Using food in your training

There is much controversy over the use of food in the training of horses. Some people use food for everything. Others refuse to ever use food.

I have found that like most things involving horses, there are no hard and fast rules.  It really depends on the horse and the situation. Food works well in some cases for some horses, not so well for other horses. Some horses are highly food motivated. However caution must be used to ensure that the horse does not become pushy or disrespectful. This can lead to a loss of control and can quickly become dangerous. Some horses simply are more picky eaters and aren’t as motivated by food. These horses may prefer a good scratch or a kind word rather than food as a reward.

There are some cases where food can be useful.

Bonding

Horses spending a large amount of their time eating. This is a great time to bond with your horse because an eating horse is generally a content horse. By spending time with your horse when he is most relaxed, he will begin to associate you with these good feelings and he will learn to trust you and enjoy being around you. It is important to spend time with your horse other than when you are riding him. It is during this time, when you have no particular goal in mind other than to simply enjoy the presence of your horse, that a true relationship is built. I will often stand with my horses while they are grazing or eating their hay. Horses often do this with each other as a way of bonding. Think of it like going out to dinner with a friend or loved one. You get to spend time with that person while sharing in a good meal and the relationship gets strengthened.

Clicker Training

Clicker training is a method of training a horse to perform specific movements using positive reinforcement. The horse is given a cue and when he performs the desired behavior the handler makes a noise with a clicker and then gives the horse a treat. The sound of the clicker helps the horse to quickly identify what the correct behavior was. When done correctly, clicker training can be highly effective in trick training and target training. However caution must be used. When done incorrectly it can lead to horses that are pushy, difficult to handle, disrespectful, and even dangerous. If you are unfamiliar with clicker training, it is important to work with a knowledgeable trainer to help you get started.

To re-direct the horse’s attention

In certain cases food can be used to refocus a horses attention on the handler. I have recently been working with my horse, Maia, who is extremely fearful of any kind of noise when she is in the arena. She will become so fearful that she will switch into instinctive, “run away” mode. When this happens her brain turns off and her instincts take over and it can be very difficult to get her to calm down again. However this horse is also very food motivated. By giving her food during times when she is fearful, I can redirect her attention back to me and keep her from going into panic mode. When a horse is panicking, they are unable to learn anything. By keeping her thinking about what is going on, I have slowly been able to show her that things really aren’t as scary as she once thought.

I have another horse in training with me who is extremely girthy due to previous rough handling and will bite and kick while being saddled. One thing that has greatly helped this horse is to allow him to eat his hay while I am saddling him. This takes his mind off of the saddling process and his fear that he is going to be handled roughly. Having food available makes saddling a more pleasant experience for him and he now tolerates girthing without a problem.

Food, especially when given from the hand, should always be used with a specific purpose in mind. When treats are given indiscriminately it creates spoiled, disrespectful horses. The horse should never be allowed to beg or push you with his nose or body to get you to give him a treat. A horse that invades your space does not respect you as his leader. It is also important to note that you must be careful to ensure that your horse does not become dependent on food. If the only way you can get your horse to behave is to give him treats then you need to reassess your training.  Food should always be used in moderation and with care.  If you decide to use food in your training, take the time to learn how to do it properly. This will save you from having trouble in the future. When in doubt, get help from a knowledgeable trainer who can work with you and your horse.

To learn more about how to develop a better relationship with your horse, visit our website or blog, where we feature information about classical dressage and liberty training, as well as care and maintenance of the horse!

 

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This entry was posted on March 16, 2015, in Maia, Training.

Recommended Reading

I wanted to share with you a couple of the wonderful books that I have read lately. Reading is such a great way to expand your knowledge. I love spending cold wintery days with a good book.

The first book is Building a Life Together by Frederic Pignon and Magali Delgado. Federic and Magali were a part of the original cast of the equestrian show Cavalia. They have an amazing ability to develop incredible partnerships with their horses, most of which are stallions. In their shows they perform feats such as high school dressage, bareback and bridle-less riding, and liberty work with multiple horses at a time.

In this book, Frederic and Magali share some of the insights they have learned from the horses that they have worked with over the years. They share how the horse have truly become members of their family and how they have built such strong bonds of trust with these magnificent animals.

