Working with horses: creating a positive experience

When broken down to its basic definition, the  training of horses is essentially about promoting behaviours which we desire and are of value to us, while suppressing or eradicating behaviours which we find undesirable, in other words unwanted behaviours.

In order to successfully achieve this, a trainer must know what behaviour is before they can begin to manipulate it.

Behaviour is a process of actions and reactions performed by an individual in reaction to internal or external stimuli in context of the environment.

It stands to reason therefore that a trainer would need to consider the training environment and any stimuli present – controllable as well as uncontrollable variables. The trainer would also need to consider their own behaviour and how this may be perceived by the horse, as well as any internal processes taking place within the horse’s physiology.

With so many elements to consider and so many uncontrollable variables that may occur, you can ascertain that training is in fact a complex process that requires careful consideration, planning and constant development. And despite all this careful planning, a trainer must still be quick on their feet, reactive to slight signals, emotionally neutral, and adaptable to changing circumstances. It comes as no surprise therefore that most training sessions tend to skip over the softer elements of the process instead of harnessing them to make the overall process of horse training more effective.

Tapping into instincts

Instinctive equine behaviours or what would be referred to as natural behaviours, are a set of behaviours inherent to the equine species that are performed within their natural environment for the purpose of survival, reproduction and growth. Once removed from their natural environment, these instinctive behaviours don’t cease to exist; the horse simply adapts its behaviour to its present environmental context.

If adaptation isn’t possible, natural behaviours can’t be expressed normally, giving way to abnormal behaviour or the development of behavioural problems, emotional and physical distress, and suppressed physiological responses and lowered immunity.

When instinctive behaviours are normally expressed, the horse is both mentally and physically balanced and is able to reach an optimal level of functioning. Encouraging instinctive behaviour in training stimulates the horse mentally, promotes memory and other cognitive functions, and allows the horse to attain a positive affective state.

Instinctive behaviours can either be active or passive and a trainer is able to utilise either one depending on their training goals. Passive behaviours include resting, stretching, grooming, grazing, drinking water, and standing in the shade. A horse that is easily excited by stimuli can be kept calm and manageable during training by tapping into passive behaviours as opposed to chasing the horse around a pen in the hopes of tiring it out enough – this has the opposite effect and can impede on the horse’s welfare instead of promote effective training. 

Allowing for brief periods of passive activity, such as a calm rub down or some grazing and resting in the shade, can quickly deescalate potential conflict situations and allow for the horse to reach a state of calm and balance before resuming training. Frequent escalations in conflict should serve as a signal to the trainer to re look at their training strategy – they are either asking too much of the horse or not asking clearly enough for the horse to understand.

grooming, horse relaxes and becomes calm grazing relaxes a horse and gives them a mental break

Useful active instinctive behaviours include investigation and exploration, rolling, and play. These behaviours are invaluable in training as they can serve many purposes – to habituate or desensitise a horse when frightened by stimuli, to energise a ‘dull’ horse, to redirect nervous energy and calm a distressed horse, and to enhance learning and memory.

Active behaviours are especially useful for reactive and responsive horses that tend to get bored and frustrated easily with repetitive exercises resulting in conflict behaviours such as pawing or barging. Incorporating brief interludes into a training session where instinctive behaviours are engaged can redirect the horse’s energy again, engage them mentally and prevent the situation from escalating into conflict. Objects such as cones, drums, poles, flags, tarps, buckets, tires… any item that is safe for the horse to orally and physically interact with can be incorporated into any training, whether in-hand or under saddle, to engage investigative and exploratory  behaviours and provide for a mentally stimulating interaction. This serves as an effective break between repetitive routines during training.

investigative equine behaviour active rolling behaviour

The power of positivity

For training to be both effective in achieving performance goals, humane towards the horse, and safe for the human, the trainer must ensure that conflict and stress is kept to a minimum, that fear responses such as flight or aggression are avoided, and that the horse remains stimulated, responsive and engaged rather than dull, indifferent or confrontational. 

Maintaining a positive affective state throughout the training session is therefore vital and positive experiences result in enhanced learning, increased memory, less repetition, lowered stress, and pleasant associations that the horse forms not only with the trainer but also the environment and any objects or stimuli within the environment, such as tack or equipment.

For the trainer, this type of positive interaction is the ultimate prize – it means that their goal of promoting desired behaviour becomes easier and more effective; the horse is more receptive to new behaviours and learns faster, and human-horse interactions are safer and devoid of conflict. Suppressing or eradicating unwanted behaviour becomes less necessary – problem behaviours during training can be altogether eliminated.

Anyone can fulfill the basic definition of training, but to be a great trainer, an ethical trainer, one needs  to work with the horse as a species, use the way the horse learns and instinctively behaves as tools to promote positive experiences rather than working against them.

2 Replies to “Working with horses: creating a positive experience”

  1. Excellent read, I just passed this onto a colleague who was doing a little research on that. And he just bought me lunch because I found it for him smile So let me rephrase that: Thank you for lunch!

    1. Thank you! I’m glad you and your colleague enjoyed it and that you got a lunch out of it! Now that’s a great result from an article 🙂

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