The Role Of Science In Understanding Horsemanship


Recently there has been interest on this page in the scientific merits of positive reinforcement methods in training horses. Then this morning I read a post by John Saint Ryan about his reasons why he is involved in the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES), in which he gave good and valid reasons for his interest in the scientific study of horsemanship. So I thought maybe it is time I gave my take on the science of horsemanship, so people can put my views into context.


Firstly, it seems important for some people that before anyone can express a view; they must state their credentials (with the mistaken assumption that credentials validate an opinion).


I have a PhD in Physiology and spent about 15 years as a medical researcher in the field of experimental heart surgery (developing techniques for improved methods of cardiac surgery) and then in fetal endocrinology (the study of hormones in fetal development and birth). I have authored and coauthored dozens of papers in quality journals, held grants, received awards blah, blah, blah….  – you get the idea. So that’s about me.


Now let’s talk about science – what it is and what it isn’t. If you have not worked in science, there are some things you may not know.


The first thing I want to say is that science is a business. It’s a business like business is a business. It is not a group of altruistic people endeavouring to make the world a better place either for people or for horses. It’s a business. People’s careers, reputations, financial rewards, advancements and self-esteem are tied up in the business of science – not the science of science. A person’s success in science is as much tied into making the right connections, working in the correct field, giving positive reviews to certain people’s grants and negative reviews to others, and publishing anything and everything you possibly can irrespective of the merit of your work. Not only is it a business, but also it is often a cut-throat business.


The winners in science are often not the best scientists doing the best science. Too many times they are the best self-promoters doing less than the best work in their field. So don’t be impressed by scientists with high profile reputations.


The second thing about science that you should know, is that publication of a person’s work is not a guarantee that the work is good. Even peer review of a manuscript does not protect against bad science being published.


Probably the biggest problem that impacts on the quality of science is that a person’s career is linked to the number of publications. The quality of the work is less important than that it is published. The more publications, the faster a person rises to the top. The result is that a lot of nonsense gets published. Many scientists know their work is crap and hunt around for whatever journal is likely to publish it.


But the more damaging problem that the need to publish brings is scientific fraud. When a person has 3 kids and a mortgage, and his job depends on getting the next grant funding, the pressure to have top-level results from your work is enormous. Some people get creative with their results. I have personal experience of this when I discovered a colleague had made up some results. My colleague denied it, but couldn’t explain how he achieved the results. When I went to the director of the institute to talk about it, I was told to say nothing because the results were already published in a prestigious journal and a big 5 year grant for $20 million was about to be decided.


I believe scientific fraud is as common as fraud in business. And like in business only a fraction of it is ever discovered.


Now what has all this got to do with horses and horsemanship?


I have noticed in recent years that a lot of the principles of horsemanship have come under the scrutiny of behaviourial scientists. In addition, labeling a principle in horsemanship as “scientifically validated” seems to transform the principle from a theory to a fact, in the minds of many.


This would not be a problem for me, except that when I have reviewed the studies for myself, too much of the research is bad. Mostly this is due to poorly designed studies that do not allow the researcher to make the conclusions they claim. In many cases of poor studies that I have reviewed, it seems that the researchers have designed a study to prove their theory. However, this automatically builds a bias into the results and conclusions. In good scientific methodology, a study is designed to test a theory, not prove one. The difference in the outcome of results can be huge.


My theory (and it is only a theory) and general impression is that many of the workers in the field of equitation science come from departments of psychology and behaviour. It seems from reading their work that many lack the training and understanding of the scientific method and the rigour it requires. Designing good studies is hard, even when the answers can be black and white. But it is far more difficult when looking into behaviours that are affected by a multitude of factors. For this reason, behaviourial science needs to be even more rigorous than some other fields – but it doesn’t seem to be the case.


When the studies are badly designed, they are badly designed and it is no excuse for accepting the results as “scientifically proved”. It reminds me of the state that the field of epidemiology was about 50 years ago. It was poor science, performed by medical doctors who had no understanding of scientific method. 


Please don’t misunderstand me. I believe, when done well, science is beautiful, elegant and shines a bright light on the truth. But when done poorly, it is little more than a confidence trick. The trouble is that few people can spot the difference.


