With kind permission of Equine Health magazine, Out and About Dressage is republishing this article which is relevant to any rider, trainer or horse carer and deals with constructive communication and equine-centred handling. Ben Hart, Behaviourist at the Donkey Sanctuary, looks at some of the issues that affect equine behaviour which we may not consider would cause a problem

DISCUSSIONS about equine behaviour often sound something like this, behaviourist: “I think the symptoms would be consistent with an equine under prolonged stress.” Owner (etc): “Stress what on earth has he got to be stressed about? Lovely clean stable, turned out in a nice flat field on his own for 4-6 hours a day, not hassled by other animals. We spend a fortune on his diet. He has good quality concentrates and haylage. He only has to work an hour a day at most, best vet care, dentist, farrier the lot, costs a fortune. Why on earth would he be stressed?”
Behaviourist: “Have you talked to your vet about the symptoms to rule out pain, and physical causes of stress?” Owner (etc): “No, but what do vets know about stress anyway? I mean, that’s the only time I would say he is stressed, when the vet comes to examine him or give him an injection.”

blackwhiteiconI know that vets do know about stress, usually their own I suspect, with a tight workload, unco-operative animals creating dangerous situations, distressed owners, long hours, night duties, the list is endless. They also know about the physical causes of long-term environmental stress perhaps created by absence of the five freedoms [freedom from hunger and thirst, from discomfort, pain, injury and disease, to express normal behaviour and from fear and distress, The Animal Welfare Act 2006]. It is common to recognise transportation stress and stress from physical events such as an endurance event, repetitive impact of landing in a show jumping pony or, of social isolation from other equines.

Obviously pain, physical conditions and environment are hugely influential on the animal’s level of stress and therefore their behaviour and performance, and these causes of stress have to be ruled out or reduced before we consider other possible causes. What is less well considered are the effects of different handling methods on equine stress levels. I know stress isn’t always a bad thing, and small relevant levels over the short term are natural and required, but we are so often preoccupied with stress as result of physical performance or environment, it is easy to overlook the mental stress caused by handling. blackwhiteiconflipped

This lack of stress consideration might be because just about every trainer of equines is claiming to be working with the language of the horse, to be connecting with the animal, building a relationship and listening to the horse, donkey or mule. Besides no one would actually knowingly inflict stress on their horse would they? Or perhaps our insight is limited because we are still on the edge of understanding the mental world of equines, or accepting their sentiency. Maybe it has just become normal in the last 6,000 years that we accept the behaviour and body language of the stressed equine as the normal equine response to handling. Whatever the cause, we need to start seeing the stress caused by training and handling methods as important to the overall welfare of our horses, donkeys and mules.

Mixed messages
Imagine working in a lovely friendly environment, sunny spot in the office, good ventilation, good colleagues, appropriate rest stops, tools and equipment suitable for the job and working for a boss who has the following leadership traits:

  • Over controlling and prefers to micromanage their subordinates, limiting choices and control
  • Inconsistent approach to leadership, changes approach day to day and weekly
  • Generally tries to bully and causes fear in those around them to gain control and compliance
  • Often overloads staff with too much work or asks for performance beyond employees capabilities
  • Freely uses punishment, as motivation, and shouts louder when it is clear you don’t understand
  • Doesn’t take into account the individual’s experience, knowledge and personal learning styles when asking people to undertake new tasks
  • Has unrealistic expectations and unachievable goals

I guess you can see where I am going with this line of thought? I suspect a few weeks or months in this environment, depending on the individual’s personal stress tolerance levels, would produce the changes of behaviour we could expect to see associated with chronic stress. Changes in normal behaviour and temperament, avoidance behaviours, flightiness, increased defensive behaviour or aggression, restlessness, depression, loss of appetite, weight loss/ gain, poor performance in new situations to name but a few. Sound familiar?

blackwhiteiconEven if an equine is lucky enough to be pain free and have a good enriched environment with social interaction, freedom to move and correct diet to suit the equine digestive system, their handling can cause them considerable stress; which can lead to all the associated behaviour problems stress brings with it.

Interpreting behaviour
Stress: All extra-individual events capable of evoking a broad spectrum of intra-individual responses mediated by a complex filter labelled ‘individual differences’. Equine Behaviour A Guide of Veterinarians and Equine Scientists, second edition, Paul McGreevy

Our first problem in handling is that we often don’t recognise the true nature of the species as a whole, let alone the needs of the individual animal at the other end of the lead rope. Handling and training all equines in a similar way, leads to many equines becoming stressed and then passed from home to home labelled as difficult or dangerous simply because their individual nature has not been accounted for.

The view point of the handler on the true nature of equines is the first gateway to handling stress. Unless trained and handled to accept our interventions all equines have a natural fearful curiosity, are nervous submissive animals, terrified of human interaction and treatment, who defend themselves only when forced to by kicking and biting. Or are they actually dangerous, deceitful, unpredictable stress-heads trying to dominate us, who run away from anything and who use aggressive kicking and biting to control us?

