Master of my Fate

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“The capacity to exercise control over the nature and quality of one’s life is the essence of humanness”, Albert Bandura, 2001.

Have you ever had a splinter in your finger?  A horrible little pinprick, just underneath the skin.  You worry at it, you suck your finger, you try to grasp it between your nails, but nothing shifts it and it seems to affect everything you do.  In the end, there’s nothing for it, you have to get it out using a needle.

Now, that’s where things get interesting.  The splinter under the skin, or the bit of grit in the eye – they’re under your skin, they’re in your eye.  But you are starting to get the feeling that you’re going to have to ask someone else to get them out for you.  You don’t often put the feelings into words, but what’s there to the fore is that nobody else understands how it feels to be in your skin.  You know that when they touch your eye with their finger, they can’t feel it, and they might not stop before hurting you.  You know that it’s going to hurt when they pick the splinter out, and because they can’t feel the pain, they might just poke too hard.

We all live inside our own skins, and have an awareness of our own bodies.  We also have a consciousness that decides what we do, when we do it, how much of it we do, and we know that we act to get the things in life we need and like, and to avoid the things in life we fear and dislike.  We walk around feeling in control.  How fast to walk? As fast as I need to get where I’m going.  How hard to scratch an itch? Hard enough to relieve it, not so hard as to hurt.  How long to stay in the sun? Long enough to enjoy the warmth, not so long that I overheat.  How long to swim? Long enough to enjoy the silkiness of the water on my skin, not so long that I get chilled.

The feeling of control over our destiny is sometimes called “agency”, and it’s often a feeling we only recognize when it’s not there.  There’s actual fear in the splinter removing scenario, because we’ve handed over our “agency” to someone else, and even though we trust them, it’s hard to feel we’re not in control of our body. It’s only a small subset of people that we trust enough to ask for splinter removal help: for horses, it’s only a small subset they trust enough to allow teeth to be used in mutual grooming!

The flip side of this is what happens if we feel we’ve lost control: if we believe our actions are having no effect on the world, we give up.  We stop trying, and we shut down.  Many horses reach this state through our training.  I’m fairly sure that it’s rarely what we intend: most of us want our horses because of who they are and what they do, we don’t want unquestioning machines.  We understand the feeling of loss of control ourselves, but often fail to see when it happens to the horses we train and ride.

This is something that I’ve been thinking about for a few weeks, because of a lovely young horse I’m training.  He has no trust or understanding of humans.  I don’t know what’s happened to him: he may have had minimal handling, but by people who think that you can get a horse to accept things simply by doing them to the horse.  Trapping them and putting on a headcollar or a bridle, trapping them and trimming their feet, trapping them and brushing them, injecting them, hosing them, spraying them.  All the things we do to horses as part of our duty of care for them.  Equally, he may have had almost no handling at all, and is now learning about people from a position of suspicion.  When I met him first, he was trapped: he was alone, in a stable, with no other horses around him, in a situation where he was almost helpless and very fearful because he had no idea of what was going to happen next, nowhere to run, nowhere to hide and no herd to run or hide with.

Working with him, I realised there was something that horses and humans had in common that I hadn’t yet included in a blog post.  Because as the weeks have gone by, I haven’t done anything to him at all. I have tried very hard, even when he was in the stable, not to do anything to him, but to allow him to choose what to do to me and with me.  If he looked at me, I rewarded him.  If he touched my hand, I rewarded him. Once he was out of the stable (and that took a leap of faith on the part of his owner, who like most horse owners believed that a horse outside had no reason to want to be with people), if he moved towards me, I rewarded him, if he walked with me, I rewarded him.  We’ve moved on now to thinking about headcollars, brushes and – most difficult of all – human hands touching him.  But I have stayed still, and allowed him to act, and rewarded every time he interacts with me.  He touches the headcollar, he puts his head near my arm, he puts his nose in the open noseband. He touches the brush, either with his nose, with the side of his face, with his head dropped so it brushes between his ears. Now he will even place his head so my arm covers his eyes, a huge piece of trust in a horse who needs his vision to stay safe.  Every single one of these things, I allow him “agency”.  I do this because I want him to have confidence and the freedom to explore.  One of the best days so far was the day I left the brush on the ground while getting other things ready, and he picked it up and ran off with it!  He had got the confidence to feel playful while I was nearby!

I know he’s not my horse, and I have an agenda: I have to “make” him ready enough for the human world that he will be able to tolerate the things that will be done to him in the future, by people who haven’t stopped to think that there might be a way to achieve what they need in terms of being able to care for him while still involving him in the process.  So, for example, he will need to learn to stand when tied up, because people will want to restrain him so that they can brush his beautiful mane…  And yet, as humans, we understand perfectly with young children that there comes a day when a child refuses to allow you to brush their hair, because they want to do it themselves… they know how it feels to have something done to them, and they want the control themselves.  We can teach children so that they can take control… and we can also teach our horses in such a way that they have more control.  We can teach them to tell us when they’re ready for us to do things, rather than making that decision for them, and the magical thing about this is that if we do it right, it doesn’t make them less likely to participate, it makes them more willing and interested to work with us.

