Training Harry; unbacked Arab gelding

Greg Glendell

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Oct 15, 2015
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Returning to riding was quite a learning curve. I used to ride (badly!) many years ago and regret how I rode then. But since getting familiar with learning theory (for my work with clients' birds) I based my training for Harry on this. I got Harry as I wanted to be able ride all day, do some camping trips with him and not have to worry about this sort of riding being difficult for him; hence my choice of an Arab.

I got poor advice from the usual sources (BHS, local riders, one awful trainer). They just suggested use of enduring negative reinforcement via the feet, whips and bits. So, on grounds of welfare, I made a pledge to myself to base everything I did with Harry on sound science wherever possible, rejecting traditional/ natural horsemanship etc., unless those who advocated it could back up their ideas with scientific evidence. I was not concerned whether a method 'worked' or not, but mainly whether it was horse-friendly. I couldn't find a local trainer I trusted, so I did it myself. My 'secret weapon'? A few books, a bag of carrots and positive reinforcement for all groundwork. I decided to work only at a pace that Harry was comfortable with. If he became excited or nervous, the sessions stopped. I only work with animals when they are calm. I also read up quite a bit on equine behaviour (of wild/feral horses) and used this info to guide me with Harry. He is not stabled but kept outdoors at all times on a track system as per Jamie Jackson's ideas. Since I could find no evidence for the need for shoeing, bitting, lunging, collection, etc. Harry has never been subjected to these things. He's never been in a roundpen or a school/ménage. We have both learnt 'on the job' out hacking.

To teach recall, I offered him a carrot while saying his name, holding my arm out, and whistling for him. I did about 4 short sessions per day, gradually increasing the distance from him. It took him 3 days to learn this. Now he will come even if he just hears me, but cannot see me. To get him used to being saddled and bridled, I put these on and took them off after a few seconds only at first. If he remained still he got carrots/ wither scratches/ verbal praise. Same for doing up the girth, mounting etc. He stands like a rock for mounting! I asked for walk and trot, go left, right, back etc., while in hand, by verbal requests, and kept to these once I started riding. If he does not respond to voice, I use feet and reins conventionally. Harry wears a Dr Cooks bitless bridle.

I found it very hard to make contact with riders who also understood and used learning theory. But more recently, I have found folks like this, and their advice has been a great help.

Having said all that, Harry had a bad accident last week and crashed into a gate overnight, injuring himself badly. His puncture wound has been stitched up and there is no infection, but I won't be riding for many weeks yet. He has a large oedema /swelling on his belly, which the vet says will subside eventually.

I often combine riding with my other hobby, birdwatching, and you can get much closer to birds when on horseback!
 

Jane&Ziggy

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I like to read about your methods. And I am very sorry to hear about Harry's accident. My boy Ziggy had a big oedema between his front legs and along his belly after he was operated on for colic, but it went away after 2 or 3 weeks. I hope Harry's is soon gone.
 

Greg Glendell

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Oct 15, 2015
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Hi Jane,
Thanks. Yes, I'm keeping a eye on his oedema; vet has just said he can be out again all the time now and that more movement will help reduce the swellings.
 

newforest

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I still think we all do what works for us and the horse at the end of the day. As an owner and rider it's our responsibility to read the horse, and adapt as necessary. With the one I have she sure wasnt going to!

I do by feel and need and as much as I find your ways interesting, it's a little unfair to say your horse hasn't been subjected to xyz. It implies your ways are right and those of us who do those things are wrong. Keeping a horse captive isn't horse friendly. Riding them at all isn't when we are a predator and they a prey animal.

Now saying that as I said I go by feel, energy, reading her as much as possible. We have an understanding. I lunge and longrein because I have been advised to by both the vet and physio, so for us there is a scientific basis if you like. There is a physical reason to and a need to.
 

KP nut

I'd rather be riding.
Dec 22, 2008
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So, on grounds of welfare, I made a pledge to myself to base everything I did with Harry on sound science wherever possible, rejecting traditional/ natural horsemanship etc., unless those who advocated it could back up their ideas with scientific evidence. ...
Since I could find no evidence for the need for shoeing, bitting, lunging, collection, etc. Harry has never been subjected to these things.

Hi and welcome to NR. You are talking the 'language' of science but yur position is much more ideological than scientific. For example you insist on a scientific justification for stuff that does not feel right to you (shoeing/bitting) but you do not apply that same requirement for things that sit more comfortably with you - eg barefoot and bitless. Nothing wrong with barefoot and bitless but please at least be self aware enough to realise you are not making the scientifically enlightened choices here. The reality is there has not been a randomised controlled trial or a cross-over trial on barefoot vs shod and even if there was and barefoot came out better, within the barefoot group there would be horses that were happier and more comfortable shod. None of my horses are shod, but I would not hesitate to shoe if I felt my horse would be more comfortable that way. The phrase 'subjected to' does sound rather judgemental to be honest.

If he became excited or nervous, the sessions stopped. I only work with animals when they are calm.

