Four members of the Tasmanian Pony Club, Huntingfield, smile for the camera on their chesnut horses. Future proofing Pony Club

Future Proofing Pony Club with an Evidence Base

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Pony Club Australia (PCA) recently celebrated its 80th birthday, but with the release of a new and updated syllabus that incorporates the latest, evidence-based knowledge in equine welfare and equitation, the institution is in no danger of becoming old fashioned or irrelevant.

Future Proofing Pony Club. With over 23,000 riders and 40,000  members (including volunteers and coaches) and 850 clubs, Pony Club is one of Australia’s largest youth sporting bodies. It is also unique, because it doesn’t only focus on the Olympic disciplines of dressage, show jumping and eventing, but encompasses a diversity of participants from disciplines such as mounted games, tent pegging and mounted archery.

Pony Club’s primary aim is to produce students who are competent across a broad range of equestrian disciplines and who have a thorough understanding of horse management and care. 

This approach has been extremely successful – ask any of Australia’s top riders where they began riding and there’s a very good chance they will say Pony Club.

Safety first

Dr Catherine Ainsworth, CEO of Pony Club Australia is determined to ensure that Pony Club maintains its pivotal role in shaping the future of equestrian endeavour in Australia and she has identified improving rider safety as one of the key areas of focus for the future.

Unfortunately, 25% of all fatalities in children’s sport are caused by activities involving horses and the recent inquest into the tragic deaths of Olivia Inglis and Caitlyn Fischer, who both died while competing in equestrian events, has foregrounded the need for all equestrian bodies to work tirelessly to improve safety standards.

Dr Ainsworth and her board are leading from the front in the quest to improve safety with a world first – the introduction of an entirely new syllabus based on Equitation Science.

Independent, peer reviewed studies have shown that implementing an Equitation Science based training program is the most effective way to date of maximising rider safety and horse welfare.

The new syllabus has been written to both honour the contributions and knowledge of the past eighty years, while embracing the improvements that science brings, not only to safety, but also to training effectiveness and horse welfare.

Dr Ainsworth, explaining the board’s decision to implement an Equitation Science based syllabus commented, “Equitation Science provides an understanding of the way that horses perceive the world, think, behave and react. It is the kindest way to train horses and the safest way to train riders.”

Equitation Science is a relatively new scientific discipline that aims to explain and codify the interactions of horses and people. Emerging in the late 20th century, it is now one of the fastest growing sciences and is practiced all around the world.

By relying on scientific evidence Equitation Science can identify which training techniques are ineffective or painful, it can improve the relationship between horse and rider by refining the tools of communication used and it can help to solve common training problems with the use of learning theory.

Equitation Science is multi disciplinary and incorporates knowledge from a wide range of fields including veterinary medicine, psychology, ethology, zoology and engineering.

PCA board member, Dr Andrew McLean, has reviewed and helped shape the direction of the new syllabus. Dr McLean is an internationally renowned clinician, lecturer and horse trainer, author of eight books and over 55 published papers.

“Equitation Science is not a method,” he points out. “It is a scientifically validated body of knowledge that gives us an understanding of the ways in which horses learn and what they need to make their lives worth living.

“When a student has an understanding of Equitation Science, they can objectively assess any training system or method for efficiency, safety and welfare.

In this way, Equitation Science doesn’t exclude any training methods that adhere to the scientifically correct principles of learning – it provides a framework that can be applied by riders of all disciplines and skill levels.”

Welfare and social licence to operate

As well as safety, Equitation Science can also assist horse owners in making good decisions regarding welfare. This is not only good news for horses but also for the horse industry as a whole, especially in the light of increasing discussions regarding the industry’s social licence to operate. In short, social licence to operate is the public’s ongoing acceptance of practices within the industry.

The objectivity that Equitation Science brings can identify what is best practice for welfare and to also help manage the public’s perceptions of welfare.

Dr Ainsworth, pointed out that education is an effective way to improve welfare.

“Pony Club Australia is the foundation of equestrian sport,” she said. “We recognise the critical role we play in education, and the role of education in promoting horse welfare.” In the new syllabus students will learn how to manage their horses in ways that are informed by current research and are consistent with the community’s expectations of animal welfare.

As an example, older students will learn about the Five Domains model of animal welfare assessment and monitoring, a tool that is taught at university level and used by animal industries as a way of assessing the impact of our interactions and practices on an animal’s welfare.

The Five Domains are: nutrition, environment, health, behaviour and human interaction, and mental state.

This approach allows a distinction to be made between the physiological aspects of an animal’s welfare and the mental state that results from these.

It is now understood that even if the animal has excellent physical care (adequate food, shelter, water, vet care etc.), if their needs for social interaction, clear communication with caregivers (good training), movement and foraging are not met, then they will not be experiencing good welfare.

In an era of increasing public scrutiny, this kind of informed and objective approach will become vital when addressing the horse industry’s social license to operate.

Specific changes to the syllabus

The PCA education system is based on a series of certificates, structured to suit students at all stages of their education. The first assessment is the E certificate, which is for students just beginning their horsemanship journey.