But the point of this blog post is that in order to do that, we have to give up some of our own control, some of our own agency.  We have to step back and acknowledge that another animal – a member of another species – has feelings and opinions about what we want to do to them, just as we do when someone wants to do things to us without our permission.  And we need to invest the extra time – in a world that has us under constant time pressure – to work with them so that they want to be brushed, have their hooves trimmed, have a headcollar put on.  Rather than having a horse who puts up with what’s done to him, because we need it done now, we need to give him control of the timescale so that in the end, he can say he’s happy with the process.

It’s through giving control away that we learn the real way to be the master of our fate, the captain of our soul: we’re not independent, we’re interdependent. Being able to depend on others at the same time as acknowledging that they need to have control over their own lives too, is what makes us complete human beings.

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Hawks and Doves

Rosette

Is competing just for the sake of competing a unique human characteristic?  As a species, we love competition.  Sometimes the prize is something tangible and we can see its importance to our survival as an individual: watching brothers and sisters using sophisticated “dirty tricks” to win the largest portion of dessert can be very entertaining to watch.  On the other hand, there are times when winning doesn’t guarantee our own survival, but it may contribute towards the survival of our genes.  Human courtship is a clear example of this kind of competition, and we can spend hours people watching in nightclubs, spotting who’s wearing the most eyecatching outfit or doing the most outrageous dance!  Much of the time, though, our competitions don’t obviously feature prizes that help us survive either as individuals or as a species.  Rosettes and trophies that we win in a range of equestrian competitions are examples of these: they are very important to us, and some may go to extreme lengths to earn them, but the reasons we compete in this way are complex and even after tens of thousands of years of human speculation, we still don’t have a complete understanding why we’re driven to act this way.

When we’re asked to explain the human desire to compete, we often refer to other species.  We can see quite clearly that many species compete fiercely, and so it makes sense to us that we should have this drive too.  We see lionesses bringing down prey and then being driven off their prize by hungry lions.  We see stags engaging in spectacular fights over access to does.  In hot countries, water sources are often the scene for competition over access to fresh, clean water both between members of the same species as well as between different species.  In domesticated animals like our own horses, we can see subtle competition between animals over access to friends. In humans, we can watch something very similar in school playgrounds!

Humans are unusual in the animal kingdom, though.  We enlist other species in our own competitions, and winning is subject to them behaving in very specific ways.  Over millennia, our keen hunter’s eye has allowed us to spot behaviour characteristic of many species that we can use to satisfy our own competitive urges – so we’ve watched horses in their natural state and seen them showing off to rivals, running from predators and migrating over many miles to find food and water.

Quick to spot the sporting potential in situations, we devise human entertainments that involve our horse running faster than other horses, our horse jumping higher than other horses, our horse having greater stamina than other horses, or our horse being able to perform better display behaviours than other horses.  We set about training them to perform these behaviours on command, but not content with that, we start to attribute the emotions we would feel in that situation to the horse.  We say “he loves to race”, “she loves to jump”, “he wants to show off”… Yet freed from our motivation and our constraints, the horse somehow fails to perform these actions of their own accord.  Rather boringly, they just walk off to their companions and start grazing, ignoring the arena, the jumps and the carefully manicured gallops.

Do our horses understand competition?  Do they feel satisfaction when they win a rosette, or win a race? Do they feel less satisfaction if they come third, or fail to complete the course?

For humans, winning is about that occasional feeling of elation that comes with the knowledge that we have reached a certain standard. We look out like hawks for the signs that we have won – the applause of a crowd, the score on a dressage test, the photo that shows our horse was first past the post.  For our horses, the feedback is more likely to be relief and release.  They know that we slacken off slightly after each jump, and completely at the end of a round.  They know that at a certain point, the jockey stops driving them. The pressure on the poll, mouth and sides of a dressage horse is increased to ask for a behaviour then slackened fractionally when they perform as told, and they are allowed to resume a relaxed posture at the end of a test. Horses in human competitions are working to regain freedom, not to achieve supremacy. They learn quickly that there are things they can do to get to the release point faster.  If we let them, they will speed up towards jumps, because they know the release is on the other side.  They will speed up past other horses in the race, because their jockey will drive less when they are in front.

We have chosen to compete using a species whose primary aim is to cooperate. They were domesticated in the first place because of their cooperative nature, and they allow us to sublimate our urge to win because, instead of competing with us, they follow our direction.  Horses love to run, but there is no reward for being in front.  In running from predators, horses bunch together because a lone horse is an easier target.  A horse will jump an obstacle they can’t go around when they’re making an escape or to get to something they want – but leave a horse in a ring with 10 jumps, and even the most motivated won’t jump more than one.  Horses will elevate their paces and move like dancers for very brief periods when showing off to rivals, but they don’t sustain the postures for more than a few seconds at a time, and they certainly don’t do it when there’s no rival or potential mate there – otherwise, how would they know their showing off has been successful?

The posts in this blog use aspects of anthropomorphism to highlight similarities between horse and human behaviour, with the aim of showing a different way to think about why horses behave the way they do.  I wouldn’t dream of saying that horses aren’t competitive, but I would argue that they are very unlikely to understand the competitions we construct around them.  What they’re doing with us is co-operating, not competing. As a species, affiliative interactions are the glue that keep them together, and keeping together is what keeps them safe and provides the opportunity to reproduce.