As a learning theorist you should be aware that if you stop a session when a horse is nervous you will be reinforcing fear. I can assure you that there is a very strong scientific basis for making sure you do not end a session with behaviour or emotions that you don't want - read any papers or any books on desensitization/habituation and you will see that the key factor in reducing anxiety and building confidence/resilience is ensuring that you allow anxiety to drop before you take the pressure off. What you are doing sounds effective thus far but I really would advise you to reconsider this 'rule'. It won't help your horse learn. I try to avoid triggering too much anxiety in the first place but once you are in that situation you have to help the horse get over it and learn that he can cope, not back off at that point.

If he does not respond to voice, I use feet and reins conventionally.

Rein and leg aids are forms of negative reinforcement. So like most people it sounds like in practice you use a combination of positive and negative reinforcement.

Hope Harry recovers well.
 

KP nut

I'd rather be riding.
Dec 22, 2008
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ETA the other thing you might want to think about is that by stopping a session when a horse becomes nervous, you are reinforcing nervous behaviour (as I said above). Therefore nervous behaviour is likely to increase - even in the absence of actual fear - because you are conditioning that response. At the start of the process you have 3 links: horse experiences fear - horse acts fearfully (plants snorts, spooks whatever) - trainer removes all pressure and ends session. The trainer response is a reinforcer for the spooky behaviour so very soon the horse will have been conditioned to behave in a spooky way even when he is not afraid. So when someone says 'he's acting scared to get out of work" or more succinctly "he's taking the mickey'' I don't agree that the horse is deliberately setting out to deceive the rider, but in reality that is how the behaviour functions. The solution is also the same whether you frame it in learning theory terms: break the link between the undesired behaviour and the reinforcer by removing that reinforcer, in this case removing the release. Or whether you frame it in common sense terms: ignore the behaviour and ride him forward!

It is perfectly possible that he is not getting/acting more fearful over time because there are 101 other influences on his behaviour, not least your relationship with him. But the trap I describe above is very very common in which a horse prats about* and a rider backs off - (usually simply because the rider is afraid) and the pratting about gets worse over time. It would be a shame if you ended up with a problem that you really don't need to have with a horse you have made a great start with.

(*prats about = behaves in undesirable way)
 
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newforest

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This is what concerned me @KP nut about how I reacted to stumbling over a shoot with mine.
We both reacted fearful at the same time and I turned her for her home. I tried to do that calmly but you can't fool a horse! So I know I have reinforced that it's scary-well it is to me!
Taking her past the field the next day she was unsure but is fine again.
Now saying all the above I do think it's important for the horse and rider to learn to cope when things like this happen. It showed me how she copes when she is fearful and the human is as well. Not ideal for both of you to be fearful in unison!

I started a thread called Is Stress Free Training Unrealistic and a trainer (who I can't find the article for) mentioned about a horse bolting because both horse and rider hadn't ever dealt with fear, they had dealt with nervous only. The horse didn't know about fear and the rider hadn't ever seen it or ridden it and didn't know what to do.
Stupid though it sounds out on the public highway dealing with the unpredictable, I need to know how my horse could react and how I might react/respond.
 

KP nut

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Totally agree @newforest - I was thinking of your thread when thinking about the OP: If you 'only work with a horse when he is calm' then what happens if you are on a hack 3 miles from home and your horse gets excited or nervous? You have no choice but to deal with the situation you are both in, but neither the rider not the horse will have the skills or experience to cope because they will not have found a way to get through those situations safely and effectively.
 

newforest

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The sciences do play an important role, my vet being one trained in veterinary science. They need to do xrays, scan, do tests that give them results. That's their field.
My vet on scanning my mare asked me when her season had ceased, I said 48 hours ago, it was in fact 36 hours. Their field gave results you could see, but there isn't much wrong with my field either :)

I am replying to this thread because I find the subject interesting and I am interested in how people have come to base their view. Glenn you have dismissed collection, this puzzles me as you are interested in how your horse learns but not how he moves under you? Collection can be mental as well as physical and doesn't mean dressage and outline to me. It means helping the horse build up the muscles needed to do the job we ask them to with minimum strain. Check out biomechanics there is a lot of evidence to support this.

Being bitless people automatically assume it is kinder, but it's still a pressure and release. If you look at some bitless bridles they have simply moved the metal from the inside nerves to the outside nerves. I ride in a halter, headcollar or a bit depending on what I am an doing.
 
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KP nut

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I have also often been puzzled by the objection to bits. A bit connects the most sensitive part of the horse (mouth) with a subtle and sensitive part of us - our hands. So it allows for very subtle and clear communication. Why throw that away?
 

Greg Glendell

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Oct 15, 2015
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Hi folks,
Been V busy with Harry and building the birds' aviaries here, so lots to catch up on.

