To optimise horse welfare and rider safety it is imperative that we always target relaxation when training, riding, and handling our horses. The horse’s level of relaxation is directly tied to its emotional level and that is often controlled by how predictable its environment is. Later in this article, we will discuss how you can make your training more predictable but first we should look at the difference between emotional level and relaxation.
It is important that we separate relaxation and emotional level so that we do not get the two confused. Emotional level plays a big part in how engaged your horse is with you and where its attention is focused.
“My horse is so relaxed, it’s asleep!” This horse might appear to be relaxed but it is not engaged and thus has a relatively low emotional level. What happens to this ‘relaxed horse’ when a dog rushes out of the bushes? It most likely wakes up, and potentially shies and runs off, as its emotional level instantly skyrockets.
Shying, the most frequently reported ridden behaviour problem in horses then, is a result of not engaging the horse and thus regulating its emotional level. In these podcasts I discuss how we need to slightly raise the horse’s emotional level in order to engage the horse with learning but that we must not raise it so high as the horse becomes at all anxious. This is training in the engagement zone and it is here that we target relaxation.
Being able to recognise relaxation in your horse is especially important and most easily done when comparing your horse’s behaviour and posture in different situations. The main indicator of relaxation is a lack of unnecessary tension in the muscles. Good examples of this are horses that are being very vigilant in the field, with a high, tense head and neck, a horse pulling on the bridle, vocalising (calling out) to its friends when alone. A relaxed horse in these same situations might be walking quietly across the field, travelling in a soft round frame in self-carriage or standing quietly in social isolation.
Any time we make the horse tense, we sacrifice relaxation. This might be something we do by mistake, for example, startle the horse by suddenly appearing around the corner or it could be something we habitually do such as an aid we apply or a piece of equipment we use.
The overtightened noseband is a good example of this relaxation sacrifice. Forcing the horse’s jaw closed creates tension in all facial muscles. If you do this yourself, simply close your teeth together and hold that position. Feel the tension that builds in your facial muscles and gradually down your neck and throughout your body. Now we have not even tied our mouths closed, never mind added a bit and rein tension to the equation. Clearly, trying to get your horse to relax while simultaneously creating tension makes little sense.
When training, the best thing you can do to help your horse relax is to come to the lesson prepared, knowing exactly what you are wanting to teach and breaking the lesson down into manageable chunks for your horse. Lesson planning when horse training, is as important as it is when teaching children in class. The teacher would never arrive in the classroom without having decided in advance what to teach and how to teach it (at least one would hope this would not happen.
It’s helpful to plan your horse training lessons in the same way. First, decide what you want to teach. Next, consider whether there are any prerequisites for that lesson, meaning is there anything the horse needs to know before you start the lesson. This is the most important step because if the horse does not have the education required to begin the lesson then it will end in confusion, in a higher state of emotion than it began and the horse will be completely unable to relax.
Once you have those points covered, you can break the lesson down into its four basic components. They will be the spot on the horse you want to move, the direction you want that spot to move (because all training involves movement), the motivator you plan to use to signal the horse to move that spot, and the reward the horse will receive (demonstrating that the answer, or movement the horse made, was correct).
We can use the example of give to the bit, starting with teaching this on the ground and on the left side of the horse, to demonstrate this breakdown:
1) The spot – the nose
2) The direction – laterally to the left
3) The motivator – light rein tension
4) The reward – release of rein tension, praise, and a scratch on the wither
By having the lesson planned in detail, it allows us as trainers to monitor the horse’s progress and makes it simple to see if the horse is responding correctly. Let’s think for a moment if we approached the same give to the bit lesson but without the breakdown of spot, direction, motivator and reward, and simply went out to teach the horse to travel in a soft round frame. With a very vague aim such as this, it makes conveying our message to the horse extremely difficult. The other problem that arises is that we are considerably more likely to become reactive riders, constantly correcting the horse.
As mentioned earlier, horses like their lives to be predictable and this is why they learn patterns so well. With proper use of combined reinforcement, pressure-release-reward, the horse’s environment becomes very predictable. From the horse’s perspective it looks like this:
“I feel a pressure (which could be a tactile pressure but may equally be the pressure of proximity or being observed), I move in a certain direction, and the pressure is released and I am rewarded”. This is predictable. There is nothing here that will surprise the horse. You are being a proactive trainer and rider.
On the other hand, if you set out with a vague aim you are more likely to have to resort to correction (read punishment because they are the same – anything done in an attempt to make a behaviour less likely to occur in the future). The main problem with the use of punishment in horse training is that we know that horses do not learn as well from punishment as they do from reinforcement. It may be that this is because the use of punishment makes the horse’s environment unpredictable. The horse doesn’t know it has made a mistake, so the resulting correction comes as a surprise, shattering the horse’s nice learning pattern and any hope of relaxation. This rider is being reactive, allowing the horse to make a mistake and then correcting it.
Thus, to target relaxation, remain proactive, keep your horse’s attention and focus on the lesson, be sure to always break a lesson down into its basic components before commencing the exercise. If you would like to learn more about how to break any lesson down, visit the Kandoo Equine website and sign up for some free training: https://www.kandooequine.com/.
To read more evidence-based horse training and management articles, visit Horses and People Magazine.