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Does Equitation Science Provide the Predicted Benefits to Horses and Horse Handlers? A Review

Abstract

Since the inception of equitation science, there have been many predictions by researchers that this discipline will produce multiple benefits to horses and the humans interacting with them. These predictions fall into five broad categories: Welfare, Safety, Training, Economics, and Relationship. Each of the categories are closely related, and so each of these claims also depend on and support one another. After more than ten years of research in these areas, many of these predictions of the benefits of equitation science remain founded on anecdotal evidence and logic, though some evidence has been garnered from research. The subject of horse welfare has been the most studied in relation to equitation science, consistently showing expected welfare benefits of equitation science. Relationship and economics are the least studied with respect to elucidating the benefits of employing equitation science principles, while the benefits of the most immediately applicable categories of safety and training have received little support from the literature. A review of the equitation science literature, and an evaluation of the claims made, has been undertaken to determine whether the predicted benefits have materialized in practice as well as to identify opportunities for further research that will demonstrate more conclusively the benefits claimed by equitation science practitioners.

Keywords: equitation science, welfare, safety, training, economics, relationship

Introduction

Measuring interactions between horses and their handlers and riders has been recently popularized by the maturing discipline of equitation science (McGreevy, 2007). Equitation science is based on learning theory and seeks to measure interactions between horses and humans with the goal of determining what practices are useful for improving these interactions (McGreevy and McLean, 2010). It is not, therefore, a horse training method. These human-horse interactions are the subject of a review by Hausberger et al (2008) who suggest that relationships are built upon previous interactions, with an overall positive interaction building a positive step for the relationship, and an overall negative interaction doing the opposite. They posit that understanding learning rules would help to facilitate positive interactions. Having a relationship with a horse tends to produce an interest in the horse’s welfare, which Baragli et al (2015) evaluate in terms of equine learning. The ability of horses to learn affects their usefulness in the horse industry’s economy (Murphy and Arkins, 2007; Olczak et al, 2016) and the safety of the horse and handler during all interactions (Waran et al, 2002).

Since the inception of equitation science, many predictions have been made by researchers that this discipline will produce benefits to horses and the humans interacting with them. These predictions fall into five broad categories: Welfare, Safety, Training, Economics, and Relationship. Much of the support for these claims comes from the researchers’ logical deductions from their study findings and their own experience. After more than ten years of such studies and predictions, it is reasonable to begin investigating whether or not equitation science is fulfilling the roles expected of it. If equitation science indeed improves welfare, the appalling behavioural wastage rate of horses could be reduced. If equitation science improves safety, the unacceptable injury rate to riders could be diminished. If equitation science improves training, horses could be more easily and effectively trained, leading to improved usefulness and better economics. Finally, if equitation science improves human-horse relationships, all other categories could be positively affected. This review examines the equitation science literature regarding the claims made about the benefits of using the principles set forth. The purpose of this review is to determine whether these benefits are being realized in practice, as well as to identify opportunities for further research to elucidate whether or not equitation science has conferred a net benefit on the horse industry.

Welfare

The most oft-cited claim in the literature discussing equitation science is improved equine welfare. According to Thompson and Haigh (2018), the very aim of equitation science is to improve welfare. Animal welfare is related to the quality of an individual’s life (Waran, 2002), and involves the animal’s caretaker making ethical, moral, and aesthetic decisions (Thompson and Haigh, 2018). It is proposed that when horse handlers understand and use the 10 first principles of equitation science (ISES, 2017), the limitations of the horse will be understood and its behaviour will be interpreted and responded to appropriately by the handler (Ladewig, 2007), resulting in improved welfare (Starling et al, 2016). Equitation science is also said to remove emotiveness from welfare debates (Goodwin et al, 2008), to create standardized methods of research (Pierard et al, 2015), and reduce wastage of horses to abattoirs for behavioural reasons (McGreevy and McLean, 2007; Warren-Smith and McGreevy, 2008; Doherty et al, 2017). Wastage is currently estimated at 6% for the racehorse population, and better foundation training is cited as a way to reduce this rate (Hayek et al, 2005). The concept of ethical equitation, proposed by Jones and McGreevy (2010), is based on an understanding of learning theory which underpins equitation science. All of these claims concerning the relationship between equitation science and welfare follow logically, and the relationship between normal equid behaviour and good welfare has been established (Waran et al, 2007).

The modified five domains model has been proposed as an accurate measure of equid welfare during common interventions (McGreevy et al, 2018). These five domains––nutrition, environment, health, behaviour, and mental state––are discussed below to demonstrate how equitation science is applied in each welfare domain. A weakness of this assessment tool is that it focusses on the absence of negative events, conditions, and affective states, but while these are often taken as an indication of positive affective states and excellent welfare (Hotzel et al, 2019) this may not necessarily be the case. A further refinement of the modified five domains model to include the presence of positive affective states (McGreevy et al 2018), positive events, and conditions may provide a more complete picture of a horse’s well-being during normal care and management.

Nutrition: Food or water deprivation is still practiced by some horse trainers as a means of punishing a horse or producing desired behaviour (McLean and McGreevy, 2010). Dehydration or hunger can reduce flight responses, causing a horse to become more compliant. However, nutritional deprivation is contraindicated by equitation science principles because there is unlikely to be any lasting training effect. These practices can also cause painful damage to internal organs, as cumulative food deprivation for 72 hours causes gastric ulceration (Murray and Grady, 2002) and the immune system is also negatively affected (Naylor and Kenyon, 1981).

Environment: Assessing the welfare impact of training, housing, and health interventions on the horse is said to be aided by a knowledge of equitation science, and should be the first step in deciding whether or not to apply a specific intervention to a horse (McGreevy et al, 2018). An appropriate environment is one the horse can adapt to, and which influences learning and behaviour positively (Heitor and Vicente, 2007; Sankey et al, 2010). When a horse is unable to adapt to the environment it is in, depressive behaviour can arise from its inability to perform natural behaviour (Baragli et al, 2015).

Health: Animal welfare includes behaviour medicine, in which veterinarians are expected to participate. Training and restraint methods that do not align with learning principles laid out in equitation science negatively affect welfare (Doherty et al, 2017). Good health and welfare are not affected only by disease (Derksen and Clayton, 2007) but other factors including environment and mental state, so it is predicted that veterinarians receiving training in equitation science will improve the welfare and health of their patients (Pierard et al, 2015).

