Jun 092013
 

There must be something in the air at the moment; I was recently expounding the virtues of delaying a horse’s training under the saddle only to come across an article last week on The Horse website talking about (race)horse performance at 2, 3 and 5 years related to lesions.

The cause was at that moment of little interest, the age of the horses was. Should we be riding at such immature ages?

Despite being worlds apart, the racehorse industry and the home-hack do have one main thing in common, the wish to turn their beautiful horse into a beautiful rideable horse as soon as possible. After all, most of us don’t just want to look at our horse…

There is plenty of motivation to start early too. In dressage, there is a minimum age at which a horse may compete; according to FEI regulations for international dressage competition, it is six years but for many national events, the rules are different with the minimum age being as low as three. And when one considers horse-racing, the ages are even lower – the racing of two-year-olds is quite commonplace which requires them to be saddled up for the first time when they are not much older than 1½.

For the professional trainer and owner, it is all a question of money. Often the horse is – or can become – quite valuable. Keeping a horse costs money (ironically, for the owners of such horses, it is often just a fraction of their earnings) and the natural desire is to see the horse earn its keep as soon as possible. And eventually, a racehorse can be put out to stud and earn yet more that way – these days not even needing to attain a respectable age with the ability to freeze sperm – but the health of the horse is never the greatest consideration.

So what about the mere mortals of this world? Most horse owners will agree that a horse should not be ridden until it is about 4 years old. A respectable age, one could say; the horse is obviously no longer a foal and is more likely to grow outwards than upwards. However, the growth plates are still a long way off being closed. The last plates will close somewhere between 5½ and eight years old – and it is specifically these growth plates that are found in the back of the horse – all 32 of them!

Most growth plates lie across the weight bearing plane – think of knees, ankles, shoulders etc. – and are less affected by the carriage of weight. But the growth plates in the back lie parallel to the weight bearing plane whereby the back is easily streched and thus can suffer under the weight of the rider.

skeleton of the horseTo clarify, this is the order and the approximate age at which the growth plates close up:

1. Birth: distal phalanx (coffin bone)

2. Birth and six months: middle phalanx

3. Between six months and 1 year: proximal phalanx

4. Between 8 months and 1½ years: metacarpals/metatarsals (cannon bones)

5. Between 1½ and 2½ years: carpal bones

6. Between 2 and 2½ years: radius-ulna

7. Between 2½ and 3 years: ulna/femur, section that carries weight above the radius; tibia

8. Between 3 and 3½ years: humerus; bottom part of the femur

9. Between 3 and 4 years: pelvis begins to close, beginning with the extremities of the ischium, ilium and sacrum

10. Between 3½ and 4 years: lower part (that carries weight) of the scapula (shoulderblade)

; top neck vertebrae

12. From 4 years: tarsal bones then the growth plates between fibula and tibia (not without reason that 18th century literature forbade ploughing, crossing of deep mud and jumping for young horses)

13. Between 5½ and 8 years: vertebrae (the larger the horse and the longer the neck, the longer it takes for the growth plates to close up. For stallions, add another six months: this means a “warmblood” horse of about 17hh will not be fully grown until 8 years old.)

Of course, all this does not mean that we cannot do anything with our horses until they are eight, but it should certainly set us thinking about our training schemes.

For the professional horseworld, time is loss – except the economics are not taken into account. Maybe not so interesting for the racehorse owner – his horse is often little more than a money factory – but certainly for the livery and riding school owners. In much of Europe, the average age of a riding school horse is horrifically low and the general life-expectancy shows no correlation with what a horse should (healthily) be able to reach. Based upon the size of the animal and the size and rate of its heart etc., the horse has a potential life-expectancy of 50 years. Realistically a little lower at around 40 to 43 years. But a horrific number of horses has already been written off by the age of 20 – imagine writing off people when they get to 38 or 40…

Take a look at the table below – and decide for yourself which of the two columns fits your way of thinking best:

Begin training3 years7 years
Full potential7 years10 years
End “useful” life18 years35 years
Total work period15 years?25 years

Just by delaying the moment we start to ride by just 3 years, we can win 10 years in “useful” life. It makes you think…

 

Growth plate information: Timing and rate of skeletal maturation in horses, Dr Deb Bennett, 2005
“Useful Life” table: based on observations by Pierre Enoff, bio-mechanical engineer
Original article published in Dutch: http://www.kobolt.nl/gezondheid/leeftijd-bij-inrijden/   https://sabots-libres.eu/site/engagement/2013/leeftijd-bij-inrijden/

Jun 072013
 

O-Master in proper collectionProper collection is the most efficient way for a horse to carry itself (and also to move). A horse can only collect itself. We cannot force a horse into collection.

