Episode 69 // Kids and Horses
Have you ever wondered if R+ trained horses are safe around kids? Maybe you're concerned that if you give your horse a choice, they'll become dangerous around children! In this episode, I address these concerns, and discuss how R+ trained horses are actually safer around children!
I share some personal anecdotes from my own experiences with horses and children, talk about some of the reasons why traditionally trained horses may be more prone to explosive and dangerous behavior, and share my process for helping horses be comfortable, confident, and safe around kids.
[00:00:00] Welcome to season four of The Willing Equine Podcast. The podcast where we chat about all things horses, and being the best horse people we can be for our horses. My name is Adele Shaw. I'm a certified behavior consultant, and my passion is for creating positive relationships between horses and people.
[00:00:28] So it's often a question, maybe even a concern that is brought up to me from trainers, riding instructors, or even just people who have horses that need to be around kids. Like how can a positive reinforcement trained horse or a horse with that is trained to be autonomous or have choice and control over the situation and force free, how can they be safe around kids? Especially because, I mean, if you have kids or you've been around kids, you know, and I know cuz I have three that they're just, are just erratic, right? They just do random stuff. They're just exploring life and they're out there doing random stuff. I mean, my kids just will sometimes just do the most random stuff. I'm like, what? What does that even, I don't understand. Or they'll just like make noises like sometimes my kids, my husband and I, we tend to get like sensory overload sometimes, or a lot of times actually, to be honest and. So I live in a house with three kids, my three kids, and sometimes the sensory overload is just, oh my gosh, deep breath, Adele. Like, that's what has to happen on a daily basis, or at least oftentimes. And I've learned, I've gotten better. I've been able to, you know, have my coping mechanisms and I, and I help myself and I've talked to my kids and we have open dialogue about it and all that. And I ask them if they wanna make a lot of noise, like, let's go outside, you know, all this stuff. Like we, we have our system, but. Children make noise, right? And sometimes it's random noise that ha makes absolutely zero sense to us as adults. And certainly will make very little sense to a horse. And then they also do random stuff with their like arms and legs and just heads and just random. They're just like, oh, I'm gonna sprint over here, or I'm gonna jump up all of a sudden, or I'm going to throw myself on the ground while all of a sudden. What about kicking this rock that's right here, or there's just random stuff. And my children, like the other day I had the farrier here and my horses are all very used to my kids. They ride scooters around, they're riding bikes. They're doing all the things. They're just, you know, being children. They have a, they have a tree fort in my horse's pasture. Okay. And so they're used to my children. They're used to noises. They're used to just the chaos. But I had my horses in the barn, and my barn has is one of those aisle way style barns. Like there's stalls on one side and then there's the rooms on the other side, and then there's the aisle way in the middle, and then there's like three main doors. So you have to go to one of the doors for them to be able to see you. So like. Anyway, you get what I'm saying? Solid walls and all that. It's not like a a shed row style or open roof line or whatever. So they can't see when people are moving around the outside the barn, which has its pros. But when it comes to kids, sometimes there's cons because they will just randomly show up in a door and it's like one of those horror movie moments. And this happens sometimes at night because. Like, I'll wake up all of a sudden and there's like a child like staring me in the face and I cannot tell you how many times this has happened and it has scared the living daylights out of me. And my child, my kids will do this at the barn sometimes. Like we've got the fairer, we've got them under, we've got her under the horse's feet, she's working on them, and all of a sudden there's a child. Like it's just, they just surprise us. And the horses, thankfully, are very tolerant, but it definitely catches them by surprise. But this is just an example of some of the random stuff that children do and horses have to be prepared for this. And so how can horses that have never been that have never been corrected for acting out or who have never been, that they have a choice in this situation, they can walk away and they can do what they want, and like there is a genuine concern, and I understand this concern that a horse like that will not be safe around children and from an outsider's perspective, or if you've never experienced it yourself or you just have limited exposure to it. Absolutely. Like is a legitimate, like I understand it, basically. I understand the concern and I had the same concern for a very long time. But I will tell you, and this is a little bit of a spoiler alert, my horses are now safer around kids than they ever were when I trained traditionally. And we could argue that maybe, you know, I, somebody might argue with me. Well, maybe it had to do with how you train traditionally. Okay. Fair. I mean, I, I did, I mean, I did all of the big programs. I was really skilled with negative reinforcement based training and I taught riding lessons and I did all that. And my kids, my horses were really good with kids though. So I don't think that that is a, that's not the reason here. That's not why my horses are safer now. It's not that I did traditional training, natural horsemanship, whatever, negative reinforcement based, we're just gonna call it negative reinforcement based training or focussed training. I didn't do that poorly and then now I'm a better trainer and that's why my horses are better, it about it, it's genuinely that my horses. Or I believe this, and I have seen it over and over again. I'm not the only trainer that has experienced this. I have many other colleagues and trainer friends and all that that. Are also teaching riding lessons and working around kids with horses that are autonomous and trained with a positive reinforcement focused training approach that are also the same. So this is not just me. So it's not just opinion based or isolated to my own experience. They are so much better with children, so much better. Even my young horses, even my horses that have come from traumatic backgrounds, even my horses that have never really been around kids.
