It doesn’t have to be perfect.

Horse training is rarely a perfect upwards curve. I am coaching a client with two yearlings and I just got a panicked message from them saying they’d mucked things up. The yearlings are both rescues, one of them was very reluctant to be handled and until we began training sessions had been getting rather worked up about interactions. He didn’t like to be touched at all and they’d ended up using food to try and win him round. It had worked up to a point, but he was experiencing a fair old amount of conflict (stress) as he wobbled between wanting to get the food and worrying about the contact. This meant that at times he was quite reactive and could get frustrated. My initial advice was stop the feeding, work on finding out how close he could tolerate the human and then working on helping him relax with that. Over the last week or so that has built firstly to head scratches and more recently to scratching all over, as he has discovered just how wonderful nice, safe, predictable human contact could be.

Unfortunately, today, with the wind, something spooked him during the scratching session and he panicked, fell over his legs and now won’t come near the human at all. Disaster. Or is it?

In my book, it’s all okay. He didn’t get eaten. The human didn’t pursue him. He has actually learned something useful. When he panicked, the scratching ended. Okay, so for now he’s scared to approach the human. But it doesn’t mean he’ll never do so again.

It’s easy to feel disillusioned and think that all the good progress has been destroyed. But that really honestly is rarely the case. In fact, sometimes I think these setbacks can actually be a good thing.

How so? Well, the key is in what you do next. My advice to my client is this. You are a good trainer. You may not have masses of experience, but you think about what you do, you are observant and you recognise that you are responsible for things and can therefore change them. You learn from your mistakes! This is the foundation for becoming a really great trainer. No one ever got to be good at anything without making plenty of mistakes along the way. The key is in how you respond to the situation you find yourself in. You aren’t going to beat him up, because he made a mistake, are you? So don’t beat yourself up.

So how does this help our spooky yearling? In his book, he made a mistake too. He went near the human on a windy day and he got himself in a twist. But his learning, like ours, is always going to have backward steps, as well as forwards.

We need to show him that there are no bad consequences. That we listen carefully to how he is feeling, and respond appropriately. So I advised my client (once she’d stopped beating herself up!) to find out how close she could comfortably get to him, without him wanting to leave (even if that’s quite far away) and to just quietly stay there, then leave him be.

How does this help the yearling? Well, a big bit of trust is about knowing that you are listened to and your feelings are respected. When he realises that he won’t be pushed beyond what he is comfortably with, he starts to relax. This in turn means that he starts to allow the human closer, and closer, and closer. Until they are back to the stage of enjoying contact and gentle scratches again.

This seems a bit of a roundabout way of learning, how is it beneficial to step forwards and back like this, how is this progress? Well, the big progress, as I have experienced over the years working with traumatised horses of all degrees, is that they start to see that even though mistakes are made, the human remains calm, consistent, and most importantly of all, listens to them and gives them space when they need it. The very act of allowing that space tends, in my experience, to reduce the need for it. And making the mistakes, but then moving forwards, is the thing the horse needs to experience to realise that you can in fact be trusted. And of course, if the mistake is actually because you picked a bad day to train, or you weren’t in that particular moment paying close enough attention to how your horse was feeling, well, you learn not to make that mistake again!

The only time I find horses are really unforgiving is when people repeatedly make the same mistakes of pushing too far and failing to pay attention to the warning signs and body language that say that the horse is worried.

So for my client, and her yearling, I’m not worried. I know they’ll get there, and they’ll build a better relationship because of it.

Be kind to yourself. Never be afraid of mistakes. Be brave enough to acknowledge and own them when you make them. And always always know that you can ask for help. That is how we all learn and grow.

How do I know this? Because I’ve made a million mistakes in my career and I’m sure I’ll make a million more. But I also know that I’m always learning. I have amazing colleagues and friends that I can discuss things with. I’ve experienced most of the situations my clients get in at one point or other in my life! I’m a learner too, and glad to be that way.

The irrelevance of bunting and other horse training ponderings…

What is this stuff you’ve put here?

When you’re introducing a three year old to the world, it doesn’t matter what equipment you use, it’s all new. Today it’s the bunting game, tomorrow could be the rug game, the saddle game. My daughter asked me the best question today when she asked ‘but why do you need to introduce him to bunting?’.

It’s not so bad, this stuff!

So I pointed out that he doesn’t know yet what new stuff is going to be significant for his future, it’s just all new. A saddle or a whip is equally as random to a baby horse as a pile of bunting or a feather duster.

Whatever…..

Of course the thing that really matters is, do they have a positive experience? Do they feel curious and become confident and the object? Or does it become something threatening, to be feared? As you can see in these clips, Blue Bayou discovered that bunting is nothing to worry about.

What are you doing?!!


However, this must come with a disclaimer. I’m a professional trainer and a behaviourist. I know how to introduce these things in a safe and non threatening way. I DO NOT advocate that you should go and try this with your horse, especially in the current circumstances. Done incorrectly, you can cause lasting psychological damage and could put yourself and others at risk. Only do this under supervision of an appropriately qualified professional, preferably one listed on the ABTC register of Clinical Animal Behaviourists as a horse specialist. Eventually we will have a horse trainers register too!

Nothing like a nice scratch with a trusted friend….

Lambs not meerkats…..

