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Adapting Your Horse's Behavior





What can you fix?  - almost anything.


1) Horse is immobile

2) No change in head or neck

3) No increase or decrease in jaw pressre on the bit. The horse is in the natural outline and you release the rein to reward the response.



1) Horse turns toward turning rein with shoulders

2) Horse flexes in direction of turn

3) Horse remains forward with neck relatively straight

4) The turning rein is released when the horse gives the turn. In early training, initial 'roundness' comes from correct relaxed turn


1) Hind leg crosses over clearly

2) Horse remains straight

3) Horse is mildly flexed to inside

4) Rhythm, relaxation and conact remain

5) Roundness emerges

6) Inside leg of rider softens when horse steps across

Some people  lack of belief in horse fixers. How often do you hear of a horse that jacks up, spins, rears, and has been 'cured', only to see the problem re-appear under pressure.

Assessing a horse:

If there is a problem and it is not a particularly dangerous one, we generally get the owner to ride the horse first. Quite often when we ride a horse, because of the things we do, it might already go a fair way to fixing the horse. Then the owner says oh it's having a good day - which is a real problem because quite a lot of horses do have good days when we start riding them, especially if we start doing our work.  There are a whole lot of things that are done on the ground before we get onto them, which probably ensures that the horse is going to have a good day - so we usually get the owner to ride it first and show me what they do, because all these behaviour problems are induced somewhere by riders. It usually shows up as confusion in the horse.

Every problem that boils down to a manifestation of lack of calmness is the result of a conflict within the horse; (by conflict the horse is torn between two or more alternative responses)where one alternative is the correct response, and the alternative is the incorrect response. When the horse is able to give differing responses then it tends to put the horse into turmoil until it resolves the problem and can produce only one response. From the horse's point of view, that response will be profitable to the horse, but from the rider's point of view it should be profitable to the rider - the rider therefore has to target the correct response, through: pressure - response - release."

That's what good training is all about, targeting correct responses and rewarding them. In all problems I don't see that there are any 'naughty' horses. The problem horse is in conflict, and we do see more conflict problems in Spring, because the learned responses that we train into the horse are very much a part of the social responses that the brain can give from one animal to another - whether its from a horse to a horse, or a horse to a human. In Spring time because of the horse's hierachical nature and his need to fit into a pecking order, the horse tends to undo its own responses in connection with other horses. That's the horse's way of inching up the pecking order, because being at the top of the pecking order is fantastic for a mare, because she gets first access to the stallion, her foal is born early and gets first access to the green grass. It's the same for the stallions obviously, the ones at the top of the pecking order get all the advantages. Reproductively there is a strong instinctive drive for animals to dominate each other in the Springtime, so learned responses tend to unravel a bit at this time of the year.

Because conflict is at the heart of the problems, then it is a matter of looking at the kinds of responses we train into the horse. From that point of view, it is then a matter of looking at all the basic responses that are set in concrete at the beginning of the horse's training, we call that foundation training.

There are six basic responses:

stop from both reins
turn right from the right rein
turn left from the left rein (both of those turns are from the shoulders only)
go forward from both legs
yield quarters to the left from the right leg
yield quarters to the right from the left leg.

Those six responses are taught through pressure release. We avoid saying anything like "we teach the horse to stop from our seat" because it must be done through clear pressure-release to train the horse at breaking in, at the beginning, and every horse breaker realizes that. The job in repairing problems is going back to those basics and finding how they are operating because they can be unlearned even in horses that have very good beginnings.
The more practice the horse has at responding correctly, when each response becomes a consolidated learned response, then it becomes set in stone. Once those basics are in place, we can then go on and train using cues. For example we can train the horse to stop on our seat, to go forward on our seat, or position right to go right, and so on. Those sorts of cues are very shallow. They are not as permanently learned and they tend to be easily undone, so we put them on later as the icing on the cake. In dressage that is what we are mainly doing, but the basis is always those six learned responses.

When a horse first starts training, we feel what they are like on the ground first, particularly stop and go. Those six learned responses are in a very strict hierarchy.

There is stop and go at the bottom of the pyramid, and incidentally stop and go produces rhythm and relaxation, and begins to teach contact. When a horse has too much go and not enough stop, then it will be running away into the bit, and heavy  when the horse has too much stop  or its stop is good but its go is poor, it is lazy. A horse in rhythm is a horse that is so finely tuned that the merest nudge sends it forward and the nearest touch slows it, it then settles into a rhythm. In a sense a rhythm is an emergent property of the qualities of forward and stop.

Contact starts to be produced at this stage. All the horses are worked on a long rein in a natural outline at the start. If I have the horse shorter and he is leaning on the bit, de-training the stop response.

Criteria is to check the stop and go. For go, insisting that the horse is active, that the horse is in cruise control and he doesn't slow of his own accord, he waits to be asked, and he is unconditionally forward, he goes where you point him. They are the three criteria  expected in forward. In stop, looking  for a situation where the merest touch on the mouth will produce a stop, and a loose stop so the front legs are square, and the neck never lengthens or shortens or raises or lowers. The stop is purely on the lips and tongue.

There are two basic responses, the next point is an aspect to do with the stop response, and that is turning. Turning is to do with a single rein, and the stop is both reins. Make sure that the horse not only turns his shoulder towards the turning rein, but that he also flexes, and he also softens to the rein. Those three all happen together because we never turn without flexing, and never flex without turning -  never disconnect them, because that produces problems in turn the horse never will learn what that rein meant otherwise.

