Whoever knows what is around the corner in life? We make our plans and we think we are infallible or even immortal! Well, life has a great way of levelling us all if we think we can somehow how beat the fates. As I write this article, I am in rehabilitation from spinal surgery having had a disk removed to, hopefully, become sciatica free. This free time from my usual rushing about from A-B has given me time to sit back, think and reflect on life and the things we consider most important. I truly believe we should be bringing equine higher education into the 21st century. From ground roots, every student is still taught to master a horse. We make horses do as they are told, with never any attention to the emotional fall out on that horse from all the pressures applied, dayin, day out. “Kick him, make him go forwards, hit him” sadly all very normal within every riding lesson everywhere.
The journey I have found myself on over the past 40 years, has been one I never expected to be on. In recent years, I discovered a whole new world of animal training where force and human dominance no longer has a part to play.
All through the years of my life with horses, all my collective experiences and all my decisions and actions in husbandry, care and training, were all via the ways I had been taught, mentored and shown by trainers I had great respect for. From as far back as when my career started back in 1980, attaining my BHSAI (The British Horse Society Assistant Instructor) and other professional qualifications. Seeking more than just mainstream experience, took me to Vienna, Austria, where I was trained and mentored by 2 head riders from the Spanish Riding School. This precious opportunity helped to define me. It raised the bar in feel, empathy, softness and breath- to become one with a horse. My horizons and my world expanded. My skill set became defined and my credence rocketed.
I learned all I could about the “old” ways, the traditional ways, the BHS (British Horse Society) ways, the Germanic ways, the strict military based Haute Ecole ways and years later being introduced to Natural horsemanship with its cowboy ways. All of these structures, methods and protocols influenced every aspect of my horse care, management and training. This was so for 29 of my 36 years as a professional horse trainer. I had no idea that the huge, life-changing balloon was about to burst over my head and make me re-evaluate every aspect of everything!
This new world of animal training was brought to me via the Zoos. My thanks go to Twycross Zoo for hosting several international animal training conferences. Without them, I would have never discovered this new way of training, which puts the animals’ well-being first and foremost. All my learning and follow up training, reading, video watching, conference attending and seminar/workshops etc were all there for me to find and follow and absorb. I saw such huge possibilities for horses to be trained in the same ethical way. The science made sense to me. So much I already knew without knowing I knew it, but there was so very much more to learn. No one ever stops learning in life and no one should ever want to stop learning. Science moves forwards all the time and I follow the science.
I guess over the past 6 years I have studied degree level behavioural science and I apply it in every aspect of my care regimes at work and when I am away consulting. The art side of applying behavioural science is a whole other world. To become skilful in timing when shaping new behaviours with a clicker. To set the animal up for success as to how you can arrange the environment. To understand how the environment present may be destructive and decide what can be done. This tip of the iceberg is where I am now. I am a positive reward based horse trainer. I totally understand why horses do what they do and why. Understanding what may be reinforcing these unwanted behaviours which are why they are likely repeated. As such, I have left behind the use of the labels I still hear all the time- none of which are useful at all. Horses are labelled as being dangerous, naughty, lazy, stupid, too clever for its own good- the list goes on and on. No label ever describes what is really happening and degrades the horse. Humans hide behind them as security in case it may all be happening through some fault of their own. The great pity is that all behaviour- both good and bad- is vital information to someone like myself. They paint a picture of the emotional state of the horse, the hormones which are in play and the environmental triggers which have been missed.
I now help trainers of various animals to become better. I train trainers. I train humans via these horses. My dearest wish is that behavioural science can be included at every level of Equine College education to all up and coming grooms, yard staff and riders. There is absolutely no teaching or knowledge of this form of ethical, force-free, punishment-free training in any curriculum anywhere in the UK education system when it comes to horses. Dog training, zoo animal husbandry and training etc is already way up there and completely established as correct training protocol. We need to bring all equine education into the 21st century. Reward-based training, clicker training horses, understanding classical conditioning and the use of operant conditioning when we choose which path to follow when training horses. Shaping future behaviour is still predominantly using pressure and release techniques with the addition of positive punishment thrown in. The use of whips and spurs is endemic in the modern horse world, forcing horses to submit to our will.
This is now my vision and my mission. I am actively trying to make a start. I use social media to showcase my work to an ever-expanding audience.http://www.facebook.com/instinctivehorsetraining I write articles to create interest so that more horse owners ask how it could help them with their relationship with their own horse. I try hard to keep my youtube site fresh with video content.https://www.youtube.com/channel/UClxIkqnrA0QVko_VOabiTZg
I just filled in a call to action for the Governments official T level appraisal for shaping future education curriculum which will influence the next 5 to 10 years of education curriculum. I have been asked to join a group of 40 pioneering Horse Trainers from across the world to be present for the 2nd Progressive Horse Behaviour and Training Forum in Orlando in February. Not only am I honoured to be asked but am panicking that this surgery will not allow for the flight. My speaking subject is how to start to get this subject of scientifically proven animal training incorporated into mainstream higher education in the UK. It has to happen, as it has with all other animal training, management and behaviour- just not horses! Yet!
So, I leave you now as I continue to ponder this and how best to make that happen.