Tell Me With Anticipation

I first learned the nature of the best horses from Tex. We were doing circles and as I came through the center of the arena, I felt his hip twitch, and as if he had spoken, it said to me “do you want to change leads here, Boss? I can do it if you do.” I didn’t take his offer that time, but I did the next time around – I wanted him to know I might or might not want to.

A year or two later, when that sensitivity and ability to learn had shaped my purchase of Lensman, I was working with him to fix his anxiety about lead changes and each time we would do one, I would trot him out afterward to help him understand to not rush off after changing. Then I found I created a “training shadow” on one part of the circle, where he would slow slightly, as if to say “I can drop to the trot here if you’d like, Boss.” I started to not always take the offer, and gradually it disappeared.

Lensman’s lead change anxiety itself was a great example of a fearful anticipation. Apparently his previous owner would spur him into the change and then yank on his face when he rushed through the change. When asked to change, he would go inverted, throwing up his head and tail in a frightened “U” shape. I had to simply ride him through the change again and again – and always be soft and leave the reins slack through the change. With all that, it still took almost a year to get rid of this negative anticipation.

As I went into training an off the track thoroughbred (OTTB), I saw more of this darker side to anticipation. She would throw up her head and prance, dangling her tongue from the side of her mouth. I realized that this was a behavior she had learned when being ponied to the starting gate and that the conflicts of inconsistent riding and lack of retraining had not only left this untouched but led her to anticipate a whole complex of stressful treatments of which this was the expression.

It’s in the nature of horse learning to be anticipatory.Once a horse learns a behavior past “basic attempt”, it will try that behavior repeatedly in the same context and even in inappropriate contexts until shaping by the trainer encourages connection of the response to specific aids and discourages connection to space and time. In cases like the OTTB mentioned above, it was necessary to remove a number of contextual cues (snaffle bit, riding at hard contact) and replace them with a different context (mullen bit, loose rein / touch contact and immediate release on stop) and do this long enough to ensure the extinction of the negative anticipation.

When this same horse started to walk more rapidly to the mounting block, her head low and eye soft, it was a sign that she anticipated something good would happen there – otherwise, why rush? There was nothing behind her to be afraid of and she was not worried.

When we first trotted, it was a disaster – her walk had become very good and and her head was down and she would lower her head further and yawn during rests. The anticipatory deranged headset was gone and her rhythm and straightness were good. But at the onset of the trot, her head flung up and twisted, she jigged crazily and with no consistent rate or rhythm. We trotted fifty feet like this and then dropped to the walk. Once again, an anticipatory landmine. In the style of a typical meltdown, this conflict shocked back through the quiet of her still shallow walk training and disrupted relaxation, rhythm and straightness at the walk through to the end of the session, even with no additional trot. It took a week to bring back the good walk and then be able to try the trot again. Gradually the trot improved and now it is just an inverted horse doing an OK trot – one of the best OK trots I’ve ever ridden because of how much underbrush had to be cleared away to make it possible.

I love horses that anticipate – they are vigorous learners who are willing to offer behaviors that may work when they are asked for things they don’t know. But this willingness also creates anticipation of negative consequences and conflict behaviors or other undesirable context sensitivities will arise unless properly dealt with.

Some rules can help:

  • Obviously, watch yourself for habits that can create inappropriate or negative anticipation- always doing lead changes in the same place, always stopping on the same trajectory, always changing gait at a particular place, frequently correcting even when the horse is performing correctly, punishing (rebuking or correcting beyond the 3 second effective window or the 10 second causal connection window).
  • Tend to not take up the offer of a maneuver during a regular session; only accept during training. In a regular session, do the opposite of what’s offered – turn left if the anticipation is to turn right, back up if the anticipation is to go forward.
  • Look for negative anticipation – locations or other context that make your horse feel a fear or conflict or elicit a negative behavior. Either remove the context to allow extinction of the behavior, overshadow the conflict with a variety of requests or ride the negative anticipation without reacting in the way the horse may expect in order to allow the anticipation to self-extinguish.