Behaviour: Making learning theory (McCall, 2007), on which equitation science is based, and a knowledge of equine learning processes accessible to horse handlers is claimed to improve welfare (Heitor and Vicente, 2007; Warren-Smith and McGreevy, 2008) by helping people avoid training techniques that do not align with learning (McLean and McGreevy, 2010). These misaligned techniques can cause undesirable behaviour (Fenner et al, 2019a) including conflict and avoidance, which use of the principles of equitation science is said to mitigate (Warren-Smith and McGreevy, 2008; McLean and Christensen, 2017). Interventions that affect learning processes also affect safety and welfare (Fenner et al, 2019b). This is why Hartmann and co-workers (2019) studied the transference of leadership in horse herds to human-horse interactions. They conclude that welfare would be safeguarded through a better understanding of equine social behaviour instead of relying on the currently popular models of leadership and dominance.

The implications of improper training on horse welfare are shown by McLean (2005a) in correlations between poor trained responses and unwelcome behaviours. In-hand responses that were not immediate from a light cue often corresponded with similarly latent responses under saddle. He found that some latent responses were highly predictive of certain unwanted behaviours, for example, all 50 horses in the study with a sometimes incorrect deceleration response under saddle would also bolt. These correlations are also the subject of a review by Baragli et al (2015), who call for increased levels of competence in horse training based on learning theory.

Mental State: The importance of this final category is highlighted by the work of Mendl and Paul (2008) who conclude that understanding animals’ mental experiences is an asset to assessing welfare. According to these scientists, there are grounds to believe that horses may have an emotional memory whereby certain stimuli linked to a past event can trigger an emotional response. Because horse training relies on negative (removal) reinforcement and therefore aversive stimuli (McLean and Christensen, 2017) it is posited that horses trained to respond to light versions of these cues will experience improved welfare as they have perceived control over the amount of pressure used (Fenner et al, 2019b). It is known that horses value safety (McGreevy et al, 2014) and comfort, motivating them to find a way to remove fear or pain-inducing stimuli. When this motivation is constantly thwarted through poor timing of reward or misuse of cues to achieve a response other than the one trained, the horse may become overreactive or apathetic and welfare is affected (McLean, 2005b). Thus, when the principles of equitation science are applied correctly by the handler, improved mental state during training and riding is expected. Only one study has preliminary results demonstrating the correlation between science-based housing, handling, and care, and improved welfare. King et al (2019) cited zero foal injuries during early training while using the principles of equitation science, which is a sign of good welfare, as is the absence of fear and conflict behaviour through an ethologically aligned training program (ISES, 2017). However, welfare is multi-faceted and is difficult to measure accurately (McGreevy et al, 2018), and more data is needed to be able to confirm the welfare implications of certain training and management practices (McLean and McGreevy, 2010).

Safety

The prediction of improved safety of horse and human is also commonly found in the equitation science literature (Hawson et al, 2010). This is an important claim, as the dangerous nature of equestrian sport is well documented. A review of equestrian injury rate studies showed that the number of serious injuries per contact hours range from 1 per 350 hours to 1 per 1000 hours (Sorli, 2000). In their own study of hospital admissions and mortality associated with equestrian activities, Sorli (2000) measured a rate of only 0.49 serious injuries per 1000 contact hours, potentially due to the limited geographic area studied. While one retrospective study reported that the injury rate lessened over the 20 year period between 1990–2010 and attributed this to improved safety standards (Hasler et al, 2011), others found no reduction within certain riding populations, particularly rural or ‘cowboy’ cultures (Newton and Nielsen, 2005).

The unpredictability of horses is cited by many authors as a major contributing factor in equestrian injury, with horse behaviour accounting for 25% (Hausberger et al, 2008) to 70% (Finch and Watt, 1996) of accidents. Despite this, most authors propose helmet use as a solution (Winkler et al, 2016) which, while effective in reducing the severity of trauma (Lim et al, 2003), does nothing to modify potentially dangerous horse behaviour. Alternatively, Thompson et al (2015) and O’Connor et al (2018) suggest that training the rider to understand horse behaviour will reduce the injury rate. None of these studies, however, were designed to determine if the suggested preventative measures were effective, as they focused on determining risk factors. In regards to unpredictable behaviour, Ladewig (2019) notes the importance of body language in equine communication and explains how accurate interpretation of body language through an understanding of equine ethology can be used to predict a horse’s intentions with enough time for the handler or rider react appropriately, preventing accident or injury. Zuckerman et al (2015) concur, adding that horses older than 15 years are safer. Nevertheless, based on the large percentage of behaviour related injuries, Hasler et al (2011) propose training riders in safe practices and proper handling, and providing education in horse behaviour as the way forward to reduce handler injury. This proposal is supported by the work of Mayberry et al (2007), who found that risk of injury decreased with level of experience and education about horses, and whose findings were corroborated by Gronqvist et al (2017). Zuckerman and coworkers (2015) also found that most injuries occurred in recreational settings, suggesting that the experience afforded by being a professional equestrian acts as a safeguard. Guyton et al (2013) cite a healthy relationship with the horse as being a preventative strategy, but note: “There is a prominent subjective element to the development of the horse and rider relationship.” The authors do not seem content with this element of subjectivity, and equitation scientists claim this subjective statement is not entirely true (Hausberger et al, 2008; Sankey et al, 2010; Dalla Costa, 2015).

Thompson et al (2015) argue that horses can be made more predictable, and point out that risk is typically viewed as being imposed by the horse on its rider, and that safety is only for humans. This is poignantly clear when Safe Work Australia (2014) listed unpredictable behaviour and poor training as the problem of the horse. Instead, Thompson et al (2015) note it is often the horse’s innate drive for safety that sparks unpredictable behaviour. Mendl and Paul (2008) agree that understanding what is important to horses would improve handler safety, and McGreevy and Murphy (2009) add that this will improve safety for the horse as well. O’Connor et al (2018) see the value of this approach in their study of horse riding injuries in Victoria, Australia, proposing that a refocus on injury prevention should include improvement in the predictability of horses, a goal that proper training using the principles of equitation science could accomplish (McGreevy, 2007).

