Andrew McLean - the Equine mind in Training - August 2010

This was a very thought provoking talk with quite a few controversial theories - how does the horse learn and where does it all go wrong? He explained how he had become interested in the psychology rather than the zoology when a non horsey father of one of his pupils suggested, rather pointedly, that he should look at the psychology of learning. So he did!

First, for anyone who is not familiar with these terms, he explained about positive and negative reinforcement in training. Negative reinforcement is equivalent to "give an aid, get a response, and stop giving the aid". In other words the stimulus is given,( a nudge with the leg), and is taken away, (the leg returns to neutral), when the horse responds. The advantage of this system is that it can be done in degrees - a small nudge for a small response, a big nudge for a bigger response. Positive reinforcement rewards the correct response and the horse learns to connect his action with getting a reward. For example, Icaro thinks that Spanish Walk is totally beneath him, but he is very good at waving a front leg in the air if he wants a polo. I was so delighted with this clear sign of progress in the SW department that I gave him another polo for being so clever. Now, he offers SW as an alternative to work and in the sure knowledge that he will be rewarded! Well, may be not the best example, but you get the idea.

Andrew then made it clear that he was not talking about ethology which is the study of horses' natural behavior and in his opinion was loaded with assumptions and anthropomorphisms. For example, horses don't lie awake at night plotting! And they have different brains to humans with no ability to imagine or reflect. This is a scientific fact. Basically they are content if they are fed and things are constant and predictable. They may remember a whip and the hurt it caused but they can't imagine it. They live in the "now". Imagine the stress of zebras if they thought about what a lion could do, but actually they only run when actually chased, even when lion are very close. Predators ambush so can retain memory of the animal in the bush. Horse can't - if they can't see the lion, it's not there. They don't have the same way of communicating as we do and tend not to look backwards or forwards. What the horse does lasts about 10 seconds and any teaching needs to be within 4 seconds! If he canters on the wrong leg and he is brought back to trot, after 3 steps he will have forgotten which leg he cantered on so any correction will be meaningless. They don't have a linear hierarchy like humans, the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, the Houses of Common, the peopleā€¦.. They will follow anyone nose to tail and there is no specific leader in wild herds, it was more about motivation eg Food, colts motivated by mares. He didn't believe in "the dominant horse" theory but in "learned responses and felt that the word "submission" should be taken off the dressage tests.. A horse that walks into your space it is not trying to be dominant it just hasn't been trained to do anything different Horses learn to switch off from our pressure, and while a little bit of stress helps the learning, too much stress means that there is no chance of learning. He felt that it was unethical to chase a horse around a pen.

A horse's response to fear can never be extinguished and we do not want to be associated with fear as fearful animals do not learn. Learned fear prevents learning:- they do not try new or different methods because the consequences of getting it wrong are too great. It is associated with fast legs and distance - running away - so allowing a horse to use its legs quickly or moving some distance away will also make it fearful. Habituating or learning not to react is an evolved mechanism and "overshadowing" is a method of training horses to become accustomed to some of the things we routinely do to them, eg clipping. Horses can only react to one stimulus and will choose which one they react to. Therefore, they will ignore and become habituated to the other. For example, if a horse is frightened of clippers, first you teach the horse to move forwards and backwards with pressure on a lead rope. That way he had to move his legs slowly and could not make any real distance. He was very definite about "pressure" on the lead rope rather than body language which could easily be misunderstood. Then you introduce the clippers and ask for the same forward and backward response. His resistance to the aid to move him tells you how much he is focusing on the clippers. Eventually he will ignore the clippers and respond willingly to the pressure on the lead rope. Gradually you can increase the stimulus of the clippers, touch him, and turn them on, asking for the forward and backwards steps each time until you can actually clip him. This overshadowing works extremely well and was later demonstrated with a horse that hated his ears being touched and was extremely difficult to put a bridle on. At each step he confirmed the response to the forward and backward aid although at first the horse was quite resistant to this. He eventually dragged the bridle forwards and backwards over the horse's ears in a way that most horse's would object to but this horse had been taught in a fairly short time to become habituated to this.

"Counter conditioning" can be done after overshadowing so for example, the clippers are turned on just before he is fed. The sound of the clippers means here comes food, something pleasurable. Then he went on to describe "operant conditioning". This is negative reinforcement with a scale of 0 - 10. In other words, give a light aid first but if the response doesn't happen, increase the stimulus. The horse anticipates the stronger aid and learns to respond more immediately to the initial light aids. (This is very much along Erik's lines of "as much as necessary and as little as possible" and "each aid has a scale of 0 - 10 and you should be prepared to use the full scale even though one rarely has to go to 10). However, the success of this depends greatly on the riders feel and timing and if the rider is inconsistent there may be a danger that instead of sensitizing your horse you desensitize him. If you only increase the aid gradually allowing several seconds to elapse before repeating the aid, and are not clear about the level of response you want, the horse will become habituated to ever stronger aids. (the riding school horse that has learnt to ignore the random kicks from a beginner rider but of course this works perfectly for over sensitive, over reactive horses who need desensitizing). Negative reinforcement must be immediate, 1,2,3: aid, response release, much quicker than with a dog or an elephant that are able to remember for a longer period. Sometimes one can only use the voice as a reward so it is imperative that the horse associates a good feeling with a sound, like Filippa who praises with the sound of "Aaah" and it is "like she is caressing the horse". Clicker training works well on this principle.

