The Standardbred’s Track-to-Hack Journey Part 10 (Final): The Training Principles

Welcome to the last article in the Unharnessed Potential series, an education and awareness campaign to promote the re-training and re-homing of Standardbreds when they retire from a racing career. 

Throughout this series, Alistair McLean has documented the entire re-training process from track to hack. The articles have covered everything, from settling-in to the new training environment to backing, teaching the pacer to trot and canter, consolidating and improving the responses, strengthening and further education all the way to the first outings. 

This article is a summary of Andy’s re-training journey against the backdrop of the First Principles of Horse Training.

A summary of Andy’s re-training 

When you compare Andy now to when he first arrived at the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre, it is easy to see that he has had 10 months of training. It is, nevertheless, hard for me to believe that he has been with us for 10 months!

His current weight of 515 kgs shows how much his shape has changed and means he has put on almost 65 kgs since his arrival. However, the biggest difference is in his nature.

While he will always be a slightly timid and nervy horse, you can clearly see that his behaviour in certain situations has changed. The days of him getting a fright at the slightest of noises are gone as a result of training and consolidating responses in those situations. This has produced a more calm and confident horse just 10 months later.

Some training tasks, such as a basic trot, took a lot longer than expected to train, but he has also exceeded my expectations in some areas, such as his lateral work. Since fine-tuning his lateral work in trot, his canter, a gait that does not come naturally to Andy or any Standardbred pacer for that matter, has equally improved.

The canter, not surprisingly, has been the most challenging part of his training and, although he is now beginning to canter correctly, he still needs time to develop physically and there is still a way to go before it is consolidated enough to work in different environments.

This will be the real test at Equitana. All of his training at AEBC has never been truly tested in an environment such as Equitana, so it will be interesting to see how he copes. I am not expecting him to be perfect, after all he is still only a five-year-old and all of his outings except for one have been from his adrenalised harness racing days. It will certainly be interesting to see what an environment like this does to his normally consolidated responses. Either way, I’m sure I have trained the tools well enough to remind him of the rules.

The Training (and Re-Training) Principles

In this last article, I will explain the training principles that I have followed whilst educating Andy. These principles must be upheld for the rest of Andy’s training, regardless of the disciplines his subsequent new owner and rider wishes to pursue. Although these principles may not have been followed during Andy’s harness racing career, they are now well and truly a part of his re-training. If these training principles are not followed, we run the risk of him turning back into the horse he was 10 months ago.

The Training Principles were one of the outcomes of my father’s, Dr Andrew McLean’s, PhD thesis and were presented for the first time at the satellite meeting of the 2003 congress of the International Society of Applied Ethology held in Abano-terme, Italy. They are described in more detail in the book ‘Academic Horse Training’ by Andrew and Manuela McLean. Here, I present excerpts from the book and how they have related to Andy’s re-training.

The eight training principles: 

Regardless of whether a horse is used for sport, work or leisure, certain solid training principles arise from an understanding of his natural behaviour, mental ability and learning capacities. These principles determine success, part success or failure in training. They can be encapsulated into eight key principles and these should be adhered to at all times.

1. Appreciate the similarities and differences in mental abilities between horses and humans 

Horses and humans share a long and mutually dependent history, they are as much a part of our heritage as we are of theirs. In our interactions with the horse, it is understandable that we focus on the qualities that our species share and the similarities between us. However, failing to acknowledge and understand the fundamental differences in the equine and human brain can lead to problems.

Like us, the horse is highly social and being isolated from others can be extremely stressful for both species. We also share an ability to learn rapidly via trial-and-error learning, classical conditioning and habituation. However, unlike us, the horse cannot voluntarily recall his memories, neither can he imagine, develop abstract ideas or reconstruct events, and it is unlikely that he can think to the future. The horse’s memory is inextricably linked to his senses and must be triggered by a sight, sound or physical cue. Trainers should be careful how they describe horses because so much human language implies higher levels of reasoning that have negative consequences for the horse.

2. Train and always maintain only one consistent response from its associated aid(s) 

It makes sense to recognise that confusion can occur when a single aid has more than one response associated with it.

For example, many riders use their reins to change the horse’s outline or head carriage. Yet, the earliest lessons the horse should learn are that pressure from the two reins means to slow. To train something different is highly confusing – it’s like telling a child that the letter ‘A’ doesn’t always mean ‘A’ anymore, it can mean something different.

