Are you looking for great new methods to teach new things to your horse? Good, I’ve got what you need😉 Let’s have a look at what we call horsemanship ethology.
If I’ve decided to talk about this, it’s because I found out about horsemanship rather late and because it has revolutionized my approach and the relationship between me and my mare since I could finally understand what was happening in her head! Understanding their reactions, their motivations and their misunderstandings allows us to adapt our reactions and to teach them new things much more easily! Magical!! 🙂
“I am a showjumper, no horsemanship needed, this does not concern me at all! »
WRONG, WRONG, WRONG!!
All that we do with horses is teaching them new things, whatever the discipline and age of the horse. Whether it’s about responding to your legs, moving forward or turning to approach an obstacle, everything is a matter of teaching and learning. Therefore, of horsemanship.
Even if you are not the one teaching the horse, and even if you just “do not practice horsemanship”, it is important to now HOW to teach and understand how horses learn. If you do not know how to ask things to your horse correctly, you will not get the requested answers, and it can quickly escalate. This is how we end up punishing a horse who simply does not understand what is asked from him. This leading to the creation of very shy or dangerous horses!
We riders, make a lot of mistakes (sorry…), but most of the time in an unconscious and involuntary way. This due to lack of knowledge. This kind of knowledge deserves to be more widely spread. If you have some time, I advise you to take a look at Andy Booth’s demonstration, one of the pillars of horsemanship ethology. Hopefully, this will convince you:
Operant conditioning: a reinforcements story
Operant conditioning is the act of teaching the horse to consciously associate with one or more orders an action / response from him. There are two main methods. We call them “reinforcements”, in this case positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.
Positive and negative do not mean here “good” or “bad” but rather “by addition” or “by subtraction”. We must teach horses using a “universal” language namely “it’s good / it feels good” and “it’s not good / it does not feel good. “
So when teaching something to a horse, there are two main possibilities:
- Try to make him do a certain action and reward as soon as done: “When I hit the balloon I find a carrot underneath: it’s good! I will start again to see if there is not another one “→ This is positive reinforcement (by adding a reward)
- Try to make him do a certain action by putting him in an uncomfortable situation until he does this action. We then remove the discomfort when he performed the action in question: “When she squeezes her legs on my ribs it does not feel good, it’s not good, but if I start trotting at that same moment she stops squeezing her legs, so it’s good! “→ This is negative reinforcement (by subtracting discomfort)
You can quickly realize that classic riding is based mainly on negative reinforcements! We squeeze our legs to go forward, we close our fingers to stop, we pull on the lunge, we put draw reins or elastics to get the horse down… But negative reinforcement can sometimes be stressful for the horse, especially if it does not not understand what is expected from him. However, with other species of animals we use a lot more positive reinforcements, especially with food reward (it is the most effective).
Another cool thing you can do through to the theory of learning and so through to horsemanship: Teach your horse to ask for a blanket when it’s getting cold!
What about punishment in all this?
Punishment is also part of the operational conditioning. One punishes when one wants to “decrease the probability of occurrency or the intensity of a behavior” 
Punishments can also be “positive” or “negative”:
- Take out a nice stimulus to punish an unpleasant behavior: “When it’s time for food and I scratch on the floor, they do not give me food, it’s not good! » → negative punishment (by subtraction )
- add an unpleasant stimulus to punish an unpleasant behavior: “When I bight, I get a slap on the nose, it’s not good! » → positive punishment (by addition)
The problem of punishment, especially of positive punishment, is it a timing problem. If the horse does not make the association between his action and the punishment, he might not understand. Punishment is not used well most of the time. 
Take the typical example of a horse that refuses to jump. The horse stops, the rider is well back in the saddle because he was a little unbalanced, gallops and punishes his horse with a whip. This is the typical case of the horse that will be punished … for responding to a canter departure! The time being very long (several seconds, it is very long) between the unwanted behavior (the jumping refusal) and the punishment (whip). The horse will not understand, and put in a very stressful situation.
In these cases, it is better not to punish.
