Contemplating the Welfare and Training of Horses

Book Review – EQUITATION SCIENCE by Paul McGreevy & Andrew McLean

EQUITATION SCIENCE by Paul McGreevy & Andrew McLean

Published by Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, paperback, 314 pages. ISBN 978-1-4051-8905-7. Illustrated in colour and B&W. £29.99.

Science is neither more nor less than the best method we humans have yet devised for finding out how things work. Most fields of human activity have been immeasurably improved over the years by objective enquiry, gradually separating out what is true from what merely appears to be true, or from what we would like to be true. Those who ride and train horses have come late to the party. Equitation has become mired in half-truths and hearsay, and in unrealistic human expectations of horses. This important new book shows that despite our propensity for getting it wrong, it is not actually that difficult to get it right.

People struggle so hard to do the right thing, to train their horses ethically, to manage life so that they and their horses feel safe. It can be bewilderingly difficult to work out why your horse responds to his environment and to you as he does. Equitation Science has deconstructed this immense complexity into a simple message. It is this. If you can train your horse, ethically and reliably, to go, to stop, to move the shoulders over or to move the quarters over when signalled to do so, you can by using these signals singly or in various combinations shape your horse‘s behaviour into any of the equestrian activities you wish to practise, and your horse will have the sense of security and well-being that comes from having a predictable, controllable environment. You will also find you have to deal with fewer problem behaviours such as bucking, spooking, refusing to stop, napping, refusing to load, barging and rearing, as these are almost always the result of failure to train the basic responses.

The book isn’t – and the authors stress this – an attempt to diminish the emotional bond between horse and rider, or to reduce artistry and harmony to a mechanistic process. It is just the first serious attempt to discover how the horse-human interaction actually works, and how the process can be improved. What is really happening when the rider or handler gives a particular signal or aid? How does it feel to the horse? What does the horse learn and how does he learn it? Equitation Science is not a threat to that incomparable feeling of togetherness that we all strive for in our work with horses. It is a way to make that feeling happen more reliably, with less stress to both parties. The authors are also fully aware that horses have thoughts and emotions, but by focussing on the underlying biological mechanisms they help the reader avoid the mistakes that can be made when we misinterpret those thoughts and emotions.

People used to think, with some justification, that the earth was at the centre of the universe and that the sun went round it. Their observations, their common sense, their mental powers of reasoning and deduction supported this explanation. The truth turned out to be rather different. In many ways our thinking about equitation is still at that anthropocentric stage: our observations, our common sense and the workings of our own brains have led us to assumptions that aren’t actually true. Most of these assumptions relate to what goes on inside horses’ heads: how they think and how they learn. That is why it is so good to see that Equitation Science begins with a superb section on the current state of research into equine intelligence and mental capabilities. Knowing the background about how horses probably think, and the mistakes we make in overestimating their powers of reasoning and comprehension while underestimating their ability to learn from everything that happens to them, really helps us to communicate with them in the way that is most straightforward for them, rather than the most obvious to us.

Equitation Science includes three scholarly and fascinating chapters on the different types of learning, and how these relate to common techniques used in the handling and training of horses, whether traditional or modern. It explains positive and negative reinforcement: what these are; how they work; what happens when they go wrong; and what to do about it if they have gone wrong. It explains why punishment is almost always a bad idea. It emphasises how essential it is to be absolutely consistent with your signals to the horse. These concepts are then used to show that training horses successfully and ethically is not a matter of applying force and getting submission, or of turning your horse into an automaton, or of expecting your horse to be able to read your mind or to wish to please you, but of establishing habitual responses to light, clear signals. As the authors state, most horses are trained by negative reinforcement, where the trainer gives the horse some sort of physical signal which is discontinued once the horse responds. Done properly, this is no more unethical than using a telephone to elicit a particular response from the person who hears it ringing, but done improperly it can be a recipe for confusion and pain for the horse, and frustration, anger and escalating violence for the trainer. Since there is so much potential for giving the horse a bad time using this type of training, the authors take pains to insist on the correct principles. The signals or aids given to the horse should start off light and become lighter as training proceeds. They should never be intensified to the point of hurting or frightening the horse. They should be stopped the very instant the horse responds.

Riding instruction has focussed for centuries on rider position, which is visible and teachable, rather than on how the horse actually learns. If you don’t know about learning theory, all you can do is copy the posture and style of the experts and hope for the same results. The adaptability of horses has allowed us to get away with this, but the number of people killed or injured by out-of-control horses, and the huge number of horses who die before their time because of intractable behaviour, surely indicate that we could do better. The authors of Equitation Science suggest that all riders and trainers need to understand learning theory, so that they are able to avoid confusing their horses with conflicting signals, or inadvertently reinforcing – and therefore training – undesirable behaviours. This knowledge enables riders and trainers to think far more clearly about what response they want, how best to elicit it, and how to show the horse he has got it right. The book describes, in exact and clear detail, how to break down your training goals into small, achievable steps, how to use appropriate signals that your horse can easily distinguish and how to use them at the precise moment at which he is most able to respond.

There are excellent chapters on the challenges faced by the horse in work and competition, and how he can be helped to deal with these by correct and ethical training. Tack, harness and other methods of control and restraint are discussed, helping the reader to distinguish between those that benefit the horse-rider partnership and those that do not. There is a chapter on the horse’s fight and fright responses, with advice on how to avoid stimulating these in training. The book closes with a summary of ethical equitation, based on our current knowledge of horses, and with ideas for the development of the science and its practical applications in improving horse welfare.

The reference list is also immensely useful. Many of the publications listed don’t come up on internet searches, so unless you have access to a university library it is hard to find out about the relevant research. Those who like to have all the background information will find much of interest here.

Some snippets I particularly liked: the reminder that ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ when applied to reinforcement are not value judgements, as in ‘good reinforcement’ and ‘bad reinforcement’, but mathematical descriptions denoting whether the behaviour is reinforced by having something added or something taken away. I also appreciated the welcome news that your own personality and manner as a trainer are less important than your ability to be totally consistent in your signals to your horse: you don’t have to be bombastic or even particularly assertive in order to be successful.

Equitation Science is more of an academic textbook than most books about horses, but although this requires readers to think, it also results in the most pleasing flashes of insight. Previously incomprehensible horse behaviours suddenly start to make sense, and one’s own contributions to problem behaviour become blindingly obvious. While the writing style is necessarily quite formal, the authors’ passion and enthusiasm for their subject shines through, and the text is enlivened by touches of dry humour. The important points of each chapter are summarised in text boxes, and much of the information is also shown in tables, which are handy for quick reference. The illustrations are excellent too.

The authors have done their best to avoid technical language, but there are still a few terms that the non-specialist will find unfamiliar. There’s an excellent glossary of the terms used in equitation, but a glossary of the terms used in animal behaviour research would have been helpful.

It’s expensive for a paperback, but for the price of a decent private riding lesson you get enough information to change your relationships with your horses forever.

Equitation Science is the most important and informative book I have ever read on the subject of training and riding horses, and I thoroughly recommend it.

Alison Averis is the editor of Equine Behaviour, the Journal of the Equine Behaviour Forum.