Frederic and Magali have another book entitled Gallop to Freedom which is also an excellent read. This book discusses their philosophy for training their horses in the lightest way possible, creating a horse that with it’s job.

The second book is Whole Heart, Whole Horse by Mark Rashid. Mark uses a series of stories about the horses he has worked with to share the lessons that he has learned about horses and about people. Some of the topics Mark discusses include preconceptions, communication, leadership, energy, trust, and softness. This book is about more than learning how to ride better. It is as much about life and love as it is about horses. If you’ve ever wanted to develop a deeper connection with your horse, this is the book for you.

Dominique Barbier has several excellent books on Classical Dressage including Dressage for the New Age, Meditation for Two, and Alchemy of Lightness. Learn how to create a horse that is balanced, relaxed, and supple whether you are riding on the trail or performing high school dressage movements.

Enjoy!

To learn more about how to develop a better relationship with your horse, visit our website or blog, where we feature information about classical dressage and liberty training, as well as care and maintenance of the horse!

This entry was posted on January 20, 2015, in Book Reviews.

Liberty work- adding distractions

Recently I talked about how my client, Stephanie, and I had brought our two horses, Punch and Maia, together to do liberty with them together in the arena. Adding distractions such as other horses or food is a great way to test out your liberty skills and see where you still need to make improvements. Both horses had established a solid foundation of liberty work on their own so now it was time to challenge them a little more.

We allowed the two horses time to meet and get comfortable with each other on their own terms loose in the indoor arena. After a few minutes it was time to test out our liberty skills. I called Maia and she came right over to me. This is the desired response- a horse that is obedient even with the distraction of another horse. I had worked with Maia with various distractions before so she had learned how to keep her focus on me.

Punch had other ideas.  He continued to follow Maia around and refused to leave her when Stephanie asked him to. This shows that there is still some weakness in their partnership. Punch has not fully decided to allow her to be leader in every aspect of his life. He is perfectly fine following her when there are no other distractions, but as soon as he finds something more interesting he attempts to take over the role of leader.

Stephanie needed to reestablish her leadership role. She did this by driving Punch away from Maia and toward the opposite end of the arena where he would be away from the thing (Maia) he wanted. By asking him to move away, Stephanie was stating that she was in charge and Punch needed to listen to her or he would have to go stand by himself. Punch initially reacted by defiantly running off and attempting to circle around to get past Stephanie and back to Maia. Each time he did, Stephanie simply moved him away again back towards the other end of the arena so he was once again by himself.

Eventually Punch realized that he wasn’t going to be able to get back to Maia and that it was no fun to stand at the other end of the arena all by himself. He turned and stood still facing towards Stephanie, respectfully waiting for her to invite him back into the “herd”. Stephanie called him and he came up to her where he received lots of scratches and praise. It is important to remember to reward your horse when he does something well. You want to make being with you a pleasant experience for him.

Punch still hadn’t fully submitted to Stephanie though. After a few seconds of standing with her, he tried to duck around her and get back to Maia. This resulted in him being asked to move away and stand at the other end of the arena again. It took two or three more times of Stephanie moving him away and then calling him back before Punch was ready to accept her leadership and follow her around the arena without trying to get back to Maia.

With consistency and continued practice, Stephanie and Punch will have a much stronger relationship which will improve all of the work they do together.

To learn more about how to develop a better relationship with your horse, visit our website or blog, where we feature information about classical dressage and liberty training, as well as care and maintenance of the horse!

This entry was posted on November 25, 2014, in Maia, Training.

Exercising your horse in winter

Temperatures are dropping here in Wisconsin. It seems winter comes earlier every year. People often ask me if I continue to ride my horses during the winter.  I am a firm believer that regular exercise is important to horses, even in winter and here’s why:

10559763_725008474243374_212097318966357641_nHorses in the wild travel around 20 miles a day. This constant movement helps to increase the horse’s circulation, pumping blood back up his legs to the rest of his body. Domestic horses tend not to move around that much because they do not need to search for their food. They often have limited turnout space and their food and water is all in close proximity so there is no need for them to walk around all day. This means that we need to find other ways of getting them to move. Riding is one excellent way of getting your horse the exercise he needs, but ground work is an excellent alternative when the weather is cold and the ground is frozen. Lunging, long reining, and liberty work are all highly beneficial to horses of all training levels and disciplines. Ground work is an excellent way to build a better partnership with your horse, improve communication, and increase trust and respect.

