Friday evening after a busy week. I am tired and it is tempting to just throw my bag down in the hall, kick off my shoes and sit down with a glass of wine. But it is a beautiful evening and the sun is still shining and how many more of these evenings will we get? The days are getting short and although the leaves are still green there is a smell of autumn in the air. As I walk over to the horses, swallows are wheeling overhead, preparing to leave.

The shadows are already long and stretch across the road when Minnie and I set out. It’s been a while since our last ride and initially Minnie is suspicious of possible dangers lurking in the shade, but she soon settles into an easy stride. I hum tunelessly along with her steps. This is what I love most. The rhythm, the movement, the warm, sweet smell of her body, her ear flicking back and forth as we conduct a silent conversation. Just the two of us, totally connected, and I feel wonderfully free. When we come home, all traces of tiredness have gone.


This has been a summer of change for us. My daughter did her exams, and got offered a place by an excellent university in Holland. We had long discussions about choices. About finding your way. About doing something that you like, that is meaningful to you, even though the way might be hard. In the end, my daughter made her choice. She declined the offer she got from a university in Ireland, filled every suitcase in the house with her stuff and then, a couple of weeks ago, we flew to Holland. Leaving her behind when it was time for me to go home was hard, and the house seems empty without her. Dinner is not the same with only three of us at the table. Ironically, after years of complaining about the amount of vegetables I always tried to get into her, my daughter has already discovered she misses my cooking! Meanwhile, she is having a tough time finding her feet, and it will take some time before she’s settled, but she has met a few people she likes and, most importantly, she finds the course interesting.

All the discussions I had with my daughter made me think about what I wanted with the rest of my life. Sometimes it’s easier to drift along with the stream of life than to kick yourself into action and change things, especially if you have self-limiting beliefs like “I’m too old now” or “the time isn’t right” or “it’s too late” (I am really good at those, so there are lots more). But I really hadn’t enjoyed the last couple of jobs I had, which took a toll on my health and with the economy still struggling, the outlook for any improvement was bleak: looming large on the horizon were unemployment at worst or another job I wasn’t really suited for at best. Then, as I was tidying some stuff, I came across a couple of Lao Tzu quotes I had written down ages ago.

‘If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading’

‘At the centre of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want’.

Well, I certainly didn’t like where I was heading. And although I have many interests, I do know my one all-consuming, overriding passion, and that is horses of course. I even know the direction I want to go, but to do that, I need a solid basis.

The University of Limerick has a degree course that I have been looking at for years, but always those self-limiting beliefs got the better of me. This time, I finally managed to ignore them, and although the final date for applications was months past, I phoned and emailed until I got to the right person, put in a late application and to my astonishment I got accepted. So last Monday, I started as a full-time undergraduate student on the Equine Science programme. There are no other mature students on the course, so I stand out – I am after all nearly 30 years older than my fellow students, but I want to do this and they’ll get used to me in a couple of weeks. The first week was exhausting, but I did enjoy it. Even better that it ended with a beautiful evening and a lovely ride with Minnie.


Shaping – empowering the horse

Almost all traditional horse training is based on the use of negative reinforcers. A negative reinforcer is any unpleasant event or stimulus that can be stopped or avoided by changing one’s behaviour. All forms of training using pressure and release are based on negative reinforcement. The horse learns to change direction when one of the reins is pulled, because that stops the pressure in the corner of his mouth. Moving away from pressure or following a feel doesn’t come naturally to a horse: instinctively most horses push into pressure. Young horses at the start of their training often pull back when they first feel forward pressure on the head collar, they have to learn to follow a feel. Pulling a horse doesn’t work, which is often clearly demonstrated in show grounds at the end of the day, as a lot of people engage in a tug of war with their horses when they try to pull them into a trailer.

For negative reinforcement to be effective so that the horse can learn, the reinforcer must stop the moment the horse moves in the right direction – it is the release that teaches and that is why it is so important to release at the right time. However, the release is, contrary to popular belief, not a reward; a reward is something you actively want, something you are willing to work for. Release from pressure is just that – a release – and at best it brings the position back to neutral.

I have no problem with the use of negative reinforcement. When it is used correctly and the horse is consistently released at the slightest try, it is just information and it can be a very effective tool for getting and improving behaviour. It is a large part of the language we use with horses, and if for instance you would want to ride without using any form of pressure and release, you would have to invent a completely new language. I do use negative reinforcement with Minnie and Arrow. With Arrow, stubborn pony that he is, I sometimes have to use a lot of pressure, with Minnie I can be as light as a feather. Pressure and release works, but not with Cassie

The use of negative reinforcement to shape behaviour can cause several problems. The experience of the same amount of pressure can be totally different, it depends on the sensitivity of the horse. For instance, the amount of pressure I have to use to move Arrow, would send Minnie into orbit.  If the release is not timed correctly, it can lead to confusion in the horse. The use of escalating pressure if the horse does not respond immediately can create tension and bracing. Once a horse is bracing, it is practically impossible for him to receive light cues. The incorrect use of negative reinforcement can lead to fear and resistance.

