Lily is a pretty little Palomino.
She came to Changing Equine Behaviour for help with a few behaviour problems, her main one being that she was impossible to catch. Upon deeper exploration, this issue presented at a much lower level and was displayed in other behaviour as a reluctance to be touched, groomed, and have her feet picked up. This consequently caused problems with the farrier, being clipped etc.
Lily has made fantastic progress, follow her training below.
Back to Basics
As with all horses I work with, I conduct an inital assessment to test the 'Basic Responses' of Stop, Go, Step Back, Park and Head Down. This provides an insight into any deficits within their training which can then lead to the behaviour problems they are presenting.
26th September 2019
From first analysis I notice that Lily is very tense and very anxious. She looks worried all of the time, her head is high, her eyes are wide, her breathing is shallow and quick, and she is on constant high alert, very aware of her environment. I have started her in the indoor arena as there are less distractions for her.
A Bit of Science...
Horses are prey animals that must be constantly aware of potential dangers. They have developed excellent abilities to recognise a perceived threat which will trigger the fight or flight response (freezing, avoidance, aggression, fleeing). Horses have a fast fear response. Taking the time to question an unknown object or noise could be the difference between life or death, it is a matter of survival for them.
There is a part of the brain called the amydala (think of this as the fear generation centre). When activated it sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus (the command centre) which communicates to the rest of the body through the nervous system. Signals are sent to the adrenal glands to pump adrenaline into the bloodstream to activate the fight or flight response;
- The heart beats faster
- Breathing is more rapid to allow more oxygen to circulate
- Sight, hearing and other senses become sharper
These reactions occur before the brain can process what is really going on. This is why horses spook first before they realise what they are spooking at!
This helps us to understand why a horse on constant high alert is very spooky. Their senses are heightened so they are seen to 'overreact' to stimulus that an otherwise 'calm' horse would not notice. An example of this would be a leaf blowing across the road, someone coughing at the side of the arena, or a person stepping out of a front door from 50 metres away. These horses are looking for danger. Their body is telling them to be fearful, their brain is firing signals, they are in a constant state of arousal. It is our job to teach them to relax and this training makes their world more predictable. They are less 'alert' to their environment and once we can achieve calmness, we notice a difference in their behaviour overall.
Lily's Stop and Go responses are good and she responds lightly to both cues. Her Step Back however is very heavy and delayed, she resists the rein pressure by leaning forwards into the bit. Repetitions of Step Back ensuring pauses between each set is a calming exercise for a tense horse. I use this to try and get her to breath, or give a big sigh however her breathing remains very shallow and her eyes are very alert to her surroundings.
Next I teach Park. This is a super calming exercise and helps develop relaxation by teaching the horse to stand independently which will help ease tension and anxiety. She is very fidgety throughout all repetitions and is constantly moving her feet to follow me. I am pleased I record this session as it really shows how Park can be achieved in a very tense horse Click here to watch the training video on my Facebook page. Lily does get Park by the end of the session however she is still anxious and looking around. This will develop over the coming sessions.
28th September 2019
I really notice a difference in Lily today. She is still fidgety but no where near as bad as two days ago. I start with Stop, Go and Step Back. Her Step Back is much better, lighter and less delayed.
Next I concentrate on Park. She makes a few mistakes but I really take my time with this exercise to try and get her to relax. I want her to breathe. She has a very tense jaw with clenched teeth, however after some repetitions she does start moving her lower jaw from side to side. Ideally I would like some yawns but I'm not sure I'll get any. This will show a release of tension of the lower jaw.
Her Head Down response is light and obedient however she cannot maintain keeping her head down and raises it immediately so that she can be on high alert for any danger! This is another calming exercise which teaches the horse to have their head lower than their poll. This is scientifically proven to lower their heart rate by up to 10 beats per minute and can be used to overshadow aversive stimulus in their environment. I persevere with it, quietly and patiently. She does relax eventually. Her owner comes to chat to me so I ask Lily to remain in 'Park' whilst we talk. This is a big ask for a fidgety, nervous horse to remain stationary. She can move her head around, but not her feet. Lily stands and eventually does two big yawns. This is a HUGE step and I am very pleased with this!
3rd October 2019
I conduct our training session in the outdoor arena today, she is very anxious. I begin with Step Back as a calming exercise, and then do repetitions of Stop and Go. She is super jumpy with the horses in the field adjacent to us, so I overshadow whatever she is looking at in the distance with forward and backward steps. It is so far away that I don't even know! This helps her to concentrate on me, and be less interested in the goings on around her, which in turn helps to calm her and take her out of this permanent state of 'flight'. She gives a big sigh out.
Next I move on to Head Down. Interestingly it is heavy and delayed today. This is because there are more distractions within her environment that she is not habituated to. Once she becomes as light as she was in the previous sessions I know that she is becoming accustomed. The response quickly becomes light and responsive and this helps her to relax. She Parks nicely for me.
