One woman focused her attention on taking pictures of horses while the other searched to understand a horse’s personality and to motivate good behaviour. Both accomplished riders, the pair presented compelling evidence that horseback riding is adventurous physically and psychologically.
“I carry both cameras and I shoot from the saddle. I tell ya, it scares the heck out of outfitters when I arrive,” said Shawn Hamilton, who opened up Horse Day at Grey Bruce Farmers Week held in Elmwood January 6 by sharing her adventures as a riding vacation junkie and successful equine photographer. The owner of CliXPhoto hails from Campbellcroft and she now does private photo shoots, teaches photography workshops and embarks on as many riding vacations as possible.
Those listening to her story were excited about all the riding adventures offered around the world as well as considering how, they too, could embark on an equine photography career. Shawn launched her career simply by taking pictures of friends at horse shows. Word-of-mouth promoted the fledgling business and in 2006, she perused the 2006 Photographers Market and got her first photo published in Dog Fancy magazine. The magazine was owned by the same company as Horse Illustrated which led to a cover photo. “That gave me the confidence to know I could stay home with my daughter and my horse and make a living. I did not make as much money as working as a database manager in Toronto but I was much happier.”
As her career progressed, she covered the World Equestrian Games, the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona and said she “made a lot of money off Ian Miller and Big Ben.”
The advent of digital photography followed a two-year-stint Shawn spent in Cuba with her geologist husband. Shawn returned to Ontario to find everything had changed. Undaunted, she refocused and began a working relationship with Scholastic Canada that involved publishing six books on horses, including the well-known Crazy for Horses.
More obstacles appeared. The lucrative U.S. market was drying up with the demise of the U.S. economy in the early 2000s. Also, Shawn. became bored with show jumping. “Same horses. Same riders. Same jumps. I was in Calgary and I realized I wanted to ride into the mountains. I didn’t care about jumpers anymore.” It was time to be in the saddle.
Shawn found an outfitter to take her riding into the mountains, camera strapped on. Shawn tried to sell the photos but magazine editors wanted a story to go with them. So she wrote a story. “I discovered I could do both plus be in the saddle and behind the camera.” This opened up the whole riding vacation market and has taken Shawn to Mongolia, the Andes, India, Montana, the Yukon, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador and other countries.
The photos are stunning and she found words to capture the sites as well, saying “The mountains changed their clothes around every corner that you moved.”
Part of the joy of these trips was, and is, meeting all the different breeds of horses from solid quarter horses to the curly-eared Marwari horses of India. She has photographed the Sable Island ponies and wild herds of Mongolian horses that appear out of the misty mountains to drink at lakes in the valleys, often mere metres from her tent.
“I also get to meet wonderful people,” said Shawn. “Everyone you meet on these trips has one thing in common ... they love horses.”
When considering a riding vacation, Shawn said you have to consider what you are willing – or unwilling – to experience. She shared that using a toilet in the dark in Belize, she felt something hard on the toilet paper roll. Thinking it might be something a bathroom attendant had put on the roll, she asked her friend to shine her phone light on the mysterious object. What they saw was a scorpion with its tail curled around dozens of baby scorpions nestling its back.
Some riding adventures are wild and rustic, where riders sleep in tents and use outhouses to go to the bathroom. Others are luxurious with suites, gourmet meals and complimentary wine.
“I’ve been treated to anything from guinea pigs on a stick to fine dining spreads served by the lake,” said Shawn.
Also, chat with the outfitter about the style of riding, suggested Shawn. “Some rides are walk, walk, walk. Others are gallop, gallop, gallop.”
Shawn has found reputable outfitters are very good at matching horses to riders. She prefers horses that aren’t herd bound so she can ride ahead to take pictures of groups coming up the trail.
With an established career and a niche market, Shawn concluded her talk by saying “I do what I love and I love what I do and I always look beyond the obstacle.”
Ellie Ross – Equine Cognition
Obstacle is a good word to transition to the other featured speaker at Horse Day – Ellie Ross, the Director of Animal Behaviour and Applied Training at Wag and Train, Inc., a dog training and grooming business in Kitchener. Her other passion is equine cognitive psychology and she explained that to understand how horses learn, the terminology is very simple: negative and positive. When it comes to horses, positive means adding something. Negative means taking something away.
Ellie had a lot information to unpack as she encouraged horse owners not to rely on negative consequences to bad behaviour to teach their horses. Rather, creating a positive environment using treats and vocals cues can encourage good behaviour.
