Monday, October 28, 2013

28th October, 2013 Tap Dancing

I have stuck my head above the parapet again and complained to Horse and Rider about an article in their November edition on loading. I don't know how it has evolved that people who rely in a scientific framework and justification for their training of horses then reach the conclusion that they can use the most damaging form of negative reinforcement. In the article the horse is trained to come forward whenever he is tapped with a whip. This is used with increasing pressure if he refuses which I think turns the three letter word tap into the three letter word hit. It sickens me that a horse can be hit when he is scared or anxious and therefore forced not to overcome his fear but to override it. More importantly it creates a really dangerous situation.

This is what I have said:

Solving Loading Problems – Blinded by Science?
(Page 62 H & R November 2013)

As a trainer of horses I was absolutely dismayed to read the article on solving loading problems which featured in the latest edition of H and R magazine.

The techniques described put both horse and handler in danger. My own experience is that frightened horses that have been hit, however lightly, to get them to go into a trailer become more dangerous, not less. To be in a confined space with such a horse, or behind it trying to put up a breech bar, is just waiting for an accident to happen.

Most horses with loading issues refuse to load or stay on the trailer due to worry or fear. The way to train them to load calmly is to create positive experiences, not confirm their fears by adding further pain. To advocate tapping with a whip with increasing pressure where needed as a good way to ‘curb you horse’s loading anxiety’ is actually guaranteed to increase that anxiety.

Furthermore, putting sustained pressure on a horse’s bit is liable to make the horse rear, with the handler only a reins’ length away. The writer advises not to let go even if the horse is rearing and admits that this is not a sensible approach for everyone. I would argue it is not a sensible approach for anyone.

I was particularly appalled to read hitting his head was described as the horse self-training not to do it again. This is not true because in fact the horse is more likely to bang his head a second time. It is also dangerous from a physical and mental point of view.

Whilst I accept that your magazine endeavours to represent a wide range of training techniques, I find it extremely worrying that anyone would be encouraged to try out these methods and disheartening that training has apparently gone back to the dark ages.

Yours sincerely,

Sarah Weston

Recommended Associate of Intelligent Horsemanship

Yesterday I went out to a little non-loading pony. She was super but she has never had a good experience of being loaded. As she stood looking at the trailer she kept lifting her back legs up and kicking out. This bizarre behaviour stems from being hit from behind to go in. Bit by bit we got her so that she was loading on and off very calmly with a combination of very gentle pressure and release and clickered treats. Everything was fine until she was approached from behind and felt the intention change. I make a habit of befriending the pony's hindquarters when they are in a trailer in order to persuade them that nothing bad is going to happen at their back end. I give them a lovely rub on the bottom and scratch the dock of their tail. If they accept this I move away again. In T's case as with most, I made sure that I was standing to one side while I did it because there was a real risk that she might kick me. She didn't and we progressed to using a swimming woggle as a pretend back bar so that she could learn that it wasn't going to do her any harm. We ended the session with her standing quietly in the trailer with the front and back bars in place and me talking soothingly to her at one end and her owner clicking and treating at the front. Fantastic progress and trust building from the pony that had apparently only walked backwards at the sight of the trailer during previous attempts to load her.

As for the head hitting, I have now lost count of the number of horses that throw their heads up at the entrance to a trailer as if greeting an old friend. It's a clear sign that they have hit their heads on a previous occasion and it's as if it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the article the horse is wearing a bridle, which if it a single jointed snaffle will really hurt if the horse is pulled forwards. 

Well, negative reinforcement has clearly not worked with me because I am not keeping my head down on this one!