Archive for the ‘NH’ Category

Did you all catch Stacy Westfall on Ellen last Friday? I think this is an example of how powerful the associative nature of the internet can be, since Stacy put her new website up in January and by March she’s on a major show:

Of course, I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that Portia de Rossi is a showjumper!

Read Full Post »

I had an epiphany today.

It was my second day of training for a new job, and we were role-playing and running mock situations. When I was presented with the information in a step-by-step manner and given a chance to practice things until I got them right, I excelled, and felt eager to learn more.

When I was asked to do things for which I felt insufficiently prepared, where I wasn’t sure I knew the correct way to act, and where I didn’t have a good foundation to draw upon, I not only felt slightly panicky – I also felt resentful. My voice rose about an octave and my words in asking to go back a level and start from a place I understood were rushed and even quavery at times. I knew that if I was pressed to go further into more complicated scenarios without getting a chance to feel secure about what I had to do thus far, I was going to have a mini-meltdown, and that my behavior wouldn’t be attractive or appropriate.

I was fortunate that the two times in the last two days I had these reactions, my trainer listened to me, and backed off. I was relieved that my increasing discomfort was both noticed and addressed without censure. And given the opportunity to learn at my pace and in the way that felt best to me, I performed beyond my trainer’s level of expectation when we returned to the advanced scenario.

Afterwards, I thought: This is how the horses feel. This is the same chain of actions and reactions, the same emotions, the same principles at work. I get it.

So many times I understand something on an intellectual level without grounding that knowledge in a viceral way. I am then unable to use the concept with consistency, since I don’t own the knowledge. I don’t feel it; I just think it. I grasp it, but I can’t live it, since it isn’t a part of me.

And then, after floating around in my mind for ages, I will experience something that allows the empathetic part of my self to come forward, and suddenly I get it, down to my bones.

Read Full Post »

I subscribe to an email newsletter from The Horse that pops up in my inbox with almost annoying frequency. However, there’s always at least one or two articles of interest to me, on a good mix of topics ranging from health care to news to training. This week we have the ongoing Trexler abuse story, which smellshorsey has been covering, and also the situation in Romania, which Simply Marvelous recently wrote about and the Transylvanian Horseman lives daily.

The article that caught my eye, however, was a recent study lending credence to clicker-trainers everywhere:

Study Correlates Food Rewards with Positive Responses during Training

March 03 2008, Article # 11436

Young horses learn faster and have more positive interactions with humans when they receive food as a reward during training, according to a new study presented at the 34th Annual Equine Research Day held in Paris, France, on Feb. 28.

Yearlings that received grain pellets as compensation for appropriate reactions to vocal commands were up to 40% faster to acquire new skills than a control group of yearlings that received no rewards. The training primarily involved respecting the words “stop” and “stay” and remaining immobile while the trainer performed certain grooming tasks and veterinary procedures on the horse.

The article goes on to say:

On average, the reward group [those who were given food rewards] finished their training in 3.7 hours whereas the control group needed 5.2 hours to acquire the same tasks. “There wasn’t even any overlap,” Sankey explained. “The slowest horse in the reward group still learned faster than the fastest horse in the control group.”

This is a significant finding, because one of the long-held myths of horse training is that horses respond better to negative reinforcement operant conditioning (i.e. applying a source of discomfort, such as pressure, and removing it when the horse gives the correct response) than to positive reinforcement, such as a food reward. Clicker training, which utilizes food rewards, has been shown to quickly and effectively train horses (and other mammals) to do all kinds of things, but for some reason a large segment of the horse community still seems to view it with skepticism or scorn.

At this point, I feel a need to digress from the subject matter for just a moment to say this: There is no training method, no technique, no clinician, no author, no piece of equipment that is the Holy Grail of horse training. I am not saying that clicker training is the way to go and that anyone who uses negative reinforcement operant conditioning is ignorant, or anything of the sort. I use it myself, all the time. What I am saying, and will continue to say over and over again in this blog, is that people need to be open-minded. Be flexible and adaptable when working with your horse. Try new things, learn new ways of thinking and being, and go outside your comfort zone. We ask that of our horses and expect that they will honor our request but so often we will not do the same!

Side note: Also, for reasons I can’t quite figure out, people tend to lump clicker training in with Natural Horsemanship. Because the NH label gets bandied about so much without a clear definition, many people don’t even actually know what they’re referring to or where it came from or to whom it actually applies. In my opinion, clicker training is not an NH technique (although it shares many positive qualities with NH) because what we call NH today can be traced back to the methods of Tom Dorrance, Bill Dorrance, and Ray Hunt, and they were most certainly not using clicker training. However, the definition of NH is a subject for another post, and I will leave it at that with the suggestion that anyone interested in tracing the history of NH read The Revolution in Horsemanship by Dr. Robert Miller and Rick Lamb.)

Back on topic, it will be interesting to see what, if any, response this study generates in the American horse community, since the researchers are French. Will American researchers take the ball and run with it, or will this article slip quietly into the archives?

I hope that this kind of scientific finding will be a reference to be used when the nay-sayers and the tradition-bound try to tell us that their way is the only way. Then we can smile and use the power of positive when we say, “Have you read the latest research?”

Read Full Post »

I have mixed feelings about the Road to the Horse colt-starting competition. On the one hand, it’s supposedly designed to promote gentle starting techniques and to show that force isn’t necessary to be effective. It’s been very successful in giving large audiences a taste of NH techniques. On the other hand, that seems like a very short amount of time and a huge amount of pressure for those young horses, and I wonder if that doesn’t come out somewhere down the line in their training. It would be interesting to see follow up on the horses that have been started in prior years.