The reason is that horses make instant associations that tend to stick in their heads for years. Ellie showed a picture of a horse owner tugging her horse, trying to get it into a pond with her. The horse was clearly agitated ... his lips were pursed, ears back, muscles tight. “She was being all optimistic and thought she would nicely pull him in.” That didn’t happen. Feeling the pressure, he just backed up, pulled her out of the pond, into the mud and the whole exercise was a total fail. What did the horse learn? “He would have learned that around water, mom gets really mad. If she had used treats, it might have worked. Clearly, observational learning in this case did not work.”
Observational learning requires a relationship. The success of any horse training is hinged to relationship, said Ellie. “That is the defining factor.”
In another photo, she showed three men aggressively dragging a terrified horse into water. Ellie explained the horse might associate many things with fear: men, men wearing caps, water or red shirts. It’s often hard to pinpoint the link but guaranteed, the horse will associate it with something, she said.
Owners also need to be careful that they are directing the learning and not the other way around. If a horse follows a command, you can give it a treat within three seconds as positive reinforcement, If the horse nudges your pocket and you give it a treat, the horse is directing the behaviour.
Conceptual learning in horses is the fascinating process of higher- order cognitive understanding where horses can point to specific objects, learn to bow, understand words and communicate what it wants. She showed a slide of a horse discerning shapes while another could point to a sign indicated when it wanted its cover off or on. “Horses’ conceptual learning is so much higher than we can imagine and they can learn some very complicated tasks,” said Ellie.
In terms of training, Ellie described the difference between “operant” and “classical” conditioning.
Operant conditioning is the method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behaviour. “When you see a behaviour you like, reward it and it will be repeated. Reward makes the behaviour stronger.” One of the lessons Ellie teachers her horses is to pick up a tarp and hand it to her. At first, the horse gets rewarded just for touching the tarp. Then she ups the criteria and the horse has to touch and pick up the tarp before he gets a carrot. Next level is picking up the tarp and bringing it to her hand before he earns the reward. She was able to get a horse that would literally jump in the air when it was spooked to this final level. “I really think all horses should be desensitized to tarps,” she added.
Ellie had a horse named Frosty that had a very destructive pawing habit. For this horse, she employed classical conditioning, a learning process that occurs when two stimuli are repeatedly paired; a response that is at first elicited by the second stimulus is eventually elicited by the first stimulus alone.
For instance, Frosty used to paw so much he would dig a trench beside the trailer where he was tied. Ellie taught him that when he pawed four times, he would get a treat. A horse owner in the audience asked why she didn’t try and replace the behaviour. Ellie said the pawing was so entrenched, that in “order to turn it off, I had to turn it on.” She had to teach it as a positive behaviour she could control in order to replace the uncontrollable bad behaviour.
Ultimately, said Ellie, we need to give our horses a choice. “We need to let them learn what is a good choice and what is a bad choice. If we cut off the bad choices, we do not give them an opportunity to learn from their bad choice.” If Frosty would paw past four, he was making a bad choice and didn’t earn any reward. When he paws four times, he has something to gain (praise and a treat) from making a good choice.
To further drive home the concept, Ellie said owners can compare their horse to a bank account with credits and debits. “Avoid the overdraft. Do as much as you can to use positive reinforcement.”
In a reversal of terms but still promoting good behaviour, Ellie discussed positive and negative reinforcement. Most people train their horses using negative reinforcement. An aversive stimulus is given and then retracted once the desired behaviour is achieved. Using reins to whoa a horse is like that. The horse feels pressure from the bit and the pressure disappears when the horse stops. Pairing rein pressure with the verbal command “whoa” teaches the horse it can respond simply to the sound and no rein pressure is required. “If your training is right and consistent, the time will come when you don’t need the reins.”
Other advice and pointers Ellie offered included:
• Some horses will feel that taking them out of the field and away from their buddies is a punishment. In time, a horse that was willing to come to you may stop. “So I am a believer in giving a horse a treat when it comes to you. It’s just a normal behaviour but it is a good behaviour.”
• If a horse reaches for a treat, withhold it. “I won’t tolerate a horse that is rude and grabby,” she said. Rules have to be in place and if the horse doesn’t obey the rules, it’s as simple as withdrawing the treat.
• Every horse has some issue. “They always have something but you can untrain anything,” said Ellie. When a horse has a difficulty, owners need to ask themselves what are they doing to make it stronger? What are they doing to make it less?
• Do not use treats as bribery. You can use them as a lure but not as a bribe. The food is presented, you wait for the right behaviour and when it comes, you give them the treat as a reward.
• Timing is important. Treats work best when given within three seconds after the good behaviour.
• Reward markers give you time. When you associate treats with a reward marker like a clicker or a word like “yes”, then the horse associates the sound with a treat. reward. Eventually the horse’s brain will respond exactly the same way to the word as to the treat reward.
Ellie ended her presentation by saying she doesn’t have anything to sell. “I do this because I think mental health with horses is often overlooked and I want to see people doing more with their horses.” ◊