Friday, January 20, 2012

Standing Up For Laying Down

Have you ever had someone misconstrue your training methods?

Many years ago, I worked as an assistant for a very well-known trainer in a barn that specialized in top-notch Arabian and Half Arabian English horses.  Most of the horses that came through the barn were very fancy, athletic show horses destined to win accolades in the show ring.  But like in every training barn, there are times that you need to keep the barn full, and you take horses in to training that are more likely to end up as personal riding horses who tote their owners around the ring or the trails on the weekends.  That is how we ended up with "Merrylegs."  His owners had bred him and had kept him at home.  They just wanted to ride him for pleasure, and he needed some tuning up.  Much like the pony in the book "Black Beauty," he was short, dappled gray, round and fat like a pony.  He was very cute, and even though he had a longer registered name that the owner called him, we began to refer to him as Merrylegs.  At first, he was as sweet as the pony in the book too.  This horse ended up on my list of charges, so I started by riding him for short periods every day to start getting him in shape - did I mention that he was fat?

Anyway, after a week or two of decent rides he began to display a very dangerous pattern. He didn't want to be caught, he wouldn't move off after you mounted, and he would stop dead while going forward at a trot or canter and refuse to move.  (It should be said here that this horse had nothing physically wrong with him, and the tack I was using fit him fine. I was using a very non-punitive plain snaffle.)  At first, I would redirect him, asking him to turn off one direction or the other, but he figured that tactic out and would again try to stonewall me.  My fellow assistant and the trainer we worked for would make suggestions, but he continued.  I tried groundwork with him and had no problems, I tried different bits, and I tried 'getting after him' with my legs (no spurs, I felt this would make it worse) and the small crop I carried.  Nothing helped.  In fact, the horse began rearing - and rearing BIG.  We spoke with the owner, and, oh yeah, he had been giving her similar problems. This was one of my first experiences with the problem of owners spoiling their horses to the point of making them dangerous, but that is a discussion for another blog.

So everyday I would attempt to ride this horse who had zero interest in working, had been spoiled beyond belief and had learned that you could get humans to get off of you by rearing.  He could actually walk on his hind legs with me on his back!  I hated riding him, and yet, it was my job to at least try to salvage him.  It was obvious that eventually the horse was going to fall on me, and it didn't seem like we were getting anywhere by me just trying to stay on all the time.  It was finally brought up by the trainer I worked for that it was time to "lay him down*."  This was before The Horse Whisperer, before I had seen similar things done by "natural" horsemen, and I was VERY worried.  It upset me that this horse reared, but I am a pretty loving person who can't stand the sight of a living being in pain.  I did not want this horse to be hurt at my hands.  However, it wasn't really up to me, so my trainer put a running W on the horse, and after lunging him in it for a few minutes, she held up one of the horse's front legs, causing him to hop on three legs for a few minutes, and eventually, to lay down in the soft dirt of the arena.  At that point, the trainer, myself, and the other asst. took time to sit on him, keeping him on the ground for several minutes, showing him that we controlled him.  When we finally let him up, he was unhurt, but not unchanged.  His attitude on subsequent rides was much improved; I can't say he was perfect after that, but he definitely had a new-found respect for us.  His rearing became less and less of a problem.

Eventually, his owner's training money ran out and Merrylegs went home, and I don't know how he behaved when he got there, but this was a real learning moment for me.  Prior to this incident, I believed that everyone who layed horses down did so behind their barn, where they might cover the horse with a tarp and beat them into submission.  I believed it to be cruel in every instance, yet here was an example where the horse wasn't injured at all, and probably came out of it for the better.  Sure, there might have been other ways to train him out of it; riders on one end of the extreme might have done ground work for months to make up for all that his owner didn't teach him about respect, and riders on the other end of the spectrum might have just beat the crap out of him until he figured out that when humans say go, you better go.  Neither of these strategies were a good fit for this horse, or myself, so I believe that what we did was somewhere in the middle and the best that we could do in this situation.

Why am I telling you this story?  I recently stumbled upon a discussion about habituation and flooding in horse training that became a highly contentious conversation. The people participating in the discussion were very polarized in their views and it reminded me of Merrylegs and how we used a moment of flooding to change his ways.  For the sake of  this discussion, let's give a quick overview of these terms.  Habituation is the desensitization that occurs when the horse experiences an object, sound or behavior over and over again until it no longer reacts to it.  Habituation can be achieved through approach and retreat, where a trainer repeatedly shows the horse something and then takes it away, or stops.  The action is repeated over and over, increasing the length of time that the 'pressure.' is applied.  Habituation can also be achieved through flooding, which is when the stimulus is applied and isn't removed until the horse relents and no longer reacts to it.

