Simple Ways to Improve Your Horsemanship
8 Tips from an Equine Behaviour Consultant
As an equine behaviour consultant, I encounter many people who are desperate to improve their relationship with their horse. Most equine behavioural problems are complex, with many differential factors at play. The horse may have a medical condition, a specific phobia, or restrictive management, but on top of this, there are often problems with a person's horsemanship.
Horsemanship is often defined as having skill in riding, but this can actually extend to the training and management of horses too. At its' core, I believe horsemanship to be rooted in a person's relationship with their horse. This isn't just about skill, it's also about your attitude, your empathy and your understanding of equine behaviour. With this definition in mind, here are my 8 simple tips to improve your horsemanship.
1. Release the pressure
When we work with horses, whether we are leading them in from the field, moving them around the stable, or riding them, we are always applying and releasing pressure. This is known as negative reinforcement, where the cessation of a negative stimulus increases a behaviour. For example, we apply pressure to the head collar to ask our horse to walk on, they walk on, and we release the pressure. However, where people often go wrong is that they don't release the pressure. A rider may continuously bump their horses sides with their legs to keep them moving forwards, but they don't release that pressure with good timing, and so the horse gets confused and learns to ignore the signals. Sometimes pressure isn't so literal, it can be psychological. Imagine you are working with a nervous horse that tenses when you approach it. You can be standing a meter away from that horse, not touching it, and still be applying pressure. In this context, your presence is aversive to the horse, and it will only feel a release of that tension and stress when you move further away. You can progressively get closer to a horse like this by approaching and retreating when it stands still to release the pressure (thereby teaching it that standing still releases pressure), however most people don't do this. Instead they focus on getting as close to the horse as they can and then bribing it with food or scratches, meanwhile the horse is conflicted and afraid, ready to engage fight or flight at any moment. Slow down, shape with behaviour gradually, don't put pressure on yourself and also, literally, release the pressure.
2. Take your time
Following on from the previous point, it goes without saying that you need to take your time. When we ask our horses to perform our instructions, we have to allow them time to process the information and make a decision. Horses are prey animals that will quickly move into fight or flight. They need time to assess the risks in what you're asking them to do, particularly if it's quite new to them. They're not like us, they don't really understand why we are asking them to do certain things. They put a lot of trust in us when they chose to comply with our requests, instead of following their own intuition. Imagine you're asked to do a difficult math sum. Now imagine the difference between someone allowing you a minute of quiet time to figure it out, and someone shouting at you and threatening you to hurry up. In which scenario do you think you'll more easily be able to solve the puzzle? We ask our horses to solve problems under pressure that we ourselves would be unable to withstand. Be patient, be kind, take your time.
3. Don't blame or insult the animal
Horses don't have the neurological ability to behave in malicious or devious ways. They have evolved to avoid conflict at all costs, because the last thing a prey animal needs is to be injured in a silly fight. When horses bite, kick, or rear, this is usually because they're experiencing pain, fear or stress and they have no other way of communicating because we've ignored their more subtle body language. When you label the horse as "naughty" or "stubborn" or claim that they're just a "moody mare" or are "taking the piss", you stop asking questions about why the horse is behaving in that way. You're anthropomorphizing. You've arrogantly decided that you know best. It didn't feel nice when I assumed you were being arrogant there did it? I bet you have a lot of reasons (or excuses) for using this language. Well, your horse has reasons too, and these reasons are more complex than them simply being bad or difficult for the sake of it. Your horse doesn't know that its' behaviour is frightening or embarrassing you. It's not trying to humiliate you. It's just trying to communicate with you and ease its' own discomfort. The moment you start blaming and insulting your horse, you stop listening, you stop asking questions, you get upset, and you may punish them with excessive pressure or a smack of the whip. You don't want to "let them win", little do you realize that you've already lost. You've lost your temper and you've lost your horses trust. When things escalate to this point, it's best to just stop, take a deep breath and consider contacting your vet or an equine behaviour consultant to assess the behaviour problem. Don't blame or insult the animal.
4. Don't bow to peer pressure
Livery yards and equestrian clubs and competitions can be tricky places for those that don't fit the mold. Even as a professional who works on equine behaviour full time, with the qualifications and experience to back me up, there are always people who think it's a load of rubbish and that they know better. This is frustrating, especially when I see how their attitude has a negative impact on their horse and upon themselves. However, you can't help people that don't want to be helped. All you can do is do the best that you can for you and your horse. Ignore people who look down on your methods and call you "too soft". It's better to be too compassionate to your horse than to be a tyrant. It's important to keep learning and to have people to look up to, but these don't have to be the people around you at the yard. I look up to professional equine behaviorists that have been in the business a long time and seen more cases than I have. I learn from them, I talk to them, I follow them on social media, join equine behaviour and welfare groups or forums online and I trust them to guide me in my learning and self-development. I choose my role models in the industry carefully, ensuring they match my own standards of ethical practice and I ignore the judgements and pressures placed upon me by those less qualified. Don't bow to peer pressure.
