Are you unconsciously shrinking your horse’s brain capacity? And how can you tell? How can you get them to actually think with their logical brain rather than just react to their environment or to cues?
First up, to really understand horses and how to get them to think, you may need a bit (or a lot!) of a paradigm shift, from thinking that horses are only dumb animals with no logic or conscious thought, that respond by instinct to their environment. So, to begin your paradigm shift you will need to believe that horses can actually think! And if you have ever watched a horse undo a gate latch or a knot in a rope, this shouldn’t be too much of a stretch. Horses can think their way through very complicated tasks, if we can just learn how to help them develop the logical side of their brain. Rather this, than shrinking it with our training methods and ignoring their options and intelligence, or categorizing them and pre-supposing their behavior by putting labels on them.
If you think that horses’ personalities just fit into categories like, “All red mares are grumpy”, or “Oh, he is just like that”, then this paradigm shift we are about to discuss may be a bit too hard for you to make at this time. But have a read on anyway and maybe one day you will be ready to change.
Our horse’s character and performance are a reflection of what we encourage or unconsciously allow. If your horse gets emotional, bites, kicks, bucks, is heavy on your reins and legs, is unpredictable or just downright grumpy and hard to connect with, then you need to change something about yourself, if you want things to be different. Or before it is too late for one of you!
If you own or ride a horse, you are a horse trainer. Every interaction you have with a horse, trains or teaches them. Even the surroundings you keep them in, can mentally and emotionally develop them….or not. In my job of teaching people how to train/teach horses, I have noticed that most people, even the big name professionals, aren’t aware of how their method of training is working or not working when it comes to how the horse thinks or feels. So, I have written this article to help the horse trainers that come to my courses to understand, and I hope it helps you to because you are a horse trainer as well.
Please excuse my generalizations that follow, as they are just for explanation purposes and I do not mean that all people (or sport people) must fall into any one category.
The 5 horse training methods that people use:
- Constant pressure (Dressage, right brain development)
- Repetition (Reining, right brain development)
- Positive reinforcement (food reward, circus, right brain development)
- Comfort / discomfort. (Natural horsemanship often creates right brain development)
- Release Method (QS horsemanship, left brain development)
As horse trainers, we should understand all these methods. How they work and how to do the best job possible, with not only training our horses, but also building relationships with them. Let’s talk about these 5 methods of horse training and how they work, so you can choose when to use a particular method and when not to. Because, if you are using the wrong method for your horse, then you may as well be changing the tyre on your car when the problem is a flat battery.
Right brain and left brain
One more thing before we discuss these 5 training methods. I will be talking about the right and left sides of the horse’s brain for teaching purposes. They aren’t that straightforward if you do a brain scan. But overall, this left and right explanation helps us to understand the different parts of the horse’s brain. Then we can help them to develop the parts of the brain necessary for mutual understanding, or something even better if you are a true horse lover, like most of my students.
I will be calling the right side of the brain the instinctive side – the place where subconscious thoughts are, and the left side the logical side – the place where conscious thought happens.
The right brain is where all the automatic actions. They can be negative ones for riders or positive ones. Negative ones (for us anyway) would be any of the horse’s flight or fight instincts like bite, kick, buck, run off, not go forward and pull back. This also includes any brace by the way, and we need to make sure we aren’t encouraging brace with our lack of understanding or timing. Positive right brain moves will depend on the level of education your horse has. When you first do a move (if done right), it will be a left brain action but, as you do it more and more, it becomes a positive right brain movement, freeing up the horse’s brain power to learn more complex tasks. Basic moves will need to become automatic as you advance to more complex moves; this is why there is no short cut to the proper education / teaching of a horse, because it takes practice for moves to become positive right brain.
We will talk more about this and the over-repetition of right brain moves later but, in short, if we over-repeat a task with no variation, yes – it will go to the right brain, but it will become dulling to the horse’s movement and even shrink the left (logical) side of the horse’s brain and dull your horse.
This, for some people is light contact, and for others it can get so heavy that they turn to using leverage bits to create the illusion of lightness. I believe if you can’t do it with a plain bit or even better a rope halter then you shouldn’t be doing it. If you can’t do it without leverage or lightness, you have missed something in your preparation of your horse. And the argument that this is the way it has always been done and has been for years does not make using force on a horse acceptable. Just because it works does not make it right!
