Norfolk Horse Training and Equitation Club’s resident trainer, Johanna Macarthur, addresses some frequently asked questions…
“All training is affected by the horse’s ability to learn both as an individual and as a prey species.”
“All training starts with home management” jm
The first thing to remember is that, simple behaviour/training principles, will apply to every individual horse. Each horse has the ability to learn based on his past experiences, age and breed etc., for example cold bloods (Shires and Cobs) will generally be less reactive to fearful situations than warm bloods (Arabs and TB’s). Both types evolved for survival based upon where they originated. Cold climates for example, had slow moving hunting predators – the cold blooded horses were hunted by packs of wolves, or by stealth hunters like bears – therefore solid hooves in a group were needed to ward off the hungry predators. The cold bloods did not have to genetically modify to run fast, they stood and defended their ground! The warm bloods however, came from hot countries, with fast running predators like pumas and leopards etc., these horses had to evolve to run first, think second! Breed type is hugely influential upon the horse’s ability to learn and react to stimuli! In addition the horse’s memory of all previous handling or training, both good and bad, will affect his ability to process new information. Horses have one of the best memories on the planet!
They literally remember everything!
The horses learning ability is therefore influenced by its genetic make up. There are some behaviours that horses are naturally programmed to do as part of their survival mechanism, the most alarming for us, is their instant reaction to fearful stimuli – Spooking! For the horse, however, this is a unique life saving response to stimuli – the very instant a horse is alerted to a potentially fearful situation, a part of the brain called the Hypothalamus is simultaneously activated with the Piturity and Adrenalin Glands (known as the HPA axis) this mechanism tells the horse to move its legs – FAST! It is known as the ‘flight’ response, we see it in other species like antelope and deer.
It is this natural response (HPA) that has ensured that the wild horse can survive/out run attacks by its predators. It remains one of the responses most dangerous to riders and handlers, it is a natural automatic, body reflex/response that cannot be stopped, only ‘suppressed or diluted’ by good training – It is important to note that when in ‘flight response’ the ability to learn/listen is lost!
“They are thinking with their feet”
Many of us have been told for years when leading or riding a horse in a fearful situation to “keep him going!” When in fact the opposite, in most cases, is actually the most effective, that is to “keep him still” By successfully training Stop! We help keep the horse Calm. Keeping the horses legs still, means we do not further stimulate the HPA flight response, training for Calm is essential for safety and for learning.
Nature has provided the horse with an excellent memory – because the horse has evolved to out-run its predators and because it lives a continually roaming life with the herd, seeking out new pastures – this excellent memory enables the horse to continually learn about his new environment in order to survive another day! This makes horses very easy subjects to retrain – as they are literally programmed to never stop learning!
Horse training following ‘learning theory’ methods is therefore straightforward, it doesn’t allow for mis-interpretation etc. Essentially we need to correctly train our horse to ‘Stop’ and ‘Go’, to ‘Stand’ and ‘Head down’, if he can understand and obey these four simple commands willingly and calmly we can then begin to train or re-train everything else – Just imagine if, in and ideal world, every dangerous or exciting situation that you faced with your horse, he did exactly as you said, Stop!, Go!, Stand!
How much safer and happier you both would be!
Here are some Q’s and A’s that I have answered based on the principles of ‘Learning Theory’, Applied Ethology and Equitation Science.
We strongly recommend that you ask your veterinary surgeon to check if your horse is displaying ‘out of context’ or ‘dangerous’ behaviour due to pain in case there is an underlying physical problem.
Do also ensure that your trainer obtains your Vets permission before they undertake any behaviour training with your horse.
How can I train my horse to be calm and safe?
Teach GO! STOP! BACK UP! and HEAD DOWN!
To train all of the above correctly you must be consistent every single time you handle the horse, even when leading in from the field etc. To train your horse effectively you must use only the minimal pressure to encourage the Go, Stop, Back Up and Head Down – you MUST immediately release the pressure the INSTANT that the horse starts to do the right movement.
(timing = pressure = release = Success!
– critical to successful communication)
I would encourage and reinforce the right movement every single time with a reward, either a little scratch on his neck/withers and/or a very small food reward (thumb size carrot chip), or just leave him a minute or two to stand still. Rewarding for a requested behaviour is known as ‘positive reinforcement’ – it is a very powerful motivator for learning! even if ‘the requested behaviour’ may well have been negatively stimulated for example we mean…
You ask a horse to go forward by gently pressure (stimuli) to its head if you are leading or a leg if you’re a riding…
pressure is negative
ie: think of when someone has sat by the side of you and pressed their elbow too close, you may move but they didn’t motivate/reward you to move did they? – they pressured you to move. If they had smiled and then offered you a toffee! – would you have felt better about letting them squeeze in?
