It's Time to Let Go of the Reins...

Traditional riding relies on a gradient pressure cuing system. The expectation is that more pressure leads to more response. The reins are used to cue behaviors such as halt, back up, slow down, turn, etc. One cue, many behaviors. This is all immensely vague for the horse. The differences in strength and size from rider to rider make signals obscenely inconsistent. However, as riders, we are repeatedly taught, to pull back on both reins to stop, slow, or back up the horse. As we rise through the barn ranks and gain more skill, some instructors will often teach a rider to "gather up" a horse using the reins prior to an upwards transition of gait. The intention being that the horse's head will raise, and the reins will have too much slack if they are not shortened before taking off. A novice rider or instructor may actually have the intention of setting the horse's head or collecting the horse with the rein pressure, though I will save that for another post. One of many problems is that the rein pressure is primarily (traditionally) used on both sides to slow and halt a horse by creating an aversive pressure that the horse would like to escape from. Over time the horse learns that stopping or slowing relieves the pressure, a prime example of negative reinforcement. 

Here is where things get contradictory; A traditional rider adds more leg pressure (aversive stimulus) to cause the horse to move forward (escape response) while "gathering up" the reins to signal an increase in gait speed. If the horse slows, hemay get punished and therefore begin to associate rein pressure with the contradictory behavior "go faster". All the while, the horse is experiencing constant pressure, and the only information that he is receiving about which response is correct is a lesser degree of aversive stimuli. The situation is stressful for the horse, and science tells us that stress inhibits an animal's ability to learn. So what in the world are we teaching? At that point we create a conditioned aversive stimulus wherein the rein pressure essentially becomes a signal that worse things are to come if the horse does not speed up. However, when we want the horse to slow down, this can cause serious problems. We create horses that run "through the bit", and we are taking away control and cooperation by being unintentionally inconsistent and unclear. Over time more effort is required from the rider to "control" the horse, and there is a cap on how much physical strength we have.

It's time to let go of the reins and create reliable behavior that is not contingent upon the presence and use of equipment. We need to teach the horse internal control of their behavior through cooperation, in an effort to lessen or eliminate the amount of external control that is necessary to create the performance that we have come to expect. 

When we hold a dog back through physical means, we are eroding the dog’s internal control over her behavior.”
— Denise Fenzi, "Beyond the Back Yard" 2015

Although this quote is aimed at the dog training community, it rings true for all animals. The Default Halt is a great way to begin the process of extinguishing force from our riding repertoire, while building internal control and better performance by motivating a horse to think independently. A default behavior is one in which the cue for the behavior is actually a lack of cue. In other words, it gives the animal a behavior to choose when they don't know what else to do because they are; a) confused, b) are not receiving information, c) not able to recognize the information that they are receiving. One benefit is that this behavior can provide riders with an opportunity to receive feedback from the horse by opening up two-way communication. We provide the horse with a way to say "I don't understand". To teach the Default Halt we are going to need a bridging stimulus, an auditory signal that marks the moment in which the horse has performed correctly, as it is virtually impossible to reward with positive reinforcement (+R) at the precise moment in which a behavior is occurring while we are riding. A bridging stimulus is anything from a quick verbal "yep!" to a click or whistle, though before getting started we need to teach the horse what the role of the bridging stimulus is and why it should matter to them. To teach your horse about bridging stimuli please see the post "What does the Clicker Do?".

Once you've loaded your bridging stimulus and your horse appears to understand the meaning, you are ready to get started training the Default Halt. Remember that this is a journey into internal control from the horse, so the less equipment you have the better, but do set up the situation as you would on an actual ride. For now tack the horse with a saddle and bridle, but leave all crops, whips, spurs, and bits out, the goal is to get rid of the need for force and equipment!

Here's how it's done:

1. Begin in a small area either on a long line or in a round pen, where you feel safe and a friend can provide back-up control in an emergency. Always ride with someone present, after all accidents happen.