But not everyone uses force and force is not even the main problem. The problem is the confusion between the ‘training’ of a horse and the ‘teaching’ of a horse. Training is physical exercise and does not develop the thought process of the horse; it is just to build muscles. I know, it is a surprise, hey? Going to the gym will not make you smarter!
In the method of constant contact with reins or legs, the horse is constantly told what to do and not given any options to make an error or make a decision. The effect is much like when you are a passenger in a car and someone else drives you to a new place. Then, the next time you go there it’s your turn to drive, but you have to ask the way because you weren’t paying attention the first time. Or, have you ever seen those riding instructors who are constantly telling the rider what to do the whole time and not allowing any room for logical thought or decisions from the rider? All seems great during the lesson, but when the client goes home they have trouble duplicating the results or the feeling they had during the lesson, because they never really did it for themselves – they just did what they were told to do. This may be a good, constant source of income for the instructor, as the rider has to keep coming back to be told what to do. But it’s not much good for the rider who actually wants to become a good horseman, who can figure out what to do and when to do it.
If the horse is going along in constant contact and not thinking, just doing as it is told, then it will be using the right (instinctive) side of its brain and just using minimal brain power; not a good way to develop a willing horse with a positive range of movement. Does this mean contact is wrong? Actually, it doesn’t, but we do have to be aware of how much we rely on being in control, because overuse of contact will shrink the left (logical) side of the horse’s brain and dull your horse.
Contact is good for developing the horse’s body, but not good for its mental and emotional development. There is a way you can do the contact method developing the horse’s body and still develop their left brain. I will share this when we get to the release method later on.
Well this one is pretty straightforward and is often overused, giving the illusion of an educated horse. That is, until you look into the horse’s face and see the boredom and their glazed eyes; some horses even just shut down emotionally and lose all that connection that happy horses have. So be careful with this one.
If this method is used sparingly, it is very handy for getting basic to moderately challenging tasks to become automatic and positive right brain. I would not use this one for complex tasks, as I would rather my horse use its left brain in this case. That way, I can slightly adjust him and communicate with him as he is thinking with his logical brain, giving me better movement and control. But, repetition is also handy for helping horses if they are having trouble seeing the positive side of your offer, which we will talk about more in the release method section.
One problem with the repetition method, is that it actually seems to work for someone that is watching from the outside. So when it is used for demonstrations of great horsemanship, it can be misleadingly impressive while actually being, what I feel, is very morally wrong. To brainwash a horse and block all of their thoughts and options with any method is just wrong on so many levels. No matter how bad your timing and feel for a horse is, you can use repetition training and fool yourself and the public, into thinking you have skills. The best way to spot if someone has overused this method is the glazed look of the horse, the out-of-sync timing of the person and their lack of feel for the horse. Another very clear indication is when the horse makes a little mistake and gets off the repetition trained pattern. The so-called horseman will have a lot of trouble recovering and getting the horse back to their pattern, due to the lack of true communication and just put it down to a bad day. A good horseman is able to turn any situation into something good, but not the repetition trainer.
Another downside to the overuse of this method, comes with horses that have ideas of their own and would rather be the leader. Or feel that they need a good leader. Once these horses begin to see the pattern in practice, they will start to anticipate it and take over. And not long after that, they lose respect for your leadership, as they think they are calling the shots even though you started the pattern. The pattern will start to get more difficult for you around this time.
Repetition is good if used wisely, but don’t make it your main method if you want a connection and a relationship with your horse.
This looks nice from the outside and is popular with people who are looking to be nice to their horse, which shouldn’t be too bad you would think. However, as we look at it more closely, it becomes clear that this method has quite a few limitations and a few downsides. The definition of positive reinforcement is to give something to the horse, and negative reinforcement is to take something away. Positive and negative should not be confused with good and bad or right and wrong; it is just whether to give or to take away. Negative could be to take away comfort by applying pressure, and positive could be to give comfort. But how you go about it makes a lot of difference and we will talk about this more in the comfort / discomfort chapter. Moreover, offering comfort first would be positive reinforcement and will develop the left brain of your horse but we will talk about this more in the release method section.
