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Ground Control

18 August 2011 No Comment

Ground Control
By: Andrew McLean

‘Sunshine’ as luck would have it, is loaded with personality. No sooner had he stepped, or rather pelted off that tailgate, than he spun nearly a complete 360 degrees, at which point his quick thinking, and quite practised, owner ducked to allow Sunshine’s head to swing over, unimpeded by the mere cranium of the hapless owner.

Sunshine’s personality is legendary, for he is capable of chameleon-like changes: some days he is dead lazy, and on those days his rider needs all the weaponry under the sun to get him going, then other days he’s like a raging bull, pulling on that bit, and getting hot and silly.

But the most infuriating thing of all is that he constantly lets his rider down, just when the blue ribbon looks like it’s practically in the bag.

On the practice arena, Sunshine works like a dream, until something (and half the time that something is nothing) sets him off, and he dumps his rider and trots back to the float, and back to the haynet he’d only half finished.

So let us go back to the dissecting table and see what’s really going on here, for the trouble with the anthropomorphic (that’s when we describe animals as if they were human beings with human thought patterns) description is that it provides no lasting or meaningful answers.

It would be easy to accept that Sunshine really has got it in for his owner, or that he is playing a humorous game of ‘I’ll let you down at the last minute and you’ll still love me’ but deception is a complex higher mental process found only in a few species such as chimpanzees.

The real problem is that Sunshine is losing respect for his owner. As I explained last month, the hierarchy or pecking order, is vital to the horse, and research has shown across many species that disruption of the hierarchy destabilises animals to the point that they show conflict behaviour (anxiety, fear, anger, erratic behaviour) so that a new dominance order will emerge.

The end result of this disruption would be that Sunshine will be in charge, and no riding, leading, or possibly even catching, will take place in the new order of things. The last word could well be Sunshine’s as he chases his master up a tree, and holds him hostage until at least mealtime!

The pecking order is a fluid and temporary thing, and hierarchical species have an in-built urge to test the system from time to time, and especially during a rising plane of nutrition. Horses in conflict as a result of an unclear pecking order frequently show erratic behaviour, under-scored by an attitude of non-compliance. Hence the horse will show a resistance to going forward (the lazy Sunshine) and resistances to the stop button (the hang on for your life Sunshine). As the number of ‘wins’ escalates on the part of the dominant horse, his behaviour deteriorates further to become even more erratic than before, to hasten the establishment of the new pecking order.

Of course, there is a great variation in the tendency to dominate amongst horses, and how much of this is nature or nurture, is unclear.

Certainly in the 5000 or so years of equine domestication, we have lowered the natural propensity of the horse to dominate as indeed we have the domestic dog. The zebra and the wolf both have far greater tendencies to dominate than their domestic cousins. The dominant horse may show all the signs of being scared of quite familiar objects in his environment, because generally horses discover that the fear response is a powerful weapon against the inclinations of humans to control, and therefore dominate them. The use of the fear response is very reinforcing to the horse which discovers its power, for it renders riders and handlers ineffective in that they back off their demands almost instantly when the horse shows panic.

Even entrenched habits may be undone and r-etested by the horse’s rise in dominant attitude. In fact, submission holds in place all stored habits in the domestic horse, particularly in the early years of their investment in the behavioural repertoire. Like all repetitive actions in equines, dominance or submissive tendencies become habitual too, so the horse that is dominant for a long period, say years, will be more difficult to make obedient. It is therefore important that quiet, clear consistent respect is achieved from the start of the horse/human relationship.

It is impossible to have complete respect and therefore obedience under saddle if there is none on the ground, but as the groundwork obedience improves, you will see even more calmness and obedience under saddle. It is not uncommon, however, to see horses which are relatively more obedient under saddle than in hand, and vice versa, but improvements in one area certainly complement the other.

