A primary aim of horse training is to create a predictable animal that is useful and enjoyable to be around. However, when a unique person trains a unique horse, it is almost oxymoronic to suppose that the outcome of the training could be predictable. When the trainer understands and makes use of the ten first principles of equitation science, however, training can have more effective and predictable outcomes, with less stress and confusion for the horse in the process.
The ten first principles explain how horses learn so trainers can avoid any training techniques that are questionable or detrimental and use to full advantage the tenets of learning theory. Because the principles show how training works, it becomes obvious to the trainer why some methods do not work and others do. This creates a more streamlined training process with less trial and error on the trainer’s part so the horse can be guided through learning with clear and consistent methods.
This approach makes a lot of sense, as consistent and clear communication leads to fewer misunderstandings, resulting in less confusion for the horse. Confusion causes flight and defence behaviours in the horse as it tries to escape the conflicting situation, so the ability of a trainer to avoid fear and conflict results in humane, effective training. Sensitive communication with the horse through a willingness to observe the horse’s state of mind can even create a better relationship between the horse and its trainer, and ultimately between the horse and any people who interact with it in the future.
The trainer with a working knowledge of equitation science is skilled in predicting what behaviour a horse may offer next. This ability is achieved by observing and interpreting the body language, posture, or demeanour of the horse, and then adapting the techniques being used so that the horse remains in a trainable mental state. A horse that is too stressed cannot learn well, and neither can a horse that is so relaxed it is almost asleep. Any person who has intentionally honed their equine observation skills will be able to tailor their training to the horse’s mental state if they choose to, but learning the principles of equitation science is likely to lessen the time necessary to learn this important skill.
Horses are very routine oriented. When the outcome they expect from a certain behaviour or event is not met, frustration occurs. Constant frustration through inconsistency can create a long-term negative mood which may lead to aggression. The use of punishment in training is a major contributor to frustration, as punishment only tells the horse what not to do and does not redirect their behaviour in a positive way. When a horse is in a negative mental state, he is getting ready to protect himself, whereas in a positive state he is engaged with the trainer and makes fewer mistakes.
Without a proper understanding of how horses learn, training results may vary. If a trainer misunderstands how to apply negative reinforcement (also known as subtraction reinforcement, where an aversive is removed to reinforce behaviour) conflict behaviours may emerge, and with practice these behaviours become trained responses, perhaps rendering the horse dangerous. Without the proper understanding of a horse’s cognitive ability, horse behaviour can easily be misinterpreted, causing the trainer to apply a training technique inappropriate for the situation, starting a cycle of decreased welfare and ineffective training.
Poorly trained basic responses, such as stop, go, and turn, have been shown to go hand in hand with fear and conflict behaviours. Therefore, training (or retraining) these basic responses in accordance with equitation science principles will mitigate fear and conflict in the horse, resulting in the desired training outcome: a useful and enjoyable animal that also receives some benefit from its interactions with people.