Monday, 22 August 2011

Why so tense?

Stress and tension plague us in modern times. Too many voices. Too many demands. With white knuckles and gritted teeth we soldier on. We can spot the signs of tension in a person – but what about a horse?

As judges we’re trained to recognize technical errors, lack of talent and lameness. What about signs of tension? We’re talking about this more, but the more subtle signs are easily clouded by a flashy mover, which naturally impresses us and we feel inclined to reward.

Conflict behaviour is a term in learning theory describing the way horses respond when they’re confused. Short rigid necks, busy mouths, fixed ears, hasty steps – these happen when a horse feels torn between the mixed messages he’s getting from his environment or his rider. Simultaneous, opposite signals or noisy cues trigger a horse’s flight response and when there’s no way out, he acts out (often subtly) or zones out (learned helplessness).

I admit, it’s a dilemma – comparing a talented but tense horse with an average happy one. It’s enough to stir some conflict behaviour in judges! Would honing the penalty system to include specific signs and degrees of tension be a step in the right direction? What about educating our riders beyond the mechanics and posture of the sport to the science of how horses learn? ( the “whys” behind the “hows – my passion!)

What do you think?

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Timing and Intensity

Timing is everything when communicating effectively with your horse. Catching a horse in the moment he makes a decision with reward or pressure identifies that particular decision as right or wrong. Pressure delivered a second too late allows him to get by with a wrong answer. A reward given too late, discourages him from getting the right answer. Blocking the wrong choice and giving relief for the right choice is the way of an effective trainer.

Intensity of the cue is delivering just the appropriate amount of pressure to motivate a horse – no more and no less.

Blowups at the horse show occur when we get this timing and intensity thing wrong. Distractions, navigating through a crowded warm up ring or rail class, cause us to be too late in our cues. Anticipation causes us to jump the gun by moving too quickly, surprising our horses with our aids.

Show nerves result in mumbling, mousy aids that the horse ignores. Anger and embarrassment lead to jerking and kicking akin to using a megaphone in library….overkill.

Isn’t timing and intensity the key in human relationships, too?

Age old wisdom from the Bible tells us “He who restrains his words has knowledge,
And he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.” Proverbs 17:27

Tuesday, 2 August 2011


Olympic athletes, professional hockey players and professional horsemen alike feel the pressure to win. Many call it greed, but sometimes it’s fueled by the desperate attempt to make a living. In the show ring or the race track, people hire successful trainers. Unfortunately some set aside empathy to use the horse as a tool for their sport.

But what defines abuse varies among the public. How a horse experiences pain or anxiety as a prey and herd animal is different from a human. He does not have human logic or motives or the ability to think in the abstract. In many cases, what wouldn’t stress a human, stresses a horse and what a human considers painful is merely uncomfortable to the horse.

I teach Equine Behaviour as part of a University of Guelph course. One thing I love about teaching this course is I get to review all sorts of studies which help sort through the fact and fiction of horse learning. We look at how various trailering, training, cribbing intervention and weaning methods, affect a horse’s anxiety, measured by heart rate and cortisol levels. It’s been an eye opener to learn that some things are more stressful to a horse than we think, while others are less.

"Our views on animal welfare are conditioned by our personal knowledge base and life experiences," explainedTom Lenz, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACT, in his keynote speech, entitled "Horse Welfare Wars: When Emotion and Fact Collide," at the AAEP Convention… "In a perfect world, all welfare solutions would be based on science, such as (the horses') health and biological function (as opposed to emotion). In reality, though, science is often ignored if society believes something is wrong." Lenz adds that he believes emotions often take over because society views animal welfare as a moral issue rather than a scientific issue, and they tend to be quick to blame when someone is caring for animals differently than they would.

Let’s continue to speak up against unsavoury training practices, but put on our thinking caps and check the facts before we label a certain practice as abuse.