Trigg et al (2015) posit that when owners assume they have a strong bond with their pet they may be more likely to become complacent regarding safety measures. With a horse owner this behaviour may manifest as a lack of helmet use when there is an assumption of mutual trust between owner and horse; in trainers the perceived bond could influence the method used, particularly if the trainer assumes the horse knows what is required of it. Gielen and Sleet (2003) agree that human behaviours that give rise to injury are preventable using behaviour science. Complacency that ultimately led to human injury has been documented. Newton and Nielsen (2005) studied rider injuries and found that 38% were preventable because they were caused by rider carelessness or inappropriate horse/rider combination. In 69% of the cases studied by Hasler et al (2011), unpredictable horse behaviour such as taking fright, bucking, refusing a jump, or having a nervous disposition were cited by injured participants as the cause of injury.

McGreevy and McLean (2007) state that adherence to the 10 principles of equitation science (ISES 2017) would improve safety, since all training is based on associative and non-associative learning and, therefore, a knowledge of ethology and learning theory as presented in the principles would improve consistency and predictability in the horse, allowing the trainer to predict its responses (Creighton, 2007). Starling et al (2016) agree, saying that by using equitation science to train horses in alignment with their cognitive and physical abilities human safety will be improved. They discuss how certain training methods that do not align in this way exacerbate unpredictable behaviour. The 10 principles are proposed as the safety solution, particularly those related to minimizing arousal levels and conflict, which is also corroborated by the work of Fenner et al (2019a) in regard to safety during round pen training.

With respect to training, Warren-Smith and McGreevy (2008) add that only 11.9% of riding instructors who responded to their survey were able to correctly explain the use of negative reinforcement in horse training, which is the primary training modality of horses (McCall, 1990). They and DeAraugo et al (2016) argue it is likely that injury rates would decrease with increased understanding of these learning processes amongst those who educate riders. Preshaw et al (2017) see the value of this education for those working in horse rescues, where horses are likely to be in distress and potentially more dangerous, and Baragli et al (2015) foresee the same benefit for owners, breeders, and veterinarians.

While Hawson et al (2010) also look for improved predictability from the use of equitation science, to date there is only one study that comes close to providing evidence of this prediction (King et al, 2019). The study shows a zero injury rate to the horses involved in equitation science-based training, but makes no mention of the injury rate for handlers. With respect to handler injuries, the preventative effect of equitation science is also assumed by Thompson and Haigh (2018), who note that confusion about equitation science in the horse community will hinder its uptake, inhibiting improvement in safety and welfare. McLean and Christensen (2017) point out that interest in ethical training practices that promote safety may be expanding, and now is a good time to establish principles that lessen the unpredictable behaviours of conflict and avoidance.

Training

The ‘evidence-based enlightenment’ (McLean and McGreevy, 2010) of using equitation science is predicted to unify horse training (Goodwin et al, 2009), and create more effective training with better and more predictable outcomes. This arises through a clear understanding of equine learning processes, allowing the trainer to avoid techniques with questionable or detrimental effect while leveraging learning theory to best advantage (McLean and McGreevy, 2010). The principles should, in theory, explain the mechanics behind all training methods, explaining why some training tactics work and why others do not (Goodwin, 2007; Goodwin et al, 2009). Use of equitation science principles is predicted to speed up the training process (King et al, 2019) through application of clear and consistent methods. Preshaw et al (2017) cite a reduction in flight and defence behaviours from an understanding of these principles, which could influence the speed of learning.

Goodwin et al (2009) logically make the point that effective and humane training relies on knowledge, as knowledge of how to communicate consistently leads to fewer misunderstandings, and fewer misunderstandings results in less confusion for the horse (McGreevy, 2007). Effective training improves horse behaviour, creating a safer, more useful animal (Derksen and Clayton, 2007). Humane training involves the avoidance of fear (Preshaw et al, 2017; McGreevy et al, 2014) and conflict (Goodwin et al, 2009). Some training interactions, however, are necessarily aversive, for example, initial training can be stressful for a young horse (McGreevy et al, 2014). Hausberger et al (2008) propose that by using the principles of learning theory to create a better relationship through sensitive communication (Goodwin et al, 2009) these aversive interactions can be balanced with positive ones for an overall positive relationship.

It has also been suggested that the ability to predict horse behaviour may be a trait of those knowledgeable in equitation science (Doherty et al, 2017). Ladewig (2019) claims that these predictions may be made by observing horse body language, or perhaps ideomotoric responses, which he posits may be present in all mammals. Predictions of this sort would allow the trainer to preempt dangerous behaviour and modify techniques (Creighton, 2007) to ensure the horse remains within trainable arousal levels––levels which have yet to be defined (Olczak et al, 2016). Gronqvist et al (2017) note a difference in the ability of veterinary students to predict horse behaviour is correlated to their level of horse-related experience, where those with less experience struggle to foresee dangerous situations and respond accordingly. While they suggest that equitation science is not the only tool that offers these benefits, it may speed up acquisition of this skill.

Starling et al (2013) propose that use of equitation science principles helps avoid negative affective states during training. When a horse’s expectations of the outcome of certain behaviours or events are not met, the difference between expected outcome and actual outcome produces frustration (Olczak et al, 2016). Negative moods can create aggression and long term negative affective states (Dalla Costa et al, 2015), and punishment can contribute to this state as well (Mills, 1998). In these states, the horse is monitoring a perceived threat and is ready to react to protect itself. In contrast, when in a positive affective state, induced in this study with Equine Appeasing Pheromone, horses showed increased attention and better recall of learned behaviours with fewer mistakes (Mengoli et al, 2014). Starling et al (2013) point out that awareness of affective and arousal states will increase effectiveness of training and assist in prediction of behaviour. In addition to increasing effectiveness of training (Ladewig, 2019), predicting behaviour is expected to reduce injury (Creighton, 2007; Hausberger et al, 2008; Ladewig, 2019). Finch and Watt (1996) also claim that predicting behaviour would improve safety, although their evidence is largely anecdotal.

