Problems With Lateral Flexion

In this video I discuss the problems that teaching lateral flexion to young horses creates. Primarily it causes a disconnection between the inside rein and the hindquarters which leads to crookedness and unbalanced circles and turns. This can be overcome by asking for flexion but allowing the hindquarters to yield in response to the inside rein alone (not using leg pressure), instead of insisting the feet stand still.
 

Different Types Of Try In Horses

I received a request to re-post this article. So here it is.

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Previously I have said that the easiest horses to train are the ones with ‘try’. By the word ‘try’ I mean they possess a readiness to search for ways to escape or evade pressure. So when we ask something of a horse by applying a little pressure the horse feels it is important enough and they are motivated enough to search through all the available options of responses to eliminate the discomfort that pressure has created. That’s what I mean by the term try and that’s what makes those horses more trainable.

 

I think there are 3 categories of try in the horse world and within those, there are sub-levels, which I will try to explain as I go along.

 

There are the horses with a lot of natural try.

 

These are often horses that are pretty sensitive and the thing they are sensitive to is pressure. It usually doesn’t take a lot of asking for them to try something. In fact, one of the issues that people have with this type of horse is often an over-reaction to pressure or anticipation ahead of the pressure. This is where the term “hot horse” comes from. Often their response to being asked something is disproportional to the amount of pressure used because of their worry about pressure. That’s the downside.

 

However, the upside is it usually doesn’t require a lot of pressure for them to search for a new idea and a way of responding to our requests. They try one answer and if that doesn’t result in peace and tranquility in their life, they try another. Then another and another, until they find comfort.

 

Horses like this are quick learners if handled correctly. Nevertheless, if our timing and feel are poor then we confuse them and stress them even more than before. They can quickly turn from sensitive to crazy and passed from person to person until either finding the right owner or going for slaughter. Unfortunately, this is too often the fate of retired racehorses and other victims of human error.

 

Sensitive horses have the potential to be the best horses in our life, but they are not suited for inexperienced people for the reasons I have already stated. Where it goes wrong is people’s inability to recognize a try in a horse and either miss it all together or they are inconsistent with their releases and confuse the poor beast until they have a meltdown. A lack of clarity is a huge stress in a horse’s life and sensitive horses with a lot of try suffer the most for this human failing. But given an owner with empathy, patience and good feel and timing, they can be amazing.

 

The second category is with horses that have very little try in them.

 

These horses are not inspired to search very hard for answers to questions that pressure presents to them. I believe there are two types of horses that exhibit this behaviour.

 

The first is the stoic horse. These are horses that came out of their mother with not a lot of “care factor.” They absorb pressure and trouble and store it up inside until their cup of worry is ready to overflow, then they erupt – and erupt big. But in the lead up to the eruption, they appear to be calm and quiet and not care. A rider can add layer upon layer of pressure and they shrug their shoulders as if to ask if we were talking to them.

 

A lot of people who have had bad experiences with sensitive horses eventually become attracted to the stoic horse. They feel safer because these horses don’t have a hair trigger when we get our feel or timing wrong or we present too much pressure. These make the perfect kids pony or babysitter for a novice rider.

 

The downside is that every time we want to teach them something new or change their thoughts or established patterns, it’s a lot of work.

 

The second type of horse that often shows very little try is the shutdown horse.

 

These horses often start out as sensitive with a lot of try but become shutdown with very little try because of poor training. Through insensitive training, they have learned the futility of having or expressing an opinion. Unlike the horse born with a small care factor, these horses have a lot of care factor, but it is drilled out of them until the mentally disengage from us and what we ask of them.

 

The most common way I have seen of killing a try in these horses is through drilling the work over and over and by flooding with pressure. Flooding is where a pressure is presented to a horse and not removed until the horse submits. An example might be to throw a rope over a horse’s back and keep throwing it until he stands quietly before you stop throwing the rope. A horse can learn to eliminate the pressure of the rope by not moving, yet the rope may still worry him. He is learning the futility of resistance and the futility of searching. It builds a mental and emotional wall around itself to keep people out. It is really difficult to have a good relationship with a shutdown horse because it will not fully mentally engage with humans.

 

There are other ways of turning a sensitive horse into a shutdown horse (such as continued poor feel and timing, impatience, use of ever increasing driving pressure etc), but the important point is that while these horses may appear just like those with a small care factor, they actually have a large care factor and are sensitive in their nature. It is the combination of their sensitivity and our poor training techniques that cause a horse to shutdown. This potentially makes them very dangerous when they erupt.

