Working with a feral mini mule, Samwise
Samwise, Frodo, and a mini donkey, Bilbo Baggins, appeared one morning on the property of a client of mine, Lynda. Mostly unhandled and untrained, Lynda has been working with all three in an attempt to get them necessary treatments (castration, hoof trimming, dentals etc.), so that they can be rehomed. Samwise, the mule in this clip, is the most fearful of the three. I went down today to help Lynda tweak a few things with Samwise and Frodo, and she was kind enough to film some short sessions. In these sessions, I focused on building positive associations for Samwise with approaching people, building towards being comfortable in their proximity while they move. Samwise is blind in his right eye, so once he is comfortable being approached and handled on his left side, we will begin to work on his right side - introducing the word 'Touch' first so that he knows in advance when people will be touching him.
Shaping Plans 101: How to Make One (And How to Teach Your Horse to Accept Fly Spray)
A shaping plan is a short list of the rough steps needed to teach a horse something you would like them to learn. I usually have ten steps on my list - ending with the goal behaviour I would like the horse to learn, and beginning with the closest thing the horse can already do towards that end goal. Watch the video to learn how to create a shaping plan for teaching your horse to accept being fly sprayed. You can use this basic format to teach your horse anything you would like them to learn - from calmly trailer loading to performing flying lead changes under saddle.
Bridle Yourself: Teach Your Horse To Willingly Put The Bit In Their Own Mouth
Teaching your horse to willingly put the bit in their own mouth is easily done using positive reinforcement and shaping. Positive reinforcement is something added to the horse's environment that makes a behaviour more likely to happen again in the future. In horse training, it is usually a small tidbit of tasty food, given immediately after a desired behaviour occurs. Shaping means to take a complex end goal behaviour, like having a horse put a bit in their own mouth, and breaking it down into smaller behaviours - or 'successive approximations' - that build towards that end goal. As you can see in this clip, when combined, the horse receives positive reinforcement every time he successfully completes a successive approximation towards the end goal. Effective trainers usually make a 'shaping plan', or a list of the behaviours that will build towards the end goal. Once the horse is reliably performing a successive approximation, it is changed slightly, and reinforcement is given when the horse successfully completes the new successive approximation. For example, when this horse Calcite was reliably sticking his nose into the open bridle, the next successive approximation I aimed for him to do was to move his muzzle closer to the bit. When he did that, I indicated that’s exactly what I wanted by making a clucking nose and immediately giving him a treat. (One of the first lessons taught in this type of training is that a tongue cluck or other specific sound marker means ‘Yes! A treat is coming!’) Just like us, horses learn from the consequences that follow a behaviour. If the consequences are desirable (like getting a treat) the behaviour is likely to be repeated in the future. This type of training says very clearly ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I wanted you to do!’ to the horse, and it eliminates the need for us to use punishment in training. All animals, humans and horses included, would rather be told ‘Yes!’ and receive a desirable consequence when learning how to perform a new behaviour. It's important to remember that the horse doesn't know what our goal is during training. They are essentially guessing when they try out a new behaviour, to see if it is the one that will result in a desirable consequence. Being told 'No!' and receiving an undesirable consequence for ‘wrong’ behaviours when trying to learn a new behaviour is stressful. This stress usually results in the animal giving up trying to find out what behaviour results in a desirable consequence, for fear of receiving the undesirable consequence instead. This type of training can also damage the trust between trainer and animal learner, and should be avoided. #horsetraining #horsebehaviour #postitivereinforcement #shapingplan
Trailer Loading: Recognizing Thresholds, Building Confidence
Almost every interaction we have with a horse affects their confidence. No matter our horse training goals, this confidence - in themselves and in us - should be a top priority. Learning how to recognize and respond to a confidence threshold - a place where the horse might lose confidence if we proceed - is an important skill for trainers to have. How the trainer responds at these thresholds can affect the horse's confidence. Horses may lose confidence when being taught how to trailer load. This may manifest as stopping forward motion, or displaying escape or avoidance behaviours. Using escalating pressure in those moments is a commonly taught approach, but unfortunately, it's an approach that can damage the horse's confidence in the trainer. In my previous career I used such an approach. But since learning more about horse behaviour, how horses learn, and the effects of stress on learning and welfare, I use different training techniques now. One that I like to use in these instances places equal emphasis on achieving the goal of loading in the trailer and preserving the horse's confidence. The video at the top of this post is a few years old, but it shows an example of how such an approach can be used to good effect. As you can see, I stop approaching the trailer when I recognize that the horse has reached a confidence threshold. Can you see what he did that gave me a clue as to how he was feeling? We stay there together, and I watch the horse's behaviour for clues that any uncertainty he has felt has subsided. When it does, we turn and leave. There are two important things to keep in mind here: 1. The 'confidence threshold' that I'm looking for here is a very subtle shift from the horse feeling 'I'm OK with this' to 'I'm not so sure about this'. Horses communicate quite clearly how they feel about what we are doing with them, and we need to pay attention to the small signs. It is not necessary to trigger a greater level of uncertainty than this in the horse in order to overcome trailer loading issues. To do so is counterproductive, and it puts us in a position where we may need to use escalating levels of pressure to control the horse, which increases their stress and decreases their confidence. 2. Leaving the trailer's vicinity when the horse has visibly relaxed builds both his confidence with the process, and me. This can be seen clearly in the second approach when we get much closer to the trailer, and the horse evens feels confident enough to become curious about the trailer. It is when he is displaying this curiosity that we once again turn and leave. This approach - recognizing subtle thresholds and changes in behaviour, waiting for the uncertainty to subside, and retreating away from the source of potential stress back towards a place of comfort - is a good way to help horses build confidence during training, and in the trainer. It's a technique that I like to use for several issues, including approaching things that the horse may have a negative history with - like the trailer. As training progresses and the horse's confidence grows, I may add in other techniques, such as using positive reinforcement to teach the horse how to confidently enter the trailer. Having a variety of low-stress techniques in your training toolkit can help you be a better trainer, and I hope this is one you will try. Happy training! #lowstresshandling #horsebehaviour #behaviourmodification