5. Learn about learning
Many of you that have studied entry level psychology will remember the gist of Learning Theory, with Operant and Classical Conditioning, Pavlov's dogs, and the carrot and the stick. But how many of you can tell me the difference between positive and negative punishment and give me a concrete example? What about positive and negative reinforcement (hint, we talked about NR in tip 1)? You might not think it's important, but the thing is, you're using these techniques whether you have knowledge of them or not. This is simply how animals (and people) learn. If you don't know what you're doing, then you're going to be accidently reinforcing behaviors you don't want and punishing those you do want. You and your horse are going to be confused and frustrated. Thus, your horse isn't really going to enjoy the time you spend together, because it's unnecessarily stressful. Just do your horse a favour and at least learn the four quadrants of operant conditioning, pictured below. Learn about learning.
6. Let them be a horse
Whether you've got a semi-feral Shetland pony or a world class racing Thoroughbred, you've still got a horse. Horses (all horses) need free access to forage. They need to get a few hours of quality sleep a night. They need to roam for miles every single day. They need equine companions to socialize with. They need to browse different plants and trees. They need fresh water. They need to be free from illness, pain, fear and discomfort. They need some choice and autonomy over their own life. They need to feel safe. They need the freedom to engage in natural behaviors. When horses don't have these needs met they can suffer from chronic stress. This may cause them to adopt stereotypies, such as crib-biting, as a coping mechanism. They may develop gastric ulcers or other conditions exacerbated or caused by stress. They may become dull and depressed, or agitated and easily spooked. It can be extremely hard to provide for all of our horse's needs, particularly the need to roam and graze large areas, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't try. We should take every opportunity to meet these needs that we can. Where we fall short, we should try to make up for it by giving them a variety of environmental enrichment. We should take them for walks, either ridden or in hand, to explore the areas surrounding our yards. A happy horse that has it's needs met will perform better and exhibit fewer behavioural problems. Remember that good horsemanship means managing them with their behaviour in mind. Let them be a horse.
7. Leave your stress off the yard
Sometimes we ourselves can become stressed after a particularly long day or a difficult time. When we become stressed, we may find that we have a shorter fuse than usual. We're easily set off by small setbacks and inconveniences. It's hard for us to ride our horses well when our mind is all over the place. Moreover, we're more likely to lose our patience with our horses when they don't behave in the way we expect. This can be pretty dangerous, particularly if you're doing a high risk activity, such as jumping. You need to pay attention and you need to behave with consideration for your horse. Your horse will feel it when you're stressed. This might cause them agitation and stress too, because they don't know why you're stressed and whether it's relevant to them or not. Horses use body language and facial expressions to signal to the rest of the group when danger is nearby. It's likely that they'll be sensitive to your non-verbal communication. Before you ride, or do anything with your horse, take some deep breathes. Be in the moment with your horse and leave your stress off the yard.
8. Just spend quality time with your horse
So often we have an agenda when we go to see our horses. We rush through our stable chores and our grooming to get to the good stuff. Or we are constantly working on our striding, transitions, flying changes, you name it! How often do you just spend time finding your horse's itchy spots and giving them a good scratch? How many times have you decided to do some positive reinforcement training just for fun to teach your horse some cool tricks. How many times have you decided to do groundwork simply introducing your horse to novel objects? Or spent 20 minutes making up a puzzle box, gathering hazel branches, or threading carrots onto baling twine to then watch your horse enjoy the experience? All of this is so valuable. It builds your relationship with your horse and helps you to get to know one another. It builds your horse's resiliency and confidence, both in itself and in you. It offers both challenges and easy wins. Moreover, it's just fun and enjoyable! These positive experiences will only benefit your horse when you do crack on with your more serious training. A horse with more confidence in itself and emotional resiliency will be a joy to work with. Building your relationship is never a waste of time. So just spend quality time with your horse.
If you'd like to chat to me about equine behaviour, connect with me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/cmequine.ebc/. You can find out more about my consultancy services on my website: https://www.cmequine.co.uk/. If you enjoyed this article, please subscribe and share with your horsey friends!