How equitation science can elucidate and refine horsemanship techniques
The long-held belief that human dominance and equine submission are key to successful training and that the horse must be taught to ‘respect’ the trainer infers that force is often used during training. Many horses respond by trialling unwelcome evasions, resistances and flight responses, which readily become established. When unable to cope with problem behaviours, some handlers in the past might have been encouraged to use harsh methods or devices while others may have called in a so-called ‘good horseman’ or ‘horse whisperer’ to remediate the horse. Frequently, the approaches such practitioners offer could not be applied by the horse’s owner or trainer because of their lack of understanding or inability to apply the techniques. Often it seemed that these ‘horse–people’ had magical ways with horses (e.g., they only had to whisper to them) that achieved impressive results although they had little motivation to divulge their techniques.
As we begin to appreciate how to communicate with horses sensitively and consistently, misunderstandings and misinterpretations by horse and trainer should become less common. Recent studies have begun to reveal what comprises the simplest, most humane and most effective mechanisms in horse training and these advances are being matched by greater sharing of knowledge among practitioners. Indeed, various practitioners of what is referred to here as ‘natural horsemanship’ now use techniques similar to the ‘whisperers’ of old, but they are more open about their methods. Reputable horse trainers using natural horsemanship approaches are talented observers of horse behaviour and respond consistently and swiftly to the horse’s subtle cues during training. For example, in the roundpen these trainers apply an aversive stimulus to prompt a flight response and then, when the horse slows down, moves toward them, or offers space-reducing affiliative signals, the trainer immediately modifies his/her agonistic signals, thus negatively reinforcing the desired response.
Learning theory and equine ethology, the fundamentals of the emerging discipline of equitation science, can be used to explain almost all the behaviour modification that goes on in these contexts and in conventional horsemanship. By measuring and evaluating what works and what does not, equitation science has the potential to have a unifying effect on traditional practices and developing branches of equitation.
Goodwin, D., McGreevy, P., Waran, N., & McLean, A. (2009). How equitation science can elucidate and refine horsemanship techniques. The Veterinary Journal, 181(1), 5-11. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tvjl.2009.03.023