Only after I have started my internship at Taonara (Belgium), have I learned what proper collection really means and how it woks scientifically. I also learned the concept of contra collection (by the courtesy of Josepha Guillaum – see article Collection (1)) and finally understood why I always felt like I could not collect the school horses (nor any other horse I ever rode), until now.

I feel that it is time to share my new insights with my readers.

In order to fully understand what I mean with the concept of collection, it is important that you read both parts of the article collection. And please, feel free to comment. I am curious in what you have to say on this topic!

Let me start this article in the same was as I have started the former article Collection (1): Concept and Contra Concept, by trying to define collection.

Definitions of collection:

Wikipedia defines collection as “when a horse carries more weight on his hind legs than on his front legs”. As I have Weight-bearingalready explained in the former article, this understanding of collection is simply wrong. The horse carries around 55% of his weight on the forehand (neck and head), and approximately 45% by the hindquarters. But, these numbers of weight-bearing change constantly, depending on what the horse is doing. When it rests, with the head lowered towards the ground, and one hind leg cocked up, there is more weight on the forehand. However, when it flees there is more weight shifted towards the hind-end (100% weight bearing on the hind legs is achieved when the horse rears). In the picture on the right side, you can actually really see how much weight is one the horse’s forehand (nicely underlined/brought out by the “rider” leaning forwards as well).

Another definition I found was stated in the article Definition Collect, Collection by K. Blocksdorf. This definition states that collection is

When a horse can carry more of its weight on its hindquarters than on the forelegs when ridden or driven. His back will be raised as he engages his stomach muscles. He will be flexing at the poll and will carry himself lightly. This makes the impulsion that comes from the hindquarters much greater (…). The horse can be more easily maneuvered and can carry a rider with greater ease. The horse will reach further underneath its body with its hind legs making stops and turns much more precise.

Overall, I must say that I like this definition a lot, except for the beginning, since it reminds me of the Wikipedia definition. To me, it has many of the most important elements mentioned in collection. Just compare the bullet points below on collection with this definition, and you will find that there actually are a lot of overlaps.

Why do we want collection?

Proper collection is necessary for the horse to carry itself as well as the rider in the most efficient way. Horses are not made for carrying around riders on their back. They must be trained to do so, in order to not break down or get injuries from that. A rider doesn’t only put some extra weight on the horse, but also ads pressure. The horse tries to avoid this pressure by hollowing its back and tense the back muscles (very bad for the horse! And again contra collection!). Another thing that happens when a rider goes on the horse, is that the horse’s balance is disturbed; for a flight animal this can have sever (fatal) consequences. So, before we can even think of collection, we must first teach the horse to stay relaxed, and then to raise his back, and only then can we really start working on proper collection.

Branderup on a properly collected horse

Furthermore, collection is necessary to get the horse to use its body properly, especially when we ask the horse to do something unnatural, i.e. carrying around a rider on his back. Often, the horse hallows its back and tends to fall on his forehand. From this, many injuries can result, especially relating to the back, the head and neck, as ell as the forehand.

Unfortunately, horses are most often not trained in a proper manner and will carry the rider wrong and are usually even taught to perform in contra collection (and even Rollkur). Have you never wondered why there are so many crippled horses coming out of the professional riding disciplines?

So, all things considered, proper collection helps the horse to carry itself and us properly, insures safty of horse and rider, improves any type/discipline of riding, and is a necessity for maintining a healthy horse.

this YouTube video shows a nice way of a high form of collection with the rider

What is proper collection?

Proper collection can be observed most often when the horse runs around freely in the field. Collection occurs (in the wild) when the horse feels in danger, intimidates rivals, fight, flight, imponieren (marries or opponents), and when playing around.

Proper collection has to do with energy, the ego and balance of a horse.

