Haven’t we all been there?

The reminder card for the dog’s vaccinations drops on the mat, and we prudently place it under a magnet on the fridge door. Our intention is good; we will ring the vet and make that appointment just as soon as we have a moment. Three weeks later we’re on the phone pleading with the receptionist to squeeze us in today.

The perfect training course’s “pay now” button we’ve hovered over umpteen times but have never quite committed to hitting. The half-completed training plan we downloaded a month ago that sits under a pile of similarly unfinished tasks.

What motivates us to complete tasks or to undertake those tasks in the first place, and how does this impact us as trainers of behaviour change in animals? More specifically, how can behaviour consultants improve client commitment and help them see the work you’ve started with them through to a happy conclusion for them and their animals?

As a CHBC, my own work centres, unsurprisingly, on horses; I visit a diverse client base from competitive riders to rescue rehomers, and across the board client compliance is hugely variable.

For some clients, a behaviour consultation is the Last Chance Saloon. They may have received input (which might have made the problem worse) from a variety of trainers and helpful friends. Even though we might be perceived as the last hope, could the fact that previous attempts failed reduce our chances of convincing the client to stick to our suggestions?

It would appear that dog training is far ahead of horse training regarding adoption of positive reinforcement methods. In horse behaviour, science is often met with scepticism by clients who might prefer to rely on their instincts and anecdotal evidence. It could be that going into a consultation using unfamiliar, science-based terminology and techniques is enough to reduce a client’s feeling of understanding and their willingness to do the work.

Sometimes a client isn’t concerned by the behaviour their horse exhibits but is being pressured by the yard owner to find solutions. This is particularly common where a horse is living in a stable yard, rather than on their owner’s property, and the yard staff are responsible for some handling of the horse. In these situations the difficulty with compliance may lie with the yard workers rather than the owner — they may have different priorities, like a need to save time, because they’re dealing with a strict schedule and a large number of horses.

Peer pressure at large facilities can seriously limit compliance to some types of modification plan. Anything that makes a client look and act differently to the yard norm could make life difficult for them. For those newer to horse ownership, their fellow owners and yard owner/manager will have been their go-to resource, and you are asking them to step out alone and take on new methods with only you for support.

The veterinary profession can see behaviourists as more of a complementary approach, and it is rare for me to receive an acknowledgement of a case report sent to a client’s veterinarian. Often clients trust their vet’s knowledge. Lack of support for modification plans may add to lack of compliancy.

Admitting you don’t know how to solve a problem can be hard for anyone who has been around horses for years. Fear of feeling a fool can make it harder for a client to admit they are struggling with a modification plan.

Financial issues, changing schedules, health challenges, and the influence of family members can also make sticking to a plan for behaviour modification more difficult for a client. These difficulties, however, can often be surmounted if they are identified early enough, ideally before the client even has the behaviour modification plan in their hands. That’s why I try to identify potential for a good client-consultant relationship, as well as flagging some possible problem areas, from the very first point of contact with a new prospective client.

Identifying potential challenges

The first thing I do when I get a contact from a prospective client is send them a pre-consultation questionnaire. From the time the pre-consultation questionnaire is completed, I can begin to get a feel for compliance potential. For example, I look at how long the client takes to return the questionnaire, how detailed the information they give is, and how recently the client has seen other health care professionals. The next step is to schedule an initial consultation. This is where I can learn about whether the client has a difficult or busy schedule, understand their work commitments, and get a general sense of their enthusiasm.

Using a behavior form onlineArriving for the initial consultation, I can see the potential in the horse’s living situation. If the horse is living at a facility, I can find out how eager the staff and other horse owners are to meet me, as well as getting a general sense of the possibilities for change in the environment.