One view point leads to sympathetic horse-centred handling and one to more stressful controlling forceful methods of interaction. Individual animals tend to learn and process information differently, based on a mixture of genetics, experience, environment, opportunity, human interaction and training method. This cocktail of influence produces different levels of confidence or nervousness, processing speeds, curiosity, leadership, memory capability and problem solving ability. A great deal of handling stress is created by forcing individual equines to fit into handling methods chosen by their human because these methods suit the handlers’ beliefs or needs rather than the animals.

There is a tenancy to blame the donkey, horse or mule for their behaviour rather than consider other factors that are creating the behaviour. To worsen this effect many training methods for equines rely heavily on removal of choice and insist on conformity. Patterns of behaviour must be repeated relentlessly to gain compliance and animals not responding in the expected way have increased pressure applied or are labelled negatively with incorrect or unwanted behaviours are punished. But what are the effects on the animal’s behaviour of such negative training methods?

blackwhiteicon“When electric shocks are used to teach a horse how to navigate through a maze, subjects take significantly longer to make their choices than horses who were not punished and simply found their way through by trial and error. So punishment can stifle creativity and impede a horse’s innate problem solving skills” McGreevy Equine Behaviour second edition page 99, McGreevy PD, McLean AN. Punishment in horse training and the concept of ethical equitation. J Vet Behav 2009; 4(5) : 193-197

Methods using excessive escalating levels of punishment or negative reinforcement may cause equines to become shut down, depressed or even suffer from learned helplessness. This dull, depressed compliant horse is considered by some handlers to be the example of a well-trained, obedient willing partner, and thus the stress levels go silently unnoticed.

What about positive reinforcement? Surely this is the answer to reducing equine handling stress. Then again perhaps not! Remembering that no method suits all equines, positive reinforcement can also lead to the recipient becoming frustrated and even aggressive. It’s not the fact that positive reinforcement is the problem, it is the application of the method that leads to problems and stress in the animal.

Using food rewards the right way and you have a thinking, problem solving, relaxed animal. Use food incorrectly with a different animal and you have a face pulling, biting, frustrated, food aggressive individual who is dangerous to work with. Replace food with scratches and the relaxed calm animal may well return. Positive reinforcement has its advantages and used effectively is far less likely to cause stress in our equine students, but used incorrectly frustration and stress are the likely result.

blackwhiteiconflippedHandling stress can result in negative changes to character and attitude such as willing horses become reluctant, a dull depressed horse who becomes reactive when pushed or forced to comply could be suffering the effects of stress, becoming difficult to catch and showing signs of depression and disinterest, increased rates of defensive/aggressive signs such as bite and kick threats. Increased flightiness, nervousness and reactivity can all be a result of stress. Breaking down of previously learned behaviours is common with horse under stress. There some simple steps we can take to reduce the likelihood of stress during training and handling. Primarily these are simple scientific principles of learning theory and by identifying these key elements not only do you stay safer but you can also evaluate different training methods being used with equines?

  1. Understand the true nature of the species and meet the individuals learning style, assess and adapt our interactions to the animals learning style, take the time the animal needs to process and respond and develop their own problems solving skills.
  2. Slow down our expectations of response time from our equines, it can take 10-15 seconds for an equine to offer a response to our request for a specific behaviour and this is increased by fear or lack of experience, too many requests for a response confuse the animal especially if they are applied with escalating pressure. Just wait a little longer than normal and most equines will offer something we can reinforce.
  3. Understand learning theory and operant conditioning, leading to correct, consistent communication.
  4. Use positive reinforcement to mark good behaviour, much easier for the animal to learn what you do want rather that work out all the things you don’t want.
  5. Shape behaviour well, use very small steps that allow the animal to make connection easily, offer behaviour and learn without being overwhelmed. Most trainers make the steps too big even when they think they are taking small steps.
  6. Work under the animal’s reaction threshold. Once the comfort zones have been stretched to far it is difficult to return to calm and learning is reduced.
  7. Be consistent in your approach to handling, consistency leads to predictability which leads to trust and a more relaxed animal.
  8. Do and expect what is appropriate for the individual animal, based on age, experience and physical ability.
  9. Listen to the animal’s behaviour, watch for changes in behaviour and temperament which could be the result of stress.

Levels of stress produced when handling equines are pretty much optional, we humans choose what and how we train. Even when we have to “get the job done” we can follow the steps above to reduce the stress in any interaction. The advantage of reducing handling stress is that a relaxed equine is safer, less likely to injure you and is likely to take less time to treat and train.

It is time to stop blaming equines and labelling stressful behaviour incorrectly as naughty, bad or taking the mickey because these incorrect labels stick and every equine handler has to take responsibility for the way an animal reacts with them.

Next time you are working with unwanted equine behaviour listen to your language and think how you would like to be treated if you were stressed out, and use the nine steps above to safely create the behaviour you want. It is not a matter of making an animal behave the way we want, it is much more ethical to allow them to learn they can behave that way.

© Equine Health
(Mixed Messages first appeared in Equine Health magazine, issue 30, July/August 2016)

chriskeateArticles republished from Equine Health are kindly supplied by Chris Keate, editor, Equine Health
Christine Keate has been a journalist in the equine industry for 20 years. She was a columnist at Horse and Hound on health and welfare issues and then editor of Horse Health for five years, before launching Equine Health as part of MA Healthcare. She has a deep love and understanding of horses and the issues that affect their health and well-being.

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