[00:06:00] Uh, I can give you a couple examples. Let's go with this. So one example is I have a horse that's here in long term board and train, well, not really a training pro. Well, yes, we do training, we do lessons on a regular basis. But anyway, the horse is with us long term, but she came from a facility that also did a positive reinforcement focus training, but really wasn't around children. And at first she was a little bit nervous around kids when she arrived. We never corrected her for any of that. We never, you know, did a traditional like 'desensitizing program.' We never did any. Like thing about like teaching her to stand still or not bite the kids or we didn't do anything necessarily other than reinforce her a lot when the children were around and also give her a choice to leave when she needed to. And she has come such a long way and she's so much better with the children. When she first arrived, she, it was very, well, I had to, let's put it this way. I had to tell my children to stay away from her because there was a high risk of her potentially biting one of the kids or kicking them out of fear or just self defense. All of that. And then with time and gentle exposure with positive reinforcement, she's become really, she generally seems to like the children now and will come up and investigate them and wants them to pet her, and she's doing really, really well. So that we applied a lot of positive reinforcement and counter conditioning.
[00:07:19] So that's kind of one aspect of this is creating those pleasant associations with the, with the children. And this applies, that's how all of what I do, systematic desensitization, or I call this positive exposure training. I'm applying counter conditioning and using lots of positive reinforcement in, in a systematic approach, and sometimes I use approach and retreat and some other little things mixed in there. Just kind of my catchall phrase is, it's a positive exposure training, and that's what I do with all my horses when it comes to the kids. The kids mean good stuff over and over and over and over again, and they always have a choice to leave. They're never trapped and they're never corrected for being afraid, and they're never forced to accept the children's presence. They can always leave.
[00:08:05] Okay, so another example. Another example would be my horse, Raven. She is five now. Oh my gosh. I'm terrible with dates as you guys have been listening for a long time probably have realized by now. Anyway, so she, uh, I had started, I've started her under saddle and she's been under saddle. I think at this point for this story, she'd been under saddle for I probably, we'd sat on her like six times and I'm, and when, I mean like sitting, I literally mean sitting on her. Like we, we maybe did some walking around. We had a handler on the ground. We did walk only and lots and lots of good stuff. Like we were exposing her to the equipment. We were exposing her to a rider, teaching her the beginnings of responding to the ridden cues, like real slow, very short stuff, maybe 10 minutes tops for each of those sessions. My oldest daughter who doesn't ride on a regular basis and has not, and she's, as of this stage in her life right now, she's not just itching to be around the horses all the time, not quite like I am right. And that's okay. Everybody has their own interests and that's totally fine. I just let her, if she wants to, we do it. If not, you know, that's, it's fine. She really likes Raven and I needed, I don't remember what it was exactly. Anyway, she kind of was showing interest. Anyway, I popped her up on Raven. That's, that was the, kind of the, sum of that story is she got up on Raven six sit ons later and she, they kind of just walked and stood in the pasture a little bit, but totally bitless in a bareback pad and Raven was just like, No, this is cool. Like it was just not a big deal. It was like a no no big deal thing. And now I don't practice that on a regular basis cuz I do want my, under my horses that are going under saddle to have all their cues established before putting a, a kid on them, especially a novice like that is really, really important to me. And we do do all of those steps. It was just one of those situations. And she had a helmet, she was fully protected and I was standing right there. So anyway that's another example of how horses that are autonomous and have a choice and everything's been trained with positive reinforcement are safe. If it's been done well and you're not dealing with a lot of, you know, baggage and even then the baggage and the history can be helped and worked through. But in, you know, in the long run. Yes. And every horse is an individual. I'm not saying every single horse will be, you know, perfect around children. I'm just saying that in general, large scale, kind of the general thing is that yes, they can be and are safe around kids. All right, so that was second example. A third example is. So, oh, and I, I should say for Raven, in Raven's case, I should clarify Raven. And in that particular situation, and in every previous situation when it came to having a rider on, she has a start button for a rider getting on. She has a she does her bridling, cooperatively. She does her saddle pad going on cooperatively. She doesn't have to do anything. She can opt out of anything. She has a choice to walk off like she has a choice through every single step of that situation and just because I put a kid on her doesn't, I didn't change anything about that. It was the same deal, and she was perfectly content and perfectly happy to proceed forward. Not nervous at all. Everything was totally fine. It was a great experience.