Cassie has a lot of emotional baggage and It was those problems that initially brought me to clicker training, because I couldn’t understand how such an intelligent horse seemed incapable of learning and I was looking for a different and positive way to work with her.

Clicker training is simple, but it is not easy, so I was not surprised when it didn’t immediately deliver the results I was hoping for. I had to learn the theory behind it and I also had to acquire some new bio-mechanical skills and that takes time. Then Cassie had multiple abscesses in her hooves and some other health issues and training once again took a back seat, but I finally began to notice a pattern. It was much easier to work with Cassie at liberty and I could actually do more with her than on line. Cassie will happily walk with me across the entire property without head collar or leadrope, leaving Minnie and Arrow to come with me and she will stand totally relaxed at liberty for her feet to be trimmed, but any time I put a head collar on and took the slack out of the leadrope we seemed to lose the connection. Eventually I realised that any time I used any form of pressure with Cassie, it didn’t work; she would either freeze or resist. However, what does work is shaping behaviour with positive reinforcement.

Because of her hoof problems I have spent a lot of time over the last couple of months lifting Cassie’s feet. As she had multiple abscesses in her right fore, she was very reluctant to pick up the left fore.  One day I noticed that she shifted her weight off the left hoof as I bent forward, so I clicked and reinforced that. Gradually we improved on it, and now all I have to do is bend over and Cassie will lift her hoof and put it in my hand, but the other day when I was trimming her hooves I forgot. Instead of just bending over and wait for Cassie, I ran my hand down her leg and tried to lift her foot. Immediately, Cassie leaned over and put her weight on the foot I wanted.

Free shaping is completely non-directive, so for an impatient horse it could easily be frustrating and it wouldn’t be suitable for a horse that needs direction, but Cassie likes it. I just watch for something she is already doing naturally that I can build upon, and then I click that. I think it is empowering for Cassie, it engages her mind and helps her to think. She can learn from her experience without interference from me, she has to find out herself how to get what she wants, and what works and what doesn’t.  


Hoof update

Last December I wrote a post about Cassie’s hooves, and how even 2 years after the shoes came off she still hadn’t improved and suffered from intermittent lameness. I contacted Heleen about Cassie’s hooves and started trimming following her advice. Her right front hoof, which had been plagued with abscesses, has undergone some dramatic changes, shedding sole and horn and a few weeks ago the outside heel sheared away because the exit hole from an abscess that burst through her heel bulbs grew out, but on the whole her hooves have improved steadily.

210413 solar view

On the left, you see her sole as it is now. Still quite flat, but there is still stretched white line and it will take another 3 or 4 months before that has completely grown out. On its own this photo doesn’t mean very much, but the composition on the right shows how much shorter Cassie’s hoof has become over the past few months: the left side of the picture was taken in December, just before I started trimming. As you can see from the heelbulbs and the point of the frog, the two pictures are properly aligned and at the correct scale. Cassie isn’t tripping anymore – no surprise there – and although she is sensitive on stony ground, she is sound in the fields, on peagravel and on tarmac.

side view

The left photo shows Cassie’s hoof in December again and the photo on the right was taken last weekend. The back of the hoof is clearly improved, but what is really interesting is the much steeper healing angle that started growing in after I started trimming. I haven’t changed her diet or her lifestyle, I can only explain the hoof finally being able to start growing a better angle because I kept the toe short and so gradually brought back break-over.

There are lots of discussions on barefoot forums and blogs about trimming versus not trimming. Proponents of the non-trimming school of thought claim that the basis for good hooves are proper nutrition and adequate mileage and if those are in place Nature will do the rest and the horse will grow the hooves they need. Hooves grow from the inside out, and trimming the hoof healthier is therefore not possible.

It sounds logical. What is adequate mileage though? 20 miles per day, like horses in the wild? What if the horse is lame? How about terrain and climate and frog health? It is certainly true that you can’t trim a hoof healthy, and improper trimming can be detrimental to a horse’s health, but that doesn’t mean that trimming can’t help a horse to grow the hooves they need. Cassie definitely needed help.