There’s a name for a relationship between two different species where both benefit – it’s called mutualism.  There’s also a name for a relationship between two species where one benefits and the other doesn’t – it’s called parasitism. A funny example of mutualism exists inside the horse: horses need bacteria to help digest the food they eat.  The bacteria need the forage that the horse eats but can’t process on its own…  Both organisms benefit.

When we compete with our horses, we benefit.  We choose to compete because there is a personal reward.  We don’t always win, but there is always the chance that we might.  But is the horse-human relationship mutualism, or is it parasitism?  From the horse’s point of view, there is a clear cost to cooperating with us.  In many cases they lose the chance to reproduce, they miss out on social interactions with companions they choose themselves and they lose the ability to choose where to live and what to eat.  Our rationale – if we offer one – tends to be that our competition horses live a life of pampered luxury.  We make sure they don’t have to walk more than two steps across their deep bedded stable to get access to the highest quality feed, we remove them from the risk of injury during rough play or sexual rivalry, we shelter them from inclement weather… In fact, we consistently remove almost every single aspect of our horses’ lives where they might, in natural situations, compete with other horses!

Can we have it both ways? It’s hard to believe our own explanation that a horse loves to compete, when we’re so careful to make sure that they never experience any competition in their lives in case it affects their health or causes injury!  If we accept that horses have no understanding of our goals in competing, that doesn’t mean that the natural cooperation they offer us can’t be rewarded and rewarding.  There are many things we can do to make the relationship mutualism and not parasitism… and I’d be very interested to hear people’s ideas on what these might be!

 

The Phantom Flea

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I know this blog is about horses and humans – but one of the behaviours we share is something that people comment about a lot in another species altogether. Have you even seen how a cat behaves when something they’ve just tried to do has gone wrong? For example, when they’ve fallen off a narrow wall, or tried to jump up on something and missed? They will often stop, sit down, and nonchalantly start washing themselves, as though that was really what they’d intended to do all along.

Humans do it too. The classic example is waving at someone you thought you knew, only to find they’re a total stranger. It’s so easy to convert that wave into a little hair adjustment, or let on you were just fastening your coat and your hand overshot… Nobody’s fooled, least of all our own sense of dignity, but it’s actually quite difficult not to do it.

The reason we find it difficult to resist is because the thing that hasn’t quite worked for us has been accompanied by a rush of emotion. We can feel embarrassed, ashamed, anxious, awkward, all depending on the situation. Although it happens most often when we know someone else is watching, sometimes it even happens when we’re alone, but we feel that if anybody had seen us, they would be laughing at us.

Emotions drive behaviours: when we feel strong emotions, they push us to act in some way. If we feel love, we want to hug someone, if we feel anger, we want to thump someone, if we feel fear, we want to run. As we grow and develop in human society, we learn that certain emotion driven actions will get us into trouble: the “anger=thumping” one in particular is one we need to learn to control. Even so, although we can hold back the socially unacceptable action, the underlying emotion is still there, needing to fuel a behaviour of some sort. So we do funny little things like fixing our hair, straightening our (impeccable) clothing or grooming ourself in some way.

I remember a work meeting from a few years ago, when my colleagues were presenting some rather uncomfortable findings to a group who’d employed us to investigate their efficiency. One man in particular had a lot of responsibility for things that hadn’t gone well. Also at the meeting were a few people whose opinion was very important to him, as well as myself and my colleagues: the pesky consultants. As we presented the findings, it was clear to me that he was feeling some pretty strong emotions about what we were saying, but he didn’t say anything. Instead, he sat without making eye contact with anybody, and proceeded to remove the invisible bits of fluff from his elegant suit. There was no fluff on that suit, but he worked away methodically for about 15 minutes while we set out our findings. I’m sure he wanted to thump us, or run around shouting – but he knew that doing that would make the situation worse, and that he was being watched by people whose opinion was important to him.

To bring this back to our horses – have you ever had a horse stop dead in the middle of a schooling session and start to scratch his nose on his leg, or vigorously groom her flank just behind the saddle (and your leg…)? Have you noticed your horse shake their head repetitively when you were training something challenging? Or has your horse started yawning before or during work? All of these are similar to the businessman with the invisible specks on his suit. They’re called Self Directed Behaviours (SDBs) and they are a sub class of what we call displacement behaviours. They’re ways of dealing with emotions without the drive we feel getting us into hot water in a socially challenging situation. Displacement behaviours also include the ones that aren’t self directed, but are other directed: I have been known to kick the photocopier when it chewed up my document on the day I was running late. We allow the emotion fuelled behaviours out, but make sure they’re directed at something or someone that can’t fight back. Bullies use this a lot – they’re feeling very threatened, usually by someone stronger or someone they fear, so they can’t respond as they’d wish. Instead, they direct the emotion fuelled response at someone weaker. If your horse lives in a group, you’ll have seen the equine equivalent. If a horse is nipped by a horse they’d rather not take on, they just pass the nip on to a horse they know won’t respond with retaliation.

So we know displacement behaviours can be either self directed or other directed. Today, it’s the self directed behaviours I’m interested in. They’re subtle and they happen in very specific situations, and this applies not just to cats, primates (including ourselves) but also to horses. If we can learn to spot and read them, they can be almost as if our horses are speaking to us about how they feel. They’re signals that tell us about a horse’s state of mind and about the type of emotions they’re feeling.