  • In collection, the energy of the horse is collected. When you look at a horse in proper collection (especially the Spanish breeds), than you can really see the energy contained in a horse. In Spanish bull fights for example one can see a lot of truly collected horses full of nearly overflowing energy! One of the most important (pre)conditions for collection related to energy, is impulsion, which can basically be described as energy coming from the hindquarters (moving the horse forward). Impulsion leads to the engagement of the hindquarters. The hind legs are brought deeper underneath the body and for the rider it feels like riding “uphill” instead of “down-hill”.
  • It is important to notice that a horse can only collect itself. We cannot force a horse to collect itself. We can only aid, but we cannot enforce. In order for a horse to want to collect itself, it must feel good about itself – the ego must be pushed (by us) and we will get a horse that wants to present itself to us. In my internship, I have firstly been really introduced to horses that truely feel good about themselves and that love to collect! It is amazing. So, in order to be able to achieve collection, the horse needs strength, flexibility, balance and proprioception, and not to forget, self-confidence and the desire to do so. So it’s not all about pumping muscles, it’s also about the nervous system, comfort and motivation.
  • Collection also has a lot to do with balance. In order for a horse to be collected, it must foremost be balanced – with or without a rider. For a horse it is of necessity to be balanced at all times, otheriwse a predator might have an easy dinner, for the horse cannot run away properly.

In this YouTube video, all of the aspects mentioned above, and the bulletin points underneath can be observed!

Bulletin Points

I have also tried to note down some of the most important things happening in collection:

  • Higher erection of the neck

  • Vertebral column arches upward

  • Collection au natural

    Flexion at the poll

  • Vertical head position

  • Withers come upwards

  • Free and light shoulders

  • Usage of “stomach muscles”/abs

  • Ribcage is lifted up

  • Usage of upper line neck and back muscle (nuchal ligament is contracted)

  • Longissimus dorsi can move freely

  • Get the back up

  • Collection au natural

    The pelvis tilts

  • Engagement of the hindquarters

  • Setting the hind legs under – Stepping in under the body

  • Shorter, higher strides

  • Lowering of the hind leg joints

  • Freely moving tail

  • “Shorter body”

It is important to note that all of these things are interconnected and interrelated. This is due to the horse (bio)mechanics.

More detailed explanations

In this section, I will briefly elaborate on some of the bulletin points mentioned above and try to make the connections between them clear.

  • The joints – hip, knee, hock and pastern – are always bent to a degree, which leads to shock-absorbing movements. This bend affects the forehand as well, since, due to the bending of the joints in the hindquarters, the croup is slightly lowered, which in turns arches the spine slightly upward and thus raises the forehand. This increased flexion of the joints during the weight bearing phase, is a prerequisite for impulsion. (See above – energy/impulsion). The forehand of a horse should not be forgotten though, since it is pushed up by the muscles of the shoulder the chest and also somewhat the neck muscles.
  • A horse uses his abs to support the arch of the back and the croup.
  • The base of the neck is lifted and the upperline muscles are contracted. The nose drops towards the vertical
  • The tail of the horse should be slightly arched (neither tucked in, nor overtly sticking out) in a horizontal line and then fall down freely, moving gently from side to side.

Levade, the highest form of collection

Levade, with rider

Conclusion

I would like to end my article with a quote by the old (horse) master Xenophon:

If one induces the horse to assume that carriage which it would adopt of its own accord when displaying its beauty, then, one directs the horse to appear joyous and magnificent, proud and remarkable for having been ridden.

Finally, one of the nicest videos on collection I have seen so far:

References:

http://horsemanpro.com/articles/collection.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collection_(horse)

http://www.equusite.com/articles/riding/ridingCollection.shtml (read this article for a bio-mechanic explanation!)

http://www.equusite.com/articles/riding/ridingCollection.shtml

http://www.josepha.info/ (article contra collection)

http://www.pferdemeldungen.de/2011/10/hin-und-weg-von-der-losgelassenheit_1853.html

http://todayshorse.com/what-is-collection/

http://horses.about.com/od/glossaryofhorsetermsc/g/collection.htm

Pictures:

Youtube.com

http://www.youtube.com/user/TaonaraTV#p/u/3/IbHXw7Sj8K4 (Taonara – O-Master)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NDJPDfwidVc&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMB0QTDbNjU&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAWjTnFqVvA&feature=related

 

Originally published on Stéphanie Kniest’s blog Homo Equus: http://lilith16.wordpress.com/2011/11/15/collection-2-proper-collection/

Jun 072013
 

I believe that one of the most important things to pay attention to when training horses is proper collection.  This concept is probably the most misunderstood concept among a large number of (professional) riders. When I turn on the TV and watch a dressage show, or go into a barn and watch people riding, what I encounter most often is a wrong form of collection  and/or not even an attempt to collect the horse at all. Thus, in either case no collection whatsoever.

