‘Rules’ vs ‘Principles’ in Horse Training (this might be eye-opening!)

When people learn to interact with horses it usually starts with riding lessons or they learn from a seasoned horse person. You’ll learn the ropes, which usually means the ‘rules’ of how things are done. Then one day, you discover that the rule doesn’t apply anymore… Why is that?

Why Rules Not Always Apply

Over the years you already might have learned some rules don’t work for you or the horses you work with. Why is that?

Why rules in horse training not always work

Because when you’re focused on the rule, you miss the principle behind the rule. That’s why it’s not working. Learn the Principle and you discover the Gold!

It’s like Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day (rule), if you teach him how to fish (principle) he’ll never be hungry.

What’s the Principle behind the Rule?

That’s what I’ve been working on the past 3 decades and that’s why I can lead others to success in horse training. I don’t work with rules, I teach clients principles. They are way more worth, because it sets them up for life!

Examples of Rules that Not Always Work

These are rules that apply to some or maybe even most horses, not to all horses!

1. Horses will work for carrots.

My horse Kyra was born in a nature reserve and foals learn to eat what moms and other herd members eat. In nature horses don’t feed on carrots because they don’t grow in their habitat! Kyra literally had to learn to eat carrots, apples and man-made treats. Foals who are born at a barn have already learned that what people feed you is edible.

So what would be a principle behind this rule? The principle is that the receiver determines the reward (read: appetitive).

Some horses like to work for carrots, others prefer grain, grass pellets or something else. As trainer you have to figure out what motivates your horse.

You know that not all horses can’t be lured out of the pasture with a carrot. The carrot is simply not appetitive enough in those cases. More principles could be at work why the horse won’t come and how to determine that, is a whole other topic.

Still people are asking on the Internet: ‘What treats are best for in clicker training?’ The answer is… it depends on the horse and the situation. Appetitives can change in value.

If clicker training doesn’t work, it’s because people don’t apply the Key principles of Learning and Motivation, they try to apply ‘rules’ ~ HippoLogic

The rule people hear is:

2. “Pressure-release will make the horse do what I want”.

Look at people that have trouble loading their horse into a trailer. They apply pressure, they apply release and still the horse is outside the trailer.

In training it’s about the timing (learning happens when the aversive stimulus is released) and also about the strength and direction of the aversive (if the trailer is more aversive than the applied pressure, the horse won’t go in) or if an appetitive stimulus outside the trailer is stronger than the applied pressure the horse won’t go in. It’s about how the learner experience the aversive stimulus.

When I started to figure out the principles at work behind every rule in horse training things changed quickly. My clients got better results and problems were solved quicker and with less struggle.

3. Heels down, hands low, back straight, chin up!

This is what I was taught in riding lessons for many, many years. It didn’t make me a good rider at all. These are rules, the principle behind it (that they never taught me in the riding school), is to sit in balance.

When I took Centered Riding lessons I learned how to sit in balance. I learned that balance starts at the position of my pelvis: tipping it slightly forward it created a hollow back, legs that went backwards, heels went up and hands that were moving very much in order to keep my balance.

When I had my pelvis slightly tipped backwards, I rode with a curved back, my legs were in chair seat (before my point of gravity) and my chin was down.

Only if I kept my pelvis in ‘neutral’ (this is where your balance starts!) I was able to keep my legs in the right position, my back straight and could move with my horse instead of being before or behind my horse’s movement.

Only when I keep my pelvis in ‘neutral’ I can move with my horse. I am balanced, my hands can become soft because I move them in the rhythm of the movement of my horse’s head instead of my own body. My legs become still (in relation to the horse flank movements) because I don’t need to squeeze them in order to keep my balance. I became confident because I felt safe! That’s when I became a good rider.

Now you can see why these rules started: heads up, back straight and so on. They want to solve the symptoms of an unbalanced rider. Unfortunately they don’t work (how many times have you heard them!?) because they don’t solve the problem (balance). The principle of riding does: where does balance in a rider start? Right, in the pelvis! And that’s why it’s called ‘centered’ riding.

Want to Learn More About the Key Principles of Positive Reinforcement?

I you want to know more about the Principles (HippoLogic’s Key Lessons), join me for a free webinar in which I explain the 4 Main Reasons People get Stuck in Clicker Training (and solutions).
Spoiler alert: I will talk about principles!

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
Helping horse people to bond with their horse and get the results they want.
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Questions that may change the way you think about Horse Training

I loved horses as long as I can remember and according to my mom I saw horses everywhere. After years of asking my parents for a pony and riding lessons, I got riding lessons. I found a free lease pony just a block away. In the city! wasn’t that a wonderful coincidence that the only pony’s in the city were 500 meters away?

I loved my weekly riding lessons very much, but  I had many questions that no one could answer. Some of them I still haven’t found an answer to. Questions like:

1. How come spurs are meant for ‘refinement’ and ‘lighter’ cues?

sporenI still don’t understand it. If you look at spurs scientifically you know that if the point of pressure/surface decreases (spur versus leg), the pressure increases.

It does make sense that you don’t have to use as much pressure (if you choose to use pressure/release to communicate) with a spur than with your leg, but how does this ‘refine’ the aids for the horse?

How come the rider suddenly need to use more pressure when he gets more advanced?

