Step-by-step, ethical and sustainable horse training courses.
Dr Kate Fenner (PhD - Horse Behaviour and Training), Kandoo Equine, is an equine scientist and researcher, qualified equestrian coach and John Lyons Certified trainer.
Courses - https://kandooequine.com/
8 Reasons to train your own horse
Have you ever looked at your trainer riding your horse and wondered ‘why can’t I do that’? Or wanted your horse to do something, such as load on to a trailer, only to have to get someone else to help you?
If so, the problem may be the fact that you are not training your own horse. Here are 8 reasons why you should:
You are responsible for your horses’ welfare
Owning a horse means taking responsibility, not only for its maintenance such as providing food, water and shelter but also its welfare in more general terms. Looking at the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare, freedom from hunger and thirst and freedom to express normal behaviours and freedom from disease, are covered in how you choose to manage and care for your horse. However, the three Freedoms pertaining to freedom from discomfort, pain, injury, fear and distress are influenced by how we interact with the horse. How we train the horse can determine whether or not these basic welfare requirements are met.
Training that involves pain, discomfort, fear or distress is, sadly, not unusual. It is important to look critically at each new training method you encounter. The International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) has a set of Training Principles that enables you to assess any lesson or method. Click here to see the principles: https://equitationscience.com/equitation/principles-of-learning-theory-in-equitation.
Learning how to regulate your horse’s emotional level
Training is all about being able to raise and lower the emotional level of the horse. You need to know how to do this, not the trainer. How does your horse react when you raise the emotional level too high? Or, when the emotional level is too low? How can you tell when your horse is in the engagement zone?
When training goes wrong, when the horse gets anxious, tries to escape or simply nods off in the middle of the lesson, what has usually gone wrong is that the emotional level has been too high (anxiety) or too low (falling asleep). Training doesn’t require a big increase in emotional level (see: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0174313) but it does require some to engage the horse with learning. It is only by training a particular horse that we learn just how that horse’s emotional level varies and where it is ideal for relaxed and engaged learning.
Working in the engagement zone
When you train your own horse, you are developing what I call a ‘bubble of communication’. This means you are constantly communicating with your horse with pressure-release and response-reward patterns. Your horse is attentive and responsive to your signals. The engagement zone is like a bubble because a bubble is fragile and must be cared for to maintain and strengthen.
A horse in the bubble of the engagement zone is relaxed and listening, unlike the anxious or distressed horse. When you lose this relaxation, you know your horse is no longer in the engagement zone. Learning how to get your horse into the engagement zone, where the horse is a little more emotional that it would be if it were standing in the field but not so emotional as to be anxious, is the real art of training. By learning how to get your horse to such a receptive state and keep it in the engagement zone while working, you become your horse’s best possible trainer.
Building a bond
When you train a horse, according to the ISES Training Principles, you build a strong bond with the animal. Your training develops patterns of pressure-release and response-reward in the horse and teaches the horse to relax and look for answers when learning rather than seeking escape options – a response to confusion, distress or anxiety. When using evidence-based, ethical training methods, the more you teach your horse, the stronger this bond becomes.
Locating training holes
Your horse’s education rarely progresses on a perfectly linear upward trajectory. At times, especially as training becomes more c
The Unhandled Horse
Making the first contact - where and how. Should I use food? Teaching the horse the first pressure-release lessons. Introducing positive reinforcement.
Desensitization (sacking out) - why should the horse be unrestrained? Teaching to turn-and-face. Habituating the horse to the lead-rope.
Haltering - the easiest way to put the halter on and teaching lateral movement of the head with pressure-release.
Introducing the dressage whip - this is an important go forward cue but will only be applied after two initial cues. Teaching the horse the pattern for leading.
Leading - cueing the horse to move forward from behind and beginning shoulder control.
