Understanding Behaviour with Equine Behaviourist, Rosa Verwijs

A little while ago I, along with the rest of the Dengie Nutrition team, attended a training session with Rosa Verwijs who is an IAABC certified Equine Behaviour Consultant and Lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) Writtle. The aim of the session was to help us to help those who use Dengie’s portable weighbridge, especially if their horses are a little reluctant to get on the bridge!

When horses are asked to stand on the weighbridge they can be unsure as to what is being asked of them. Most of the time they will happily get on after a good look and sniff but sometimes they are not at all keen and if the owner isn’t very experienced, there is the potential for the situation to escalate – the last thing we want is for the horse or owner to have a bad experience. We therefore wanted to learn from Rosa how to help owners in this scenario whilst being mindful of everyone’s safety.

The team started the session by learning the basic principles of body language of the horse, at rest and during stress, taking into consideration the posture, movement and facial expressions of the horse. With two horses from Writtle, the team were then shown how to train with positive reinforcement by using a clicker or verbal marker and a reward, learning about timing and its importance during training.

Horse being rewarded

The team also learned how it is possible to simulate a weighbridge by using poles and rubber matting that owners could use in their own time and take the time needed to help desensitise their horse. We noted how important it was to ensure the simulated weighbridge was flat and did not move in the wind or with the horses body weight. This was all great advice that we have included in a handout for anyone who books a clinic with us. We can send it in advance so they can prepare for our visit.

The desensitisation process starts with the horse and handler standing away from the “weighbridge”, whilst reinforcing every step the horse took closer to the ‘weighbridge’ with a verbal marker such as “good” and following up with a reward, continuing to gradually approach the “weighbridge”. Then the horse is cued to step on the “weighbridge” one step at a time whilst marking and rewarding the behaviour until the horse is happy to stand on the “weighbridge” with all four feet. This process can be repeated and the horse asked to stand on the “weighbridge” gradually for longer periods of time (1 second, 2 second etc). Throughout the training the horses were given frequent breaks as shorter training sessions are more productive.

Getting to grips with clicker training and reward timing, the team were taught how to help desensitise horses who cannot be trained with food, due to medical reasons, disinterest in food or for those that are too anxious or excitable. Instead of rewarding with food, the team were shown how to train with relaxation, waiting for the horse to fully relax whilst paying attention to the “weighbridge” before moving on to the next step.

There was no such issue in rewarding the Dengie team with food. After a full day of learning and training, our reward was a good cup of tea and some lovely cake and biscuits!