The European equestrian traditions in general have not systematised ground obedience techniques, nor have they drawn attention to the need for them largely because the professional handlers of horses in Europe have naturally learned and idiosyncratic abilities to gain the respect of the horses, and much of the respect they gain is ‘second nature’ to them, and therefore they are not always conscious of them. But the end result of the phenomenon is that we tend to overlook basic obedience training in horses and consequently attribute disobedience in young (and often not so young) horses to a playful attitude or personality. While it is true that some horses are more playful than others, we should also remember that personality in horses is not inspired by imagination, but rather is a mosaic of innate and learned behaviours. Inexperienced horse-people frequently imagine that an obedient horse is miserable, and lacks real pizzazz. But pizzazz comes from a lightness and freedom of movement expression, provided by self-carriage and forward. It remains intact in the disciplined horse if he is unhindered by the blocking effects of the rider’s aids, in particular the hands. From the point of view of animal psychology, an obedient horse must be inherently happier than a disobedient one because it is this way in nature: a quiet, clear consistent leader takes no threats from those beneath him and thereby maintains harmony in the herd. The secret for us is to discover how to achieve it without the poly-pipe wielding violence so commonly misunderstood to be the solution.

The answer is to look to the natural behaviour of the horse, and identify the natural gestures of dominance and submission. Firstly, the dominant horse invades the space of the submissive one, and the submissive one retreats unless his dominance is rising and he stands his ground to attempt to usurp a place higher in the hierarchy.

Secondly, the dominant horse gives little focus of attention to the submissive horse, and shows facing away behaviour. By contrast, the submissive horse pays attention to the position and movements of the dominant one. You will find when you stand in front of a horse that is not submissive, that he will always face away from you, with his head held high, even if you move and stand in front of him. This aspect of herd dynamics is not to be confused with the predator-prey phenomenon that a direct gaze is threatening, for here we are talking intra- herd politics, and you are part of that society.

Thirdly, in a stable herd society, (where there is no fear of each other), the submissive horse will yield in any direction from the dominant horse, like the smooth repulsion of magnets. In effect, the dominant horse will, at a certain proximity to the submissive one, cause him to retreat and yield and the same speed, mirroring his movements in all directions, as it were.

Finally, the posture of submission is a very defined one, and this is universal in the animal kingdom that is the head is lowered , the musculature loose, the ears floppy, and the eyes soft. This position, which we call postural submission, is also the posture of relaxation and calmness. This duality is fundamental to the trainer’s understanding of submission, because it shows that submission and therefore obedience, maintained by clear, quiet and consistent dominance is not robbing the horse of personality but making him relaxed and content.

So here we have four observations of dominant and submissive behaviour, so the next question is how to incorporate them into training tools.

The techniques described here work best with a bit in the horse’s mouth, but a knotted rope headstall is adequate. The point is, though, that it is the vibrating of the bit or headstall which provides the stimulus for the horse to offer, by trial and error, changes in his behaviour, whereupon the vibrating will cease at the onset of desirable behaviour. It is the cessation of the vibrations which reinforce (reward) the desirable behaviour. Those people not familiar with behavioural psychology terminology frequently believe that negative reinforcement is just a fancy name for punishment. However punishment is just pain applied after a behaviour, whereas negative reinforcement is the removal of a relatively mild pressure of discomfort applied during undesirable behaviour, the very moment desirable behaviour appears. Negative reinforcement is the way the horse learns to turn with the bit in his mouth during breaking in, whereby the trainer softens the moment the horse complies, and the same applies to the way the horse learns to lead and to go forward from the leg.

Our first technique in groundwork is to invade the horse’s space by walking directly toward the point of the horse’s shoulder, (along the straight line from the shoulder to the opposing hip) and in doing so, vibrating the reins backwards and ceasing the vibrating the moment the horse begins to step back, immediately resuming vibrating again as soon as his back – stepping grinds to a halt or loses tempo. If the horse refuses to retreat you should vibrate the reins and then to reinforce the action you should step lightly on to the coronet of the foot in front of you, and repeat this sequence for each step. Alternatively, replace stepping on his coronet with squeezing the large muscle either side of the windpipe (the brachycephalic muscle). Eventually he will associate your invasion of his space as his cue to retreat quietly backwards, at the same velocity as your approach. This invasion should be successfully completed for both shoulders and then finally from directly in front of the horse.

