Horses are herbivores, and they have been evolved to serve their primary instincts. The moment they sense danger they will flee away rather than facing it. They will defend themselves only when they are unable to run or move fast. Thus, the basic aim is to replace this instinctive reaction of the horse with learned responses. Trainers usually adopt learning theory to achieve this goal. Learning theory is not a training method, but it is a way of understanding how your horse learns and what type of learning style will suit your horse.
The International Society for Equitation Science proposes ten principles with an aim to reduce training-related stress and help the horse perform best.
1. Understand your horse’s behavior and thought process.
Every trainer should be aware of their horse's basic behavioral characteristics and thought processes. For instance, a domestic horse loves pasturing, playing and social grooming. If they do not perform these activities, they may become stressed. Moreover, you should also be aware of things that make them afraid or feel secure and incorporate them into training.
It is very common for us to propose a very human justification of how a horse thinks. When he behaves in a certain way, we assume that the horse understands what wrong he has done. But a horse has no understanding of such an action and reacts due to a presence of a stimulus that triggers such a response. Overestimating or underestimating a horse’s intelligence can lead to all sorts of assumptions. As a result, he may suffer from adverse consequences.
2. Use learning theory judiciously.
Horse trainer should thoughtfully incorporate the learning theory principles and strategies in the training process. These principles include habituation, sensitization, operant conditioning and classical conditioning. If a rider fails to employ these principles appropriately, then the horse may suffer from training-related stress. For example, during training, if a trainer repeatedly and brutally applies pressure, then the horse becomes frightened to try responses. As a result, the horse may decide not to perform responses because a failed attempt leads to punishment.
3. To avoid confusion, train signals that are easy to discriminate.
There are numerous responses that a horse needs to learn, but there are a minimal number of places on the horse’s body where a trainer can signal these responses. Thus, your training signals should be substantially clear and unique from each other, especially for all acceleration and deceleration cues as well as voice, seat and posture cues. Unclear and vague signals can create confusion and anxiety among the horses, which can affect their performance and endangers rider’s safety.
4. Train and shape responses one at a time.
In the training process, it is essential to teach and build one response at a time. This method involves breaking down the overall learning task to single teachable steps and then developing them with the help of reinforcements. Each step should be somewhat different from the earlier one so that the horse quickly learns the desired response. Do not hasten while training your horse as he may become confused and will be unable to perform accurate responses.
5. Elicit responses one at a time.
The words and cues that you use should be clear and distinct from each other. A trainer should ask for one response at a time, and he should time the cues so that the horse elicits correct leg movements. Avoid contradictory signals such as asking for acceleration and deceleration at the same time as it can cause anxiety and confusion in a horse.
6. Train only one response per signal.
Make sure that each riding cue should have a single response linked with it. All rein and leg cues should vary from each other. Otherwise, vague rein and leg cues may create confusion among the horses, which will affect their performance and put rider’s life in danger.
7. You should form consistent habits.
Horses thrive on regularity and consistency. The training process and the performance of the learned responses should take place within the same context or environment. Moreover, the trainer should use the same signals on the same part of the horse's body and in the same location proportional to the horse's body. However, you can change the locations when the horse learns to consolidate the responses.
8. Train self-carriage.
Teach your horse to uphold and harmonize himself without any assistance from the rider. He should be able to maintain his speed, straightness, stride length and rein and leg contact without any cues from the trainer. Such a self-maintenance is necessary for their mental welfare and to perform successfully. If you continually nag and wrestle your horse, then he may get accustomed to your cues.
9. Avoid flight responses.
Horses have a natural instinct to flee away as soon as they sense fear. In horses, fear for a particular stimulus is not easily forgotten, and it may cause hindrances in the training process. A trainer should identify this fear-inducing stimulus and avoid using them in the training. Otherwise, the horse will suffer from anxiety, learning deficiencies and behavioral problems.
10. Benchmark relaxation.
Ensure that your horse is calm and relaxed during the training exercise. Otherwise, your horse can exhibit hyperactive behaviors, which can provoke a trainer to punish them. Thus, it can lead to compromised welfare and training-related stress, which prompts the horse to run away and become aggressive or dull.
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