The first thing we can consider is whether the horse (or person) who’s doing a self directed behaviour is experiencing a conflict. This just means that they’re being pulled in two directions at once: approach the scary thing or run from it? Accept a bit which is uncomfortable but which signals the chance to get out of the stable and get some mental stimulation? Yawning is one of the most common behaviours associated with internal conflict, and that’s in humans as well as horses. I’m a notorious yawner at work, when I have to interrupt something I’m doing to do something more urgent but less mentally engaging.

Conflicts can also happen in situations that have an element of social anxiety. For example, our close relatives the monkeys show lots of self directed grooming behaviours after family group bust ups! Just like my gentleman with the lint on his suit, they tend to show these grooming behaviours most after conflicts with individuals who are important to them, but who can potentially harm them. It’s thought the behaviours act as a signal to family members that the inidividual would rather work to maintain the family bond than engage in disputes… Moving your attention inwards, towards self-care, does two things: it signals clearly to others that you’re not focussing on them in an aggressive way, and it shows that you’re doing something that’s calming and that reduces your stress levels. We know grooming in most species has this effect, possibly one of the reasons that many people enjoy a visit to the hairdressers!

Self-directed behaviours during a schooling or training session also send us a message. Either the horse has a conflict about what we want them to do, or they’re finding what we’re asking difficult, and so they are frustrated by their inability to do what we want (especially if they like us and are trying quite hard). When a chimpanzee is asked to complete tasks of increasing difficulty, they will often stop and engage in self-directed grooming behaviours. These reduce when the chimp gets auditory “clues” about how well they’re doing – it seems uncertainty makes chimps more anxious and they show this by their behaviours.

Put this in the context of training a young horse – if your horse stops and itches their side, or rubs their face on their leg, shakes their forelock over their eyes, or twitches their skin as if an imaginary fly has just landed – maybe they need us to slow down the training, build it up in smaller steps, and make it much clearer what it is we want from them, rewarding small successes.

It’s not altogether clear whether horses think of a training session as a “social situation”, when there’s two species involved. However the fact that they occasionally interrupt the training with self directed behaviour rather than fight or flight is interesting. It’s a clue that perhaps they’re thinking of us as a teacher rather than a trainer, and as someone whose presence is valuable to them. At the same time, they’re communicating politely and quietly that they’re feeling a bit uncertain, giving us a chance to help and reassure.

On the other hand, it’s great to become an expert at spotting the small signals from our horses that are meaningful and that help us become better trainers, it’s best not to get too hung up on what every single twitch and mane shake means. After all, to paraphrase Freud, sometimes an itch is just an itch – the key is to get better at recognising all the clues that tell us about a horse’s emotional state.

Home Sweet Home

HorsesUnderOurSkin’s current Home Sweet Home…


I’ve moved house a few times in my life now. I’ve moved away from the family home where I grew up – and I had to pack up my home and decide what part of my “life” I was going to take with me. I’ve also moved into temporary accommodation (a student flat) that was shared with complete strangers.

With each move, I’ve learned new things about myself. One of the first things I learned is that the things we choose to move along with ourselves have functions. Some things are necessities of life: we move pots, kettles, clothes. They’re things we’re going to need regardless of where we’re living, and they will work equally well no matter where we go. Other things we take because when we see them (or feel them, or sniff them) they evoke nice memories of the place we used to live. They give us a feeling of comfort and security. Another category of things we bring are things we want other people to see. We put them on display in our new homes, because they say something about us.

In my first ever house move, I moved from the family home where I’d grown up. I was the only one left there. Both parents had died and it was a rented house, although we’d lived there for 20 years. It was the only home I remembered, and my dad had (with a very small amount of help from me) created the garden from scratch. So I dug up my favourite rose bush – one called “Peace” that had a beautiful flower the colour of ripe peaches – and I transplanted it into the “garden” of the house I’d bought myself. The scent of the rose when it bloomed reminded me of gardening with my dad, and although people told me you couldn’t transplant a mature rose bush, it grew perfectly in my new home.

When we move horses to a new place, in some ways it’s similar to a house move for us. They find themselves in a new place, disconnected from the smells, sights, familiar pathways and safe places of their previous “home”. But home for a horse is a “home range”, not a cosy flat or house, and in that way, they are different from humans. Horses are not usually territorial: their home range would naturally overlaps with the home range of other groups of horses, so finding a pile of dung is interesting rather than threatening. When we move, we are as curious about our new neighbours as they are about us, and we’ll often seek them out in a safe place to get to know them. A casual “hello” when putting out the bins, or a chat over the fence while gardening are all safe ways of meeting.

A different situation for both us and our horses are when we’re thrown into the “home” of an established group, or when we and a group of strangers are thrown together. My student flat was a bit like this! Six complete strangers, a range of nationalities and cultures, and a small flat with shared bathrooms, living area and kitchen created a challenging test of our social skills. Here, we had to compete for shared resources, and we all edged carefully around each other, testing who used the bathroom at what time, and how much of “our” stuff we could safely put in the shared fridge.

