We spent the last weekend at a two day workshop where the instructor, Jim Barrett of Police Horse Pros employed the training techniques used to desensitize horse for mounted police work to despook civilian mount. These techniques include ground work, formation drills, and sensory training where scary objects, sounds and actions are gradually introduced to the horses and riders as they practiced formation work. There were 9 horses and riders in the clinic with experience, riding skills and training varying quite a bit.
I took Orion there to test his training to see how it stood up to the challenges presented to the participants. What I was interested in seeing was how the training they use would compare or contrast with what I do to prepare horses for mounted gaming and combat. I very much liked what I saw.
The key to the success of this clinic was in large part due to the way they us herd instinct to overcome individual horse’s fears. By riding in formation each horse could take comfort and derive confidence from the the horse next to, in front of or behind them. This principle I use when I train horses in pairs with someone else riding a trained mount. They ride a horse with more experience and confidence, while I ride the less experienced horse in the same arena. When the horse I am riding doesn’t want to face and obstacle like a bridge crossing or ground tarb, we ride him behind the experienced horse to show it is not something to worry about. We keep returning to the problem again and again, so the younger horse also learns to trust it’s rider by successfully navigating the obstacle when asked while gaining confidence the other horse.
I particularly liked the way they slowly added the challenges while the riding was going on, as opposed to just setting everything up and once from the beginning. This way all the horses and the riders are able to form a herd as time goes on, everyone gaining security and confidence from each other and are better able to face the scary things as they appear. Each success makes the next challenge that much easier.
One of the things about the way the horse has evolved that is both great and awful at the same time, is the they have good memories. As long as new stimuli is introduced gradually and is never allowed to overwhelm the horses, they we able to hold on to the experience of the last element introduced to give them confidence when facing the next. Now if you allow the process to become over stressful, frightening or even truly threatening to the horse, then that is what the remember. So the next element becomes scarier than it would have been, which makes the next worse and soon you have spiraled out of control. What you end up doing is actually the opposite of what you intended.
There are better and worse ways to try to get a horse to overcome its concern about a given obstacle, be it something on the trail or one of the medieval gaming elements I work with as part of the Mounted Combat training. For example, let’s say you are riding around the arena and come up on a blue barrel left in the arena by the last person riding there. Your horse has never seen anything like a blue barrel before so as you come up to it the horse steps way out around, staring at is wide eyed and snorting. How do we best deal with this?
One school in thought teaching that you should push your horse right up to the barrel, forcing him to “just deal with”. You kick and yell, the horse backs up, moves sideways, maybe even goes up to avoid getting closer to the scary thing. “Just make him more concerned about you than the obstacle.” Have we detected the flaw in this method yet? No amount of force can make a frightened horse less scared, it is just that simple. You are really only making it worse by making the thing that was slightly scary into something to be dreaded.
Another school of thought teaches, remove the barrel for now and when you finish your ride put the barrel where your horse eats and he will have to learn to deal with it if he wants to eat. A better option than the first one? Sure, but can you use this method to get your horse to calmly walk past the refrigerator abandoned on your favorite trail? What about things the move when you interact with them? Leaving it in his stall won’t help the fear he will feel next you ride him and encounter it moving.
The way I approach this problem is to ride the horse by the object and if then shy away to the left, instead of turning their head to face it and trying to force them to move closer, I simply look away from it, turning him away from the scary thing in a small circle to the left and what do you know there you are approaching it again. The horse moves away to the left, I again ignore the scary thing, and instead look to my left, turn him in a circle again and again we are approaching the thing. Rinse, repeat as many times as it takes for the horse to get feed up with this circle to the left and to eventually accept that the scary thing is actually nothing of the sort. As long as you disregard the scary thing and keep circling back to it, and remain calm and quite, the horse will end up disregarding it as well. Now all you need to do is reverse direction and repeat the process.
It is also said the not every method work with every horse, but this one has never failed me.
The police workshop used a very similar method only on a larger scale. With a troop of horses it is not possible to keep making small circles that bring you right back into contact with the same scary thing repeatedly, but since the whole troop is circling the arena and returning to face said scary thing, the effect is similar, but with the added emotional support of the whole troop. So what we were doing was a grander version of the same method. It was very effective.
As I had hoped, Orion was afraid of nothing they had at the clinic. They took to partnering him with horses having problems with one element or another so he could help steady them. So Orion didn’t get as much out of the clinic as some of the other horses, but for some of those other horses the change was night and day. By the end there was a troop of 9 horses and riders able to face some pretty seriously scary things, including a mechanical clown that should scare anyone, and one of those “dancing men” things with fan blowing up throwing it so it jerks and whips around.
We even got to face down an unruly crowd, by riding as a line toward several people yelling and waiving their arms, even blowing whistles. We were told by Jim to put our most steady horse in the middle to give the rest of the troop an anchor point. Orion was chosen and Jim himself stood in place opposite him. As we approached he began blowing the whistle and getting pretty close to my boy with some strong body language. Orion never stopped moving forward and while he didn’t want to walk over Jim, it as pretty apparent to me he would have if I had kept asking him to move forward.
For the last activity of the day, they broke out a huge red ball, that had to be over 5 feet across. The instructor lined up the troop and bounced the ball down the line inches from the noses of the horses, not one step backward. We then pushed the ball as small squads up and down the arena, followed by a horse soccer game. There were two goals made… Orion made both of them. 🙂
I will try to get some of the video we shot processed in the near future and will update this entry with link to them.
Taken as a whole, the weekend was very worthwhile. I did learn another important thing. I could offer a similar workshop based off warhorse training instead of police mount training and I think anyone who took it would consider it money and time well spent. I am giving it serious thought.