“Good training is a dialogue and not a monologue.” – Susan Friedman
It’s half-term, so we had a load of kids down for Clear Round jumping at the stables. Ooh, they all did so well. Some lovely, confident, balanced riding emerging which really let’s the ponies just ping merrily over the fences.
It ended up being a day of clicks and sweetness too.
One mare improved dramatically when the girl grooming was advised to simply be sweeter with her. Another mare (who has recently become angrier than usual about being groomed and tacked up) was golden for a tiny bit of clicker training (targeting and quiet standing = not a single grumpy expression during all her least favourite parts of the process, girthing and such). And big Diego began the day very defensive and cross, but cheered up no end for a tiny bit of targeting before going out to the field.
They tell us such a lot, all the time, and it’s worth paying attention.
In addition to the Equine Behaviour & Psychology CPD I recently completed, I also did one on Animal Behaviour & Welfare and another on Cats & Dogs (created by the vet school at the University of Edinburgh). Hurrah for the internet and online learning! Here were a couple of interesting things…
- cats apparently have quite a slim repertoire of calming/appeasement signals (the body language behaviours we perform to maintain non-threatening and harmonious social existences, polite smiling for example). They’ve little need of them, being largely solitary. Makes perfect sense and goes some way to explaining how deadpan cats can seem! Zero shits given.
- dog calming signals are often presented as a ladder or scale of communication, and it’s the same with horses though it has only been catalogued, analysed, and documented recently. Dogs start with things like blinking, licking, yawning, moving away, laying down (“I’m no threat, why are you still upsetting me?!”), then eventually through to more active measures of defence: growling and biting. Elsewhere I saw it put quite succinctly… “Punishing a dog for growling is like removing the batteries from your smoke alarm.”
- in short, if we don’t have warning signals (if we don’t have a dialogue) we’re in danger of misunderstandings. And misunderstandings matter when they occur between fragile humans and strong beasties.
So arguably the more social/vulnerable the species, the more need for subtle affiliative and non-threatening/calming communication. Horses, being prey herd animals, are all about maintaining harmonious relationships. They perform a lot of behaviour to that end.
Skye had another emotional shift today. I almost spoiled it! But in doing so, revealed a little bit about her growing levels of resilience (psychological ability to “bounce back”). Basic overview…
Lovely clicker session. Bump into livery owner as I’m finishing up. The field we’re working in, they’re not meant to be in, haha. But someone has discovered an easily knocked down bit of fence. So last night (when they first broke in) she was trying to herd them out and they weren’t for it. She thought, “well I’ll try Skye” and Horse allowed her to slip the headcollar on and lead her out with no problems, then stood quietly whilst the others decided to join (Spot can’t be without his beloved Skye for long!). So I thought, I’ll take that as a prompt to try her in the headcollar again today.
To recap, Skye has always been fine for leading and you can always “make her” come should you need to. But it’s not about that for me, it’s about the associations, which is why I ditched it for a while. To give her a breather of sorts.
If you compel her to come by tugging, she shuts down and pulls a pain face (unsure if this is discomfort at the poll, or only the memory of pain). If you tie her up she often panics and pulls, even if the lead is long/loose. If you have her walk with you at liberty (doing some targeting or whatever) she’s golden and merry. If you try exactly the same but with a lead attached, she’s less willing. At some point, something has upset her, and of course it could even be just as simple as no-one has ever really explained light pressure/release to her so pressure = panic/fear. So now, although she is perfectly obliging for 90% of the process, she is instantly unhappy once you put the headcollar on.
As another aside, memo to self, it’s worth taking photos of the less-than-golden stuff. In the future, it gives you something to reflect on and compare to.
So, we’d finished all the treats and thus had no formal way of using the clicker, but I thought I’d headcollar and lead her towards the exit of the field, just to see if she showed any difference of feeling.
She did and she didn’t. Her willingness to move or “come with” diminished as soon as she was on a lead, same as before. She froze a couple of times. Her facial expression was instantly a bit tighter and her posture was instantly a bit more hollow and stressy.
But, you could “make” her come without resorting to much force if you wanted to and she doesn’t give any trouble for putting the headcollar on. She’s also easier if you have a second horse that she likes, for company. So, to most people, that’s a success and/or manageable. For me, it would be a success if it were just about stubbornness/preference which one must occasionally overrule for the sake of farrier visits, etc. But her face shows us that it isn’t about that, it’s about old fears.
FACIAL EXPRESSIONS FOR COMMUNICATION
She has such an expressive face (and body). And though I know I don’t always read her 100% perfectly, it’s pretty clear when she’s happy and when she’s stressed. If I was walking a dog and it was cowering and flattening its ears and looking up ingratiatingly, I’d not be thinking this was successful leading. Or rather, I’d not be thinking it was the finished article. The signals may be different for horses, but the principle is the same. If she’s stressed, the situation is not working well enough for her. We can do better than that. She might live and work another five to ten years, I’d like for her to not be mildly worried every time a headcollar is put on.
At about the edges of her comfort zone I removed the headcollar and gave her lots of thigh rubs (more on that in a moment). It took a while for her to relax (we had some head away, pretend sniffing of the the ground, sad faces, just a few of her go-to “calming signals”), but I gave her space and she did begin to release the tension she’d been holding. I put it on again, scratched her thighs, removed it, scratched again, and this time she relaxed further and went back to how she’d been earlier in the afternoon, merry and friendly. “Headcollar doesn’t always equal pulling? Oh, okay, that’s good to know.”
Evidence of some newfound resilience. We’d had a great session, I’d tested the waters with something, and she’d found it somewhat stressful… but she bounced back and forgave me within 10mins.
