The Art of Natural Dressage

Working with the Horse's Initiative
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PostPosted: Wed May 09, 2012 7:38 am 
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This post originally was a reply to the Wild Games sticky, but I think the topic is very important and deserves its own thread. Please add your experiences in dealing with scared, traumatized or in other ways sceptical horses.

For helpful videos about dealing with a very scared horse, also check out this thread: Traumatized mare Gloria & Josepha First contact

I do not have a horse that is scared of humans myself, but I had the priviledge to meet Josepha's Don Jamie (ex-bullfighting horse) around the time when he made a major change in his trust towards humans. You can read more about him in his diary.

Josepha can probably tell you more about how she helped him, but I will stick to what I did with him because that's what I know best. In my interaction with horses in general and with scared horses in particular, I focus on doing as much as possible by asking the horse to move towards me, and not so much (or almost nothing in the case of scared horses) by asking the horse to move away from me. That is, when I want the horse to move, I don't push with my body language but only draw. For example, for asking the horse to move his frontquarters, I slowly step away and move my hips into the direction of the movement, making room for the horse to follow. In the Encouraging politeness thread there is more info about that and the video in there shows it as well (although Summy is the total opposite of a scared horse, so there is quite some asking for movements away from me as well, just ignore that ;)). The same goes for moving sideways towards me or asking the hindquarters towards me: I only do this by stepping away and making room for the horse, not by pushing.

Besides the inviting body language, there are several other things I do with scared horses. First, I want the horse to become the initiator of our interaction, so I reward every initiative. If I have asked something and he offers something different, I reward that as well. I intentionally use longer waiting times, periods in which I ask nothing at all but just watch and make it possible for the horse to be active on his own.

Second, it seems to me that for some scared horses (or the ones I know at least) it is not very productive to be overly careful in my moves. Of course being careful is not a bad thing at all, but I try not to tiptoe around them as much as I do with pushy horses (whom I want to show that they can be very attentive and careful with me as well). This is because I want the scared horses to be relaxed and act normally when interacting with me, so I try to be an example. ;)

At the same time, I avoid abrupt moves and only include running into our interaction once I feel the horse has become more confident. Once this has happened, I invite him to "chase me". I have put this in inverted commas because although I know others, for example Josepha, act as if they were scared and fleeing from the horse (with great success!), I somehow don't see that fit into my own interaction with them, so for me it's more a running with me than a real chasing.

Speaking of doing what feels right, that for me is perhaps one of the most important things when interacting with scared horses, although of course it holds for interacting with any horse: To me it seems important to be absolutely authentic and open with them. I try to hold a genuinely prosocial, compassionate attitude towards them but within that, I don't analyse every single thing I do but act according to my feelings. Given that I have the goal of helping them to be confident partners, this attitude or goal state in itself automatically dictates my actions, better than if I tried to intentionally have an effect on the horse. The latter would, at least in my case, carry the risk of me becoming too manipulative and adopting a therapist/patient mindset, which I find not very productive in establishing an equal, trusting relationship. To put it in a nutshell, for me scared horses are not victims but partners, although very special ones. :smile:

______________________________________________________

Besides dealing with horses who are scared of humans, of course there also are contexts in which the horse is not scared of the human himself but of an object or situation. Some posts in this sticky will discuss this aspect of dealing with scared horses as well, but here we already have a collection of relevant links:

Dealing with an emotionally VERY sensitive horse
Overcoming fear of halter
Treats in anxious situations
Being a leader

...and a few single posts:
Being a cougar-eater
Being attentive, Leigh quoting Sue, Sep 08, 2008, 5th post
On the freedom of getting out of it


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PostPosted: Wed Sep 12, 2012 2:42 am 
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Having dealt with T-B's, they can be very nervous and scared for no apparent reason (or at least I can't see it). So with Corado (and now Dreamer), I am more careful around them but I always stay calm around them.
Corado (R.I.P.) changed so much after he was at liberty 24-7, could come to me when he wanted, had a paddock and hay free choice. So I think this calmed him down more. When he decided he could trust me and wanted to play, it was absolutely amazing! It's as if his spirit came back and he wasn't thinking about being scared anymore. He felt good where he was and had no reason to be scared. At one point, he even ran towards some deer that were just outside the paddock. He never would have done that the first two years he was here.

