Thursday, March 17, 2011

Creatures of habits

We are all creatures of habit. Humans and horses alike.. No matter how spontaneous we think we are, everything we do comes back to a habitual behaviours and responses. It something that been on my mind for a while, but was brought to the forefront of my thoughts, as i watched a documentary about prison inmates, while curled up sick on the couch. The show, demonstrated prisoners who would be back in prison again and again, they couldn't break old habits, and most actually felt safer in a routine and pattern the new in prison, than trying to make it in the outside world. How does this have anything to do with the rest of us and horses?

Horses are very habitual animals, if you have them in a wild setting, or even just free in a paddock situation. You will notice they keep to a certain pattern during their days. Drinking at the same times, sleeping in the same spots, grazing the same way each day. they have a set routine to their lives, and in their behaviours. As do we human in our daily lives as well. This is why with riding horses, you try and structure their work the same way, warm them up the same way each day, work them, warm them down. Especially competition horses, this structure to their work helps them at competition and gives them security because they know what to expect.

Even little habits we don't notice we do, play a big part in our horses mind and how they cope. Every day i walk up to my wild horses a certain way, scratch them on the neck, and then put the halter on. Fern the wild mare, notices if i change the slightest thing, if i walk up to her in a rush, and try to slip the halter over her nose, she rolls her eyes back lifts her head, and her entire body stiffens with tension. This is not her routine. The wild stallion doesn't sweat little things like this, however I'm sure he would notice if i changed the routine completely, and went running madly in the paddock one day, and leaped on his back to go for a ride. As this would defiantly not be our routine way of doing things, he wouldn't have any idea what to expect. Just think how out of place you feel if you routine changes suddenly without warning??

What we want to do as trainers and riders, is create routines,habits, that are good, and set the horse up with a solid foundation to succeed throughout life. As unfortunately bad habits are much harder to break, and once established, horses always tend to revert back to them. Young horses and in my case, horses that have been wild and never handled, are an absolute molding block, you are free to create what you want, because there is no bad habits for them to revert back to.

it can be things as simple, as having a horse standstill for grooming or mounting, from day one, to hold its hoof quietly while you clean it. All this you can establish the very first time you do it. the more advanced habits too, for me always making sure my young horses learn to go straight without rushing into a jump, to move off my leg, to not lean on the bit, to move happily left and right, all this is so simple to teach in no time at all, as long as the person who rides the horse is paying attention. Because all these things are just habitual responses once they are learned, we are the ones who are in charge of making sure the horses learns the right ones from the wrong.

Say you let your horse drift to the left the first time it jumps, then the second time as well, by the third time this is a well established habit. All you had to do was correct that second jump and you would have been fine. But people let it go wrong, time and time again, usually because as the rider your off in 'la la' land, and suddenly that drifting to the left or whatever else has become a bad habit is now well established and usually will to some degree be there the rest of the horses life. sometimes its not even a particularly bad bad habit, just a little routine between you and your horse, like when you finish a ride your horses know to reach around for a scratch or a treat.

Sometimes however we humans create monsters....

Because horse responses are habitual, whether good, bad, in fear, in play, aggression whatever the circumstance the horse will have a certain behaviour it exhibits time and again. I'm going to tell a little story about a horse that got out of control really quick, through no fault of its own.

someone i knew bred themselves a baby horse this year, nice person, great horse person they are not, even though they love and take great care of their animals. They loved this little foal to bits, it was really friendly and happy etc etc. They waited until it was a couple of months old to try and halter break it, which is fine, i don't usually halter break mine until there a bit older either. This is where it went wrong, and little foal learned some habits that are really going to set him back in life..

they put the halter on no trouble, but when trying to lead little foal, up he reared in the air, so they stopped pulling on the rope until he settled down. A few minutes later they tried again, same result, rearing foal, they waited and tried again, rearing foal. The pattern went on for a while. finally they got sick of this gave the foal a hard tug on the rope, he reared, this time they didn't let go of the rope, foal struggles some more, until he goes right over backwards, and falls in a heap on the ground. horrified and feeling guilty, even though the foals fine, they are flexible little animals and seem to bounce back from these kind of things. But owners decide to call it a day and leave foal in paddock with mum.

What does foal learn from this?? A) he doesn't like the halter pulling on his face B) if he struggles enough humans will take it off and leave him alone, with little harm to himself.

The pattern was repeated over many months, Foal doesn't like halter, throws tantrum, owner feels bad and takes halter off. The horse wasn't only getting bigger and stronger and so were his tantrums.A really bad habit was forming, the foal learned if something he didn't like or found scary bothered him, the more violently he struggled the faster the thing was removed. This was not a naughty or crazy horse, just a smart one. It got to the point where he would threaten to rear up, and owner took the halter off. Unknowingly she rewarded the horse every single time he exhibited the behaviour she didn't want.

Eventually in despair the lady got help from me, thinking she may in fact end up shooting, or never being able to handle her much loved foal. it was not the hardest problem in the world to fix. As soon as she pulled on the rope, i pushed foal forward before he had the opportunity to throw himself backwards. The instant he took a step in the right direction, we rewarded him by giving him a little break. It really only took about 45minutes to reteach this foal how to lead. But he is always going to have a learned habit in him, to struggle against any new kind of pressure, to try and escape rather give in. Even with tying, for the first time we took caution, placing him in a spot he couldn't hurt himself, because as soon he realised he couldn't get away, he struggled and reared, genuinely terrified, because suddenly the halter wasn't taken off and throwing himself all over the place didn't remove the pressure. But he did learn and after a minute's struggle, stood happily without fear.

People make mistakes, i make heaps all the time, i know every new horse i train, i do a little bit better than the last. This person did a terrible job with this foal, she could have done so many things better from the the very beginning, but next time hopefully she wont repeat the same thing. The foal now weaned, will be a nice enough horse, hopefully in time the bad habit of his will fade away completely. Its just a shame because we as humans are responsible for so much of our animals behaviour, yet rarely do we look to our own habits to see if they are the cause.

What are you habits good or bad? how aware of them are you??