Start Button Behaviours: Giving Horses Control While Also Getting Results
What's a start button, and why should it be part of your horse training? A start button is a way for an animal to give consent to something that the trainer would like to do with the animal. It allows the animal to communicate to the trainer whether or not they are ‘ready’ for the event to happen. The benefits of start buttons are twofold. While it might seem counter-intuitive, teaching an animal that they have some perceived control over what is done with them is both empowering and reinforcing. A pleasant side-effect is that this approach also results in the trainer meeting their training goal. My Arabian gelding True had a learned fear of the saddle when I acquired him. Part of his retraining has involved using start buttons to teach him that he can give consent to participate in events that may be unpleasant, like being hosed or fly sprayed. Start buttons also work well in helping horses overcome learned fears of specific items. True has two start buttons in this clip. The first is when he touches the saddle pad with his nose. The second is when he straightens his neck and allows me to pass down his body to saddle him. To begin, I wait for him to engage with me. You can see this happen at about the 0:05 mark. I then present the saddle pad to him, and he touches it with his nose. To put it into human language, this is essentially the signal that we have agreed means 'Lauren, you may begin the saddling process'. The second start button is at about the 0:20 mark. True and I have agreed that it means 'You may put the saddle on now'. It's critical that I respect if True is ready for me to proceed, or if he's not. If he's not, I use that as valuable information about my training. Perhaps I'm advancing too quickly, or am not fully appreciating how he feels about what is happening. I see this information not as a failure, but as an opportunity to tweak my approach, or be more aware of his body language. If you are new to using start buttons you may think that the animal will just choose never to participate in unpleasant events. But this isn't the case. While this training concept is relatively new to the horse world, it has been used very successfully for years with a wide range of other animals, including zoo animals, such as hippos, giraffes, lions, hyenas and more. If it can work for getting a full-grown lion to willingly give its tail for a blood draw, it can work for you horse too. #horsebehaviour #horsetraining #cooperativecare #behaviourmodification
Petting Horses: The Five Second Rule
Do you know the Five Second Rule for petting horses? The Five Second Rule began in the dog world, as a way to teach people to recognize how a dog may feel about being petted. In short, pet your dog for five seconds and then stop. Does the dog solicit for more, or do they walk away, appear uncomfortable, or show other signs indicating they aren’t interested? Giving animals a sense of choice and control over what happens to them has many positive benefits, for the individual animal and the relationship they have with the person. I like to use this rule with my own horses, and those I meet at consults. I want the horse to have the ability to communicate ‘More please’ or ‘No thanks’. In this short clip, my horse Calcite and I demonstrate the Five Second Rule. I scratch his sternum (historically it’s a place he enjoys having scratched) and then I wait to see how he feels about it. 'More please!' #FiveSecondRuleForHorses #HorseBehavior #HorseTraining
Cooperative Care for Horses: Jugular Injections
Cooperative care involves training an animal to not only tolerate handling and husbandry procedures, but to be an active, willing participant in these experiences. This clip shows me and my horse True, working on cooperative care for jugular blood draws and injections. True was leery of having injections done by the veterinarian, so I've been working on teaching him to consent to all stages of the procedure, using positive reinforcement and start buttons. (See the video on start buttons on this channel.) This video shows progress, not perfection, and I've included it to show what I would change to make the experience better for True. This is True's first real jugular puncture, followed by a sham stick to gauge how he felt about the real stick. The towel is the target for him to face, and the needle was a 25g. Things I like: True was non-plussed about the stick, and his response was good when I did a sham stick post real stick. This gives me a sense about how he felt about the procedure. Things I would change: In previous sessions, I've been removing my hands if his nose leaves the towel at any point in the process, but I reverted back to an old habit of just moving with him when his nose left the towel in this clip. I think it was hard for me here to separate out an old habit of just calmly staying with the horse - which comes from years of doing real-life, on-the-job blood draws in veterinary clinics - vs. remembering that this training is more about allowing him to signal when he's not ready for me to proceed (by moving his head away), and allowing him to signal when he is ready (by bringing his nose back to the towel).
Girth or Cinch Tightness: Two Places To Always Check
An over-tightened girth or cinch can impact a horse's ability to breath during exercise, decreasing performance and causing them to tire more quickly while working. It also causes the horse pain and can lead to apprehension or anxiety about being saddled. Traditionally, people have been taught to check the girth or cinch in one location - behind the elbow on the horse's side. However, some horses are more hollow in this area, while others are more 'full' - simply as a result of different conformation. This can lead to the person getting a false impression about the girth or cinch's actual tightness. This video shows the two locations I check every time I saddle a horse, or when I'm with a client and their horse - behind the elbow and where the girth or cinch sits on the sternum. Checking in both locations, before every ride, gives you more accurate information about the tightness of your girth or cinch, allowing you to make adjustments accordingly.