In most cases, positive reinforcement starts in the form of a food reward after a task and is often gradually replaced with a cue of some kind, as gradually less food reward is given. There are times when this method can help; like with catching some skeptical horses, or after a hard work session. For example, a food reward when the horse allows you to catch them, is a nice thing to do for the horse. As long as they don’t invade your space when you offer it. Giving your horse a feed and hanging out with them after a training session is a favorite of mine. I have also seen positive reinforcement work with a horse who just didn’t like their rug. The horse was first desensitized to the rug to make sure it was not scared of it. Then a food reward was given after the rug was put on, to help the horse make a positive association with the rug, rather than the negative one it had before.
There are many interesting ways that you will see positive reinforcement used and for many different reasons. But they are all missing the point. The point being, that this method used just by itself, doesn’t actually teach the horse anything, although it looks like it does from the outside. The horse is just following their instincts and these tricks are just a right brain response. Sometimes a series of tricks are done in a row and it can seem like communication, but it is just a cue response from the right side of the horse’s brain, with no logical thought involved.
So what is wrong with that, if it gets the job done? Well, the answer is that if you neglect to develop the logical and conscious thought part of the horse’s brain, you will always be at the mercy of their instinctive behavior; they haven’t been taught how to think their way through emotional pressure, which could lead to their flight or fight instincts being triggered. Right brain strong horses are unsafe and unreliable under pressure…..some don’t even need emotional pressure to make them unsafe. Trainers who get away with just doing right brain training on horses, rely a lot on the DNA and natural calmness of the horse; but that doesn’t mean they are safe just because they are quiet.
It also doesn’t mean they are educated if they just do tricks. A key way to spot a trick, is to see if a slight variation can be done during a task. For example, can you mix up your transitions and keep the horse thinking to itself, ” Is it going to be a canter? A trot? A slow trot? A walk? A canter to piaffe? I’d better pay attention.”
Positive reinforcement has its limits, as it doesn’t work so well on every type of horse. For some horses it just seems to make them worse, as they disrespect the person who is giving them food and then they start to focus just on the food, rather than on the task or the person.
Can positive reinforcement be used at all? Yes, and I do use it as I mentioned before. But it needs to be used in combination with a left brain training method, otherwise you will get a right brain strong horse, which is not a safe option. People do seem to get safer results when using this method on dogs though. But watch out for the overuse of this method with your horse!
Comfort and discomfort.
This method gets variable results depending on the balance of comfort vs discomfort. If the person’s focus is more on the comfort than the discomfort, it can be a left brain training method and get nice results. But if the person is focused on the task they want done, more than the good deal for the horse, they will overuse the discomfort side of this method. And as we are all human, this over-focusing on the task tends to happen quite often! We will talk more about how to overcome this in the release method chapter.
The comfort / discomfort method often becomes the coercion method, where the horse does as it is told because it is afraid of getting into trouble and therefore getting the discomfort.
The clearest place to see this in action is when people load their horse onto a trailer – the horse will go up to the trailer and walk on by itself and it all looks great, so you may think. But could it be that the horse goes on the trailer to get away from the discomfort on the outside, that they know will come if they don’t go on? How can you tell if they have been coerced? There are a few key things you can look for to spot this one. Is the horse happy with it’s ears moving? Can they mix up the load a bit, like going half way on and then off again, or on slow, or on fast? Does the horse come out easy and unafraid? Is there a slight bit of direction on the rope or from the position of the person that is asking the horse on, or is it just going on by itself?
This is just in the example of loading a horse, but coercion gets used in all sorts of tasks in riding also. Like in the collected fly change where the horse is afraid of not doing the fly, and gets braced and jumps or swishes its tail as it goes through the change. Furthermore, if the trainer has been overusing a pattern and coercion, the horse will only do the fly in one part of the pattern, even if you don’t ask them to do a change, because they are afraid of what will happen if they don’t. You get the idea!
This method tends to be a right brain training method, due to the overuse of discomfort in training. What eventually happens is that the moves taught with this method become right brain tricks that can look quite okay from the outside. Again, the only way to check if it is a trick or if you have mistakenly right brain trained your horse is to put it to the test. Can you mix it up and add in variation? Is the horse supple with no brace? Are they happy and connecting with you?
The release method is a left brain development method. Now, release in this case doesn’t mean there has to be pressure first. What it does mean, is that we need to give first, to be given to by the horse. Sounds easy enough you would think, but humans seem to have trouble with this ‘giving’ and ‘releasing’ when we are training and riding horses. It seems to be against our natural instincts to give if we haven’t got what we want yet, or it isn’t as good as we want it and even harder for us if we are in an emotional state. This method is more about re-training our instincts to give release and once we can release when the horse needs us to, we will be able to teach the horse rather than just train the horse to make it do what we want.
