Over the past decade, practitioners of equitation science have been developing and refining a set of training principles.
The International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) now suggests 10 points to consider, regardless of the horse’s breed, his stage of education or the discipline for which he is destined. Based on objective, evidence-based research and a scientific understanding of how horses learn, these principles are designed to ensure optimal welfare and training efficacy.
While pain is the most common underlying cause of behaviour issues, and should always be ruled out first, all other training problems can be attributed to the neglect of one or more of the following:
1. Train according to the horse’s ethology and cognition
Despite thousands of years of domestication, horses are still hard-wired to live in the company of their own species with the freedom to move and play. They also have both a psychological and a physiological need to forage for most of the day.
The scientific study of behavioural patterns in natural environments is termed “ethology”. Denying a horse the ability to indulge these natural instincts can result in behavioural and health problems, which means it’s important that we understand his basic needs.
The term “cognition” refers to how horses process information about their world.
While they learn through trial and error, they do not have the brain capacity to solve problems, reflect on past events or plan ahead.
They have no concept of right or wrong, so should not be blamed for doing the wrong thing “on purpose”.
2. Use learning theory appropriately
This refers to the basic process by which all animals, including horses, learn. For training, we rely largely on operant conditioning — whereby a horse learns how certain behaviour results in rewards or consequences.
Where positive reinforcement is used to encourage desired behaviour, it is worth remembering that verbal praise is not inherently rewarding to a horse. Food treats or scratching (not patting) have innate meaning.
Negative reinforcement should not be confused with punishment — a better term would be “removal reinforcement”. This is when desirable behaviour is rewarded immediately with removal of pressure. Every time we use a rein or leg aid, for example, that aid should cease as soon as the horse offers the correct response.
While reinforcement aims to make desirable behaviour more likely to be repeated, punishment is used to reduce or eliminate undesirable behaviour. There are many negative welfare consequences associated with punishment, however, and the timing is very difficult to get right. Rather than trying to punish unwanted behaviour, the more effective method is to focus on training the correct behaviour.
3. Train easy-to-discriminate signals
Because horses do not have the same mental capacity as we do, training can be optimised by keeping things simple.
While the correctly trained horse can respond to the rider’s postural cues alone, it is still important to have separate physical cues (or aids) for stride length, speed/tempo, turning of forelegs/hindlegs and flexion of the head and neck. Each cue should be unique and easy to discriminate.
4. Shape responses and movement
A horse is unlikely to perform a new movement perfectly first time. We need to be clear about what the end product is before breaking it down into lots of easy-to-achieve steps. The more small steps, the faster the horse usually achieves the final goal, as he’ll make fewer mistakes along the way.
To teach an event horse to jump a skinny brush fence, for example, you might ask him:
a) First to jump a fence, then a brush fence.
b) Next, a brush fence on a perfectly straight line.
c) Then a skinny brush fence with V-shaped poles resting on the top, before laying the poles on the ground.
d) Finally, a skinny brush fence.
If you start off by trying to jump an isolated skinny brush fence straight off, there’s an increased likelihood the horse might run out. He would then be “practising” running out. By setting him up for success, he never learns that running out is an option.
5. Elicit responses one at a time
Only ask a horse for one thing at a time, otherwise one set of aids becomes inhibited by the other. The horse then becomes desensitised to different aids and confusion sets in.
With young horses, always wait three seconds after giving one aid before giving another. As the training becomes more consolidated the second signal can follow almost immediately.
Opposing aids should never be applied simultaneously — for example, the aid for acceleration (leg pressure) and deceleration (rein pressure). This is one of the most common causes of misunderstanding, which results in behavioural problems.
6. Train only one response per signal
Imagine how puzzling it would be, from the horse’s point of view, if rein pressure was sometimes an aid for deceleration and sometimes for vertical flexion. Or if similar leg aids were used to ask for longer steps, faster steps, turning the front legs and yielding the hindlegs.
Each cue from the rider should elicit a single response.
7. Form consistent habits
Consistency is key to creating a habitual response to an aid.
Initially, train new responses using an aid on exactly the same part of the horse’s body and in the same context — in a certain part of the arena, for example. As the response here becomes obedient, the location can be changed to form a habitual response to the aid anywhere.
In addition, shape transitions so that they occur in the same number of steps each time.
8. Train persistence of responses
The horse should be trained to maintain rhythm, straightness and outline without constant signalling from the rider.
If there is persistent pressure or nagging from the hand or leg that does not elicit a new response, the horse will become habituated to that degree of pressure and it will come to mean nothing. The end result is that more pressure is required to maintain the gait.
If the horse cannot remain in self-carriage as you give the reins or remove your legs from his sides for two strides, it shows that there are holes in your training that need work.
9. Avoid flight responses
Flight response or conflict behaviours, such as rearing, bucking, napping and bolting, should be avoided at all costs, as they can be triggered spontaneously at any point in the horse’s future. Rather than riding through these unwanted behaviours, try to break the link by immediately riding a downward transition if a problem occurs.
Acutely, these behaviours represent stress, which can trigger other problems such as aggression. Long-term stress has serious welfare consequences, including a reduced ability to learn, lowered immunity, digestive problems, ritualisation of the original conflict behaviour and insecurity.
Insecurity often manifests itself as separation anxiety, fence-walking, fear of or aggression towards other horses and increased spookiness.
10. Consider appropriate arousal levels
Aim to train with the horse as relaxed as possible.
Consider, too, the optimal level of arousal according to each discipline. A racehorse, for example, requires a higher level of arousal than a dressage horse to perform at his best in competition. When arousal levels are higher than optimal, ability to learn is reduced and tension and stress start to prevail.
Ref: Horse & Hound; 19 May 2016