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Setting Good Ground Rules: The First Principles of Horse Training

In-hand training is an essential part of any horse’s education. We lead our horse to and from the pasture or stable every day, and we want to make sure he leads obediently, stays by our side, stands still while we brush him, rug or un-rug him, handle his feet, etc.

We also need to our horse to go forwards, backwards and sideways so we can move him around while we work around him.

This article is the first of the 7-Part Series ‘Setting Good Ground Rules: The Safe and Simple Guide to Training Your Horse in-hand’ where we explain how to teach the basic responses in-hand for safe handling in any situation.  

The complete series, in its fully illustrated form, is published as en eBook that you can order here.

If you have a young horse preparing to start his foundation training, pre-training him in-hand makes the process less intense because he already understands the signals (aids) you’ll be using under-saddle.

In particular, teaching a young horse to stop from a light aid and to stand still (what we call ‘park’), actually diminishes his flight response and makes it easier to habituate him (get him used to) all the different things he will have to deal with, from equipment and rugs to having a rider on his back.

Additionally, in-hand training is a safe and simple way to establish the aids we need under-saddle.

And, even if your horse is older and experienced, it’s amazing to see just how much in-hand training can improve his under-saddle responses, or day-to-day human interactions.

When to start

Because in-hand training lays the foundations for under-saddle training, it’s a good idea to start as early as you can.

If you have your horse from birth, early while the foal is still with his mother you can teach some basic responses to pressure (asking the foal to take a step backwards by pressing his chest for example) and then some simple stop and go for leading as a weanling.

However it’s best to begin the more thorough in-hand training outlined in the next five articles when your horse is at least one year old.

The setting

It is always a good idea to start in a stable, a small yard or round yard with safe footing and fencing, and then progress on to an arena before going on to more open spaces. If possible, you should choose a quiet location where there aren’t too many distractions.

The equipment

When starting with yearlings and young naive horses, start with a normal webbing or leather halter. When young ones are learning everything from scratch there is no need to use a rope halter or anything more severe because they will learn quickly from light pressures to respond.

You should, however, train using something stronger like a rope halter or a bit if it is part of the equipment you will use for competing or riding, for example, or if you are re-training a horse (fixing a problem behaviour).

The ideal lead rope is strong, light weight and doesn’t stretch, such as the nylon braided ropes (pictured). Cotton lead ropes can be too stretchy which makes the pressure/release less clear, and the yachting type ropes are too heavy and make it harder for the horse to feel a release clearly.

You will also need a mid-length stiff (dressage) whip or bamboo stick (or similar). Try to avoid whips that are too long and floppy as this can affect the timing of your tapping. The stiff whips/sticks also have a more obvious contact when you place it against the horse’s body during the habituation process.

You should always wear gloves, a riding helmet and riding boots or safety footwear for training in hand.

The basic training goals…

Our training in-hand mimics the responses we require under-saddle:

  • Go / up gait
  • Stop / down gait
  • Step back
  • Turn forelegs
  • Yield hindlegs

In addition to these responses, we also recommend you train:

  • Park (stand still)
  • Head control (head lowering)

Each of these responses has its benefits for handling the horse, as well as establishing or improving the responses under-saddle. For example:

Go: We need to be able to lead the horse forward, not only bringing him in from the paddock, but to load onto a horse float. A horse that is trained to ‘go’ in all situations well, will lead anywhere!

Stop: It’s important we have the ability to stop the horse, particularly in situations where he may want to flee in fright of something. Training stop in-hand also helps with horses who are heavy mouthed under-saddle.

Step back: Many people do not recognise the significance of this response. Not only does it sharpen the horse’s ‘stop’ response, but it’s a fundamental response we need if we handle horses – i.e. we need them to back off the float, or back into the cross ties etc.

Turn forelegs: It’s important we can manoeuvre the horse’s front legs to help with lunging (moving the shoulders out) and also in float training where the horse may lose straightness.

Yield hindlegs: We need to be able to manoeuvre the hindlegs when we’re grooming the horse or saddling, and this one is also handy for mounting the horse when we need him to move closer to the mounting block.

Park: Training the horse to stand still unless asked to move is vital for grooming, saddling, farrier/veterinary/body-work visits, as well as standing still in the float or the racing barriers. It also promotes relaxation as he understands there is nothing asked of him until we give a signal.

Head control: the ability to lower the horse’s head is helpful for grooming and bridling, particularly if you have a tall horse or you are small yourself!

The complete Setting Good Ground Rules series, fully illustrated, is now available as a downloadable eBook – order your copy here.

