As new-age as it might sound, Horse Charming is simply the way we like to describe the practice of keeping, managing, caring for and training horses using the latest that science can tell us about what makes a horse a horse, why horses do what they do, and how they learn.
Those sciences include:
- Psychology – the study of the mind and its functions, especially those affecting behaviour
- Ethology – the study of the natural behaviour of horses as individuals and as members of a herd
- Neuroscience – the sciences which deal with the structure or function of the nervous system and brain
- Biology – physiology, anatomy, behaviour
So why Horse Charming?
Well there are a lot of ways that horse trainers choose to describe what they do. I started life studying languages and, as a linguist, I am also really interested in the meaning of words and the thoughts and feelings they convey.
When I was looking for something to describe how I like to go about teaching horses, I came upon this definition of the word charm:
“The power or quality of delighting, attracting, or fascinating others”.
Who wouldn’t want to be a horse charmer and who wouldn’t want to have a charming (calm, enthusiastic, nice to be around, amenable, easy going) horse? It resonated with me immediately and the ideas stuck, and here we are.
With that in mind, the approach we take as Horse Charmers is to use the best of what we know about how horses want to live, how they think and how they learn, and we teach people how to apply that in practical settings to change how their horses feel and behave.
Horse Charming is not a “method” or system that you have to follow.
Horse Charming is about keeping horses in ways that best mimic how they would want to live, according to the characteristics of their species.
It’s about using motivators that horses naturally find appealing or attractive – what the behaviourists call “reinforcers” – and the neuroscientists call “rewards” – to train horses, ponies, mules and donkeys to live peacefully in the environments we create for them and to behave or learn to perform behaviours in ways that:
- are beneficial for the physical and psychological welfare and wellbeing of the animal
- meet the reasonable and realistic desires of the owner or loaner, based on the partnership they wish to have with their equine – for handling, healthcare, leisure, and pleasure.
The aim – and the art – of horse keeping, and of training horses using positive reinforcers, is to create experiences for the animal that:
- Produce desirable behaviours that are repeatable
- Avoid the animal ever learning undesirable behaviours
- Eliminate existing undesirable behaviours
Ethical horse training -which is what this is – also involves doing that in a way that is consistent with modern Animal Welfare Law.
We train horses and people to make the very best of their natural abilities, using the resources they have available, to build horse and human relationships that result in both partners finding each other equally attractive, delightful, fascinating and fun to be with.
Quite a lot of what we do involves using positive reinforcement – this is the precision use of a marker signal (known as a bridging stimulus in Psychology) and food and other rewards (a good scratch if the horse enjoys that) to let the horse know the exact instant s/he did something we want more of.
We also use target training, which is a way of using any suitable object as a prop (we call them targets because we teach horses to focus on and go towards them) to form physical behaviours – movement or standing still, healthy posture and self-carriage – to show horses where or how to use or move part or all of their body.
Targets show horses where to be and motivate them to go towards something that will lead to a reward of some sort.
For confidence-building for horses that are spooky or fearful or anxious, we use gradual exposure to fearful stimuli, situations or events, coupled with food or other delights (if appropriate) to change how horses react to things that would otherwise cause them anxiety or distraction.
We also teach horses a way to use a target prop as a means to give their consent to procedures that involve us doing something to them (and most importantly for them). We empower them with the means to grant or withdraw their consent without them needing to use escape or avoidance behaviours.
So much unwanted behaviour from horses comes down to the fact that they fear leaving home and friends and they are genetically predisposed to presume all new things are guilty until proven innocent! A lot of unwanted behaviours come about and are learned when horses are taken into situations without regard for their needs, with no preparation, or they are put under pressure or forced to do things they find worrying or difficult, physically, mentally or emotionally.
We specifically do not advocate any use of escalating pressure – increasing intensity or phases of aversive stimulation to cause horses to do things so that we can release (remove) the pressure to reinforce that behaviour (negative reinforcement).
In our experience this creates many more issues than it solves and is in our opinion neither ethical nor is it consistent with Animal Welfare Law anywhere in the developed world.
We also avoid using any kind of flood desensitisation – where horses are exposed to things they fear at high strength, and corrected, restrained or confined until they cease to react (if indeed they ever do). Think of flooding as throwing the horse in the deep end of a situation and preventing him from getting out until he learns to swim. We know from many studies in psychology and neuroscience that this may never work, that it is traumatic for horses and that it carries considerable risks to people and horses and property.
Horse Charming is force-free, science based, effective management and training for the 21st century horse, pony, mule or donkey and the people who love them.