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Alpha Natural Horsemanship

‘Ask with lightness, encourage without forcing, correct with softness’
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Training Principles

 

These principles and theories are essential for optimal welfare and training efficiency. They apply to all horses regardless of age, breed, training level and equestrian discipline. Does your training system demonstrate each principle? The following training principles are presented for all horse training interactions. These are non-negotiable obligations for trainers to maintain optimal welfare in trained horses as well as optimal training efficiency.


1.     The Assessment/Evaluation

This is where success begins!  There are many ways to train a horse but to me there's only one right way!   Starting with an assessment of; “Who the horse is?  What the horse knows? What it Offers Willingly? and What the horse needs?”  When we have this information we can develop a horse specific training and implementation strategy.  Now our training can begin by ensuring that we demonstrate the following training principals in our handling, training and/or horsemanship:

2.     Understanding the Nature of the Horse

Horses do not want trouble. They never act badly on purpose. They only do things for one of two reasons: Because that’s what they think they are supposed to do and because that’s what they think they need to do to survive. When we understand this we can agree that the horse isn’t wrong,  stubborn or bad etc. The horse might be scared of something that we know isn’t something to fear, but 50 million years of evolution tell him to be skeptical of danger, people, places, changes and things. We need to present ourselves and communicate to him in ways that develops his trust and confidence in us, our environment and within themselves.  We are predators and we don’t think like a prey animal—a creature that is programmed to think he might be some things dinner! When we act like a leader that can direct their thoughts and their control the movement of their feet without causing them pain; they will do almost anything for us that we can imagine.

3.     Understand & Consider thehorse’s Natural Survival Instincts and Behavioral Traits

I truly believe in the necessity of understanding horse physiology and why horses do what they do.  It explains why horses act the way they do and provides the insight to use that knowledge to improve our horsemanship.  

 

a.     Natural Survival Instincts

Before we can ever hope to understand and communicate with a horse, it is important to know the basic psychology that motivates a horse’s behavior in the first place.   First and foremost all wild and/or domesticated horses are born with Natural Survival Instincts; so it is difficult for humans to appreciate what it is like to be a horse and why they do what they do unless we know and understand these instincts! We can influence their training positively and distinguish them from learned behaviors.

b.     Behavioral Traits

Our equine’s behavior will provide us with information on how horses have evolved to live. It helps to explain natural equine social structures, including complex dynamic social organization with a social rank that determines access to resources. Horses need the company of their own species and readily form attachment bonds, so isolation is detrimental. They have evolved to walk and graze for about 16 hours per day and their digestive system and behaviors have adapted to this regimen.  Compared to humans, horses may not recall events as we do. They excel at memorizing and recognizing stimuli that trigger certain responses – this is what keeps them safe. We must be careful not to overestimate equine intelligence (e.g., “he knows what he did wrong”), especially in an attempt to justify punishment. Equally, we should not underestimate equine intelligence by supposing that horses don’t have emotions and feelings.

When we understand their natural survival instincts and behavioral traits we can unwittingly avoid teaching our horse how to misbehave!  Over or underestimating horses’ intelligence has negative welfare implications. Isolation, restricted locomotion and foraging have welfare implications. 

4.     Use learning theory appropriately

Horse training should involve the correct use of what is known as learning theory. Its main learning processes are habituation (becoming accustomed to things), sensitization, shaping, operant conditioning (positive and negative reinforcement), and classical conditional (using predictable signals).

 

a.     Habituation is recognized when animals stop responding to events and stimuli as they become accustomed to them. Horses are innately fearful of the new/unfamiliar and often find the characteristics of various stimuli aversive (e.g., size/magnitude; novelty; proximity; and sudden appearance or occurrence). Movement, especially if erratic or is advancing towards them, may be hard for them to identify, even when familiar. Habituation can be used to defuse reactions to aversive stimuli in a process called 

b.    Desensitization. Systematic desensitization, approach conditioning, overshadowing and counter-conditioning are some methods of desensitization.

c.     Sensitization is when an individual’s response intensity is increased. If an individual experiences a series of arousing stimuli, sensitization describes the likelihood that it will respond more quickly or with more intensity to this or another stimulus that is presented soon after.

d.    Operant conditioning describes training using rewards and consequences. There are 4 subsets:

 

1)     Positive reinforcement: The addition of something the horse values to increase the occurrence of a desired behavior. Primary reinforcers can be any resource that horses naturally value. Examples used in training are food and touch. To be used as rewards in training, they must be issued to the horse immediately at the onset of the correct response. Secondary positive reinforcers have to be linked to primary reinforcers. They often take the form of auditory stimuli, such as a clicker or a consistent vocalized sound issued when the desired response is offered.

2)     Negative reinforcementThe removal of something the horse wants to avoid, to increase the occurrence of a desired behavior. Negative reinforcement can and should be very subtle. Pressure motivates horses but the release of that pressure is what trains them. Applying pressure for inter-gait and intra-gait transitions relies on the trainer beginning with a light pressure cue followed by the maintenance or increase of the pressure and then the release. Good trainers always aim to reduce cues to light forms of pressure.