[00:11:27] Okay, so going to the third scenario, a third kind of example here. My mini Finn came from a family that had quite a few kids and he was around kids a lot, but it became pretty apparent soon after, well, even while I was there but also after he arrived at my place that he was very much tolerating the kids and he was actually pretty nervous about them and was kind of shoving that deep down and just like, okay, okay, okay. I'll be fine. I'll be fine. Don't hurt me. So he was being very obedient and biddable for the kids. They would lead him around on a halter, they would mess around with him. They would, you know, do fun stuff with him. He was tolerating and he was doing all of that and being obedient and doing, you know, he was, 'Safe', however, as soon as he was given a choice, he was outta there. Like, and you could see he was worried in his facial expressions and in his behavior. But he was just doing what he was told. So I bring him home and I start giving him a choice in all of his interactions with kids. And then he pretty much told me like, Nope, I don't wanna see those. And he could tell the difference between a kid and an adult for sure. And, and horses typically can based probably on our, their erratic, like the differences in their behavior and ours. And then, Maybe has something to do with hormones, I don't know. And being able to smell that. The other factor is probably height differences. So he pretty much said, Nope, talk to the hand. When it came to the kids, he didn't wanna do anything with them, which is kind of sad because I did intend for him to be my kids kind of horse that they were gonna be around. But I, I fully expected there would be some unpacking process. And to be honest, I got myself a pony cuz I had always wanted a pony and had always been too tall for ponies. And so I bring him home, he talk, says, talk to the hand with the kids. He's very worried he would like shoot outta the barn if they were in here. He would and want, didn't want to be in a small space with them. He basically would walk away. He didn't wanna be brushed by any of the kids. He pretty much said no to the kids, right? He was very worried about. So he, and, and we have to remember that all of that wasn't new just because he arrived at my place. All of that didn't show up just because he arrived at a new location. And my kids were different kids in his previous kids. That didn't, that wasn't what it was. What was happening was everything that he had felt before now was being revealed. So everything that he was showing me now or at the time was there before, but it was suppressed and really pushed down deep. And he was just tolerating and, and doing as he was told. And then he didn't have to, to do what he was told anymore as far as like he had a choice. He could leave, he could walk off. He's like, okay, yes. I finally get to express myself. I finally get to go away from this thing that scares me, and I let him do that. Now, that would probably, especially if it was a large horse, that seems like a very terrifying concept, especially if they're supposed to be around kids. All of that. The thing that is more terrifying to me though now being on the other side of this, is the idea of having a horse around kids, especially a full size horse. But ponies and minis are horses too, and we need to offer them the same respect and the same level of treatment and, and autonomy and care and all of that as a full size horse. So this is a mini, Finn is a mini and what is terrifying, more terrifying to me now than giving a horse a choice is the idea that this horse didn't have a choice before and was suppressing all of this feeling that he felt this strongly about kids, but could never express it without a repercussion or a consequence. So he just shoved it down and just kind of shut up and put up kind of thing. That is a ticking time bomb. That is a horse getting ready at some point. At some point the scales will tip and he will lose it, and he will have to defend himself. He will explode, he will kick out, he will bite. He will do something. Something is going to happen and it may be years down the road or it may be tomorrow. We don't know, and I would much rather, and this is also kind of a spoiler alert, I would much rather have a horse that it freely expresses to me how they feel at a subtle level. Cuz horses are very gentle and subtle in their communication if you listen to it early enough and they, they have learned that people listen to it. And that's another key here. They will express it and they will do it in a gentle way. That to me, listening to a horse at that level and telling them that they do have a voice at that level is so much safer then what was happening with Finn before, where he was packing around a lot of emotions and a lot of strong feelings, but it was not, it was being ignored and suppressed. And so eventually one day he's gonna lose it. And I see this way, way too often in the horse world. And I honestly, I mean, most of the horses that have I've worked with or have been here, this has been the case. They were fine. They were fine. And then all of a sudden, Started refusing fences one day or they kicked out at me all of a sudden, or it came out of nowhere. Like how many times have we heard that statement that is coming from ignored earlier signs of communication and or suppressed emotions and feelings about things finally coming to light. So there's possibly some other variables in there too. Different reasons. So that would come up. That behavior never happens for no reason. It always has a reason. Always serves a function or serves a purpose and has a function. Anyway. So Finn, now happy ever after here. Loves kids, loves them. He will just stand in the middle of the barn while they brush him. They follow him around. My youngest who's five. But even when she was younger, like three or four, she could lead him around easily, no problem. And he would put on his halter for her cooperatively. Just, and when he's on a lead rope, if he were to walk away, like he has a choice even on a lead rope, if he just stops, like, we're not gonna make him keep going. And I'll, well, I can get into that a little bit more in a minute.
