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.
Bob Bailey is a pretty amazing guy. With his wife, Marion Breland, he owned and ran Animal Behaviour Enterprises and together they trained over 15,000 individual animals from 140 different species to do pretty much anything you can think of. I really like Bailey's work, I often turn to it when I can't see the way forward or just want a bit of inspiration. He has a way of stripping off all the anthropomorphism, superstition and emotion and just getting down to the core issues. One of the most profoundly interesting things I have ever read about training and yet one of the simplest is something that he wrote, "You get the behaviour you reinforce, not necessarily the behaviour you want."
Bailey takes any responsibility away from the animal being trained and gives it all back to the trainer. I think this a common thread that you see throughout the work of really good training theorists. Own your failures, not just your successes. (Andrew McLean is the master of this approach, though Andrew always gives you the feeling that he sympathizes with and understands your human frailty. Bob Bailey is perhaps more blunt but he's not primarily a coach, he's an animal trainer.)
Ivan Pavlov was a Russian scientist. In the very first years of the twentieth century he conducted experiments on the digestive systems of dogs, trying to determine how they worked. Every day, Pavlov's assistant would bring meat into the laboratory and he would feed the dogs and measure the amount of saliva and gastric fluid that they produced.
The assistant's trolley had a squeaky wheel and Pavlov began to notice that, after a while, the dogs started to salivate as soon as they heard the trolley squeaking down the hallway. Pavlov was fascinated by this phenomenon and he started to explore the psychology of expectation. He rang a bell before giving the dogs their meat and after a few repetitions dicovered that just the bell on its own would cause the dogs to salivate. What Pavlov had discovered we now know as classical conditioning.
Classical conditioning occurs when a previously meaningless stimulus (like a bell) becomes paired with a known response (like salivation). It explains why you feel happy when you smell the perfume of someone that you love, why you duck when you hear a loud noise, why your dog barks when he hears your car coming up the road and why your horse will trot across his paddock towards the sound of a carrot being snapped in half. Classically conditioned cues piggy back onto existing ones and can also piggy back on classically conditioned cues that are, in turn, piggy backing on existing responses. Each and everyone of us is a swirling hodge podge of classically conditioned cues and reponses that psychologists would refer to as antecedents, and this is part of what makes us such complex and interesting beings.
Foundation training (or "breaking-in" as it used to be known) is one of the most important parts of a horse's early training. During this phase the horse is trained to stop, go forwards and turn from light signals and habituated to the saddle, the weight of the rider and the different environments that he might have to work in as a riding horse. Along the way he'll also learn to park in cross ties, stand quietly at the mounting block and habituate to running water. It's an awful lot to learn in just four to six weeks, especially for a young horse that might still be finding his own balance and is probably coping with being away from home for the first time.
The training method that we use was first demonstrated by Kel Jeffries (in his book The Jeffries Method) and later refined by Andrew McLean. Sophie and I have adapted it a bit because we always work together. It's not a set formula, it's more like a series of guidelines and objectives that we work through. We use this method for both training and retraining and believe that it minimises the stress that can sometimes accompany times of rapid learning.
I really believe in this way of training because it's based on touch. I love watching horses running together in a paddock. I love how they rub and bump up against each other. Whether they are playing, fighting, grazing or resting – they do it together. The horse has 55 million years of evolution and in every part of that evolution he lived as part of a herd. So it's little wonder that we've found that when our horses become part of a herd they seem more content and more resilient to other stress. Horses form very strong bonds with each other and they mostly do it through physical contact. If we can't supply a herd of other horses then I think it's really important that we supplement that contact with our training.
Sometimes it seems as though there's a bit of a disconnect between the study of equitation science and its practice. Looking through some of the research papers it's easy to wonder how this stuff applies to me, giving the fifth lesson of the day and with four horses still to ride. Science is great but practical, real-world solutions are even better. That's why Dr Andrew McLean's work on overshadowing was so amazing – it instantly gave those of us at the coal face something we could work with, something that made our jobs easier and safer. Well, here's another bit of research that is just as useful and just as easy to apply. Dr Andrew McLean and Professor Paul McGreevy have developed ten rules that apply to all good horse training, regardless of discipline. You probably already use them without even knowing it because it doesn't matter what kind of riding you do or what kind of horse you ride, these rules will make your training time more productive and ethical.
1) The horse's brain is very different from ours. His memory, senses and way of learning are very different too. Understand these differences and always remember them when training.
2) Know how training works. Understand the most important scientific principles, in particular – operant conditioning, habituation, shaping and classical conditioning.