I’m guessing that most of you reading this are not trained in scientific method and don’t work in science. The average horse person is put at a significant disadvantage when trying to dissect the truth when they hear “studies have shown” or “scientifically proved”. It’s a real problem that works to the advantage of the behaviourial scientists, and disadvantage of trainers, riders and clinicians whose experience does not agree with the “scientifically proved” facts.


I believe we should continue to use scientific method to find an understanding of how horses operate and how training impacts of them. However, I strongly believe there needs to be better training of the researchers in the basics of scientific method.


In addition, I feel scientists should take the lead from the very best horse people. Researchers should look at what the best horse people are doing and then use the power of scientific investigation to discover how these people achieve their brilliant results. This is more likely to lead to a true understanding of the nature of horses, rather than the present approach of behaviourist using their laboratory-type research to tell horse people how to train horses. They should study the best in the business to find out why those methods work and not study horses to tell the best in the business how they should train.


I love good science and as long-time readers may guess, I have a very analytical mind that questions everything. However, there is too much bad science in the study of horses and horsemanship, and bad science is no more than a biased opinion. If you are not in a position to determine what is good or bad science, I suggest you do what my PhD supervisor once told me, “Assume everything you are told is wrong, until you are satisfied is isn’t.”

Math Is A Matter Of How You See It

I know this is not about horses, but it is amusing.


Problem In Training Are In What Came Before The Problems


Everything a horse learns is derived from something it learned before. Nothing ever comes from nothing. The clarity with which a horse learns a lesson is largely dependent on how well it learned the lessons that came before. They form the foundation to base progress in training.


For example, how a horse gives to pressure when we direct it to move in a round yard might be related and traced back to the day it was born and its mother moved it to suckle from one side to the other. Every experience the horse had with giving to pressure from the day it was born, to when it was halter broken, weaned, saddle broken, taught to trailer load, etc had some impact on the way it yields to pressure today. Every experience is a learning experience.


This is a useful concept to keep in mind because it means that every resistance we come across in a horse has a starting point. A horse offers resistance because a lesson that came before wasn’t good enough. In order to overcome the resistance, it’s helpful to go back to the spot where resistance started to creep in. If you can’t find that spot, then go to the spot that the horse finds less troubling and build from there.


Training progresses in increments, not leaps and bounds. Training is building layers upon layers of previously learned tasks. When you strike trouble, go back a step or two and establish more focus, better clarity and softer softness than you have. If you try to gloss over the lack of focus, clarity and softness and barge through the resistance, the problems will only become more obvious as the work gets harder and more demanding.


I believe that the secret to training at higher levels is no more than refining the basics of the meaning of the reins, legs and seat. The same meaning of the reins, legs and seat that we try to teach a horse when it first begins it’s career as a riding horse is the same meaning we continue to work on when we are performing at the Olympics. The only difference is in the refinement we have given the aids as our horse has progressed.


The same thing would be true for any discipline. If I was a reiner, teaching a horse to spin is just a refinement of teaching a turn. Teaching a horse to slide is a refinement of the stop command. If I was a show jumping trainer, the only thing I need to train is the meaning of the reins, legs and seat. If I was a trick trainer, teaching a horse to perform circles around me at liberty or to rear on command or pick up objects in its mouth is just a refinement of the groundwork I have already taught my horse when I was halter breaking it. Trailer loading, tying up, catching, standing quietly for the farrier are all just refinements of halter training.


Training may not be easy, but it is simple. When you hit a brick wall in your training program, instead of trying to blast your way through the resistance with more force and repetition, consider the option of going back a step or two and see if the meaning of your leg, seat and rein aids are solid enough for what you are asking of your horse. You should not move onto the next level of difficulty until you are sure you have the focus, responsiveness and softness to the aids that you are going to need for the next stage of training.


Horse Riding Tutorial


The secrets of riding revealed


Flooding Techniques In Horse Training


Louisa suggested to me that she would be interested in a discussion on using flooding techniques in training.


“Flooding” is the process of presenting a pressure or stressor to a horse that is not removed until the fear response is diminished.


It is commonly seen when most people desensitize or sack out horses, where exposure to something fearful is maintained until a horse stops trying to flee the object.