Once you have those things in place, ten out of ten on the correct turns, then we deem that the turn is consolidated. Once the turn is consolidated, then we teach yield and that yield later turns into shoulder in, just by mobilising the hindquarters, then travers, half pass, etc. At a very basic level it is just the horse yielding from the hindlegs.

we separate all the learned responses - none are applied together. Later in dressage we can apply things together, we can apply stop and go to some extent, turn and go, but in the basics it's not a good idea, it tends to de-train them, the horse needs to have it quite clear, what particular response you are training. we tend to work on them separately.

Teaching leg yielding, make a diagonal line across the arena then one criteria is that the horse's front legs travel across that line, the horse needs to be straight in his body so I can straighten him with my outside rein, and that is the other thing the horse learns that the reins straighten the neck. All the horse has to learn about the reins, turning and straightening.

The horse's body is straight, and flexed mildly away from the direction of travel. The whole line of the horse's body must be parallel to the long side of the arena as it steps away from the leg. We are looking for rhythm as the horse steps across the arena, and to produce a learned response out of that.

When horses are in happy mouth bits, there tends to be a little misunderstanding about what mouthing is all about. Often they are leaning horses that lack a clear stop response. With a leaning horse, when you release the rein the horse just quickens. If the horse gives an incorrect response, then it can be assumed  the horse is in conflict, and because it is in conflict over the stop response, then it is showing up other undesired behaviour.

It is understood that when you put your leg on at all, the horse tends to do little hops and jumps and not go anywhere. The lack of a clear stop is probably affecting the horse going forward, and the two things need to be separated and trained." "The six learned responses encompass every single movement in dressage. Everything is in the end a refinement of one of those learned responses. Once you can mobilise the hindquarters and you can turn well with the forehand, and you can ride the horse straight and stop him, then everything you do is an aspect of those six things."

In the German system, they say the basics are: rhythm, contact, relaxation, straightness, engagement - but to my way of thinking those things are not clear enough, it is more to do with stop/go, turn left, turn right, yield right, yield left, and the funny thing is, if you look at the way they need to be trained it actually follows that scheme exactly. From stop and go, you produce rhythm, and the beginnings of contact and relaxation - from turn, you achieve straightness, when you can turn the shoulders you can straighten the shoulder, you can stop it falling in.

Once you can yield the hindquarters into a straightening outside rein, you have engagement. To my way of thinking, to say rhythm is a basic is not so clear, because we think rhythm is an emergent quality, a quantum function of stop and go, and straightness is an emergent quality of clear turns, and engagement is an emergent quality of yielding activating the inside hind leg. The six basic responses is the same thing, and it is a little clearer because when people write about rhythm and straightness, it doesn't always tell you what is going to produce it.

If you ask the average rider who is having trouble with rhythm to fix it, they may not know that their stop response shouldn't be heavy, and that the horse shouldn't be leaning, and while it is leaning he will never have rhythm, or while he is constantly slowing, he will never have rhythm.

It is as if stopping and going sit in the horse's head as invisible parameters to produce rhythm, just as having clear responses from the rein produces a horse that goes straight when the reins are soft, it won't turn left because of the influence of the right rein, even though it might not be on, and it won't turn right because of the influence of the left.

That means we have to look at: what is a correct stop? what is correct forward? what is correct turning? or what is correct yielding? Once you have identified what is correct, you must establish a system of trouble shooting. If stop is not correct, how can we correct it to produce a clear stop, and how many repetitions do we need to produce a clear consolidated response.

Generally once a horse can give ten clear responses, you've got a fair idea that the horse is beginning to form a habit. It's the same with 'go' - is the horse active and in cruise control? If it is not, we go back to operant conditioning, which is the pressure, response, release system, where we use no leg but just the whip. We tap with the whip until the horse goes forward, if the horse slows, tap it again, until in the end one tap produces circles, serpentines, anything - and without any maintenance. Once that is clear, then we put the leg back into the formula with the whip - through classical conditioning. Classical conditioning is where the horse responds to a cue - like using your seat to stop, or responding to voice.  The cue has no enforcability but works through repetitious association. The associations work best when you do them just before the learned response - just before you tap the horse with the whip to go forward, you use light leg, then tap. Eventually the horse learns to work off the leg.

It is the same with teaching the horse to stop on your seat, even though there is always an element of stopping from the seat when you stop on the reins, because whenever you pull on the reins, your seat deepens, but you can actually make the seat more powerful by using the seat stronger just before you use your rein, that will consolidate the response, and the horse now stops much more clearly from the seat. It takes more repetitions to train by classical conditioning than by operant conditioning and the pressure/response system, but once you've got it in place it just needs reminding every now and then.

The other operating principle of the whole system is when you use operant conditioning (the pressure response method) whether you use leg or rein, you mustn't release until you get the response you are looking for. Try to set up the conditions where you will produce it, even randomly, and you don't release until the horse gives a clear response, then you release immediately. It means there are very clear guidelines, it means you have to apply it the moment incorrect behaviour starts, you've got to apply it throughout the whole duration of the bad behaviour, and you've got to increase the intensity of it if there is no change in the behaviour within a reasonable amount of time - and that's seconds - and you must immediately release it the moment you get the clear behaviour. The timing of those pressures is essential and that is the hallmark of the great trainer. I think it is what horse whispering and all that is about too - but they just don't always know what they are doing.



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