The consequences of not understanding or utilizing the principles of equitation science during training, especially by equestrian coaches, is shown by Warren-Smith and McGreevy (2008). Consequences include misuse of negative reinforcement (McCall et al, 2003), which has been highly correlated with conflict behaviours by McLean (2005a), and increased behavioural wastage, where horses are sent to slaughter because of unsuitable behaviour. Starling et al (2016) add to this the import of understanding the limits of cognitive ability. Without this understanding behaviour is often misinterpreted, an inappropriate training technique is applied, the horse reacts to this inappropriate solution, and the cycle continues with lowered welfare, ineffective training, and increased safety risk. While the correlations between poorly trained basic responses and conflict or fear related behaviours are well documented (McLean, 2005a), and while it follows logically that retraining these basic responses would mitigate the conflict and fear behaviours, this has yet to be conclusively demonstrated in a controlled study.

Economics

In all human activity economics can be a motivating factor, and so the financial aspect of some equine industries has also been considered in equitation science research. Baragli et al (2015) claim that increased competence in horse training could reduce behavioural wastage, estimated at 10% in the United States, thereby reducing economic loss in the industry. Factors they identified as causing behaviour that could result in wastage were abnormal management, which creates abnormal behaviour, and incorrect use of negative reinforcement, which results in an unwanted response being trained. These are in accord with psychological rules (i.e. learning theory), which they assert must be applied in training to achieve economic benefit by creating safer, more useful animals.

Doherty et al (2017) say that if veterinarians were to better understand ethology and learning theory, horse performance could be optimized in addition to reducing wastage. Because the symptoms of pain are similar to those of confusion (Derksen and Clayton, 2007), appropriate conditioning, management, and training could be vital in determining what treatment options are most effective and least expensive. The usefulness of horses is determined in part by their behaviour and their ease of learning (Murphy and Arkins, 2007), so making learning theory accessible to horse handlers and owners is considered essential (McCall, 2007). Finally, King et al (2019) assert that foals trained by them using the principles of equitation science had a higher likelihood of being placed on the racetrack and later successfully transitioning to a different career after the track. Thus, applying the principles of equitation science should extend the useful lifespan of the horse and reduce the economic risk undertaken when raising a horse (Derksen and Clayton, 2007).

Relationship

Relationships are formed through mutual perceptions of one another based on multiple encounters (Sankey et al, 2010) which influence mutual behaviour (Dalla Costa et al, 2015). Attachment can form in a relationship where there is proximity seeking, safety, a base for exploration, and the potential for separation anxiety (DeAraugo et al, 2014). Factors cited as influential in the formation of a strong positive human-horse relationship are: applying learning theory (Warren-Smith and McGreevy, 2008); matching horse and rider carefully (Weeks and Beck, 1996); previous experience; temperament (Hausberger et al, 2008); and training (Dalla Costa et al, 2015). All of these factors are spoken to by equitation science, and human enjoyment of a relationship with horses is also believed to be improved by use of equitation science (Derksen and Clayton, 2007). The attitude held by the caretaker will also affect a horse’s relationship with humans, with a positive attitude toward the horse positively affecting the horse (Dalla Costa et al, 2015), while appropriate conditioning, training, and management is proposed to improve the equine attitude as well (Derksen and Clayton, 2007).

It is proposed by some people in the horse industry that a human can use equine body language to be perceived by the horse as another horse with a higher social ranking, developing a dominance based relationship and earning respect (Fenner et al, 2019a). McGreevy et al (2009) examined this aspect of the human-horse relationship and found that the possibility of aligning interactions with the equid social ethogram is very limited, and similarities cease as soon as the horse is ridden. They propose instead that use of equitation science will build a positive relationship and a compliant horse.

When naive horses have positive experiences with humans, their subsequent positive behaviour towards humans has been demonstrated to be robust and to be generalized to unfamiliar humans (Sankey et al, 2010). Dalla Costa et al (2015) also report a correlation between good relationships with humans and positive equine welfare. Their study showed significant differences in the latency of voluntary approach to a human between horses kept in stables that were assessed by local authority to have excellent welfare versus those with sub-optimal welfare. These differences extended also to expressions of aggression towards humans and avoidance behaviour. Unfortunately, the study did not discuss what criteria were used to rate the stables as either ‘excellent’ or ‘sub-optimal’, so the factors affecting human-horse relationships could not be discussed. The longitudinal Equine Assessment and Research Questionnaire (E-BARQ) survey currently underway will measure management and training, and how these affect horse behaviour and welfare (Fenner et al, 2019c). The results of this study are eagerly anticipated because they are expected to elucidate best practices in management and training for optimal relationship.

Murphy and Arkins (2007) conclude that having better definitions for and use of learning processes would reveal horses’ intelligence, further developing and enhancing our appreciation and relationship. The preliminary results from DeAraugo et al (2014) build on this knowledge of human-horse attachment showing differences between level and kind of attachment and the training methods employed. Interestingly, respondents subscribing to behavioural methods of training tended to see their relationship with their horse in reverse of those in all other methodologies, viewing it as the trainer’s responsibility to support the horse rather than the other way around. Studying how this view affects the horse’s attachment to the trainer would be an informative next step.

Conclusion

After over ten years of predicting what benefits will come to students of equitation science and their horses, and much anecdotal evidence, it seems there may finally be enough equitation science practitioners to gather preliminary data and put some of these claims to the test. King et al (2019) and Dalla Costa et al (2015) have begun practical field tests, the preliminary results of which, when combined with previous claims and research, seem to lend support for some of the claims made by equitation science researchers. However, much of this support remains anecdotal (Finch and Watt, 1996; King et al, 2019) or intellectual in that the claims have been experienced first-hand by many practitioners in addition to making logical sense.

There is difficulty in selecting adequate test subjects for studies due to differences in the skill level of those applying learning theory (Starling et al, 2016). Yet, Dalla Costa et al (2015) have successfully conducted on-farm tests with consistent results, indicating that it may be possible to determine if differences exist in welfare, safety, training, economics, and relationships  between stables actively practicing equitation science and those that are not. While this is a sensitive topic, Dalla Costa et al (2015) were able to tactfully navigate the delicate subject of their study, providing much needed insight.

The topic of welfare has arguably been the most studied and is most conclusive regarding the positive benefits arising from the use of equitation science, though it could certainly use more study. Relationship and economics are the least studied with respect to the differences between employing and not employing equitation science principles. However, the most immediately applicable research would be in the safety and training categories. Whether or not adherence to equitation science principles actually acts as a safeguard is urgently needed information and, if demonstrated, could begin to accelerate the positive change we all wish to see, with governing bodies leading the change. Furthermore, if training is more efficient, more humane, safer, faster, and produces more reliable and competitive horses, it is likely that acceptance and incorporation of these findings amongst trainers and laypeople would increase. Thus the base of equitation science support can be built from the top down and from the bottom up. The benefits, if any, to relationships and economics will also naturally follow from such studies, as will benefits in welfare as these are intrinsically linked to all of the other categories.