3)     Positive punishment: Adding something aversive to reduce the occurrence of a behavior. Positive punishment has negative welfare implications so should be avoided. If used, it must be contingent and contiguous with the undesirable behavior.

4)     Negative punishment: Removing something the horse values to reduce the occurrence of a behavior. Negative punishment is rarely used except for prompt removal of attention or food to suppress a behavior. If delayed, it is ineffective.

e.     Classical conditioning uses cues and signals to trigger and elicit behaviors. They must be timed with exquisite precision to coincide with the start of the desired behavior.

NB:

The use of pressure/discomfort has the potential for serious welfare implications that range from escape, aggression and apathy to learned helplessness. 

 

5.     Train easy to; Ask, Anticipate and  tell Cues

Use proper aids that are unique and easily discriminated for Ground work and are transferable to Mounted Training:

·         Ground Handling, Ground Work and Lunging

·         Up/down gait transitions

·         Faster/slower variations

·         Longer/shorter variations

·         Turning of forelegs

·         Turning of hind legs

·         Head/neck flexions/head carriage

·         Ensure that acceleration signals differ significantly from deceleration signals.

NB:

Poor aids and cues that are unsure, hesitant or undecided can lead to confusion, distress and responses that compromise performance and safety of the horse and human.

 

6.     Shape responses and movements

Is having a good training plan and implementation strategy that create safety due to the small steps it uses; they increase the ability of the animal to learn more effectively if the behaviors are broken down enough to be easily comprehended by the equine mind. Shaping plans create freedom for the trainer allowing them to be more in the moment with their horse, donkey or mule. Using the same principles, a good shaping plan can also bestow similar benefits on human behavior and changing anything they want from increasing confidence and building trust, weight loss, exercise and smoking. It is not difficult to see the significance and value of this common sense approach while appreciating and understanding the benefits to equine learning and training. gradual step-by-step building of behaviors. Each step should differ only slightly from the previous step so that it is as obvious as possible for the horse to trial (or offer) the correct/desired response.

NB:

Poor shaping can lead to confusion and responses that compromise performance and rider safety.

7.     Elicit responses one-at-a-time

During training ensure individual aids/cues including body language are separated in time from each other!   Simultaneous cues for different responses inhibit each other and become gradually desensitized. When contradictory cues are applied simultaneously, such as those for acceleration and deceleration, the desensitization effects are magnified and confusion and stress are likely to set in. With education, cues can be issued closer together.

NB:

Clashing cues weaken stimulus control and can lead to confusion and responses that compromise performance and rider safety.

 

8.     Train only one response per signal

Ensure that each cue is for a single response; (however, each response can be elicited by more than one signal.) above all, acceleration signals must be separated from deceleration signals.

NB:

Ambiguous rein and leg signals lead to confusion and responses that compromise performance and rider safety

 

9.     Use consistent routines and habits

Consistency in training new responses is set up in the same context each time, and the same signals are used on the same part of the horse’s body or in the same location relative to the horse’s body! After each response is consolidated, the locations can be gradually altered. Shape transitions to be of the same structure and duration each time.

NB:  Inconsistent training can lead to dull responses that compromise performance.

10.  Train persistence of responses for self-carriage

Ensure that the duration of responses are such that the horse learns to rate itself ‘keep moving’ in rhythm, straightness and outline to avoid any need for constant cueing and the risk of the horse habituating to signals.

NB:

The consequences of a lack of self-carriage range from dull responses to hyper-reactive responses that compromise performance, welfare and rider safety.

 

11.  Avoid and dissociate flight responses because they resist extinction and trigger fear problems

Avoidance of flight responses and they have unique characteristics, such as resistance to extinction, and may reappear spontaneously. Flight response behaviors are often accompanied by:

a.     Increased adrenaline and cortical levels

b.    Increased muscle tone

c.     Aggression, including redirected aggression

d.    Conflict and displacement behaviours

e.     If stress is continuous, the following may occur:

1)     Learning and memory deficits

2)     Compromised immunity

3)     Digestive disturbances

4)     Reutilization of original conflict behaviors

5)     Redirected aggression

6)     Long-term insecurity (e.g., separation-related distress, fence walking, fear or horse shyness and increased neophobia).

NB:

Acute stress shows up as problem behaviors such as; aversion,  escape, aggression &  apathy. Chronic stress has very serious welfare implications, including learned helplessness and can be fatal.

 

12.  Minimum levels of arousal use only sufficient pressure for training to ensure absence of conflict

Demonstrate appropriate relaxation. Trainers and handlers should be able to show and keep the horse as relaxed as possible. Certain levels of arousal, attentiveness and praising are required for successful learning, but when these levels are exceeded, learning and welfare suffer.

NB:

Too much arousal may lead to compromised welfare, which may show up as acute/chronic stress (escape, aggression, apathy).