Posts

Training Foals

Handling Foals

When a foal is born, it is so tempting to get right in there. We want to help the mother, make sure the baby is well, and even start training it right away with the imprinting method popularized by Miller and Close (1991). Miller hypothesized that foals would be accepting of handling and new situations later in life if they were flooded at birth with things they will experience later. Flooding is a desensitizing method that works by overwhelming the animal’s defences until it gives up. Newer research is suggesting that, unless the foal needs immediate intervention to survive, letting mother and baby be alone together is actually the best course of action (Henry et al, 2009). The consequences of just one hour of neonatal handling are astounding.

Short Term Effects of Immediate Handling

In the study, nine foals were left alone with their dams immediately after birth and nine foals received about an hour of imprint training within ten minutes after foaling following the method described by RM Miller. After this one hour treatment, both groups were treated the same, being turned out in social groups and observed periodically.

Foals that received imprint training for an hour in their mother’s presence took longer to stand for the first time and nurse for the first time than foals left undisturbed with their mothers. The imprinted foals also showed trembling, fast breathing, and abnormal sucking. This included directing sucking behaviour at the air or the handler rather than the dam.

Mid Term Effects of Immediate Handling

At six months of age, differences were still observable between experimentally handled foals and those left alone after birth. The imprinted foals were more dependent on their mothers, staying closer on average, exploring less readily, interacting more with their mothers than with others in their social group, and even playing less. They were also less likely to approach an unfamiliar human. These results show that early handling affected the imprinted foals both socially and emotionally.

During weaning at seven months of age, both groups of weanlings showed the same level of whinnying for the first day. After the second day however, the weanlings that were not handled at birth were much calmer and were playing with their peers, while the imprinted weanlings continued in distress even four days after weaning, and also showed aggression towards their peers.

Long Term Effects of Immediate Handling

At one year of age, in social groups with other horses of the same age, differences between imprinted and unhandled horses were still visible. The imprinted horses spent less time in proximity to their peers, and also tended to be more aggressive with their peers.

Conclusions

Even one hour of interference with the earliest interactions between mare and foal has long lasting effects that are not yet fully known. If the effects of the early separation and human handling are still so strongly visible at one year of age, it is possible that the effects will continue through the horse’s life, though further research is needed to confirm this.

Imprinting foals seems to create social misfits in the herd that are insecurely attached to their dam, and have difficulty exchanging the maternal relationship for relationships with peers as normally happens. These differences occurred even though the lives of the imprinted foals after the one hour of handling was exactly the same as that of the control group foals.

Practical Suggestions

For the welfare and proper development of a foal into a healthy and socially well adjusted individual, mares and foals should be allowed to interact alone on their own time scale as much as possible for the critical first hours. This time is essential in forming an appropriate bond with the mother and with peers later in life, and also in fostering a positive relationship with humans.

Another study (Henry et al, 2005) has shown that if the mare has a healthy relationship with humans through calm, daily handling, the foal initiates more interactions with the handler at a young age, is more accepting of touch and novel situations, and at one year old is easy to approach and handle. The daily handling of the dam in this study was very simple, involving hand feeding and soft brushing for fifteen minutes per day on the first five days of the foal’s life. Their findings suggest that short, unobtrusive handling of the dam has a positive effect on the foal’s relationship with people that lasts just as long as the negative effects of imprint training. This could be a more ethical solution than imprinting is to the desire for foals to accept human contact and form a relationship with us.

References

Henry, S; Hemery, D; Richard-Yris, M-A; Hausberger, M. (2005) Human-mare relationships and behaviour of foals toward humans. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 93:341–362.

Henry, S; Richard-Yris, M-A; Tordjman, S; and Hausberger, M. (2009) Neonatal handling affects durably bonding and social development. PLoS ONE, 4:4.

Miller RM; Close, P. (1991) Imprint training of the newborn foal. Western Horseman, 1991

Do Horses Recognize Themselves in a Mirror?

Few species are capable of recognizing themselves in a mirror. Many species interpret the image in the mirror as that of a conspecific. Being able to form a concept of ‘self’ requires higher mental ability. Do horses have this ability?

There are three stages an animal has to pass in a mirror self recognition test before the final stage of testing where a mark is applied to the animal in a region only visible with the help of a mirror to see if the animal attempts to remove the mark. Prior to this, the animal must show social responses towards the mirror. Then the animal explores the mirror, including looking behind it. Finally, to get to the stage of testing involving the mark, the animal must repeatedly test the mirror by looking at parts of its body that it cannot typically see without the mirror, or performing repetitive behaviours such as sticking out the tongue or moving in and out of the mirror’s range like playing peek-a-boo.