Goodwin (2007) encourages more research into the measurable aspects of horse training. With the further refinement of technology such as pressure sensors that are available to measure interactions between horses and riders/handlers, Holmes and Jeffcott (2010) are confident answers can be found to specific questions. Measuring whether equitation science makes the difference it has been promoted to have, particularly in the training, welfare, and relationship categories where there is much public interest, are specific, measurable questions that will help to encourage positive change throughout the industry.

Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank Dr. Mark Sandercock for his constructive comments and helpful suggestions during the preparation of this manuscript.

Authorship Statement

The idea for the paper, the research, and the writing, were conducted by Claire Sandercock.

Conflict of Interest Statement

No conflict of interest has been declared by the author.

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Early Training of Foals

Foals are cute, high energy, and very trainable. The same principles apply to training older, naive horses as to training foals, but there are some special considerations to keep in mind because of the stage of development foals are in.

Using the International Society for Equitation Science’s (ISES) 10 Principles of Equitation Science in the training of foals has proven effective at producing horses that are safe and easy to handle. Because early training experiences have been demonstrated to affect a horse’s behaviour without any further handling for up to two years, the foal’s first experiences of training are critical.

This article is a brief breakdown of what foals should learn and how they can be taught.

Principle 1: Account for the Horse’s Ethology and Cognition

The naive, three-year-old horse can focus enough to learn for approximately 20-30 minutes at first, and this time is slowly extended through training. The foal, therefore, has a shorter attention span lasting only 10-15 minutes. Training can begin at the foal’s third week of life, and should not be conducted daily. Two to three days in a row with at least one rest day in between has been shown to be effective.

Training sessions should take place in a small enclosed area with the mare present. The mare can have a positive effect on how the foal perceives human contact, provided she has a positive relationship with people herself. Two handlers are required for foal training sessions: the mare’s handler keeps her close to the foal during the training session and can feed, groom, or stroke her while the foal’s handler conducts the training.

Being in a small enclosure with the mare makes it easier for the foal’s handler to ensure that the foal does not learn to run away from people or to move away from their touch or their presence. Each session should focus on one very basic and simple task, such as moving towards a light sideways and forward pull on the lead rope. When the task has been repeated successfully or nearly successfully three times in a row, the learning session is finished for that day.

Principle 2: Use Learning Theory Appropriately

The foal can quickly learn to go, stop, back up, and turn from light pressures on the halter and lead rope.

The foal can be taught to stand still for very short periods of time, and to be handled all over, including picking up feet.

The foal should learn that interactions with people are positive and enjoyable, so the foal’s handler must be consistent and a competent trainer. Through this consistent training, the foal will learn that people must be treated differently than the other foals it is growing up with.

Habituation to lightweight objects such as blankets can also be undertaken with a foal, once basic responses to halter pressures have been trained.

All of these things can be trained using the framework of stimulus (pressure or cue), response (behaviour), and reinforcement (reward). Rewards for proper behaviour can be the release of pressure and withers scratching.

Principle 3: Train Cues that are Easy to Tell Apart

Each of the above responses that the foal will learn needs a distinct cue so the foal does not become confused or stressed by cues for different responses that feel too similar.

Principle 4: Correct Use of Shaping

Shaping transforms a newly learned behaviour from an initial first attempt that may not be entirely correct to the final correctly trained behaviour. To do this, the handler must slowly and progressively increase expectations of the desired behaviour and reward for ever-improving responses.

Principle 5: Ask for Responses One at a Time

Horses can only attend to one stimulus at a time and can, therefore, become overwhelmed by simultaneous cues. Cueing for two responses will either confuse the horse or cause stress and potentially conflict behaviours such as rearing, biting, kicking, bolting, or bucking as the foal tries to escape the stressful situation. In training sessions, ensure that one response is completely finished before asking for the next one.

Principle 6: Train One Response per Signal

In early training it is helpful to reduce to a minimum the number of signals that the foal is taught, and to ensure that each signal only means one thing. Other signals can be added later on as needed, but the basic requirements of handling a foal are such that the cues and responses can remain quite simple until it is time for further training.

Principle 7: Form Habits

Keeping training consistent as to handler, cues, and environment allows the foal to more quickly absorb the training. Once each response is consolidated in this consistent context, a new environmental feature or different handler can be substituted one at a time to expand the breadth of training.

Principle 8: Train Self-Carriage

The foal should learn right away to continue offering the response last asked for until something else is requested. This is an important skill for all future training, so the horse does not have to be constantly signalled to keep going. Constant signalling will result in habituation to the cue, and the horse will eventually stop responding to that cue entirely.

At this point in training, the mare can be used to help the foal learn to continue walking by following his mother after receiving the go signal, and to stand still following a stop cue because the mare is stationary.

Principle 9: Avoid Flight Responses

Foals should not learn to play with people like they would play with another foal. It is cute while the foal is small, but he will not understand that he has grown and cannot leap up on a person when he is older. Foal play also includes practice of flight responses such as running, bucking, and rearing, and learning to perform these behaviours in the presence of people is not something to encourage.

A small area for initial training helps to prevent the expression of flight responses, and training methods should never seek to intentionally trigger a fear response.

Principle 10: Keep Arousal to a Minimum During Training

In order to learn, the foal should be as relaxed as possible, but not to the point of falling asleep. The handler should pay attention to signs of stress in the foal and be ready to take a break, allow the foal physical contact with its mother, or go back to easier, previously learned responses in order to reduce stress and promote learning.

Conclusion

Mini training sessions following these principles will set the foal up for positive future learning experiences. These early sessions are teaching the foal how to learn from and interact with people, which are crucial skills for every horse to know.

References

ISES. (2017) Principles of Learning Theory in Equitation. Accessed August 5, 2021 from https://equitationscience.com/learning-theory/ (this article based on the 2017 version of the principles, as is the study by King et al.)

