Thursday, December 3, 2009

training, respect and public perceptions

The Arabian mare I mentioned in a previous post is receiving some attention on a couple of equine forums. Yvonne often writes little reports about the interesting horse personalites we encounter and how we work with them. She also takes photos and puts them up on the web for all to see. They include the good, bad and ugly which can happen, and are edited only to make them clearer to see. We've also uploaded a few video clips to youtube, mainly in response to questions asked on those lists.

It's great to get some feedback, and we've had some very interesting and constructive comments back from the lists and privately. Due to feedback received, I thought I'd start a series of posts here which might answer some common questions that arise.

I didn't set out or plan to be a professional horse trainer. I've always started my own horses and I rode and competed a lot until a few years ago. Then I was offered work on a horse stud and that work included starting horses there. That was the really the first time I was paid for working horses. Since I left the place three years ago, I've been asked to start and train other horses. Some are horses which I sold as weanlings, but most are unknowns to me.

I used to start horses on my own but these days I have the luxury of help from my friend Yvonne. As starting horses is inherently dangerous, and I'm sometimes here on my own, having someone present is a safety issue in case something goes wrong. Also, there are so many times when an experienced person standing next to a horse when I do things (like get on for the first time) will prevent the horse from getting bothered in the first place. We bounce ideas off one another, we tell each other stupid jokes and sometimes we just go riding together.

We're working with a fair variety of horses. Just old enough to start to fully mature. Mares, geldings and stallions. Straight start from nothing and barely handled to previously started but having problems. Pasos, Saddlebreds, Arabians, Spanish Horses, Icelandics and others. There is never a dull moment. We ususally don't work more than a couple of outside horses and maybe one of ours, so we have plenty of time for every pupil.

Facility wise, we have good basics. A 12 x 16 metre yard made from steel panel (relocatable), and two adjacent yards. There are 3 additional yards (one with crush for pregnancy testing of mares) and a sturdy tie-up rail. And a shed which houses the gear.

I have a good size collection of saddles, bridles, bits, things and more thing. But our daily working equipment is very simple. A selection of rope headstalls which are nice and thin so they can be worn under a bridle. A good weight long rope with beautiful feel. Two lunging cavecons, different weight and feel. A tying up strap and a heavy rope headstall for tying up. A dressage whip. An old roller and a crupper. Two basic bridles with medium thickness snaffle bits. A couple of nosebands/sidepulls with heavy rope reins. My faithful old Syd Hill Superdrafter saddle and a decrepit old Wintec which is the first saddle we put on a horse (because it's light and expendable). Aside from that, we have a selection of thick saddle pads including spaghetti cloths (Easy Clean Go Between).

We do not use sidereins, tie downs, martingals or even nosebands on the snaffle bridles. I hate gadgets. Just the basics. Depending on the horse and the owner's wishes, we might work a youngster in snaffle or training noseband, but they always start off in the noseband.

Yvonne uses Clicker Training and CAT. The latter works very well on shy horses. Clicker Training has good results if used by a knowledgeable person. Clicker training with bad timing is like any bad training and if there is no discipline in taking the food, the horse turns into a mugger monster. While I don't use clicker training as such, I often use a click to mark a particularly good response to a cue I've given, and Yvonne rewards from her clicker bag ;-). I personally use timed releases and voice to reward. Horses don't seem to be confused if we switch from CT to non-CT in one training session. Or from CAT to CT.

My primary concern during training is safety. Yvonne's and mine and that of the horse. Plus any bystanders or participants. I've had enough close calls and actual oopsies. Nowadays, I'd rather upset a horse or person and have everyone stay safe to train another day. I don't really care about salving egos (mine or others') or looking good. I'd rather hurt a horse's or person's ego and stop anyone from getting hurt. This is a very important consideration, as it is truly my biggest responsibility.

Which brings me to comments which been made several times in response to descriptions, photos and videos posted by us. For example a young mare which came here for starting and with the request to sort her muggy, pushy behaviour and habit of literally knocking people over when led through gates for example. This mare wasn't remotely scared of people. I had sold her as a weanling and I know both parents very well, and the granddam. The people who own her are lovely but they were relatively new to horses when they bought her some years ago. The mare had just learned she could get away with being pushy. A bit pushy is ok and needs a minor behaviour tweak. But squashing people against walls, running over them and mugging them for food is a safety issue. It's just not on and needs to be corrected asap.