[00:17:34] But uh, I know how the confusing that sounds if you're just hearing this concept for the first. But, and one, this is what I teach in my foundation course and in my academy is what that looks like and how we can turn that into very functional um, functional behaviors that are really bulletproof. So I can have a horse. And this is, I'm just gonna kind of, I guess briefly run through this. I can have a horse who has full autonomy and has choice and control over the situation and can communicate that they needed something to stop or they're ready to start. Like all of that, they have choice. It's force free, all of that. And also have a horse that is highly responsive to cues will do the behavior for a sustained length of time that is necessary for the behavior to be functional. And also the behavior will be resilient enough under very stressful conditions that it will be that it will hold up. So basically like I can have a horse on a lead rope, a horse that understands that they don't have to be like, they don't have to be staying there. But they, the lead rope has an established set of behaviors with it. It is a cue that means heal basically next to my body and respond to your lead rope cues or your leading cues. So I have body positions that are my leading cues, and we start off in a controlled area, short spurts of time, you know, highly reinforced, and then we start to build and build and build until I can take this horse on a 10 mile hike through open land on their own, just the horse and I, or take them to a vet clinic where there's other horses calling and stressed out and all of that and the horse's behaviors will hold up. It will be resilient enough and it will be safe and it will meaning it being the behavior. I don't call horses it. The, the behavior will be resilient enough that it will be functional under those circumstances, under high stress circumstances. However, it is different in the way that it was built from a negative reinforcement or traditional, I, maybe not even negative reinforcement, but like in more traditional approach where the horse doesn't have a choice. So like a choice less approach where, you know, from the beginning with this type of behavior, the behavior that I'm teaching with positive reinforcement and the choice there was other reinforcement available. If they started to step away from me, I wouldn't trap them with that lead rope. I would drop the lead rope or I'd throw it over their neck or whatever. I would also start this whole leading process without the lead rope first. So that's the other thing is oftentimes I don't introduce the lead rope until much, much later. Like if I can't take my horse on a mile long walk. And have all of their leading cues be flawlessly responded to in under stressful situations. I'm not putting that lead rope on. I mean, unless it's an emergency, and that's a whole nother thing. I have an episode on here on the podcast called damage control. So keep that in mind. There are damage control situations where you do have to take over. You do have to restrict the horse's choice and all. Our day to day training is not a damage control situation. It is not an emergency, a lesson with a kid where, or having your kids around with your horses. It is not a damage control emergency situation every time they're around doing that. I'm not saying that there isn't situations like that. There's definitely been situations with my kids where I have had to step in and it's like a damage control, like I have to stop this situation, very, very rare, but it has happened a couple of times. Because really what it boils down to is setting up your antecedents. For both the kids and the horses. So if I have a kid that is not going to respond to my cues, so my instructions, my verbal instructions, or my, you know, whatever, physical, like moving them around the sort way, if you, if that's the situation, like if it's a toddler or something, if they're not gonna be able to respond to your cues, your instructions. And in a way that's going to keep them safe and set the horse up for success, then we need to change the antecedents. We need to change how we've set this situation up. Same thing with the horse, if the horse is not prepared to be able to handle that level of dealing with the children. And all of their behavior and chaoticness, then we need to change the situation. So this goes back to that first example I gave you, where the horse when they arrived didn't really like being around kids. Didn't really like the kids, may even have felt the need to defend themselves. So I told my kids, we are not going near that horse. I even put up a do not touch sign for this horse's pen. And I showed the kids this and I'm like, okay, we don't touch this horse. Do not feed this horse. Do not touch this horse. Do not go anywhere near this horse. Here's all the horses you can touch and feed . And then within however many months, I can't even remember. We took the do not touch sign off and I told my kids that they could stand on the other side of the fence and if she took her head and put it over the fence and engaged with them, then they could offer her their hand or no. Yeah. Their hand, but it was like lower. Anyway, there was a specific position and then she could touch them, but they needed to be cautious about touching her and then we could go from there. So she was initiating the contact and she felt safe about it. And then we built from there and now they're doing great and they can stand on the fence, like sit up on the rail and scratch on her and she loves it. But that would be an example of how I change those ans that's not gonna be the horse that I'm gonna put in a lesson with my kids yet, until later.
[00:23:07] So back to Finn my little pony. So lots of counter conditioning, lots of giving him a choice whether or not he wanted to be around, if he wanted to leave, if he wanted to stay around, if he wanted to be brushed. We gave him lots of control over that. And what's really cool about this is that the more choice he had in the situation, the more control he had over whether the children approached or didn't, whether he needed to be in proximity to them or left, whether he was groomed or not, whether he was led or not by a kid. The more confident he was around people and the more he opted in for engaging around, I meant more confident around kids, and the more he started to opt in into engaging with the kids. Before you know it, he's like, oh, these kids are awesome. I don't need to be worried about. . Now I'm perfectly at ease and I'm not suppressing my emotions. I'm not suppressing how I feel about this. It's not just a blind robotic obedience. It's a choosing to engage with the kids. And to me, that is a horse that is so much safer around children than the opposite, which I see way too often, especially with like lesson horses or horses like ponies. This. So much with minis and ponies because they're started fast and pretty roughly so that they are, you know, kid tolerant and sacked out hard, flooded all of that. So they tolerate all of the kids' chaoticness. But all it is is just suppressing their all of their fear until they're just these little robots that kids jump all over and are allowed to act in terrible ways honestly, a lot of times around these ponies that you would never want them to act that way around horses, full size horses, but they're allowed to do that with ponies. Oh my gosh. I can go on a whole tangent. Okay. I'll say on that point, please do teach your kids to engage with ponies and minis in the same way that you would ask them to engage with a full size horse. They should be learning to respect other living beings. And to learn to read their body language and learn to be around them in a calm way, and get that feedback from the horses and respect that. And then, you know, be able to cue things kindly and nicely like this, all of this that they're doing now, especially if you have small kids or they have a mini or a pony, they got whatever, you know, to engage in horses with you, cuz it's often a shared thing that horse parents wanna do with their kids. They get them a pony. That's, and I, I mean, I did it for my kids. It is so important to teach them when they're young that this is how we engage with living beings. Whether it's a horse or a dog, or a cat or a pig or whatever, or another human , let's do it now. And so ponies are no different than full size horses. They have such a bad reputation because they ha are treated so terribly. And that's honest I stand by that. Anyway, so with that being said I can tell you and I could go on and on and on forever, honestly, so many examples of times where horses have been afraid of children and now they're not. You know, just all the stuff I could keep going on. What I really wanna take this episode though, where I wanna take it, that I kind of got derailed from is ways that we can help our horses and why positive reinforcement focused training, giving a horse a choice and control over the interactions with children and force free approaches do result in very safe horses around kids.
