Start Them Right

The beginning

Setting up horses for their lifelong work and interactions with us is a critical stage of their learning. The positive foundations that are laid here will give them the best chance of survival in our shared world.

The journey with our fillies started with seeing them in their herd, already separated from the older mares. As a group of free-ranging youngsters they react instinctively to their surroundings. We know their flight response is strong; a species that have survived with its ability to run far and fast from potential danger. This group of six, herded into yards by humans, has learnt quickly how to flee from humans and avoid the unfamiliar. Humans to them, represent potential danger and induce fear - they have already learned to use the flight response to remove humans. Horses learn fast - repetition of a behaviour, especially when linked with fear, quickly forms habits.

We have a lot of work to do. 

Here we document the journey of our Percheron fillies..."Poppet", "Hazel" and "Dawn" - our very own "P-H-D" (this accidentally occurred, I promise you!) 

We all want horses that are calm, responsive and safe.  

The aim for us is more than that. Informing all our practice is the guiding principle... ensure the horses' mental and physical well-being is prioritised.

Perhaps this will mean the process takes longer than traditional expectations, but we will strive to ensure stress levels are kept as low as possible (knowing it’s almost impossible to eliminate all discomfort in learning). 

This gives us the opportunity to share with you how knowledge of horse ethology, biomechanics and learning theory combine to result in effective training. Training then, that puts welfare first.

Our 3 Fillies


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Before we start, we have to remember

"fear and stress are known to reduce effective learning" (Goodwin, McGreevy, Waran, McLean 2009) 

Our next steps will be crucial. Transitioning our fillies’ reaction to a human presence from fear to curiosity is our first obstacle.

Their expectation, from their past experience with humans, is that we will herd them away. Instead, we sit quietly next to their yard, throwing in hay regularly, moving away if they step closer. Habituating them to our presence and rewarding them for coming closer (removing the pressure, aka 'us').

Monitoring and recording how long it takes them to associate our presence with something pleasant (food).

Watch this space…

Habituation & Counter Conditioning

Habituation = 'getting used to'. 

An important part of the horses survival is the extent to which it can habituate to stimuli in its environment. Imagine if it used up all of its energy running from every sound and movement (mind you, we probably all know a horse that seems to!) it would be exhausting and unsustainable.

All horse training starts with habituating horses to our presence. Already the Percheron's are getting used to us walking to and fro. If we get too close, they will move away. Gradually,this space between us, or flight zone,  is becoming smaller.

Counter-conditioning = a fearful object becoming associated with something pleasant.

Our regular hay drop offs have become a welcome sight for the fillies. As we fill hay nets next to the round yard, they edge closer each day. Once the hay is available to them inside the yard, they creep reward their approach, we step away from them. They then start learning, when they approach the food, it removes the humans. 

10 Days In

Success has been made to associate 'us' as the delivery of food. The Percheron's are becoming less reactive to unusual movements - me falling through the round yard fence, luckily not caught on camera, did cause a little bit of alarm...gracefully done, I thought, I'm not sure why they didn't agree...

We can now move to 'rewarding' their forward steps with hay. Hazel in particular, is motivated to step in to receive the hay - she steps forward, we hand her some hay, once she's taken it, we step back - BEFORE she steps back. Poppet is joining this process. We have noticed that Dawn is more tentative in her approach and may take longer than her siblings to approach.

Approach conditioning has many advantages in training. Once you have it in your toolkit, you can use it for a variety of situations and horses. At its most basic explanation, the horse 'chases' an object it has shown previous fear towards, stopping before the object stops. This increases the horses inquisitive nature, resulting in them being quite eager to chase the object (try it with a gym ball - it works a treat!)

We are tapping into this desensitisation technique by moving away when the fillies approach us.

Worming Technique

After having a Faecal Egg Count for the fillies (see below button for information) we were advised by the vet to worm our girls. We knew that worming them with a paste would not be an option, so have started habituating them to taking hay from the buckets. They are quite suspicious of eating anything other than hay, so we will introduce our supplement feed gradually (remembering any feed changes for horses has to be introduced gradually) with the intention of administering the worming granules.

Initiating Contact

The progress made with hand feeding has resulted in the fillies coming towards us when they see our approach. We can touch their muzzle with our hand as we feed them hay but any extended movement towards them with our hands however they move their heads away.

So without any form of restraint, how do we begin the touch process?

The learning process at the forefront to consider is operant conditioning, which includes negative and positive reinforcement.

