Accentuate the Positives with Connection Training! | A Morning with Hannah Weston

Written by Monday, 13 March 2017 10:58
Accentuate the Positives with Connection Training! | A Morning with Hannah Weston Ellie Fells

Hannah Weston is one of the three equestrians behind ‘Connection Training’, a form of horsemanship and training which involves using positive reinforcement methods to create a supple, responsive, and most importantly a HAPPY horse.

The process involves using a clicker or the voice to ‘mark’ the moment that the horse displays the correct behaviour before rewarding it, teaching the horse to repeat this behaviour and to work willingly. I was lucky enough to visit her at her beautiful yard where I was introduced to her horses, and even got to watch a demonstration with her nine-year old mare, India. I was seriously impressed to watch India and Hannah perform everything from Spanish Walk to free jumping!

I then got to chat to Hannah about the training methods that she uses…

First things first, what exactly is Connection Training? Can you explain to me the methods that you use? 

“Connection Training is a company which three of us set up which focuses on methods of positive reinforcement. Where most horse training is based on negative reinforcement, which is essentially removing something when the horse does as you ask such as taking your leg off or releasing the rein pressure, positive reinforcement adds something when the horse does as you ask, such as giving the horse a treat. Connection Training involves using a clicker to mark the exact moment the horse behaves as you wish. This behaviour is then rewarded, meaning that a particular behaviour comes to be associated with a clicking sound, or even just the rider’s voice, which says “Yes! That’s what I want!”, followed by a treat. We also use a ‘marker’ to signal the correct behaviour. However, key to our training is looking at each horse as an individual, so for some, a food reward isn’t suitable, and they might be rewarded with a simple scratch of the neck instead. We essentially use this training to encourage horses to feel joyful, willing, happy, and engaged with what they’re doing, wanting to work and wanting to behave in the right way”. 

What problems might this training be particularly useful for solving? 

“What’s so great about Connection Training is that it can be used to pinpoint anything. The main problems we usually help to solve are handling based issues, such as a fear of clipping, troubles loading or problems with the farrier. We also use this training to help with ridden issues too, such as a reluctance to be ridden alone or a hesitancy to stand at a mounting block. It is really adaptable, and can help with everything, really”.

One of the main things that became apparent from watching you and India working was how supple and responsive she is…why is creating horses which are supple and responsive so important? 

“I trained as an Equine Bodyworker before I started Connection Training, so this really made me aware of how much physical imbalance affects the horse. Physical problems can lead to emotional issues such as tension and anxiety, and a lot of this stems from how the horse is moving. A healthy mind and a healthy body go together; if a horse is in pain or uncomfortable, you can’t expect it to be relaxed. Essentially, it is crucial to create relaxation and suppleness through the body of the horse if you want it to improve physically”.

This type of training seems to me to be a fairly unique field…how did you first get involved with it? 

“I actually first started clicker training with my old horse, Toby, 13 years ago. He was a real ‘journey’ horse, taking me down lots of different tracks as a result of various physical and behavioural issues. One day, he spooked when my Mum was riding him and she fell off, resulting in a broken back. This triggered one of her friends to go in to a Charity Shop and buy her all the horsey books she could find, and it just so happened that one of these books was about clicker training, so I thought I’d give it a go. Luckily Toby was relatively straightforward to train, and I quickly found he was very willing to behave in the ways that I asked and it led to a huge shift in attitude for both of us. We also had two rescue ponies at the time, Murphy and Roisin, who weren’t quite so easy. I had to work very gradually with them to teach them to relax and become calmer, but overtime I began to see a real difference in them, too”.

What would you say are the main beneficial outcomes of positive reinforcement training methods? 

“There are so many! For me, because this form of training is based on science and on the mind of the horse, it helps you as a rider and trainer to see situations in a whole new light, changing how you approach problems. It is about understanding the core principles of the mind of the horse and then putting it in to practice, both on the ground and in the saddle. It is also great because, by putting yourself in to their mind-set, you give the horse its own voice and the ability for them to say ‘No’ when they are finding something tough. Although this can seem tricky initially, it is hugely beneficial in the long term, creating a horse which is relaxed and joyful. The situation is happy because you create a horse which genuinely enjoys learning”.

Is it something which suits all horses, or is it suited to some more than others? 