The release method is about giving the horse an option to choose and an option to give you some feedback. To give an option you can’t have any pressure or coercion involved, otherwise you will be influencing the result in your favor and not respecting the horse’s option to choose; which is the whole point of this method.
So, how do you do this? Okay…first we need to redefine some words that apply in the release method; we call these the R.O.P.E principles.
Release means to give and there doesn’t need to be pressure first for you to give.
Options means you need to give the horse a chance to think with its left brain, giving it a chance to make a decision.
Pattern means you need to be clear and consistent in your release offer.
Enjoy means lighten up! It is supposed to be enjoyable and even fun!
Another couple of word definitions are as follows:
Direction means feel not pressure and it can be either feel on the lead, feel on the reins or, if you are on the ground, it can be how you are positioned in relation to the horse, giving them direction with your body position.
Rhythm means release. If you are in rhythm with the horse, you are offering release and comfort to the horse; if either you or they come out of rhythm, there will be discomfort or pressure. Staying in rhythm is the main focus in high-level use of this method. If you use the constant contact method, you will need to have very good rhythm so that while the horse is in contact it finds no pressure. The more release and options you give to the horse, the faster their left brain will develop.
Patterns are for consistency only, so when doing an actual pattern in the release method, we only do a pattern until the horse can figure out where the release and good deal is. After that, you will need to vary it a little by changing gait or direction so it doesn’t end up being the repetition method and dulling the horse.
Do you ever use pressure? Yes, but only after clear direction is given to the horse and only if the horse understands why the pressure is being applied, and then making sure you finish the task with lightness and even better, release. Pressure will not work on confused or scared horses. Even though they may do the task, it will not teach them anything in their left brain and it will possibly become a right brain reaction which is not what we want in the release method.
One of the clearest places to see if you can achieve the release method in action is in what we call a direct rein, which is asking the inside front leg to step out in the direction of the ask. (Oh, and ask means feel with no pressure.) You can do these simple little tasks from the ground and ridden. From the ground, ask your horse to face you on the end of the lead as if you are about to ask them to go around you in a circle. Then, just from light feel on your lead and lifting your body language up, ask them to step their leg out in the direction of the circle and see which leg goes first. Do they reach with the leg that is going to be on the outside of the circle – this would be the one you want – or do they step over that one and lead with the other? This slight body language difference shows how the horse feels about your ask. If they are willing to go in the direction you ask, they will get their weight back on their hindquarter and put some effort into the first step out. If they feel that you either use too much pressure or they lack respect for your personal space, they will step with the opposite leg, putting them just a little out of balance and on their front end, due to lack of hindquarter use and a little bit of brace. Worst of all, is that you have a negative thought on their first step out, which is not a good way to start a task.
To do the release method well, you will need to get your horse looking toward the positive so it uses its body in a positive fashion. If they are thinking or feeling negative, this will be reflected somewhere in their movement. Doing a direct rein when riding is pretty much the same; sit up and open a little in the direction you want the horse to step its front leg, without any pressure from the outside leg. Does your horse reach with no pressure and offer you a direct rein? If so, well done – you have been using release in your horse training! If they don’t reach, then ask them to get their weight back a little and ask again; make sure this works on the ground first.
These are just a few tasks to try, but see what other tasks you can use release in when training your horse, so you can turn your training into teaching and watch your relationship and tasks improve.
As you work on more and more tasks, finding more ways to give your horse the option to think and develop their left brain, you will see them start to give back to you with more and with more try and effort, more positive movement and, most of all, with better rapport between you. I hope you enjoy using the release method and find more and more ways to use it, so maybe, if we meet up some day, you can share some of your great ideas with me.
The horse that has been trained with too much focus on right brain training methods, will lack the ability to think with logic. This will bring the flight and fight instincts to the surface, making the horse unsafe and unreliable, so please be aware of what method you are using and what side of the horse’s brain you are developing. Your training methods need to encourage the development of the logical side of the horse’s brain, so they can have strong conscious thoughts that help them to think their way through complex moves. And even think their way through their natural survival instincts, rather than letting their instincts control them. Educate your horse so they can think their way through any situation and have fun.