Important things to remember:
The lessons are all positive - we're being proactive, not reactive
NEVER chase the horse
Don't correct/punish the horse, find something the horse Kandoo
Watch for confusion and realise how it could be introduced
To optimise horse welfare and rider safety it is imperative that we always target relaxation when training, riding, and handling our horses. The horse’s level of relaxation is directly tied to its emotional level and that is often controlled by how predictable its environment is. Later in this article, we will discuss how you can make your training more predictable but first we should look at the difference between emotional level and relaxation.
It is important that we separate relaxation and emotional level so that we do not get the two confused. Emotional level plays a big part in how engaged your horse is with you and where its attention is focused.
“My horse is so relaxed, it’s asleep!” This horse might appear to be relaxed but it is not engaged and thus has a relatively low emotional level. What happens to this ‘relaxed horse’ when a dog rushes out of the bushes? It most likely wakes up, and potentially shies and runs off, as its emotional level instantly skyrockets.
Shying, the most frequently reported ridden behaviour problem in horses then, is a result of not engaging the horse and thus regulating its emotional level. In these podcasts I discuss how we need to slightly raise the horse’s emotional level in order to engage the horse with learning but that we must not raise it so high as the horse becomes at all anxious. This is training in the engagement zone and it is here that we target relaxation.
Being able to recognise relaxation in your horse is especially important and most easily done when comparing your horse’s behaviour and posture in different situations. The main indicator of relaxation is a lack of unnecessary tension in the muscles. Good examples of this are horses that are being very vigilant in the field, with a high, tense head and neck, a horse pulling on the bridle, vocalising (calling out) to its friends when alone. A relaxed horse in these same situations might be walking quietly across the field, travelling in a soft round frame in self-carriage or standing quietly in social isolation.
Any time we make the horse tense, we sacrifice relaxation. This might be something we do by mistake, for example, startle the horse by suddenly appearing around the corner or it could be something we habitually do such as an aid we apply or a piece of equipment we use.
The overtightened noseband is a good example of this relaxation sacrifice. Forcing the horse’s jaw closed creates tension in all facial muscles. If you do this yourself, simply close your teeth together and hold that position. Feel the tension that builds in your facial muscles and gradually down your neck and throughout your body. Now we have not even tied our mouths closed, never mind added a bit and rein tension to the equation. Clearly, trying to get your horse to relax while simultaneously creating tension makes little sense.
When training, the best thing you can do to help your horse relax is to come to the lesson prepared, knowing exactly what you are wanting to teach and breaking the lesson down into manageable chunks for your horse. Lesson planning when horse training, is as important as it is when teaching children in class. The teacher would never arrive in the classroom without having decided in advance what to teach and how to teach it (at least one would hope this would not happen.
It’s helpful to plan your horse training lessons in the same way. First, decide what you want to teach. Next, consider whether there are any prerequisites for that lesson, meaning is there anything the horse needs to know before you start the lesson. This is the most important step because if the horse does not have the education required to begin the lesson then it will end in confusion, in a higher state of emotion than it began and the horse will be completely unable to relax.
Once you have those points covered, you can break the lesson down into its four basic components. They will be the spot on the horse you wan
Race-2-Ride - Making a good transition
There has been much in the press over the last year about the welfare of horses leaving the racing industry, raising questions about the sustainability and ethicality of the current situation. In this article I am going to discuss how we can all help to protect the welfare of off-the-track horses by easing their transition from racing to sporting and leisure riding homes.
Having grown up surrounded by racing and racehorses, even taking one of my father's 'slow' Thoroughbreds to school with me as a young teenager, retraining off-the-track horses was always likely to be an interest of mine. However, it is not always straight forward, and we need to be mindful of certain aspects of off-the-track horses' past training to optimize the transition process.
What's great about them?
Both Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds retiring from racing will have been extensively handled and often habituated to working with other horses, crowds, and travelling on a truck or float. Of course, not all these experiences will have been positive ones for the horse, and we need to keep that in mind when re-training.
