How to start a conversation...

There are so many ways to communicate with horses. There is a bewildering selection of methods, programs and training ideals out there.

Whether you are a casual weekend rider or regular competitor it's likely that the idea of communication with your horse is not new to you.

So what’s the difference between communication and a conversation?

Well, where to begin with that question....

Whether you started learning about horses through the BHS, Pony Club, Riding School, or Classical Trainer the generally accepted methods of communication or 'aids' or 'cues' are usually pretty direct. There are aids for when we are on the ground and aids for when we ride; here are some common ground based aids -

- Voice = 'Click-click' of the tongue, 'Woah!' or 'Steady', 'Trrrrot!'

- Hands / Lead rope = 'Pull on lead rope to direct horses nose', 'Pull on rein to put pressure on the bit', 'Poke', 'Shove horse to move out of the way in the stable’, ‘Smack!’, ‘Combined pull on lead and elbow neck’

- Whip / Stick = ‘Crack longe whip for more forward’, ‘Swing stick around to cause horse to move’, ‘Buzz or vibrate whip to increase energy’

I’m sure I have missed a few there, so in summary

- Whip = GO

- Hand / Lead rope = STOP

- Voice = Either / both depending on tone

So how does the horse know these cues mean what they mean and why doesn’t always work? The answer is the same for both questions ‘Because that’s the way the horse has been trained’. This might seem a bit simplistic but the horse will always do what he thinks he needs to do to survive and as long as a behaviour works for him then he can survive.

Okay, so our domestic horses don’t really have much in the way of ‘survival issues’; we provide food, water, shelter, warmth and keep predators at bay. So why does the domestic horse need to ‘survive’? Surely, that’s a bit silly? Well without going into a long discussion about the fundamental nature of the horse, for the purposes of communication let’s summarise the nature of the horse as 'a prey animal', and even the domestic horse is still innately 'a prey animal'.

So, if we want to take our communication to the level of a conversation we have to begin to recognise how our domesticated prey animals communicate. How often have you seen a group of horses turnout together use a ‘Trrrot!’ cue to initiate a good hoon about? Add a whip cue to speed up to a canter? And then use a lead rope to stop the forward motion of the group? Errrmm…. Never?

These cues or aids are obviously human ideas and not part of the natural language of the horse. So having a conversation with just these aids at our disposal would be like shouting directions in Chinese to a Spaniard who’s lost.

We must then ‘train’ a horse to understand the meaning of these aid or cues so that we can communicate. In the myriad of training methods there are two main camps – Fear based training and Communication based training. This is more than just the mind-set or the intension behind the method, I strongly doubt that most of the trainers and methods that I would put in the ‘Fear-based’ training category would consider what they do ‘Fear-based training’, because after all we all got into horses because we love and respect this amazing creature and surely fear is not the way to develop the horse?

Whether by accident or by design the major components of horse training fall into six main categories –

For the purposes of these terms, positive and negative are literal rather than figurative. Positive means adding something and negative means removing it. Okay? Great, so this nice diagram simply shows fear based training must reside in the ‘Positive Punishment’ / ‘Negative Punishment’ categories – easy! If only horse training was that simple.

- Positive Reinforcement is to add something pleasant to the horse; a food reward, a positive verbal cue ‘Good Boy!’, and rub or a scratch of an itchy spot. (Note: ‘Patting’ isn’t classed as a positive reinforcement as it is too readily confused with positive correction). It could be something far less tangible to our human perception like a warm pleased feeling or simply smiling, as horses are much more able communicators of energetic messages and body language than humans who tend to rely on our higher linguistic skills.

- Negative Correction is to remove something pleasant from the horse. Basically the opposite of a positive reinforcement.

So this all sounds nice, all warm and fuzzy. Certainly not fear based training, this must be the answer to communication and having a conversation. There are plenty of very successful horse trainers out there that use these methods with great skill. But as with all things these types of aids can lead to negative behaviour patterns when misused. Each method has its pitfalls. Sometimes positive reinforcement can develop a horse into producing ‘tricks’ – ‘If I jump this then I get a treat’ or create very demanding behaviours in the horse ‘I have performed the request, give me my treat’ or perhaps anxiety ‘I did my best, why didn’t I get a treat?’. Then we have trained a horse to get worried or upset if he doesn’t get the reward or perhaps will put minimum effort into a task if no rewards are available. On an energetic level what if we had a really bad day and are feeling stressed and anxious and then we are unable to produce this nice happy feeling the horse likes? Suddenly we have a horse that has returned to horse survival state and is no longer having a conversation. Then our well-meaning reinforcement has become a punishment.

- Positive Correction is to add pressure or stimulus either directly through touching the horse or indirectly through touching the space around the horse. This is realms of most horse training. The true skill to this method is the amount of pressure, the duration of the pressure and release of the pressure.

- Negative Reinforcement is the removal of pressure or a stimulus, the opposite of Positive Correction.

This concept is familiar and of course is works because it is within the horse’s nature to seek comfort and find the best way to not feel pressure. Great, so this must be the answer! Apply pressure, horse obeys, release pressure > Communication. Well, yes and no. The difficultly arises when we want more from the horse or we have skipped the basics or perhaps not visited the basics for long enough for the horse to truly understand the request. Sure, we have an obedient horse but if he is just going through the motions of avoiding pressure then we have developed a compliant robot that will tolerate being pushed and pulled and manipulated into the tasks we have set. But what happens when the horse gets too tolerant or ‘dull’, then we add more pressure, more stimulus to achieve the same results? What if he feels the pressure is too much, or too long then we have negative behaviours like kicking, biting, bucking, rearing, bolting – he has once again reverted to the place of fear and is in the survival state. The obiedent responsive horse is now feeling like all pressure is punishment.