Taking care of the emotions
There have been several articles appearing recently about studies conducted on horses which amazingly conclude that they have emotions, well what a surprise, who would have thought it... Most of us who live with horses every day, and observe their actions and interactions, and strive to communicate with them and understand their behaviour, will need no such convincing.
What I continually seek is the best way to respond to a horse's emotional reactions in order to develop positive and relaxed behaviour enabling me to connect and be with my horses, and if I can influence their behaviour and have them thinking that my idea is theirs, and liking those ideas, it makes the learning fun for both of us and gives my horse the confidence to put in the effort and offer more. A philosophy not disimilar to the models used for humans in business and leadership skills.
A couple of things have set me thinking this over recently. A demonstration by a natural horsemanship trainer in which he mentioned working with the horse's emotions. An incident with my own mare the other day. Watching videos of other training methods, including clicker training. A conversation with a friend about training methods and how a horse can turn sour.
My incident: I have started riding Lucie again, laid off from riding through lameness for 4 years. It is going well but the other day a friend asked if she could ride with me. She had a time restriction, I didn't do any groundwork prep first as I usually do, and we talked. In short, different routine, I was distracted and didn't give my full attention to the horses. Lucie spotted something out of place (I'd left a saddle cloth on the ground) and not being in harmony with me, she made a thing of it. Normally I would paid attention and I should have been there for her straight away to check it out together and take the time it takes, but I asked her to walk by. Suddenly she is irritated by a fly. She starts to jog, then she stops and shakes herself all over. At this point I realise that all is not well in her head and her emotions are up and it might be a good idea to get off! A few minutes with her quietly reestablishing the relationship on the ground and I remount and all is well in her head, the molecules have settled and we are in harmony. But I nearly let her down and she had to remind me, that trust is mutual, that she needs me to be a strong leader and pay attention to the things she thinks are important.
The old-fashioned idea is to never get off, that is somehow giving in, where do these ideas come from and why are they perpetuated?
I got off because I believe that the relationship is established on the ground first, and this connection and understanding continues anywhere around, near or on the horse. I should have checked it was there before I mounted, and I should have checked in with my horse instead of talking to the friend, at least until I was sure the horse was happy and confident in herself to be left on autopilot.
The trainer I mentioned described his training method as being as much about working with the emotional state of the horse as anything else, and I like that vision.
I am not going to say that my horses or those of others practising pressure and release or comfort and discomfort as part of their training, are never stressed. Or that I and every trainer like me are always correct in assessing the stress levels in the horse in front of them. However, part of the attraction for me of NH methods and in particular Parelli NH, is the acknowledgement that stress happens, the understanding that a stressed horse is not in a learning frame of mind, the observation of horse behaviour and changes, and strategies for dealing with the horse that shows up, how to encourage and reward relaxation and work with rather than against the horse's nature. I cannot agree that NH methods may suit one horse and not another, however there is not one strategy to suit all horses, and advanced skill and experience teaches you to be adaptive and improve your timing, know when to ask for more or do less.
So should we try not to put too much pressure on our horses, never let them get stressed?
To progress, we have to test, ourselves and the horse, sometimes push the boundaries to find out where they are. I see a difference between pushing a horse over its threshhold and forcing it to do something it is clearly having difficulty with, to asking the horse to confront its fear, sceptiscism or resistance, and give something a go. Because he trusts you, and respects your ask. It's playing with the boundaries, finding where they are, letting the horse know there is a safe place to return to, not pushing too hard or too far. Timing and phases and focus, being a strong, calm base for your horse so he can face his emotions and maybe offer a little more than he thought he could. But if you don't ask you will never know what you can do.
Most of us seek to do the best for our horses, whether we term that to be care and love, or respect and responsiveness. To deny that our horses have emotions is to deny them their right to express themselves. Human beings have fought against suppression throughout their history. I prefer not to be an autocratic dictator to my horses, I love to try to read their emotions and to do my best to help them be in harmony with me and themselves. I know when I have got it right in their eyes by the way they come enthusiastically and chose to stay around me.
Reading horses is a complex and unscientific pastime, there can be no proven way to say one thing not another. However there is enough science and proof of signs of stress or relaxation that with a little bit of study, a lot of desire and patience and hours of observation, everyone can take care of their horses emotions. To do so is surely a question of mutual respect and complicity and not putting human goals and values first.
The desire to master a training method or discipline can sometimes blind us to what the horse thinks about it and to overlook or misread the signs.
One question I would like to ask of clicker trainers of horses is, do you think you are taking care of the emotions? Because everything I have seen of CT with horses appears to me to produce stress and not much sign of it being recognised or dealt with in a CT session.
And yet CTers are among the strongest criticisers of NH methods claiming that pressure and release causes stress.
Evidently we are not seeing the same things or someone is in denial.
Clicker training for horses leaves me asking why? I do not believe it is not stressful for horses, or that it is kinder than natural horsemanship methods generally. I have yet to see a demo of clicker training in which the horse wasn't exhibiting some stressful reactions. It may be appropriate with other species but the horse is a herd animal which has survived and adapted for centuries, with a very specific social hierachy. I fail to see why with all the alternatives old and new, this is thought to be appropriate for horses. I can accept that it can serve as a short cut to getting a horse to accept and even enjoy a necessary event like handling feet or in a case of injury. But as a stand-alone or everyday training method it appears totally uneccessary and very distracting and unsettling to introduce clicks and treats. I simply do not see what use or advantage for horse or human.