It can be tempting to give your horse the winter off, but this may not be the best thing for his health. Exercise is important to the physical and mental health of a horse, even in winter. Regular exercise helps keep muscles and tendons loose and joints from becoming stiff which can help prevent injuries and increase a horse’s longevity, meaning he will be able to continue to work later into his life. When a horse is not exercised regularly he will quickly lose muscle condition. This can quickly lead to other health concerns, such as lameness and fatigue. Lack of regular exercise can also lead to digestive issues and reduced resistance to disease. On the other hand, keeping a horse in good condition will help increase his longevity and prevent injuries and illnesses.

Regular exercise is also important for a horse’s mental health. Horses that are not worked regularly will often develop behavioral problems such as spooking, bucking, bolting, etc. Horses need consistency and without this problems arise. Maintaining a consistent work program through the winter can help prevent problems from developing. Horses that aren’t working may also develop vices due to boredom such as cribbing, weaving, pacing, and wood chewing. Most of the time these problems could be avoided by giving the horse a job to do. Horses are happier when they have a job.

Winter is a great time to go back to the basics and reinforce your foundation.

Winter is a great time to go back to the basics and reinforce your foundation.

If you are planning on showing or even just pleasure riding in the spring, it is even more important that you continue riding through the winter. Horses lose muscle condition quickly and if you give him the entire winter off, you will spend much of the spring slowly building him back up into condition. This means that he likely won’t be ready by the start of show season. In addition, he will fall behind in his training from having such a long time off. When you do start riding him again, you will have to spend time refreshing his memory rather than working towards new goals. Giving your horse the entire winter off and then putting him back into an intensive work program in the spring can cause muscle, tendon, and ligament damage, fatigue, and stress to the horse.

As you can see, there are many benefits to continuing to work your horse throughout the winter, whether it is by riding or just doing groundwork. A horse that is worked consistently will be physically healthier and mentally healthier.

To learn more about how to care for your horse, visit our website or blog, where we feature information about classical dressage and liberty training, as well as care and maintenance of the horse!

Proof of Concept: Liberty Training

During a recent training session with one of my clients and her gelding we were able to see first hand why liberty training works so well in establishing a relationship with your horse. The reason is because liberty work mimics the way horses interact with each other so it allows us to communicate with the horse in a way the he understands and therefore is much more willing to do what we ask.

So here’s what happened:

My client, Stephanie, has been working with her Friesian cross, Punch, for a few months doing liberty work with him. In this time he has transformed from a disrespectful trouble maker into a well mannered member of society. He will come when called, walk and stop with her, and has learned to respect personal space.

I’m always up for a challenge so we decided take both Punch and my mare, Maia, into the arena at the same time with the goal being for us to each work our respective horses at liberty at the same time.

Punch- easy going, laid back gelding

Punch- easy going, laid back gelding

The horses had never met each other so we started off by turning them both loose in the indoor arena and stood back to let them interact. What followed was quite interesting. Maia initially completely ignored Punch and walked away from him without any acknowledgement. And Punch followed her. Maia continued to walk around, exploring the arena, and Punch continued to follow right behind her. When Maia stopped, Punch stopped. When Maia turned, Punch turned.  When Maia walked or trotted, Punch followed suit.  Maia eventually allowed Punch a brief greeting, but was quick to end it and continue her exploration of the arena with Punch mimicking her every move. Why is this significant? Maia, by ignoring Punch and walking away from him, had established her leadership and Punch, by following her, was acknowledging that he accepted her leadership and was willing to trust her.  And this all happened within seconds. How? These two horses had never met before. How did they establish their roles so quickly and why was Punch so willing to blindly follow a horse he had never met before?

Horses naturally seek to be around other horses and when they are together it is important to know who the leader is. The leader is responsible for directing the other horses’ movements and keeping them safe. In turn the other horses are responsible for always keeping and eye on the leader so they know when it is time to move and when it is ok to stop. Now here’s the part that might surprise you- horses don’t want to be the leader. Being leader is a huge responsibility and all horses will gladly turn that role over to someone else as long as they know they would be an adequate leader. In the absence of someone they feel fits this requirement they will assume the role of leader in order to protect themselves.

