Training, Not Coercion, is Key to a Well-Behaved Athlete

The best way to train a horse is to use techniques that "align with the horse's view of the world," according to Paul McGreevy, BVSc, MRCVS, PhD, MACVSc, associate professor of veterinary science at the University of Sydney in Camden, New South Wales, Australia, who recently published a paper on the topic.

It is possible to train even the most unruly horse effectively and humanely by using techniques that are relevant to a horse's cognitive abilities, according to McGreevy. He believes that training techniques such as hyperflexion of the neck (rollkur) and the use of electric shock collars can actually inhibit learning, confuse the animal, and compromise his welfare.

"Some people believe horses have cognitive powers similar to our own and that, therefore, horses know when they have misbehaved," he said. A horse has no way of connecting misbehavior to a correction like water deprivation, he continued.

"Excellent technique relies on clarity, timing, and consistency," he said.

McGreevy suggested using a series of training tools to keep a horse progressing in the right direction:

  • Use scientific training methods that are humane. If you use negative reinforcement, cease the activity as soon as the horse obeys. Pressure after compliance can confuse the horse;
  • Use easy-to-understand signals, and isolate each signal from the other as much as possible. Overlapping signals can be difficult for the horse to understand;
  • Teach one command at a time, and connect it a specific signal. If an activity is complex, break it down into different components. Once the horse knows the individual components, put them together;
  • Apply rewards immediately so that the horse connects the learned signal and the response to the reward;
  • Learning is doing. Once the horse learns the signal and response, he should continue giving the desired behavior when asked. There is no need to keep signaling with spurs or rein pressure, he said;
  • Fearful animals don't listen because they are doing what they feel they need to do to survive. Build trust with the horse so he works with you rather than against you.

Training should not be a test of wills. Use techniques that minimize conflict behavior and encourage submission and relaxation in the horse.

McGreevy does not supply any training methods in his research; his research focuses on understanding how a rider can most effectively communicate with their horse.

The abstract, "Horse-training techniques that may defy the principles of learning theory and compromise welfare," was published in the July 2010 issue of the Journal of Veterinary Behavior.