King, S., Wills, L., and Randle, H. (2019) Early training of foals using the ISES training principles. J. Vet. Behav. 29, 140-146.

Implications of Cribbing—Not All Bad

Cribbing is a sterotypical behaviour, meaning it is repetitive, persistent, and abnormal. There are also other oral stereotypies, including windsucking and wood chewing.

A long time ago, cribbing used to be called a ‘vice’ and was regarded as a plague in the barn that could be ‘caught’ by other horses. We know now that this is not true.

Then it was hypothesized that poor or unnatural living conditions were the cause of cribbing and other oral stereotypies. This is not far from the mark.

Recent research however is showing that horses displaying oral stereotypical behaviour actually have a different neural phenotype when compared to ‘normal’ horses that affects how dopamine interacts with the basal ganglia of the brain. This situation is brought about by stressors during development.

Therefore, the genetics of the horse and the stressors the horse experiences combine to create the stereotypical behaviour.

The Negative Implications of Cribbing

Horses that crib destroy fencing and anything else they can get their teeth on. Stable managers have tried many creative solutions to prevent their barns from being eaten down. Leaving a designated spot that the horse is ‘allowed’ to crib may be beneficial, as it is the horse’s way of coping with the altered dopamine transmission in the brain.

Teeth suffer more wear and tear in the cribbing horse, but with adequate and potentially more frequent veterinary dental care, this drawback can be managed.

To anyone who doesn’t know the causes in the particular horse, the sight and sound of a cribbing horse can be distressing. Being able to explain the phenomenon with sensitivity to a layperson is a beneficial skill.

Managing Cribbing

Because cribbing arises from stressors, the moment someone notices a horse cribbing that doesn’t usually crib, taking a serious look at its environment and making some changes could eliminate the behaviour and improve the horse’s welfare.

Common stressors in horses include social isolation, insufficient time spent foraging, lack of necessary nutrients, and inconsistent handling.

Ensuring that stressors are reduced as much as possible may reduce the horse’s drive to find other ways to cope.

The Positive Implications of Cribbing

If your horse cribs habitually, there is no need to despair. There are also positive aspects of the neural phenotype responsible for the behaviour!

Horses that crib form stronger habits more quickly. They will move from Response-Outcome learning to Stimulus-Response learning more quickly than the typical ‘normal’ horse. This has implications for the effectiveness of classical conditioning, because regardless of the outcome of the behaviour, the stimulus or cue will continue to produce it. Therefore, even if a new rider continually loses balance and pulls on the horse’s mouth during a jumping effort, effectively punishing it, if the habit of jumping on cue is established the horse will continue to do so, regardless of the unintended punishment.

Cribbing horses are also less sensitive to delays between the response and the outcome. This means a reward for correct behaviour doesn’t have to come right away for them to still make the connection and learn or retain the behaviour. Therefore, even if a new rider delays the release of the reins until after the horse has already stopped, the horse will continue stopping on cue in spite of the delayed reward.

Conclusion

Is it any surprise, given all of these characteristics of the crib-biting horse that every lesson barn has one or two (or more) horses that crib? Being persistent in their habits means these horses aren’t untrained by all of the new riders they teach every day. They are less frustrated by inconsistent timing of rewards for proper behaviour, and aren’t put off by inadvertent punishment that comes from inexperience.

Horses that perform stereotypical behaviours have excellent perseverance. These strong habits can create excellent, reliable horses.

References

Parker, MO (2008) “Behavioural Correlates of the Equine Stereotypy Phenotype”, University of Southampton, School of Psychology, PhD Thesis

Expanding the Window of Tolerance

The aim of good training is to expand the horse’s ‘window of tolerance‘ so the normal, every day stressors don’t bother him so much and there is room for his nervous system to take in and process unexpected or new experiences.

Horses are always moving between arousal states, from more aroused to less, and this often occurs within the window of tolerance so riders don’t often notice the process. But when these stimuli stack too high, they fill up the window and push the horse over the edge.

The rider’s reaction to that will either help to expand the window of tolerance, or push the horse farther above the threshold.

Growing the window can be done using three concepts: pendulation, titration, and self-regulation.

Pendulation

A pendulation is a swing or a cycle. It is returning to the point you started from. This tool to grow the window of tolerance requires patience. It takes time for the horse to return to a parasympathetic nervous state after being pushed up to or above the threshold of his window of tolerance and into a sympathetic state.

Adrenaline is the result of being pushed too far, and the half-life of adrenaline in the body is about 2.5 minutes. Allowing for a full pendulation of the horse’s nervous system then will take at least that long. Some wise old cowboys would call this ‘giving the horse some time to think’.

Trying to control the horse in a situation of high arousal can actually stack more stimuli up and push him over threshold. But this isn’t to say that you should leave your horse alone in a frightening situation. Backing off to where everyone was last comfortable, remaining calm, being reassuring, and waiting for signs of returning to a lower level of arousal is helpful. Being aware of stimulus stacking and trying to avoid stacking too high in the first place is even better. This takes time and practice.

Titration

Titration is a concept in where the balance is continuously adjusted by very tiny increments. In horse training, this is seen in progressing in a logical fashion through training, building in small steps through the training scale.

It can also be used when you start to see signs of stress responses in the horse. Consider what might be causing the response. Then use a tiny amount of that cause, not enough to make a response. Wait for pendulation and add a tiny bit more. In this way, the horse’s window of tolerance grows and expands through thoughtful training.

Self-regulation

This part is for the rider or trainer and not so much for the horse. Horses are actually quite good at self-regulation within their window of tolerance, which is why stress responses often seem out of the blue to riders.

Taking a step back from training when you feel yourself becoming annoyed can help to give clarity to the situation before you and your horse get pushed about threshold. It is better to take the time to grow the window than to risk narrowing it by doing the same old things in the same old way.

References

Draaisma, Rachaël (2018) Communication Ladder: Recovery after Tension and Shock. In: Language Signs and Calming Signals of Horses, Taylor & Francis Group.

Thompson, Kirrilly. (2020) Growing your Horse’s Window of Tolerance. Horses and People, May-June.

The Window of Tolerance

When your horse jumps out of his skin because of the door in the arena that he sees every day, what is going on? Is he just being silly? Does he know better? If so, you’re justified in the frustration this situation produces. But frustration never trained a horse. Is there a more helpful way to look at this behaviour?