The punishment can also be involuntary. This can happen when accidentally pulling in the horse’s mouth when jumping. The horse is punished for jumping, he is will not want to go back gain.
If you really need to punish your horse, think about being very fast after the stimulus. Then return to calm very quickly so that the punishment does not become a fear towards you. Please, do not over punish. If you do not have time to punish the horse (unbalanced rider following a stop), it is better not to do anything, go over the fence, and reinforce positively at the reception.
It’s all about timing …
Whether it’s about a punishment or about simple learning, the notion of timing is crucial. Too late is … too late …
Regardless of the reinforcement type, if you wait too long between the horse’s reaction and the reinforcement or punishment, he will not be able association them properly. If you get angry 40 minutes after the stupidity, it is useless! But without going into judging, just imagine squeezing your legs in order to go forward, if your horse starts trotting as desired but you do not loosen your legs, he will not or may not understand what you expected from him. On the other hand if your horse hits in the balloon as expected and you reward him with a carrot 2 hours later, he is not likely to associate them.
It seems pretty obvious on paper with these examples, but in fact, most riders do not respect this timing (unconsciously most of the time). We always keep our legs tight (so we do not release the unpleasant stimulus when the horse responds), give micro leg pushes at each strides without realizing it, too much body pressure, fingers remaining tight on the reins applying a constant tension … All these are actions that one does without realizing it and which can confuse the horse as well as its learning behavior due to its wrong timing.
If we would systematically release the leg pressure when the horse is moves forward, we probably would not need to do leg lessons … 😉
The 10 must know horsemanship principles
Finally, let’s talk about these 10 ISES fundamental principles (International Society for Equitation Science). These principles were established by researchers specialized in ethology. They will help you improve your practice in order to have a better trained horse, obedient and well in the head .
# 1 – Train while respecting the horse’s behavior and cognitive abilities
Not respecting the horse’s nature and preventing him from expressing behaviors specific to his species is a source of significant stress and a warning break. This is the case of isolated horses privated of any social contact. Remember, those so-called “bad horses” are often isolated horses … And isolated horses will not learn properly.
# 2 – Apply the learning theory correctly
… by respecting the different learning types, by using positive and negative reinforcement correctly, by not forcing if it is not necessary …
# 3 – Establish easily distinguishable signals
Ask yourself this simple question: Was my request clear and distinct? Could my horse understand it? What did I really ask him? Most of the time, a horse that does not do what was expected of him is a horse that did not understand the request and not a horse that does not want to do it.
# 4 – Gradually shape responses and movements
One thing at the time!! “Ask a lot, settle for little, reward a lot” If you want to teach your horse how to half pass, do not for him to do it twice before rewarding. If it delivers a few correct strides i with the head towards the good direction, reward.
# 5 – Work individually on all the responses
Applying 18 signals at the same time will be confusing for the horse. It can even cause desensitization. When asking something from him, break down your signals in time so for him to understand it better.
# 6 – Teach him to react to those signals
Each signal must correspond to an expected reaction.
# 7 – Instill habits
The same signals must be applied at the same place, in the same position and in the same context. If your horse has learned to canter when saying « canter » when lunging, do not expect him to start cantering when he is tied up in the grooming area. And do not punish him for not answering…
# 8 – Look for the persistence of answers
This is the principle of the “horse that holds himself ” . The horse must be autonomous. You do not have to ask for the same thing every 3 seconds for the behavior to last. If you squeeze your legs to trot, the horse must stay at a trot until you ask him to walk again.
# 9 – Avoid and dissociate fear reactions
“Any training method that deliberately seeks to trigger fear reactions from the horse is to be banned because fear inhibits learning and [greatly] affects the horse’s well-being.”
All is said.
# 10 – Work when the horse is calm
Working a stressed horse makes no sense and is not interesting as he will not ne able to understand what he is doing right or wrong.
These were main ten horsemanship principles that should be known by all riders. Learning is fundamental regarding our relationship with horses. Bad reactions from the rider, whether wanted or not, can only lead to stress and will harm the horse. As with children, learning is never coerced. This is how you create complicity. 😊