Ask any Thoroughbred or Standardbred owner what they think is the best thing about the breed and eight or more out of ten of them will tell you: their versatility. You will find both breeds in a wide range of disciplines from working on the farm, to dressage, show-jumping, hacking and trail riding, and I have even seen some having a go at reining! There is no doubt that these beautiful horses can turn their hoof to anything but their success and happiness in their new post-racing lives does depend on how we re-educate them.
7 important things to consider:
1) Has the horse been started under saddle? This may seem obvious, and when we look at the Standardbred, the answer is clearly, no. This is good and gives us a place to start that horse. The Thoroughbred is rather different, and it is easy to expect too much from these horses' past training. Thoroughbreds are taught precisely what they need to know to race and often extraordinarily little else. Unfortunately, what they have been taught is rarely useful for their post-racing careers.
2) Unlike the pleasure industry, the racing industry is profit-based and results-focused, which doesn't always allow sufficient time for training simple responses, such as 'head down' for bridling or to 'stand' for mounting. Both examples negate the need to train the response and while twisting the ear to get the bridle on achieves the desired result in that moment, it may also set the new owner up with a behavioural problem that requires addressing. Such problems arise whenever we, as owners or riders, have an agenda that is seen as more important than the horse's mental wellbeing.
3) All off-the-track horses will have been desensitized to pressure cues, particularly bit pressure. Both Thoroughbred and Standardbreds learn to race with meaningless, often unrelenting rein tension, which again, is not a desirable response for the pleasure rider. Physical force, such as pushing horses into barriers or yanking on leads to stop movement, can have taken the place of sensitive, horse-centric training, the shortfalls of which will be evident when rehomed.
4) Racing is a high adrenaline sport. Horses repeatedly practice the flight response - it is this very fear-based response that trainers and jockeys are provoking. We know that the flight response can be difficult to extinguish, as can any response learned using fear as a motivator, which is why, as new off-the-track owners, we need to be mindful of this during re-training.
5) While there are exceptions to every rule, many, or probably most, racehorses will have little or no understanding of combined reinforcement. Often off-the-track horses simply haven't been taught how to learn (mostly as a result of the considerations outlined in points 2) and 3) above).
We often hear riders say that they 'only use positive reinforcement' or that they do not use negative reinforcement, but it is also not at all unusual for the same person to state that pressure-release is the most effective way to train. So, what is the difference between pressure-release and positive and negative reinforcement and why is it important to know which reinforcement schedule we are using when training our horses?
The simple answer is that pressure-release is negative reinforcement and it is almost impossible to use negative reinforcement alone, or indeed positive reinforcement alone, when training a horse. We almost always use a mixture of both positive and negative reinforcement when training and we call this combined reinforcement.
The other method of modifying behaviour is via punishment and again this comes in both positive and negative forms. Punishment is the same as correction but, as when we use pressure-release rather than negative reinforcement, the term correction seems more appealing to us than punishment. However, it is important that we realise they are the same thing, simply because we know that horses learn better when reinforcement is used than they do when punishment is used.
The simple way to tell the difference between reinforcement and punishment is to observe what the rider or trainer is attempting to do in a particular situation. If the trainer is trying to make a behaviour more likely to occur in the future, then they will be using reinforcement (negative or positive reinforcement). If, on the other hand, the trainer is hoping to prevent the behaviour from happening in the future or make it less likely to occur at another time, they will be using punishment (again, either positive or negative punishment).
The same cue or signal can be applied as reinforcement or punishment, it is not, as is often assumed, to do with the severity of the pressure, rather the intention of the trainer.
Let's look at the example of tapping the horse lightly on the cannon bone as a signal. We could use this signal to teach the horse to back up from the ground by gently tapping the horse on the cannon bone and stopping tapping as soon as the horse took a step back - negative reinforcement/pressure-release. If we wanted to teach the horse to stand still and it took a step forward, we could also correct/punish the horse for stepping forward by tapping it on the cannon bone, thus making that behaviour less likely to occur in the future - positive punishment.