Two things are required for flooding methods to work. The first is you need something that bothers or stresses a horse. It could be anything from a rider’s leg to clippers to travelling in a trailer. It doesn’t matter what it is. The second thing is to restrict the horse’s ability to escape the stressor. A horse can’t be allowed to escape the thing that worries it. In flooding, the only way a horse finds relief is to give up fleeing or fighting. In most cases this leads to a horse shutting down and accepting it’s fate.


It is rare that the use of flooding leads to good feelings in a horse because the very nature of the method takes away a horse’s opportunity to make a choice. Flooding imposes behaviours on a horse and does not allow a horse to choose a response that it feels is in its best interest. For this reason, you’ll hardly ever see a horse that feels comfortable in its work when flooding methods have dominated the training.


Flooding, as a technique, is extremely common and you might be surprised to find that something you do or a highly regarded trainer does, can be counted as flooding. For example, driving a horse in a yard to create ‘join-up’ or ‘hooking-on’ is flooding a horse with pressure until the flight response is diminished and the submissive drive is awakened. People get excited because their horse turned to come into them. Yet, horses really have few choices because all other ideas resulted in being driven even more. The fence of the yard prevents escape from the pressure and the driving does not stop until the horse quits running and turns in.


Another example would be to tie a horse to a post and allow it to pull back until it stops. This is such a common method of teaching horses to tie-up that people forget the principle behind the method is to teach the horse the futility of expressing an opinion.


However, occasionally flooding does not lead to submission, but aggression. There are a few horses that appear to have missed out on inheriting the genes for submission because they will fight the training to the point of disaster. I remember attending a horse-starting clinic by a well-known US trainer. There was a horse that was saddled for the first time and did not find the feel of the girth very comfortable. When it exploded, it was scary. In fact, the horse was so reactive that nobody could get near it to remove the saddle at the end of the day. It was left in the yard all night having to wear the saddle. I wasn’t present the next day to see how they finally got it off. Even so, that horse did not respond well to the girth pressure and flooding in this case caused the opposite reaction to what the trainer was attempting. Who knows what psychological damage flooding did to that horse?


There is no doubt that flooding is part of every trainer’s methods. There are some things (like the first time a horse is girthed) where flooding cannot be avoided and is even useful. Just the practice of dropping a lead rope over a horse’s back over and over can be a form of flooding in the beginning. Nevertheless, there are ways to make adjustments to the way a stress is presented to a horse that better prepares them and brings clarity to the training. For example, before girthing a saddle for the first time, a person can prepare a horse using a belly rope or by walking beside the horse and using their hand to snug a rope or girth against the horse’s belly and then release – using an approach and release method.


However, I believe too many people make flooding the mainstay of their approach to training. I think it is because it is easy and it is quick.


Not a lot of skill is required to teach a horse to submit using flooding methods. You don’t have to be brilliant with your timing, feel and balance to get results. And you can forget about focus, clarity and softness – they are largely irrelevant when it comes to applying flooding methods. To use flooding as a training tool, a person just needs to recognize submission (or lack of it) for it to work.


Flooding is also generally a quick method for horse’s that are prone to submission. It may not be quick for horses that will argue their point until the end, but those horses are few. You won’t come across many horses in a lifetime that will fight to the end. So flooding is a way of getting a rapid change in a horse. However, it should be remembered that the change is only on the surface and does not go deep inside a horse. This is because flooding generally does not create clarity and softness – only obedience. So when obedience is no longer enough, you don’t have a lot to work with.


I am going to put this out there and I’m ready for the negative feedback, but every 3 or 4 day colt-starting clinic I have seen (and there have been many) involves predominantly flooding methods. Some trainers are very talented at using it, others not so talented. But they all exploit the nature of a horse to submit to flooding techniques in order to get them ridden and compliant in a very short time. That is a large reason why I believe no horse that goes home from a colt-starting clinic is really broken in. It is only what goes on at home after the clinic, that determines how the horse turns out. The clinic only gets them submissive enough to allow somebody to sit on them, and walk, trot and canter. But that’s the easy part of starting horses. The hard part is to get them feeling okay and directing their thoughts, and I’ve never seen that at a 3-day starting clinic.


People are often impressed with the power of flooding to create a well-behaved, quiet horse. However, it is easy to confuse a horse that has given up the fight to become submissive and obedient, with one that looks to be happy and have a good relationship with its rider.