When moving horses to a new place where other horses already live, it’s safest to find a neutral zone for meeting. Because the resident horses will have their own photographs on the mantel, and their own food in the fridge, as well as their own sheets on the beds and clothes in the wardrobes (metaphorically, of course!). The new horses will want to incorporate their own scents, make their own new paths and find the best grazing, resting and drinking spots. You can experiment with different ways of helping both groups get to know each other… but beware of the “shared resources”. People often find that horses will meet and quickly settle down with new horses on the other side of a fence, but when they’re put together things can become strained. Thinking of it like the student flat, it’s not all that surprising. I would get on fine meeting and living next to new people in the next door house – but it’s quite different if they moved in with me and started to eat my milk and eggs! Even though a field may look quite large to us, it’s still a lot smaller than the home range a group of horses would share with other groups, so we need to work to minimise friction due to horses feeling crowded.

Horses enjoy exploration – but they generally do it from a secure base. They explore incrementally, knowing that they can return along paths they know if they feel out of their depth. When we move them, we take away the landmarks and mental maps. Helping our horses build new ones can help reduce the stress of the move. It might be worth thinking about bringing along “treasured possessions”, just like my rosebush! Think about things you can bring that evoke feelings of safety and security in your horse. If they have to leave a close friend, borrow something that smells of the friend along: a nice sweaty saddlecloth, or an old rug, and hang it somewhere your horse will rest in the new place. Think about creating a rolling pit, using soil and dust collected from favourite rolling spots in your horse’s previous home.

You can also help your horse create positive associations with the new home by creating treasure hunts, and exploring with them. Short walks where carrots or some sweet feed are discovered will help them learn that the new place is a good place to live. You can help them learn where the good water supply is, where the shady resting spots are, find good lookouts. Ideally, if you can manage to move your horse along with a companion from their previous home, the “social stress” of the move is reduced, and explorations of the new place can take place in pairs, making both horses feel more confident about their new home.

IF the new home includes a stable, make that stable smell and look like home before your horse arrives. Bring some dirty bedding from the old place. In the student flat, one of the first things I did was make the bed with my bedlinen. Once the room looked and smelled familiar, it felt less strange.

Sleep is very important in helping horses (and people) deal with change, yet it’s one of the things that’s often disrupted in a new place. Even if you have familiar bed linen, the noises during the night are different, there are different scents, new neighbours may have different sleep/wake cycles. Stabled horses have no choice but to learn to deal with this, but bringing some used bedding from the previous home may help deal with this a little better.

Finally, a great way to both learn about your new environment and settle into it at the same time is to do things you already enjoy doing, but in the new place. So if you love Sunday brunch, you find a nice place near your new home, buy yourself the Sunday papers, and head off to spend a relaxing morning. On the way, you learn where the papershop is, you meet some new people, and you get to taste some new food. If your horse has well learned activities they enjoy (this would especially apply to horses who have a range of well learned and positively reinforced skills – touching and following targets, for example), doing these things in the new home is another way of learning that it’s a good place to be.

These are just a few ideas about ways of helping our horses find moving home less stressful. I would love to hear about other ideas people have, or about things you’ve done that have worked for your horses. If you post your ideas as a reply here, other people who read will be able to benefit from them!

I suppose there’s no coincidence, in the end, that the rose I chose to bring was called “Peace” – since that’s what I was hoping to find in my new home. Horses are the same, and helping them find it is both an interesting challenge for us as well as ultimately very rewarding.

The Jigsaw Puzzle

A few years ago, I decided to learn to snowboard. This was a painful process. There seemed to be multiple skills to learn. There was the balancing on a flat board that had a tendency to slide, there was the weight shifts that made the board move in the direction you wanted (and sometimes very fast in directions you didn’t) and there was even complex skills like attaching the board to your feet and then standing up. I began by getting some lessons on a dry ski slope and spent lots of time catching an edge and flipping forward onto my face, or backwards onto my (already very bruised) left bum cheek. I kept going, grittily determined to crack this annoying puzzle.

It was a little bit like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle, but one where you hadn’t been given the picture to aim for, just a bag of tiny pieces and no instructions. The end goal of the task is fairly clear, but to start with, you have to work out a strategy using skills and knowledge you already have. You also have to gain some new skills: working out which bits won’t ever fit together with other bits; deciding what to do with those confusing pieces that have a tab on each of the four sides; trying to find the corners and the edges. All the while, you still don’t have a mental picture of what the end result will be like, although you might have seen other completed jigsaws.

Skill learning for humans and horses can be a bit like solving a jigsaw puzzle with no picture, yet both species manage very well to acquire new skills.

Imagine trying to teach a horse to step sideways when ridden. You want them to understand that although up until now, you’ve always asked them to move forward in a straight line, you now want them to cross their legs over and move forwards and sideways at the same time. You want them to understand not to do it when you don’t ask, and you want them to understand what the signal is for when you want them to start. Besides the new movement skill, they also have to work out your cues. Just as with the jigsaw puzzle, the horse has no mental picture of the end point that you’re trying to reach, they just have lots of little pieces you’ve given them. To the horse, there’s probably no obvious connection between any of these pieces!

In a (human or horse) training session, we try to practice the component skills of what we’re trying to learn. We build new skills onto a foundation of existing skills by combining the parts in a different way, or by adding a variation on an existing skill.

We try training our horses during schooling sessions to both refine and improve existing skills and to add new ones. Sometimes, these sessions can end up frustrating for both horse and human, as we try again and again, sometimes coming very close to what we want to achieve, and then finding we’ve moved even further away from the completed jigsaw. This tantalising process leads to us trying over and over to get just a tiny bit better.