 

The final category of a horse’s try or ability to search through its options is the one where their established behaviour or set of responses to pressure are tightly linked to their perception of life and death. This is beyond being sensitive because instead of searching through the options to safety and comfort, as a sensitive horse is prone to doing, these horses will repeat the same responses and behaviours over and over in fear that a change will get them killed. They are so convinced that what they do is the reason they have lived so far, that all other options are off the table. Unlike the horse the stoic horse or the horse born with a low care factor, these horses choose to not try through their certainty of what it takes to survive. It is their survival instinct that suppresses their trainability.

 

This category of horse is hard to work with and in my experience is best handled with incredible patience and by going back to the absolute basics. Nothing is overlooked. Each micron of change is covered step-by-step and consolidated before going further. It is important that these horses feel confident and certain that each little change is the best path to safety and comfort. If you leave a step only half done and only half certain that it was the right step, the horse will revert and fall apart at some point in the future.

 

I have sometimes said that the thing we most like about a horse is also the thing we most dislike. A sensitive horse with a lot of try can be taught to work off a thought, which is fantastic. But equally they can have a hair trigger to a meltdown and that can be a problem. On the other hand, a stoic horse with very little try can be solid and can absorb a lot of trouble before over reacting, which makes some people feel safe. However, good luck trying to get them to be soft and responsive in the way a sensitive horse can be.

 

Of course, most horses are a mix of categories and don’t fall strictly into one or the other. In an ideal world, I’d be looking for a horse that had a lot of try and a little bit of stoicism. But until then I’m happy to take responsibility for the amount of try my training puts into any of my horses.

 

Photo: A try in a horse is directly related to its propensity to search when faced with a dilemma.


Reward - Is It What We Think It Is?

This was oroginally posted 2 years ago, but the subjec came up in a recent discussion, so I decided to repost it. I hope it is of interest to you

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Mostly when I think of rewards I think of food rewards because they are easy to understand, but I think the ideas bouncing around in my head can equally pertain to other forms of reward such as removal of a pressure (negative reinforcement) or the addition of a pat or scratch (positive reinforcement) or a softly spoken kind word (such as “good boy”).

 

Humans think of a reward as a prize or gift for doing something right or doing it well. It is a bonus prize intended to encourage us to keeping doing well.

 

However, I don’t think horses view a reward in the same way that humans do. For example, if I gave a person a box of chocolates for the help they gave me, they would see the chocolates as a reward and feel good about helping me and feel better towards me. Yet if I gave a horse a slice of apple for coming up to me in the paddock, they see it no more as a reward than they do the grass in the paddock. There is no ‘thank you’ in the horse’s thinking in accepting the apple. A horse doesn’t think of me as a nicer person or better friend because I was the source of the apple. A horse thinks of the apple as his to eat because what other possible purpose could the apple have?

 

Food is a very powerful motivator of behaviour. I believe it comes second in importance in modifying behaviour after safety and comfort. Eating is part of a horse’s primordial nature. They find the offer of food difficult to turn down. Even when their bellies are full I’ve never seen a horse knock back an offer of a carrot. It’s there for the taking and they take it because that what horses do. A horse does not see the carrot as a reward, but as something to grab while its available. The need to eat is closely linked to the need to feel safe and comfortable. It is not a bonus treat. Similarly the removal of pressure is linked to a horse’s sense of safety and comfort and is likewise not a reward but a basic need.

 

In my mind I think the conversation inside a horse’s mind goes something like this.

 

Horse: “Hey, give me a carrot.”

Trainer: “This horse is not trying hard enough.” No carrot is forthcoming.

Horse: “Bastard. Okay, what if I stop moving. Now give me a carrot.”

Trainer: “That’s a better try.” Trainer offers a carrot.

Horse: “Finally! What took so long? Give me another carrot.”

 

This is what I think is the conversation inside some people’s mind.

 

Horse: “Hey boss, you’re looking good. Can I please have a carrot?”

Trainer: “I’d like to give you a carrot. I really would, but could you please try a little hard?”

Horse: “Okay, I’ll try to stop moving. Now can I please have a carrot?”

Trainer: “What a good boy. Here’s your reward.”

Horse: “Thank you. You are so good to me. I love you and will try even harder next time – cross my eyes and hope to die. BTW, have you been working out?”

 

You could just as easily substitute the offer of a carrot with the release of the reins or something similar.

