What is Helenís philosophy?
Over the past ten years (and more!), as I have applied theories learnt during my Psychology degree and PhD studies to my work with horses, I have learnt that it is possible to train horses using kind, positive methods without resorting to excessive pressure or violence. In fact when dealing with problem behaviour it is essential to reduce the amount of stress placed on the animal, and there is no better way to do this than through using methods that do not rely on punishment (see section on training with the clicker). I also found that humans and horses learn better in a positive and calm atmosphere and that when teaching riding these theories apply as much to the riders as to the horses! There is so much good science out there to help us understand how horses learn; the effect of stress; and management- my aim is to bridge the gap between the academic research world and the grass roots of the horse world.
I do not believe that academic training on its own is sufficient- after all the horses don't read the books! However a good grounding in science will always be beneficial. But I feel that to be truly effective, the horse person must learn to feel, to read the horse and the situation, to tailor their knowledge to each individual, to understand when sometimes the rules should be broken, and other times adhered to rigidly. This, for me, is the Art, and can only be learnt from the horses themselves- although all good teachers/ coaches can facilitate this learning. I have been very fortunate so far in the generosity of my equine teachers- I believe that every horse we meet in life has a lesson for us.
Following the failure of extensive chiropractic and physiotherapy treatment for chronic back pain, I discovered the Alexander Technique (www.helpyourself.me.uk). This work on body awareness and posture has revolutionised the way in which I move, ride and teach. The principals of good posture are those of classical equitation. Riding in this way is kinder to both horse and rider, encouraging lightness and freedom of movement, and introducing harmony to the horse- human relationship.
Positive Reinforcement in Training
I also have a particular interest in what is often called clicker training- I prefer to call it training with the clicker! I find that the clicker is a highly rewarding training tool for animal and trainer alike. However I like to emphasise to people that this is not a training 'method' like many of the 'methods' currently being marketed. Instead the clicker is simply a way of rewarding your horse. It is no substitution for a good understanding of horse behaviour, how horses learn and how to train. The clicker can be used by anyone, but it's effectiveness will depend absolutely on the ability of the trainer to understand how best to work with their horse. Training through reward is the perfect foundation on which to build a relationship filled with trust and mutual respect. For me there is nothing more enjoyable than seeing the animal I train gain so much pleasure from what they do. Being a good trainer means understanding all of the above. Being an excellent trainer means all of this AND being able to read the situation, tailor what you are doing to each individual and developing a feel for the 'art' of horsemanship.
I hope through my work to be able to educate people about animal welfare and the responsibility we have towards our horses. It is only by looking at what the horse has evolved from that we can see the kinds of pressures we put on them with our modern lifestyles. I believe that as horse owners we should aim to limit these pressures as much as possible, although I appreciate that the welfare of the owner also has to be taken in to account!! It is, however, possible to strike a balance between the ideals, and I aim to be able to facilitate this balance for people.
My C.V and Acknowledgements to all my teachers!
I graduated from Queen's University Belfast in 1999 with a Bsc (Hons) in Psychology and immediately began work in a riding school. Following this I began my PhD studies, also in the School of Psychology at Queen's. I graduated in 2006 with a Doctorate on 'The influence of owner personality and attitude on the behaviour and temperament of the domestic horse (equus caballus)'. Many thanks to Dr Ian Sneddon who was a wonderfully supportive supervisor.
Over the years I have added to my practical experience with work at various types of equestrian facilities including a stud farm where I got to work with the stallion and youngstock (thanks Diane!). I have also spent time in England with Linda Hams, former member of the APBC (Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors) and equine specialist associate of David Appleby, well known pet behaviour counsellor and founder member of the APBC; with Ben Hart of Company of Horses and Hart's Horsemanship; and with Heather Simpson of the Natural Animal Centre. Many thanks to all three of you who gave me the courage to start my business and share my knowledge- you have all been forerunners in the quest to link the science and the art of horsemanship, thanks for your inspiration and support over the years, and I hope many more to come!
I believe that it is essential to remain open minded to new learning and I take every opportunity to observe natural and conventional horse people at work. The combination of my academic and practical training has given me the skills to be able to analyse all forms of horse training and break them down- at the end of the day learning is still learning, whatever the methods that are advocated. I choose not to advocate a method- I believe that this approach leads to people getting stuck in 'boxes'- I prefer instead to understand the underlying mechanisms for how the method works, and this is what I teach my clients. In this way we are all free to pick and choose the techniques that we use with our horses, based on what is going to be most appropriate in terms of welfare and history, without being restricted to any one method. If you absolutely have to call what I do a method, then it is simply the method of what I call Good Horse Sense!!
I have had many many lessons in the Alexander Technique over the years from Colin Beattie MSTAT and gained wonderful knowledge and experience from Gloria Pullan, BHSAI and MSTAT who was most generous with her time and her experience, giving me many lessons and allowing me to observe her at work. Thanks to Gloria I have refined my teaching and understanding of classical horsemanship. Gloria was herself a pupil of both Charles Harris and Danny Pevsner, former pupils of the Spanish Riding School. I feel very privileged to have had this type of tuition. Gloria is a wonderful instructor who I would highly reccommend- for further details see www.helpyourself.me.uk. I have also benefitted from lessons with Sally Tottle MSTAT and author of BodySense, Riding with the Alexander Technique, and from Patrick Print FBHS and Carol Broad FBHS. Particular thanks to Jennifer Howes BHSAI who developed and guided my early passion for all things horsey with gentleness and tact.
In 2005 I undertook a Diploma in Personal and Executive Coaching accredited to the European Coaching Institute. This Diploma was provided by CARD and DRD as an initiative for women in rural businesses- many thanks to CARD and DRD for providing this support and encouragement. Although I do not practise as a Life Coach I find that the Coaching skills and tools I developed are invaluable to my regular work with my clients.
I have an ongoing commitment to good practise as an equestrian coach through training with Horse Sport Ireland (formerly the EFI) and the British Horse Society.
I began my business in 2003 under the title Harmony Behaviour Insights, providing advice on both horse and dog behaviour problems. I soon dropped the dog work to focus on the horse aspect of the business and to develop my free lance riding coaching. I ran my first workshop on understanding horse behaviour in 2004 and since then have focused more and more on education as a means of reducing the incidence of behaviour problems. In 2005 this website and the concept of 'Helen Spence Horse Sense' was launched (many thanks to Kelly Troughton for thinking up the name!).
In 2007 I was delighted to be invited to join Southampton University on an ongoing basis as a tutor for the horse behaviour case studies module on the MSc in Companion Animal Behaviour Counselling. This was followed with a guest lecture at Queen's and then later in 2007 I took up a part time teaching post in the School of Psychology at Queen's teaching animal behaviour to the undergraduates. I have since left this post to once more focus full time on my work with horse lovers, both amateur and professional.
In 2008 I have been able to fulfill my commitment to improving horse welfare through education and the enjoyment of horse riding as a committee member of the British Horse Society Ireland. We are very fortunate in this country to have a dedicated and passionate development officer in the form of Susan Irwin- few people appreciate just how hard working and tireless she is in promoting the welfare of horses through the aims of the society. Susan has also been incredibly supportive of my work to educate horse lovers- thank you Susan.
Finally, and I believe most importantly, acknowledgement is due to all the horses that have been my teachers so far in my career- and I am sure there will be many more to come! Every horse I have worked with has taught me something, but there are a few that really stand out: Geri, Rosie, Obi and Jennie, my own very diverse little herd who keep me on my toes. Also Dutch, Murray, RD, Sammi and all the horses at Crosskennan Lane- thank you. Some day you and all the others not mentioned here will have your story written!