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Alpha Natural Horsemanship

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

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Training Principles and Learning Theory

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 10 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. Firstly; I assume you have a horse specific step by step, progressive training plan for the foundations of Ground and Mounted Training?

1.     Take into account the horse’s ethology learning and understanding

Does your training demonstrate recognition of?

 

·         The Natural Survival instincts equine are born with.

·         Equine behavior that provides information on how equine have evolved to live. It helps to explain natural equine social structures and behavioral needs. Since horses need the company of their own species and readily form attachment bonds, isolation is detrimental. They have evolved to walk and graze for about 16 hours per day.

·         Ways animals process information about the world. Compared to humans, horses’ prefrontal cortex is relatively small, so they may not experience events as we do. They excel at memorizing and recognizing stimuli that trigger certain responses, particularly those that keep them safe. We must be careful not to overestimate equine intelligence and to say things like “he knows what he did wrong”, especially when trying to justify punishment. Equally, we should not underestimate cognitive abilities by supposing that horses do not have emotions.


Isolation and restricted locomotion and foraging have negative impact on horse welfare. Similarly over or under estimating horses’ intelligence also can have negative welfare implications.


2.     Use learning theory appropriately

Does your training demonstrate: the appropriate use of habituation, sensitisation, operant conditioning, shaping and classical conditioning?

 

a.     Habituation refers to the process of response reduction, which can occur after repeated exposure to a particular event or stimulus. Horses are innately fearful of new/unfamiliar things (i.e. they are neophobic) and may react to various stimulus characteristics, such as size/magnitude, novelty, proximity, and sudden appearance or occurrence. Objects that are moving, especially if erratic and/or coming towards them, may be hard for them to identify, even when familiar.

b.    Desensitization - A range of desensitization techniques can be used to achieve habituation. Systematic desensitization, approach conditioning, overshadowing, counter-conditioning, and stimulus blending are some methods of desensitization. See Table 1 for further explanation and practical examples.

c.     Sensitization is when the responses made by an individual increase, i.e. become more intense. If an individual experiences a series of arousing attractive or aversive stimuli, sensitization describes the likelihood that it will respond more quickly or with more intensity to these stimuli in the future. This increased response may generalize to a whole class of stimuli.

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

 

                      I.        Positive reinforcement: is the addition of something the horse values to increase the occurrence of a desired behaviour. Primary positive reinforcers are resources that horses naturally value such as food and gentle touch. Training becomes more efficient if the reinforcement is given immediately at the onset of the correct response. Secondary positive reinforcers can also be used but have to be reliably linked to primary reinforcers. These often take the form of auditory stimuli, such as a clicker or a consistent vocalized sound made when the desired response is performed by the horse.

                     II.        Negative reinforcement is the removal of something the horse wants to avoid to increase the occurrence of a desired behavior. Negative reinforcement in horse training often relies on the use of pressure and it should ultimately 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, repetition or increase of the pressure and then the release at the onset of the desired reaction. 

                    III.        Positive punishment is the adding of something aversive after an undesired behavior has been performed in order to decrease the likelihood of that behavior occurring in the future. Positive punishment can have negative welfare implications and should be avoided. If used, it should be carefully timed to coincide with the occurrence of the undesired behavior.

                   IV.        Negative punishment is the removal of something the horse values after an undesired behavior has been performed in order to decrease the likelihood of the occurrence of that behavior in the future. Negative punishment is rarely used except for prompt removal of attention or food to suppress a behavior.


Timing is important for all types of operant conditioning: the reinforcing or punishing stimulus must occur in connections with the targeted behavior. 

 

e.     Classical conditioning is the process by which an association is made between two stimuli. For example, the animal is presented with a neutral stimulus (e.g. a visual signal that does not per se elicit a response from the horse) and this is followed by a biologically relevant stimulus (e.g. an aversive stimulus such as pain or a pleasant stimulus such as food or freedom) and the animal links them together. In the future the neutral stimulus is responded to by the horse. In equitation, classical conditioning describes situations where horses respond to light cues or signals given by the rider or handler. When first used, these must be carefully paired with the signal known to already elicit the response for the initial association to occur. For example, a verbal command can be used to slow/stop the horse if the command is paired with a rein signal to which the horse has already learned to slow/stop. After the association has been created the verbal command can be used without the rein signal to stop/slow the horse.

 

The misuse of pressure/discomfort has the potential for serious welfare implications.


3.Easy-to-discriminate cues

Does your training demonstrate that operant and classically conditioned signals are easily discriminated?