 

So why does any of this matter? Are we just talking semantics?

 

To a certain extent, I think it doesn’t matter if you call the addition of a positive stimulus or removal of a negative stimulus a reward or release or relief or any ‘r’ word you choose.  The way we use these training principles is more important that the titles we give them. However, in another sense words do matter because they influence attitudes.

 

To give somebody a reward has the connotation of giving them something they are not normally entitled to – a gift. But horses have no concept of a gift. By using terms like reward we are thinking we are doing something nice for our horse, yet a horse is thinking no such thing. What we view as a kindness towards our horse, our horse views as “it’s about bloody time.”

 

I don’t know how many times over the years I have heard people tell me that with all the nice things they do for their horse, you’d think their horse could make an effort. But of course, horses don’t think like people want them to think.

 

There are potential side effects from thinking of removal of a negative or addition of a positive stimulus as a reward. Sometimes (without even being aware of it) an attitude creeps into our thinking that a horse should be thankful for all the rewards we have given it. When a horse is difficult or disobedient the word ‘ungrateful’ can pass through our minds. If this happens it is easy to get angry and even use punishment to change a horse’s behaviour.

 

I witnessed a well-known trainer in America (who used food treats to train horses) punch a horse in the face because it bit her in an attempt to get more ‘rewards’ from her pocket. To me, the horse did exactly what being a horse programmed it to do. Its behaviour was no different to a horse who pulls on the lead rope because it sees grass a few metres away. Food is not a reward; it is an essential of life to a horse – like breathing.

 

I think the point I’m trying to make is that even though we talk about rewarding a horse for its effort, as an essential element of the training process the concept is entirely foreign to horses. How much this affects how we apply a reward will depend on how much emotion we attach to the term.

Wind Sucking

I have come across a few horses in my working life that were committed wind suckers or cribbers, but I have never owned one so you can take my comments with as many grains of salt as you like.

 

Most of us already know that wind sucking stems from stress. It is not a one off response to a one off stressful experience, but a habit developed slowly over a period of time in response to chronic stress. It can be triggered by prolonged confinement, isolation from other horses, lack of movement, stressful relationship with humans etc. It has even been suggested it can be caused by chronic ulcers and gastric inflammation, although the last I checked this was more a theory than a fact. I personally suspect that it is wind sucking that leads to these ailments, not the other way around.

 

But the thing to remember that once a horse has developed the habit of wind sucking it stays for life. There is no cure.

 

Some horses are more prone to developing the habit than others. But I don’t think there is an overall pattern, other than those horses that live a life of stress are more likely to wind suck, that will help identify a potential wind sucker. In my experience, it is rare to see cold-blooded breeds or ponies that wind suck.

 

It seems to begin in early life and early training and it is uncommon to see older and mature horses begin to wind suck if they haven’t done it before.

 

A horse can be stopped from wind sucking by removing objects it can bite down on, but I have seen horses bite on dirt when nothing else was available. People often fit an anti-crib collar to their horse, which makes it difficult for a horse to gulp in air, but once the collar is removed the habit will return.

 

Wind sucking is a coping strategy that a horse uses to get through life. I have never known it to be reversed even when the stress is gone from a horse’s life. Once it starts it seems to be for life. So given that it is a mechanism to relieve stress for a horse and that it can’t be undone, my view is that we should not try to prevent a horse wind sucking using gadgets and removing things that it could use to wind suck. It will not help a horse feel better and can only exacerbate the problem by eliminating the horse's ability to use it’s coping strategy. I know that is an opinion that many will disagree with.

 

In my experience, wind sucking does not interfere with a horse’s ability to work well or be highly trainable and thrive. The problems with it are often more about how we view it than any harm the horse suffers.

 

But that’s not a blanket endorsement of doing nothing. Wind sucking does have negative consequences in a few horses. One thing that can happen is that a horse will wear down its front teeth prematurely by biting on posts and other objects. I’ve seen 12-year-old horses where the front teeth have been worn down to stumps that you’d only expect to see in 30+-year-old horse. In addition, wind suckers can eat away wooden posts and rails until they are turned into nothing but a pile of splinters. The dental issues and the decimation of fences could be one justification for removing a horse’s access to these objects.

 

The other problem that sometimes occurs is that horse can have difficulty putting on weight and develop gut complications. Horses that wind suck a lot are prone to accumulating non-digestible debris in their gut. It can be dirt, wood fibres, plastic, sand etc. If this gut trash is not passed it can cause absorption problems, colic, and gut inflammation. A preventative treatment such as an annual drenching with paraffin is not a bad idea in these cases.

