Many tools in the horse industry have been developed to suppress the expressive behavior of horses. For example, it can be difficult to clearly make out the position of the corners of the mouth when the noseband or bit is not done up or positioned in a humane and horse-friendly way. Nosebands and chinstraps are often too tight, which prevents the horse from being able to move his mouth when being ridden or stretch out his tongue. Side-reins are used when the horse won’t relax his back and flex his poll to the reins of his own accord. Spurs are used when the horse doesn’t understand the forward leg aid. If the horse doesn’t “understand” these spurs, then sharper spurs are used. Numerous types of whips are also used when interspecies communication has not been predictable enough for the horse, for example, when the horse doesn’t offer forward movement on the ground in response to the signal with the trainer’s shoulder or her open hand.
Timing Is Key
In many cases, tools like these don’t solve the problem and often make it worse. If you use them, it is important to pay attention to getting the timing right and removing their influence appropriately. Otherwise you are training the horse to go forward in response to a tap or smack with the whip instead of the leg aid. If I am more aware of behaviors and gestures, then I can make the best decision for my horse and me, because I determine which behavioral response my horse should present in response to which stimulus.
Please bear in mind that horses don’t do any of the activities we do with them on their own, of their own accord. We have thought up virtually all of the training exercises that horses are expected to do, apart from intra- and interspecies communication and the horse’s instinctive behaviors. Horses wouldn’t jump a course of show jumps by themselves without any stimulus.
Horses wouldn’t meet up by the oak tree at three o’clock to run a race or trot around an arena in a dressage competition. Neither would they choose to go for a walk in the woods alone, away from the safety of their herd. The horse must be taught all of these using a training process on a conditioned stimulus-response behavior—that is, learned and based on repetition.
Think Big Picture
As trainers, we need to be aware of the consequences for the horse’s learning when we decide to use certain additional pieces of equipment, for example, spurs as the driving aid or stimulus. A good tip is to take a quick look at the “big picture,” to look in from an outsider’s perspective, and then consider whether everything is going the way you want it to go. “Do I want my horse to go forward in response to a light leg aid? Then I should focus on these behavioral responses and not use a whip. Of course, I can use a whip to get the horse to go forward, but then he won’t offer a sensitive leg-yield or piaffe.” Tools like these bring us back to the realm of trial and error: maybe it will work but maybe it won’t. If we use a tool in accordance with the learning theories, we should always think about whether we are just using it as a means to an end and whether we are prepared to accept its possible negative side effects.
Other tools, such as earplugs that are used because noises make the horse nervous, or blinkers because visual stimuli trigger defensive behavior, or twitches because the horse’s fear of syringes leaves him unable to stand still, are symbolic of stimuli that the horse has not understood. Our goal should be to define and only use what the horse has understood.
Many of the concepts from the evolution of horse training have left too much scope for interpretation. But I do wholeheartedly agree that it is good to stick to the classical Training Scale when we ride. Guidelines that enable comparability are necessary if we want to be able to hold competitions. The Training Scale was established by the the German National Equestrian Federation (FN). Every English-discipline rider, and some from other disciplines, too, who wants to compete aims to achieve and demonstrate rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness, and collection in the horse. People want “throughness” in their horse—a horse who has been trained to be a pleasant, obedient, and versatile riding horse in both physical and mental respects.
How the Training Scale Still Applies
“Training isn’t drilling, but systematic suppling. A horse is ‘through’ when he accepts the rider’s aids freely and obediently” (German National Equestrian Federation, 2012). That is what the judges want to see. The human is now asked to get the horse there “without force.” There is enormous scope for interpretation here. Is the horse “through” if I use my leg to ask the horse to go forward, and the horse accepts the aid and goes forward in response? What happens if he doesn’t respond to my leg, doesn’t go forward, and I have to use my spurs? When I was young, I loved my spurs with rowels. I was allowed to wear them, which meant I had “made it” as a rider because you had to “earn your spurs.” From my perspective at the time, I had earned them.
Now, some readers might be thinking in disgust: “Oh, she’s ridden with spurs!” While others might be thinking: “Oh, she must have been a really good rider!” Is either of these views wrong? No! It’s just a question of interpretation and the perspective that we take.
I used to describe horse whispering as force-free communication, until scientific studies revealed that gestures such as licking and chewing and lowering the head are signs that the horse has just experienced stress. In my personal definition, a dialogue based on force-free communication shouldn’t involve any stress. For me, the phraseology no longer matched the activities. That is just my own, personal “map.” The moment I thought this, it changed my approach to horses and to training, even though it didn’t for others. But that’s okay, too.
For some people, “without force” might be fundamentally incompatible with riding itself, because we are always asking horses to do things that they would naturally never do. Jumping, racing, polo, trail riding, therapy—I’ve already mentioned that horses have to do so many things for us that they would never do of their own volition. They are flight animals, herd animals, animals who are driven by their instincts and emotions, herbivores, and good at conserving energy. They are prey, not hunters, and are constantly afraid of being eaten. They do their best to conserve energy, and to always be ready to flee from attackers. They avoid wasting energy on unnecessary movement. I would dare to question whether even one single horse would voluntarily turn up to work as a therapy horse or for a competition if we turned him loose and didn’t use halters, ropes, or fences to contain him. But noting that this is true doesn’t mean you have to be against these activities.
From the Horse’s Point of View
We need the Training Scale because it is meant to be well-thought-out and “pro horse” and not harmful. The FN only leaves so much room for interpretation. And horse whisperers and followers of natural horsemanship might really want to help problem horses who have fallen through the cracks. Many of them try to explain what they mean in words, just as I am doing in this book, and there are countless possible ways to interpret these words because the message is created by how the recipient receives it. Many people will interpret my words as meaning that I am against riding, while others will say that they make sense. This is communication, and as long as both sides are willing, it will result in a dialogue—and that dialogue could be about only what is best for the horse.
When I realized all of this, that the concepts and the actions that result from them can be interpreted in so many different ways, I started to think and work scientifically. The concepts that equine and human behavior seek to express are often the problem in communication, not so much the physical actions that we ask of the horse, because the Training Scale, with rhythm, relaxation, contact, impulsion, straightness, and collection essentially makes sense, as do most equestrian disciplines. Doing it right and adopting a horse-centric perspective gives every horse the best possible chance of being able to understand and implement our wishes and requirements. Because if we keep our horses healthy and feed them according to their needs; don’t overwork them, but pay attention to how they are behaving; don’t make them feel stupid, but take leadership confidently and with a neutral mindset; then there is nothing to stop us from achieving our goals with them.
Photos by Tim Voller.