Tag Archives: equestrian

Right Turn Clyde!

This one is very closely related to a question that came into my inbox, so if you are reading this you know who you are 🙂

Ordinarily most riding horses learn to turn left or right through pressure and release (or negative reinforcement). Early on in breaking in the rider opens the rein in the desired direction, causing pressure to increase on the bridle. When the young horse makes the correct turn the pressure is released and the young horse learns to repeat the behaviour, and form a habit of turning in response to lighter aids that indicate the pressure will increase if they don’t turn. But, if the young horse, or even the older one, is in anyway emotionally aroused, unbalanced (due to their own lack of gymnastic ability, and/or their rider’s poor posture) or anticipating pain (present or past), then the usual order of events may fail to come about. The key to pressure and release or negative reinforcement is that the behaviour coinciding with the release is that which is reinforced and repeated! In a horse more motivated to regain balance, escape a greater fear, reach a greater reward, or escape from pain than to relieve some bridle pressure, then they may well run through the increased rein contact and get reinforced for a behaviour other than making the turn. That can very quickly become the habit, in response  to strong negative emotions triggered by the increased bridle pressure. The horse will also become alert to other warning signals in the environment that predict that strong bridle pressures will occur, and so can become wound up in advance, primed and ready to perform escape and avoidance behaviour.

The keys to rectifying such issues are to eliminate pain through veterinary examination and necessary treatment. It is often advantageous to use physiotherapy (http://www.acpat.org) to help further reduce pain, to re-educate balance and movement, and have a positive impact in the musculoskeletal system. Making sure you have a good seat and balance will also help as in our frustration to get a response we can unbalance the horse and help maintain the problem.

It will of course, also help this to change the horse’s behavioural and emotional responses to the bridle and your aids; emotional state and arousal always impacts posture, and not always in desirable, healthy ways. One place to begin is with the horse in a calm state, and to practice using the aids in a way that enables the horse to respond softly and easily until this way of responding is more habitual. The next step might be to add an increase in challenge, something that causes more excitement to the horse such as a faster gait, a change of location, or inclusion on a jump. The idea is to introduce the challenge while the horse is calm and responsive, practise the new way of  responding in the presence of the challenge such as one turn over the jump and go back to schooling to maintain or regain calm before jumping again. This way the horse begins to learn that the jump (or other challenge to their emotional state) comes when they are calmer, and that they are returned to this quieter way of going before being challenged again. This helps to prevent the horse from over arousal and going over the threshold that drives them to more extreme escape and avoidance behaviour.

Using this approach helps with emotional management, but still uses pressure and release as the primary motivation for compliance with the rider’s aids. This can mean that there’s not a lot in it for the horse, and can leave them still feeling negative emotions, even if they are calmer ones. The addition of positive reinforcement (a reward such as scratching and/or titbit) can improve their motivation to perform and change their way of going to something that is more optimistic and less defensive. For steering and contact related issues, rewarding the horse when they are relaxed and in the channel of your aids is one approach, target training your horse and having an assistant call them to their target for a reward (even over a jump) can seriously increase their motivation to pay attention and respond to your signals provided they are called to the target as they (attempt) to respond to you. The net result of this is a new and optimistic association with the ridden situation, and experience of positive emotions helping to improve the performance and the horse and rider experience.


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.