[00:26:42] I wanna talk about some ways that we can help our horses with positive reinforcement and force free approach to feel comfortable around children, especially if they've had bad experiences with kids in the past. Maybe have been taught that kids are not to be trusted or maybe they've just never been around kids, so they're a little bit scared of them. I mentioned on briefly about lots of positive conditioning. So lots of counter conditioning. Children. Good stuff. Children good stuff. Children good stuff. Children equal good stuff. Start under your horse's, horse's threshold. So, How close do children have to be to them or doing what behaviors for them to start getting really worked up? For some horses, it's a children way off in the distance that make them nervous versus children that are much closer to them. Actually, my mare River is more like this. If a one of my kids is way off in the distance making a lot of noise. Or doing random stuff, she's more likely to stop and just kind of be in a freeze state and stare at them than if they are much closer to her. And she's totally at ease around kids that are really close to her. She loves 'em actually. She finds them extremely fascinating and will like just follow them around and be like, what are you doing? Little human. But when they're in a distance, it actually is scarier. So for her, actually the threshold is kind of a reverse of what many situations are. I would actually start the kids closer to her and then start to have them further and further away, making lots of noise and being children and then creating those associations. So look, there's children in the distance, lots of good food, children in the distance, lots of good food, and then children further in the distance. Lots of good food and we just keep building. The other thing is we need to be mindful of what exactly these children are doing. Are they just standing there quietly talking to the horses or are they jumping around and singing and having a grand old time? I would start with kids that are older. Are able to find, follow instruction a little bit more clearly and are able to be quieter. Maybe you could even have your kids sit and read a book in close proximity or wherever your horse's threshold is, but in a safe way. So maybe there's a fence between them just in case. Just have them sit together and be together. And then maybe you can work up towards younger and younger children that are doing other stuff, or have the older kid start to do things that are, is more erratic that a younger kid might do, like flailing their arms around or singing or doing jumping jacks or whatever, just start to build and build gradually keeping it under threshold. Never spooking the horse, never sending them over threshold. And by that I mean like sending them into their fight flight, freeze. So whether they're just like frozen solid and like staring at the thing or, or the kid or they're walking away or or even running away or fighting, which would be more like trying to bite, kick out, things like that. So we need to be mindful of not putting them into that zone and as. Actually trying to get as close into the green zone, which is more of a curiosity or total at ease around the children. That's where you want to be, and then you can gradually stretch that green zone as the horse is comfortable. So doing lots of conditioning like that is really important.
[00:29:47] The other thing that I would recommend doing is on your own without children around also starting to do some of these things, you can replicate a lot of what kids do as an adult, and we just don't tend to act that way. We don't tend to just randomly be walking through the barn and start doing jumping jacks, right? Or scream all a sudden, or stuff like that. Again, under threshold, as your horse is ready, start to introduce them to more erratic behavior. Creating positive associations with that type of behavior and then build and build and build until all of a sudden you can take a parade down the middle of your barn or through the arena and your horse is fine. And this is the same concept we would use for a horse with the same approach we would use if we were gonna take a horse to like a parade or something. And this trails into nicely if you are going to have a lesson program, or work with kids on a regular basis, and you do want to use positive reinforcement and give your horse a choice and all of that. Really, really, really spend a lot of time clocking the hours, doing all of that I just mentioned all of the counter conditioning, all of the things. Can your horse calmly accept a rider falling off of them? Like just from a standstill? If a rider were just like, whoop, would they just be like, oh, that was interesting. Why did you do that? It seems weird, but children do stuff that is weird. . You need to, horses that are gonna be in a lesson program need to be prepared for all of these things. And they need to just expect randomness, expect all of the randomness, and also associate that randomness with a, with a good outcome. And this is the difference. This is the biggest difference between traditionally, you know, forceful, non force free whatever approach to lesson programs and a force free positive, reinforcement focused. Choice and control, all of that lesson program. The horse is choosing to participate in the lesson because of because it's a good thing. It predicts good outcomes. My horses love doing lessons like they love it, especially a couple of them. They're just like, yes, a kid is here. Let's do this. I get lots of food I get to do lots of fun things. It's training time. They look at engaging with my, with the kids that are in my lesson program, no differently than they look at engaging in a lesson or a training session with me because, well, one, I'm coaching it, but two because it equals good outcome outcomes for them. It has been associated with good outcomes. So the kid arrives, puts their halter on, takes them to the arena, lots of good outcomes. Nothing's ever scary. They're not punished or corrected, like it's just a really cool experience for them and a lot of fun, and it's very mentally engaging. It's very relaxed. They get to express how they feel, all that. And then we end the session. No harm. No, I mean, everything's good. Now in a traditional program, at least old school lesson programs, a lot of 'em I know are changing and making big improvements, which is awesome. The horses are there because they have to be right? If they don't walk into the arena, what happens? usually it's a whip or kicker, kicking harder. Sometimes I've even seen trainers throw rocks at horses. That it even happened to me when I was riding horses that wouldn't go forward. The trainers would pick up rocks off the ground and throw it at the horse to make it go forward or they would chase it from behind with the whip, like all of that horse doesn't wanna be there, and that is not creating good associations with having a student on their back, with having a kid on their back. It is creating negative associations or unpleasant associations with having a a rider on their back, a student on their back, and it's going to get worse with time. They just have to obey because they, you know, otherwise the consequences, right? The unpleasant consequences are always a threat there. These horses are usually just miserable, right? Everybody's, or not everybody, but a lot of people have been in a lesson program where the lesson horses are just like miserable to ride, and I don't blame 'em. I really don't blame 'em. And a lot of these horses are ticking time bombs. To be honest, they just are, some of them are just so dead, so robotic that they will never do anything wrong. But they are lifeless. They are, all they are is a machine that the child is riding to learn to post their trot. You can teach your kids, your students to post their trot on a horse that has a choice that wants to be there. I have done it. I know many other trainers that do it on a regular basis and it is absolutely possible. So, which , which