2. Mount the horse and take some deep relaxing breaths, sink into the saddle, and allow all of the tension in your body to fall from your head to your shoulders, down to your hips, through your legs, and out of your feet. The goal is complete relaxation, for you and for your horse. 

3. If your horse shows any sign of relaxation beneath you, such as an exhale, gentle shake of the head, or chewing rather than clenching their jaw, click and treat. Do this about 3-5 times to encourage relaxation before getting started with the training. After all learning occurs more efficiently when the horse is relaxed. Set yourself up for success! If your horse can't relax while being ridden (this can happen after a long history of receiving punishment) start from the ground. Build trust, then teach.

4. Visualize moving forward at a slow walk, how does your body move with the horse's body? Start to move your seat gently, like a dance this will help the horse to feel what it is that you expect. The more information you can provide for the horse, the more successful your communication will be. Think critically about what you do with your body, what is your horse feeling?

5. Gently cue your horse to move forward. If you want your horse to react to extremely soft signals, provide extremely soft signals and keep it consistent. You get what you teach!

6. When your horse begins moving (pace does not matter in the slightest, just forward movement) release everything, reins, leg, tension, "turn off" all your signals. Wait. It may take a while for your horse to respond initially. If the horse is used to moving forward having been reinforced with a release of pressure until rein pressure is applied to cue the stop just wait it out, eventually they will wonder why there is nothing happening up there on their back. Be cautious not to add any more cues to "go", and relax, feel the motion, let it weigh you down. Follow along and breathe deep, stay loose and relaxed.

7. When your horse slows, mark that moment with a click. Your horse will expect the reward, which is exactly what we want. They will stop, which is your opportunity to deliver their favorite treat (+R). 

8. Within a few repetitions, you will find that the time in between you "turning off" your signals, and the horse stopping becomes shorter. We are decreasing the latency between the cue "information stops" and behavior "halt" and moving towards an immediate response. Now we can raise our criteria, rather than clicking for slowing, we now click to mark the moment when the horse comes to a complete stop. Remember to reward after every click, consistency is key!

9. Proof the behavior by teaching it at all of the gaits, and in different environments, eventually moving off of the long line or to a larger area. Remember that changes like these will require you to take a few steps backwards in your training. In each novel situation, you may have to begin again at clicking for slowing. Horses, like all animals don't generalize very well. We have to clarify that the expectations are the same in any and all situations by training it in any and all situations.

10.  Practice until the response becomes immediate, then you can fade the use of the clicker. The clicker (or other bridging stimulus) is a tool to communicate while the horse is learning to perform the expected behavior during the initial acquisition stage of learning. When the behavior reaches your expectations you can turn to reinforcement (+R) alone. We'll discuss more about fading to variable reinforcement schedules in another post to ensure that the horse does not become reliant on reinforcement to perform behavior, but be careful not to stop rewarding abruptly and permanently as this will extinguish the behavior. The stronger the reinforcement history, the stronger the behavior.

Most importantly have fun, and keep it positive. Leave punishment at the door, and remember to bring empathy. Your horse is learning, and they will make mistakes, try again and simply don't "pay" for the performances you don't like. 

The other great benefit to this behavior is that it can keep riders safe when they lose balance. Not only are we conditioning the horse to understand that by turning off our cues we expect a halt but, as we reward by coming forward in the saddle we condition the horse to anticipate reward and therefore stop when the rider comes off balance. Riders tend to fall forward most often, so now rather than exacerbating what could become a dangerous situation, we are conditioning a safe and appropriate response from the horse should the rider fall off balance. Now we have two situations in which we no longer need force to control the horse.

However, it is important that we acknowledge that different riders will feel different to the horse, their legs may fall differently, they may have a harder time letting go of tension, etc. So begin each session with a new rider playing this game, letting the horse get accustomed to the new rider. Be patient, have fun, and remember to look at riding from your horse's perspective. We will never find what we don't know, if we can't let go of what we already know. Give it a try! 

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