 

Definitions of collection

The first thing one usually does when trying to find out about a certain subject is googeling it and usually ending up at Wikipedia. Wikipedia claims that collection is “ when a horse carries more weight on his hind legs than on his front legs” (Wikipedia.com). This statement, even though it is heard most commonly when we talk about collection, is not correct! The horse cannot carry more weight on the forehand than on the hind legs, because in the front of a horse are the neck and the head located. I think that this mistaken statement has arisen due to the fact that it might look like the horse carries less weight on the forehand. This happens because the front legs of the horse are raised, while the pelvis of the horse tilts down (see section proper collection for a more detailed explanation). Another definition works out better: “Collection is the bringing together of both ends of the horse for the purpose of lifting and lightening the forehand”(TodayHorse.com). In this definition, one of the main goals of proper collection, the lightening of the forehand, is brought forward, without implying anything about physical weight being carried on the forehand.

Contra-Collection

Before I will explain what proper collection is (in my next post – the article got really long all of the sudden when I was writing it, so I had to divide it in two posts), I will first introduce the opposite: contra collection. This term has been introduced by a dear friend of mine Josepha Guillaume. Much of my understanding of contra collection (and collection in general) is actually derived from her cliniques and her horses (all of them teaching me a lot). By understanding what contra-collection is (and how it comes about), I feel that one can more easily understand and even better value true collection. To make the connection more clear in the text, the contra-collection aspects are written in bold letters, while the opposite aspects of proper collcetion are written in italics.

Our fault

In my opinion, contra collection has to do with how a horse is being ridden. I believe that it is only because of us that a horse will ever walk in contra collection.Young, untrained horses for example mainly walk in their natural, horizontal balanceContra collection happens when the horse is ridden from “front to back” instead of from “back to front”, or in other words, when the horse pulls himself forward with the forehand (rather than pushing himself with the hindquarters).

Our fault of emplyoing aids

Often some form of “aids”, such as draw reins, running martingales, or tiedowns are applied to force the horse’s neck down. The problem is that all of these so called “aids” strengthen those very muscles that raise the horse’s head and drop the base of his neck. Thus, the horse ends up being even more high-headed and more restive with tighter back and loins muscles, than before.

What exactly happens when we tie a horse down?

  • By pulling the horse’s head down, we distort the balance system of the horse (which, just like in humans, is located between the ears). The horse actually feels like it will fall over; in order to prevent this from happening, it tries to pull its head up again (the lower neck muscle is contracted(rather than the topline neck muscle). This also leads to a contracted back muscle (raher than a relaxed back muscle), which disturbs the horse’smovement and leads to unrhtymic gaits (rather than a rhtymic gait). Furthermore, it starts to fall on his forehand in order to not fall on his nose (muscles are contracted) (rather than a light forehand).
  • By employing a strong hand or aids, the horse is forced into specific frame, which will produce, among other things, a shortened and stiff stride(rather than bent properly the joints of his legs), in which the horse’sshoulders aren’t raised.Furthermore, the hind legs will come out behind the horse and the front legs will be set more underneath the horse (rather than having the hind legs deeper underneath the body). Also, the back of the horse drops down (rather than being raised upward).
  • Also, the horse will probably flex his neck at the centerline (rather than at the poll), which leads the horizontal/straight line to rotate downward in the front (rather than rotate upward). The horse will carry the weight on the forehand with the longissimus dorsi, the shoulders, the lower neck muscles and the front legs. A horse that has been rideen in such manner has a very specific composition: the lower neck buldges outward, there is an unnatural bend on the topline of the neck(extreme S shape), the shoulders are heavily developed while there islittle muscle on the hind legs nor on the topline of the neck, the withers are tugged in and the longissuímus dorsi is so tense that the horse cannot maintain proper rhytem in the gaits.

