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Adapting Your Horse’s Behavior

18 August 2011 No Comment

Adapting Your Horse’s Behavior
By: Andrew McLean

What can you fix? I found out – almost anything.
Animal behaviourist Andrew McLean is not your regular horse ‘fixer’. Where they tend to be loud and supremely confident in their own ability and their world shattering innovations; Andrew is quiet, almost bookish. At the same time he is quietly confident – as he should be. His approach is based on study at the highest University level, many years of experience with horses, and a successful competition career (Andrew has been a winner over the famous Gawler Three Day Event course, and in the dressage arena).

Kate Boys on Octavious of Neika (‘Tigger’) Kate & Tigger, rising stars in FEI Dressage go through the basics as a part of every warm-up


1) Horse is immobile

2) No change in head or neck

3) No increase or decrease in jaw pressre on the bit. The horse is in the natural outline and Kate releases the rein to reward the response.



1) Horse turns toward turning rein with shoulders

2) Horse flexes in direction of turn

3) Horse remains forward with neck relatively straight

4) The turning rein is released when the horse gives the turn. In early training, initial ’roundness’ comes from correct relaxed turn



1) Hind leg crosses over clearly

2) Horse remains straight

3) Horse is mildly flexed to inside

4) Rhythm, relaxation and conact remain

5) Roundness emerges

6) Inside leg of rider softens when horse steps across

I must confess a certain lack of belief in horse fixers. How often do you hear of a horse that jacks up, spins, rears, and has been ‘cured’, only to see the problem re-appear under pressure.

Now I certainly do not put Andrew McLean in the quick-fix category, and when I arrived at the McLean’s Equine Behaviour Centre and he informed me that he would be using a horse he hadn’t worked with before, I was a trifle concerned. What if it was a real maniac? I didn’t want my story with the master horse behaviourist ruined by some escapee from a buck jumping team. A nice manageable little mouth problem was more what I had in mind.

Andrew was not concerned at the prospect. He told me how he had recently returned to King Island, where he grew up, and was taken for a trail ride by his childhood friends. He said riding trail horses at a gallop through the bush was far more frightening than most of the horses that were sent to him for re-training.

For those of you who have not been fortunate enough to meet Andrew, he’s the equestrian community’s own absent minded professor. Having a cup of coffee after the session, I admired the family cat, a handsome golden Burmese, ‘what’s his name?’ I asked, ‘Mitch’ said Andrew. ‘Oh dad,’ replied daughter Sophie, ‘Mitch died two years ago, it’s Simba’.

While on the subject of names, we have a policy at the magazine of not referring to horses as ‘it’, now this is something Andrew does. In his case it’s not an impersonal put-down, it shows a clinical concern as he diagnoses a horse’s problems.

Andrew is the most intensely serious person I know when it comes to analysing the equine behaviour. He’s always interested in discussing why a horse behaved in a certain way, and his explanations leave you feeling that you better understand why horses do what they do. And they do some strange things Andrew told me. In one of the McLean’s paddocks was a horse wearing a bib, like one you use to stop rug rippers. Andrew told me the horse was a self-mutilator and he would solve its problems by eliminating its conflict when ridden. He told me about a dressage horse that pawed so badly in the box that it destroyed the floor. Cured when Andrew got his essential responses back in place.

Most of these deviants end up in the doggers yard, and most of us are never aware of how man can send a horse crazy. I asked Andrew how he went about assessing a horse’s problems. He has plenty of practise at this, as not only do Andrew and his wife Manuela conduct clinics, in Andrew’s case all around Australia, they also have a great set-up for training and re-training at Clonbinane, near Kilmore in Victoria.

Assessing a horse

“If they tell me there is a problem and it is not a particularly dangerous one, I generally get the owner to ride the horse first. Quite often when I ride a horse, because of the things I do, it might already go a fair way to fixing the horse. Then the owner says ‘oh it’s having a good day’ – which is a real problem because quite a lot of horses do have good days when I start riding them, especially if I start doing my work.” “There are a whole lot of things that I do on the ground before I get onto them, which probably ensures that the horse is going to have a ‘good day’ – so I usually get the owner to ride it first and show me what they do, because all these behaviour problems are induced somewhere by riders. It usually shows up as confusion in the horse.”

“I think that every problem that boils down to a manifestation of lack of calmness as the result of conflict within the horse, by conflict I mean that the horse is torn between two or more alternative responses, where one might be the correct response, and the others incorrect. When the horse is able to give differing responses then it tends to put the horse into turmoil until it resolves the problem and can produce only one response. From the horse’s point of view, that response will be profitable to the horse, but from the rider’s point of view it should be profitable to the rider – the rider therefore has to target the correct response, through: pressure – response – release.”