I remove her bridle and put her headcollar on. I repeat the same as above. Her Park is good, and her Stop, Go and Step Back responsive. She gives me one more big sigh out, but no yawns today.
8th October 2019
Today I revisit Park in the outdoor arena as it is windy. I want to introduce changes in her environmental stimulus but use the same training as before. Uncertainty fuels anxiety, so by making the training predictable for her this will help her to progress. She will know what to expect. Lily is brilliant today, she is so chilled and is like a different pony. The horses are moving around in the field next to us and the dogs are moving at the arena gate. She is so much calmer and demonstrates softly blinking eyes, this is the first time I've seen this behaviour in her.
11th October 2019
I don't have a session planned with Lily today but she walks up to me in the field as I go to catch another horse. This is lovely as she has been very difficult to catch previously. I let her walk up to me and stroke her neck, then I walk away from her using approach and retreat. She follows me so I let her come up to me, stroke her again and then leave her before she chooses to leave me. This is another huge step for her and it may be that by training the basic responses in the arena she has overcame some of the issues of human contact she has been experiencing. Each horse is different and time will tell whether this is real progress.
15th October 2019
Lily has had problems when having her feet trimmed, she is very nervous with the farrier, doesn't stand still and snatches her feet so today I run through a crash course for feet training as the farrier is due this afternoon! Usually I would conduct this session with another helper to hold her feet however I'm alone today so I concentrate on her front legs. Horses need each leg to be trained independently as they can't transfer the training to all legs. I overshadow any behaviour that I don't want, ie. snatching her feet or moving around whilst I'm holding one up. I progress to holding her front legs in different positions to simulate the farrier trimming her feet. She is actually really good for the farrier today, even after this quick little session. Park has also potentially helped by teaching her to be less fidgety, she has learnt that she can in fact stand still.
30th October 2019
Ridden lesson with Lily and her rider: Lily has short, choppy strides and a high head carriage. This is related to tension and a high state of arousal. I start by teaching Long Walk. This exercise encourages a lower head carriage which promotes relaxation. Lily initially trials trot which is a common mistake to make, but then gets much longer walk steps, really stepping underneath with her hindlegs. Her poll drops below her withers and she gives some lovely snorts out which shows a further release in tension for her. This is excellent to see.
14th November 2019
I train Lily in the indoor arena today. I've caught her from the field which is progress in itself given that she has been difficult to catch, even in her stable. She was at the gate but this is still a massive step for her.
Her Step Back is heavy to start off with, her Go is heavy and delayed, her Stop is responsive. It is not unusual for the basic responses to change between sessions and is dependent on environmental stimulus, but it is important to take the time at the beginning of each session to test these responses. You will find that as training progresses and becomes more ingrained, less time is needed to check and correct.
There is a lot going on today with people and dogs moving around outside of the arena so I spend time with the Step Back response and really work on deepening this as she is very tense with big, wide, alert eyes. Next I concentrate on full repetitions in Park. She makes a couple of mistakes initially but I move through the full exercise using all three trainer positions, I then test her Step Back and this is much improved.
Next I introduce Go with whip taps to simulate the rider's legs. Sharpening up this response will help when she stops and refuses to walk forwards from the rider's leg aid. This is initially delayed but becomes more responsive with repetitions.
I finish off today with some Direct Turns in both directions. Her left leg is the heavier of the two which suggests that she is left leg dominant. This will be the leg she is more likely to push off from when she spooks. I get a long breath out but she is still tense.
17th November 2019
Lily has been displaying unwanted behaviour when being groomed, particularly reacting to having her legs touched.
She is heavy in her Step Back to start with but I have added an additional handler today to assist with touching her legs and picking her feet up, so I overshadow this new variable (the extra handler) before we start. We practice brushing her body, and then her legs and I correct any unwanted behaviour including her lifting her leg up, no matter how minor. She snatches her right hind up as my assistant touches this leg so I correct this by stepping her back. It is important to match the Step Back response with the level of the behaviour displayed. If it is a small level of unwanted behaviour it requires a small step back, a severe unwanted behaviour requires repeated big steps back and the correct behaviour to be repeated immediately.
We do repetitions and she improves vastly. She is much calmer and much improved after this session.
29th November 2019
Today is a big day! I catch Lily in the field! She is halfway down the field grazing so I walk towards her in an arc then stop approximately 5 metres away. Other horses approach me so I stand and stroke them. She walks towards me so I reposition myself and turn my back to her. She approaches me again and I make contact with her neck. This is the big step here, she is comfortable with my contact. I slip the leadrope over her neck and she stands lovely allowing me to put her headcollar on. This is a huge progression and change in behaviour for her.
3rd December 2019
I catch Lily again today, stroke her neck then release her.
It is important in the beginning of re-training catching to not always bring the horse in when they are caught. Give them a stroke, or a treat and then release them making sure you walk away from them before they choose to walk away from you. You want to avoid the horse removing you by them choosing to walk away, increasing their distance between you, and rewarding that behaviour.