From the initial client inquiry I award a binary yes/no for each element of our interactions:

  • Good speed of completing the history form and sending it back to me.
  • High quality of responses on the history form — lots of details about the problem, what they’ve tried, ideally minimal emotive or judgemental language or attempts to diagnose the problem, especially using dominance or another outdated behavioural theory.
  • Regular interventions by other professionals like vets, trimmer/farrier, physiotherapist, saddler, etc. — this indicates a general understanding and commitment to the horse’s health and welfare.
  • Good support from facility staff, if the horse lives in a facility.
  • Any support from peers, such as riding club members, friends who also ride, etc.
  • Any support from family.
  • Financial security, in case I recommend replacing existing equipment, adding enrichment, etc.
  • Not too many time constraints
  • Any personal health considerations that could impact their consistency, ability to comprehend instructions, or physical ability to perform the tasks that comprise a behaviour modification plan.
  • Do they seem to enjoy spending time with the horse?
  • Whether they have the ability to set goals for their relationship with their horse and their horse’s behaviour — do they know what they want the horse to do, or are they just looking for a behaviour to stop? Relatedly, whether they can tell me about previous goals they’ve acheived with their horse.

Kneeling by a horseThis gives me an idea as to how much support a client might need, and will allow me to offer support to those needing it most but avoid stifling those who are happiest to self-motivate. If a strong pattern of yeses appears, then I can rely on my more standard support:

  • Together the client and I can choose a couple of specific elements of the modification plans that the client can concentrate on, asking them to describe them in reasonable detail and note them down to stick on the stable door. Remember the client’s goals may be different from yours.
  • Email or text on return home to reiterate those elements and the support that is included in the consultation, such as a month’s support, veterinary report, and further training sessions as required.
  • Within a couple of days, send brief consultation report and support articles/videos.
  • Weekly check-in text, email, or call for the following month.
  • Offer and book dates that are available for a follow-up visits.

If a strong pattern of no’s emerges, or I sense a struggle early on, then the support package may need to be more specialised:

  • I will ask the client if there is anything I can do to support them. This might sound obvious but is easy to miss, especially on consultation day.
  • Taking the history myself at the initial consultation or by telephone beforehand.
  • Identify realistic goals together and try to identify some tangible goals in the short, medium, and long term.
  • Sometimes a short-term solution will secure more reward for the horse and be more easily achievable for the client. One-visit consultations, whilst usually not ideal, may be more suitable for come clients
  • Focus on the techniques rather than the science speak.
  • Encourage the client to choose a couple of modification plans from a select few: guiding, not pushing. Ask for these to be demonstrated by the client (showing is good, but involving is better) so that there is no risk of misunderstanding.
  • Suggest involving a support friend or family member who can remind them of the plans.
  • Verify time constraints realistically. Open-ended lines such as “I’ve got all the time in the world” or “It takes as long as it takes” are unlikely to lead to compliance. Marking out 20 minutes a day might be more achievable and help with goal focus.
  • Associate modification plans with existing procedures such as feeding, grooming, or riding so that they become part of the routine. For example, adding counter-conditioning of hoof lifts to the grooming process might be easier than it being a standalone effort.
  • Check the client’s preferred method of communication; offer telephone calls on a more regular basis, even daily, if desired.
  • Book follow-up appointments at the initial consultation.
  • Offer different packages such as an “all-inclusive” deal with follow-ups included in the consultation price.
  • Send reminders before follow-ups.
  • Drip-feeding support information by emailing an inspiring article or video daily.

Closing thoughts

For both consultants and clients, the path to changing horse behaviour is littered with distractions and diversions. Being realistic and clear regarding expectations is important. Consultants need to be aware of every client’s needs ,and just as no horse is the same as another, remembering that each client is an individual is essential. Identifying goals that suit the client rather than the consultant is important; if a gentle hack over the fields is the goal, then getting deeply geeky about the science of learning may be off-putting.

Building mutual respect will engender a healthier client-consultant relationship within which there will be a better chance of keeping motivation high and getting good follow-through, and, eventually those animal behaviour changes we all seek.

Trudi Dempsey is an IAABC certified horse behaviour consultant, ABTC accredited animal behaviourist and trainer based in the South West of England. She has been training humans and their horses for more than 25 years specialising in clicker training and bitless riding. Trudi travels within the UK hosting behaviour and training workshops.