4 Key Behavioural Attributes of the International Sports Horse #RoadtoRio

Olympics time again! But what does it take to be a globe trotting top competition horse? What psychological abilities does a performance horse need to deal with all the travelling and constant change and still be at the top of their game?

One: Habituation. The horse must be able to relax and be comfortable enough to work, rest and sleep in a variety of locations. Horses that frequently travel long distances tend to be less inclined towards becoming unduly stressed by long haul road and air trips. Familiarity with a variety of surroundings, and enough curiosity to engage with new places without fear are also important features in a horse who needs to be attentive to a rider competing at the highest level.

How would I prepare my prospective sports horse? From an early age I would make sure they were exposed to standing and resting in enclosed places like stables and horse boxes so that they can habituate to being in them. To help them along I’d want them to have the company of their mother and/or other reliable and relaxed herd mates who are already habituated – social learning is the tops here! I’d also gear their early learning to exploring new places, surfaces, sights, sounds and smell – letting them explore, not forcing them to.

Two: Social skills. For regular competitions the horse may well be travelling with the horses he or she lives and trains alongside, and so the travelling companion is a familiar buddy. The trip to Rio involved being boxed alongside an unfamiliar companion, from another stable or even another national team. Being able to rub along with new horses without anxiety would be an advantage to a horse who will need to be able to perform at their best within days of arrival in Brazil.

How would I prepare? Allowing young horses a more natural weaning, and growing up in a herd enables the development of key social skills which will help them get along with new horses that they meet later in life. Meeting new horses around 18 months to 3 or 4 years of age matches the timing of dispersing with other youngsters from mum’s herd in the wild. These youngsters are ready to go their own way in life, with buddies old and new.

Three: Resilience. Performing in one place one week, then within the month, being transported to another area entirely and performing well there too requires resilience. The sports horse needs to be a survivor, confident in their ability to solve problems thrown their way. Learning that they can predict and deal with adverse events helps them to do this, especially when unavoidable unpleasant events are sweetened a little.

How would I encourage this? Make sure that routines are predictable, that horses have reliable cues for everything humans require of them, that management is centered around the behavioural (ethological) needs of the horse, and that learning theory is used appropriately. Horses learn how to behave to avoid aversive stimuli, and to gain rewards (correct positive and negative reinforcement). That they are never trapped in frustration, fear and confusion: This will increase distress, anxiety and depression, the very enemies of resilience.

Four: Positive Mental Attitude. Horses who are optimistic anticipate they will be successful, even when presented with a new challenge. Horses who lead lives where they are frequently and reliably rewarded for their behaviour, and have freedom of choice and control over their basic living activities such as sleeping, eating, socialising, and staying safe will be more likely to have a positive mental attitude because positive emotional experiences bring about a positive mood state.

How do I make sure my horses’ glasses are half full? I enrich my horses’ living environment with free opportunities to socialise and to forage amongst a variety of safe fibre based foods (I’d use highly digestible super fibres and oil to fuel the requirements of a performance horse). Then when I train them I pay attention to fitness and correct gymnastic development, and have a hierarchy of training methods: positive reinforcement>negative reinforcement>punishment.

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