There’s lots of research on learning new things that can help us with this process, and some of it is not at all what you’d expect.

The first thing to think about is that new skills involve two things: acquiring the clever knack of doing the new thing, as well as being physically fit enough to do it. We tend to plug away at both of these at the same time, thinking that they’re inextricably linked and that if we practice enough, we and the horse will be able to do it. But that’s not actually how the brain and body work together to learn new skills. You can get fit and supple enough to begin doing the new skill without ever actually doing it. Unfortunately, the repeated and not quite successful attempts actually make the learning process less efficient and more offputting to the trainee.

This is because there’s a key part of the jigsaw that’s missing. Our brains have two important things to do: they need to remember all the information about the experience of trying to do the new thing that we gain during our practice session (and these include the times we almost managed, the times we were way off and the occasional times when, by accident, we did it exactly right). One part of our brain is expert at storing all these: it’s like the cache on your computer, a temporary store for recent events that you might need to think about later. Each day, this gets all filled up with what you’re doing. If you tried to permanently store all the information you take in each day, your brain’s hard drive would end up full! The magic part is the second part of the brain… It’s the part that has stored all your skills and memories of how to learn – but while useful stuff is stored there, it needs to be uploaded again to be used.

So, picture the situation. You’ve made lots of progress today learning your new skill, and the memory trace is in the temporary cache. If it gets added in a meaningful way to the stuff already stored, you will make an amazing improvement in the skill. But your brain is busy with daily life and you can’t manage to integrate the two. So your brain waits until there’s enough processing power available to integrate the two things. This process happens while we sleep, and is most likely one of the really important reasons why we do sleep. Horses’ brains are exactly the same (in fact, we could propose that every animal that sleeps most likely uses this “memory consolidation” process to learn new things).

So that’s why you often see big improvements between training sessions that are separated by a rest period when the animal sleeps. It certainly worked for my snowboarding – I would almost always start the new lesson – a week after the previous one – looking much more competent than I had at the end of the last lesson. With horses, we sometimes laugh and say “wow, I think she’s been thinking about this since yesterday”. And that’s partly true, although it may not be during the hours of consciousness! What’s happened is that the new information has been matched with the older, stored information and pieces have fallen into place that make the jigsaw start to make sense. This jump between training sessions is called “latent” learning: it’s learning that’s hidden away until there’s a reason for it to be revealed. It can be hidden from one day to the next, or it can remain hidden for a long time until there’s a good reason to use it.

Training sessions are hard brain work. The research shows that a brain during the training process is using lots of energy, and that lots of different parts of the brain are working hard. In contrast, once the overnight storage and processing has taken place, we (and our horses) both look much more skilled while using much smaller brain effort to achieve a better result. Our brains are set up to be as efficient as possible, and to use as little processing power as possible when doing something. This allows us room to learn even more new things.

So there are a few clear tips we can incorporate in our training of new skills. Whether we’re trying to learn to sit to a bouncy trot, or whether our horse is trying to learn to step sideways at the same time as going forwards, it’s much better to focus on the new skill for only a short period of time during a longer training session. That’s because filling the brain with lots of not quite successful attempts makes the overnight process of weeding out the good attempts more difficult, and it’s also because endlessly repeating something without quite getting it right isn’t much fun. The other thing is that we can work on fitness and flexibility separately from the new skill, so we can prepare the body to be able to do the new skill once our brain has sorted out the knack involved. And the final thing is that the new (but hidden or latent) skills tend to be revealed when there’s a good reason for them to appear: the horse is more likely to try using them if they can see a benefit for themselves in the process. I suppose that must be the reason my most successful snowboard runs were the ones that ended up on a sunny terrace with a giant hot chocolate, extra marshmallows, and no bruises!

An odd kind of sympathy.


There’s a little firefly that lives in Asian countries that begins to flash as dusk falls. If you sit and watch the fireflies in a single tree, at first they’re all flashing at slightly different times and at different rates. As the light fails, the firefly flashes start to fall into a pattern and by the time it’s dark, they’re flashing in synchrony with each other.

I was thinking about this during the week because when I was walking to work, someone crossed the street, darted between parked cars and emerged on the pavement very near me. Suddenly we both realised that we were walking at the same speed and in step with each other. I think we both altered our speed at the same time and yes, we were still in step! This synchronised movement seemed to be pulling us in to an uncomfortable sort of social intimacy and we both made a conscious choice to break it.

There’s some really interesting research showing that when we watch people who move in synchrony, we think of them as a unit. This is true even if they’re doing it because they’ve been told to, for the purposes of an experiment. This is one way our brain groups people – and this is where I learned a new word: entitativity. When we see people and animals moving together like this, we think of them as an entity. I still can’t quite manage to pronounce entitativity, but in my head it makes perfect sense.

We have exploited this in many ways throughout human history. It is quite clear that an army marching in step appears more unified and so more difficult to break apart than the Braveheart style band, ferocious but disorganised. When we meet someone we like, our movements start to match theirs after a short while together. Individual dancers will often fall into step with each other.

This isn’t just restricted to animals. Back in 1665, a clever man called Christiaan Huygens observed that two pendulums on his wall would gradually change their movement until they matched each other. He called this phenomenon “an odd kind of sympathy”.