Pressure on two reins should always mean slowing, so if you want to train head-carriage using the reins, you must insist on slowing the horse simultaneously, so that roundness of the outline is a shaped component of the stop response. All basic responses must remain intact.

Similarily, when riders attempt to bend the horse’s neck using a single rein, the horse’s turn response is disconnected to some extent. The horse no longer follows the line dictated by the direct rein, but instead learns to ignore it and drift out. Soon after, the only remedy is to use other aids, such as legs, to hold the horse together while he is turning. This represents greater complexity of aids for the horse to interpret and loss of self-carriage.

In Andy’s particular case and probably for a lot of other horses out there, he often shortens his neck instead of slowing his legs when I squeeze the reins. This is a confusion that comes from his early training and often results in him becoming tense. This highlights the necessity to keep his stop response in tune but, more importantly, to separate the aid for ‘roundness’, which should be trained through lateral flexion.

3. Reduce pressure required to elicit responses to very light versions of pressure before using positive reinforcement and before adding other cues 

Negative reinforcement (also known as pressure/release) is the most effective way to train reliable behaviours in the horse.

When negative reinforcement is applied correctly, the motivating pressures will reduce to light and subtle cues. When the horse responds from light aids (which occurs after obedience level) positive reinforcement should be incorporated (first continuously then occasionally) to maintain responses, and to help develop some rapport between horse and human. 

It is important to remember that any pressures used (leg, rein, whip-tap, etc.) should be maintained or escalated over a short time-frame until the motivating level is reached and the horse responds. Pressure must then be reduced. The pressure/release scenario should be of no more than 3 seconds duration so that the horse is able to learn the light aid effectively. Timing and reinforcement problems account for almost all behaviour problems.

The use of pressure/release and then the aids themselves should coincide with the steps (walk and trot) and the strides (canter and gallop) of the horse to maintain consistency, to avoid confusion and to develop habits.

4. Shape the quality of responses progressively 

All complex animal training and, therefore, equestrian disciplines involve shaping responses toward the optimal response.

Trainers should not expect perfect responses to emerge from the onset of training, but should gradually shape the horse’s responses by ‘raising the bar’ of their expectations over time. Each stage of shaping should consist of a precise response that is identifiable for both horse and trainer in order to be repeated and reach consolidation.

Developing steps, then strides, then the gait itself fulfils this requirement. The horse’s head and neck is symptomatic of problems with the training of the legs, so it will be seen that when the legs are properly trained, head and neck problems tend to disappear. If this does not occur because of conformation or for habitual reasons, train the head and neck later, and as part of the shaping of the stop, go and turn responses. A workable and universal shaping scale is essential for acceptable modern horse training in every discipline.

The shaping of Andy’s canter was a long process. hHowever, it was important to only ask for small improvements. The incorrect shaping of Andy’s canter could have led to problematic behaviours that may have taken longer to correct than the time it took to shape Andy’s canter the proper way.

5. Never ask for opposing responses at the same time 

Horses cannot simultaneously accelerate and decelerate, so using leg aids and rein aids at the same time can cause:

  • Losses of responding,
  • Acute stress resulting in raised muscle tension and fearful behaviours, 
  • Conflict behaviours, such as bucking, bolting, shying and rearing, 
  • Chronic stress resulting in physiological and immunological deterioration, 
  • Learned helplessness where the horse tolerates pain with severe welfare compromises, or 
  • Wastage where the horse is removed from the population (i.e. sent to the abattoirs). 

When two pressures compete for the horse’s attention, overshadowing occurs. In the ridden horse, this manifests as habituation (heaviness) to the bit and to the rider’s legs. Some trainers incorrectly interpret this as a loss of ‘willingness to please’, laziness, sourness, resistance and evasion.

Remember the old French maxim (which holds true to this day): ‘Hands without legs, legs without hands’. This should be re-embraced as an important ideal that allows optimal learning and eliminates the potential for confusion for all equitation disciplines.

6. Identify and diminish expressions of the flight response 

Fear responses, such as bucking, bolting and tension, are more indelible and difficult to re-train than others. If horses express these responses in training, flight responses become persistent. Research shows that preventing the expression of fear facilitates habituation. Therefore, it is important for reasons of safety for both horse and rider that such behaviours are never provoked nor maintained. It is also likely that practicing such behaviours has negative welfare implications leading to chronic stress, learned helplessness and behavioural wastage.

