Horse Behaviour & Psychology

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When I first began riding lessons over 30 years ago, the horse world that I experienced was staunchly devoted to negative reinforcement training, supported by a limited understanding of equine behaviour and the speed and convenience of force-based forms of horsemanship. I can safely say that the process of shedding those engrained patterns, cemented in my neural pathways by consistent use and a lack of viable alternatives, has been one of the greatest obstacles in my journey with horses. Thankfully, over the last five years, I have been bathing in alternative and less intense waters where horse training is concerned. Positive reinforcement training, known by many as R+ training, has been one of my explorations. This type of training, used commonly with dogs and other animals and now finding its way into more mainstream use with horses, uses clicker training primarily as a means of supporting learning. Clicker training uses a novel noise or word that is easily distinguishable for your horse to mark a desired behaviour, generally followed closely by a reward, typically of food. In this way you are able to shape behaviours and encourage curiousity and creativity in your horse.

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A closer look at the troubling physiology behind this common practice and how to support curiosity and courage in our horses instead.

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Create a Paddock Paradise - About 15 years ago, I was boarding my mare, Diva, at a private barn in Victoria, BC. The paddocks were very small and flat, with electric fence covering all the boards to prevent chewing, and Diva was on the end of the paddock row beside a forest. It was close to home, which worked for me, but Diva was deeply stressed, making it almost impossible to safely work with her or ride her.

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Who doesn’t love a horse with a laid-back disposition, the unflappable sort, unfazed by snow skidding off the arena roof? The downside of that laid-back horse is that he’s liable to be laid-back about his rider’s aids, too.

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Visiting a Western art museum recently, I was captivated by the Russell and Remington paintings of horses and riders. The harsh realities of cowboy life were portrayed by hard riding and bronco busting. Horses in action — vehicles of transportation and battle — seemed a sharp contrast to horses in our modern Western cultures as companions or partners in sport. Though enchanted by the artistry, I was unsettled by the common denominator in every painting — every rider hauling on the reins; every horse a picture of mouth-gaping tension.

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The speed of horse training differs from horse to horse and from trainer to trainer. As a trainer I am convinced that the slower you train, the faster horses learn. Not only do they learn faster, they learn with confidence.

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One of the many reasons that the words “colic surgery” tend to strike fear into a horse owner’s heart is the question of whether their horse will be able to return to their previous level of performance (or even return to performing at all). A recent research study by Dr. Holcombe and her team at Michigan State University looked at specific ways that a horse owner can influence the likelihood of this return to performance after colic surgery (1).

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Tension in horses can lead to all kinds of problems and hinder their ability to learn. Some horses are so tense and stiff that they are incapable of certain maneuvers. This can lead to frustration and anxiety, which in turn leads to increased tension.

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You are who your friends are. That adage can apply to horses, too. How we treat them will often be reflected right back at us - for good or bad. Sometimes the difference between a harsh cue and an appropriate one can be subtle. Pressure can be effective, but intensity and timing can make all the difference.

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Where Should You Start? By Jec A. Ballou. When spring finally arrives, the sunny riding season ahead can greet riders with both excitement and anxiety. Where do I start, you might wonder as you calculate how unfit your horse has become from a winter of being off work. How long will it take to ease him back to fitness? What sorts of exercises and timelines should I use? In this article, I’ll answer these questions plus offer a simple schedule in addition to some rules you never want to break.

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