How do I know she bounced back? The newest aforementioned emotional/behavioural shift.
Last time I wrote, Skye had shown an active enjoyment of thigh scratches. Today, she not only enjoyed them she asked for them in standard horse fashion… by swinging her backside up next to me whenever I stopped and stepped away!
There’s a time and a place, Horse can’t forever be swinging her arse into people, but that really isn’t something that worries me (easily managed). I’m just delighted to see another step towards “normal horseness”.
First she tolerated human touch because what choice did she have? Suppression. Don’t let yourself feel the thing (fear) because you can’t do anything about it anyway. She wasn’t in total Learned Helplessness, I don’t think, but she certainly “coped” with humans rather than liked them.
Then she accepted us and our touches, but with some suspicion/caution.
Then I taught her to say “yes” or “no” to being touched, and it made a huge difference to how she responded to human touch. She could trust that her boundaries would be respected. It wasn’t something to switch off to or fear anymore. It could even be pleasurable. And she quickly extended that sense of comfort to other humans too.
And now, she’s decided it’s actually really nice and worth seeking out and “oh, maybe I don’t even mind if I’m touched without being officially asked first”. Isn’t that wonderful! She’s soliciting touch from humans.
It reminds me of the first time my mum’s troubled dog Poppy sidled over to me on the sofa and (eyes fixed firmly on my face because you can’t be too careful!) placed a little paw on my hand (this is what she does to my mum if she wants a fuss). If I try to stroke Poppy without her invitation or awareness (or without it being done in an especially good relaxed moment of clicker or something) she’ll tense up or shoot away with fear. For info, that’s low to middling on the scale of dog calming signals… but Poppy, being poorly socialised as a puppy, didn’t learn to vocalise for a long time and still doesn’t communicate quite like a “normal” dog in that regard. So for her, at first, those low to middling fear responses felt like they could explode all the way to biting without much warning. No smoke alarm, as it were.
At any rate, it means so much when these traumatised beasties decide to try trusting you.
IT’S ALL BONKERS TO THE HORSES
I’ve written this blog post backwards you know, bloody hell…
So, before our final friendly scratches was the headcollar experiment (which told me that I need to do a lot more to counter-condition her emotional experience of headcollars and lead-ropes). Before the headcollar experiment was a grazing break whilst I talked to the livery owner. And before that, was the actual clicker session.
This was another example of her growing confidence.
I had taken two new things down. A golden metal moth trinket tray and a loop of delicate rose-gold chain. The reasons why will be shared, in due course, on a different blog.
I used the moth as a target. Would it be scary given it was shiny and hard and cold? No, horse was coming over to target before I was even really ready for her.
I used the chain as a loop and clicked for putting it over her nose, then up to the eyes, then over the ears, then over the head. A task that you might use when lifting reins over the head in a horse that has to re-learn calm bridling, for example. Eventually she was wearing it as a rather fetching necklace with not a care in the world, and following the golden moth as a target.
If you want, imaginatively replace the golden chain and moth for any other comparable items. A neck-rope or lariat or breastplate or rug, a tennis ball or cone or tarp or target stick. Because the point is that the objects don’t matter. The associations and training matters. Leather saddles make no more sense to horses (in terms of their intrinsic meaning as objects) than laying your jumper across their back. We use tack mostly, one hopes, for good reasons. But as far as the horse is concerned it’s all just strange human stuff. So it’s up to us to make new objects and experiences as pleasant and safe as possible.
At this point, I could “lead” Skye best off thin-air, well-timed snacks or scratches, and a golden moth. Or any novel object/target. Anything new I bring is a potential target. But the thing for actually leading her, not so much. Emergency situations aside, the sparkly nonsense “equipment” works better than a lead-rope and headcollar. Because what works is the dialogue and history between us and when I use kit with unpleasant associations from the past I may as well be “talking” cruelly to her. That’s how she sees it. So I need to make sure I take her headcollar up more often, to give her more chances to change her opinions on it. Perhaps I’ll try teaching her to target/follow a folded leadrope, approach it that way.
POSTURE AND PROPRIUS
In other news, today was Day One of “Project Proprius” by Intrinzen. Exciting! The first videos are ones I’d mostly seen when they released teasers a while back, but good to recap. The focus is agility. Because although the research has lead them around to things like +R and zero-coercion, the impetus was, from the start it seems, about creating healthy horses.
I can’t wait for some of the denser information though. Feel such a wish to deepen my knowledge. Which brings me to two thoughts from recent times…
- when people say they tried +R and it didn’t work. +R is a natural law like gravity. It doesn’t sometimes work and sometimes not. If it actually happens it works. If you didn’t get the desired results, it’s because something else was going on or because you weren’t actually doing +R (you can give treats without it reinforcing the behaviour you’re aiming for very easily, all you need to do is have poor or accidental timing). “We tried reinforcement but it didn’t work. This is an oxymoron.” – Jose Martinez-Dias, PhD.
- eek, when people gleefully say that they “don’t believe the modern science.” Such wilful misunderstanding. You can interpret the findings differently, you can seek out different studies and findings to suit your agenda, you can say you just don’t care, and you can challenge “bad science” (bad methodologies or bad conclusions)… but science itself is a method for gradually finding repeatable, testable, observable truth. It’s not about belief or opinion. When I see people say things like this, I wonder if they realise they sound like flat-earthers. Or if they even know what “science” is. Or if they think that spiritual intuition alone was what created the phone on which they’re sharing such points of view.
Perhaps people really have “had enough of experts” as I believe one slimy politician said. But I hope not. I love the experts, the more of their thoughts that I can access the happier I am.