Bringing mindfulness into our daily training

Mindfulness is not just sitting in the paddock meditating.

It’s something to be encompassed into all areas of being with our horses. This includes their training.

As this month’s topic is focused on “Everything Hooves”, I thought I would share my journey into Positive Reward Based Training with Lucy. I feel this is an ideal way of being mindful when training our horses. You really do have to be present, watching the slightest of cues, knowing what each wrinkle of your horse’s eye or nostril means. You have to not let your ego take over when your horse says no. You have to find that space within to accept it and take it for what it is.

I hope you enjoy my story, it’s a long one, but a goodun.

Why do I love positive reinforcement training?

One of the many reasons I love to use reward-based training is that I want Lucy to be as calm as possible when introducing new concepts. This way she remains in her parasympathetic nervous system, helping her to process and retain information. Once a horse goes over their ‘threshold’, they hit the sympathetic nervous system, where fight, flight, freeze kicks in. I DO NOT WANT TO PUT LUCY INTENTIONALLY IN THIS SITUATION, to me it serves NO purpose. In this state, little to no ‘learning’ happens.

I want Lucy to feel like she is always succeeding, more importantly, that she always has a choice. If she doesn’t want to join in (train) then we don’t do anything! It goes without saying that in an emergency, sometimes this choice goes out the window. But I’m hoping by this point my positivity glass is so full that no damage is done.

I am by no means an expert or professional in this field and I do the best I can with the information I have at this time. I’m sure I am making many mistakes! This clip shows me asking Lucy to pick up her hooves, when she is balanced, listening, connected and ready.

How many times have we walked up to our horses, mostly when they tied up, automatically ran our hands down their legs and expected them to pick up because we want them to there and then?! And if they don’t, we may lean on them to shift their weight, we may pull at the hairs on the legs (don’t ever pull my hair when asking me to do anything as I can’t guarantee I won’t react in a negative way!) and then we may squeeze their chestnuts or their hocks. But there is a gentler way, I promise!

How our story began

Lucy has a 3-year history (in October) with me and trouble with her legs/hooves. The first time I tried picking up her hooves, I had bruises on both knees straight after that session!!!!!!!!!

I remember her first farrier trim, a nice enough guy who did the usual, yanked her legs so god damn high and held her there regardless, he had more strength than me! I don’t think he even said hello to her, she was just an animal next on his list that day.

I decided after watching that, that I wanted someone kinder, so I found a lady (very sexist I know!). The lady came, she hit Lucy with the rasp on her belly for pulling back. I let her. I stood there and did nothing whilst someone hit my horse. THAT WILL NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN!

Now don’t get me wrong. I know our farriers and trimmers aren’t there to train our horses or to put themselves in harm’s way, I get that, and I respect it. But there are ways around it. I want people in our lives, part of our team, that genuinely care about us, our emotions and our welfare. I want a team of people I can count on, to trust and who want to support us. That’s what became important.

Now this lady did come back, I had to return to the UK suddenly as my dad was unwell. So, she was booked in whilst I was away. I will never know if the stories are true or not, I wasn’t there, but I was informed that Lucy reacted so much, including rearing. In my knowledge now, I understand that she was basically screaming to be left alone. Shouting at the humans around her, begging someone to listen to her, to stop what they were doing because she either couldn’t do it, didn’t understand, or it was hurting her. I now know it was all three. Their response, in my absence, was not to just leave her until I returned, but to twitch her. FFS, really, head slam against the wall here. Let’s just say I never asked that lady to come back.

Finding a trimmer that took the time to care

I remember finding Nicky, she was recommended by a friend. I was terrified when I contacted her, I remember one of the first things I said was ‘do you sedate horses when trimming??” Nicky calmly replied with, “Let’s see how we go first shall we.” I crapped myself in the run up to the trim. I was so anxious that someone else was going to potentially hurt my horse and I was really struggling myself with picking up her hooves.

Whilst back in the UK, I had a lesson with a guy called Dan Wain who has trained with Manolo Mendez and is very calm. I told him about my struggles with Lucy (of course I didn’t know at this point she had possibly been twitched). He suggested giving her a carrot whenever she tried to pick up her hooves.

I had started doing this just before Nicky came, it was slowly starting to make a difference, little did I know at this point that I was starting my road to reward based training. I still could not get anywhere near her back legs to pick them up though, she knew instantly when I was going to try. She was fine with me grooming them, touching them, massaging them etc, but ask to pick them up and all hell would break loose!

Well, Nicky came, and Nicky stayed! She is still our trimmer two and half years on and I trust her 100% with Lucy. I have been on an amazing journey with her and I could never express what her involvement has meant for Lucy and I. Nicky said that it’s not going to kill her not having her hooves trimmed. What we need to work on is her confidence in us and to feel calm and safe and able to do what we are asking her to. Nicky visited us every week, just running her hand down Lucy’s back legs until she stopped trying to kill her.

I often referred to Lucy as my silent assassin, another thing I don’t do any more is negatively label my horse! One minute she would be calm, shut down! and the next exploding. She was just trying her very best in the situation.

would be holding her at the front end, watching her eyes, and she would disappear somewhere else, trying to shut out what was happening, trying not to hurt us. But then she would strike with her front hooves, barge through us with either her front end or back end, kick out… and boy does she have the best kick out range ever!!!! Lucy would use her teeth, a time where I taught her to bite her lead rope when the world gets too much for her instead of me. She still reverts to this behaviour now when she can’t cope, but it’s very rare, like vet visits etc.