A few years ago there was an open access pilot study (https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0176717) using four horses and a large mirror to see if the horses would pass these four stages and recognize that it was themselves reflected in the mirror. At that point, the results were inconclusive, with horses recognizing that the reflected image did not behave like another horse but showing inconclusive behaviours for the remaining parts of the test.

More recently another open access study was conducted (https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-021-01502-7) with more horses and different results. The mark was only used on the 11 horses (out of 14) that passed the first three stages of the testing as described above. A sham mark was used to ensure the horses were not detecting the mark through tactile means instead of actually seeing the coloured mark, and indeed most of the horses scratched more at the coloured mark than at the invisible one.

These results suggest that horses can develop an idea of self after some exploration of a mirror to satisfy themselves that it is not a conspecific. It is also possible that they recognized the mark on the face as unnatural and attempted to intentionally remove it.

Unfortunately, some reporters are touting this preliminary study with the headline that ‘horses worry about their looks,’ which is a sensational and inaccurate portrayal of the study results. Horses have previously been shown to be incapable of worrying about future events. Anxiety and stress are only triggered by context-specific memory. Reading the studies themselves, which are freely available, is much more accurate than reading reporters’ interpretations!

So don’t take my word for it either. Do some digging yourself, read the articles, and comment your thoughts and findings!

The Horse that Couldn’t Lunge

I put together a before and after video of a young horse who had trouble learning to be lunged. Normally when a horse understands the basic go, stop, and turn commands, lunging is easy right from the first time. Not for Violet… she needed a creative solution that the principles of equitation science suggested. Watch the video to see the transformation!

(Facebook didn’t like the music I used in the video, but I do have the right to it!)

Better Riding=Better Relationship

A recent study examined how riders’ pelvic movement and balance on an exercise ball correlated with their riding ability and harmony with their horse and with their horses’ welfare while riding.

Three gymnastic ball exercises were evaluated, and two of them were found to be positively correlated with riders who moved best with their horses and whose horses expressed the least conflict behaviours. That means the riders who were better at those two exercises were better riders and caused their horses less confusion.

Get your exercise ball and give these a try:

  1. Sitting on an exercise ball with arms crossed in front of you, wrist to elbow, roll the pelvis from side to side without tipping your shoulders and without moving your feet. You’ll lift the right hip and lower the left, then lift the left and lower the right.
  2. In the same position on the ball, roll the ball in a circle with your pelvis, to the right and then to the left, controlling the motion of the ball throughout the circle. Again, maintain the feet flat on the ground and the upper body stable.

Riders whose performance of these exercises scored high also scored high for harmony with their horse while riding, and their horses worked at higher heart rates with fewer conflict behaviours. That means the horses were working more correctly with less confusion, which improves the relationship between horse and rider!

The third exercise examined was a balance exercise where riders were asked to extend their arms horizontally in front and then lift their feet off the ground, attempting to balance for 30 seconds. Interestingly, riders who scored well on this exercise showed a negative correlation with harmony while riding. The authors hypothesized that the different muscle contractions required for balancing in this position versus balancing in a riding position made the exercise unhelpful for riding. 

Uldahl, M; Christensen, J; Clayton, H. (2021) Relationships between the Rider’s Pelvic Mobility and Balance on a Gymnastic Ball with Equestrian Skills and Effects on Horse Welfare. Animals 11:2, 453.

How to Turn a Horse

Often when a new client brings me a horse of theirs for a training lesson I ask a few simple questions to make sure all three of us (them, their horse, and I) are all on the same page. Their responses are interesting and surprisingly consistent:

Me: How do you tell your horse to go?

Client: I speed up my seat and then squeeze my legs.

Me: How do you tell your horse to stop?

Client: I slow down my seat and then squeeze the reins.

Me: [So far so good…] And how do you tell your horse to turn?

Client: First I half halt with my reins and legs at the same time, then I turn my head and put my inside hip forward, with my inside leg at the girth and my outside leg back. Then my outside hip pushes forward and around, my inside rein opens, and my outside rein pushes while both legs squeeze alternately and I close my left eye and wiggle my right big toe.

Right. That was confusing. Do you think perhaps the horse is confused too?

Having different cues for different responses that are clearly separated from one another is incredibly important for our horses’ mental well-being. If pressure from the rider’s lower leg sometimes means ‘go’ and sometimes means ‘turn’ in a slightly different combination, it is easy to get a confused horse, and confused horses generally cope in one of two ways: they shut down and stop responding, or they overreact and develop unwanted behaviour.

