Thursday, 15 April 2010

Another case example ... Unpredictability and Rider Nerves

*** Please remember that practically all cases must be handled on a one-to-one basis, initially eliminating any medical causes. These snippets are here to give you an idea about the behavioural process. ***

We often find ourselves in situations where we don’t understand why our horses behaved in a certain way. He reacts to something that he has be fine about before, that dustbin that has always been there, the ditch, traffic and so on. Such unpredictability can heavily affect the relationship between horse and rider, a miscommunication or misunderstanding spiralling out of control.

Here is a simple case study to show just how easy it is to overcome rider nerves and horse unpredictability. There is no need for the latest gadget or complicated pressure-release system of training, simply work from the bottom-up, understanding the horses’ natural instincts, and adapting to create a positive relationship with your horse.

8 yo Connemara X mare Shannon and owner Cassandra

Cassandra called me out to help with mare Shannon in the Spring of 2009. Although Shannon was described as easy to handle, Cassandra’s confidence was fast diminishing when in the saddle. Some days Shannon would plod alongside the rest of the hack, and other days she would spook at the shadows and had been know to bolt occasionally.

After taking observations, taking a case history from Cassandra to compliment veterinary records, I was able to explain how these events have occurred. From there I was able to support Cassandra in her re-building of trust in the relationship.

Explanation - unpredictability through our horses’ eyes
Evolving over millions of years, the horse has evolved and adapted to become what we know and love today. As a prey animal surviving a range of environments, the horse is instinctually driven to avoid predation. Our domestic world, with its ever changing environments, loud noises, and more, regularly puts horses in situations that they perceive as threatening. Whether it is a rug or saddle being strewn across her back or being asked to walk calmly through a gate, if a horse feels threatened, the acutely sensed prey animal will adopt one of four essential strategies :

Flight - The first option would be to run away and avoid the situation.
Fiddle - If flight is restricted by being tied-up or put in a stable, just as the politician who cannot escape from the news stand, he will fidget, excessively blink, lick and chew or yawn for example.
Freeze - When the above techniques fail to remove the fearful situation, you may witness attempts to plant their feet and freeze to the spot.
Fight - As a last resort, the nip, bite, kick or pin ears back is likely to occur.

Thinking back to the case you will notice largely flight behaviours, even think to your own horse-human relationships, noticing at least one of these strategies acted upon in certain situations. If a strategy fails, it is altered, if it works to remove the threat, it will be remembered and used in times of need’ once again .

Solutions - step-by-step individual plans
Although this sequence of events derives from instinct, deeply ‘etched’ into the horse’s brain, although cannot be swiftly removed, can be understood, prepared for and prevented. In this particular case, Cassandra was given the necessary information to better predict when a horse may decide to bolt, or be unable to stand still when tied, not walk up the ramp of the trailer or nip you as you tack up. Taking this stance makes the ‘unpredictable’ become ‘predictable’ meaning that we can begin working from the base to solidify our human-animal relations for life-long change.

For Shannon, initially much work was done management and routine. It is not a matter of simply training a horse how to behave ‘appropriately’ for our human world, but a matter of working together for success.

After this initial stage already Shannon had dramatically relaxed with her surroundings. With this base we were ready to begin implementing set ‘training’ to her routine.

This training uses purely positive techniques, positively reinforcing relaxed behaviours across contexts, whilst adopting a step-by-step approach to break down and alter previously learnt negative perceptions deep within the brain . In this case it was a matter of drawing up a specific step-by-step programme, developing positive associations (a) with the owner, (b) with domestic objects from grooming kits to halters, bridles, saddles and rugs, (c) potentially fearful objects such as flags, umbrellas, fillers, bins, working our way through a list based on her history.

Remember that with every case, there are a number of possible causes of a problem, and differences with the way both the human and horse involved learns and progresses, therefore I cannot stress enough the importance for each issue to be assessed on a case-by-case basis, with your veterinary surgeon and local qualified behaviourist involved.

However that said, I hope that this has helped give you an insight, recognising these differences, working with them to adapt and modify behaviour on both sides.

This is really brief so I would strongly recommend consulting with your local qualified equine behaviourist, someone who will work alongside your vet and only uses purely positive techniques to relieve underlying stress. If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to ask at anytime.

Katie B Wade

McDonnell, S. (2003) A Practical Field Guide to Horse Behaviour: The Equid Ethogram, The Blood Horse Inc., United States
Cannon, W. B. (1927) The James-Lange theory of emotion: A critical examination and an alternative theory. American Journal of Psychology, 39, pp.10-124
Skinner, B.F. (1953) Science and Human Behavior, Macmillan, New York

ItalicKatie B Wade is a fully qualified and experienced animal behaviourist, working alongside veterinary clinics, rescue centres, societies, breeders as well as individual owners to assist with various aspects of animal behaviour and training. With professional experience handling, training, breeding and rehabilitating the competition horse, Katie went on to study a degree in Psychology and then on to specialise in Equine Behaviour with The Natural Animal Centre. Katie provides scientifically sound advice to the general public, building a bridge between academic research and practical horse ownership.

Katie B Wade

1 comment:

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.