Negative reinforcement gets a bad rap because of the word negative but it simply means 'taking something away' and in most cases this means releasing the pressure (be it rein or lead rope tension, leg or seat pressure or even the pressure of our voice/verbal cue), thus the term pressure-release. Positive reinforcement simply means adding something and while positive reinforcement is often thought of as referring to the addition of a food treat, it applies equally to adding a scratch on the wither, stroke on the neck, a kind word or an opportunity to rest.
The same holds for punishment types. Positive punishment refers to adding something that the horse does not want. That might be a tap with the whip, a cross or loud voice or a kick with the leg. Where negative punishment means taking something, that the horse does want, away. This, while not seen as commonly as positive punishment, is evident with horses that are removed from their social group, deprived of food or water. A clear example of negative punishment is when a horse is put in social isolation, such as when a horse is tied to the 'tree of knowledge'.
Both types of punishment/correction are best avoided as horses are not known for their ability to contemplate their wrong-doings and thus alter their future behaviour. Rather, horses are masters at remembering what works well, what movements result in a release of pressure or a scratch or treat of some kind. In other words
What do you picture when you think about 'self-carriage'? Many of us picture a horse, perhaps in a dressage arena, travelling in a certain outline and maintaining gait and direction. But in this article I'm going to discuss why self-carriage has a much wider definition than this and how important it is to all riders and horse handlers, regardless of their level of experience or discipline they choose to enjoy.
While our first thought of self-carriage may invoke mental images of dressage horses, sadly, modern dressage is often a display of just the opposite. The term self-carriage literally means the horse is maintaining itself without needing support from the rider, whereas with modern dressage, most horses are subjected to unrelenting pressure on the bit and often the same from the riders' legs. This unrelenting pressure is in direct violation of the International Society for Equitation Science's (ISES) Training Principle #6: The correct use of operant conditioning, which explains that pressure must be released at the onset of the correct response.
Self-carriage is the focus of the tenth ISES Training Principle: 10. Regard for Self-carriage
Aim for self-carriage in all methods and at all levels of training
Train the horse to maintain:
head and neck carriage
Avoid forcing any posture
Avoid nagging with legs, spurs or reins i.e. avoid trying to maintain responses with relentless signalling.
"Lack of self-carriage can promote hyper-reactive responses and compromise welfare"
This definition is excellent for the ridden horse, of any discipline, but I think we can take the self-carriage concept further than this to improve our training and handling of horses in all aspects of the horse-human relationship.
Self-carriage simply means maintaining precisely what the horse has been cued to do until you signal the horse to do something else. Using a ridden example of riding a 20m circle at canter, the horse should maintain the canter, at the same speed, length of stride, in the same direction, with unchanging head and neck carriage and consistent body posture - all without the rider having to 'hold' or 'force' any of these elements. Thus, if you have to consistently correct your horse to keep it on the circle, keep your inside leg on to maintain direction or both legs to maintain speed, if you need that 'good contact' to hold your horse's head and neck in position or to elevate its shoulders, then you are not in self-carriage.
Now, this can seem a bit depressing because how many of us have a horse that will maintain a 20m canter circle with all of the above without the need for some intervention? Very few, I would estimate. But remember, this is what we are aiming for, and, with the correct training, exactly what we can achieve.
By understanding the concept of self-carriage, it allows us to train with this as our aim and, along the way, we get a huge array of benefits:
1. We have to be clear in our mind about exactly what we want the horse to do and what we will use as motivation to encourage the horse to do that
2. Once we have decided on #1, we need to know exactly when we are going to release the pressure and reward the horse
3. Knowing this means we become very aware of when we have pressure and when we do not
4. It follows then that our use of combined reinforcement improves as we use the pressure-release-reward sequences repeatedly
5. In turn, the horse is able to relax as we are setting up easy-to-follow patterns of pressure-release-reward
6. The horse gains confidence, learns the sequence and begins to anticipate the predictable pattern
7. The horse is now in self-carriage, responding before pressure needs to be applied and continues until signalled to change something (such as speed or direction)
If we think about some of the common expressions we hear such a