; make sure you bring your carrot stick with you to use for driving pressure incase things get heated. You need to be able to protect your space if your horse gets antsy, so they will be able to calm down and trust you as their leader. New objects outside can be as simple as a new rock in a new place, a tarp on a fence, a jump box with flowers or maybe a new walking route. Go with confidence, and keep note of how your horse is responding to the new environment. Everytime they stop in fear and perked ears, allow them to investigate what is scaring them. Keep them facing the scary new object, be supportive and wait. When the head drops, or they prop a leg up to rest; they lick and chew and relax, you can walk forward. Maybe a step or two, or maybe they are completely over it and it's time to head on to the next new object. The point is to constantly reward your horse for noticing the scary thing, and to get even more reward for calming down and getting over it. With careful progression, this will bring your horse into a state where new scary things are now new interesting things and only need a once over before they get passed by.
      Many people take this in another direction and instead "block" their horses from seeing new and scary things. They think that they can instead just keep their horse busy and not worry about the scary that is around them. But this is not how horses think, or how they react to stress and fear. By pushing them past scary objects, or by ignoring their fear you are proving to be a bad partner because you are putting your wants over the needs of the herd. By pushing them to suppress this fear, you are asking for trouble later on. They are not developing emotional control or discipline but rather building a ticking time bomb. So one day when they do get a good look at something scary; which you normally would have made them ignore, you are going to get all of that pent up emotional fear all at once. A horse has survived on this planet by reacting to EVERYTHING in their environment; they are hard wired for it. So you can't just train over that by ignoring it, however you can train it to work another way.

      My favourite example of this is with my English thoroughbred, Johnny. When I first got Johnny he was a very nervous and easily scared gelding. He would jump into my lap at the slightest rustle, take off from the smallest sight and ran me over more than a few times. But after doing basic ground work with him, and showing him that he could trust me.. he's learned to "tag up" with me. Every time he gets "scared" of something, he looks, processes, decides and turns to me; tags up and relaxes. By tagging up, I mean that he touches his nose to my hand. He learned this because every time he got scared of something, I didn't get mad. I waited. I supported him, calmed him with my voice and when he would turn to me; I would give him a treat. Now if you know me by now, I always ask my horses to lower their heads and touch my hand before I give them a treat.. So this eventually translated to him as a signal that he was ok, and that once he touched my hand he could relax. Nothing makes me happier than to see him pop his head up at a new noise, perk his ears, look, breathe and then turn to me and tag up. No spook, no running, and best of all no jumping into my lap!

Spirit says "I'm curious about those treats in your pocket!"

      Consistency and practice make the world of difference! Pick your relay of calming measures, make a list of how you are going to respond when your horse reacts. And choose your words, actions and treats wisely. And most important of all; if you are intimidated, scared or nervous at any time; seek the help of a professional. Your horse needs a confident and supportive helper to overcome fear; and to be properly rewarded for bypassing fear and creating curiosity. If you are adding to the fear with your own anxieties, it can make things worse for both of you. Having a good coach help you through your nerves will help you and your horse progress positively! And last but not least, leave your frustration and anger at the gate. Try to understand your horse's fear, and work with compassion. If at any time you do get frustrated, as we all do from time to time, just end your session for the day on a good note and go out to breathe. I will be the first to admit there have been several occasions when I have had to end my sessions with Spirit early because I was too emotional that day. It's better to quit while you are ahead, then to let your frustrations run away with you and end up doing more damage than good.

      What makes your horse's head pop up in a curious fashion? And how do you reward it? I want to know what you do with your horses to build curiosity!

Keep on keepin' on!


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