“That’s what good training is all about, targeting correct responses and rewarding them. In all problems I don’t see that there are any ‘naughty’ horses. The problem horse is in conflict, and we do see more conflict problems in Spring, because the learned responses that we train into the horse are very much a part of the social responses that the brain can give from one animal to another – whether its from a horse to a horse, or a horse to a human. In Spring time because of the horse’s hierachical nature and his need to fit into a pecking order, the horse tends to undo its own responses in connection with other horses. That’s the horse’s way of inching up the pecking order, because being at the top of the pecking order is fantastic for a mare, because she gets first access to the stallion, her foal is born early and gets first access to the green grass. It’s the same for the stallions obviously, the ones at the top of the pecking order get all the advantages. Reproductively there is a strong instinctive drive for animals to dominate each other in the Springtime, so learned responses tend to unravel a bit at this time of the year.”

“Because I see conflict at the heart of the problems, then it is a matter of looking at the kinds of responses we train into the horse. From that point of view, it is then a matter of looking at all the basic responses that are set in concrete at the beginning of the horse’s training, we call that foundation training. There are six basic responses: stop from both reins, turn right from the right rein, turn left from the left rein (both of those turns are from the shoulders only), go forward from both legs, yield quarters to the left from the right leg, yield quarters to the right from the left leg.”

“Those six responses are taught through pressure release. I’m avoiding saying anything like ‘we teach the horse to stop from our seat’ because it must be done through clear pressure-release to train the horse at breaking in, at the beginning, and every horse breaker realises that. My job in repairing problems is going back to those basics and finding how they are operating – because they can be unlearned even in horses that have very good beginnings. The more practice the horse has at responding correctly, when each response becomes a consolidated learned response, then it becomes set in stone. Once those basics are in place, we can then go on and train using cues. For example we can train the horse to stop on our seat, to go forward on our seat, or position right to go right, and so on. Those sorts of cues are very shallow. They are not as permanently learned and they tend to be easily undone, so we put them on later as the icing on the cake. In dressage that is what we are mainly doing – but the basis is always those six learned responses.”

“When I first get a horse for training, I feel what they are like on the ground first, particularly stop and go. Those six learned responses are in a very strict hierarchy.”

“There is stop and go at the bottom of the pyramid, and incidentally stop and go produces rhythm and relaxation, and begins to teach contact. When a horse has too much go and not enough stop, then it will be running away into the bit, and heavy – when the horse has too much stop – or its stop is good but its go is poor, it is lazy. A horse in rhythm is a horse that is so finely tuned that the merest nudge sends it forward and the nearest touch slows it, it then settles into a rhythm. In a sense a rhythm is an emergent property of the qualities of forward and stop.”

“Contact starts to be produced at this stage. All the horses are worked on a long rein in a natural outline at the start. If I have the horse shorter and he is leaning on the bit, I am de-training my stop response.”

“I have criteria to check the stop and go. For go, I insist that the horse is active, that the horse is in cruise control and he doesn’t slow of his own accord, he waits to be asked, and he is unconditionally forward, he goes where you point him. They are the three criteria I look for in forward. In stop, I look for a situation where the merest touch on the mouth will produce a stop, and a loose stop so the front legs are square, and the neck never lengthens or shortens or raises or lowers. The stop is purely on the lips and tongue.”

“I have those two basic responses, then the next thing I train is an aspect to do with the stop response, and that is turning. Turning is to do with a single rein, and the stop is both reins. I make sure that the horse not only turns his shoulder towards the turning rein, but that he also flexes, and he also softens to the rein. Those three all happen together because I never turn without flexing, and I never flex without turning – so I never disconnect them, because that produces problems in turn – the horse never learns what that rein meant otherwise.”

“Once I have those things in place, and I can get ten out of ten on my correct turns, then I deem that the turn is consolidated. Once the turn is consolidated, then I teach yield and that yield later turns into shoulder in, just by mobilising the hindquarters, then travers, half pass, etc. At a very basic level it is just the horse yielding from the hindlegs.”

“What I am doing is separating all the learned responses – none are applied together. Later in dressage we can apply things together, we can apply stop and go to some extent, turn and go, but in the basics it’s not a good idea, it tends to de-train them, the horse needs to have it quite clear, what particular response you are training. I tend to work on them separately.”