As for Dreamer, he's been boarding at my place since May so he's still very nervous and will react for no apparent reason. But I think watching Magik's behavior (he is so calm) will most likely help. For example, tonight, I was walking around the paddock with my dog (outside near the fence) and the dog started running after something. I couldn't see what it was too dark but Dreamer started running in a frantic mode in the paddock. I could see Magik's silhouette and he was grazing, minding his own business. I noticed Dreamer stopped beside Magik and started grazing beside him.

So IMO, if they feel they have a safe and calm environment, they have no reason to be scared. With time, I believe they will have less and less panic attacks.

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 29, 2012 8:33 pm 
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Whisper was probably about as scared as a horse could get without being deliberately dangerous when I got her. Badly mistreated by humans she hated to be touched and you couldn't get past her shoulder before she would panic, swing round and literally back herself into a corner shaking like a leaf. Others had tried to handle her without success, only resulting in her breaking a hitching rail and getting more nervous.

I found that I needed to keep my energy low and calm when I was working with her and she would then follow suit. If I talked all the time, keeping my voice low and relaxed she was much happier. As long as she knew where I was she didn't panic so much so the constant talking helped as she could always her where I was.

I also found that doing most of our work at liberty helped. When she had the option to run away if she wanted she was much braver. Once she learned that she could step away from something she didn't like, she improved and trusted me much faster. The big lightbulb moment was when she realised she wouldn't get beaten for doing something "wrong" I would just calmly wait for her to relax then carry on with whatever we'd been doing before she "freaked" out. This really baffled her as she would wait to be hit and before too long her "flashback" were easing fast and becoming less.

Treats were also a big help. Like most Welshies she is ruled by her tummy and clicker type training (with the word "clever" instead of a click) worked wonders.

It has taken over a year but she has gone from being scared stiff of humans to allowing me to do almost everything with her that involves handling and groundwork. I can even trim all her hooves myself and she stands there happy and calm, she is now learning that not all humans are bad. She is still weary of newcomers and takes a long time to befriend men but with me she is a star. To be honest she is so willing to learn and please it amazes me that someone would ever have needed to beat her to get her to do anything for them.

I guess with scared horses it's just patience that is the key. You need to gain their trust without pushing too hard or too fast and once you have that everything else falls into place.

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 29, 2012 11:40 pm 
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Quote:
I guess with scared horses it's just patience that is the key. You need to gain their trust without pushing too hard or too fast and once you have that everything else falls into place.


I absolutely love your post. After reading it, I felt so good inside!

I totally relate.

Thank-you for posting.

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PostPosted: Tue Oct 30, 2012 4:27 pm 
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In my experience having a good redirect is very important for scared or spooky horses. I have three behaviors that help me a lot with scared, spooky, nervous, or slightly neurotic horses. The first is targeting, if their focus is on something tangible, safe, easy, and positive they have something to redirect that negative energy towards. The second is head lowering, horses eat and sleep with their heads lowered and the position automatically releases the calm emotions that come with those two behaviors. The third is mat training. This one really works best with the nervous/neurotic horses. It gives them a safe place to keep their feet still and sometimes that is really comforting for a horse that feels like they need to move to stay safe otherwise.


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PostPosted: Sun Jun 02, 2013 3:37 pm 
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Today when trying to help Pan overcome his fear of the hay feeder, I noticed something in my way of doing it which I want to add to this topic. I don't think that this is my general way of dealing with scared horses (usually I guess I try to be more emphathic ;)) but specific to situations in which I want the horse to move to a place that he is afraid of, for example into a trailer. It seems to me that in these situations it can be counterproductive to act like an overprotective mother, trying to convince the horse that this really isn't dangerous, trying to lure him to the scary place and then enthusiastically rewarding every tiny step. Well, actually I think that this can work just fine for some horses, but perhaps not for those that when faced with danger just switch themselves off, stop trying at all and simply stand there, passively.

Pan is such a horse, and therefore instead of trying to convince him, I just handed the responsibility over to him. That is, I stood at the entrance of the hay feeder with a handful of hay, looking into the distance or talking to Lena. If Pan wanted to get some of the hay, he was free to come and get it (and I made sure that I always stood at a place where this was right below his fear threshold). However, I did not actively do anything to make it happen, and also did not praise him when he did. I just moved the hay a tad closer to him when he approached, so that he could come and get it. And then I moved a step further away, looking far away again, or anywhere but not on him.