A quick theory refresher before we begin…

The complete series explains how we train the horse in-hand using a particular method developed by Dr Andrew McLean.

There are, however, many ways to train a horse. The important thing is to ensure the horse’s welfare is protected and the training is effective, and to ensure the methods you use align with the First Principles of Horse Training, which are:

  1. Regard for human and horse safety

  • Acknowledge that horses’ size, power and potential flightiness present a significant risk
  • Avoid provoking aggressive/defensive behaviours (kicking/biting)
  • Ensure recognition of the horse’s dangerous zones (e.g. hindquarters)
  • Safe use of tools, equipment and environment
  • Recognise the dangers of being inconsistent or confusing
  • Ensure horses and humans are appropriately matched
  • Avoid using methods or equipment that cause pain, distress or injury to the horse

“Disregarding safety greatly increases the danger of human-horse interactions”

  1. Regard for the nature of horses

  • Ensure welfare needs: Lengthy daily foraging, equine company, freedom to move around
  • Avoid aversive management practices (e.g. whisker-trimming, ear-twitching)
  • Avoid assuming a role for dominance in human/horse interactions
  • Recognise signs of pain
  • Respect the social nature of horses (e.g. importance of touch, effects of separation)
  • Avoid movements horses may perceive as threatening (e.g. jerky, rushing movements)

“Isolation, restricted locomotion and limited foraging compromise welfare”

  1. Regard for horses’ mental and sensory abilities

  • Avoid overestimating the horse’s mental abilities (e.g. “he knows what he did wrong”)
  • Avoid underestimating the horse’s mental abilities (e.g. “It’s only a horse…”)
  • Acknowledge that horses see and hear differently from humans
  • Avoid long training sessions (keep repetitions to a minimum to avoid overloading)
  • Avoid assuming that the horse thinks as humans do
  • Avoid implying mental states when describing and interpreting horse behaviour
  • “Over- or underestimating the horse’s mental capabilities can have significant welfare consequences”
  1. Regard for current emotional states

  • Ensure trained responses and reinforcements are consistent
  • Avoid the use of pain/constant discomfort in training
  • Avoid triggering flight/fight/freeze reactions
  • Maintain minimum arousal for the task during training
  • Help the horse to relax with stroking and voice
  • Encourage the horse to adopt relaxed postures as part of training (e.g. head lowering, free rein)
  • Avoid high arousal when using tactile or food motivators
  • Never underestimate horse’s capacity to suffer
  • Encourage positive emotional states in training

“High arousal and lack of reinforcement may lead to stress and negative emotional states”

  1. Correct use of habituation, desensitization and calming methods

  • Gradually approach objects that the horse is afraid of, or, if possible, gradually bring such aversive objects closer to the horse (systematic desensitization)
  • Gain control of the horse’s limb movements (e.g. step the horse back) while aversive objects are maintained at a safe distance and gradually brought closer (over-shadowing)
  • Associate aversive stimuli with pleasant outcomes by giving food treats when the horse perceives the scary object (counter-conditioning)
  • Ignore undesirable behaviours and reinforce desirable alternative responses (differential reinforcement)
  • Avoid flooding techniques (forcing the horse to endure aversive stimuli)

“Desensitization techniques that involve flooding may lead to stress and produce phobias”

  1. Correct use of Operant Conditioning

  • Understand operant conditioning, a type of learning that occurs due to the cause-and-effect relationship between a behaviour and its consequences. (The performance of a behaviour becomes more or less likely as a result of their consequences.)
  • Tactile pressures (e.g. from the bridle, halter, bit, leg or whip) must be removed at the onset of the correct response
  • Minimise delays in reinforcement because they are ineffective and unethical
  • Use combined reinforcement (amplify pressure-release rewards with tactile or food rewards where appropriate)
  • Avoid active punishment

“The incorrect use of operant conditioning can lead to serious behaviour problems that manifest as aggression, escape, apathy and compromised welfare”

  1. Correct use of Classical Conditioning

  • Train the uptake of light signals by placing them BEFORE a pressure-release sequence
  • Precede all desirable responses with light signals
  • Avoid unwanted stimuli overshadowing desired responses (e.g. the horse may associate an undesirable response with an unintended signal from the environment)

“The absence of benign (light) signals can lead to stress and compromised welfare”

  1. Correct use of Shaping

  • Break down training tasks into the smallest achievable steps and progressively reinforce each step toward the desired behaviour
  • Plan training to make the correct response as obvious and easy as possible
  • Maintain a consistent environment to train a new task and give the horse the time to learn safely and calmly
  • Only change one contextual aspect at a time (e.g. trainer, place, signal)

