What is Equitation Science and how can my horse benefit from it?


Equitation Science scientifically explores and evaluates human-horse interactions in training, riding, and handling situations, in order to determine which training methods and training devices (tack) could potentially cause mental or physical harm to horses, and, therefore, compromise horse welfare and rider safety. Equitation Science promotes the correct application of learning theory in horse training and explains wanted ('good') or unwanted ('bad') horse behaviour based on the horse ethogram, without anthropomorphising - i.e. attributing human emotions, ways of thinking, and human behaviour to non-human creatures. This still presents one main problem in horse-rider or horse-trainer interactions today, as riders and trainers often describe 'bad' or unwanted horse behaviours by falsely transferring human emotions and character traits on the animal, such as 'he is testing you', 'this mare is naughty today', 'he is lazy and trying to get away with it'. Naturally, horses do not possess the same cognitive abilities as humans. Hence, equids do not think the same way as humans and, therefore, we should not judge horse behaviour by applying our way of 'advanced' thinking. 

Often, unwanted or 'bad' horse behaviours are caused by pain exerted by the rider using undue pressure on the bit or with the spurs/legs without understanding the basic principles of learning theory, and, in this case, 'negative reinforcement' - the removal of pressure once the horse has shown the 'correct' desired response, such as removing leg pressure when the horse yields the leg or removal of rein pressure when the horse slows down or halts. Sometimes, horses in pain will show aggressive behaviour towards the rider, which can lead to more misunderstanding and wrong judging on the rider side, and, in the worst case, to detrimental accidents or horse wastage (slaughtering horses at an early age due to behavioural problems). Hyperflexion, Rollkur, or Low-Deep-Round, a forcefully induced unnatural head-neck-position, in which the horse's chin almost touches its chest, is one example where 'modern' horse training has gone utterly wrong. Numerous scientific studies have shown the detrimental consequences of this 'training method', which is still being practiced by some equestrian amateurs as well as certain leading FEI riders worldwide. From a scientific point of view, riding horses in hyperflexion diregards the basic rules of learning theory and compromises their health and, thus, welfare (read more about the scientific findings here). Due to constant pressure on the horse's tongue, bars, palate, nose (overly tight nosebands diregarding the two-finger space rule), and poll, the horse will try to evade the pressure and pain by positioning its head and neck in this extreme position. As the rider still won't release the pressure, the horse might fight the rider by, for instance, rearing, bucking, refusing to move forward, or, it will simply 'give in' as it sees no way to escape this stressful situation. This phenomenon of giving up and not trying to escape a painful situation, has been scientifically studied (Overmier and Seligman) in, both, humans and animals, and is termed 'learned helplessness'. Other studies have revealed that this phenomenon is more common in riding horses as thought, for instance, 'learned helplessness' and depression could be observed in a large number of riding school horses as well as high-level performance horses.


Why is learning theory so important in horse training?


Horses have always played important roles in human lives such as food, means of transport, companions on the battlefield, and, today, for sport and leisure activities. The ability of horses to learn specific tasks to perform for humans does not only impact their effective and safe utilisation by humans, but also defines their commercial and, often, individual value as companion animal. Incorrectly applied training methods, misunderstanding of equine learning theory, including the correct application of positive and negative reinforcement (often mistaken with punishment), can jeopardise equine welfare and contribute to horse wastage, i.e. slaughtering horses at an early age due to either behavioural or physiological issues.

 

Possible consequences of incorrectly applied learning theory could be:

  • Unwanted ‘bad’ behaviours such as bucking, rearing, bolting,
    kicking, tail-swishing, teeth grinding, aggression  (Christensen et al., 2014; Oedberg, 1987; van Breeda et al., 2006)
  • Depression (Hausberger et al., 2009), Learned Helplessness (Overmier and Seligman, 1967; Seligman et al., 1971)
  • Compromised welfare (Farmer-Dougan and Dougan, 1999)
  • Potentially dangerous situations for horse and rider (Hall et al., 2008; McGreevy et al., 2009)
  • Horse wastage (killing horses at an early age due to behavioural, rider-induced problems)

Contemporary riding and training principles are based on traditions, and equine scientists just recently began challenging those equitation traditions through conducting scientific research and experiments. Scientists argue that knowledge of equine learning theory could substantially improve equine welfare, improve rider-safety, and lower behavioural wastage. However, learning theory to date is predominantly taught in academic institutions and, therefore, urgently needs to find its way into coaches' training syllabi to close existing knowledge gaps and prevent further, rather unconscious, abuse of our equine partners.

Findings of two independent studies into Australian and Canadian professional coaches’ understanding and application of equine learning theory have revealed that the majority of coaches is ill-informed about learning theory. Hence, coaches may not only incorrectly apply learning theory but, of course unconsciously, also disseminate incorrect information and training tips to their students, since, according to findings of my own study, coaches present the main knowledge source for non-professional riders. This may be one main reason why riders indicated in other studies that their horses frequently show unwanted, 'bad' behaviours when being ridden or are termed ‘disobedient’/‘naughty’.


How do horses learn?


 

Learning can be divided into associative learning, comprising classical and operant conditioning, and non-associative learning. Through associative learning, horses learn to associate or link certain stimuli, for instance leg pressure, with a human desired or wanted response, such as yielding the rider's leg. 

 

 

 

Correctly applied reinforcement increases the likelihood of horses showing a certain, desired, behaviour in the future, whereas punishment aims to reduce the likelihood of behviour displayed in the future. The application of punishment in horse training has to be seen critically as, in all instances, it causes stress to horses and, depending on the situation, may not be suitable to create a positive learning environment. Further, it is very important to always reward the correct behaviour timely to make reinforcement effective.