For a better understanding

I was reading through my article and I feel that it might be helpful to introduce a movie that explains the horse’s anatomy. So, here we go:

Movie 1

Movie 2 (is a video of images on the horse’s anatomy – like you would find in a book)

If you know any other helpful movies, please feel free to comment and introduce those =)

It is always useful when exploring the concept of collection to deepen one’s knoweldge in the horse anatomy. Just buy a book on horse anatomy (for example Gerd Heuschmann – If horses could speak)

Examples

I would like to briefly introduce two examples. in the first example I will explain what happens when the horse’s neck is forced down, while the second example very briefly explains what happens if the horse’s neck is forced too much upward.

If the horizontal line falls to the front (the bit is underneath the hip line) and the horse is asked (usually with spurs) to engage his hind legs by placing them well underneath the body, than the horse’s back will be pressured upward, leaving the hind legs lightened (total opposite of the proper collection). This will also result in the horse’s energy to be waste by him trying the reach the ground and lose balance.

Another example, opposite of lowering the head, is erecting the head. In this case, the horse doesn’t adequately bend his joints in the hind legs and the back becomes pressured downwards.

In neither one example can proper collection be achieved.

Effects of contra collection

–> All in all, what happens is thus the exact opposite of collection, hence the name: contra-collection.

Horses that have been ridden in contra collection for a long time have all the opposite muscles of proper collection well developed and trained. Thus, it is a long way to restore and built up the riight muscles for proper collection (but usually possible)

Also, this form of contra collection will, in the end, lead to pain and injuries of the horse (especially the neck and the forehands, as well as the back). Examples are sore stifles, sore back, kissing spine syndrome, lameness, and all sorts of front end problems.

Click here to check out some really good pictures that help you understand the problematical parts.

_

…to be continued…

References:

http://horsemanpro.com/articles/collection.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collection_(horse)

http://www.equusite.com/articles/riding/ridingCollection.shtml (read this article for a bio-mechanic explanation!)

http://www.equusite.com/articles/riding/ridingCollection.shtml

http://www.josepha.info/ (article contra collection)

http://www.pferdemeldungen.de/2011/10/hin-und-weg-von-der-losgelassenheit_1853.html

http://todayshorse.com/what-is-collection/

Bilder:

YouTube.com

(1) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=47SHPAe0s0k

(2) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fITBkQOFuBo&feature=related

 

Originally published on Stéphanie Kniest’s blog Homo Equus: http://lilith16.wordpress.com/2011/11/15/collection-1-concept-and-contra-concept/

Jun 042013
 

Saff223May07.........Clicker training is one of the recent success stories of equestrianism. It makes use of a bridging signal to indicate the moment of the desired behaviour, followed by positive reinforcement. We are told that training with positive reinforcement is more ethical than training with negative reinforcement and/or punishment. We are told that positive reinforcement activates the pleasure circuits of the brain, releasing dopamine in a way totally distinct from the regions activated by techniques involving pressure and release. As clicker trainers we are adept at handling the various erroneous criticisms by sceptics – that horses in the wild do not use positive reinforcement, that hand-fed horses will be encouraged to bite, that understanding behavioural science predisposes us to being unfeeling scientists who can’t work with practical behaviour. We have horses who appear to engage in their training enthusiastically, sometimes they even don’t want us to end the session. It is just one long string of clicks and treats for us!

So what’s the problem?

Firstly there is the perception that clicker training can only be positive. We are giving a horse treats which is better than him having no treats. Therefore it is good. This is a somewhat simplistic view. Skinnerian stimulus-response chains do not take into account anything about the horse’s lifestyle and environment. In fact, Skinner seemed even to deny that they were relevant. If a horse pulls faces when you put his saddle on then you can clicker train him to make a happy face instead. If a horse won’t stand still in his stable you can target train him to stand motionless while you do things to him. You can train him to adopt dressage postures. You can train him to move at gaits that would require more advanced training if taught conventionally. You can train him not to respond to all manner of scary objects. You can even train him to lie down, permit you to lie down with him and take a great photo for your website. And so much more….