Who says life as a roving behaviourist/ coach is ever dull? Last week we had meerkats. Well, a meerkat, singular. This week we have miracle lambs. I arrived at one of my clients yards to be told that her son’s zwartble ewe, who had given birth to an (a) dorble dorset/ zwartble lamb just three weeks ago, had produced two more lambs!! Apparently it is very very rare, but possible. A once in a lifetime experience they tell me. So here she is, clever mammy and her one big and two little lambs, all of them (a) dorble 😁, photographed by my own fair hand. Very tricky to get them all in shot at once!

Front page news in this week’s Farm Week!

Learning Theory in Context for the BHS at Enniskillen College, CAFRE.

IMG-2237 (1)

On Friday 28th February I spent the day at Enniskillen College delivering CPD (Continuing professional development) for around sixty British Horse Society, Horse Sport Ireland and Pony Club coaches. The theme for the day was learning theory in context and served as a practical follow up to the chapter on learning theory that I wrote for the BHS book Complete Horsemanship Volume Four, published in November 2019 by Kennilworth Press. I’ve already blogged about how important it is to look at learning theory in the context of emotions, stress, motivation and body language. Applying, for example, operant conditioning, in a mechanical way, without understanding the relationship to classical conditioning and the impact we are having on the horse in terms of stress and arousal levels, is a very risky thing to do. Of course we all want to promote safety, both for horse and rider, and more importantly, we want to ensure that the horse’s wellbeing and welfare do not suffer as a consequence of our training choices.

I was delighted to be able to explain learning theory and how it applies in context, in the real world, for the coaches. We started in the lecture theatre with an introduction to the nervous system, arousal levels, understanding body language, and the impact that training has on the horse.

IMG-2971

Following lunch, we headed out to the indoor arena to look at three different horses and their reactions to a range of circumstances. The focus was on interpreting the horse’s body language. Often coaches and other equine professionals can have a good implicit understanding of how a horse is feeling, based on a lifetime of experience and often learned through the school of hard knocks. However, when coaching, it isn’t sufficient to say the horse is happy or unhappy. We need to be able to explain to clients what signs we are seeing and what they mean, in order that they can learn to recognise them. The better we can help clients to be at reading and understanding what the horse is telling them, the safer we can keep everyone concerned. So the emphasis was on describing what the horse was doing/ showing in terms of body language that led to the interpretation of how they were feeling and what was happening in the nervous system.

We then looked at the impact of different kinds of stimuli and how the kind of training we use can change the way the horse is feeling about those stimuli, for better or worse.

IMG-2230

IMG-2258

IMG-2257

The day provided food for thought for all the coaches, and I got great feedback at the end of it all. We’ll hopefully be running another one at Kildalton College in Kilkenny, probably in the autumn once the coronavirus pandemic settles.

I’d like to say a huge thankyou to students Ruby and Daria who did a fantastic job of organising the day, to the staff at Enniskillen College for the wonderful facilities and horses, in particular Jenny Richardson who worked hard behind the scenes to support the students and ensure everything ran smoothly. Most of all, a heartfelt thank you to Susan Spratt, Regional Manager for the BHS, who has been inviting me to do presentations and courses for the BHS in Ireland since I began my business in 2003!

Also thank you to the student volunteers and their horses that acted as guinea pigs, and to Nicky Mummery who was an expert umbrella wielder.

The fantastic photographs were taken by Daria Fidgeon, email: fidgeondaria@gmail.com, follow her on Instagram @photographybydaria

A meerkat kind of day…

I’m really lucky to do a job I love, something I’m really passionate about. I’m even luckier when we get a beautiful day like we did today. I think Northern Ireland really looks its best when we have blue skies with big dramatic clouds. I’m on the road a lot, mostly in and around my home in Co. Down, right on the edge of the Mournes, area of outstanding natural beauty. This was the view behind me as I headed home from my last client of the day.But the day began with a rather different sighting:I think one of the best things about horsey people is that they rarely just have horses! But today certainly had to be one of my more unusual encounters. I was with a friend while she was having a pony vetted and the yard was full of a happy gang of cats and dogs…. except one of them was a meerkat named Stevie. The good news is the pony passed the vet, and we all started our days with big smiles after watching Stevie’s antics.Next up was a series of regular clients, two ridden sessions, one preparing for a dressage test on Saturday and the other who has spent the last two years working with me on classical in hand work as a way of rehabilitating a horse with straightness issues, alongside some lameness. We have now got to the stage of getting her back in the saddle and it’s amazing the change in straightness, suppleness and balance.Just as I was leaving the second yard, the EDT was arriving to treat one of the horses. It’s really important for me to have a good working relationship with all the other professionals involved with the horses. A team approach means that we can be quick to spot problems and nip them in the bud. Good communication is key, so it’s always nice to have a bit of ‘real’ ‘face time’ and catch up on progress of shared clients.On to the next client, this time a gorgeous mule who is learning to drive and pull a cart. She had apparently given herself a bit of a fright a few days ago so it was a timely visit. We have already taught her to target and used that as a way of establishing positive reinforcement and the use of a marker signal. This meant that we were able to work on using the target to build up positive associations around the cart and help her to feel more relaxed.Back home and a quick catch up on emails, then out to work with the two three year olds. I sat up on Kaikoura for the first time, and fully lay over Blue Bayou. Then finished off with a nice ride on my lusitano cross, Star, who is coming back into work after time off with sore feet.I’m loving the stretch in the evenings and the feeling of spring in the air. Here’s to more meerkat days. Simples.