Musings of an Alternative Equestrian

All Journeys Start with a Single Step

All Journeys Start with a Single Step

It is good to have aims of what what we hope to achieve with our horses, I haven’t done much with them for the last couple of years so I wanted to keep things low key and simple.

For Sparklehorse it is to find engaging ground based activities, she loves human interaction, but easily loses interest if she doesn’t see the point of an activity, she is a good teacher in authenticity, you can’t fake it with her.

Thunderhooves needs exercise but as he has cartilage missing in his hock he can’t do fast and hard work, I want to start walking him in hand, both for exercise (which I would also benefit from) but also enrichment to explore our area.

Yes, that’s right, I am not planning on competing at dressage, or completing badminton, I am not even planning to ride them, just some walking and some playing. Sounds simple right?

But is it?

Yes, except for two key factors.

‘My horses have a voice and therefore have a choice’

The first is that my horses have a voice and therefore have a choice. They are not conditioned to just be tacked up and ridden. For safety’s sake they are taught to respond well to the headcollar in case they are handled by others, but with me almost everything is done at liberty. So all training has to be engaging enough for them to want to be involved. It is not safe to walk at liberty off the property so they will have have to be haltered, but even then they still need to feel they have the same voice which requires me to be ultra vigilant in my training.

Dealing with Separation Anxiety

The second factor and more difficult one to overcome is that Sparklehorse suffers from Separation Anxiety, in fact I would refer to it as Severe Separation Anxiety. She has always suffered from it and over the years I have been able to manage it in some circumstances, but right now, even Thunderhooves going to the other side of a fence and being 10 feet away can cause a complete meltdown.

Over the years various methods have been suggested to me. The first and most severe was to just take the other horse away and leave her to ‘get over it’. This is called ‘Flooding’ and would not only be extremely dangerous as she could injure herself, but would be totally ineffective as she would be under extreme stress and even the memory of that stress would start to cause anxiety on subsequent occasions before they were separated due to the anticipation of a stressful event.

A slightly less severe method is ‘Habituation’, this would be to take Thunderhooves away but then bring him back, so she would get the idea that he was coming back. But as the first thing she would feel is stress then, this again would be her overriding feeling and memory and is likely to also cause anticipation stress behaviours.

The next on the scale of methods is ‘Systematic Desensitisation’ and is where Thunderhooves would be taken far enough away to cause a slight amount of stress and then brought back to her, to desensitise her to him leaving. Confession time, I have tried this method, it was very difficult to gauge when she was starting to get stressed as this could be anything from a foot to 10 feet in distance, even with food provided to give her something else to think about, but again stress was involved even at a minor level, it was not an effective solution.

But what if there was a way to make the separation not only stress free but something she enjoyed?

Now you’re talking!

Counter Conditioning

This would be ‘Counter Conditioning’. Changing a stimulus to an opposite reaction through pairing with an opposite stimulus. But how I am going to go about this?

First of all I needed to create the right environment. Not easy in a UK winter when surrounded by mud. I managed to create two separate but adjacent areas. One being the yard, the other being a fenced of part of the front paddock, thankfully still fairly dry.
Next I needed to provide an alternative to what I was was planning to do, to give them a choice and hopefully promote calming behaviours. This was in the form of a haynet each.
Then I decided on an activity, something easy that they can already do, so no additional stress is created. Simple targeting was perfect for this occasion.

So it came time to separate them, which was just opening the yard gate and allowing Thunderhooves through, leaving Sparklehorse on the yard. It was very important that I showed none of the usual indicators of separation, like putting a headcollar on Thunderhooves, as this could have prompted anxiety in anticipation of separation.

I had placed the haynet in the paddock close to the fence so I could stand between them both, alternately asking them to touch the target. Both were happy to do this and happily munch their haynets too.

Then I moved the haynet that Thunderhooves was eating a little further from the fence and returned to Sparklehorse to practice targeting. At this point things were going very well, when normally she would have been pacing and starting to get distressed. When she was also happily engaged in the haynet I started to ask Thunderhooves to touch the target and slowly started to ask him to move a bit further from the fence. There was one occasion where Sparklehorse left her haynet and walked along the yard fence. I immediately joined her and engaged her in targeting and soon she was settled at the haynet again. She did not move again for the rest of the session which was short. I only took Thunderhooves as far away as an be seen on the photo. But this is a significant amount of progress in the first session, Sparklehorse allowing a fence and distance between them! As you can see she is eating happily.

We have completed several more sessions since then, some with Sparklehorse in the paddock and Thunderhooves on the yard. We are now up to being able to move Thunderhooves all round the fenced off area with Sparklehorse showing no signs of anxiety. After a few more sessions I will introduce the signs that something more is going to happen, like a headcollar, and then progress to making the fenced area a little larger by degrees.

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It might seem a really long process but I think that the old adage of going slow to go fast applies and we will be able to do so much more in 2019.

I would like to thank Sadie Kitson of Sparkle Pony and Jessica Gonzalaz of Empowered Equines for the tools and ideas which have made this possible.

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