Modern horsemanship has been shaped by the age of information sharing. How we handle and ride our horses today is due in large part to the videos, Web sites, podcasts, clinics, and personal instruction available to us 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in our cars, homes, and barns.
In a sense, and as the saying goes, we can’t see the forest for the trees. We’re so overwhelmed with the jargon and the gear and the newest trends, we can no longer focus on the big picture: an honestto-goodness training method that anyone can apply to any horse in preparation for any purpose. I cover this method in my new book, The Modern Countdown to Broke: REAL Do-It-Yourself Training in 33 Comprehensive Steps.
Understanding how your horse learns is the cornerstone to my program. This knowledge enables you to train in a consistent, common-sense manner. There are no guessing games about whether the horse has found the correct answer or not.
Here’s another key piece of knowledge. The horse’s body has five specific points that you need to control in order to one day have him prepared to execute any movement, and perform in any discipline. All five points can move in six directions: forward, backward, right, left, up, and down.
The five points are: nose, right shoulder, left shoulder, right hip, left hip.
That’s it. In my Countdown to Broke training program, there are no other places on the horse’s body that you need to be concerned about. Your goal in using the program is to begin to isolate these control points and condition each one to respond to your cues, as needed. But, first things first.
Depending on environmental conditions, a herd of horses will graze one-third of the time, travel another third, and rest for the remainder. By understanding some of the social patterns that govern a natural herd as well as its tendencies, you can domesticate your horse (train him, in other words) with greater success.
During their normal day, horses in a natural herd would be on the lookout for predators, and when spotted, either respond with fight or flight. Since the horse is naturally a prey animal, he’ll most likely choose to flee a frightening situation and only fight if he feels he absolutely has to.
If you wish to be a part of a horse’s life, you’ll need to establish respect, but also build and maintain trust. This can be a delicate balancing act in the beginning, as your horse figures out what his role is in his new relationship with you.
Since there is a hierarchical pecking order in a natural herd, you must be the leader in your domestic herd (even when your herd only contains one horse and you). When you don’t command respect, you’ll be moved around, threatened, bitten, or kicked. It’s normal for horses to test their place in the herd ranking, but with consistent leadership, you can maintain your integral role as boss.
Horses conduct themselves on two very different levels: innate behavior and conditioned behavior. Innate behavior—or instinct—comes from natural brain processes that horses inherit from their predecessors. Conditioned behavior is a result of learning from the environment around them. Horses learn how to respond to different situations, based on their previous experiences.
As a trainer, your aim is to condition a horse to behave in a way that’s appealing to you. This translates into a horse ceasing to act instinctually while under your guidance, and instead only acting in response to your requests—for example, when your horse doesn’t whirl and bolt when confronted by a strange, fearful object, and instead remains steady under your control, keeping you safe.
The following are ways in which conditioning can be used for training purposes.
Operant conditioning is a teaching process that uses reinforcement in order to condition a response—to create such desirable behaviors as the one described above. Both positive and negative reinforcement strengthen behavior, making a desired response more likely to happen in the future.
Positive reinforcement is the addition of and use of a pleasing stimulus. A horse that’s brought in from the pasture for
his daily grain ration is far more likely to be caught easily than one that receives nothing. And, you can easily teach a horse such tricks as bowing down on one knee with the enticement of sugar cubes. With positive reinforcement, the horse learns that certain behaviors guarantee a reward.
Positive reinforcement (although powerful when used with people), isn’t a practical primary teaching tool with horses.
You’re obstructed by the horse’s inability to communicate through reason and language. You can, however, use a type of positive reinforcement, such as kind rubs, in combination with the next approach—negative reinforcement—to further strengthen a response from your horse.
Negative reinforcement strengthens behavior with the removal of an aversive stimulus (something that the horse wants to avoid). Because this stimulus is physical, it allows you to communicate to the horse how you’d like him to respond—for example, bumping your legs to encourage your horse to move forward more quickly, and once he does, discontinuing the use of your legs.
I realize the term “negative reinforcement” sounds, well, negative. It’s not! It’s simply a term from the field of psychology that refers to the removal of the stimulus. So, in fact, it’s a positive experience for the horse, and consequently, a wonderful teaching method.
Shaping is another way in which horses can be taught. Shaping brings about a nonexistent or complex behavior
through an operant process. It’s achieved in small steps known as successive approximations, which progressively develop behaviors that you desire with the help of the reinforcements just discussed.
For example, in order to perform a beautiful sidepass, you need to control the horse’s hips, shoulders, and nose position. You also want the horse to remain elevated, collected, calm, and willing. You can’t teach all this in one step. This advanced maneuver requires you to teach your horse many smaller responses that eventually build up to the sidepass.