Q: What do you think are the biggest barriers today to horses being trained humanely?Lack of appropriate socialization during the development phase of the horse's life, birth to two years old. Horses need to first become horses, as taught by the mare and herd, to subsequently become willing learners and partners for folk. Husbandry is also critical. Horses require friends, forage, and locomotion, and often these necessities are restricted by stabling and change, resulting in inability to learn, resulting in heavy handed training tactics. Horses are willing to please those who know how to please horses. Horse lives must be fulfilled and enriched when they are stabled if one expects them to train up and learn willingly.
Q: How can understanding learning theory help the average horse owner?It is essential to appreciate learning theory, but perhaps more important is to appreciate the social nature of the horse so one can fulfill the needs of the horse before the training begins. Learning theory is only helpful if horses are cared for in a fashion that facilitates and encourages them to be in a learning state of mind when the training takes place. Horses need to be socialized, fulfilled, and enriched, and that requires a knowledge of equine behaviour.
Some horse trainers cannot articulate or explain learning theory, but they do know the fundamentals of shared sociality, and many, although ignorant of the science, apply learning principles properly. Nonetheless, it is preferred to know the science and to understand socialization. Social species require abundant socialization. Some folk, such as Native Americans and those raised by horses through childhood, intuitively know how to train horses, as they were taught by horses. They know the science, they just do not know it as science as they effectively enter the horse's social milieu. No one told them they had to become the horse's boss, only to become the horse's friend, and those folk succeed quite well. Those who have trouble training horses are those who try to establish dominance to an excessive degree.
Q: What or where do you feel the best source is for owners and trainers to learn more about training and learning theory?They need to take equine behavior at Equine Guelph, and/or read and study McGreevy's two books, Equine Behaviour and Equitation Science. If the people are young (or agree to take a stance of innocence and open-mindedness), they should observe horses in natural settings, and hang out with horses whenever possible. Horses teach horsemanship to those with the right eyes. Kids often have the right eyes, while adults often lose their capacity to see what horses are saying and feeling. Rather than listening to and learning from horses, they attempt to domineer them.
Q: What do you think is the best recent advance in horse training?Understanding domestication, which reveals the importance of pair bonding with each horse one desires to teach. It was the horse's idea to take up with mankind, it seems. They showed up willing to please. Other than that, not much else. One must go back in time to find advances that have long since been lost. Peggy Brown felt advances in equipment were the best advances, but I say the less equipment the better, so I do not believe in equipment and tack, especially rigs. The best advances in equine training would be, again, at Equine Guelph where Equine Behaviour is taught as a science based discipline based on the evolution, domestication, and behaviour of the horse.
Q: What do you think is the biggest disservice to horses in the trends of horse training today?Lack of appropriate socialization is a great disservice to growing horses, as is interference with the mare/foal bond shortly after birth (imprint training is a significant welfare and behavioral insult to foals). The mare is the most qualified teacher of a foal, and teaches the foal to become a horse, as well as to pair bond. For a person to believe they know more than a mare is a mistake. Any child can observe imprint training and know it is wrong to interfere with a neonate and her mother's relationship. After a week, the people can begin training. For the first week, the best way to develop a foal to become a willing partner is to let the mare teach the foal all about willing partnerships.
Once the horse is grown and ready to train at two or so, isolation becomes a big problem for the well-being of the horse. Stabling without 24/7 forage, friends, and locomotion creates all sorts of learning disabilities and unwelcome behaviours. Only happy horses learn well and efficiently. The happiest horses are those allowed to graze together. The unhappiest horses are locked in a stall much of the time, and are the least likely to learn willingly.
What do you perceive to be a common accepted mistake when training horses?Trying to exert dominance over horses. One must always remember that it is the horse who will always have the last word.
This mistake of attempting to establish dominance is unfortunately not commonly accepted. Horses are the most adaptable, willing learners on the planet. They are more than happy to be taught and to appease their teachers if only they are allowed appropriate socialization, and subsequent application of learning theory, which includes bonding practices. Coercive training is unproductive. Horses cannot be forced to prevail in athletic competitions. Horsefolk must seek and attain willing partnerships with horses to prevail in athletic competitions. One cannot force a horse to win the Kentucky Derby, one must work with the horse's nature every step of the way.
It is the herd of horses that teaches foals to run at speed in close company with other horses. It is the herd that gives the horse the confidence to run through and by other horses in a horserace.
One is best served to recreate the learning scenario the mare and herd creates for their foal. Mares teach utilizing pressure, release, reward. As well, the foal learns by mimicry. To learn how to walk the horse talk, watch mares teach their foals. Horsemanship is becoming part of the herd, it seems.
Dr Gustafson is an equine veterinarian, veterinary behaviorist, and novelist. He helps refine horse and dog training methods to accommodate the inherent nature and behavior of horses and dogs. Applied veterinary behavior enhances optimum health, performance, soundness, contentment, and longevity in animal athletes. Natural approaches to development, training, nutrition, and conditioning sustain equine health and enhance performance. Behavioral and nutritional enrichment strategies enhance the lives of stabled horses. Training and husbandry from the horse's perspective result in content, cooperative horses. DrSid provides equine behavior consultations to help recreate the needs and preferences of horses in training and competition.