 

  • Because of the large number of responses required in horse training, (especially under-saddle), it is important that all signals are as clear and as different as possible to enable the horse to discriminate them. This is important in order to avoid confusing the horse, which can result in undesired behaviors and stress. 
  • Welfare implications: Not using clear and separate signals can lead to confusion and stress and consequently horse responses that compromise performance and rider safety.

 

4.     Shape responses and movements

Does your training demonstrate: that, for any trained behavior, training begins by reinforcing basic attempts at the target behavior and then gradually improving approximations of that behavior?

 

·         It is important to have a plan when training a horse to perform a new response. The horse’s initial responses should be rewarded. As training progresses the horse should only be rewarded for responses that become more and more similar to the ultimate goal.

·         Welfare implications: Poor use of shaping can lead to confusion and responses that compromise equine understanding and performance.

 

5.     Elicit responses one-at-a-time

Does your training demonstrate: that individual cues/signals are separated in time from each other?

 

·         Giving the horse multiple signals at the same time can result in a reduction in responding of any required behavior. This is because the horse is unable to process two or more signals concurrently as both compete for the horse’s attention. Especially the use of opposite signals (such as acceleration and deceleration) at the same time should be avoided. In the early stages of training, signals should be well separated however eventually they can be given closer together. 

·         Welfare implications: The use of opposite signals at the same time can confuse the horse, through weakening the trained link between signal and behavior/response, and quickly lead to stress and consequently responses that compromise horse performance and welfare, and rider safety.

 

6.     Train only one response per signal

Does your training demonstrate: that each signal elicits a single response? 

 

·         While each response may be elicited by a variety of signals (i.e. rein cue or leadrope) it is most important that each signal elicits only one response. If the same signal is used to elicit more than one response, confusion begins to set in as predictability decreases.  

·         Welfare implications: The use of ambiguous rein and leg signals lead to confusion, stress and responses that compromise performance and rider safety.

 

7.     Form consistent habits

Does your training demonstrate: consistency?

 

·         When training new responses it is important that 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 and that all contextual aspects such as place, equipment and person are kept constant. This is because during the acquisition of new responses, all contextual information is initially included in the array of stimuli associated with the particular response, and maintaining consistency promotes efficient uptake of the associated cue and avoids excessive stress of prolonged training. Once each response is reliably given in response to the signal used, contextual aspects can be gradually removed. Similarly when training inter-gait and intra-gait transitions, consistency in both the delivery of associated signals and the timeframe in which the responses are elicited and reinforced is essential to promote efficient learning and to avoid confusion. 

·         Welfare implications: Inconsistent training can lead to dull responses that compromise understanding and clarity and therefore result in stress and confusion and/or lead the rider to use stronger rather than lighter cues.

 

8.     Train persistence of responses (self-carriage)

Does your training demonstrate: the continuation of locomotory responses?

 

·         The horse learns to ‘keep going’ in speed, line and posture to avoid any need for constant rein or leg signaling and reduce the risk of the horse stopping responding to the signals. This outcome is an important goal in shaping of equitation responses.   


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

 

9.     Avoid and dissociate flight responses

Does your training demonstrate: an absence of flight responses?

a.     Flight responses have unique characteristics. They tend to be difficult or even impossible to remove, and may reappear spontaneously. Training processes that involves systematic/deliberate triggering of fear responses should be avoided because fear inhibits learning and reduces equine welfare. 

b.    Flight response behaviors are often accompanied by:

·         Increased heart rate

·         Increased muscle tone – preparedness for flight/escape 

·         Aggression related behavior 

·         Displacement behaviors and 

·         Behaviors arising from confusion and stress

 

c.     A horse that frequently shows flight responses tends to be stressed. Frequent and/or chronic stress can lead to one or more of the following:

·         Learning and memory deficits 

·         Compromised immunity 

·         Digestive disturbances 

·         Redirected aggression 

·         Ritualisation of the original behaviours indicative of stress (possibly developing into stereo types)


Welfare implications:  Horse training should not result in flight responses. Stress results in problem behaviors (including escape and aggression). Both acute and chronic stress have a negative impact on horse welfare.


10.  Demonstrate minimum levels of arousal sufficient for training

Does your training demonstrate: appropriate relaxation? 

 

  •  Trainers should be able to show that the horse is as relaxed as possible during training and at the end of the training session. Whilst it is widely agreed that certain levels of physical and mental arousal are necessary for learning to take place, it is important these levels are not exceeded resulting in a negative impact on learning, training and horse welfare. 


Welfare implications: Whilst insufficient arousal may lead to lack of motivation for learning, excessive arousal may compromise welfare and be related to stress (acute and/or chronic) with associated behaviors such as aggression, flight or learned helplessness).