Re KP's comments. I think I did not explain myself very well, so I'll try again. I don't actually 'end' a session which might cause Harry to be nervous/fearful. But what I do is work with him, at a pace determined by him (not by me) to learn that such things are not something to be afraid of. E.g. the proverbial black plastic bag blowing in the wind. I ask him to stop, and in his own time, approach it. Sometimes, he seems to find it easier if I get off and approach it first, To force him to approach it, as KP suggests, might 'work', but it remains an aversive method, and not one I choose to use, when non-aversive methods are easily available. Horses, like dogs, are eminently tractable, perhaps, because unlike parrots, they are domesticated and have some adaptations to life with humans; parrots do no have this adaptability by their selected 'breeding' and have to *learn* to cope with it. Many fail to learn, and I try to help my clients with these creatures behavioural problems. What I have found remarkable, with Harry and Dobbin is their degree of willing, even seemingly enthusiastic co-operation. I'm not sure why they are like this, but it may have something to do with them being eminently social creatures, and accepting us as a friendly, if rather strange species. Perhaps they have a symbiotic relationship with those humans who they like.

Re. keeping things as 'natural' as possible. I think horses already have a lot to put with in captivity; and some of these things are not easy for them to cope with. This includes close confinement, wearing tack, esp. metal in the mouth, having my weight of 10 stone on their back, and with poor riders, conflicting simultaneous instructions for 'going' and stopping, as 'required' when learning imposed (rather than self) collection. So, while they have all these 'unnatural' things to put with, I feel it's best, (on grounds of welfare and their limitations to adaptability) to keep 'unnatural' things to a minimum. So, if I was to shoe a horse, or ask it to wear a bit, or lunge it, or impose collection etc. I would need sound, preferably veterinary advice to do so first, rather than just following traditional practises by default.

I have asked several trainers including Mary Wanless about collection; specifically with regard to the type of riding I ask of Harry, bearing in mind I often go for all-day rides and can be many miles from home on some days. She says such 'collection' is not needed; she agreed that the horse would find its own best way of coping with my weight, but she did try to sell her books! I think she has sound advice re 'human' biomechanics, and how we might ride, to make it more comfortable for the horse. She said she did not like the way some endurance horses were ridden, but she refused to go into the details of this, so I'm not sure what she meant. So I think to impose a specific form of collection on a horse is done for traditional reasons and/ or some notion of what 'looks good', but is not supported by evidence of horse biology. This is just my view at present; I'm open to data which shows this is not so, if anyone has it.

I've had many email chats with vet Dr Bob Cook, whose bridle I use. And yes, many other bitless bridles, esp hackamores, can inflict severe pain on a horses face. But I think the Cooks and the lightrider are about as benign as I can find. That said, I could probably ride Harry in a head collar anyway. Bob Cooks research, which he has carried out for decades, shows that 62% of horses who wear a bit will have either bone spur growths on the bars of their mouth, and/or gum lesions. Apparently these effects of bitting have been going on for thousands of years. Archaeologists, excavating Roman sites identify ridden horses by the bone spurs on their lower jaws. Horses without these bit-induced growths may have eaten rather than ridden.

When I returned to riding a few years ago, I did not go through the usual routes back into riding. Instead I started to ask horse behaviourists, rather than horse trainers, for advice, and found their advice to be of a better quality than most trainers' advice. During training I have avoided any use of positive punishment; and I would never remonstrate with any animal any way, since I do not think they can be culpable for anything they do. On 2 occasions I have used negative punishment (withdrawal of rewards during a training session) when Harry appeared to be nudging me for 'free' rewards. At this, I walked away from him and left him alone for a few minutes. He has not repeated this behaviour since. I do of course use negative reinforcement; but the point is that I do so, making each such cue as brief and mild as is possible. This keeps Harry calm, and calmness is the key to retaining stimulus control.

Harry continues to recover from his accident. He is now walking more naturally. I took his stitches out yesterday, and cleaned his wound, which we are doing 3 times a day for now. He winced a few times, and although he may have been in some pain while having this done, he remains extremely co-operative.

Dobbin shows similar behaviours. He has sweet itch, and likes having his Stop Itch cream applied. If he sees us holding the tin of his cream, he will approach and present his bum for this to be applied around his rear end. I have to admit I had not assumed to have his amount of co-operation in horses. I think it shows a degree of their trust in us which is most heartening.
 

newforest

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Mar 15, 2008
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Re Mary Waneless I have read her books and you can get them cheaply enough off Ebay. As an author she is going to want you to actually read the books before she will give you loads of information for free.

One thing I am finding is you only have one door open along your corridor. You appear to only want evidence and data to support what you choose to select, as oppose to reading and feeling what's in front of you.
If someone asked me "Why do you use a treeless saddle?" I would say, because it fits, my horse goes well in it and my physio has always commented how free she is through her back. If I replied because I have data from a scientific study that tells me its the right choice, I would question myself. I am capable of making decisions without data.
As I said science has a place, I include it, I am open to various ideas and thoughts. But if my horse didn't go well in a particular saddle, I change it, regardless of data.

An interesting piece of footage about the science of movement. When I think of collection I think of natural outline, rhythm and confines if conformation. Having a cob she is no dressage diva.
 
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