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The Learning Process of the Horse

18 August 2011 No Comment

The Learning Process of the Horse
By: J. Ashton Moore

Understanding the horses’ learning processes is of paramount importance in our ability to deal with horses. The better our understanding, the less likelihood for loss of patience, brutality, frustration, confusion, and failure.

The three biggest mistakes that people make in dealing with horses are:

“He wants to please me”
Anthropomorphization (attributing human qualities or characteristics to an animal)
Assuming that they have any idea what is wanted

“He wants to please me”
Horses have no interest in pleasing their owners. Whatever is going on, they would rather be eating or scratching or fighting or breeding or dozing. If that kind of relationship is wanted, get a poodle or cocker spaniel. They will adore you unequivocally and prostrate themselves for a kind word or a pat.

Anthropomorphization – attribution of human qualities to horses We easily and often make the mistake of attributing human characteristics to our horses. If they shy, do we say, “How dare you” or do we say “Oh, poor baby, are we frightened”, or do we say “Oh well, that is the nature of horses – how shall we get around it?” If they buck do we say “You are trying to hurt me” or do we say, “You seem to be feeling frolicsome today”, or do we say “It’s normal, but forbidden”.

He understands what is wanted – an anthropomorphic fantasy Horses have no idea what we want. We cannot send them a prospectus, a textbook or an outline. Their only way of determining what is wanted is by experimenting, and subsequently discovering what works and what doesn’t.

What qualities make horses trainable then?

– A social structure that is hardwired to make horses understand and accept their place in the herd (in this context – the herd of two – trainer and horse).
– A sense of the inevitable (bear with fortitude)
– Flight response (cultivated and adjusted according to OUR needs and wishes)
– A tendency to experiment
– A pragmatic attitude about what works and what does not work

What makes horses less trainable?

– Fight response (stallions particularly)
– Sex (overwhelmed by hormones, can’t help it – mares and stallions)
– Previous experience with people which doesn’t fit in with horses’ view of their world (unreasonable, brutal, muddled)

In an effort to influence horses to do what we want, we often make wrong choices. These wrong choices will be fewer if we understand the Nature of the Horse, and the Learning Process of the Horse.

Horses, unlike people, are extremely straightforward. They have their individual traits and characteristics, but there are issues which are ubiquitous.

Individual traits and characteristics are often bred in by generations of human intervention.

It is useful to know a few generalities about various breeds. Often the character of the people who have bred the breed determines what they create. Trakehners are sometimes short-fused under pressure. Other German horses are sometimes dull unless shouted at. Spanish horses take abuse well, but are quick reacting (the slow ones got gored by bulls) Hungarian horses are tough and sometimes recalcitrant. Thoroughbreds have the flight (speed) response and the “will to win” (even applied to the horse-trainer relationship) bred in. They often react reflexively before any thought process occurs. Draft horses operate (mentally) slowly. Irish horses are sometimes hardheaded (a melding of draft and thoroughbred often produces this).

It is useful to know a few generalities about the sexes. Horses who are gelded late sometimes maintain some stallion patterns of behavior for a long time. Stallions are more likely to rear and to slow down and to bite. Mares are more likely to kick and whip up in the hindquarters and go fast.

These are generalities that can be helpful, but assessing the characteristics of individual horses is more important.

In order to teach the horse, taking into account its learning process, we must be aware of three issues:
Mechanical Mode
This means the horse’s physical situation and capability in reference to the task being asked. For example, a horse standing still with its tail pointing toward a jump is not in a good mechanical mode to jump the jump. A horse with its head in the air and leaning inward and going full speed at trot is not in a good mechanical mode to take the correct lead in a balanced canter.

This refers to the trainer’s way of operating on a physical level. For example, a rider who hangs his weight to the outside and twists the frontal plane to the inside is unlikely to operate in a positive fashion to get the correct lead in canter. His mechanical influence is negative. A ground handler who bends forward at the waist is unlikely to impress the horse with his higher level on the pecking order.

This refers to the mental side of training, as opposed to the physical aspects referred to in “mechanical mode” and in “technique”. For example In general, because of the nature of horses and the importance of Mechanical Mode, the Tactic is dependent on the rider’s Technique. Bad riding (Technique), no matter how intellectually functional (Tactic) is probably going to be limited in its success.

In an effort to make an intelligent and minimum-stress process out of horse training, there are some questions we should ask ourselves BEFORE we make a request of the horse “Is he in a suitable mental state to be able to process this demand”? “Is he in a physical or mechanical mode to be able to process this demand”?

A horse in a hysterical mental state is in no frame of mind to be further stimulated. The lesson of the moment should be about attention and calmness, and “slowing time down”.

A horse that is in the wrong physical posture or muscular condition for the task at hand will react negatively (e.g. – hollow back and head in the air guarantees a poor side pass or leg-yield; a horse with sagging belly and inverted neck will not make a smooth transition from walk to canter).

There are questions we should ask ourselves AFTER we have had an interaction with the horse, to determine if we have created a positive learning environment or if we have added to confusion or negativity.

“Is the request a reasonable one, given the mental state and mechanical mode”?
“Did he feel confident to experiment”?
“Is he being disagreeable”?
“Is he bewildered”?
“Is he frightened”?
“Is he having flashbacks to previous negative experiences”?
“Is he processing any of this information, or is he out to lunch”?
“Did he understand the request”?
“What did he learn from that”?