Knowing the mare had no fear of people and an inflated ego to go with it, I enforced strict rules of behaviour straight from the start. I say stop, she stops. I say go, she goes. I say wait, she waits. Sounds simple and should be. But well established bad habits need to be erased before new good habits can be learned. Rather than waiting and beginning saddle training on a basis of bad habits, I worked through her issues mostly in the first session in the yard. Started at the gate. As I walked through, I made her stop and back up, then we walked half way through again and waited. Then we backed again and walked through until it was all done quietly.

Showing her how to go around on a circle was easy, she is a very smart horse. In no time she thought this was boring and started pushing in towards me. I use very "loud" body language when necessary, and I was certainly loud to send her out. Then we had a discussion about who had the say on when to walk and when to stop. Basically, I figure that if I am to ride a horse, we have to have the command structure well sorted by the time I set foot in a stirrup. It's not about some desire I have to dominate, or that the horse is some slave that has to do my bidding or else. It again boils down to safety. Sure we are a team. I am the leader, not the horse though. It's not a democracy and I can't tolerate backchat. Simply because it's a human world with dangers a horse can't even perceive. Say I ride down the road and I see a truck in the distance. Knowing my horse might get scared, I want to turn him down a side road. Can I tolerate him saying NO? Let's say I know there is flooding forecast and my horse is in a low lying area. I get the float to get him out of there to save his life. Can I tolerate him saying NO?

I take the leadership and the responsibility for that leadership every time I pick up a rope or rein with a horse attached to it. So when I educate a horse, be it on the ground or from the saddle, then I will be a leader who tries to act in the best interest of the horse. However, that means that if I say go, stop or turn or back, I mean it.

Simply, neither I nor anyone else can afford to have a horse that does not comply with basic requests, such as those. So if a horse arrives here which acts in a way that can be dangerous to me or anyone else, or to itself, then it is my first job to change this behaviour.

In a perfect world, I can achieve this through understanding, kindness and gentle nudging. In the real world, I have time constraints. Firstly in terms of having to justify weekly training fees and getting results. Secondly, in terms of not wanting to spend any more time than necessary around a horse that might hurt me. And quite honestly, there is some horse behaviour which I doubt can be corrected only by gentleness and soft approaches. For example, a horse that nips, a stallion that gets out of hand when you lead him past other horses or a mare that knocks you over when you lead her because she disrespects your personal space.

In those cases, I still ask first. And then I tell. As loud and as clear as necessary, but no louder. So often, these horses react very strongly. Not out of fear, but out of surprise, even annoyance that you are not giving in like all the other humans it's encountered. Sometimes they back right off. So I instantly take the physical and mental pressure away. Instant reward! Sometimes they will not back down and I have to up the pressure. Again, as soon as I get the slightest yielding in the direction I ask, I back off, remove the pressure. Horses are smart, they figure this very fast. Horses, in almost all cases are also happy to have a leader, and as soon as they find a leader they actually respect, they seem pretty happy. It's just that they never had a leader (human) so they took matters in their own had.

I think of it as being assertive so I can re-establish respect. I don't want to dominate or enslave the horse. I want a safe relationship where we respect each other's space. I am as gentle as I can be, but as hard as I need to be to get there.

So to come back to the comments on the mare... Some people watched the videos and they saw me putting a lot of pressure on a horse and they saw a bit of jumping around. I think they interpreted what they saw in the wrong context, namely that they made certain assumptions about the horse's attitude. So where the mare finally backs off when I send her backwards strongly, they interpreted her face of surprise as a face of fear. Ironically, the heavy duty "correctional" part of the early training took no more than a few minutes over a couple of sessions, after that, we could shower the mare with kindness without getting mugged or trampled. She was a breeze to start under saddle. Her owners can handle her with safety these days.

A set of photos or a video only shows part of the story. That is why we went to a great deal of trouble to explain what and why we did it at the time. A lot of feedback indicated approval but some feedback showed clearly that once people make up their mind about something, they are not willing to change it, no matter what. Most of the negative feedback came from single horse owners with limited experience and the professed belief that all in life and with horses can be sorted with endless patience and love. I envy these people in some way, that kind of romantic phantasy is lovely to have. Fortunately, I'm a realist. I have responsibility for my own actions, my and other human's health and wellbeing, and of course for the health and wellbeing of the horses.

I'm sure there are other, maybe even better ways of doing things than how I do them. I'm not an expert (please don't call me that!), or a guru and I'm only human. In the end, the proof is in the pudding and I should be judged by how horses look and feel under saddle when they leave here.

I'm sure I'll think more on this subject, and I'll come back to the Arab mare later :-)

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