Love Language: Finding Common Ground

Every horse is unique. They have their own preferences, likes and dislikes, and they have their own ways of expressing and receiving affection. In the horse world, there are a variety of generalizations that get applied to horses, without taking into account the nuance of this individuality. One of the ones I see quite often is how horses should be shown affection or praise. The standard clap(s) on the neck, pat(s) on the forehead, or a big affectionate hug is doled out dutifully by countless equestrians as a token of love, or gratitude, or congratulations. A big fuss is made over them for completing a task, or we hold them close to us for cuddles.

Now, none of these actions are inherently wrong. Depending on the horse, these may be enjoyable for them, or at the very least, have come to represent a signal that the job is done, that the work is over. What I want to bring attention to in this article, is that we are using these actions as an expression of thankfulness, praise, affection. Essentially, love. The sole intention of these actions are to express that to the horse – it is the one area where there is no need for us to force anything.. In theory, this is the most important area to be mindful of what is enjoyable for the horse, to let them dictate what it is they like and not just assume. Because we are trying, essentially, to reward the horse with our behavior.

And yet, time and time again I see horses reacting to their humans affection with.. Bracing, annoyance, displeasure. Sometimes in micro-reactions, sometimes in clear displays of dislike. For example, it is pretty common in my experience to watch a horse, well accustomed to their humans displays, brace themselves quietly for the barrage of neck clapping after a job well done.

In terms of learning theory, the idea that we would latch on to a behavior which the horse is not the biggest fan of and display that behavior when the horse has done something right, is so backwards. Good job = mild aversive? Or even, “I love you” = mild aversive? Beyond just what that is conditioning, what does that say about us as partners? Working with a horse is a relationship, and just like in a human relationship, it is up to us to be conscious of what is meaningful to the other being in the partnership. It is even more important to be mindful with horses because they can’t speak up for themselves – except through their body language.

Body language is the key area with which we are able to discern whether how we express our love/affection/praise/etc is a positive experience, or a negative one. This can be difficult to discern in horses who have learned that their opinions are irrelevant, or who are extremely tolerant or stoic. But being aware of micro-reactions such as tightening around the lips, widening of the eyes, sharp lifting of the head (either with a quick bob, or lifting the head out of reach), snaking of the head or a movement as if they would nip (even just the beginnings of these movements, as many horses understand this behavior, if completed, is met with punishment), swishing the tail, shifting weight away, moving away, stepping backwards, or even just turning their head away, can all be indications of discomfort. These have to be taken into context of course, just because a horse does this one time doesn’t mean that you should never show affection in that way again – however, if one or a variety of these behaviors happen with relative frequency when you are trying to show affection, I would highly suggest you take that into account.

With that being said, finding a replacement behavior that can more accurately express your love to your horse can take time. I personally like to spend time with each horse on the ground, without any pressure or work to do, and just see what it is the horse enjoys. Do they seek out touch? If so, is there a place they appear to enjoy being touched more than others? Are they more distant? Some horses enjoy less hands-on affection, vocal praise, getting to lick hands or sniff their human thoroughly. Some like a light scratch, some like a heavy scratch, and some don’t like scratches at all. Sometimes the best “reward” can be just letting them be still and have their own space again for a moment. Still others are overjoyed when you allow them to get close to you and give them hugs, breaking down that personal space bubble and sharing time like that.

The more time you spend with your horse with this awareness, the more clear it will become what their preferences are. And the more clear it will become that often times circumstance and surroundings will influence them, and that it is common for their preferences to change over time. Sometimes we forget that just like how we gradually become more comfortable with our human friends and lovers, over time our relationship with our horse will grow and change as well. Being flexible and understanding of our equine partners in this one seemingly small area, can be immensely demonstrative to them that we are listening, we are appreciative, and we are willing to work with them.

I do want to mention that this process can sometimes be difficult for us as humans. We have attachments to certain behaviors and they can be hard to change, or even hard to want to change! I know for me personally, having a horse who does not like extended physical contact like hugs can bring up feelings of sadness and sometimes frustration when I just want to show my affection – physical touch is a prevalent part of how I personally like to express my love. But by being extra mindful of my own self in that situation, I found a lot of joy in taking the time to figure out what truly brought that horse a sense of appreciation and affection.

It can also be hard to break a habit. Many of us horse people have been generalizing affection for years, if not decades. Knee-jerk reactions like reaching down and clapping your horse on the neck can be extremely difficult to remember not to do, or even typically gentle displays of affection like sharing breath – which some horses find to be very intrusive. The key thing here is being mindful, of your horse and also of yourself. And remember that the horse has an incredible capacity to forgive – so its never too late to change!