We have to remember that whatever we 'reward' the fillies will repeat. When we talk about reward we can mean the addition of something pleasant (in our case, food) or we can mean the removal of something less pleasant (in this case, our presence or touch). These are then positive reinforcement (addition of) and negative reinforcement (removal of).

It is common to see the first contact with horses as a rub to the forehead. Research into touch has shown horses preference on where to be touched is on their withers. It is important too, that this touch is a stroke or scratch, rather than a pat. Our focus then is to touch the fillies in a place that they feel the most comfortable with - the withers and neck area.

As you can imagine, suddenly leaning in and scratching their withers would cause a little bit of alarm! As soon as they moved away from touch, they would have taught themselves 'touch equals move away'.

We instead use a long stick to ensure we can follow their movement (without chasing) if they back away from us. This is not an easy task and with three of them in the yard together we have to consider our safety at all times. We must emphasis: the stick is a piece of equipment that we use to reach places we otherwise would be unable to. It is NEVER used in any other way. 

First, habituation to the stick moving near them is necessary. Once they no longer react to any movement, we touch them with the stick to the neck area. This is where good timing can make a big difference. The stick can only be removed when the fillies are still. If they move away, the stick must remain in place (as safe as it is to do so). It is clear, then, that the horse must endure an element of discomfort. These unhandled foals do not want to be touched by humans! We know from research that we can include training methods that make this process easier for them. For example, reducing the amount of flooding in all training is key. Gradual de-sensitisation will keep arousal levels down and not let our presence be be associated with fear.

We also have to understand where each horse is in their training level. From the video you can see that Hazel is quite comfortable with this stage and progressing well. Poppet is trialling moving away from the touch. Dawn is still hesitant and tolerating being hand fed her hay only.  

It is here that we see the 10 Principles of Learning in practice.  We continually check in and ask ourselves -  how is the impact of the training making our horses feel? Is our training enriching their lives? These are questions we are happy to reflect on during our journey with the Percehrons. 

Click the button below to see the method in action. 

Touch from a hand

The transition from stick to hand was helped along with a simple use of 'stimulus blending'. It requires using similar stimuli, so in this case the feeling of touch from the stick. The stick was gently placed on a safe area of the fillies, then a hand touches at the same time. Once the fillies are comfortable with this, the stick can be removed. 

From the video footage, you can see the Percheron's are still getting used to (habituating to) touch and scratch. They occasionally walk away from the contact, tilt their bodies away or turn their heads away. This is a great way to assess how they are feeling throughout the process and to adjust accordingly. One of the best things about this awareness is being able to accommodate to their stages. It would be counter-productive to increase their arousal level and activate the flight response, when they have made such progress.  On particularly windy days, for instance, they are less likely to tolerate prolonged touch, so sessions are kept short and succinct.

Setting up a horse to succeed is an important tool to have in your training toolkit. 

The way each horse responds to the training is different. As they are all still together, it has still been important to ensure they are given individual training. Dawn has taken more time to habituate to the different stages throughout the process. It was important to ensure she felt calm enough to take food from us, coming closer when she felt ready. Lingering a hand under her mouth when she took hay began the process of contact. When the stick first approached her, she backed away. We then had to shape the steps even further - leaning the stick towards her bit-by-bit, using approach and retreat, then rewarding her immobility. It didn't take long after the first contact and reward to progress forward. An awareness of the amount of repetitions that are used during learning periods is important for optimal training. When introducing something new, a few repetitions might be needed for the horse to start understanding the desired response. Getting three successful repetitions in a row and then giving your horse a break from the task will help them learn new tasks quickly. The video shows how successful both shaping a new behaviour and consideration of repetitions can be. 

How exciting to think we are on the cusp of putting on head-collars! 

Headcollar Process

Steps to put the headcollar on are outlined on the video clip, linked below.

Initially the sound of the headcollar was aversive to them all and this had to be desensitised. Hazel and Dawn are progressing using target training, as they adjust to touch to their cheek, forehead and poll area. 

Poppet was the most comfortable with the headcollar and so we have increased her repetitions. From being comfortable with the headcollar around her neck, we realised she had to be much more comfortable with our touch to her head, poll area and forehead before we could progress with the next step. Once this was successful, many repetitions later, the hedcollar was placed on Poppet. 