Communication part 3 – the language of horses

Last weekend my husband, daughter and I went for a walk and we brought the horses along. I led the way with Cassie, my daughter followed with Minnie, and although he protested he didn’t want to be left with the little one because it would look ridiculous, my husband brought up the rear with Arrow. On the way up, it all went fine, but on our way home, Arrow got tired. Or perhaps he got bored, but he started playing up. He dug his heels in and made it very clear he wasn’t budging and at that point my husband would have needed a tractor to move him. So I took Arrow and my husband went ahead with Cassie. I slotted in behind them and my daughter and Minnie brought up the rear.

Arrow glanced at me and stuck the proverbial toe in to test the temperature of the water. I replied with a ‘no nonsense’ look and upped my energy. The moment I did that, Minnie and Cassie instantly and simultaneously started trotting (taking husband and daughter completely by surprise).

The mares were calm and collected, Arrow was trotting happily beside me, and he was a model of exemplary behaviour all the way home. There was no cue, no voice command, no gesture. There was just a thought, and a lifting of my energy; that was all, but it was enough. No amount of training could have given me the same result: I am not so talented that I can get 3 horses to move at the same time with a single cue. It was beautiful, even if it was unintentional, because of course I meant it only for Arrow, but it made me think again about why things work, or don’t work, with horses.

Horses are subtle communicators, but it is non-verbal. They don’t speak the way we do, their vocal language may be limited, but they communicate all the time, mainly through body language. In fact, I think that with horses, body language is so important that it overrules everything else, even behaviour you have trained, or think you have trained.

Over the past few years I have tried to find the best way to train horses, or rather the kindest way. I looked into natural horsemanship, read up on learning theory, balanced the merits of different methods, and learned – or tried to learn – new techniques. On the whole, I gained a lot of knowledge and experience and some very good and useful skills, but somewhere along the way I lost something as well. I used to play with my horses. I didn’t really have an agenda, I just followed my intuition and the most important thing for me was that time spent together should be enjoyable.

When I started following a method instead of my intuition, playing became training,  and fun became work, quickly followed by frustration.

I recently watched a few videos of myself and it was interesting to look at these not from a training point of view, but to watch my own body language and how this affects my horses. Any time I’m trying to do something that doesn’t come naturally to me, I look stiff and awkward. Even though I was unaware of it at the time, my posture, energy, tension and movements had been affected by my thoughts and feelings and my horses had picked up on it and it affected the way they felt and responded. The sessions looked uncomfortable and there was no sense of play or enjoyment.

However, in the last video I’m doing loose work with Cassie and I went in without  agenda. I look relaxed and although I had no plan at last I know what I’m doing. Cassie looks relaxed and happy to follow me.

I had forgotten the most important thing: whatever you do, whatever style of training you use, it has to suit your horse and it has to suit you. For me, being with horses shouldn’t be about technique, but about trust and companionship, and creating a safe place between us. I love horses for the magnificent creatures they are, so if I want to be with horses in a way that allows them to be who and what they are, then it is not about what I need from my horses, I have to learn what my horses need from me. As I am not a verbal person and I almost never speak to my horses anyway, body language is the most natural basis for my horses and me to understand one another. They have been trying to tell me that for months. I just wasn’t listening.

Communication Part 2 – language barrier

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place

George Bernard Shaw

Communication between people is not without its pitfalls and even when we speak the same language it is fraught with the possibility of misinterpretation and confusion. Cultural differences and how others see you and the expectations they may have of you can all distort how others perceive what you say, and how they feel about your words in relation to themselves can give those words a different meaning than you intended. When you try to communicate with people from different countries, the language barrier complicates things even further.

As part of a Teaching English as a Foreign Language course, I had to experience what it feels like to try learning a language you have absolutely no prior knowledge of, when it is taught in that language. We got a lesson in Japanese. The tutor only spoke Japanese to us and by enacting what she said, with gestures and repetitions, she tried to teach us the meaning of the words and phrases she used. It was incredibly hard, even though it was only basic stuff. Eventually we had to participate and attempt to introduce ourselves in Japanese and ask the person next to us what their name was. That immediately showed up the fact that people learn in different ways. More than half of us had to be prompted by the tutor. Only the aural learners got it right first time. I am most definitely not an aural learner, I only got it after we were allowed to look at the phrases written down. It was an interesting experience, and I haven’t forgotten the bewilderment and frustration we all felt.

It goes without saying then that when we try to communicate with another species, the opportunities for misunderstanding increase immensely, but still we expect our horses (and other animals) to do what we want, often with very little preparation and very little consideration of what would be logical for the animal. In fact, all too often we actually want the opposite of what would be logical for the horse: for instance we don’t want them to run away like a lunatic every time something unexpected happens, although from the horse’s point of view that would of course be the smart thing to do.