“When I teach leg yielding, if I make a diagonal line across the arena then one criteria is that the horse’s front legs travel across that line, the horse needs to be straight in his body so I can straighten him with my outside rein, and that is the other thing the horse learns that the reins straighten the neck. I believe that is all the horse has to learn about the reins, turning and straightening. So the horse’s body is straight, and flexed mildly away from the direction of travel. The whole line of the horse’s body must be parallel to the long side of the arena as it steps away from the leg. So I am looking for rhythm as the horse steps across the arena, and to produce a learned response out of that.” “I don’t know much about the horse that is coming today. Apparently it’s in a happy mouth bit and I often think that when horses are in happy mouth bits there tends to be a little misunderstanding about what mouthing is all about. Often they are leaning horses that lack a clear stop response. With a leaning horse, when you release the rein the horse just quickens. If the horse gives an incorrect response, then I assume the horse is in conflict, and because it is in conflict over the stop response, then it is showing up other undesired behaviour. I understand that when you put your leg on at all, the horse tends to do little hops and jumps and not go anywhere. I have a feeling that the lack of a clear stop is probably affecting the horse going forward, and the two things need to be separated and trained.” “The six learned responses encompass every single movement in dressage. Everything is in the end a refinement of one of those learned responses. Once you can mobilise the hindquarters and you can turn well with the forehand, and you can ride the horse straight and stop him, then everything you do is an aspect of those six things.”

“In the German system, they say the basics are: rhythm, contact, relaxation, straightness, engagement – but to my way of thinking those things are not clear enough, it is more to do with stop/go, turn left, turn right, yield right, yield left, and the funny thing is, if you look at the way they need to be trained it actually follows that scheme exactly. I’m not saying the Germans are wrong, but from stop and go, you produce rhythm, and the beginnings of contact and relaxation – from turn, you achieve straightness, when you can turn the shoulders you can straighten the shoulder, you can stop it falling in. Once you can yield the hindquarters into a straightening outside rein, you have engagement. To my way of thinking, to say rhythm is a basic is not so clear, because I think rhythm is an emergent quality, a quantum function of stop and go, and straightness is an emergent quality of clear turns, and engagement is an emergent quality of yielding activating the inside hind leg. The six basic responses is the same thing, but to me, it is a little clearer because when people write about rhythm and straightness, it doesn’t always tell you what is going to produce it.”

“If you ask the average rider who is having trouble with rhythm to fix it, they may not know that their stop response shouldn’t be heavy, and that the horse shouldn’t be leaning, and while it is leaning he will never have rhythm, or while he is constantly slowing, he will never have rhythm.”

“It is as if stopping and going sit in the horse’s head as invisible parameters to produce rhythm, just as having clear responses from the rein produces a horse that goes straight when the reins are soft, it won’t turn left because of the influence of the right rein, even though it might not be on, and it won’t turn right because of the influence of the left.”

“That means we have to look at: what is a correct stop? what is correct forward? what is correct turning? or what is correct yielding? Once you have identified what is correct, you must establish a system of trouble shooting. If stop is not correct – how can we correct it to produce a clear stop, and how many repetitions do we need to produce a clear consolidated response.”

“Generally once a horse can give ten clear responses, you’ve got a fair idea that the horse is beginning to form a habit. It’s the same with ‘go’ – is the horse active and in cruise control? If it is not, we go back to operant conditioning, which is the pressure, response, release system, where we use no leg but just the whip. We tap with the whip until the horse goes forward, if the horse slows, tap it again, until in the end one tap produces circles, serpentines, anything – and without any maintenance. Once that is clear, then we put the leg back into the formula with the whip – through classical conditioning. Classical conditioning is where the horse responds to a cue – like using your seat to stop, or responding to voice – the cue has no enforcability but works through repetitious association. The associations work best when you do them just before the learned response – just before you tap the horse with the whip to go forward, you use light leg, then tap. Eventually the horse learns to work off the leg.”

“It is the same with teaching the horse to stop on your seat, even though there is always an element of stopping from the seat when you stop on the reins, because whenever you pull on the reins, your seat deepens, but you can actually make the seat more powerful by using the seat stronger just before you use your rein, that will consolidate the response, and the horse now stops much more clearly from the seat. It takes more repetitions to train by classical conditioning than by operant conditioning and the pressure/response system, but once you’ve got it in place it just needs reminding every now and then.”

“The other operating principle of the whole system is when you use operant conditioning (the pressure response method) whether you use leg or rein, you mustn’t release until you get the response you are looking for. Try to set up the conditions where you will produce it, even randomly, and you don’t release until the horse gives a clear response, then you release immediately.” “It means there are very clear guidelines, it means you have to apply it the moment incorrect behaviour starts, you’ve got to apply it throughout the whole duration of the bad behaviour, and you’ve got to increase the intensity of it if there is no change in the behaviour within a reasonable amount of time – and that’s seconds – and you must immediately release it the moment you get the clear behaviour. The timing of those pressures is essential and that is the hallmark of the great trainer. I think it is what horse whispering and all that is about too – but they just don’t always know what they are doing.”

“If you repair just the merest hint, if you get even an inkling of not going forward, or not stopping well, and you repair the hint of a problem, it won’t get bad.”

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