What’s interesting is that while there is a tendency for us to match the movements, tones, speed of speech and even breathing patterns of others, we are consciously aware that doing so makes us appear to be a unit. So we can choose to break this coupling, in order to demonstrate that we’re individuals, or that we’re not part of that particular group.

IF you watch groups of horses, you’ll quickly start to see synchronies appear. Some horses stand together, move together, even chew together! In the field, my horse and his pair bond are an example of this. When one steps, the other is already stepping with the same foot, when one lifts their head, so does the other. When they take a break from grazing together, they stand together resting the same hoof.

The research on synchrony among humans shows that if we’re asked to synchronise our movements with someone we don’t know, afterwards we’re more likely to cooperate with them than we would be if we’d just worked together without synchronous movement. In fact, we’re also more likely to feel generous and helpful towards them, to feel sympathetic to them. So when we perceive people moving together as a group or a unit, we’re not simply basing it on a visual perception but on an implicit understanding of how this matching can change our behaviour.

When we’re riding out in a group, some horses want to go fast, some want to go slow and some are very happy to walk along together. However, this can often be different to the way they might be when they’re in their group in their field. It makes me wonder about the difference between when they’re in the field and when they’re out. One of the main differences is us, their riders. It occurs to me that our horses may be choosing not to synchronise because they don’t see us as a unit. Alternatively, they may be trying to synchronise, but being blocked by our movements as riders.

As riders, we’re encouraged to learn to move with our horses. Lessons can involve us sitting on the horse with our eyes closed, feeling the horse’s movements, their steps, their breathing. Once we learn to do this, we can influence the speed of the horse’s movements by thinking about speeding up or slowing down our own. Learning this is challenging in itself, and with it comes the knowledge that if things aren’t going as we want, it may be because we’re not as synchronised as we think!

This leads me on to something that intrigues psychologists and philosophers: joint or shared attention. Very young babies learn to attract the attention of adults to something that they’re interested in. It’s a really important part of developing into a social human. By a year old, they can show us something by either looking at it intently or by pointing to it. This is more complex than it seems, because in order to do this successfully, you have to understand that when another person looks at something, they see it just as you do. You also have to understand that when they look at it as a result of your pointing, they both see it and understand that you know they’ve seen it. It’s the point in the development of human babies when they start to be able to open their mind to think about what someone else is thinking. Psychologists call attention a “spotlight”: we shine it on the things we’re interested in. Things we’re not interested in around and about get a bit of light too, but the main thing lit up is what we’re focussing on.

When we work with our horses, we’re really pleased when their attention is on us. We’re delighted with the signs that our horse is attending to us and not everything else around. Some training systems insist that our horse should pay exclusive attention to us and that if their attention wanders, it should immediately be bumped back to us. What a great ego boost! Equally, we think it’s a mark of good horsemanship that we pay close attention to our horse, we carefully watch their ears, their eyes, their footfalls. In these training situations, we shine the spotlight of attention so brightly that the object of it is likely to be dazzled.

Joint or shared attention is different from this. We each shine our attention on something else. The object of our joint attention is lit up, but we don’t waste time watching and monitoring each other, because we have opened our minds to each other and for now, for this task, they’re working as one. These moments of shared attention are times when we can unconsciously start to synchronise our movements and actions. We don’t do it by watching each other or by trying to match each other. Instead, through the awareness of another mind with the same focus as our own and like the fireflies, we start to move in harmony. We share a part of ourselves and in sharing, we align.

When we ride our horses, we try to make sure we’re as tuned to them as possible. Just like the human choosing not to synchronise with someone they don’t know, our horses can choose to focus on us, obey us, and yet not synchronise with us. They can offer us their undivided attention, but without truly aligning with us. A perfect picture can be off by a fraction of a beat: a tail swish, a pinned ear, an open mouth, a rolled eye, a microscopic loss of rhythm. When we see true harmony between a horse and rider, we recognise it not because the horse is obedient and compliant, but because horse and rider seem to be able to open their minds to each other, to slip into synchrony of movement, breath and thought. A few wonderful horses and riders seem able to do this and I never tire of watching it.

I’d love to hear of situations where people have felt or seen this. As a rider, I’ve probably experienced it for a few seconds! I’m an average amateur rider who tries (probably a bit too hard) to “sense” my horse’s moods and movements. I’ve experienced it with my horse in his field, moments when I knew we were moving and thinking together. I know it could be argued there can’t be true shared attention between two species with different heart rates, different breathing rates and different brains. Equally, as Huygens began to recognise, the world is set up in such a way that many apparently unrelated things fall into synch with each other. My horse is quite as capable as a human infant of drawing my attention to something that interests him. If he can manipulate my attention, he’s taken that sophisticated “I know that she knows that I know” step. He has joined our minds together to look, as one, at something. This powerful process is underneath our conscious decision to synchronise – or not – with someone else, to admit them to our “group”.

Next time you’re with your horse, spend a few minutes thinking about times when you might be in synchrony: be it in movement, breath or thought. Then think of ways that could happen more often, because if it does, along with it will come the cooperation, the generosity, the unity. That’s when we move from Huygen’s “odd kind of sympathy” to a new kind of empathy.

Things that go bump in the night.