Maia, confident and energetic mare

Maia, confident and energetic mare

So how did Punch know Maia would be a good leader? Her confidence and the strength of her energy.  What the heck does that mean? Each individual horse has a different level of confidence. This creates different energy levels which other horses are able to sense and respond to and in turn determine who is going to be in charge. Maia and Punch have two very different energy and confidence levels. Maia was born and raised on a ranch in South Dakota. She is confident with other horses, can take care of herself and is relatively independent (no horse is truly independent, they all have some desire to be with others). She is also a highly motivated, energetic horse. Punch also is a pretty confident horse. However unlike Maia, he is a very laid back guy and generally not very easily motivated. This means that he will most likely not attempt to take leadership unless he feels it very necessary.

The two horses were able to sense each other’s energy levels immediately. Maia could tell that Punch was too laid back to challenge her so she immediately took leadership by walking away from him and he immediately chose to accept by following her. This happened exceptionally quickly in this case but usually takes longer with the horses greeting each other and perhaps challenging each other to access each other’s energy levels.

So why does any of this matter? When we are working with a horse at liberty we are establishing to them that we are a leader that they can trust. We are asking them to show us respect by coming when called, stopping with us, and walking alongside us. And we are doing it in a way that the horse can understand.  When the horse follows us and mimics our movements he is acknowledging that he has accepted us as leader, just as Punch was doing with Maia. The horse has the choice to leave if he wants, but horses do not want to be by themselves so the more you work with him the more you will find that he really does want to be with you.

Stayed tuned to see what happened when we asked Punch to move away from Maia and to return to his human leader.

To learn more about how to achieve a better relationship with your horse, visit our website or blog, where we feature information about classical dressage and liberty training, as well as care and maintenance of the horse!

This entry was posted on November 5, 2014, in Maia, Training.

The Use of Punishment

Recently I have seen too many riders and even “trainers” using punishment as a staple in the training of their horses. They are constantly correcting the horse for being “wrong” or “misbehaving” to break the horse down rather than using positive reinforcement and encouragement to build the horse up. Punishment includes excessive use of whips, spurs, harsh bits, gadgets such as martingales and draw reins, hitting, intimidating, and more. When asked why they do it that way, they simply state, “that’s the way it’s always been done” or  simply “it works”. That may be true, but it certainly doesn’t make it right. The problem is people’s egos get in the way. They feel like they need to “dominate” the horse in order to feel like they have control. The other problem is that people don’t know any alternatives and don’t bother to try to find out. It breaks my heart to see these horses suffering because of people’s arrogance and ignorance.

I read an article recently that summarized the negative effects of punishment very nicely.  The article was written by equine behaviorist, Lauren Fraser. You can find the full article HERE, but some of the highlights include:

  • Punishment can result in the animal experiencing fear, pain or frustration
  • Animals experiencing fear can have a very difficult time learning, and may simply inadvertently offer the correct response purely in their efforts to escape what is causing them pain or fear
  • Training situations that create fear, pain, or frustration in an animal will result in the animal associating future training situations – and the trainer – with apprehension, fear or frustration
  • Punishment suppresses learning
  • Punishment damages the trust bond between animal and trainer
  • Punishment can result in a psychological condition known as ‘learned helplessness’
  • Punishment tells the animal the animal what not to do, but offers him no clues as to what he should do

I highly encourage everyone to read the entire article. Punishment should seldom be used when trying to teach a horse something. It will only lead to fear and confusion in the horse. The horse may eventually submit, but it will be out of fear, not because it actually understands what is expected of it.

I had someone recently tell me that her horse was “stubborn” when confronted her about the way she was continuously whipping it in an attempt to lunge it. The sad reality is that the horse was not being stubborn, it simply had no idea what was being asked of it.  Horses either understand what is expected of them or they don’t. If they are treated fairly and understand what is expected, they will willingly perform whatever is asked of them. However, if the horse does not understand what is expected, it is going to get frustrated and react by acting out in fear and self defense. The horse I mentioned had started bucking, kicking out, and pawing all out of confusion and frustration. She was not being stubborn. She simply did not understand what to do to make the handler stop hitting her.