rolls us into some of the other things that we need to do for a lesson program with force free positive reinforcement focused horses. They need to know their job very, very well, and they need to know exactly where to get reinforcement, how to achieve it. You know what cues mean, what, and they need to be possibly, depending on the level of a student you've got, they may need to be listening more to the instructor than they are to the rider. So a lot of my horses that are in my lesson programs riding. They have a pattern that they follow. So they'll go from cone to cone and they trot and walk and canter or change directions or halt or whatever it is based or half halt even like I've got other cues based on my cues from the center of that circle. And then the student is on the horse practicing their posture, practicing their cues, practicing their posting trot, like all of that. They really focus on themselves and the horse knows they just go to the next cone. I click and feed, they go to the next cone, I click and feed. Or they could even do a series of cones before the click and the feed. That is absolutely possible. You can also put it on a rectangle rather than a circle. You can create other patterns. And then I have like next level lesson horses that are more independent from me and, but now my student is ready to be giving their own cues and they have good timing. They can also feed from the saddle all of that. It goes very, very well and it's so much fun and the kids have a lot of fun. I actually had a workshop not too long ago and I had a participant from my academy and she still takes traditional riding lessons, dressage lessons, and she was riding my mare Pumpkin, and we were doing a short riding lesson, just as a kind of an example of what it would look like. And she told me at the end that she so had so much more fun riding this way than she did in her dressage lessons and that she would much rather ride this way and it was a lot of fun and she can't wait to do more of it. And she wants to now train all of her horses to ride with positive reinforcement and all that. It's so much fun and the kids love it, and the horses are great at it. They're totally comfortable with their students. They want to be there. They associate the students with pleasant things. They are also able to express themselves and they know and they can trust the people to listen. So this is the big thing, and I'm gonna kind of trail back to that. I'm gonna take us back.
[00:36:45] My horses that I have, a lot of them have complex to unpleasant to traumatic backgrounds, varying different degrees, different levels. The horses then have exploded under riders, which I have a couple of them here, and I've worked with many, many, many have been horses that nobody has listened to, that nobody is hearing the subtle forms of communication. And so they have been forced to scream at their riders. These same horses, you know, fast forward now, give me the most beautiful, they communicate in the most beautiful way to me now. They will look at me with a slightly worried expression. Then they'll give me a nice head turn. Then they might rub their leg. Then they might do a sigh. They might yawn. There's like different calming signals, right? Or signs of stress, and they communicate in a very fluent way now, and it's all staged out and very gradual. It doesn't happen spontaneously or seemingly spontaneously and explosively. It happens in a systematic and they communicate to me. And if I miss those early signs, they will usually try again. And then they will try again. And then they will try again. And it's really cool because now they trust people to listen. And it's almost like if I'm gonna be a little bit anthropomorphic here, they're almost like, hmm. They didn't hear me the first time. I'm gonna try again because this human is just being a little bit dense today. And they do that many, many times before. They give you a slightly bigger, you know, heads up or warning. But to have to put like what I would have to do to push one of my horses to be explosive under a rider would be a lot, like a lot now. And so they are so much, they're so much safer with one of my students because I am catching all those early signs and they're very patient with me, and it's very long and drawn out in gradual communication versus the, I'm going along, I'm tolerating, I'm tolerating, okay. I can't tolerate this anymore. I'm just exploding. That's unsafe. And I've been on many a horse that was like that, and I've been through many lesson programs where the horses were like that, And I have many, many, many students where their horses were like that and they will attest to how much different and how much safer it is to work with a horse that can communicate and feels heard or is been experiencing a, the learning process of being heard. So we can say that their new learning history or their new learning experience is that humans listen now and they're being reinforced for that. So they give a calming signal, they're reinforced for it because the thing, everything deescalates and we respect that. And also potentially, I might even, depending on the horse, positively reinforce that I might actually add an additional reinforcer on top. So, So much potential here. There's so much to explore here, and I could honestly talk for hours and hours and hours on this topic. And I just, I what, I guess really what I wanna sum up with this episode is I want to share with you guys, and I, I hope I expressed it accurately, that horses that are trained in a force free way, that are trained with positive reinforcement, that have autonomy, that can communicate, that know that people are listening to them, that are given a choice and control in their learning environment and in their interactions with people are very, very safe horses to have around people and kids if the work is done correctly and thoroughly enough, if you have done the prep work, if you have clocked the hours in preparing your horse for this experience, for being around children, for being around people, for being able to teach lessons. If we are being good trainers and we have prepared our horses and set them up for success and arranged the antecedents and created shaping plan. And done it systematically and created those positive associations. If we have done all of that, working with horses with that are trained with positive reinforcement is absolutely possible in lesson programs or if you just have kids of your own, that you wanna be around horses. And it is very, very safe and it is so much fun and the kids love it. So I really hope that this episode helps encourage you and also helps you feel less doubt around working with your horses with positive reinforcement if you have kids around or if maybe your neighbors have kids or your, you know, your brother comes into town and he brings his kids and you know, what's it gonna be like when you feed your horses all the time? And now the kids with their hands and in petting the horses faces and all that. And what's it gonna be like? Are the horses gonna be safe? Are they gonna be dangerous? They will be safe with time and practice. Really this, it's so important to set that foundation to establish the necessary behaviors. The training hours have to be clocked. It's no different than any other way of training. You have to actually put the work in. If you don't put the work in, then it's not going to work. You can't just expect them to start clicker training tomorrow and then to be okay today. Like it takes time. And then there's the whole added level of unpacking. So a lot of horses like my story with Finn. It got worse before it got better. So it started off like he was tolerating and then it went to like, I don't want anything to do with kids cuz I have a choice now. And then now he loves kids. So it was a process we had to unpack, we had to allow him to communicate that. And then we had to start the transition process, the transformation process to help him feel more comfortable around kids and to enjoy being around kids.