 

With a horse that wind sucks I think the best management would be to let it live in a large paddock with plenty of friends and high-fibre grasses. That way it will experience lower stress, better nutrition and plenty of exercise. If this is possible, I see no reason to worry about most horses that wind suck.

Pressure Or Cuddles?

I am going to make an assertion that might surprise and perhaps even upset a few people. That is, horses do not need to bond with people. As long as a horse’s basic needs of food, water, and companionship are met, they couldn’t give a farthing if they never saw a human in their entire life.

 

But people are different. Most people want to bond with their horse. In fact, they get upset if they feel their horse doesn’t want to be with them. In an effort to fulfill this need people repeat the mistake over and over again of avoiding doing enough to help a horse change its thought because they don’t want to upset their horse or induce anxiety in the horse. They don’t want to do anything that they think might cause their horse not to like them. But this is making horse training all about the human's concerns and not about the horses. It is both an ignorant and selfish approach to training.

 

Some people who read my essays about training principles and watch my videos come away with the mistaken view that my training and my clinics are all rainbows and cuddles. But I am not that sort of trainer. I am the sort of trainer that will do as little as I can to get a change of thought, but as much as necessary too. That means that sometimes I am applying so little pressure that people can’t see what I am doing and other times it means the pressure gets to earthquake proportions, with most of the time it is somewhere in between.

 

In the past a small number of people have expressed confusion and even concern at how much pressure I applied to some horses. They felt what they saw me doing was not consistent with the ideas I espoused in my essays. So I want to say a few things about this.

 

Firstly, as I have written in my book, The Essence Of Good Horsemanship there is no such thing as kind or gentle training. All training requires a certain threshold level of anxiety in a horse in order for it to stop one behaviour and replace it with another. The amount of anxiety required to make a horse think what it is doing is no longer a good idea is the same for every horse. However, the amount of pressure a human has to apply to reach that threshold level of anxiety can vary hugely. So just because one horse will change its thought with a wiggle of a finger and another horse will require a whirlwind of energy from a swinging rope, does not mean one method was more aggressive or violent than the other from a horse’s point of view. They both added the same amount of worry in the respective horses to create a change of thought.

 

Secondly, when it comes to horses the end mostly does justify the means. By that I mean, if a horse finishes a session in a better emotional place and with a clearer understanding of its role than it had in the beginning, then it is hard to judge the way that happened as inappropriate or wrong. Remember this is about how the horse feels, not how the human feels.  If I can get a good change in a horse in a short time by using firm pressure or achieve the same result over a much longer time using much less pressure, I am going to get it done sooner rather than later. I don’t feel it is fair to leave a horse feeling crappy any longer than necessary just because I don’t like using more pressure. I’m not saying it is wrong to do less and take longer if that is where your skill level is, but I am not going to let my horse flounder any longer than I have to simply because I want to avoid being firmer.

 

The reason most people come to a clinic is because the things they have been doing with their horse is not getting the results they have been seeking. An owner puts trouble in their horse and many times leaves it there until a behaviour becomes habitual, then gets upset if a trainer has to apply more pressure than they would like to get the horse to think of changing their idea and behaviour. The look at the trainers as being cruel and aggressive, but don’t see fault in themselves for creating the situation in the first place and leaving their horse troubled for days, weeks and years.

 

Horses don’t care about how much pressure we use provided there is clarity and quieter emotions at the end. Horses don’t care how they got there, just that they feel better because of it. So a horse does not carry the worry that pressure might induce any longer than it takes for the change of thought to come through. Once the change of thought occurs the emotions are quelled and clarity is obtained. A horse does not fixate on the pressure that was applied any longer than that – whether it was barely perceptible or highly charged. The amount of pressure required to get a change not what is important to a horse. The pressure only becomes a problem if we don’t use enough to change a thought or we use too much to change a thought. You only have to watch horses interacting in the paddock to realize that it is not pressure that matters, but the clarity at the end.

 

It is very human to want to make sure our horses are calm and relaxed all the time. We want them to like us, so we don’t want to be the source of their trouble. I applaud this notion and try hard to work in that way. However, I don’t believe we do our horses any favours by allowing our desire to be their friend and not upset them with their need for clarity and confidence in following our idea. It never is and never should be about us.