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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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Thank you

Helen