[00:42:32] And you know, some horses, and I'm just gonna put this in, there are not the most suitable horses to be around kids. I mean, even in the traditional world, there are less horses that are suitable for lesson programs and there are horses that are not. Now we could argue back and forth about why that is, but I do think that genetically, some horses are going to be less suitable to be around kids or potentially having to do with how extensive their learning history is. And if it, you know, if that was a traumatic learning experience with kids, like how extensive that is might impact this and also your experience level as a trainer might impact this as well. The, there are definitely horses, so I have eight here right now. There are some that are more suited to be around children than others. They are all great with kids to varying degrees. None of them are dangerous towards kids. None of them are terrified of children. There are none here that I would be worried about, like lashing out or chasing down one of my children. But I'm some of them. I am not going to put a kid rider on. And just because of their training level under saddle. But sometimes some of 'em it's because their temperament type, their personality type, their genetics, whatever makes them less suitable to a beginner rider just because they're gonna be maybe more high energy, less likely to just, you know, poke around the arena and more likely to be like, let's run! Of course we can put all that on cue. We can build up a lot of resiliency in that behavior and, and heavily, heavily, heavily reinforced calm walking. We can do all of those things and we can achieve them and it is possible even for the most high energy horse. But you know, sometimes. It's not necessary to try and change a horse. Right? We don't need to take the least suitable horse for the task and be like, we're gonna change this horse and make it, I mean this, that's like trying to take a like some of these more like haltered type quarter horses we'll say, and we wanna turn them into a grand prix jumper. Okay. Well, at some, I mean, I'm not denying that some halter quarter horses have done okay with jumping, and maybe they've even done pretty good. I don't know. But most of them, It's kind of, it's a really big uphill battle, right? To try and turn them into a Grand Prix jumper. Like why would you even, it's just kind of, doesn't make a whole lot of sense. You would go buy a horse that was more conformationally suited to being a Grand Prix jumper and maybe have that temperament type. So same idea here. Some horses are bred for a certain reason have certain genetics have certain temperament types, whatever, if at all possible, you know, try select training goals that have, that are well suited to your individual horse. So, you know, like um, my mare Raven, who I mentioned putting my daughter on. She may eventually be okay for a novice rider, like if I can get her training far enough and get it solid enough and put in enough you know, just exposure, training under saddle, all that. But she is really high energy horse. Like you put her, I bet you if you put her on a trail and said gallop at this thing, like did long distance endurance, she would just go, she just does not stop. She just wants to go. Maybe she's not personality temperament type the most suited to putting a complete green five year old novice rider on. Right? Like, I just, I don't, I don't even know that I wanna ask her to do that. It's just not even reasonable. Unless maybe she did really okay When I'm ponying her around, like maybe if I just led her like lead line style, if she was quiet when she walked on a lead line, all that. And I had really built that behavior and and really generalized it and all that, and proof. Maybe. However, I can tell you right now, she does really well leading, but she is not suitable for lead line under saddle work. She tends to be like, let's go. And when, and it's not a running out of panic or fear or stress or whatever, she just really enjoys go, go, go. Whereas I have other horses that are like, Stopping is fine. Walking is fine. We can just walk. This is cool. I like walking. And that would be a perfect horse for a lead line five year old rider. A novice rider. So just keep that in mind that not every horse, no matter how good of a trainer you are, is necessarily suitable to the task that you would be asking them to do if it came to working with kids. Some horses are more sound sensitive, some are more sight sensitive. Some are going to be more high energy, some are going to be, you know maybe have a really, really long history that just makes them a little, just, you know, they're tolerating kids, but they're a little bit on edge because of their history. You know, that would be something to consider too. Just keep that all in mind is that there is going to be different suitability, suitability levels to the task that you're asking your horse to do. So keep that in mind.