2. Why do you have to learn to ride with ‘your seat’ if when you are advanced you get spurs?

The spurs are not attached to your seat but to the foot of the rider, a body part that you’ve been told for many years not to use on your horse. Honestly I have seen spurs more used on ‘lazy’, unresponsive horses than on sensitive, well trained horses that are willing to work for the rider.

3. Why do you get twice as many bits when you are riding higher dressage?

dressage_bridleHow is more bits, less? How can more bits be ‘more refined’ or give ‘lighter cues’? When you start to ride, you learn that you have to ride with your seat, not with your reins. When you get ‘advanced’ you suddenly need two instead of one bit? How is that possible? The bits I am referring to is the curb bit with lever action in combination with a bradoon.

Again, I see that the more lever action you have on a bit the ‘lighter’ you can be as rider, but how does this make the horse better? How does this contribute to the ‘Happy Athlete’ so many people call a dressage/performance horse? I just don’t get it. Unless, it (horse riding) is not about the horse…

Speaking about athletes…. I
f you want your horse to be a Happy Athlete, don’t you want him to be truly happy? Don’t you want what is best for your horse?

4 Why do people call a dressage horse a ‘Happy Athlete’?

happyathlete_or not

They take away their freedom and lock them up 22 or 23 out of the 24 hours. How can that be a happy horse? I have only seen once in 40 years a ‘Happy Atlete’ in a pasture with other horses (Grand Prix level horse). Roomy group housing is #1 priority if you want to encourage natural behaviour and welfare. In other words: to make him happy. It is in the 3 important F’s: Freedom, Friends and Forage.

 

Speaking about forage: why don’t we give Happy Athletes a diet that is natural and suited for the horses digestive system? ‘Happy’ Athletes are usually given a starch rich (grains) and oil rich diet and without enough roughage (his natural diet). How can feeding  a horse something his body isn’t really adjusted to, make him feel good and happy?

Most of the ‘Happy Atletes’ I have seen (except for the ones I saw in The Netherlands in a field) suffer from all kinds of stereotypical behaviours. How are they ‘Happy’ Athletes?

What questions do you ask?

_Kyra_en_ik_hippologicSandra Poppema, B.Sc.
My mission is to improve horse-human relationships by educating equestrians about ethical and horse friendly training. I offer online horse training courses to empower you to train your horse in a 100% animal friendly way that is FUN for both you and your horse.
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The 5 essentials of good riding lessons (1/5)

To be honest most riding lessons I attend look more like a ‘struggle’ than fun. Not only for the rider, but also for the horse. Does it sound weird if I say this depresses me? It doesn’t have to be like that. Really, horse riding can be easy and fun, for both rider and horse.

5 Things I would like to see more of in today’s riding lessons are:

  • Independent seat
  • Schoolmasters
  • Facts about horse behaviour
  • Positive reinforcement
  • Attention for the horses emotions

Independent seat

When I was following Centered Riding lessons I got very enthusiastic about riding again. Instead of,hearing over and over the same instructions that seemed physically impossible to follow, I now was moulded into a balanced position before I was asked to walk.

I improved my riding in every lesson

Instead of hearing ‘Keep your shoulders back, sit straight, look forward’ (which was

CenteredRidingwith Lucie Klaassen2

Riding instructor Lucie Klaassen giving a lesson about the seat, picture by Christa Balk

shouted to me for years), I was encouraged to test the unbalanced seat and then the balanced seat again. This shifted the feeling of the new position from feeling awkward to normal. It allowed me to reset my position to a proper one.

I discovered that following instructions about the position of my arms and legs are useless unless I balance my pelvis first. These type of instructions only help to mask the problem instead of fixing the root cause. This seems to happen a lot in lessons.

 A balanced seat feels very safe

A balanced seat provides a very safe feeling. If the rider is balanced a lot of tension in the body can be released and the seat becomes independent. I miss this in almost all the riding lessons I’ve attended. Novice riders are encouraged into a trot while they are not even balanced in walk. That doesn’t contribute to comfort or safely for horse and rider.

DSC_1381

Good instructors spend time to explain the seat. Picture provided by Lucie Klaassen, made by  Johan Auerstedt

Sometimes due to the unbalanced rider, the horse is protesting in some way and the instructor tries to fix that symptom. Horses are uncomfortable with unbalanced riders and can hollow their backs which causes the horse’s head to go up and against the bit or they go into flight mode and run off.

Instead of using a martingale or riding small cirkels to slow the horse down a balanced rider can fix this instantly. I have seen horses change in minutes when the rider was helped to sit balanced.

Things to look for in a riding instructor

I wish more instructors invested time in explaining and practising an independent balanced seat. Ask your instructor about his or her background. Find out if (s)he has knowledge of the anatomy of rider and horse. Instructors who have done Centered Riding, The Murdoch Method or have a background in equine or human bodywork are more likely to pay attention to the riders pelvis, where the balanced seat starts.

Tell me about your best riding instructor!

Sandra Poppema, BSc.
Are you struggling with applying clicker training under saddle? Visit my website to book an online consult. I will be honoured to help you and your horse out. I’ve 2 decade experience with teaching equestrians to ride and train their horses in a horse-friendly way.

(Lucie Klaassen is a Dutch riding instructor. Thank you for providing the pictures)

Read more in this series The 5 Essentials of Good Riding lessons
Part II: Schoolmasters
Part III: Facts about horse behaviour
Part IV-a: Positive reinforcement (horses)
Part IV-b: Positive reinforcement (riders)
Part V: Attention for the horses emotions

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