Whether you ride school horses, a friend’s horse now and then, or “you’re just out for a short hack – this isn’t a training session.” Every ride is training.
Here’s three reasons why this is true:
First, horses are always learning, and I don’t mean always learning something “new”. The process may be more subtle, but behavior is always changing. Horses learn how to behave around specific people, how to feel in different locations, what to do more of and what to do less of. Even in the context of one ride, how a horse behaves or moves, can change.
Second, the longer the horse does something, the more difficult it will become to get him doing something different, that’s just how brains work and I’ll explain more later.
Third, the horse is a living, emotional, and social animal. Our relationship with them matters, whether you are thinking of your horse that you’ve owned for ten years or a horse that you may just ride in one lesson. Relationship matters and every interaction will either improve or erode that relationship.
If we believe that our actions and emotions do not impact the horses we ride in any meaningful way, we miss a huge benefit of the “specialness” of riding. What sets it apart from most other activities is the interaction we have with the horse – learning to understand them and to communicate our requests from their back – and that’s training!
Behavior is essentially everything the horse does, how he acts around other horses in the field, what he does in his stall, and how he acts with people, both on the ground and during riding.
Every behavior has three parts. It begins with an antecedent, a cue – this isn’t necessarily a specifically trained cue, but every behavior does have a cue. One horse feels thirst (cue) and begins walking up the field to the water tub. The second horse sees the first moving away (cue) and begins walking too. A rider squeezes their leg (cue) and the horse steps into walk. The rider shifts their body left (cue) and the horse turns that direction.
After the cue, there is the behavior, then after the behavior, there is a consequence. What happens after the behavior will determine if the horse will do it with more or less frequency.
If what happens after a behavior is pleasant for the horse, bringing something they want, or taking away what they don’t, the behavior is “reinforced”, and they’ll do it again.
If the opposite happens, and something good goes away or something unwanted comes after a behavior, that behavior will happen less.
Many riders are not aware of this processes of learning, and therefore get more easily stuck on problems or unknowingly teach their horses bad behavior.
Let’s look at an example of how this principle can work in real life:
Jane has a stressful day at work. She just wants some downtime with her horse, Fudge, so she goes to the barn with a bag of carrots. She leans up against the wall outside his stall and he brings his head over the door. He nudges her and she feeds him a carrot. They do this for maybe five minutes. In between petting, he pushes her with his nose and Jane gives him another carrot.
Then she goes home. The next day she comes back to the barn, but plans on riding and just grabs one carrot for her pocket.
Jane gets to the barn, and walks over to the stall. Fudge sticks his head over and gives her a little nudge. “Hey Buddy, good to see you too!” she proclaims! Then he nudges harder, so Jane reaches in her pocket – “oh he smells this carrot!” She feeds him. Then she goes in his stall to put his halter on. He pushes her arm out of the way with his nose, then nips at her arm.
What happened here?
Fudge learned, through the rewards Jane didn’t even realize she was giving, that nudging pockets gets him food. That nudging worked well for Fudge several times, so when Jane didn’t dole out the treat right away, Fudge just did more of what had worked well before, escalating from a little nudging to a big push and eventually a nip. If he gets rewarded for this behavior, he may not even bother with the little nudge anymore, he will just go straight for a big, hard push when he sees Jane and anticipates food.
Jane didn’t intend to teach Joe anything but he learned just the same.
If Jane continues to feed Fudge after his pushy, grabby behavior, he will start to develop a stronger neural pathway for this behavior.
A neural pathway is a series of connected nerves where electrical impulses travel, controlling many functions of the body, including behavior.
The more frequently a neural pathway is used, the stronger it becomes.
This is why the more often a behavior or movement is performed, the more it becomes “ingrained” and a habit is formed.
Natural Lifemanship, the Equine Psycho-therapy group that teaches here at my farm, compares neural pathways to cattle trails. The more it’s used, the deeper the path is worn, and changing that path takes time, it doesn’t happen the first time the cow walks a new direction.
Let’s look at an example of what is usually a very strong neural pathway for many school horses – going slow!
Sue is riding a horse she leases occasionally, Blossom. Blossom is a quiet, steady horse who would prefer to amble along slowly or stop and graze if she can.
Sue wants to work on her dressage patterns, so as soon as she mounts up she starts using a lot of leg to get Blossom moving.
Blossom moves out willingly at first, and Sue keeps pressing her with her leg. After all, this is a horse that “needs a lot of leg.”
Ten minutes into the ride, Sue’s legs are starting to tire, and she noticed Blossom doesn’t even respond anymore when she squeezes. The longer they ride, the stronger Sue must become with her legs to get any kind of response from Blossom!
She ends the ride frustrated and defeated, thinking next time she will ask for a more responsive horse.
Is Blossom’s responsiveness the problem? After all she was responding willingly in the beginning, but as the ride went on, she became duller. Could it have been that with the constant pressure of Sue’s leg, Blossom simply desensitized to it. She never got a release for going forward, so why bother?
I can say with confidence that horses do remember individual people, even in a busy lesson barn.
The horse is a highly social animal. While some teaching breaks equine social society into a linear “pecking order” where being dominant is what is most important, the truth is horse social life is much more dynamic.
The horse wants connection, he is wired for cooperation and friendship.
We can’t live with our horse so most of his social needs should be met interacting with other horses, but you can also have a healthy, rich relationship with your horse.
Linda Tellington Jones put it best in my interview with her earlier this year, “what can we, as humans, do to help our horses want to be with us? By learning more about ourselves, by being grounded, by paying attention to our breathing…”
Remember that learning never stops, and the horse is also learning how to relate to you, whether remaining relaxed and attentive, ignoring you completely, or getting excited to see you coming.
Recognizing that as a rider, you are also a trainer is not about “force the horse to always do what you ask” or “don’t let him get away with that”.
To me being a trainer simply means becoming aware of how learning happens and how your interactions with the horse are really affecting his behavior.
Next week, we are going to consider how viewing yourself as a trainer can help you reach your riding dreams.