Whereas I did not look at Pan and explicitly tried not to focus on him or actively communicate with him, I actually did attend to him all the time. However, it felt more like I was not watching him with my eyes but with my body. In that way, I reacted to his movements automatically, as if I was giving the control over my own movements away to some lower, sensorimotor level of control, coupling it to his movements. For example, when I felt that he was getting tense, I did so too, when I felt he was shifting weight back, I shifted my weight into the same direction and when he actually made a step backwards, I immediately followed him. Also, when I made a step further into the hay feeder (in slow-motion and as casually as possible), again I watched his posture and movement peripherally and if he was not coming with me, I slowed down and stopped as well, gave a little hay and then tried again later.

It felt quite funny to work in that way, a bit like being half-asleep together and yet fully awake. Or like working against a slight resistance (the fear) but without this turning into an open problem due to the automatic adjustment to his level. If I had to describe that with a mental image, it would be going through thick, long hair with your fingers, or through water. If you do that not at the high speed you might have had in mind but with the speed that the material itself affords, your hand just glides through it effortlessly. And if you just move further into the hay feeder at the speed the pony is setting, he will follow just as easily and calmly. :smile:

Here is a video to illustrate the general principle, but it was taken a few days later and in this second training I was not as focused as in the first one.


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PostPosted: Sun Jun 16, 2013 7:45 pm 
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Today I experimented with the passivity some more while trying to show Pan that the lake isn't that scary. The interesting part for me today was that his interest and initiative really can be switched on and off in this way. That is, I changed from being actively encouraging to being passive and staring into the distance (while handing out treats without even looking), and back and forth between both versions. Each change resulted in an almost immediate change in Pan's behaviour, being either uninterested in the treats and trying not to react to me more than what was absolutely necessary, looking as if he wasn't really there at all (when I was active), versus making lots of effort to get the treats and being curious and doing his very best despite his fear (when I was passive).

Also in terms of the result - setting his feet into the water - we had no feet at all when I was active, and both front feet when I was passive. And when I switched back to active, he went out of the water again although he had already been there, and only came back in when I was passive again. Thus, it's not that once I got his initiative and active participation, it does not matter anymore what I do. Instead, at least with a horse like him who tends to switch himself off, I have to take away any external stimulation and encouragement, and only provide the treats for him to reward himself for figuring it out on his own. And there goes my long-held belief that I must be encouraging and positive and take my horses by the hand to master difficult situations together with them... :funny:


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 17, 2013 3:42 pm 
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This is so interesting, Romy! I really have to test your findings with Mucki, as I think he can be quite similar to Pan in that particular regard.
I have already tried your way of 'passive rewarding' successfully, but I have to test it more consciously. Thanks for the idea!

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 17, 2013 6:09 pm 
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Romy wrote:
Today I experimented with the passivity some more while trying to show Pan that the lake isn't that scary.


In my diary is a short film about Romy's Experiment.


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PostPosted: Tue Jun 25, 2013 12:20 pm 
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Romy wrote:
Speaking of doing what feels right, that for me is perhaps one of the most important things when interacting with scared horses, although of course it holds for interacting with any horse: To me it seems important to be absolutely authentic and open with them. I try to hold a genuinely prosocial, compassionate attitude towards them but within that, I don't analyse every single thing I do but act according to my feelings. Given that I have the goal of helping them to be confident partners, this attitude or goal state in itself automatically dictates my actions, better than if I tried to intentionally have an effect on the horse. The latter would, at least in my case, carry the risk of me becoming too manipulative and adopting a therapist/patient mindset, which I find not very productive in establishing an equal, trusting relationship. To put it in a nutshell, for me scared horses are not victims but partners, although very special ones. :smile:


Really well said Romy! I think my work with the mules means that I do things predominantly with scared equines, and I have noticed that a lot of the staff I work with very much have that 'therapist' attitude to the animals. They go towards the mules hiding headcollars behind their backs and cooing sickly sweet words to them on their approach. They try to mask the fact that we're all busy and rushed off our feet. The mule immediately knows that there is no sincerity, that the humans are in a rush, and that they're hiding thoughts, feelings, and headcollars for catching them with... Authenticity is key with scared equines, and they must definitely need to be treated as partners on an equal footing to you.

You also said about not to be too careful with you moves. Definitely! I think smooth and sure, but not becoming 'creepy' is important.

It seems to be a real judge of character working with nervous animals, it's so important to be sure of yourself. Why would they want to trust you if you cannot trust yourself?