Let's take these tactics and apply them to a horse training scenario, such as saddling a horse for the first time.  You are trying to achieve habituation, which would be that the horse no longer notices the saddle on its back.  If you used approach and retreat, you would show the horse the saddle, let him sniff it, put it away.  The next day, you would set it on his back, and put it away, the day after that, you might saddle him and walk him around a minute, and then put it away, until you had progressed to saddling, lunging and riding.  If you used flooding, you would saddle the horse and let him 'buck it out' until he gave up, realizing he can't get it off his back.  This process might take one session or many.  Both approach and retreat as well as flooding can be applied to many different behaviors that we are trying to illicit from our horses, from accepting tack to teaching the horse to set its head.

As you can imagine, some people are very much against flooding, saying that it traps the horse, breaks them down, or scars them psychologically.  Others offer that it is sometimes necessary, and when applied properly, can break through to difficult horses.  In the discussion that I am referring to, a trainer who specializes in starting racehorses - including problem ones - was villified for laying horses down routinely in his training program.  This trainer has posted videos of his methods on youtube, and what I saw him do was not what I would consider cruel or inhumane.  There was no beating, kicking, jerking, poking or any behavior that I considered to be punitive.  He was not reacting with frustration toward the horse - which is when most cruelty happens, when the human is frustrated because he/she cannot think of anything else to try on the horse to get them to do what he/she wants.  In other words, laying a horse down doesn't mean you are seeking to hurt the horse because it won't relent.  It can be simply presenting the horse with a choice - you either submit to me, or life will get difficult for you.  It reminds me of how a wolf packs behaves; older, dominant wolves will put a pup on the ground, on its back and hold them there, showing the younger who is boss.  In the horse-human diad, someone has to be boss, and it should be the human.

Most experienced horse owners and trainers realize that we give our horses this same choice every day from the moment they are born.  My foals are not spoiled, rubbed on, kissed and given treats.  They are treated like little horses that will eventually become big horses and have the physical power to kill someone.  They learn the rules early, and know from Day One that they need to respect their human counterparts and submit to their wishes.  But after years and years of meeting horses like Merrylegs, and the owners who made them that way, it is clear that many people out there don't understand how to do this. Nor are all horses bred like mine are; trainability and temperament are of absolute importance in my breeding stock.  Does this matter to everyone breeding horses? Not by a long shot, especially within the racing industry.  When you are breeding a horse for speed, temperament doesn't figure in as much.

The thought of trying to break a 17 hand fire-breathing Thoroughbred with the intention of teaching him to run as fast as possible makes my blood run cold!  And these are not horses that are allowed months and months of gentling and groundwork.  If a racehorse is unwilling to get along with his trainer, he has the highest chance of any equine on the planet of being sent to slaughter.  Their lives literally depend on someone getting through to them, quickly and without injury.  I have to respect someone who has the ability and the willingness to attempt to give these horses the choice. While flooding may not be an appropriate training method for every training problem, such as getting a horse to stay in frame or if a horse is terrified on an object, laying a horse down can be useful in establishing who is the leader for horses with no respect for humans. 

Laying a horse down is not part of my training program, in fact, the incident with Merrylegs has been the one and only time in my lifetime of horses that I participated in doing it.  I personally am not up for it; I am realistic about my physical abilities and understand that it takes someone with quick and precise reflexes, and physical agility that I don't possess (I have a messed up knee). Attempting it when you aren't quick and sure on your feet is very dangerous for you and the horse.  It also takes instant and flexible common sense, lots and lots of experience, and above all, a cool demeanor that resists frustration and punitive reactions.  If all of these conditions are met, the horse in question might actually have a chance to have a life, even beyond the race track, or whatever discipline they are being prepared for. In teaching them to submit, you are giving them an opportunity to be useful.

The end message here is that life is many shades of gray, and until we are personally faced with something similar we might not see the intention behind a training method.  Most people can recognize abuse when it happens because there is a shift in intention; an abuser is aggressive in a way that affords the horse no way out, and the punishment comes without rhyme or reason.  But sometimes strictness has a way of shaping desired behavior that shows the animal clearly what their choices are.  Much in the way that juvenile detention bootcamps can shake up a teenage rebel, flooding, specifically laying a horse down, can take a horse that is basically useless and dangerous and allow them a chance at life.

Have you ever laid a horse down?

*Please do not confuse this with teaching a horse to lay down as a trick.  When using 'laying down' as a training method, I am referring to a horse that does not want to lay down, or go along with anything that you are trying to teach them.  It is the act of forcing them to the ground.