The second technique is based on the second observation, that the dominant horse gives little attention to the submissive one. This translates into something useful if we can negatively reinforce facing away to the left and the right, as you are positioned directly in front of the horse, at the end of his nose. I stress that this must be done after the first space invasion technique so that your position in front of the horse is rendered safe. When the horse looks away, you vibrate the reins until he moves his head toward you. Most likely he will then look past you in the opposite direction, so again you vibrate the reins until he turns his head. The horse will, after a period of a few minutes, discover that the least annoying position is to look at you, and when he does, you will find that he will immediately become calmer and lower his head to your level, and his eyes will look softer and his ears will become floppy. Once you have repeated this to the point that he ceases to face away, you can dig much deeper into the task and start moving, one step at a time, sideways in an arc around the horse, and if he does not follow you, vibrate the reins again, ceasing the moment he steps to face you in. Eventually, you will have the horse following your every move, and to test his new – found attitude, you should begin to make sharper changes of direction of the arc of your movement around him. Your horse is now beginning to notice you, and his interest, including his fear of the outside world will diminish. The third technique is to teach the horse to lead and halt properly in self carriage, and mirror your every move. No horse, whether it is a weanling, yearling or mature horse should lean on the lead rope, and in particular, he must never ever run around you or even past you whilst on the lead. This technique is a valuable one not only for the submission it gives, but also for the three-day-event horse during the trot-up in front of the ground jury. It is not uncommon to see basic disobedience on the lead, spinning around and refusing to stand immobile. The first aspect of this work is to teach the horse to lead forward with the horse between you and a wall. You are at his shoulder, and you are leading him on the left rein, so your left hand is 30cm’s from his chin, just below the posterior to it. Your right hand has the slack of the reins and a dressage whip in it which is positioned so that with a movement of the wrist the whip will touch the near side of the horse, to urge him forward if he does not follow your steps forward. When you lead a horse forward, it is as important as it is under saddle to have his steps active, for a measure of submission comes from the horse’s full compliance of giving 100% forward.

Now it is time to teach him to stop also in self carriage, so you firstly cease your movement and then vibrate the reins until the horse stops. This needs to be repeated until the horse mirrors your movements. It’s a bit like line-dancing with your horse (don’t own up to it though): he should be watching your every move, and again in his training you should vary the number of steps to make his concentration sharper. You now have your horse’s attention, and you may now see that what you took to be his short concentration span and lively personality is in fact a lack of submission, because he is not on the aids.

Finally, we come to postural submission. If you place your fingers at the top of your horse’s poll, you will notice a soft spot just behind and either side of the mane. If you press with one or two fingers at either or both of these spots, you will notice the horse will move his head up, down or sideways from the pressing of your fingers. You should only press strong enough to get the response. As soon as he lowers his head, even if it is only a tiny degree, you must soften your pressing immediately (in training you reward every good try). This is Trial and Error learning, otherwise known as Operant Conditioning, whereby, through negative reinforcement, the horse at first moves his head randomly from the pressure, but discovers that the most comfortable (or least annoying) position, in terms of finger pressing, is downwards. Once he lowers his head, then you should repeat the pressing to send his head even lower, and ultimately to the ground. In doing this, keep your head well away and with your head turned so that if he suddenly flings his head up then his head will not contact yours; swinging his up or to the side suddenly can result in injury so take no chances if you choose to use this technique. The greatest submission will come when you can maintain his head down to the ground for at least 30 seconds. Reward him by firmly stroking at the base of the mane. With practice, simply touching his poll will be the cue for instant head lowering. This is also a useful technique for calming a horse in any situation. If the horse does not move his head at all, no matter how much you try, then abandon this aspect unless someone more expert can help. At any rate, you will obtain considerable submission from the combination of the other three techniques. If you practice and perfect these four basic techniques, you will see a big change in your horse’s behaviour and in his willingness. To work best they must be trained very thoroughly, paying particular attention to your timing.

Remember to empower your work with frequent reward, especially scratching at the base of the mane. You will notice that the horse will find a new level of calmness, and this will manifest also in an immunological harmony, with a more efficient metabolism where less energy intakes will result in more weight gain (horses in chronic dominance conflicts are frequently poor-doers because of their internal immunological crisis). For the riding horse, however, this is only half the story.

About the author:

Click here to go to Andrew McLean’s Bio page.

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