At any rate, Chris Cox won for the second year in a row. I first saw Chris Cox at the Western States Horse Expo in 2006, and I wasn’t really wowed by him at the time. He had just come off of a major injury and now that I’ve seen a lot more of his work, I think he really wasn’t at his best that year. (In the video, Chris is talking but he has an assistant working with the horse because Chris was still on crutches.)

After seeing more of his training techniques, I’ve come to really like the way he works and his no-fuss, no-nonsense way of dealing with training issues. I saw an episode of his on RFD-TV where he worked with a high-level showjumper, and not only did he effectively deal with some of the horse’s issues (bracing, rushing the jumps), he also looked pretty good jumping. I really admire a trainer who comes from one background (Western, in his case) and can effectively transfer his knowledge to other disciplines. With Chris, it’s obvious that he also admires and enjoys seeing horses working well regardless of their discipline. That, to me, is the mark of a horseman. (He’ll be back at the WSHE this year, and I’m excited to see him. Jane Savoie, too!)

I’d be very interested in other people’s opinions about the Road to the Horse. Is it too much, too soon, or is it a great way to get the NH message out there? Or both?

Read Full Post »

The barn where I stable my horse is that rarity, a place where riders of different ages and disciplines exist in harmony. While there are only two Western saddles in the tack room (mine being one of them), there are numerous Quarter Horses, Thoroughbreds, Warmbloods, an aged pony, and even a mustang, and no one is anything but kind in their comments and treatment of other people’s horses. There is no snootiness, and no drama. I am very lucky in this regard, and I know it.

One of my fellow boarders, a kind and conscientious college student, is a dressage rider who shows above third level – an assumption on my part based on her use of a double-bridle when she rides. She has a fabulous warmblood and one day while she was grooming him, I asked her about her experience and his. She talked for a bit about her good fortune in being able to own a horse trained to his level, and how good he was in all ways. Then she turned to me and asked, “And what do you do?”

I was momentarily baffled. After all, she had seen my saddles in the tack room, so it wasn’t as if she was asking if I rode, or even what style, since I have both English and Western saddles. The assumption behind her question presented a real conundrum. How to answer such a simple question when the premise wasn’t one I embraced?

“I ride, and we play,” I replied after a moment’s thought. Then it was her turn to look baffled. In the spirit of the goodwill that pervades our barn, she recovered herself, smiled and nodded, and our conversation moved on.

It’s been my experience that people who show and compete have a hard time envisioning any other reason to own a horse, much less what you might actually spend your time doing if not in training. In the comments of a post bashing on Natural Horsemanship on a blog I read daily (and with which I normally agree), I recently read someone’s response to this video: “Why, why, why? What is the point of this? What function does it serve?”

It’s a revealing question, one that suggests that ‘function’ is the preeminent and logical reason to own a horse. However, a pleasure horse – one not owned with the specific intent of generating or contributing to an income – is a luxury item, regardless of the owner’s income level, social standing, or the appraised value of the horse. Luxury items, which by their very definition are owned for the enjoyment and status of the owner, are not possessed for their functional value, so why is it that we continue to think of horses in such a manner?

Obviously, in many circles, the amount of ribbons your horse is awarded is in direct proportion to the amount of status conferred on you, so there’s some logic to the thought that a horse’s ‘function’ is to compete or show (and win) but in reality, if that’s the case, then your horse’s true ‘function’ is to confer status upon you. The competing and showing is a secondary function, a symptom or result of the first.

On the other hand, if you willingly admit that the horse’s primary purpose is for your enjoyment, the video of the man dancing with his horse suddenly makes sense. What is the point of it? What function does it serve? Well… it’s fun, among other things. It’s enjoyable to both parties (or at least it appears so.) Does there need to be another reason?

On the far, far other end of the spectrum from those who see showing as an end unto itself is the philosophy of Nevzorov, the Russian classical dressage trainer who believes all horse sports are cruel and coercive, and thus unethical. I couldn’t agree less. I am in no way opposed to sport with horses (although I might be opposed to certain training methodologies of these sports) and, in fact, hope to show and compete myself one day. (Actually, I hope to compete Mojo, but you know what I mean.) My only question is why we all continue to act like those sports are the ‘point’ of horse ownership.

I have heard more than one rider say that she feels almost embarrassed to admit that she “only” trail rides. Besides the obvious argument that trail riding anything other than a totally experienced “dead broke” horse is a challenging hobby requiring its own set of riding skills, experience, and courage, why should any horse owner feel the need to justify themselves if they can’t whip out an answer like “We jump 3’6,” or “We compete at training level,” or some such thing?

Furthermore, what if the owner were to reply, “We don’t do anything. I just like looking at him in my backyard.” Anyone who doubts the condescension of riders towards non-riders need only read the comments I mentioned above. The irony of these comments is that this particular blog is geared toward the rescue of horses – and it’s often the owners who don’t ride who willingly provide an important segment of the homes available to rescue horses too lame to compete or show. Likewise, the much-maligned middle-aged woman new to owning and riding and faithfully following the NH ‘gurus’ is, by and large, far more concerned with the care and well-being of her horse than many life-long owners who take their own knowledge for granted, and certainly just as likely to provide a good home. Ultimately, isn’t that the most important thing, especially given the staggering number of unwanted horses being sent to slaughter?

There’s nothing wrong with pursuing a goal, and nothing wrong with competing. But to make that the only “real” reason to own a horse deprives us all of the freedom to explore the mystery and attraction that drew us to horses before we could ride, or drive, or even tack up a horse. And, the beauty of it is, to do that, you don’t have to do anything – except enjoy the company of the horses you keep.

Read Full Post »