Horses that are unclear in their acceleration and deceleration responses, both in-hand and under-saddle, are at a high risk of conflict behaviours caused by the flight response. This suggests that re-training a horse’s basic responses must form part of the rehabilitation process for such ‘problem’ horses. Interestingly, the way the horse responds to pressure signals in-hand and under-saddle can serve as diagnostic tests that are predictive of conflict behaviours.

In re-training and preventing undesirable fear responses, riders should use downward transitions to slow the horse’s legs during episodes of flight response behaviour, rather than simply ignoring them or accelerating. Current practices, such as round-pen techniques, lungeing, driving or chasing horses for any reason, are detrimental if they induce fear and elicit a flight response. Such responses are not difficult to distinguish because they generally involve raised head-carriage, hollowed loins, short choppy steps and tendencies to quicken.

This is one of the more important principles when it comes to a re-trainer, like Andy, who used to have quite an expressive flight response. It is important to note the correcting the horse’s flight response by decelerating does not have an immediate effect on the horse’s behaviour.

Andy’s flight response has not gone completely. However, over time, it has reduced to only small signs of flight that, with further correct training, will result in a complete suppression of the flight response.

Teaching a horse not to respond to external stimuli is all about overshadowing. Overshadowing external stimuli requires clear operant responses. As our operant responses improve, so too will our ability to overshadow the external stimuli with them.

7. Train responses to be proportional to the intensity of the cue 

In a trained horse, a small amount of leg aid should lead to a small amount of go (say, pressure 2 on the scale from 0-10), while a slightly stronger light aid (say pressure 4 on that scale) should provoke a stronger response. Similarly, a small amount of rein pressure should lead to a small amount of stop or slow and a larger amount should lead to more. These are all trained by the subtleties of pressure/release.

Skill at using such proportional aids is a feature of highly skilled trainers. Under-saddle, it arises only when the rider’s balance is exceptional.

Proportional aids become associated with other aids, such as postural aids (i.e. seat), and give the horse the greatest level of assurance and security because of the solid predictability of the range of aids.

8. Aim for your horse to achieve self-carriage at every stage of training 

Because ridden and led horses must respond to the rider’s aids and sometimes continue responding for extended periods, it is important that they continue responding until signalled otherwise. This is the essence of self-carriage.

This principle is essential for good welfare as it protects the horse from continuous (painful) rein and/or leg signals. The horse should be trained to maintain his rhythm and tempo, line and straightness, and head and neck outline. Trainers should continuously test for self-carriage by completely releasing the reins or taking the legs away from the horse’s sides for two steps in the walk and trot, and two strides in the canter and gallop. In this short time-frame, the horse should not lose gait, rhythm, tempo, line, straightness or head-carriage.

A new beginning for Andy 

By always following these essential training principles, we can ensure that horses like Andy go through the smoothest possible re-training process.

Re-training, in general, is certainly not the easiest type of training for anyone to undertake. However, the Standardbred’s temperament, from what I have experienced, seems to be one of the more forgiving temperaments out there, which should make them favourable when considering to take on a horse off-the-track.

It is very difficult not to make mistakes when handling and riding horses. In particular, it is easy to release the pressure for the wrong response, which makes it seem as though re-trainers often oppose a lot of the basic aids, and causes a lot of confusion and tension in any horse. However, even a sensitive horse like Andy (who is the most sensitive I have felt) has never really put a foot wrong, which is amazing when you consider all the stressful experiences he has been through from his racing days to now.

Seeing him go to a new owner will be very sad as I have really enjoyed training him. He has definitely become one of the horses I look forward to riding. As re-trainers, our responsibility is to find all horses a suitable and forever home, matching them to exactly the right lucky owner. After all, re-training is all about new beginnings – second chances for horses after racing.

It has been a pleasure to be involved in the Unharnessed Potential project. It certainly has been, in my opinion, a great success in terms of how well Andy’s re-training has progressed. However, the real success of this project is in raising everyone’s awareness of the greater cause – the unharnessed potential of the Standardbred horse.

I hope these articles have shed some light on the re-training process, and that people choose wisely when looking for their next off-the-track prospect and when making decisions about their re-training.

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