I’ve talked about being patient before. Many riders say they are. But then there are competitions, rosettes to be won or there is an audience and the ego plays up. What will the outside world think about it?
Just like people, horses have different learning abilities. One picks up something a little easier than the other. This is partly due to their aptitude, which is how simple it is physically for them to answer the question and how intelligent they are. It matters a lot if what you want to teach them is offered in a way that suits them. In addition, I now revert to the four different natural behavioural preferences that exist. Each requires a different approach. Some prefer step by step, others like a challenge. One wants a fast learning pace, the other does not. Whatever it is, horses don’t know about our plans, expectations or the economic value they represent. It is us who have a double agenda.
A horse does not know your agenda or expectation
It is perhaps more important that you truly love a horse than that you are an excellent rider. I know many examples of perhaps less talented riders, who went on to compete on a very high level because they had a deep bond with their horses, based on trust. These people were patient and affectionate so their horses went out of their way to understand what was required of them, because that’s how a horse works. It is people who betray confidence, not the horse. If things go wrong this can almost always be attributed to communication problems or a lack of knowledge of how a horse works.
Know your horse
Take the time to find out what kind of personality your horse is. This can be done by having a profile made by a professional. But you can also discover it for yourself by spending time with him. What does he like, what makes him happy, what frightens him or makes him nervous? You don’t have to ride him every day. Groom, hug or play with him. Do in hand work and lungeing. If he does something you don’t want, try to ignore it. Ask him something he understands so that he can give the correct answer and you can reward him. Setting boundaries is allowed and it means you sometimes have to be tough. “No means No”, but in a way that your horse understands. So be consistent (always the same) and without hitting, shouting or nagging.
Watch your posture. For a horse that is a kind of language in his nonverbal communication. Huddled and turned away means something completely different than firmly standing with your shoulders back. Straight towards him with your body and your eyes means that you as a predator prepare for the attack. A horse does not have swinging arms but legs and a tail that can swing, so those arms are viewed with suspicion.
How do you reward?
With syrup you catch more flies than with vinegar. Reward works more effectively if you want a horse to do a little better. What exactly is a reward for a horse? That is different from what we often think. How do you reward your horse? Is it by patting his neck? Do you think he also experiences that as a reward? While we’re at it, how do you punish him? Do you ever think about this?
Punishment never causes anything to improve. With punishment he learns not to do something, but it doesn’t help him to do something better. So if you want to improve on something in riding, such as a shoulder in or backing up, it won’t work if you whack him or get angry. You can sometimes touch him with a dressage whip to point something out. But I’m talking about something completely different from hitting him. Have you ever tried the whip on your own leg? It hurts!
Let us go back to the topic of “reward”. You can achieve a lot with this when used the right way and especially at the right time. Reward the moment they do something you like encouraging them to want to repeat it. They gain something.
Patting the neck is not a natural reward for a horse. When it is done for the first time they are often shocked. It is an easy movement for us humans with our arms and hands, using them on a creature with such a long neck. It has become established as the reward for the horse. He learns, if you do it often enough and after a period of time, to understand what you mean. So, if he knows patting the neck can be used as a reward, don’t hit too hard in your enthusiasm and risk frightening him.
What is a much greater reward for a horse is the removal of pressure. Suppose you sit on his back and you push his side with your right calf. A horse is a sensitive animal who can even notice a fly on his skin. That push doesn’t really hurt but he doesn’t like it. If he steps sideways to the left, away from your leg, stop pushing. At that point he learns that if you put your right leg on and he steps to the left, you “release” the pressure from your leg. So that’s what he will do from now on, provided you really take away that pressure every time.
As a reward, taking pressure off works best. You have to be careful with giving treats. It is also not very comfortable if you have to bend all the way forward from the saddle to give something nice. There are trainers who claim that eating is not a reward for a horse, because he eats grass and so his food grows all around him. But when I see how mine react to a treat, I doubt this. Sugar is bad for their health and before you know it they grab your coat to get some. So use treats in moderation.
Incidentally, giving sweets or food is a typically human form of reward. We do that with children too. Eating is a basic necessity of life, which is necessary for survival. When we give away food, we do something “good” for someone else, which creates a pleasant feeling for ourselves. Giving too much away to others or animals is an overreaction of that. I sometimes find myself doing this with my animals. Fortunately, I’ve learned enough to realize that giving a handful of hay is healthier than a treat (and just as pleasant if not more) for a horse. It is also very human to think that an extra scoop of hard feed is better. That is not the case. Less is often healthier for him. The most important thing is that a horse does not experience it as a reward, because he does not understand the idea of ”more” or “less”. It is very much like not feeding a horse because it has been “naughty”. Or even more stupid: not giving a horse anything to eat because you had an altercation with his owner… (believe me, this happens!) Horses do not understand the message behind it.
Let’s go back to training for a moment and find out what a horse likes as a reward. Some horses like that pat on the neck once they have learned what it means. Others prefer you to scratch the withers. Some horses like to be talked to in a friendly way, while others like to be exuberantly applauded. That depends very much on their natural behavioural preference. Rewarding incorrectly, which is different from rewarding at the wrong time, can even cause fear or uncertainty.
You can use a reward to encourage desired behaviour, but if you overdo it the reward loses its meaning. Behavioural scientists sometimes explain this works like using a slot machine, because it only pays out the jackpot every now and then, which makes it is so addictive for you to keep playing and keeps your attention. If you would win constantly it would no longer be exciting. If you constantly reward a horse he will no longer see it as a reward, as it then becomes “normal”.
Just walking on a long rein in between is also a form of reward for a horse. If he’s doing something right, let him stretch his neck and relax his muscles. If he has done his best for half an hour, then do something that you know he can do well. Something that is easy to him and what he likes to do, after which you then end the training. Such a positive finale makes him eager to do something nice with you next time. It may be that you go for a short hack with him at the end or you trot him over some poles. Or do an exercise that he finds funny. I have a pupil with a horse who likes half pass. It may sound crazy, but you can see his ears go up and he gets more bounce in his stride. So, at the end of the training he is allowed to do a few half passes as his reward. My giant “DD” thinks passage is a hoot. He needs to develop more power but you feel that he thinks it takes little effort. He is as light as a feather at the front. It may sound strange to keep such a potentially heavy exercise until the end of the training, but I only do it for a short time and he goes back to his friends very satisfied with himself.
How does a horse learn?
A horse can learn something in different ways. These are habituation, classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Complicating terms for something we use every day. An example of habituation is the saddle on the back of a horse. After a while he learns that this will not hurt (it becomes a habit). Habituation can also occur if you constantly give leg aids without really insisting on a reaction (he will become desensitized from the habit). These repeated aids also don’t mean anything anymore, just like the saddle on his back.
Classical conditioning means that you link an aid to something that produces a reaction, after which you can omit that intermediate step after a while. For example, you give leg aids forwards and then immediately tap the whip to strengthen your clue. If you repeat that a few times, only those legs are enough to make him move forward.
Operant conditioning means that you reward a horse for a desired response to an aid. This can be done by patting his neck, cuddling, talking to him, giving sweets or by removing pressure. The removal of pressure works best for horses as a reward when teaching.
Fear and tension ensures that a horse learns nothing. His mind is not “open” to recording information. All he wants is to run. He falls back on his primary instinct. Therefore, using force or a pain stimulus is never the way to teach or improve. When a horse tenses up, he is not open to your signals. Your aids will not get through.
• A horse never fools you
• He does not know what plans or expectations you have
• Punishment does not improve your exercise
• Coercion and pain impede learning ability