The highest level a student can achieve is the A certificate which demands a high level of riding ability and provides an in depth knowledge of horse management that includes first aid and health care, lunging, saddlery and transport.

The A certificate is held in extremely high esteem in the equestrian world and is an excellent preparation for both high level competition and a career in the horse industry. However, PCA recognises that not all students are focused on a career with horses and so it is possible to still enjoy all the benefits of Pony Club without necessarily studying for the higher level certificates.

In the new syllabus, students will learn about the horse’s ethology. This is the study of an animal’s behaviour under natural conditions.

At E certificate level the ethology is simplified and includes a lesson on the horse’s ability to sleep standing up and his very sensitive hearing and sight.

By the time the students complete their A certificate they will have learned a great deal more – in fact they will know more about horse behaviour than most other professionals in the horse industry.

While in the new syllabus students will still learn (as they did in the previous syllabus) to ride and handle the horse safely, the new syllabus includes more formalised handling on the ground. This ground work begins simply with basic control and develops, as the student gains more experience, to step back, park, head down and leg yield. The use of voice commands is also introduced.

It is in this part of the new syllabus that students will learn about pressure-release and reward, with many practical exercises on effective ways to reward horses during training sessions.

The ground work component of the syllabus provides a blueprint for correct training under saddle and is an important contribution to improving safety, especially since many serious horse related accidents occur while the horse is being handled on the ground.

The theory of learning is included in the new syllabus even as early as the E certificate, although in a very simple form and in easy to understand language.

By the time the students are working towards their A Certificate they will have an understanding of learning theory at least as in depth as students who study foundation units of behaviour at university level. In the early certificates the language used to describe the forms of learning is very simple (for example, positive reinforcement is referred to as reward) but this develops as the students progress through the levels.

The learning in the new syllabus is very hands-on and PCA coaches have been provided with lesson plans and other ideas on ways to incorporate it into their practical lessons.

Another aspect of the new syllabus worthy of attention is the introduction of a whip and spur license. This means that students will need to explain to their coach the correct use of the whip and/or spurs and if, at any time, the coach believes that the student’s use is inappropriate, the license can be revoked. This allows coaches to more thoroughly safeguard welfare while encouraging students to think about how they use tools that can be highly punitive when they are used incorrectly.

Much of the new syllabus has been based around the ten training principles that have been developed by the International Society for Equitation Science and identify best practice when training horses. These are:

  1. Always remember that the horse’s brain is different to ours. While sometimes it might seem as though your horse is being deliberately naughty, it is important to see disobedience as a failure of training not a failure of the horse.
  2. Understand how training works, particularly pressure – release and reward training.
  3. Make sure that every aid you use is distinct and different so there is no confusion for the horse. For example, your turn aids should be quite different from your stop aid.
  4. Have realistic expectations when first training your horse. Reward small improvements.
  5. Only ever give one aid at a time. Horses can’t do two things at once so don’t ask them to.
  6. Each aid should only produce one response. So, for example, pressure on both reins should only ever be used for slowing/stopping, it shouldn’t be used to ask the horse to lower his head.
  7. Be consistent all of the time. Remember that one of your main goals when training is to create stable or reliable habits.
  8. Always focus on self carriage. This means your horse should maintain the speed you want without constantly being asked to either slow down or speed up. You should be able to control his speed with very light aids.
  9. Learn what the flight response looks like and how to prevent it.
  10. Remember that your ultimate goal is to have a calm and obedient horse at all times.

The new syllabus in action

The new syllabus has already been rolled out across most of Australia with workshops being conducted for Pony Club coaches in each state. The certificate manuals are also available for purchase online. Coaches will have other resources such as coaching manuals and a YouTube channel that will assist them in implementing the new syllabus.

While the change may seem daunting to some, when it is examined closely, most coaches will see that much of the new syllabus is familiar to them. There is, however, some material that coaches will have to engage with, as changes have been made to both improve the safety of young riders and safeguard the welfare of horses – thus helping to ensure the future of horse sports in Australia. PCA is confident that their dedicated coaches will rise to the challenge.

This article was published in Horses and People January-February 2020 magazine.

Dr Portland Jones, Diploma of Equitation Science, is a volunteer for the Human Elephant Learning Programs (HELP)
Portland Jones, Diploma in Equitation Science, PhD

Dr Portland Jones is a horse trainer, lecturer and author. Together with her partner she runs a horse training facility in Western Australia’s Swan Valley, specialising in Equitation Science. She has co-authored a horse training book called Horses Hate Surprise Parties: Equitation Science for Young Riders which has been sold all over the world and was recently translated into Italian. She was involved in writing the new Pony Club Australia certificate manuals. She is also a volunteer with the HELP Foundation, an organisation that offers evidence based training support to elephant trainers in Asia as a way of improving the welfare of captive elephants.

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  1. THIS is the change our horses need. Congratulations Portland, Dr Andrew McLean and Pony Club Australia.
    You are leading the world.
    You are on the right side of history.
    Looking forward to seeing your children and ponies grow up, leading the rest of the world in applying evidence based knowledge.
    Huge congratulations to all

  2. Author

    Thank you Lisa, We can’t wait to see the syllabus roll out to clubs all over Australia. 🙂

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