So you may ask your horse to move initially with negative pressure – however, if you immediately reward the horse by…
1. taking ‘off’ the pressure, and
2. reward the horse at the precise moment it moves off…
Then you have positively reinforced to the horse, that although it was asked by pressure to move, (a very small pressure) it was given a reward! This allows the horse to process the information and LEARN that an immediate move off equals a reward – its Motivation!
To teach the ‘Go’ – stand facing the horse with a length of rope between you – (do this in a head collar if possible) WHEN YOU ARE SURE YOU HAVE LIGHT HANDS THEN – USE A BIT! Very gently encourage the horse to walk toward you with the lightest of pressure on the rope pulled forward using only a light hand, you can use a voice command to help indicate to the horse what you want him to do – as soon as he steps forward, release the pressure!! Say well done and gently stroke his withers or neck, now repeat the procedure, do this many times. Some determined individuals may been a gently rhythmic tapping to encourage the legs forward – stretch your stick or training whip to tap the back of the legs in encouragement – every second without increasing the pressure.
Rushing past! (if your horse wants to continue to walk past you, gently place pressure in a backward and downward movement and use a verbal command, Whoa, Halt, etc) When you think the horse is moving easily and willingly stop the session, and reward. It is important to let him have time to learn from what you have both achieved.
To teach the ‘Back Up – stand facing the horse but closer to his chest (about 2ft away), ask for a back up using the same principles, use gentle pressure on the rope pushing back to his chest – if he resists use a schooling whip to rhythmically and gently tap his legs (on the cannon bone) to encourage him back, do not increase the pressure on the head and remember to release INSTANTLY, reward and repeat – do not overdo this, or use force, take it slowly and keep the horse calm… if you push too hard to achieve this you will invite a rear.
To teach ‘STOP’ – stand in the leading position, look forward and gently lift your hand forward, use a voice command, if he resists, gently use your outside hand to tap his rump, use the tap in a rhythmic way, tapping every second, as soon as he begins to walk forward walk with him, after a few strides use the same pressure that you used in ‘Back up’, this time gently pull back toward his chest, if he ignores you use more pressure in a rhythmic way until he realises you are asking for a STOP! You can use a voice command, and if he is excessively strong you might need to tap his legs (front cannon bone) to reinforce the ‘back up’ memory.
To teach ‘Head Down’ – stand at the horses head and gently encourage his head to lower with only the lightest of pressure downwards, use the choice command ‘”DOWN” you can reward/encourage him as he lowers his head with a food titbit but you must remember to INSTANTLY release as he begins to lower his head. Teach him to lower his head to the ground, this will generally take several sessions – and do wear a hat, if you push too hard they can throw up their heads suddenly – be warned!
When your horse reacts positively and without hesitation to gentle pressure for all of the four movements and your voice commands, then, you can start practicing in the saddle.
Why do some horses behave badly?
Horses, like us, are individuals, some cope with life better than others – the short answer to a big Question!
To understand why our horse is behaving dangerously we need to analyse all that we do with our horse. Horses behave in a dangerous or unwanted manner because of pain, memory, learned behaviour or daily conflict/stress. It may well mean that as an owner we may need to address, one or more of the following: pain/health issues; stable management; nutrition; take’ our riding (where and how we ide); ground handling; social species contact etc. Please remember that what one horse seems to cope with another may not – it is just that they are individuals like us – they are not being stupid or naughty, they will be scared… of something – you have to identify what that is!
Another reason why horses are deemed to behave ‘badly’ may be behind our long held views and because of the terminology we use to traditionally describe horse behaviour – we describe ‘Problem’ horses with ‘Vices’ as if, they are in some way culpable, determined to undermine us at every turn! This may be why excessive force is deemed an acceptable necessity in traditional horse taining and used to pressure or force a so called ‘naughty’ horse to comply.
Force only serves to create further conflict
between horse and handler.
In fact, we need to recognise that horse are actually often displaying ‘learned’ behaviour in order to get them out of a situation they don’t want to be in. (Rearing when they see a tractor and running home minus a rider springs to mind!)
My young horse (5 years old) speeds up in trot and is very difficult to hold in canter – he is worse with other horses and if I take him on his own he spooks at everything and wants to turn for home the whole time – would a stronger bit help? Currently I ride him in a jointed snaffle.
