Welfare of horses: the good training of horses

Does your training system stand the test of science?
​The 8 principles of good training system defined by the International Society for Equitation Science


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The International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) is a not-for-profit organisation that chiefly aims to facilitate research into the training of horses to enhance horse welfare and improve the horse-rider relationship.
Equitation science promotes an objective, evidence-based understanding of the welfare of horses during training and competition by applying valid, quantitative scientific methods that can identify what training techniques are ineffective or may result in equine suffering.
​The Society’s mission is to promote and encourage the application of objective research and advanced practice which will ultimately improve the welfare of horses in their associations with humans.

The following 8 principles were originally defined in the peer-reviewed scientific literature (McGreevy and McLean, 2007 - The roles of learning theory and ethology in equitation. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, Volume 2, 108-118).
​The application of these principles is not restricted to any single method of horse-training, and we do not expect that just one system will emerge. There are many possible systems of optimal horse-training that adhere to all of these principles.

Principles in horse training: 
1. Understand and use learning theory appropriately. Learning theory explains positive and negative reinforcement and how they work in establishing habitual responses to light, clear signals. (Note that “positive” and “negative” when applied to reinforcement are not value judgements, as in “good” or “bad”, but arithmetical descriptions of whether the behaviour is reinforced by having something added or something taken away, e.g., pressure. For example, when the horse responds to a turn signal and the rein pressure is immediately released, negative reinforcement has been applied.)
2. To avoid confusion, train signals that are easy to discriminate. There are many responses required in horse-training systems but only a limited number of areas on the horse’s body to which unique signals can be delivered.
3. Train and shape responses one-at-a-time (again, to avoid confusion). It is a prerequisite for effective learning that responses are trained one-at-a-time. It is critical in the training context that the horse’s responses are correctly reinforced and that the animal is not subjected to continuous or relentless pressure. Prompt and correct reinforcement makes it more likely that the horse will respond in the same way in future. Learning theory explains how classical conditioning and habituation can be correctly used in horse-training. From the horse’s viewpoint, overlapping signal sites can be very confusing, so it is essential that signals are applied consistently in areas that are as isolated and separate from one another as possible. To do this, each response must be broken down into its smallest possible components and then put together in a process called “shaping”.
4. Train only one response per signal. To avoid confusing the horse, it is essential that each signal elicits just one response. (However, there is no problem with a particular response being elicited by more than one signal.)
5. For a habit to form effectively, a learned response must be an exact copy of the ones before. For clarity, a complete sequence of responses must be offered by the horse within a consistent structure (e.g., transitions should be made within a defined number of footfalls).
6. Train persistence of responses (self-carriage). It is a fundamental characteristic of ethical training systems that, once each response is elicited, the animal should maintain the behaviour.
7. Avoid and dissociate flight responses (because they resist extinction and trigger fear problems). When animals experience fear, all characteristics of the environment at the time (including any humans present) may become associated with the fear. It is well-known that fear responses do not fade as other responses do and that fearful animals tend not to trial new learned responses.
​8. Benchmark relaxation (to ensure the absence of conflict). Relaxation during training must be a top priority, so when conflict behaviours are observed in the horse, we must carefully examine and modify our training methods so that these behaviours are minimised and ultimately avoided.