It is very common for those horses hard to catch to have the headcollar on full-time. Knowing how the fillies have still got a PANIC button firmly in place, the risk of Poppet getting caught on something and seriously hurting herself is too high to warrant leaving the headcollar on. Plus, it means we have to repeat constantly what we are learning - some days we have huge success, others not so much. That is training - bumps in the road of our journey. One thing I personally have learnt through it all, by not being able to force the fillies still, not being able to separate them or tie them down in any way, I get to see where they are at in their training. When they back away from me because of the sound of the headcollar, I know they need more habituation. Similarly with Poppet - she found a slight amount of pressure from the headcollar as I was putting it on one day incredibly overwhelming and turned tail and ran like the wind. It means I can assess and re-think an approach, trying new ways next time. Without these mistakes together (and I put them on myself more than the horses), we wouldn't proceed forward. 

Training never (perhaps I should say rarely!) comes without a few twists and turns. It's how we deal with those twists and turns that count. A little bit like life!

Inquisitive Behaviour

Curiosity Killed the Cat…but Helped the Horse.

The Percheron Fillies

The moment we began to see more curiosity than fear was exciting to see. It’s taken some time for them to adjust their initial responses towards us and inquisitive behaviour has crept in little by little. Horses are naturally inquisitive animals. We all know of those horses who have taught themselves something “clever” – opening a stable door, untying their lead rope, dipping under a fence toescape. Enhancing this side of your horse’s learning adds another layer to training and can go a long way in helping them to overcome fear. A recent study found that giving the horse an average of 13 seconds to stop and look at an unfamiliar object can really help promote inquisitive responses rather than fearful ones. Secondly, if horses are able to touch  an  object with their nose, it greatly reduces the potential for fearful reactions 

We see the Percherons doing this very thing, for instance, towards the wheelbarrow. They no longer run when they see it, they look and watch, their curiosity gets the better of them and they approach it slowly; then reach out and touch it with their noses. We want to encourage this behaviour towards us and have seen it happen – they come and wait near us, we have become associated with food and that is a good thing. It is when they reach out with their noses and smell our hair or arms that we know they are losing their natural fear of humans. A good practice is to move away before they do, rewarding them for their initiation of the touch. 

Having a horse that is curious about its world is vital. A horse that is given the time to assess if objects or situations are safe before being asked too much is key to training an all-round, calm animal. Something we all want for our horses. 

Assessment and the Shaping Scale

As one of the ten principles of learning, the ability to break down new behaviour into manageable chunks is key to success. "Shaping" is something that good trainers do quite naturally and is seen in different contexts of learning and teaching (for instance "scaffolding" in teaching language). 

It is easy to miss steps, or to misinterpret a horses true understanding at particular levels. "He knows what he is supposed to do" is a common sentence spoken by many, myself included in the past.

With the assessment of training, however, we can begin to look at the thoroughness of what we are teaching more accurately.

Assessment of the stages needs to occur with each training session and in each moment. Where they are 'at' and where to next can vary from day-to-day, horse-to-horse.

We cannot be afraid of the horse making mistakes - their mistakes show us our mistakes...could I make that clearer, how can I improve that response, what have I missed? 

When we accurately assess the stages, we can and MUST change our direction. Going back down a step has to occur, in fact, go down 3 steps! Consolidate and build up slowly - going up, going back, as you need. It really can (and should) feel like 3 steps forward, 2 steps back. Taking the time to get the basics right can never be a waste of time.

The link below shows an example of this in action. I have been torn with whether or not to confine the fillies into small areas but the space they have to move shows me clearly where they are 'at'. By not leaving the headcollar on constantly, I test their level of understanding daily. Poppet is leading the way, teaching me as we go. 

First Leading Response

With the intention of keeping Poppet's arousal level down, her first steps forward were given considerable thought.

Instead of pulling and fighting her when she attempts to avoid the pressure (which we would never win!), Dr Andrew McLean's advice to give a slight sideways pressure was used. This makes it easier for the release of pressure to occur immediately when Poppet steps (it actually appears more like a stumble) forward - then helping to prevent any 'pull-back' or panic from her and she calmly begins to respond to the lightest pressure forward. 

We are also using combined reinforcement, both negative and positive reinforcement during our training with the fillies.

In the science world, it can be represented as:

-ive reinforcement (negative)

+ive reinforcement (positive)

In this way, we can be reminded that

-ive reinforcement is the REMOVAL of something aversive (annoying) and

+ive reinforcement is the ADDITION of something pleasant. Both used to make the behaviour more likely to occur. 

The lightest pressure is still -ive reinforcement and so the key is the timing of the release of pressure. It is this release, combined with the food reward that is training Poppet's first steps. 

To see how well she is progressing, see the clip on YouTube.