There are many issues going on with your young horse, this is generally the case as one unresolved issue leads to another – I have identified the separate issues in my answer so you can identify the training you will need to apply.
Running home/riding alone – Horses are heard animals – it is not natural to be out on their own, they are genetically programmed to seek the company and safety of a group of horses.
Your young horse needs to be encouraged to leave his friend(s) when out riding, but in the beginning only do this for a few minutes each time, (you are trying to habituate him to being on his own with you and to reinforce the concept that he is safe with you.) This procedure should be done only with a schoolmaster horse and where you would regularly ride. Build up to where you separate from view but quickly re-join each other.
It is a good idea to reinforce these quiet moments together with a reward either a scratch of his neck or withers or perhaps a small food reward. The turning home will stop when he gains more confidence with you and in the environment in which you are riding … ride the same way!
I also encourage my riders to yawn loudly – it is a universal language for all mammals and if it doesn’t help calm the horse it may settle your nerves!
Remember the reward for your horse is to get back to his friend and home so make sure all rides are short and undertaken frequently. Consider riding out 3-4 times in a single day for example, for only 15 minutes each time, this can also habituate him. Only ride out in walk first, until you are really condiment that he will obey you – remember the faster the gait, the faster you can evoke flight response. As your horse becomes more confident to be alone with you (he never knows when his friend may return or when a tasty treat may come his way!) he will remain relaxed and focused on your commands. This should help with the spooking as he becomes confident with you on his back.
Spooking – It would be helpful at home to recreate some spooky objects – one at a time! And habituate your horse to it. Make sure your horse understands the principles of Stop, go, Back up and Head Down (see previous question for details) in hand and ridden before you attempt this! For safety, I recommend ALL training takes place in hand before you try riding.
Try this one at home… Make sure that a crinkly bin bag is just poking out of the top of a dustbin – make sure that the bag cannot fly up and away, that would be disastrous! Let him look at the bin from a great distance.
When he has looked at the bin and looks calm, take him away, leave it for 15 minutes and take him back – don’t go any closer, do this until he is no long interested in looking at it, and he appears to you to be calm and relaxed – the next day you repeat the procedure, go to the same place but when you return you go a little closer, again repeat the procedure at the new closer place until his is relaxed (normally 4-6 times).
I would recommend frequent exposure – doing this over several days at least, getting closer the whole time, it is not necessary for you to allow him to touch the bin, but he can get close enough to sniff it – this is similar to the methods that the Police apply to habituate police horses in training.
Pulling – He is strong in the mouth – so are you! As riders we must accept WE create the pull. We must also accept that a piece of iron or steel pressed down on to the gummy part of the mouth (bars) is actually very painful so the ‘release of pressure’ becomes all the more important if you are to reward coming off pressure!
Try to ‘give and take’ – ‘give and take’ to slow the horse.
It may help if we can image this from the horse’s perspective based on what has been happening in the past;
We know that he is fearful of going out on his own or being left by his friends, he remembers this has happened in the past, he also remembers that when he tries to rejoin his herd (do what he is genetically programmed to do), excruciating pain is delivered with a nutcracker action in his mouth. He may have also been kicked and whipped and shouted at AS THE OWNER ENCOURAGES HIM FORWARD …
He is now beginning to associate being left on his own with physical pain when he is prevented from running forward, pain will only fuel his fear further, we have effectively forced the horse into a state of conflict. This can very quickly become a vicious circle that you do not want to create as panic can set in and bingo we have a bolter! Or at best a horse with a ‘hard mouth’.
My advice is NEVER go to a stronger bit! Never use more force. The very fact that there is a multiplicity of bits and mouth devices on the market to try and control horses may suggest to us that none provide all the answers. Instead you must train in-hand the STOP, GO, BACKUP, HEAD DOWN! Use positive reinforcement to alter your horses ‘learned’ behaviour and to change his memory into something good and rewarding.
Eventually when you ride ensure that you are very light with your hands – in my experience even the most experienced of riders use too much pressure and thus create pain and resistance in the horse.
There are some very good bitless bridles on the market, I use a Dr Cook Bitless bridle on my youngsters – it may be something you could try.
Young horses need to be trained, to be brave and ride out alone, we cannot force them to do it, fear just breeds more fear and we all know where that takes us. Reinforce the Stop and Go, Back up and Head Down. This must all be undertaken in-hand and be absolutely solid – that is to say the horse must not show any signs of resistance and be completely relaxed before you apply any training in the saddle. Once you have Stop Go, Back up and Head Down at the walk with NO resistance, try the trot and so on. Remember to reward frequently every correct movement, be light with your hands, do not invite a pull, remember THE GOLDEN RULE for pressure – immediate release.
