Horsemanship

Horsemanship

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.

Defintiions

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)

Respect

We hear a lot about “respect” in the horse training world. Especially in natural horsemanship, but what does it mean?
It is a human concept that usually dictates what behaviours we don’t want our horses to perform. So if the horse wont standstill it is deemed disrespectful etc. What happens then is that the horse is “corrected” (euphemism for punishment). This does nothing to tell the horse what to do instead.

Respect

1. a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their qualities or achievements.
2. due regard for the feelings, wishes or rights of others.

How do these definitions fit with the view of horses needing to respect their humans? Can horses have “due regard for the feelings wishes and rights of others”?
Do they have the cognitive abilities needed to have respect?

For me it is the we humans who need to respect the horse, we can have due regard for how our horses feel when we train them.

https://www.parelli.com/resources/horse-balking.html

This link is revealing as they say if the horse doesn’t go forward we use increasing aversive stimuli, spanking first yourself and then the horse. So the horse learns to go forward to avoid the aversive stimuli – how does this instil respect?
How does that fit in with definition number 2? Do horses have no rights in our relationship? Is it “do as I say or else” suffer the consequences?

We all need to decide for ourselves what we are happy doing to our horses and often people do things to the horse rather than it being a partnership.

Does your horse have choice? Is your horse staying with you at liberty because he fears what will happen if he leaves? What happens if he doesn’t obey?

Only you can answer these questions but they do need asking.

We also need to look at the various emotional responses affected using negative and positive reinforcement.

In negative reinforcement there is always the underlying threat of an aversive, this triggers the FEAR system. It may be only mild anxiety but the emotions and accompanying neurotransmitters and hormones of fear are present. Fear does not have to be the full blown flight response – the other signs of the FEAR system are freeze, fight and fidgeting.  There are also appeasement behaviours and other signs that a horse is having problems.

In positive reinforcement we trigger the positive emotions, CARE, PLAY although done badly it can trigger RAGE in the form of frustration.

So respect is a human construct and really comes down to training what we want our horses to do.
They do what they have been reinforced for doing, so it your horses isn’t doing what you want then it is a training issue not a lack of respect. Training takes places every time we are interacting with our horses – whether grooming or feeding or walking them to and from the fields.

When using reward based training we can teach the horse what to do as an alternative behaviour, so we can teach him to station on a mat or stand at a stationary target. Once reliably performed a verbal cue “stand” or “wait” can be added. The more reinforcement history a behaviour has the stronger that behaviour becomes.
So instead to saying the horse is disrespectful think of him as being insufficiently trained.
What we wanted is a horse with good impulse control so we feel safe. Horses are large animals and can be dangerous if we don’t understand them.
They don’t instinctively know what we want them to do so we have to train for safety but without suppressing their natural curiosity.

Please ditch the term respect when talking about the horses relationship with humans as they don’t have the cognitive ability to know what “respect” is.
Instead describe what the horse is doing that you don’t like or don’t want him to do and then retrain with +R a behaviour you do want. Also remember all interactions with our horses is training – not just the formal sessions in the school.