The learning ability of your horse

The learning ability of your horse
What you as a rider and owner should know in order to be a good trainer of your horse

1. The basic traits of the horse as a being – physical and mental characteristics
2. Training the horse – Different training approaches
3. How to be a good trainer of your horse – things to keep in mind

1. The basic traits of the horse as a being

What is typical of the horse?

Physical characteristics:
On the one hand, horses have the ability to cover long distances in an efficient and economic way
(herd wandering around looking for food, shelter and water)

Biomechanic background: the horse’s lower limbs don’t have muscles, only tendons. Tendons don’t use energy like muscles do, but are capable of storing and releasing kinetic energy because of their strong elastic fibre.

On the other hand, horses have the ability to reach maximum speed within seconds, already as a newborn foal/filly. (fleeing from imminent danger).

Biomechanic background: the hindleg of the horse is build like a spring mechanism that can propell the horse forward with great power.

It’s important to see how these two physical characteristics relate to one another: in a normal situation, i.e. most of the time, the horse ’s movements are relatively slow and economic. Most of their time horses spend grazing, wandering around, scratching each other and resting.
It’s good to keep this in mind while training a horse – I come to that later.

Mental characteristics:
The horse is a herd animal:
Social, conflict avoiding if possible, communicates through subtle signals
The hierarchic element in the herd is much less important than is usually assumed!

The horse is a flight animal:
Sensitive senses, alert even when resting
If in danger, the horse will usually choose ‘flight’ over ‘fight’ and ‘freeze’

The horse is an animal of habits:
A single positive or negative experience can already make the horse develop specific behavioral patterns. Once developed, behavioral patterns of a horse will not easily change

Apart from that, there are two other important characteristics of the horse:
Both characteristics that help the horse to survive in the wild, but can definitely work against him in his role as a riding horse (unfortunately).

When training a horse, one should take all these characterics into account.

2. Training the horse

Most horse training methods are based on conditioning.
Specifically: conditioning the horse to yield to pressure.

A simple example: standing next to your horse, you want him to make space, so you push your hand against his bum in order to make him step aside.

Traditional training approach
The main concept within traditional horse training methods is: ‘the horse should obey’. The background of this is that in the past, the horse was used as a transport device, to work on the land and for warfare. Also, horses traditionally are considered to be dangerous, powerful animals: they can kick, bite, buck, rear and bolt.
In the traditional way, the horse is conditioned to be obedient and controllable. Rein and leg aids are the most important means of communication.The focus is very much on training under the saddle and much less  on training on the ground. The trainer uses the concept of pressure-release pressure, partly relying on mechanic aids like different types of bits, a whip and spurs.
The traditional approach doesn’t necessarily lead to a horse unfriendly way of training, this totally depends on the attitude, the skills and the ‘horse sense’ of the trainer.

Natural horsemanship
Natural horsemanship is the term used for a wide range of training methods and concepts that have in common that they all focus on the natural characteristics and needs of the horse as a herd and flight animal.

In NHS respect and trust are closely intertwined.
The idea is that when the horse respects you, he will also trust you.

The majority of the NHS approaches is based on the principle of pressure and release.
According to some NHS-specialists, the trainer should take on the role of the leading stallion. The emphasis is on the fact that the horse should respect the trainer as his ‘herd’ leader. Examples: Pat Parelli, Monty Roberts.
According to other NHS specialists, the trainer should take on the role of the alpha mare as she is the one that actually moves and leads the herd, but in a more subtle way than the leading stallion. The emphasis in this approach is more on trust but still very much based on the concept of gaining leadership through pressure and release.

Basically both the traditional and the best known NHS approaches are based on pressure and release pressure, and therefore on negative reinforcement.
While the traditional trainers use physical/mechanical force to train the horse, the NHS trainers use mental pressure (best example: Monty Robert’s Join-up).
Both can easily lead to the trainer just ‘giving orders’ tot he horse, making him into an obediant servant (learned helplesness). The horse is just trained to obey, not to make choices himself, not to use his body and brain in a more sophisticated way.