This isn’t to say that cues can’t become more complicated and closer together as horse and rider both progress. The most physically complicated movement in dressage is the pirouette, a turn on the spot at either walk or canter, which combines three basic responses in the space of three steps—less than one stride! Even then, the cues do not come at the same time. The rider cues for each response one at a time to build it into the pirouette.

What does it take to get to that point?

For both training the horse and training a riding student, I start at the very beginning with the simplest cues, which are pressure-based. In a new or frightening situation, the pressure-based cues are what the horse can fall back on and respond to reliably. I always start, then, with leg pressure for go, rein pressure for stop, and a single rein to the side for turn.

If horse and rider were to stay at this stage, that would be alright, though a bit rustic. But neither would improve, and it is better for the horse to reduce pressure cues. When the basic pressure cues are understood and are becoming reliable, I start to introduce seat cues. These are the rider’s movement patterns in the saddle that the horse can feel and respond to before receiving pressure from the bit or legs. A rider may speed up the movement of the seat for ‘go’, slow it down for ‘stop’, or turn the torso for ‘turn’. The horse quickly learns to feel the weight shift and predict what pressure will come next, allowing him to act first and avoid the pressure. This learning process is called classical conditioning.

Classically conditioned cues like seat or voice cues are less reliable than pressure cues in a new or scary situation. That is why I do not begin with classical cues. I prefer to have a solid foundation for horse and rider that I can build on to create beautiful movement and mutual understanding.

Better Relationship, Easier Handling: Effect of Training Method

A recent study investigated whether the human-horse bond could be considered ‘attachment’ by the scientific definition of the term. This involves security and comfort being derived from the relationship.

The relationship and attachment of dogs and cats to humans has been studied much more than that of horses, but this preliminary study with 12 horses is the starting place for more research in future.

Methods

The twelve horses were assessed before the training began in an arena with four novel objects and two unfamiliar humans. This assessed their fear responses to new situations and whether they found the presence of unfamiliar humans to be reassuring.

The horses were then trained over a period of ten days for fifteen minutes by the same trainer in ten simple tasks including stepping forward, stopping, standing still, and moving either the shoulders or the hips sideways. One group of horses was trained this using only negative reinforcement (the removal of pressure to reinforce the correct response). The other two groups were trained with combined reinforcement, which is negative reinforcement combined with positive reinforcement (the addition of something pleasant as a reward for a correct response). One combined reinforcement group had food rewards, and the other had wither scratching as a reward.

A post training test was conducted with four new novel objects and two people near the objects. One of these people was unfamiliar, and the other was the horses’ trainer so that it could be assessed if the horse showed attachment behaviours towards the familiar person. The researchers also wanted to see if the method of training used affected the horses’ responses to novel objects.

Lastly, a handling test was conducted consisting of five challenging and potentially fear inducing situations that the horse was led through by an unfamiliar handler or by the trainer to investigate effect of training method and familiarity of the human on the horses’ reactions.

Results

The researchers were unable to find a difference between horse behaviour toward the trainer versus behaviour toward the stranger between the pre- and post-tests. Horses that were willing to investigate the novel objects in the pre- test did so also in the post-test. Their heart rates, however, were significantly lower in the post-test, indicative either of the horse getting used to the testing scenario, or perhaps showing an effect of correct training in producing relaxation, which has been demonstrated in other studies. During the handling test, there was no difference in measured behaviours when being handled by the trainer versus the stranger.

There is not enough evidence from this study to conclude that scientific attachment occurs between horses and humans, but the reasons for this may be several.

  • There were few training sessions. Horses may take longer to form an attachment than other species.
  • The horses were lesson horses. They were therefore frequently handled by many humans and may have generalized to consider all humans as positive.
  • This was a pilot study. There were only 12 horses used, which is a good start but further research is required.

Reference

Hartmann, E; Rehn, T; Christensen, JW; Nielsen, PP; and McGreevy, P. (2021) From the Horse’s Perspective: Investigating Attachment Behaviour and the Effect of Training Method on Fear Reactions and Ease of Handling—A Pilot Study. Animals 11: 457. Open Access: https://www.mdpi.com/2076-2615/11/2/457

Teaching Yield

It’s cold. There’s no better time to do some slow, finicky training like lateral movements. It’ll improve performance when you can get sweaty again!