[00:47:21] And then, you know, just clocking those hours, really putting in the training really helping the horse understand the behavior that you're looking for. The stimulus control. So making sure the cue is actually the cue and that it's really, really strong and it's been proofed against all these other behaviors, and then put it on a really long duration. And then start to generalize that behavior and those cues to a lot of different in situations, even higher stress situations, and even potentially quite stressful situations to prepare for in case something happens around the kids. Make sure that you have patterns and really known, um, Behaviors for your potential lesson horse or your horse that's gonna work with kids. Make sure their reinforcement procedure, so the way that they access their reinforcement is very solid and that they know exactly when they're getting the reinforcement and where, make sure they also understand that food comes to them, that they don't go to the food and that they eat in this way. So that would be the reinforcement procedure, but just, that's part of the whole, like some people call it manners or the grownups are talking or you know, there's a lot of different ways. Calm default, I call it default neutral. So like a neutral position that they just stand in. Build that for a long time, like a long duration, because there's lots of times where kids are just, you don't even know what they're doing. They're just doing other things and the horse just needs to know that like, Okay. I don't know what's going on now, so I'll just stand here and wait for my reinforcement. That's exactly what you want. You want lots of that when it comes to working with kids. And then, you know, lots and lots and lots of counter conditioning, lots of positive association, making kids equal good stuff, and they will become your kid's best friend. They will become the most amazing horse around kids.
[00:49:03] And then the biggest key here, Listening to very, very subtle forms of communication. A head turn, just a slight head turn, or a slight widening of the eyes, or a yawn ,or a, a rubbing of the leg. Those things on their own may not be a calming signal. And you can refer to it as a, a stress sign or a behavior indicating stress, whatever it is. Or self soothing behaviors. There's lots of different ways to refer to them. One of the books that I highly recommend is Language Signs and Calming Signals, and I have it linked on my website on the resources page. The thing that people need to remember about this is, Them on their own. So like, just a head turn by itself could just be turning their head to look at something. Them rubbing their leg could just be rubbing a fly or like trying to get a fly off. That in itself is not a concern. It's when you start to see clusters, like things going together. So did your horse do a head turn and then a yawn and then rub their leg? Well, you got three that just happened in a row there. I would start to be, you know, I'd be like, oh, heads up, like red flag. Like something's worrying this horse here, something's going on. You as the trainer or the parent or just somebody who has your horse. The kids come to visit need to be very, very aware of all of these forms of communication and re and not only acknowledge them and see them, but respect them by helping deescalate the situation, help your horse feel more comfortable um, faster. And that is ultimately no matter how you train, going to keep kids the safest and. The other thing is antecedent arrangement. So as a good trainer, setting your learners up for success, whether it's the kids or the horses or the adults that are around whatever, everybody needs to be set up for success. So if that means putting a fence between everybody, I do that all the time. No big deal. You can do a lot of training with a fence between you you and the horse, and the kid and the horse. Maybe that means that this kid's time around the horse needs to be during a quiet time in the barn. Maybe that, that no other horses need to be around except for the one companion. Like you can set up the antecedents to help everybody out in a lot of different ways, and that is extremely important. And part of that is also strategizing your lesson program, strategizing the behaviors that you're going to need for helping your horse be comfortable. Like one of my horses that's in my lesson program. She really likes doing cone patterns, and that has worked extremely well. She has an autopilot like next cone. Next cone. Next Cone. Works beautifully. That is antecedent arrangement, I've helped everybody. She has a very clear directive. She knows what she's doing. Now I can focus on my child rider, my young human rider learner and focus on them, which also helps set me up for success because I can focus on my lesson. Anyway. As a trainer, it's really important to set everybody up for success, and if you're not the trainer, but you're the parent, same idea. Or if kids are just coming to visit again, same idea. When I have kids come visit my place, I don't know the kids. Like, like it's like, let's say it's one of my kids' friends, I don't know. These kids maybe as well as my kids, they, I don't know how much they know around about horses. My horses don't know them. I am going to set that antecedent arrangement way different than I will set it up for one of my own children that is familiar with horses. I know how my child acts in general, especially what would be important is to know how they act under stress. I know that my horses know this kid and how they act, and so the whole situation is a little bit different. So there is no such thing as just one kid is the same as all the other kids. Like, it's not one size fits all. Like every situation's gonna be a little bit different, so you'll need to adjust accordingly to the horse, the kid, the situation, the environment all that.
[00:52:50] Alright. Hopefully this episode was helpful and I just threw a bunch of stuff at you when it has to come with, when it comes to working with kids. I feel like. Hopefully it inspired some ideas and some thoughts on the matter. The concept of choice and control and force free and having an autonomous horse is a very complex and overwhelming topic. I feel like, at least for me, when I first started exploring it was also a very scary topic. The idea of giving my horse a choice I was just really felt like it would end poorly and that I was actually putting myself in a lot of danger and it felt very unsafe. So I completely understand any hesitations or caution around the area and around the subject, but I just hope that this episode will be encouraging. And offer you some ideas on what it looks like to, or just like a concept of what it looks like to work with horses that are autonomous and have choice in the, in the interactions with kids and in lesson programs and how it is possible.
[00:53:55] . Thanks so much for. If you enjoyed this podcast episode, I would love if you left us a review on wherever you listen to your podcast. If you'd like to learn more, head to our website, the willing equine.com, where you'll find a bunch of links to our different social media platforms. We have Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Facebook, pretty much everything. We also have our blog, our training services, and the TWE Academy where you can enroll in the foundation course that opens a few times a year. Thanks so much for listening, and I look forward to chatting with you