One other point I’d like to make is that a horse’s ability to understand has nothing to do with its intelligence. The smartest horse in the world will not understand you if you do not speak to it in a language it understands. You can take the most intelligent German scientist out there but if you talk to him in Italian, he is not going to understand. You must speak to the horse in a language that he can understand regardless of what you consider his intelligence level to be.

There is good news though. It is never too late to start over, no matter how badly things have gone in the past. Horses love and forgive unconditionally. You can start over right now and create a relationship with your horse that is based on mutual respect and trust.  Not sure how to start? Contact me at 630-935-4738 or tuskeydressage@yahoo.com.

This entry was posted on October 23, 2014, in Training.

Bits part 2

Last time we talked about the two basic types of bits. The snaffle which works off of direct pressure on the horse’s mouth and the curb which works off of leverage. Today we are going to talk about the uses for the different bits.

A snaffle is much milder than a curb and should be used for the majority of a horse’s training. Young horses should always be started in a snaffle, never a curb.  Horses should be taught to respond to subtle cues using a very mild bit. This will create a horse with a soft mouth. Most pleasure horses, if properly trained, are able to do their jobs perfectly well in just a simple snaffle. Beginner- intermediate riders should always use a mild snaffle bit. Stronger bits must be reserved for advanced riders who have learned how to control their hands and properly use the reins softly and lightly.  Most pleasure riders, if properly educated,  are able to do just fine in a snaffle bit and never need to progress to using a curb.

Taking this into consideration, there are times when curb bits are appropriate. Curbs are often used is western speed events and when doing things such as calf roping or herding. In these events the horse is generally moving at very high speeds and the curb allows for a greater refinement in the cues need while moving at such high speeds. This allows the rider to be able to turn and maneuver quickly and efficiently. Curbs are also see in the double bridle which is often used in upper level dressage. Again the curb allows for a greater refinement in the cues from the rider and helps to achieve the collection required for movements such as piaffe, passage, canter pirouettes, and the airs above the ground.

There is an art to using a curb bit. The curb is meant to be loose a majority of the time and pressure should only be applied when necessary. As soon as the horse responds, the pressure should be released. There should never be continuous pressure on the bit. This is, of course, true of the snaffle bit as well but is even more important with a stronger bit such as a curb. Improper or over use of a curb bit will very quickly develop a hard mouthed horse. A snaffle bit is much more forgiving. For this reason, riders should not begin to use a curb until they have developed quiet, controlled hands. Only then can the rider properly use a curb.

Even a horse that is trained to work in a curb or double bridle should be able to perform all of his movements in a snaffle. For example, my horse Ilustre is trained in high school dressage and is able to be ridden in a double bridle. However, I am able to perform all of the same movements in a snaffle including piaffe and passage. I make it a point to regularly ride him in just a snaffle bridle so that I do not become dependent on the curb. The curb is there simply to allow for extra refinement, not as something to be relied upon. It is my belief that all horses should be able to work in a snaffle. The horse is created with the snaffle and polished with the curb.

In the right hands, a curb bit can be very effective. Unfortunately it is very easy to misuse. A curb bit should not be used to simply get better control of a misbehaving horse. If a horse cannot respond to a simple snaffle, using a stronger bit is not the answer. If a horse is misbehaving it should first be checked to eliminate discomfort as a cause. Make sure the bit and bridle are properly fitted. Have the horse’s teeth checked by a vet to eliminate pain as a cause. After discomfort, the most common reasons a horse doesn’t respond properly to cues from the bit are it simply doesn’t understand what is being asked of it or it has learned to ignore the cues from the bit. Either way, you must go back to the basics and teach or re-teach the horse to respond to subtle cues from a mild snaffle. Using a bigger bit will only make the problems worse. Take the time to properly train your horse to respond willingly rather than simply using a bigger bit to force him to do what you want. If you are not sure how to do this, find a trainer to help you!

If you are at all in doubt as to what kind of bit to use for your horse, find an educated, experienced trainer to help you. Using the wrong bit or using a bit improperly can have very negative effects on you horse. A good trainer will help you find the right bit for your horse’s individual needs.

To learn more about how to achieve a better relationship with your horse, visit our website or blog, where we feature information about French Classical Dressage training, as well as care and maintenance of the horse!

This entry was posted on August 4, 2014, in Training.