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PostPosted: Sat Jan 04, 2014 1:19 am 
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When a horse is nervous during a walk, there are several possibilities to help him overcome his fear and stay safe, for example associating the scary situation with rewards (counterconditioning), establishing a cue for a default behaviour (e.g. head lowering), or making sure to stay connected with the horse by establishing a continuous communication (see the Encouraging politeness sticky for more detailed descriptions). Concerning the energy level of the human, many people suggest to stay calm, with the logic being that this will transfer to the horse and help him to calm down as well. However, the risk of adopting a state that is incongruent to that of the horse is that this can lead the horse to disengage himself from you and do his own thing. Therefore, what works best for me and my horses in many scary situations is doing the opposite. Instead of trying to counteract their energy level, I mimic it (for related ideas see Donald's post on Energy mimicry).

In practice, this means that if the horse is spooky and fast, I am even faster. For example, today we went for a walk with Pan and he was quite nervous about his surroundings, looking for monsters in the bushes everywhere. In this situation I quickly walked forwards and asked him for immediate reactions: trot with me, stop, walk on, trot, and so on. Whenever I realized that he saw or heard something and was beginning to get nervous, I got his attention (in this case simply moving my fingers in front of his nose) and as soon as he focused on me, I asked him to trot for a few steps. After a short time he got very calm and focused. I think that one reason why this is working so well is the mere fact that the horse is kept busy. However, it also feels to me that there is another component, which is that I am using and even over-using his own movement tendency but giving it another meaning. According to theories of emotion genesis, the emotional experience arises from an observation of your own bodily state, combined with an interpretation of that state. For example, if you feel your heart beating very fast, you will be likely to infer that you are afraid. However, if you know that you have just run a marathon, you will interpret your increased heartbeat very differently. Perhaps it's the same with a horse's hectic movements: If he feels like he is doing these movements on cue, he might be less likely to interpret them as a sign that the situation is scary, and therefore feel less fear. So asking the horse for the very behaviour that he would show in a scary situation might change his appraisal of the situation.

But then there also are situations in which I am not doing this but act more like a rock in the waves, being very calm and determined, often just standing there while the horse is jumping around me. I still have to find out what determines whether I choose one strategy or the other. It could be a threshold thing, so that as long as the horse is just nervous I do the energy mimicry but if the horse is in utmost panic and all he can think of is cantering away, I am still. But I don't know this for sure, yet.


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 09, 2014 12:07 pm 
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I think it's so fascinating how many approaches there are to working with scared horses, and often they seem to be the opposite of each other. For example, sometimes it works best if you are not careful at all. This is something Baca showed me once again yesterday.

Over the last weeks, the children and I had spent lots of time trying to get him to be okay with water being put on him, either with a water hose or even just with our hands. There were some improvements, but we did not get much further than being allowed to rub one or two hands of water into his fur before he left, or with the water hose he sometimes touched the water with one front hoof for about a second while he was pawing. From my experience with Pia, I thought it was very important - with ponies even more than with big horses - to let the pony be the initiator and never ever impose anything on him. That is, no water being put on Baca without his will, and most of my attempts were about his own activity, for example rewarding him for pawing the water.

And then yesterday, out of an impulse, I thought "Who cares?" and just splased water on him while I was busy with Pia and he was somewhat in the way. I did not do anything to get him to be okay with it, and did not even focus on the water or him. Well, and suddenly water was no big deal anymore. :) This morning I transferred the same principle to watering him with a hose and emptying water buckets on him. Same story here - as long as I am not careful, it's working just fine for him.

This is not to say that I want to be rude with my horses and simply ignore their emotions and concerns. First, my horses are free to leave whenever they want, and I also think that I am able to pick up their signals telling me when something is too much for them. Thus, not being careful refers to te level of overt actions more than to that of my observations of their behaviour, telling me when it is a good situation to act like that and how far I can go without the pony getting really uncomfortable. Second, with horses like Pia it would not work at all and for her it seems to be her worst nightmare that anyone is doing anything with her against her will or without her active consent. But for wild little Baca, being a bit rude seems to be just fine - well, some boys like to play rough games, I guess. :rambo:

Here is a little video of my water boy


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PostPosted: Tue Jun 10, 2014 12:50 pm 
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Very interesting , baca looks soo cute ( sorry couldn't resist :D )
Boris bug is very much the same
. He was just standing besides me one day when I was filling their water trugs and i ( rather rudely ) started to splash him , it was a very hot day and he hadn't yet lost all of his winter coat so he was HOT . So he took the initiative and within a few seconds was standing (!) in the trug splashing me back :ieks: .... Such is the way of the Thunder Buggg ( to be said in a deep resounding voice :funny: ) 8) 8) This has been how Boris has gone about everything since i have known him .... absolute madness 8) 8)


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