We eventually managed, over time, to trim her hooves, Nicky and I always in constant communication about what was happening to protect one another. I shovelled food into her, the constant carrot dispenser.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing!

I wish I knew back then, what I know now. It would have been so much easier and quicker! I finally started to find out more about positive reward-based training, the concepts of it and how to do it properly. It is far more involved than just feeding treats. There is so much behavioural science behind it, the right ways to start and to set both you and your horse up for success.

I had a couple of lessons with a trainer who taught me about starting with protected contact, rates of reinforcement, using low value food, clear signals of beginning and ending a session etc etc. This was about a year and a half ago. 

It wasn’t until the beginning of this year that I really started implementing this type of training consistently with Lucy, and with her hooves! Us humans are sooo slow on the uptake!!!!

And… it wasn’t until 4 weeks ago that I started teaching this method in the video… come on Amanda… there’s slow, and then there’s sloth like!!!

Lucy got this within 2 sessions, for us, that’s about 10/15 minutes and she was offering this behaviour. Horses are SOOO much quicker than us, and far superior than we give them credit for. This video was taken about a week and a half after we started, so we are even more fine-tuned than this now.

Proud as punch

The most amazing thing though, is that Nicky came this week to trim Lucy’s hooves. I was slightly apprehensive not knowing if she would ‘perform on command’ for others or if it would be a flop!!

LUCY BLOODY NAILED IT!

I seriously could not be any prouder of my beautiful, brave, sweet, willing partner. Not only was Nicky able to point at each leg and do the asking, Lucy WILLING picked up, over and over again, each time she was asked. Even though Nicky and I bodged it up a couple of times, being human and all that. Lucy never missed a beat. 

We have gone from one of us nearly dying when attempting to pick up her hooves, to her willingly giving them to us. No hands on her body making her pick up. No shifting her weight ourselves. No pulling, tugging, squeezing any part of her body, no shouting, pulling, forcing, hitting… just asking and accepting what is offered.

have always been annoyed that I have no footage of Lucy from back then, I take photos and videos of EVERYTHING! I honestly think it’s for a reason. I don’t think I could watch her reacting like that EVER again, especially at my hands, or because I need her to do something. It’s the universe’s way of protecting me. I have the images in my head, I don’t need them to be replayed over and over again in a video to remind me how it made me feel.

ALWAYS listen to your horse, their behaviour is always a response

So, for those asking why I didn’t just ‘make her’ do it, believe me, others had tried! And for those wondering, yep, Lucy had a physical issue that prevented her from picking up her hind legs for trimming and hoof picking. Lucy had the most severe stifle lock that I, and many others around me, have ever seen.

Many times, we had to call the vet out to sedate her, to then manually manipulate her to unlock. I did not know this at the beginning. The first time I found her locked up, I honestly thought she had broken her leg and rang the vet crying and distressed shouting my horse has broken her leg. The vet came pretty quick that day!

There’s stifle lock, then there’s Lucy’s version. One day I may share some videos on her locked up so you can see just how awful it was. So of course, her muscles in that area were sore, she was experiencing cramp and I don’t think she could physically do what she was being asked to do. It affected her hamstrings, her poll, pretty much everywhere. Each and every one of her reactions was FOR A REASON, she wasn’t trying to be difficult, she wasn’t being ‘naughty’, she wasn’t ‘getting her way’. She was being a horse and responding to the moment, trying to communicate that she couldn’t do something.

If you watch her closely in the video, you can see how she is thinking about her body weight and shifting it to meet her needs. This was one of the first things Nicky and I noticed early on that she NEEDED to do in order to pick up her legs, more than most horses. She can often lock up whilst on three legs, we have to be careful that we are not overloading her and keep an eye on the time her legs are up.

Once she realised, she could do this, and trusted us to allow her to do this, it was one of our biggest breakthroughs. Two and half years on, we both know this girl’s needs inside out when it comes to her hooves.

We work TOGETHER to make sure she is comfortable and part of the session, not just aimlessly trying to get things done as quickly as possible, you have to be in the moment, be aware of what you are asking, when and how.

I am so happy to say that we have not needed to call the vet out to unlock her for over a year now, she still has bad days where she will ‘click’ as she locks and goes to walk forward, normal stifle lock as I call it!

For those thinking why hasn’t she done more to build her muscle up in that area? Or operated on her? There are many reasons. The biggest ones being that Lucy went on to sever her extensor tendon in September 2018 and then suffered a huge fetlock trauma in April 2019 which took about a year of recovery. We do things little and often and we’re working on things!

And yes, all her injuries are to the same leg!!

Lucy turned 6 in September. She has been in my life for nearly three years. She has saved me over and over again. I hope that I always do my best by her, I hope that I make her feel safe, listened to and respected.

Positive reward training is something that is working for us at this time in our lives. It has changed our relationship for the better. It has taught me so much about the behaviour of horses. 

From what was going to be a short FB post with my video attached has turned into a long blog post! I hope you enjoyed the read; I’d love to hear your stories about reward based training, or even times when you’ve overcome major struggles with your horses using gentle methods.

The Wholistic Equestrian philosophy is all about offering what is the best for the horse, using the most natural way possible. This type of training falls straight into this thinking.

If you are interested in learning more, I highly recommend taking a look at Connection Training with Hannah Weston & Rachel Bedingfield.

Good luck on your journey, I promise it will change your lives.

Have a Happy Day 🌿
Amanda

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