Probably the most important of those questions is “What did he learn from that”? Here are some hypotheticals:

Situation: Galloping down to a jump, the horse puts on the brakes and refuses
Treatment: Wallop the hell out of him while standing in front of the jump
Rider’s assumption: “That’ll teach him not to stop at a jump”
Horse-think: “Proximity to jump equals pain”.

Situation: Loading in the trailer, the horse gets halfway in, then rushes back out
Treatment: Wallop the hell out of him
Rider’s assumption: That’ll teach him to back out when I’m saying ‘Git in there’
Horse-think: “Not only is it a terrible horrifying cavernous echoing claustrophobic place, but the further in I get the more I get walloped – it must be horrible in there”

Situation: Horse does not want to step into a puddle to get from point A to point B. It twirls around and faces away from the puddle.
Treatment: The rider pats him and makes soothing, reassuring noises
Rider’s assumption: He needs confidence. I must keep him calm.
Horse-think: “Ah-Ha. If I don’t like something, just twirl away and my person will go along with it and make like a weakling. This one is low on the pecking order of this herd.”

There are no pat answers about how to deal with every situation, because the horse’s responses are based on a number of variables.

Our job is to weigh the variables and come up with a useful idea about the why and wherefore of the horse’s responses.

A few things to keep in mind:

Horses operate by Trial and Error
If they do something and it works, it is a good response, so far as they are concerned. If they do something and it doesn’t work (negative reinforcement) it is a poor response.

Slow time down
We need to understand the issue of “time frame”. If we don’t get the response we want as soon as we want it, is it because the horse doesn’t get it, or doesn’t want to play, OR is it something that requires 50 repetitions (no matter how well done) in order for it to sink in and make sense to the horse. So we may need to slow things down to the speed of the horse’s thought process (e.g., learn to step sideways) or we may need to speed things up (e.g., GET those feet moving before you have a chance to think of rearing!).

Encourage experimentation
We need to be very clear about the difference between “wrong response” and “no response” because the treatments are very different. In general, we need to respond to “wrong response” by saying to the horse “No. Slow down. Do it again.” We need to respond to no response by saying to the horse “Hey! At least try something. Wrong will do, but at least experiment.”

It is a never-ending source of amazement that horses learn as much as they do when we don’t share a common language, don’t share a common intent, and don’t share a common form of communication.

Editor’s Note: This article is Part III of the three-part series by J. Ashton Moore. The first two articles, “The Nature of the Sport” and “The Nature of The Horse” can be found in the www.TodaysHorse.com Article Library under “Riding and Training.”

To contact J. Ashton Moore write to him at: articles@TodaysHorse.com

About the author:

International Judge, and international dressage, jumping and vaulting clinician – J. Ashton Moore is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Dutch Warmblood Registry in North America as well as the Co-Founder of the American Vaulting Association.

A noted breeder of Dutch Warmbloods, Danish Oldenbourgs, and Holsteiners, he has bred many successful national and international competition horses. He owns the successful Dutch Grand Prix Dressage stallions Taxateur, Rubinstein, and Vosmaer. He has also been a successful breeder of Hannoverian and Trakehner sport horses. A former hunter, jumper and 3-day event competitor, Mr. Moore now concentrates on dressage and vaulting. He trains horses thru the FEI Grand Prix (Olympic) level at the private training facility “Osierlea”, which he owns with dressage luminary Elizabeth Searle in historic San Juan Bautista, California. He coaches national and international level dressage and vaulting competitors at Osierlea and at clinics throughout the USA and abroad.

Mr. Moore trains judges in several equestrian disciplines, and works to promote a better understanding of equine and human biomechanics among judges and trainers. He says “A better understanding of how horses and humans function – independently, and as centaur – encourages more insightful, more systematic, and kinder training methods, as well as more knowledgeable judging.” He gives seminars on related subjects: “Horse Biomechanics”, “Rider Biomechanics”, “The Learning Process of the Horse”, “From the Ground Up” (a training system that prepares the horse for stress-free breaking and ongoing training), “Training for Competition Riding”, “Training and Showing the Sporthorse in Hand”.

When not dealing with horses, Mr. Moore breeds threatened species of parrots, and runs a cattle ranch and experimental fruit plantation on the Caribbean island of Bocas del Toro.

Mr. Moore’s additional credentials and accomplishments include:

AHSA Senior Dressage Judge
AHSA Sporthorse Breeding Judge
FEI Official Vaulting Judge (Judge of 5 World Championships and World Equestrian Games)
FEI Training Judge for vaulting
Director of AHSA National Dressage Judges’ Forum
Director of National and International Vaulting Judges’ Forums
Judge Trainer & Examiner of the US Dressage Federation Learner Judges’ Program
Compiler/editor of “Glossary of Dressage Judging Terms” (USDF publication)
Editor of “Dressage Judge’s Handbook” (USDF publication)
Editor of “Dressage Judge’s Checklist” (USDF publication)
Producer of the training video “Showing Your Sporthorse in Hand” (USDF production)
Graduate “A” of the US Pony Club
AHSA Hunter Judge (retired)
AHSA Jumper Judge (retired)
AHSA Equitation Judge (retired)

All inquiries regarding Mr. Moore can be sent to: info@todayshorse.com.

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