Next, Andrew shared his experiences in Nepal where he worked with elephants. The traditional methods are very harsh with a view to subduing the animal. It is their belief that god put the elephant on the earth to serve them and so he knows what to do and only needs to be made to do it. Some horse training is not so different... He used exactly the same methods as he uses with horses and showed a lovely video of a young elephant doing a dressage test! He said that elephants never got tired of eating so they used a lot of bananas, but they quickly became mentally tired - the brain uses approx. 10 times more fuel than the muscles - and after 20 minutes they needed a break. In fact, they would take themselves off for a small snack and then voluntarily come back to work after a short time.

"Classical conditioning" works with associated "cues" eg seat aids, but it only works as well as the basic responses work. If the horse won't go forward from the leg, it is unlikely that he will respond from the sea. The new cue or aid must precede the known aid. These can be very subtle depending on the skill of the rider. Andrew used a lovely phrase - "A cascade of aids", never 2 at the same time.

It is worth stating again that the horse can only respond to one stimulus at a time so "Hands without legs and legs without hands" is a classical rule which needs repeating.. In other words, horses can be "switched off " from an aid because there is another aid or stimulus which is taking the horse's attention. For example an overactive hand can "overshadow" an active leg and as riders we often inadvertently ask with an active leg and hand at the same time. In fact, many of us have been taught to drive with the legs while half halting with the reins as a standard procedure for just about anything! Andrew touched briefly on the stress we put on our horses - riding can be unstoppable and inescapable. The horse copes actively by bucking, shying rearing; passively by ceasing to react. The latter can be quite deceptive as it seems that the horse is perfectly contented, ears forward, a "happy" expression and doing everything perfectly, whereas it has simply "switched off" and is no longer actively participating. Conflicting requests results in an increase in stress levels resulting in "conflict behaviour" which includes grinding teeth, swishing tail and spooking . However, many dressage experts would accept this behavior as quite normal.

The horse has to learn the ABC - stop, go, turn. More complicated tasks, eg canter on a named leg, are broken down into single learned responses - this is called "shaping". One builds on the responses and consolidates them one by one. Andrew applied this to his own scales of training: Basic attempt Obedience Rhythm Straightness Contact Proof.

He maintained that self-carriage, without pressure should be present throughout the scales, from early training and that you must have straightness before impulsion as crookedness meant unequal propulsion therefore loss of rhythm and balance.

His methods of training are completely logical but quite radical. He maintained that horses learn quickly, usually within 5 trials. If you achieve 3 to 5 good reactions that is enough and the horse should be allowed a rest for 2 minutes before doing another set of repetitions to consolidate the lessons. Aids should be quick - 1 - 2 beats of rhythm and then the release - and the aim should be for ever lighter aids. He had a check list of 10 responses that every horse needs to learn:
1 A "tug tug" on the reins when in halt means go back
2 a "tap tap" of the leg means go
3 a "tug tug" on the reins means slower/stop
4 a quicker "tap tap" of the leg means go faster
5 a slower single squeeze of the legs means go longer
6 a shorter tug on the reins means go shorter, raise the head and neck
7 turn to the right (or left) with a direct right (or left) rein
8 turn to the right (or left) with an indirect left(or right) rein
9 move the shoulders to the left (or the right) with both reins leading to the left (or right)
10 move the hind quarters to the left (or right) using pressure from the right (or left) leg
(This is my interpretation of what was said so apologies to andrew if it is not 100% accurate.) Never use the reins and the legs at the same time as the horse can only respond to one stimulus. (He said this many times). The above was demonstrated by a sweet little 4 year old welsh pony and rider. It very happily responded to all the requests including shortening and lengthening in canter which I thought was quite impressive. If only all riders taught these basics to their horses and if only all horses were trained in this way. Andrew's son, Warwick then brought out his advanced dressage horse to demonstrate the same training at a higher level and I have to be honest, I found this rather disappointing. It was mostly behind the vertical and the self-carriage demonstrated was preceded by a lot of not so subtle yanks. It was quite a leggy animal with a fairly weak hind quarter so I don't mind it not being perfect but I just wish he would have been honest and admitted its faults As it was, I came away thinking "Well that was the usual dressage stuff - all the right words but none of it practiced" which was a shame given that the lecture was so good. On balance, he was well worth hearing and I would recommend him to anyone wishing to understand more about training horses.

Finally, he gave a wonderful example of training : "A bird can be trained to come and sit on your hand, but if you have to hold its wings, it is not training."

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