Sensible starting….

One of my passions is problem prevention, rather than problem solving. I may be a registered CAB, but at the end of the day I like to make sure that dealing with behaviour problems is only a small proportion of my work. The rest of the time I like to focus on preventing them starting in the first place. I do this in part through education, through my writing and lecturing and coaching of other equine professionals. But I also do lots of hands on training. I have regular clients with young horses that I have coached throughout the backing process. I love it even more when I get to work with breeders and can help foals get the best start. The best thing of all is when I can take foals that have had a good beginning and work with them as three and four year olds, taking them through the backing process.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that people like nice, well trained horses. And nice, well trained horses get treated well. Nice, well trained horses rarely get abused or mistreated. They tend to have good homes.

Starting with the raw material, personality is half inherited, the other half is all about life and what it throws at us. So if a foal has lots of enjoyable handling early on, isn’t frightened or forced, but not spoiled either, then that foal learns that people can be trusted. That foal starts out in the world liking the human race, choosing to engage with them.

From there on, it’s relatively easy to build on that with further positive experience. If the foal can be born in a herd environment with interesting terrain and exposure to things like railways, motorways, tractors, quads, people etc, even better. They will learn good social skills and they’ll encounter a variety of stimuli early on. Add to that a natural weaning, so that they are old enough and self confident enough to choose when and how they stop suckling, and you will have an emotionally stable individual that is predisposed to cope well with separations.

At present, I have three such horses in my herd. One we bought as an unbacked youngster to be long term training prospect for Spence junior. I’m having lots of fun with her at the moment, having backed her and am now riding her on a little so that she has a few more miles on the clock ready for Spence junior to take her on. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately from Spence Junior’s perspective, she’s only thirteen hands, so a little on the small side for me, or perhaps we’d be having ownership disputes!

The other two are here for starting for a client, with no time deadlines or expectations other than that they are happy and they become nice, well trained riding horses. One of them we’re going to keep and the other is to be sold. It’s lovely to have the leisure of working at the best pace for them. You can see from the images below, I’m now lying over them. Kaikoura is definitely ready for me to sit on, he’s very accepting of new situations and stuff, but maybe a little slower to learn that his job is just to stand still and do nothing! Once he realised that he could turn his head and take a small handful of feed from me while I lay across him, we had a bit of a break through.Blue Bayou, on the other hand, is a little more cautious about new situations and stuff, he needs more repetitions to help him relax, but he’s very smart and a quick learner.I’m super pleased with them both and the progress they’re making. Blue is going to be a cracking horse for someone when he’s ready.

My focus is always on doing things as and when the horse is ready, rather than having fixed goals that have to be achieved at set times. Sometimes it might seem like I’m going very slowly, but then that’s because it takes time to build a good foundation. Once those good foundations are in place, it’s amazing how quickly the walls go up.

The other thing is, I’m in my forties now, I’m not as brave as I used to be and I definitely don’t bounce the way I used to. So I don’t want to sit on any youngster until I know they’re happy about it, for my safety, for their sanity, and for the safety and sanity of everyone around me!

I guess this is having a horse centred approach, my focus is on how the horse is feeling about what they’re learning. But at the end of the day it’s just good horse sense, isn’t it? And to me, that’s what sensible starting is all about.

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Learning Theory in Context

One of my greatest passions over the last twenty years has been putting learning theory into context for horse owners and trainers. What do I mean by this? Often over the years I’ve seen learning theory, and more specifically operant conditioning, being taught and applied in a very mechanical way. If we do x, it causes y. This is all very well, but it somewhat misses the point. The point is, how does the horse feel about x, or, for that matter, y. What is the motivation that underlies the behaviour? What aspects of the nervous system are we tapping into when we train? What hormones are released? What does this mean in terms of well-being, and therefore welfare?

We cannot afford to simply (and carelessly) apply operant conditioning in a mechanical way. More importantly, operant conditioning theory should not be taught to trainers without first of all teaching them about classical conditioning. And neither should be taught without also teaching about emotion, motivation, nervous system arousal and body language.

Last year I was delighted to be approached by the British Horse Society, of which I am a long standing member. They asked me to write a chapter on Learning Theory for their latest book, Complete Horsemanship, Volume Four. I took great pleasure in doing my best to explain learning theory in context (rather tricky with a word limit of 9000!). The book was published in December 2019 and this year I am delighted to be delivering Continuing Professional Development training days on the subject, the first of which is happening at Enniskillen College in just a few weeks time.

Not only does this count as CPD for BHS coaches, it is also accredited by Horse Sport Ireland and the Pony Club.

I think it is fantastic that coaches are turning their attention to having a better understanding of the theories that underlie their coaching. I appreciate that many excellent coaches already have a good implicit, or natural, understanding of this topic, however, by attending this day they will come away with an explicit understanding of how and why what they do works, how to better communicate that to their clients and a better understanding of why sometimes things don’t go to plan and why some horses just don’t seem to follow the rules.

If you are interested in attending, please contact Susan Spratt, in order to book your place. I understand they are booking up fast, so don’t leave it too late!

If you like the sound of this or are interested in other training and coaching events or workshops for owners as well as professionals, please subscribe to this blog and I’ll keep you up to date.



Recommended Reading

I’m often asked to recommend books, both by clients and students, so I thought it might be helpful if I listed a few here. These certainly aren’t exhaustive lists and if and when I think of other books I’d like to add, I’ll edit this post!

Much excitement as I unpack the latest BHS publication, my contribution is chapter eleven, on learning theory.

First of all, for those working towards a role as a clinical equine behaviourist, I’d suggest the following for a deeper understanding of equine behaviour, perception and cognition. These are, in the main, more in depth ‘scientific’ texts, however they would also be of interest to the dedicated horse owner.

Leblanc, Michel-Antoine (2013) The Mind of The Horse: an introduction to equine cognition. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts/ London, England.

McDonnell, Sue (2003) A Practical Field Guide to Horse Behaviour: the equid ethogram. The Blood Horse Inc., Lexington.

McGreevy, Paul (2004) Equine Behavior, a guide for veterinarians and equine scientists. Saunders, Elsevier.

Mills, Daniel and McDonnell, Sue (2005) The Domestic Horse. The evolution, development and management of its behaviour. Cambridge University Press.

Rees, Lucy (2017) Horses in Company. J.A. Allen, London.

Schöning, Barbara (2008) Horse Behaviour. Interpreting Body Language and Communication. 5M Publishing, Sheffield

For less academically minded owners and trainers, but who love to read and still wish to gain a better understand horses, I would include the Rees and Schöning books from the list above and I would add the following two titles by Marlitt Wendt. These are more popular texts, perhaps more readable than the academic texts and providing a more basic level of information, but still very useful.

Wendt, Marlitt (2011) How horses feel and think. Cadmos , Germany.

Wendt, Marlitt (2011) Trust instead of dominance. Cadmos, Germany.

I would also include a chapter from the latest BHS manual, written by myself!

Spence, Helen (2018) Learning Theory. In Ch. 11, BHS Complete Horsemanshop Volume 4. Edited by Martin Diggle. The British Horse Society. Kenilworth Press.

I am in the process of expanding further on this topic for a book of my own, in order to provide a more in depth discussion for trainers and coaches, so watch this space!

Why I don’t use pressure to teach trailer loading… | Clicker Happy Horse… Horse Sense with Helen Spence

I was browsing through some posts from my old blog and found this one. I can’t believe the date on it is November 2014, so it’s five years since I wrote it, it feels like it was only a couple of years ago! Anyway it may be an oldie, but I think it’s still a goodie 😊.