I love going to the cinema, and I usually go about once a week with a close friend. She and I have explored all kinds of films, from fantasy to art house, via the occasional action adventure and including the occasional horror movie. She knows I’m not a great fan of horror movies, so when Saw V is on, she goes with someone else. We have seen a few scary movies together – I can distinctly remember having a few watch between the fingers moments during The Descent, and The Others has left me a bit wary of things that go bump in the night (as well as of small children singing nursery rhymes…).

I occasionally buy a DVD to watch at home, and last year I bought a copy of The Orphanage. I told my friend – and she immediately said “don’t watch it on your own!”: it seems she knows me well. But it’s interesting that, in saying that, she also highlighted something that we share with our horses.

Take three situations involving scary movies. First, there’s me and my friend having a nice evening at the cinema together. We watch the movie and then head home, walking from the cinema through town to the station. The next situation is me, sitting at home, watching The Orphanage on my own – and the last situation is myself and my friend watching the scary movie at the cinema together, then splitting up and walking to our respective stations on our own.

Three different situations, and three different levels of the fight or flight hormone, adrenaline (also called epinephrine). In the first situation, she and I watch the film, and we are both a bit scared in a pleasant way – humans, and our horses, quite enjoy being “thrilled” in a situation where we feel secure. Humans choose to watch scary movies, and horses will sometimes approach, run off, approach and run off with their friends when they see something new and interesting in their familiar field. Both species quite like a little excitement – psychologists call this increasing our “level of arousal”, and when we control the situation, we find it quite stimulating.

When my friend and I leave the cinema, we’re both still feeling a bit spooked, in a fun way. We walk through the quiet dark streets together, chatting about the good and bad parts of the film: we might be a little more vigilant than usual, but we’re feeling good.

There’s a slightly different situation when I watch the scary movie at home on my own. I’m in my familiar environment, but my partner isn’t there… Humans, like horses, are gregarious and social. We don’t have herds, but we have evolved to like having others of our species around, and this makes us feel more secure: the burden of making sure we stay safe is shared. The scary movie raises my adrenaline, and although I know my home is safe, once the film is over and I’m getting ready for bed the funny creaky noises that my house always makes seem louder. In fact, they seem oddly like someone (or something!) walking quietly around the upper part of the house. It takes me a while to get to sleep, and my hearing seems much better than usual – I can hear the owl hooting outside, and the tap dripping in the bathroom.

Finally, the situation where my friend and I go our separate ways after the movie, and walk through the dark streets of town on our own. We’re not in our familiar home, and we’re not with a friend. Our adrenaline levels are up because of the movie, and suddenly, we develop eyes in the back of our heads. We look carefully down dark laneways for movement, we jump when we bump into someone coming the other way around a corner – and all the time, we’re prepared to break into a run if the thing that made that wheely bin rattle turns out to be a mugger, not a cat foraging! Things that are boringly normal in daylight and in company take on a air of threat – and we walk a lot faster than usual.

People often comment on how silly their horse is, spooking at a robin sitting in a hedge when out hacking – don’t they see robins all the time in their field? And cows, surely they live next door to cows? Wheely bins! Umbrellas! We can spend ages “desensitising” our horses to these things in an arena, only to find them spooking and trembling at the same things while out. Similarly, horses often walk reluctantly outwards, but then jog anxiously home – and horses hop happily into their trailer on the way out to the show, but won’t go near it when it’s time to load to come home.

Like us, horses find situations where they are outside of their normal environment, and situations where they are away from other horses, arousing and stimulating. Like us, they often quite enjoy a little mild stimulation, but again like us, it pushes them towards the threshold that separates “diverting and entertaining” from “worried and a bit scared”. Things that would be harmless in the “diverting and entertaining” state can take on threatening properties once you flip into the “worried and a bit scared” state. And when you push adrenaline levels up into the “worried and a bit scared” state, it takes quite a while (hours, not minutes) after the scary situation is resolved before they return to their normal levels. This means that after a scare, we (and our horsey pals) stay a bit more reactive than usual for quite a while, and so more likely to flip back into the “worried and a bit scared” state than we normally are, even in non-scary situations.

Densensitisation is often held out as the answer and we’re told to do lots with our horses: but although I am perfectly well desensitised to wheely bins normally (I spend what seems like an inordinate amount of time wheeling them in and out of my driveway), when it’s dark and I’ve just left my friend (and I’m still thinking about that creepy child singing in the movie) I’m quite likely to jump out of my skin if I pass a wheely bin in the street that seems to move of its own accord.

Does that mean it’s not worth while desensitising? Not at all – but it’s worth adding something to your desensitising: don’t just make the things you work with “neutral”: make your horse think they represent good things. Let’s say they’re very familiar with wheely bins, and they’re aware that touching a wheely bin with their nose gains a reward. This means they will find wheely bins less worrying, even in a situation that might otherwise be worrying. I’ll just finish off by admitting that there is a down side to this approach. Riding out on bin day, when your horse asks to touch every bin you pass, can be a slow process (especially when you have an over achiever, who feels that not only should he touch the bin with his nose, but that flipping it open and checking the inside for tasty banana skins is always worthwhile). On the plus side, though, we can walk past the recycling lorry as bins full of bottles are tipped in to it with no more than a “I saw that in a film once and nothing bad happened” air of bravado 🙂

Pheasants: the scary movie of the horse world: fun when you’re at home with your friends, terrifying when you’re out on your own!