The concept of the trainer as the leader of the herd is very much based on hierarchy. But as I pointed out, the hierarchy within a herd of horses is much less important in the herd’s daily life than often is believed. Recent studies show that the herd dynamic is much more defined by social skills and friendship than by hierarchy. Often the more social, ‘wise’ horses are more popular than the alpha types. Horses can form very close friendships – everybody who has ever taken the time to observe a herd for a longer time will confirm this.
Apart from that, we must realise that our horses do not live in a natural herd, because in nature the herd is not put together by humans and there are no geldings in nature.

There are tendencies within the natural horsemanship world towards a different approach of horse training, more based on friendship and social contact as the most important dynamic in a horse herd.
The best definition of this approach I found on a very interesting website (horseandhumans):
‘lead by example not by force’.
This means: inviting the horse to team up with you, with a positive intention, not focussed on getting something from the horse, but on challenging him to give his best. The key words are: body awareness, reliability, modesty, quietness, physical and mental balance, and positive reinforcement.
The trainer communicates through body language and subtle signals which are focussed on activating the horse’s body awareness and brain. With this approach, the horse is given an active and more equal role, which will make him more intrinsically motivated to work (or play) with his trainer, like two friends.

This doesn’t mean you should abandon the concept of conditioning alltogether. In my opinion, there will always be situations in which it is important that the horse has learned to yield to pressure and obey tot he rider/trainer. Depending on the character, age and background of your horse, it’s necessacy to set some boundaries to your horse as a foundation for a more refined communiction.

But the problem is that the majority of trainers still focus too much on obedience and correction. I think this hampers the learning ability of the horse.
How? The obedience and correction approach often means the trainer/rider is constantly demanding a reaction from the horse, often in a very active, dominant way. The horse is forced to keep his focus 100% on the trainer/rider. He doesn’t get the time and opportunity to feel what he is doing , to concentrate on his own body and to use his brain in the process. The horse is not challenged to explore for himself how he can use his body. He can easily be pushed over his physical and mental limits.

3. How to be a good trainer of your horse
Be the leading dance partner
Be aware of the fact that we as riders, being humans, are often too much focussed on control and obedience. It’s important that you are in charge, but try to be like a dance partner that takes the lead in a gentle, subtle, inviting way. ‘Be a leader by example, not by force’.

Be in the moment

Don’t ask what your horse can do for you but ask what you can do for your horse

Focus on yourself
While riding, think of helping your horse by giving modest but clear aids and by constantly working on your own balance and on the quality of your aids (technique, timing and dosage). Don’t overdo your aids, be modest, even if your horse is not yet giving you the right answer. Give him the time and opportunity to explore.

Challenge your horse to give his best
If you want to improve the way your horse is moving, think of inviting or challenging him to give his best, instead of trying to push him.

A horse is never lazy or disobedient on purpose
It’s good to keep in mind that a horse is inclined to move in an economic, efficient way. That means that he will always try to find the easiest way to do things, without wasting energy. Doing that, he is not being lazy or disobedient. It’s up to the rider to motivate the horse to be more active and towards a more sophisticated body use.

Don’t work with a stressed horse
Of course, a horse can also be stressed and ‘overactive’. Remember a horse cannot learn as long as he is stressed, that means, not in a positive way. So when a horse is stressed (tense back, high head-neck position, ‘ready to go’) first you have to get the horse to relax before you start to work with him.

Don’t judge your horse
Learn to read your horse’s behavior and reactions for what they are. Don’t let your own emotions and presumptions be predominant in this. A horse is a horse, he will react according to his nature, to what he has learned, to what is easiest for him. He is not trying to make life hard for you. He is living in the moment.

Learn to be ‘quiet’
In a normal situation, a horse communicates through very subtle signals. Be aware of that, and of the fact that we humans often are ‘all over the place’: talking, moving, making gestures with our arms. For horses, this is a lot of ‘noise’. So, learn to be ‘quiet’, and the horse will be more responsive to subtle communication. Thi will improve the harmony and mutual understanding between you and your horse.

And last but not least, every now and then be amazed by the fact that horses are kind enough to accept being ridden. Be grateful for that, instead of taking it for granted!

© Marieke Mulder 2018


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