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Demystifying some training concepts and methods - A discussion about how we can create a connection

Updated: Feb 5, 2023

I hear many people say that they are confused with so much conflicting information available today, particularly on social media, YouTube etc. And I do not blame them. A priority for many people I talk to is to create a "Connection" with their horses. So in this post I'll do my best to explain what a connection means, from an evidence based perspective.

Now, let's figure out what connection actually means: When researchers refer to a concept of social connection, they mean the feeling that you belong to a group and generally feel close to other people. Scientific evidence strongly suggests that this is a core psychological need, essential to feeling satisfied with your life. Indeed, humans are profoundly social species; our drive to connect with others is embedded in our biology and evolutionary history. Horses are no different. They need, what we call a connection, with other horses. It's one of their very basic primary needs. Now, we have a defined what connection is and established the fact that it's essential. Now onto the training... Firstly, I want to say this: Just because something is on YouTube of Facebook, does not mean it's correct information. And just because it works does not make it right, either. We must respect how horses learn and keep our ways of training ethical, regardless. The current trend: There is many New Age style, online methods available for purchase. There is a vast number of free snippets and samples of those methods, designed to create an urge to buy one of these online programmes. One popular method I see often, is where a trainer waves a flag in order to get the horse's "attention" or " create a connection". Use of a flag has become popular and there is even a version for sale that folds and fits into your pocket. Very clever - from marketing perspective. But let's break things down and take a closer look at this... Why does the flag method works so well? It's simple: The trainer waves the flag towards the hind end until the horse stops doing whatever he is doing, turns around and looks at him. In this scenario, the flag creates pressure, something the horse does not like. The pressure stops/the trainer stops waving the flag as soon as the horse gives the desired response - in this case, faces the trainer. Those familiar with Learning Theory can easily identify this as what we call Negative Reinforcement aka Pressure and Release. It works on the same principle as for example, us using our reins to slow the horses legs down or apply leg pressure to produce a forward movement. I however, don't agree with the flag method being a particularly effective nor ethical method of training. Although negative reinforcement is primarily used in training horses the use of a flag is not a clear, precise and predictable cue to the horse. As an initial response it usually startles them. I like to keep training free from fear and avoid flight responses from occurring. In addition, as part of in hand training, it doesn't work in consistency with any of our other cues when the horse is under saddle, like it should, either. Another thing to consider is this: as the handler does something other than the "connection training" with the horse, let's say they clean his feet, rug him or mount him -the horse is unable to face them. As the associated with forward facing action isn't present at this point, it would mean, for the " connection trained " animals aren't connected with their handlers at this point of time. To me that would be dangerous and leaving gaps in the training. In addition, there is another old popular method for creating connection: many trainers believe that when a horse momentarily follows them during a round penning session, they are "connected". Again, a visual pressure is applied to make the horse move his feet, he is being made to run around until he "submits" - or "connects" with the person standing in the middle. The horse starts to follow him. This method, again, falls under negative reinforcement ( pressure and release ), under the Learning Theory. In this situation, the horse has learned that certain responses produce certain outcomes and he can control those outcomes by offering that particular response, in this case it's built upon horses natural tendency to follow. We must not underestimate ( or overestimate, so to speak ) the horses mental capacity. Horses are very clever when it comes to learning something like this. In time with practice, the horse learns to anticipate and we need to do less - we call this process classical conditioning. So instead of labelling the event as " connection building ", it's more practical to give justified credit to the horses cognitive ability - and think of it as a learned response. Instead of seeing the behaviour as a "connection", which is a subjective and slightly mystical concept, a healthier way to think of it would be to understand that it is a response that has been trained by using negative reinforcement - pressure and release. So how do we create a connection between a human and a horse then? I do not think that "a connection" should be trained as a standalone event. Think about, for example, going to marriage counseling and getting told to repeatedly to connect with your partner - as a standalone event. With no mutual activity, just trying to force a connection with her or him whilst reinforcing that action with something unpleasant, till your partner " connects " with you. How would you feel about that? Now, think of a horse, with a totally different cognitive ability - can he grasp a concept of this? Wouldn't it be better to build upon clear precise cues and immediate responses as part of the team building exercise? From evidence based perspective, we first and foremost need to recognize the fact that horses are different species to ourselves. We need to be in a clear understanding that the horse's ethology ( the Science of Animal Behaviour ), cognitive abilities, mental and emotional capacity, are different to ours. So, to create a connection with a horse, we must learn to understand how the horse views the world and most importantly we must learn how horses learn. This is because I think that you can only connect with someone once you understand them well. In a sense, connection is about letting go of outdated theories such as dominance and/or trying to force a connection by "being the leader". It us about letting go of the idea that horses are "stubborn, willing or keen" and other anthropomorphic beliefs. It's about letting go of the perceptions that aren't real and learning to understand about the true nature of horses. From that point on, a true connection becomes a possibility. To me, connection is simply just a by- product of good training and not something you can train as standalone event. From the viewpoint of any animal undergoing training, the more it can give consistent responses to the variety of signals, the more predictable and controllable their world will be. The deeper the animal’s knowledge of training in terms of consistency of response - the greater the rapport between the trainer and the animal. This is because of the absence of stress and presence of predictability and controllability. This, in fact, is the reason animals are able to learn cues, mild signals and aids in the first place. Horses are no different. Clarity creates understanding. Consistency and predictability build trust. A connection is a by-product of those two things.

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