So how do we know that our intentions and cues are understood? The obvious answer seems to be that if the animal does what we ask, he understands what we are asking, but he may be taking an entirely different cue than the one we think we have taught. In her book “Reaching the animal mind” Karen Pryor describes the experience of a friend who was going to an obedience trial with her dog. The friend was very happy about her dog’s rock solid performance:  he knew all the cues and he was faultless every time. What she didn’t know was that when she called, she tossed her head a little and that flipped her long ponytail sideways. For the actual competition, she put on her good clothes and did her hair up on top of her head. No ponytail. The dog didn’t move at all at the trial: he thought the ponytail flick was the cue.

It can be even more difficult to determine why our horse is not doing  what we ask. I only realised the level of mis-communication between myself and Cassie after Minnie jumped the gate and forced me to take a good look at the dynamic between the three of us. I just hadn’t been aware that while I was asking Cassie one thing,  I was telling her the opposite at the same time. I thought I was asking her to walk with me, but my body language was telling her to go back to the yard. Cassie interpreted my body language as more intense than my ‘walk forward with me’ so that is what she responded too. The phenomenon of experiencing one of two simultaneously applied signals as more intense is called overshadowing. What is particularly interesting is what happens to the weaker signal if simultaneous application with a stronger signal happens over a longer period of time: the weaker one will undergo diminished responding to the point of habituation (so the horse learns to ignore it). This is exactly what has happened with Cassie – my ‘walk forward with me’ cue on leaving the yard is practically gone.

The problems Cassie and I had were caused by my incongruous behaviour, and although it took me quite some time to work it out, she was right all along. With her superior senses and ability to read my body language, she did exactly what I asked her to do, even though I wasn’t aware of it.  When I saw the problem as a training issue (and to be honest that really meant that I thought the problem was with Cassie, and I even felt a bit hurt that she didn’t seem to want to come with me), I ignored the fact that horses always give us an honest reaction, and it’s up to us to learn to understand their signals correctly and respond.

Communication Part 1 – The story of Clever Hans

In the late 1800s, a German mathematics teacher named Wilhelm Von Osten used his spare time to study animal intelligence. He believed that humanity greatly underestimated the reasoning skills and intelligence of animals. To test his ideas, he tried to teach several different animals some basic mathematics.  Experiments with a cat and a bear didn’t work out: the cat was indifferent to his efforts, and the bear was hostile, but he was very succesful with a horse named Hans. Initially Van Osten taught Hans to use his hoof to tap out numbers written on a blackboard. Hans proved an apt pupil and Von Osten pressed his student further. Hans had no problem keeping up with the curriculum, and soon he was giving the correct responses to a variety of math problems including square roots and fractions, working his way up until he had the mathematical knowledge of a fourteen-year-old.

Von Osten began travelling all over Germany with  “Clever Hans” to show off the horse’s problem solving skills. Naturally there were many skeptics, and Germany’s board of education asked to conduct an independent investigation of Hans’ abilities. Von Osten agreed. He was a scientist and he knew that there was no fraud to expose. The board members assembled a number of scientific minds to join the Hans Commission, including two zoologists, a psychologist, a horse trainer, several school teachers, and a circus manager. Following extensive independent testing, the commission concluded that there was no trickery involved in Hans’ responses; as far as they could tell, the horse’s talents were genuine.

The Hans Commission then passed the investigation on to Oskar Pfungst, a psychologist who set up a substantial number of trials and carefully outlined the different variables that were to be considered. As expected, Pfungst found that Hans performed very well when questions were posed by his owner, Von Osten. He also received very high marks for accuracy with other questioners under normal conditions. However, when  the questioner was asked to stand further away, Hans’ accuracy diminished, and when the questioner was completely concealed from him his responses plummeted to nearly zero. It was the same if the questioner didn’t know the answer to a question.

Pfungst continued his experiments, but now he studied the humans interacting with Hans, observing and taking measurements. He found that each questioner’s breathing, posture, and facial expression involuntarily changed each time the hoof tapped, showing very slight increases in tension. Once the “correct” tap was made, that subtle underlying tension was suddenly released, which Hans apparently took as the cue to stop tapping. This tension was not present when the questioner was unaware of the correct answer, which left Hans without the necessary feedback.

Pfungst concluded that Hans was responding directly to these subtle and unconscious cues in the body language of the human questioners. During his experiments Pfungst found that if he bombarded Hans with questions he couldn’t solve, the horse got very aggressive and Pfungst received a number of horse bites during his investigation. He put the horse down as bad-tempered, which proves that he was nowhere near as good at interpreting body language as Hans.