As an equestrian coach and riding instructor, most of the clients that I work with come to me with a pre-existing knowledge of traditional horsemanship. One of the most prevalent challenges that I face in my line of work, is transitioning those riders from aversive techniques to force-free methods of riding. Many riders have trouble fathoming that control can come from a non-compulsive approach when they have been using traditional methods with “success” for years. After all, sitting on the back of a 1,000+ pound animal is a full-contact sport, and the idea of giving up a perception of control to gain more control can be unnerving.
Now I put the term “success” in quotes, because the definition of success is relative. Everyone defines success in different ways. However, defining what success means to each individual rider has been an incredible resource for devising tools that have proven invaluable in transitioning riders to force-free methodology. As positive reinforcement trainers, we know that the value of a reinforcer is determined only by the recipient. Of course, this principle transfers to our human clients as well.
The great thing about working with humans (which is not something you often hear in this line of work), is that we can clearly articulate our thoughts to one another. With this in mind, I took the liberty of asking all of the riders that I know what components of a riding experience are valuable to them. Here is what we came up with:
Safety and Security
Sense of Control
Immediacy and General Responsiveness to Cues
The interesting thing is that all of these answers are egocentric, they revolve around the rider’s needs and not the horse’s. Does that mean that the horse’s experience doesn’t matter to the rider? NO! But, it does give us some much needed insight into where it falls in a rider’s list of priorities.
As a force-free instructor it becomes my responsibility to intertwine the needs of the rider to the needs of the animal. I can teach a rider how aversive stimuli can lead to adaptation and habituation, which can decrease the immediacy and general responsiveness to cues. I can show a rider that building confidence with enrichment and positive associations can lead to a calmer and more predictable horse. We can differentially reinforce incompatible behaviors, to get the same response with different “cues”. For example, rather than using aversive pressure from the bit, quickly training a default halt behavior to achieve a stop in which the cue is a release of pressure. Through creative teaching I can demonstrate how letting go of compulsion can increase control. I can illustrate to the rider how reinforcement fuels intrinsic motivation, leading to more engagement and a higher level of performance. Once we enter the rider’s schema, we open the door to a more conscious form of riding.
From there I show my students how they impact the horse’s performance both consciously and unconsciously. Their position while riding, or equitation, plays a major role in the overall movement of the team. When we experiment with variations in position, and the effect on performance, the rider can feel that instant reinforcement effect when the horse elevates from a simple adjustment in the rider’s balance. These moments of instant response are immensely reinforcing. After all, operant conditioning is all about the subject’s ability to control their surroundings.
My goal is the same for every student, to provide each with the tools and knowledge necessary to understand and communicate effectively with any horse. Horses are the best teachers, coaches, and critics that we have. They can tell us when our riding position is inhibiting movement, when we haven’t taught a behavior clearly enough, when they are too nervous to perform adequately, and when a situation is too dangerous to attempt. When we learn to listen for, and truly absorb our horses efforts to communicate, we can advance from vehicular equestrianism to a more advanced level of performance based on cooperation. All riders can benefit from learning how to engage, motivate, and empower the horses. By extinguishing force from the rider’s repertoire we will advance equestrianism to a new level of performance.
To learn more please join me for my lecture “The Conscious Equestrian - Extinguishing Force from the Rider’s Repertoire.” at the 2016 Pet Professional Guild Educational Summit in Tampa, Florida on November 10th.