Preserving (or Resurrecting) Joy in a Young Horse

There are dozens of articles online that will describe how to effectively compel a horse into reacting quickly to your aids. In my lifetime as a student of many a trainer, I have heard dozens of voices telling me similar things; “instant response”, “swift correction”, “accept nothing less than 100% compliance”. The irony in this method, with the goal of “enthusiastic response”, and “wholehearted effort”, is that it takes into account neither enthusiasm nor the horses whole heartedness. In fact, the effect can be quite the opposite – chipping away at the precious joy of movement every horse is born with.

There is no pretty way to hide the fact that this common solution to an unfortunately common problem is to utilize fear based training methods. The problem with fear based training is that it often has unwanted side effects, including one which I see time and again with the “lazy” horse. This is that fear/pain based techniques can and do effect behaviour, but leave the underlying emotional responses unchanged, increasing the chance of future problems. Effectively, a horse which has no internal motivation to engage will most likely relapse into “laziness” and unresponsiveness, especially as they become dulled to not only the natural aids, but the punishment as well.

That is where the importance of joy comes in. I believe that a horse who does not find joy in the task will never truly excel, and that to tap into their greatest abilities we must find a way to access that internal motivation. To bring joy into the confines of the arena – we must rethink not only how we motivate our horses but also how we approach education. Why is it that there is such a prevalent issue with motivation throughout the equine population? If we can address how common education of horses could be contributing to their lack of motivation, we could prevent this issue in many horses – improving both the lives of the horse and their riders as well.

To do this we must look closely at how horses are commonly trained and worked. Scrutinize the timelines and expectations placed on young horses and the teaching methods and regiments they are subjected to over the years. Personally, I have seen the long term lasting change that is possible through addressing the shortfalls of traditional/mainstream horse training. To be able to take a horse from bracing, obstinate and unenthusiastic, to eager, animated and impassioned without using escalation. By utilizing positive reinforcement, cultivating a strong sense of play, exploring creative movement and creating a space where learning is joyful, we are able to foster willing partners while still attaining classical achievements.

A complete overview of how we can rehabilitate a horse with low motivation, or how to create a haven for the horse to learn where joy and intrinsic motivation is prioritized, is not possible to contain within the confines of one article. But I would like to share with you a few simple steps that you can take to begin to facilitate this:

  1. Minimize education through punishment. This is the single most important step in my opinion, and the one which may require the most shift from within. In striving to reduce or ideally remove punishment from training, we must learn to reorganize our way of training to set the horse up for success to avoid scenarios where punishment may be perceived as necessary. (Bonus: a horse who feels confident in their ability to succeed will have more motivation to try than one who is shut down by punishment).
  2. Find what lights that joyful spark in your horse, and figure out a way to incorporate that thing into your training. Does your horse love to go on trails? Incorporate more trail work, or combine short, low expectation arena sessions immediately followed by fun time on the trail. Does your horse love to play in water? Find a way to do more work in and around water. Is getting to run their favorite thing? Incorporate that into your training routine more.
  3. Prioritize more ground work, especially with the young horse – and bring a level of playfulness into the ground work as well (safely, of course). Going for walks or jogs in hand and exploring new terrain. Experiment with free lunging without a whip or rope – can you motivate your horse through play rather than pressure? (I always recommend a helmet during ground work.)
  4. Reward more, even for small tries. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t treat training, utilizing positive reinforcement is universal – appreciating and rewarding effort is a prime way to ensure that effort is repeated. (While we’re on the subject though,please consider that R+ and treat training can be utilized alongside traditional training. It is a key part in my personal training method, and can offer many advantages over primarily R- based methods, especially when it comes horses who are dulled to pressure.)
  5. Keep sessions short, for the most part. Especially for young horses, hour long riding sessions drilling transitions or circles can be more than just boring. Frustration can lead to resentment, and nothing demotivates faster than having such negative associations related to riding.
  6. On that note – mix it up! Doing the same thing every time you take your horse out can make even the most fun thing become tedious. By crafting a broad variety of activities to learn from, you and your horse will benefit from both the mental and physical stimulation.
  7. Train yourself to stop giving useless aids – in all areas of horsemanship, not just riding. Become more in tune with what and how you are asking your horse to do things, and recognizing when you are giving unnecessary cues will help you refine your communication and stop dulling your horse, too.

This article and this list, just scratches the surface of this topic. If you would like to learn more, I will be releasing a video series subscription on this in the future, so please keep an eye out. If you would like immediate support, I am available through long distance or in person training, to design a program to help your horse to rediscover their joy.

