After several thousand years of domestication it’s inevitable that a certain degree of anthropomorphism has crept in to the relationship that we have with our domesticated animals. And perhaps, like familiarity, anthropomorphism breeds contempt. Or, if not contempt, then at least a certain degree of complacency. After all, when we only ever view animals with our anthropocentric glasses on they seem like lesser versions of ourselves. They can’t talk, they can’t drive cars, they can’t update their Facebook status. But what an anthropocentric perspective fails to acknowledge is that if the boot was on the other foot (or paw) it would be us who were lesser versions of them. How slowly we run. How blind and deaf we are. How badly we fly.
We really like our bitless bridles and use them for many reasons. They can help improve calmness, jumping technique and self carriage. They are great for riders that can’t stop fiddling with the reins and they teach us a great deal about how each individual horse likes to carry his head in order to have the best vision. But mostly we use our bitless bridles because they provide a training task that is different to everyday and because it’s great fun to ride bitless. Read part one of our going bitless articles here.
We use our own design of bitless bridle because they are simple, there is no time delay between the release of the aid and the release of the pressure, and it’s very compatible with the aids that we train during groundwork. Basically, our bridle is a cavesson noseband with reins attached to the side. We have always found it to be simple and the transition from bit to bitless is really quite straightforward.
Lots of people like the idea of riding bitless but are not completely sure where to begin or if it’s worth the time and effort required – not to mention the extra expense of another piece of gear. However, the transition to bitless riding is not only relatively straight forward it is also a great way to enhance your horse’s training and can help develop calmness, improve self carriage and also fine tune jumping technique.
We use a bitless bridle on all of our own horses – not all of the time, but usually at least once per week. Any training they can do in a traditional bridle; they can also do in a bitless one. So, they will jump, cross country school, do working equitation obstacles, dressage and general fitness work in their bitless bridles.
It’s pretty hard to set out to train an event horse. In reality what you have to do is pick a nice horse and start training. You might end up with an all-rounder, a pony club horse, an event horse, or anything else in between.
I believe that regardless of your discipline, you should aim to improve your horse. Improve him physically and nurture him mentally and whether you end up with an Olympian in your chosen discipline or a fabulously safe all-rounder, you’ve done well.
Karen Pryor’s book, Don’t Shoot the Dog heralded the start of the clicker training revolution. Pryor started out as a trainer of dolphins and whales and her work really drew attention to the possibilities of positive reinforcement. Like most trainers who work with wild or aquatic animals, Pryor is understandably cautious about the use of negative reinforcement – this facet of operant conditioning is rarely appropriate in a zoo or aquarium setting because these trainers work at a distance from their charges. For those of us who have physical contact with the animals that we train (horses, camels, elephants and to a certain extent dogs) negative reinforcement isn’t an option, it’s our bread and butter…
All good training systems start with reliable, single responses. These responses, which can be assessed easily and objectively, form the foundation for further training. In some sports these responses are formed into drills (such as in gymnastics or martial arts) or they are static positions (such as in ballet). And of course not all training is focused on sport – the modern way of teaching language skills is through phonics. This method teaches children to recognise basic units of language (phonemes) and combine them to form words and sentences. Again, clear and replicable basic units of behaviour that can be objectively identified.
The recent controversy in the press and on social media regarding the tightness of nosebands has been thought provoking. While any equestrian debate that questions the welfare of age-old practices is destined to be clouded by emotion and the anthropomorphic belief systems that underpin modern horse management, objectivity is a necessity when trying to balance the views of both die-hard traditionalists and an increasingly informed animal rights movement.
It is hard to fault the scientific credentials of the team behind the study that has caused so much controversy. It was conducted by the University of Sydney's Faculty of Veterinary Science and senior author Professor Paul McGreevy is a veterinarian, author and past winner of the Eureka Prize. A quick look at McGreevy's list of publications shows that he is passionate about welfare issues and unafraid of shining the light of scientific objectivity on a practice that is older than the wheel. In this study, twelve horses unaccustomed to wearing a double bridle and a noseband showed easily identified stress markers (which included an increase in eye temperature and heart rate) when that noseband was tightened to the point that a finger would not fit between the noseband and the horse's nose. The horses in the study also showed a marked decrease in the number of oral behaviours that they performed (such as licking, chewing and swallowing) while wearing the noseband.
When you’re a horse trainer you are continually developing your system and honing your skills. I’ve tried almost everything that any well respected and experienced horse person has suggested to me, because I’m happy to learn from anyone, provided I can relate their ideas to the scientific principles of learning.
It has come to my attention that, while many trainers and coaches seem to use them frequently, grids are not something that I am ever inspired to set up in the jumping arena. So I thought I should have a think about why I don’t tend to use them.
My jumping training is based around making the horse as self-sufficient as possible. I believe that his sense of self-preservation is second to none, and figure I might as well harness this to help keep me safe while jumping. I believe that horses are the most incredibly brave creatures if given a chance to learn their job and we MUST furnish the horse’s innate ability to look after himself.
For this reason, I spend a lot of time in my jumping training, especially on the young horses, letting them get to the base of the fence wherever their canter (or trot as the case often is) happens to get them there. From here, I want them to learn to do whatever footwork is required to safely negotiate the obstacle. They may put one foot down (a quarter stride) or two (a half stride), or they may chip in a whole stride – whatever they do is up to them, my job is to stay out of the way and in the best balance possible.
I've been thinking about pornography lately. And not in a sort of 'turn on the laptop and dim the lights' kind of a way but as a social practice... Pornography and the pornographication of our society makes me uncomfortable and not, I think, because I'm prudish, but because to me there is something inherently destructive in the practice of regular porn consumption. So, I've tried to look at it with my horse trainer's hat (or helmet) on to determine why it is that pornography is problematic.
They say when you have a hammer in your hand all your problems start to look like nails. When you're a horse trainer you tend to see the world in terms of instinct and behaviour. Instinct, because the horse is 500kgs of lightning fast, hard-wired instinctive reaction and behaviour, because you spend your days nurturing and training some behaviours while carefully discouraging others. It is this intersection, the balance of both nature and nurture, that is at the heart of all good training.
I was thinking today about the concept of obedience and how, in our society, the word has acquired some negative connotations. Without contemplation I wouldn't want to have been described as obedient, nor would I have felt pride as a parent if my children were described as obedient. I think the term has become synonymous with subservience and submission and that there is an unspoken suggestion that compliance has been achieved through coercion. Yet, I have to say that most of us are obedient when we consider the word in its true sense. We don't slap people who annoy us, we pay for things and we drive on the left side of the road. My children don't steal the lunches of other kids or hit their teachers or kick the dog. Most of us are obedient to the rules that govern the country in which we live. Generally speaking, when people break those rules it's because they are unhappy or disenfranchised or desperate. It may sound disingenuous, but losses of obedience rarely lead to happiness.
This of course does not mean that we cannot question the world in which we live or the way in which it is being run. Obedience should not entail censorship. As adults it's ok if we just don't break the rules. Obedience should not mean that we are controlled by another adult. Or punished. Or threatened. The rules that govern society function to enable everyone to live in relative peace and safety. The kind of bullying that is at work when one person oppresses another, usually functions to maintain an already skewed balance of power. That's the kind of tyranny and oppression is the symptom of a disease that is endemic in our society.
Dr Portland Jones and Sophie Warren
Sophie and Portland live and work together in the Swan Valley. They are both focused on implementing evidence-based training methods in order to improve the welfare of horses and the safety of riders. Sophie and Portland train horses, coach, lecture, write and run a team of competition horses as well as managing a family of children, dogs and two rodent eradicating cats.