My horse who is 12 years old hates the Farrier. I have owned him for five years, every time the Farrier calls the Vet has to come and sedate him, this has now resulted in us having a battle with the Vet as well, as he knows what is coming – Help! I dread the stress and expense every 8 weeks?
From the horses perspective first; he is only responding to stimuli and through learned behaviour.
I quite agree in the long term, sedation does not help, for many reasons but also because a sedated horse is prevented from the ability to learn from the experience and so things will never improve – they can only get worse as you have indicated!
First we have to understand FEAR is the root of this issue, that is how it started, somewhere in his early training. As a result he became fearful, very likely he was then tied shorter, which caused him to feel trapped, be may well have been shouted at, smacked and twitched etc., as his behaviour became more dangerous people became frightened of injury. No wonder then that he rapidly learnt what would happen to him as soon as the cheerful Farrier appeared. Your horse anticipates what may happen to him – he has a bad memory and has learned to respond violently to try and escape.
This is a problem that can be re-trained, it will mean lots of time and patience and you will need to work closely with both the Vet and the Farrier and quite possibly a trainer who understands and promotes positive reinforcement training methods.
Firstly you need to break this whole thing down into segments and you will need to do this at home with him on your own. Ask your Farrier to show you how he holds the leg and put it down and make him show you how to create the tapping motion of the hammer. Ditto with the way the Vet approaches the horse.
On a quiet day when you have time pick his feet up in the same fashion as the Farrier, do this until he is relaxed, reward him when he does the right thing, either with a neck rub or a small food treat.
Then when he is relaxed tap his foot lightly with the hoof pick or a brush until he is relaxed, REWARD! Do make sure you have a friend with you and wear a hat for safety! Do this over several days.
Hopefully your nice Farrier and Vet will lend you an old apron or Vets smock, now you are beginning to look and smell a little frightening to your horse. Take this stage very slowly – I would just rub the horse (ignore the dreaded feet!) and REWARD, maybe dress like this all the while you carry out your chores, (we are trying to habituate your horse to the sights, sounds, smells and sensations of the Vet and Farrier.) Remember the aim is to get the horse to be relaxed and calm around you. When you are able to approach and your horse is confident rub a leg – REWARD! Increase the touches on the leg getting lower and lower, eventually pick up the hoof.
When the horse is relaxed move onto tapping the foot with a hoof pick and brush do this gently to the wall, sole, frog and heel. Rub the foot and REWARD! This must be done many times in a single day over the period of a week or so. Built to the point where you can tap a hammer on the wall of the hoof. When you feel confident with your horse (actually you will be bursting with pride at this point!) ask the Vet or the Farrier to pop by – they must not touch the horse or get too close. Wait for the horse to relax and REWARD, organise for one of them to call again the next day and do the same.
It will depend on the reaction of the horse as to how fast you can take this training, everything must be done at the horses pace, based on his calm and relaxed manner. But you want to build up to where the Vet and Farrier can come and tough and reward the horse and leave. Eventually ask the Farrier to gently tap the feet with the hammer, if the horse is calm he can increase the hammer taps but he must then reward and leave. (If at any time the horse wishes to put the foot on the ground – let him, never fight this urge. Just wait a second or two and try again, remember to REWARD only when he has lifted his foot and is calm.)
Eventually your Farrier should be able to build up to taking off the shoes – maybe only one to start with or the fronts or the backs. As long as the whole process is calm and without conflict the horse will learn to associate his hooves, Farriers, and Vets as a positive (food) experience.
For very difficult and dangerous horses it is wise to ask for professional help from a trainer so that timing and reward is executed correctly. However with patience and time and consistency this process will work for all horses as you simply replace a bad memory with a good one. The key to success is to involve your Farrier and Vet. Never rush the horse or cause conflict in any way. You must train him to hold his leg up for as long as you (reasonably) say, after which he will be rewarded! Under no circumstances hang on to the hoof if he wants to put it down. When we hang on to the leg using force we will cause fear and it will evoke the flight response and place the horse in conflict with us. Make sure your Farrier and anyone else that handles your horse knows how to react to him and be consistent in the future at all times. Remember the reward comes after he has done the right thing. I would also strongly suggest that you consider having your horse shoeless during this period or even to consider barefoot as an option, either way discuss this kind of re-training or alternative hoof management with your Veterinary Surgeon.