Nature Knows Best: Getting Started with Slow Feeding

Horses digestive systems are designed to be eating small amounts of food for 16-20 hours a day. In modern horse-keeping however, it has become common to feed on a schedule that restricts their food intake to 2 to 3 meals per day with long periods of fasting in between. Stepping away from feeding your horse on a “starvation schedule” and providing trickle fed forage throughout the day/night can have a myriad of positive effects. These effects range from benefitting their overall mood, alleviation of ulcers, regulating systems prone to colic, respite from food anxiety and a decrease in resource aggression. I have noticed a significant decrease in overall anxiety in horses transitioned to slow feed schedules, as well as an increase in work ethic and willingness (although, of course, that is my own anecdotal observations).

While the results can be tremendous, the shift is so simple, almost anyone can try it! Here is a quick guide to get you started on your transition to slow feeding your horse:

#1: In Preparation.

Answering a few questions will help you know what you need: will you be hanging the net? If so, a nylon string style net like this would be my recommendation. Will you be placing the net on the ground? Nylon string nets work well for that as well, though if you are feeding on sandy ground or are concerned about sand intake, the Hay Pillow product line helps reduce contact with the ground while maintaining a healthy grazing head position. Does your horse have shoes? You must take precautions to make sure the shoes cannot get caught on the netting. Either hanging the net above shoulder height, or (in order to maintain a healthy grazing head position) feeding out of a manger or specialized slow feeder such as this is imperative to prevent this. Please note that if you choose to feed using a specialized slow feeder box, be sure to avoid ones with metal grates, as these can cause significant damage to the horses teeth over time.

#2: The Training Phase. 

Starting your horse with a hay net can be frustrating for your horse at first, if they aren’t slowly introduced to the concept. A horse that is used to having long periods of fasting between meals will habitually eat more rapidly because of the perception they have around their limited resources. It is so important to ease into slow feeders by gradually reducing the size of the hay net holes over time to allow them to become accustomed to having their forage limited, as well as learn how to get the hay out of the nets. I like to start with nylon string hay nets that have 2 to 3 inch holes and feed out of those for 1-2 weeks before transitioning to a smaller net. Here is a link to one that I like for the training phase: 2 Inch Netting Hay Net. If your horse tends to get frustrated easily, I would highly recommend starting with a net with 3 inch holes, before transitioning to a 2 inch net, and then on to the final slow feeder nets/boxes.

#3: The Final Net

Once your horse is comfortable and stress free being fed exclusively in a net such as the 2 inch net mentioned above, you can begin feeding using the smaller mesh size net such as this string net (my personal choice when feeding flakes or when I have to travel and cannot bring round bales). The Hay Pillow product line has a variety of sizes as well, or if you want to get creative, find knotless nylon fishing net in bulk and create your own custom nets. Ideally your final net will have 1 inch holes, although if you feed exclusively alfalfa, I would recommend staying at 1 1/2 inch holes.

You may want to ease into the transition to the final net by feeding just 1 meal a day in the final slow feeder net, while continuing to feed the other meals in the larger net. This is an optional step if your horse appears to be comfortable with the final net already.

#4: Tips and Tricks

Some tools to make your hay net filling journey a simple one include a hay net stuffer, a barrel/trash can for quick and easy hay net filling, or this handy trick using a wheelbarrow.

Holes in hay nets can be remedied using zip ties or hay bale string, don’t throw away a good net just because it has a hole or two!

While it isn’t something that is accessible for everyone, having multiple nets for each horse can save time and energy by filling hay nets for the day all at once.

If you can feed a lower sugar hay, you can feed more of it, allowing your horse to eat a healthier amount of roughage and fiber as compared to the highly nutritious feeds that can quickly cause unwanted weight gain when fed in higher amounts. Consider replacing a portion, or mixing together, that nutrient/sugar dense hay with something low sugar/high fiber to help stretch out eating time.

If you feed heavily compacted flakes such as alfalfa or tightly baled grass, I recommend pulling the flakes apart as you fill the nets if possible. This prevents frustration at not being able to get at the food tightly compressed within the bag.

Getting a hay net started by pulling a few tufts of the hay out of various holes can help the horse, although once the horse is experienced at eating out of a slow feeder net, you rarely need to assist them in this way – they become quite the experts at getting the hay out efficiently!

Food for thought: Horses can thrive on roughage of relatively low nutritional value – especially as much of the hay available has vastly imbalanced mineral levels, and fat is generally a safer source of energy than the sugary carbohydrates prevalent in nutritionally dense forage feeds. The required minerals and fats can be easily and more carefully regulated in the diet through supplements, allowing for the opportunity to feed a more balanced and healthy diet.

 

I hope this quick guide to starting slow feeding has been helpful. If you have further nutritional questions or feeding strategy questions, please contact me for consultations at tara@unbridledgoddess.com