Materials

Dressage whip

Horse in a halter or bridle

Helmet and Gloves

Prerequisites

To learn this exercise successfully, your horse needs to know to not run away from the whip, how to go from two light whip taps, and how to stop from light halter or bit pressure. If he doesn’t, go back to this post first: https://clairetyhorsemanship.ca/2021/01/27/training-exercise-slow-down/

Training Yield

Using a series of light taps with a dressage whip on your horse’s stifle, get him to step away from the taps with that leg by quitting the taps as soon as he moves the leg away, crossing it underneath himself in front of the other one. Reward only one step, or even half a step at first, especially if your horse is prone to getting anxious. Next walk forward five steps and stop. This will set up his legs to be in a good position for your next ask. Ask again for one step to the side. See how precise you can be with one step sideways and five steps forward.

Teach this on both sides.

It will be easier to transfer this to your riding once you can do this sequence calmly, slowly, and thoughtfully. Sidepass, leg yield, haunches in, shoulder in, renvers, and pirouettes all use yield to some extent!

Is Your Horse Curious?

Is your horse (or the horse you ride, lease, borrow, love) curious? A new study shows that horses who are interested in new things and want to explore them actually learn better!

“Exploratory behaviour was unreinforced in the novel object tests and likely reflects the animal’s intrinsic motivation (i.e. curiosity), suggesting that this trait is favourable for learning performance.”

Coming up with ways to foster your horse’s curiosity could improve his whole outlook on life, including his interest in training.

“[these results] raise questions in relation to fostering of curiosity in animals and the impact that such manipulation may have on cognitive abilities.”

How can you foster your horse’s curiosity? I like to allow my horse to investigate things. When she looks worried about something, we stop and wait. Research shows that after about 13 seconds of observing something ‘scary’, horses become more willing to explore it. So we wait a bit, then I ask her to go a little closer. Soon she’s getting closer herself, sniffing or moving the object herself.

How do you enable your horse to be curious?

Christensen, J; Ahrendt, L; Malmkvist, J; and Nicol, C. (2021) Exploratory behaviour towards novel objects is associated with enhanced learning in young horses. Scientific Reports, 11:1428. Open access! Read the full article here: https://rdcu.be/cejm0

Training Exercise: Slow Down!

You’ll see it in sales ads: forward horse, requires experienced rider.

Read: this horse has a tendency to go faster than you’d like and doesn’t slow down if you want to.

This isn’t a safe problem to have with a horse, and it can be scary too.

Here is a simple training exercise to begin installing better brakes on a more-go-than-whoa horse.

Set Up

You’ll want a safe, enclosed area to work in. This exercise can be done ridden or on the ground, depending on the horse’s and handler’s ability levels. For a horse that bolts, the smaller the area, the better. Always wear a helmet, appropriate shoes, and gloves.

Exercise

You will walk the horse forward exactly six steps of the forelegs and then stop. No more, no less. Not five, not five and a half, six. Right front leg is one, left front leg is two, and so on.

This will take some planning ahead on your part. You will begin cuing for a stop as step number four is in the air. If you are on the ground, walking backwards can be helpful so you can see the front legs.

Step four: light stop pressure begins. Always start with light pressure.

Step five: pressure increases smoothly and steadily to a point that motivates the horse to stop.

Step six: release pressure completely.

Aim for three improved repetitions before working on something else or finishing the session.

Troubleshooting

Horse keeps walking after step six: It is likely for the first few repetitions that the forward horse will continue walking through the pressure past the sixth step. Continue to increase pressure until the stop is achieved and release immediately. Next time, make sure your pressure gets up to the effective level faster during the fifth step so you can release on the sixth.

Horse takes five steps: You can use less pressure. Try maintaining the same light pressure you started with on the fourth step instead of increasing pressure. Play with the amount of pressure needed to reach exactly six steps.

Horse walks again immediately after stopping: Make sure you aren’t releasing pressure too early. Apply pressure to stop again if he moves before you cue. Also make sure you aren’t expecting the horse to stay immobile for too long. When just starting the exercise, one to two seconds is long enough. Then have him take six steps forward again. As he gets better at stopping, you can increase the time you expect him to wait.

But I want the horse to stop when I say whoa/lean back/use other classical cue: Classically conditioned cues like voice or seat cues are wonderful. Every horse should learn them. But if the horse does not respond to light pressure, teaching a reliable classically conditioned cue is not possible. In a stressful or different situation, the cue will fade. I always teach response to light pressure first. Then it is very easy to add a voice or seat cue that is reliable.