“Poor shaping leads to confusion”

  1. Correct use of Signals/Cues

Ensure signals are easy for the horse to discriminate from one another

Ensure each signals has only one meaning

Ensure signals for different responses are never applied concurrently

Ensure locomotory signals are applied in timing with limb biomechanics

“Unclear, ambiguous or simultaneous signals lead to confusion”

  1. Regard for Self-carriage

  • Aim for self-carriage in all methods and at all levels of training
  • Train the horse to maintain:
    • gait
    • tempo
    • stride length
    • direction
    • head and neck carriage
    • body posture
  •  Avoid forcing any posture
  • Avoid nagging with legs, spurs or reins i.e., avoid trying to maintain responses with relentless signaling.

”Lack of self-carriage can promote hyper-reactive responses and compromises welfare”

Where do we start?

At the most basic level, during the first training sessions we teach the horse to ‘go’, ‘stop’, ‘step back’, and ‘park’.

For a young horse with little or no prior training, we can start with the basics of ‘step back’ as this ensures our safety, and means we can stop him easily when we start to train ‘go’.

In the case of re-training we may not be able to train just ‘go’ or just ‘stop’ – we may need to work on both, or if the horse has a particular problem such as he is ‘pushy’, we would start with ‘stop’ or if he is ‘lazy’ we would start with ‘go’.

The terms ‘pushy’ and ‘lazy’ are labels commonly heard in the horse world, so I have quoted them here, but it’s important to recognise that the horse simply hasn’t learned thoroughly enough the response to the rein/leading aids – he is not choosing to be lazy or pushy, he’s simply doing what he has learned (usually by mistake). We just need to retrain his responses to the correct ones!

Training ‘stop’ is most important because it deletes any quickening and flight responses. Biomechanically, the muscles a horse uses to stop, slow down and step back are the same. The step back in fact is a deeper response to the stop, so training horses to step backwards to a light pressure from the halter or the bit, actually improves their stop.

The step back is in itself, very useful to correct any unwanted movements, and this also ties in with the ‘park’ response where we teach the horse to stand still until we ask him to move.

You may notice that at the start of the training your horse is distracted and tense but you should notice that as he begins to understand the lesson and respond to lighter aids, he also starts to show signs of relaxation, he may chew, lick his lips, yawn, snort, shake or lower his head.

These are all signs that you are making good progress.

Shaping responses so we avoid frustration and confusion

With every new response we need to train gradually: this is called ‘shaping’.

The horse will not likely give you the perfect response straight away and we cannot expect him to. Instead, we aim for a basic attempt at the response and gradually build on that until it is perfect.

On the left, Image C, shows the equitation science shaping scale which shows us the progress of training. If we follow this scale when training each response, the horse will understand clearly and learn without frustration.

Training in sets for efficient learning

It is important to keep the training sessions short, around 20 minutes, especially with young horses. Young foals, however, should be trained for very short periods, around 5 to 10 minutes.

The most effective way to encourage learning is to work in sets of between 3 and 5 repetitions with a break between each set, aiming to finish each task with 3 consecutive, correct or improved responses. So, after 3 to 5 improved responses to the signal/aid, have a rest, then repeat.

Order and download the eBook which contains:

  1. PART 1 Introduction to the First Principles of Horse Training and the Equitation Science Training Scale
  2. PART 2 Training ‘Go forward’ and ‘stop’
  3. PART 3 Training ‘Park’ (immobility)
  4. PART 4 Training ‘Yield the shoulders’
  5. PART 5 Training ‘Yield the hindquarters’
  6. PART 6 Training ‘Head control’
  7. PART 7 Securing your horse’s future

The complete Setting Good Ground Rules series, fully illustrated, is now available as a downloadable eBook – order your copy here.

Sophie Wyllie, Equitation Science International
Sophie Wyllie, Equitation Science International

Sophie Wyllie is the business manager for Equitation Science International (ESI) and daughter of Andrew and Manuela McLean. Passionate about following in the footsteps of her parents to create more sustainable horse-human relationships, Sophie was fundamental in the process of ESI becoming a nationally accredited training organisation, offering the Diploma of Equitation Science. With her finger close to the pulse of the latest in the science of horse training, her work at ESI enables horse people to understand how horses learn and, thus, improve training, communication and, ultimately, horse welfare.

1 COMMENT

  1. Loved this, love learning. This article has taught me whilst on the right track, consistency is the key. No grey areas and short training spurts.

    Thanks again for the article, I don’t think I’ll ver stop learning.

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