“Our training methods are very flexible and adaptable, so we are able to work with a whole range of horses. We stress importance on seeing each horse as an individual, helping to establish what works for that specific animal. However, the basic principles remain the same: all you need to do is to ask what you want the horse to do, how do we ask the horse this and how do we reward it? The actual implementation of this can vary a lot, depending on the problem and depending on what suits each horse. It’s about trying out different ideas and committing to finding which works best”.

What are the important basics to get right?

“The key principle is creating a horse which is relaxed. The aim is to create a happy and safe horse, performing as well as it possibly can. With this, you can achieve anything! It is key that this relaxation is achieved first, but exactly how this is done depends on the horse as an individual”. 

What would you say are the main mistakes that people make when they are training horses generally?

“I think that people often ask for too much too fast. There is a tendency to see the end result and to try to go straight there rather than breaking the behaviour down, which leads to the process becoming muddled and the horse getting confused about what you want from them, and then the human getting confused too! I think the mistake is also made of labelling a horse as a certain behaviour, such as simply describing them as ‘naughty’ or ‘spooky’. Instead you need to step back and look at the whole picture objectively, asking yourself exactly what is triggering the behaviour and then asking how you can change that. You need to work towards a good emotional state of the horse”.

Why is it so important that the human is clear with what they’re asking?

“A lot of the time, the horse genuinely is trying to do what you’re asking but not quite understanding, so instead of just asking harder, you need to change how you’re asking. If you’re in France and are asking something in English, there’s no point just shouting it even louder in English when people don’t understand! You need to break down what you’re asking, and ask it step by step. For example, if the horse is nervous with clippers, don’t expect them to overcome this fear all in one go. Break the process down by starting with turning the clippers on in the corner of the stable, then gradually build this up. Also, make sure you know exactly what it is that you want from the horse – before you ask anything, say it aloud to yourself. That way, you’ll ensure the message is clear in your mind first because if you don’t know what you want, how is your horse supposed to know?”

Can anyone give it a go? Do they need to have a clicker? 

“Yes, anyone can give it a go. Clickers are widely available in most pet shops, but for some people use of the voice works just as well although a clicker or marker can be clearer especially to begin with. However, before you begin with clicker training, educate yourself as much as possible. Some people go out and buy a clicker before really understanding the principles, but then get in a pickle when it doesn’t quite go to plan! If you do have a difficult horse, it’s worth getting professional help first to ensure that you get the basics right, then you can pick it up and continue the training yourself”.

How would you respond to anyone who says that clicker training and positive reinforcement is outside of how horses exist in the wild, or to people who think that rewarding with a treat isn’t always a good thing? 

“The first thing to bear in mind that as animals, we are constantly responding to external rewards and punishments; whether we are conscious of it or not, we all look for situations which make us feel good. With Connection Training, we take the way that horses would exist in the wild and use our methods to influence horses in ways that they would be influenced naturally. The rewarding of a behaviour with a treat reflects their natural behaviour of moving towards something that they want. However, if you make the training all about the food, it will become all about the food, and this isn’t what you’re aiming for – after all, as a trainer your job isn’t just to be a vending machine! The relationship needs to go deeper than the food, and become about the emotional and behavioural side of things instead. We don’t always use food treats either, and when we do, we also work to gradually phase this reward out”. 

One of the main reasons that people might avoid this training is because they are concerned that their horse will learn to mug them for food – how can this be avoided? 

“This is a very important issue, which is why the very first behaviour that we teach is to get the horse to stand quietly and patiently beside food; usually the first thing that we teach is the strongest behaviour, so this is key. This tends to be done in protective contact, or in other words, over a barrier such as a stable door or a gate so that the horse can’t barge against you. Stand with the food, and wait for your horse to get distracted. As soon as they turn their head away, reward this with a ‘click’ and give them the food – this way, they will quickly learn that food comes from turning their head and bodies away from you. However, it shouldn’t just be a case of the horse saying to you, “I’m not looking, I’m not looking!” but is about building relaxation around food. Keep their brains busy, giving them lots to think about so that food isn’t the sole orientation. After all, in a domestic setting, horses are fed every day so the last thing you want to do is to trigger difficult behaviour!”

Watching Hannah work with India, I was really impressed by the the results that Connection Training can achieve. Hannah has created horses who genuinely want to work and will do anything to please – proof of this was that her other horse, Freckles, actually tried to take himself in to the school to work! Her horses are happy, relaxed and hard working – what more could you want?

If you want to get involved, visit Hannah’s website, https://connectiontraining.com/, where you’ll find all you need to get started. Make sure you let us know how you get on!


 

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