Behaviourally speaking there is a better explanation. Every horse has a ‘window of tolerance’. This window isn’t static, it can be expanded through training and it can also be narrowed by stress. Inside this window the horse can operate well. Each stimulus the horse is exposed to can fill up the window a bit, and as he responds to it or relaxes his level of arousal within the window goes up or down.

When this window is already almost full due to various small (or large) stressors like being alone, pain, a windy day, a sudden noise, or a new training concept, the arena door can become the tiny thing that pushes him out of his window of tolerance. This is called stimulus stacking.

Stimulus stacking means that by the time the arena door became the last straw, the horse had already done a lot of self-regulating of the previous stressors that were narrowing his window. It can seem like out-of-window behaviour comes out of the blue, but there are actually many signs of increasing stress that you may notice beforehand.

Signs that the horse is trying to self-regulate very mild stress include yawning, blinking, and shaking the head or body. More stress produces displacement behaviours like licking objects, pawing, rubbing the head and neck, and sniffing the ground but not eating. Finally stress signals appear, such as characteristics of the equine pain face, startling, and frequent pooping. Pushing through all of these signs takes you to the threshold of the window of tolerance and beyond.

What is beyond the window of tolerance? Fight, flight, or freeze. This is where the horse’s parasympathetic nervous system is engaged. He is now beyond learning from the situation or responding to your cues.

This is why staying within the window of tolerance gets the most training work done. It is also desirable to grow the window of tolerance so the horse becomes more resilient to daily stressors and able to easily handle larger ones. Reading the horse’s body language and responding accordingly will help the horse to regulate his responses to the world around him, resulting in more relaxing and safer interactions between him and you!

In training my clients’ horses, this is what I aim to do—remain within the window of tolerance and grow it to produce a calm and relaxed horse that can cope well with the many stressors that come with a relationship with people.

References

Draaisma, Rachaël (2018) Communication Ladder: Fight or Flight. In: Language Signs and Calming Signals of Horses, Taylor & Francis Group.

Thompson, Kirrily. (2020) The Window of Tolerance. Horses and People, March-April.

Training Foals

Handling Foals

When a foal is born, it is so tempting to get right in there. We want to help the mother, make sure the baby is well, and even start training it right away with the imprinting method popularized by Miller and Close (1991). Miller hypothesized that foals would be accepting of handling and new situations later in life if they were flooded at birth with things they will experience later. Flooding is a desensitizing method that works by overwhelming the animal’s defences until it gives up. Newer research is suggesting that, unless the foal needs immediate intervention to survive, letting mother and baby be alone together is actually the best course of action (Henry et al, 2009). The consequences of just one hour of neonatal handling are astounding.

Short Term Effects of Immediate Handling

In the study, nine foals were left alone with their dams immediately after birth and nine foals received about an hour of imprint training within ten minutes after foaling following the method described by RM Miller. After this one hour treatment, both groups were treated the same, being turned out in social groups and observed periodically.

Foals that received imprint training for an hour in their mother’s presence took longer to stand for the first time and nurse for the first time than foals left undisturbed with their mothers. The imprinted foals also showed trembling, fast breathing, and abnormal sucking. This included directing sucking behaviour at the air or the handler rather than the dam.

Mid Term Effects of Immediate Handling

At six months of age, differences were still observable between experimentally handled foals and those left alone after birth. The imprinted foals were more dependent on their mothers, staying closer on average, exploring less readily, interacting more with their mothers than with others in their social group, and even playing less. They were also less likely to approach an unfamiliar human. These results show that early handling affected the imprinted foals both socially and emotionally.

During weaning at seven months of age, both groups of weanlings showed the same level of whinnying for the first day. After the second day however, the weanlings that were not handled at birth were much calmer and were playing with their peers, while the imprinted weanlings continued in distress even four days after weaning, and also showed aggression towards their peers.

Long Term Effects of Immediate Handling

At one year of age, in social groups with other horses of the same age, differences between imprinted and unhandled horses were still visible. The imprinted horses spent less time in proximity to their peers, and also tended to be more aggressive with their peers.

Conclusions

Even one hour of interference with the earliest interactions between mare and foal has long lasting effects that are not yet fully known. If the effects of the early separation and human handling are still so strongly visible at one year of age, it is possible that the effects will continue through the horse’s life, though further research is needed to confirm this.

Imprinting foals seems to create social misfits in the herd that are insecurely attached to their dam, and have difficulty exchanging the maternal relationship for relationships with peers as normally happens. These differences occurred even though the lives of the imprinted foals after the one hour of handling was exactly the same as that of the control group foals.

Practical Suggestions

For the welfare and proper development of a foal into a healthy and socially well adjusted individual, mares and foals should be allowed to interact alone on their own time scale as much as possible for the critical first hours. This time is essential in forming an appropriate bond with the mother and with peers later in life, and also in fostering a positive relationship with humans.

Another study (Henry et al, 2005) has shown that if the mare has a healthy relationship with humans through calm, daily handling, the foal initiates more interactions with the handler at a young age, is more accepting of touch and novel situations, and at one year old is easy to approach and handle. The daily handling of the dam in this study was very simple, involving hand feeding and soft brushing for fifteen minutes per day on the first five days of the foal’s life. Their findings suggest that short, unobtrusive handling of the dam has a positive effect on the foal’s relationship with people that lasts just as long as the negative effects of imprint training. This could be a more ethical solution than imprinting is to the desire for foals to accept human contact and form a relationship with us.

References

Henry, S; Hemery, D; Richard-Yris, M-A; Hausberger, M. (2005) Human-mare relationships and behaviour of foals toward humans. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 93:341–362.

Henry, S; Richard-Yris, M-A; Tordjman, S; and Hausberger, M. (2009) Neonatal handling affects durably bonding and social development. PLoS ONE, 4:4.

Miller RM; Close, P. (1991) Imprint training of the newborn foal. Western Horseman, 1991

Do Horses Recognize Themselves in a Mirror?

Few species are capable of recognizing themselves in a mirror. Many species interpret the image in the mirror as that of a conspecific. Being able to form a concept of ‘self’ requires higher mental ability. Do horses have this ability?