The trouble is that none of these training situations take into account the underlying reasons for the behaviour. The poorly-fitting saddle may be causing pain. The stabled horse may feel worried about a neighbouring horse. He may not have the right musculature to adopt the requested positions or perform advanced movements. He may learn to tolerate the scary objects but what if his fear of them is still greater than the pleasure of the treats? And lying down is all very well if he wants to do it but what about when the ground is hard or there is something in the vicinity which means he’d really rather not?

But horses wouldn’t do it if they didn’t want to?

This is the age-old question. It has been (and is) said of race-horses, show-jumpers, riding school horses, horses trained with natural horsemanship techniques and even the original process of domestication approximately six thousand years ago. Of course, these forms of horsemanship all include aversive stimuli, both physical and emotional, which provide some level of threat to the horse – “choose to do as I say, or else”. So the horse complies, apparently willingly, and the aversive stimulus can remain invisible to all but the most perceptive observer.

Clicker training is different because we are providing something pleasurable for the horse. We are absolved from guilt. Or are we? Domesticated horses have had a lifetime of complying with our wishes and they continue to do so when we pick up a clicker. The rules may have changed and we may be permitting the horse to offer a behaviour before confirming that it is the correct behaviour, but it is still the human who decides whether it is the correct behaviour. We want the horse to choose to offer behaviour spontaneously but it has to be the “right behaviour” – such mixed messages bestow a lot of emotional pressure on an animal who has previously been so well-conditioned to do as intstructed. It is like having “creative thinking” or “independent learning” timetabled at school (as indeed occurs these days), as though autonomy can be switched on and off. Good trainers who understand how to use variable schedules of reinforcement are then able to extract more and more behaviour out of the horse in return for the reward. This “Brave New World” of horse training can often be so blind to what the horse would really choose.

And then we have repetition. Just in case the horse is in any doubt as to who is calling the shots, some trainers seem to feel the need to train a behaviour over and over again. There seems to come a point where any pleasure circuitry triggered in the brain by the treats is more than compensated for by the conflict behaviours seen in the horse – the frustration and aggression, the sexual over-arousal, the boredom, the conditioned suppression, the worry. And the reason for this repetition is typically the perceived need for the horse to respond “less emotionally” or more “cleanly”. So our goal has become something coming dangerously close to the shut down automatons of some of the more aversive training methods we have tried to leave behind. What is going on?

The trouble with clicker training is that it is incredibly powerful. The trouble with horses is that the majority are very compliant because they wish to avoid conflict. It is very easy to evolve inadvertently from a novice clicker trainer, who wants to help her horse become more enthusiastic and have a more enriched life, to a more advanced clicker trainer who is looking for perfection and control and has rather forgotten why she started clicker training in the first place. I have never met anyone who actively clicker trains her horse because it is such a good way of exerting her authority. Yet that is so often how it has become. That desire to become a better and more achieving trainer just cannot help getting in the way of what is important to the horse. Yes, with clicker in one hand and treats in the other, we can become over-controlling, aversive stimuli who are actively, albeit inadvertently, working towards reduction of our horses’ autonomy and, hence, welfare.

And we haven’t even begun to talk about combining clicker training with negative reinforcement and punishment – that was the subject of a previous article so I shall spare you that this time…..

So what do I like about it?

Despite all these concerns, I really do rate clicker training very highly and would love to see it taken up by more people. Positive reinforcement (with or without a clicker) allows us to interact with horses in a way to which no other training method even comes close. But in order to tap into this wealth of potential, we really need to change our focus. We need to start again and look at what attracted us to clicker training in the first place.

When starting clicker training we tend to offer a neutral target; either through natural curiosity or by accident the horse touches it. He hears a click and receives a reward. After a few repetitions we see that incredible “light-bulb moment” as the horse works out what is happening. The horse realises that he can turn the human into a vending machine – it is the moment of a surge of self-confidence, empowerment and autonomy. As horse-loving owners/trainers we are hooked from this moment onwards. It is why we wanted to clicker train, we liked seeing our horses so happy and expressive. We liked the moment of being able to read our horses’ minds. I like clicker training when we stay in this place, when we don’t move out into the world of training behaviours just because we can, or over-training, or worrying about excessive stimulus control or trying constantly to deal with so-called behavioural problems.

