Horse Behavior and Training

Horse Training and Behavior – Past, Present and Future

Guest CAAB Chatters:

Robin Foster, Ph.D., CAAB and Sharon Madere

THE PAST:  Horse training has a long and global history with techniques that have evolved over millennia.  For most of that history, man’s relationship with the horse has been primarily utilitarian for the purposes of transportation, warfare, farming and industry.  Throughout the ages those who depended on the horse for their lives and livelihoods developed effective techniques for bringing the animals into compliance, and these methods were often cruel and barbaric.  Appreciation for and use of the horse in artistic and sporting endeavors took hold a few hundred years ago, along with some proponents of less severe philosophies.

THE PRESENT:  Only in the past century has the horse emerged as a companion animal in more affluent societies.  Sadly, old and harsh methods are still used in numerous places around the globe.  In the developed world, the desire for a “relationship” with horses and the cultural demand for more humane treatment of animals have led many trainers to moderate the traditional force-based methods, but these approaches have evolved without the formal influence or understanding of behavioral science.

In the United States, the “Natural Horsemanship” (NH) movement has played a highly visible role in this change, but is far from comprehensive or ideal.  The deliberate use of the flight response in escape-learning predominates the NH philosophy, in part because it is purportedly the way that horses gain leadership and respect in their social relationships with one another.  Though well-intentioned, most NH systems of training appear to lack a foundational understanding of scientific principles of behavior, learning, and animal welfare, and the typical followers of NH may not have access to this broader understanding.

Additionally, the welfare of many horses is compromised due to a surprisingly broad lack of understanding of species specific physiological, social, and nutritional needs.  In fact, a substantial number of training and behavior problems in horses are caused or exacerbated by management deficiencies.

THE FUTURE:  We believe that the time is right to put forward education and application of training methods and husbandry practices based on scientific principles. The horse world is poised for further reform, similar to the state of dog training several decades ago.  A key catalyst for the widespread success of scientifically-based positive approaches in the dog world was increased communication among trainers and scientists who began to share ideas, learn from one another and support more science-based dog training methods.  We (the presenters of this CAAB Chat) believe that an organized and inclusive community of equine professionals will be essential to instituting meaningful change in the horse training world as well.  Pioneers toward this objective include the International Society of Equitation Science (ISES) and a growing number of equine “clicker trainers” who promote positive reinforcement training in horses.  We invite all interested parties to join in the broader discussion.

TOPICS / QUESTIONS This Chat Can Cover – We’ll see what direction Sharon and Robin and participant questions take us!
•    What training methods are typically used with horses, formally and in everyday practice?
•    How do the training goals and needs of horses compare/contrast to those of dogs, marine mammals, or zoo animals?
•    How do a variety of factors, including multiple owners and safety assurance, impact ethical training?
•    Is “All positive reinforcement” realistic?  What are some limitations of positive reinforcement in horse training?
•    Why is negative reinforcement (with stimulus control) important in the future of horse training? What is needed to insure its proper application?  Is there a larger role for negative reinforcement in dog training?
•    What are some common behavior problems in horses?  How can a behavioral approach help us to understand, prevent or remedy these issues?

DISCLAIMER:  This Chat is not meant to delve into the extremely complex topic of the various RIDING styles and training methods.  While the scientific principles of learning absolutely apply to under-saddle work with horses, there are also many other very important factors involving the physical skill of the rider, biomechanics of horse movement, and equipment choices, all of which are beyond the scope of this Chat.

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