There are three stages an animal has to pass in a mirror self recognition test before the final stage of testing where a mark is applied to the animal in a region only visible with the help of a mirror to see if the animal attempts to remove the mark. Prior to this, the animal must show social responses towards the mirror. Then the animal explores the mirror, including looking behind it. Finally, to get to the stage of testing involving the mark, the animal must repeatedly test the mirror by looking at parts of its body that it cannot typically see without the mirror, or performing repetitive behaviours such as sticking out the tongue or moving in and out of the mirror’s range like playing peek-a-boo.

A few years ago there was an open access pilot study (https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0176717) using four horses and a large mirror to see if the horses would pass these four stages and recognize that it was themselves reflected in the mirror. At that point, the results were inconclusive, with horses recognizing that the reflected image did not behave like another horse but showing inconclusive behaviours for the remaining parts of the test.

More recently another open access study was conducted (https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-021-01502-7) with more horses and different results. The mark was only used on the 11 horses (out of 14) that passed the first three stages of the testing as described above. A sham mark was used to ensure the horses were not detecting the mark through tactile means instead of actually seeing the coloured mark, and indeed most of the horses scratched more at the coloured mark than at the invisible one.

These results suggest that horses can develop an idea of self after some exploration of a mirror to satisfy themselves that it is not a conspecific. It is also possible that they recognized the mark on the face as unnatural and attempted to intentionally remove it.

Unfortunately, some reporters are touting this preliminary study with the headline that ‘horses worry about their looks,’ which is a sensational and inaccurate portrayal of the study results. Horses have previously been shown to be incapable of worrying about future events. Anxiety and stress are only triggered by context-specific memory. Reading the studies themselves, which are freely available, is much more accurate than reading reporters’ interpretations!

So don’t take my word for it either. Do some digging yourself, read the articles, and comment your thoughts and findings!

The Horse that Couldn’t Lunge

I put together a before and after video of a young horse who had trouble learning to be lunged. Normally when a horse understands the basic go, stop, and turn commands, lunging is easy right from the first time. Not for Violet… she needed a creative solution that the principles of equitation science suggested. Watch the video to see the transformation!

(Facebook didn’t like the music I used in the video, but I do have the right to it!)

Better Riding=Better Relationship

A recent study examined how riders’ pelvic movement and balance on an exercise ball correlated with their riding ability and harmony with their horse and with their horses’ welfare while riding.

Three gymnastic ball exercises were evaluated, and two of them were found to be positively correlated with riders who moved best with their horses and whose horses expressed the least conflict behaviours. That means the riders who were better at those two exercises were better riders and caused their horses less confusion.

Get your exercise ball and give these a try:

  1. Sitting on an exercise ball with arms crossed in front of you, wrist to elbow, roll the pelvis from side to side without tipping your shoulders and without moving your feet. You’ll lift the right hip and lower the left, then lift the left and lower the right.
  2. In the same position on the ball, roll the ball in a circle with your pelvis, to the right and then to the left, controlling the motion of the ball throughout the circle. Again, maintain the feet flat on the ground and the upper body stable.

Riders whose performance of these exercises scored high also scored high for harmony with their horse while riding, and their horses worked at higher heart rates with fewer conflict behaviours. That means the horses were working more correctly with less confusion, which improves the relationship between horse and rider!

The third exercise examined was a balance exercise where riders were asked to extend their arms horizontally in front and then lift their feet off the ground, attempting to balance for 30 seconds. Interestingly, riders who scored well on this exercise showed a negative correlation with harmony while riding. The authors hypothesized that the different muscle contractions required for balancing in this position versus balancing in a riding position made the exercise unhelpful for riding. 

Uldahl, M; Christensen, J; Clayton, H. (2021) Relationships between the Rider’s Pelvic Mobility and Balance on a Gymnastic Ball with Equestrian Skills and Effects on Horse Welfare. Animals 11:2, 453.

How to Turn a Horse

Often when a new client brings me a horse of theirs for a training lesson I ask a few simple questions to make sure all three of us (them, their horse, and I) are all on the same page. Their responses are interesting and surprisingly consistent:

Me: How do you tell your horse to go?

Client: I speed up my seat and then squeeze my legs.

Me: How do you tell your horse to stop?

Client: I slow down my seat and then squeeze the reins.

Me: [So far so good…] And how do you tell your horse to turn?

Client: First I half halt with my reins and legs at the same time, then I turn my head and put my inside hip forward, with my inside leg at the girth and my outside leg back. Then my outside hip pushes forward and around, my inside rein opens, and my outside rein pushes while both legs squeeze alternately and I close my left eye and wiggle my right big toe.

Right. That was confusing. Do you think perhaps the horse is confused too?

Having different cues for different responses that are clearly separated from one another is incredibly important for our horses’ mental well-being. If pressure from the rider’s lower leg sometimes means ‘go’ and sometimes means ‘turn’ in a slightly different combination, it is easy to get a confused horse, and confused horses generally cope in one of two ways: they shut down and stop responding, or they overreact and develop unwanted behaviour.

This isn’t to say that cues can’t become more complicated and closer together as horse and rider both progress. The most physically complicated movement in dressage is the pirouette, a turn on the spot at either walk or canter, which combines three basic responses in the space of three steps—less than one stride! Even then, the cues do not come at the same time. The rider cues for each response one at a time to build it into the pirouette.

What does it take to get to that point?

For both training the horse and training a riding student, I start at the very beginning with the simplest cues, which are pressure-based. In a new or frightening situation, the pressure-based cues are what the horse can fall back on and respond to reliably. I always start, then, with leg pressure for go, rein pressure for stop, and a single rein to the side for turn.

If horse and rider were to stay at this stage, that would be alright, though a bit rustic. But neither would improve, and it is better for the horse to reduce pressure cues. When the basic pressure cues are understood and are becoming reliable, I start to introduce seat cues. These are the rider’s movement patterns in the saddle that the horse can feel and respond to before receiving pressure from the bit or legs. A rider may speed up the movement of the seat for ‘go’, slow it down for ‘stop’, or turn the torso for ‘turn’. The horse quickly learns to feel the weight shift and predict what pressure will come next, allowing him to act first and avoid the pressure. This learning process is called classical conditioning.

Classically conditioned cues like seat or voice cues are less reliable than pressure cues in a new or scary situation. That is why I do not begin with classical cues. I prefer to have a solid foundation for horse and rider that I can build on to create beautiful movement and mutual understanding.