When engaged in a simple free-shaping session, such as this, we are conveying a very powerful message to the horse. We are saying that he can choose to participate or not (even better if the session is in the field so grass is always available as an alternative to training). We are saying that he can earn rewards or opt not to earn rewards and nothing bad will happen, whichever option he chooses. We are saying that we will respect the decisions he makes, rather than trying to find alternative ways of obtaining compliance. The horse choosing to say “no” is not a slur on our training or on our relationship. It can be a sign that he is in good psychological health and feels sufficiently secure in his relationship with the owner that he can say “no”. After previous years of being conditioned to do as he is told, learning that he can opt to do or not to do something is incredibly liberating. When we turn clicker training into something bordering on authoritarian, we lose the most enlightened element of it – the opportunity to reinstate the horse’s autonomy. This is where clicker training has advantages in its ability to increase welfare; any technique using pressure and release cannot increase a sense of autonomy.

Despite being a strong advocate of positive reinforcement, often to the point of being misquoted as attempting a route of pure positive reinforcement, I have come to believe that autonomy is perhaps the most beneficial gift we can incorporate into our training. When positive reinforcement training is controlling and manipulative it erodes autonomy and diminishes the value of the rewards – it becomes a poisoned cue in itself. Horses have evolved to make many decisions for themselves – the erroneous idea that the majority of horses just blindly follow a leader is outdated – and there is no reason for this to have changed over the relatively brief period of domestication. Yet the vast majority of domesticated horses have no say in what they do when, are fed a prescribed diet at specific times and have no choice as to their companions. Indeed, the manner in which most horses are managed is contrary to even the most basic ethological time-budgets.

I do not pretend to use positive reinforcement all the time, but I reserve it for when I want to encourage my horse’s autonomy, alongside careful consideration of his evolutionary needs. I will use discrete and well-defined free-shaping sessions to reinforce the message that I will listen to my horse’s opinions. This is not to say that I will never over-ride my horse’s opinions because sometimes I do – afterall, none of us has autonomy 24/7 – but within a free-shaping session it is all his choice. The balance needs to be found where the horse has the self-confidence and trust in the owner that he can offer opinions confidently without feeling “shut down” if the opinions are over-ruled. I don’t use clicker training to train away problems or to train behaviours I actually care about training. I use clicker training to build a sufficiently strong relationship from which I can later use mild negative reinforcement when I feel it is appropriate. Obviously it depends very much on the horse as to how much of a balance must be struck between the need for free-shaping sessions and the appropriateness of incorporating mild pressure. In the early days of working with a new horse it may be that every interaction needs to be the horse’s decision. The long-term shaping plan will include being able to cope with direction from the human.

Free shaping allows the horse to behave in the most open and honest way, rather than just trying to avoid pressure whichever way he can. It is a means of communication, two-way communication as opposed to formal training. As a result, we are provided with the closest insight as to how a horse might be thinking. We can use this information to improve the life of the horse – we can learn about his learning style, what he likes and dislikes, how he values things, what he feels scared about. We can apply this information to any form of equestrianism in which we wish to participate – not to exploit and manipulate but to add value and reduce conflict.

I strongly believe that this approach to horsemanship is analogous to some of the methods used in human psychotherapy, most notably, the person-centred style of therapy pioneered by Carl Rogers (e.g. On Becoming a Person). There is also a beautiful description of such therapy applied to a six year old boy, thought to be mentally deficient but given the opportunity to develop a positive relationship with play therapist, Virgina Axline, and transform into the highly intelligent and advanced boy he was (Dibs: In Search of Self). This book shows the power of free-shaping in action and is remarkable for so many reasons, not least because the therapy took place for only one hour a week with the boy returned to a fairly aversive home life in between. Rogers believed that a therapeutic relationship hinged on three key factors – empathic understanding, genuineness and unconditional positive regard. While his earlier work studied the relationship between therapist and client, he later extended it to just about all relationships. I see no reason why this should not apply to horse-human relationships as well. Working with a troubled horse requires these same three attributes – an understanding of how that horse might be feeling, the patience to allow that horse to behave how he needs to behave without trying to manipulate or creating an agenda and respect and appreciation for every try that the horse makes. I think it’s fair to say that no equestrian discipline has these core points at the heart of the horse-human relationship. Yet…..

Catherine Bell is an equine behaviourist and independent barefoot trimmer with website http://www.equinemindandbody.co.uk and Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/ThinkingHorsemanshipForum