Horses are wonderful creatures but their minds work in ways that are like and yet unlike ours – and anticipation is a two edged sword in their cognition. Under saddle, they can only communicate with us by the shape of their form, the barely perceptible movements of major muscles and their head position. If we are not listening, anticipation can undermine training – so pay close attention to what your horse is telling you and know when to go along and when to go another way.

In The Snow, Wind and Rain

Before I brought my horses home, I would tell my boarding stable operator to blanket my horses when the highs for the day were 40 or less. I felt I was being compassionate. If I was chilled, they would be, right?

But after I brought them home, the next winter I was able to read them well enough to try them without blankets and look for behaviors (running, crabbiness and shivering) suggesting they were cold and feel reasonably confident of detecting it. Day after day I watched the temps slipping further and further below my old level and the horses were fine. They ate more (about 150%) and had occasional short bouts showing cold symptoms, and then their hair would catch up within a day or so.

One time I put a windbreaker sheet on my reining horse and found it disarranged in the morning – as I unfastened it he reached over and yanked it off. I tried to put one on our ex-ranch horse and he tore it off twice before I could fasten it. These were behaviors they had never performed before.

I kept waiting, but it wasn’t until -7 (F) that they showed cold behaviors. That was the low for the winter. so I was never able to find out if they would have adapted. But it’s possible.

As for the idea of wetness – yes, if it gets through the coat, they can get cold. But a normal coat can carry surprising snow load or a surprising exposure to rain before the liquid touches the skin. You can tell, because the snow doesn’t melt. Resistance to rain is harder to see, but is certainly improved by not bathing your horse – of course, brushing is important – and can be improved by feeding horses higher fat diets like rice bran that support the skin and hair oils they need to be water repellent.

Horses need shelter in some circumstances, ideally outside with at least some freedom of movement. Yet when they have this, they often seem to stand inexplicably out in rain and snow. Of course, the reason they do this is that the weather doesn’t bother them any more than it would bother us if we were dipped in water-resistant fleece. When it bothers them, they go in.

Never blanket? Well, probably not. If you don’t have shelter, you may sometimes need to windbreaker / rain blanket. Have shelter but you’re getting horizontal sleet in 30MPH winds for a day or two? Might want to bring horses in or blanket with the windbreaker / rain blanket. But while the extensive blanketing does not permanently reduce hair coat, it is true that exposed areas will grow more and longer hair than blanketed areas, so early blanketing can affect the possibility of the horse being unblanketed later in the winter.

Now, of course, I look back on my old blanketing guidelines and shake my head at how misguided I was. Horses weigh a thousand pounds or more. Their volume to surface area is so different from ours, that for them shedding heat is more problematic than retaining it. Their coats are like a windbreaker over fleece with a significant water resistance, and the ability to retain so much heat that the temperature at the surface is below freezing and a scant fraction of an inch below that is over 70 degrees, rising to the 90s of body temperature in an even shorter further distance. Horses can stand in the snow and be covered with the stuff and it’s not melting on their fur. That’s very alien to us… bareskinned monkey descendants from the tropics trying to live in difficult and cold places, trying to retain heat in our tiny bodies.

But do remember that you need restraint to give horses the chance to grow out their hair. Pre-winter weather fluctuations can lead to temperature drops that are too fast for their adaptation to keep up. But if you blanket at that time, you damage the opportunity for the weather to signal the horses’ follicles to grow more and better hair. The weather will rebound to average and the horses’ coat will catch up and they will be ready for the real cold to come.

Horses are not people and we do them a typical disservice by judging how they feel about cold through projecting how we feel about the temperature. Remember to think of horses as horses, watch, test and learn, don’t rush to action – and you can help them live as natural and right a life as possible – which will make their minds tough, happy and relaxed.