The art and skill of a horseman, the ability to ride a horse. These are some of the definitions of the word horsemanship.
So anyone who rides or trains, (we all train horses whether we know it or not, as they learn something from every interaction with humans), is a horseman and practices horsemanship.
We live in an age of rapid communication via social media, emails and the internet. People often want rapid results with their horses but that is not always good for the horses mental and physical well-being.
People can start a young horse in 2 0r 3 weeks, but that does that make it fair and ethical?
I think it is time to stop differentiating between genres of horsemanship. For centuries horses have been trained via the use of pressure and often force. It is a testament to the nature of the horse that they allow us weak humans to train them.
All the horse wants is food, water, safety, equine friends, to be allowed to be a horse in a natural environment. These are things the horse seeks for himself – they are primary reinforcers.
We now have a code for animal welfare – the 5 freedoms which we can apply to horse management and training.
Whips, sticks, spurs and any other man made artefacts are artificial aids.
If we use the natural aids of legs, hands and weight is it better?
It depends how they are taught and how the horse perceives them.
I don’t intend to go in to the pros and cons of various methods as I think there is no need for following one particular genre of horsemanship. All animals learn by associations and consequences.
Horsemanship is both an art and a science. It is up to each practitioner to understand the science so they can practice the art.
If a trainer is happy to use negative reinforcement and then escalate when the horse doesn’t comply then it is an individual decision. No amount of anyone preaching that it is physically and psychological unethical will change peoples opinions. They have to come to the realisation for themselves.
My stance is that if people use negative reinforcement it must be the lightest amount of pressure and an instant release once the behaviour is performed. Plus a very specific command put in place so the horse learns he can avoid the pressure by performing the required behaviour. This is avoidance learning and the foundation of many horsemanship programs – unfortunately people often don’t learn correctly and escalate the pressure to force the horse to comply. Or they nag the horse with legs and whips but never release – often seen in traditional riding.
If the horse doesn’t understand what you have asked you have either not been clear or the horse physically cannot do the behaviour.
If we keep asking with escalating aversive stimuli then we may damage our relationship with the horse – we become part of that aversive stimulus. So often a horse stays when he could physically leave because leaving will be “corrected”. Watch videos and decide why horses perform so well at liberty – is it because the trainer gives them something they want or because there will be aversive consequences for the horse if he leaves.
Change is happening as more people use positive reinforcement, many only for ground work but an increasing number are teaching classical riding using nothing more than a click/bridge signal and an appetitive reinforcer.
Whatever trainers use to motivate the horse it must be applied correctly, the removal of an aversive stimulus or the use of a verbal bridge signal must be at the instant the horse performs the desired behaviour.
Not all pressure/touch is aversive so we can use the minimal touch to guide a horse and add an appetitive reinforcer, the horse decides which is the most salient.
What people need to learn is the correct use of reinforcement, whether negative or positive and the importance of being observant of the horses body language. Unfortunately not all practitioners are good at the timing, both negative and positive reinforcement need good timing, otherwise horses may be reinforced for the incorrect behaviour.
We do the best with the knowledge we have at this moment in time and my aim is to learn as much as possible about how horses learn and how different training affects their emotional state.
Aversive – Causing avoidance of a thing, situation, or behavior by using an unpleasant or punishing stimulus, as in techniques of behavior modification. (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/aversive)
Appetitive – 1. An instinctive physical desire, especially one for food or drink.
2. A strong wish or urge: an appetite for learning. (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/appetitive)