Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Horse's View of The World

The information out there pertaining to how horses see the world around them has been ripe with confusion and misinformation. As new research flows in we can adjust our perspectives and increase our knowledge. Knowledge of how a horse views its world can greatly impact our approach to training because it allows us to understand why a horse does what it does and it allows us to anticipate certain behaviours and adjust accordingly.

Click here for an article concerning a horse's vision as it pertains to orientation and recognition of objects. Essentially, while a horse will likely immediately recognize an object from a new viewpoint, he might find some rotations to be more difficult to recognize than others. Hanggi's research found that horses performed best when objects were upright instead of upside down. Allowing a horse to stand relaxedly and observe its environment might be of benefit because it can allow a horse to observe its surroundings and familiarize itself with certain objects that might otherwise have caused him to spook.

Another article by Evelyn B. Hanggi and her research team that proves our horses have better nightvision than previously thought. I can recall being specifically instructed by my Pony Club instructors years ago to not ride at night because my horse would be unable to see well. There have been countless times since then however where I have had to ride my horses at night (returning home after working cattle, etc etc) and my horses have seemingly navigated with ease. Research seems to prove however that they could actually see better than I could in the dark!

As most horsemen know, the horse has two blind spots - an approximate 3 degree area directly behind the horse and another area just in front of and under the horse's nose. Each of the horse's eyes has a horizontal visual field of approximately 190 degrees and a vertical visual field of about 180 degrees. Interocular transfer of learning between both eyes is possible via the horse's corpus callosum. There seems to be conflicting opinion and research results however in regards to how effective and how developed a horse's corpus callosum is. Rule of thumb: do things on both sides of the horse at all times. For one, a horse could still become accustomed to things being done on only one side (ie, being saddled and mounted only on his left side) and later be alarmed when the human tries to do something on the opposite side. The rider needs to consider that a variety of factors may influence a horse seeming spookier touring the arena on one rein versus the other rein, from the way a horse's vision works to potential behavioural factors.

It has been believed for the longest time that horses have a ramped retina whereby they must raise or lower their head to focus objects at certain distances. Instead, it has been determined that the horse does have the limited ability to adjust the thickness of the lens but that he will raise or lower or swing his head for better visual acuity. For example, he will raise his head to focus better on distant objects because binocular overlap is oriented down the nose - here. The central retina of the horse also is believed to have a higher concentration of photoreceptors and thus the horse will try to focus objects specifically on this part of the retina. Objects viewed outside this area might even have the ability to take a horse by surprise.

The typical horse has good visual acuity though not as good as a human's - approximately 20/30 versus a human's 20/20. Though the horse's eye is much larger, the the receptors (ie, cones and rods) in a horse's eye are not as numerous and are less densely packed. Page 5 of Hanggi's article The Thinking Horse discusses this.

Approximately 146 degrees on either side of the horse is monocular vision and approximately 65 degrees of his vision directly in front of him is binocular vision. This binocular vision is what allows your horse depth perception - however, only within that specific field of course. A horse's depth perception is likely not quite as accurate as that of a human's.

Horses have only two types of cones and therefore their vision is likely similar to that of a red-green colour-deficient human. This means they can likely discriminate red or blue from grey but have greater difficulty differentiating between yellows and greens. This applies to training and riding the horse because certain objects might not be immediately distinguishable to the horse. If an object that seemingly blends in with the background suddenly moves, it is understandable if the horse then spooks. There seems to be some differences in opinion and findings however here is a 2007 study evaluating colour discrimination in horses.

It is crucial a rider understand that a horse perceives his world much different than how a human perceives his world. This is due to a difference in input from visual input to olfactory (smell) and auditory (hearing). As a prey animal they also perceive their world differently from a behavioural standpoint and respond differently than we might immediately understand. The key to training and riding a horse is understanding that horse as a horse and as an individual. In such a manner a rider can better adjust their approach to be effective and so as to work harmoniously with the horse.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Training Gone Wrong

I bring you Cleve Wells - teaching a horse to 'soften up':

We don't know the full story. However here is my interpretation of a very brief clip without context:

0:02min horse softens though actually effectively evades the bit by going behind the vertical. He is trying what he thinks could be the right answer.

0:09 Wells nails the horse in the mouth continuously until the horse 'gives'.

In all training, the horse will offer up what he thinks are the right answers or what he thinks are appropriate answers to your 'question'. An effective but gentle trainer is the one who gently tells the horse 'no, wrong answer' without force, and who guides the horse to the right answer, which he then rewards with a release of pressure, a rub, etc. Think about it: would you learn more from the math teacher that yells at you when you get an answer wrong, or the teacher who tells you matter-of-fact you are incorrect and then proceeds to explain to you how to obtain the correct answer?

I hope I would have had the guts to stand up to Wells at that clinic and to walk away with my horse.

A better way of teaching a horse to release to pressure?

Introduce the concept first on the ground - teach the horse to give you turns on the forehand and turns on the haunches via pressure applied by your fingertips, to back by applying pressure at various points (ie, nose, chest), to sidepass via pressure, etc. Teaching a horse to release to pressure is essential to his training and to his well-being in general. We want the horse to move off our leg under-saddle and to give to rein pressure and to give to the pressure of a strand of wire across his pastern if he finds himself caught up one day. Next, take this concept under-saddle and use patterns to refine what the horse already understands (this has been discussed extensively in previous blogs). I like to start and re-start all horses in a plain rope hackamore (no bosal, no shanks) so I can get that horse soft before I ever touch the sensitive insides of his mouth. To deliberately cause pain to and potentially injury a horse's mouth as Wells demonstrates in his video is nothing short of abuse. Instead, a trainer uses increasing pressure and appropriate timing of his releases and reward to teach the horse to be light. The rider is what creates a soft and light horse. This is done in progressive steps the horse may understand and is done in a gentle fashion - NOT by jerking on the horse's mouth. If you do not understand the concept sufficiently to teach your horse, find yourself a good trainer in your area who can demonstrate admirable training skills and who can help you.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


There has been some heated discussion regarding nosebands recently. Eurodressage in partiuclar has published some very good articles:

ISES Suggest to Empower FEI Stewards to Control Tightness of Noseband

Part 1: The History of the Noseband

From the article:
"One of Germany’s most popular riding manuals, Wilhelm Müseler’s “Reitlehre”, first published in the 1930s and still in print, explains that nosebands are there to hold the bit straight and quiet and to prevent that the horse opens its mouth and thereby avoids the impact of the reins."

This still holds true for the use of the noseband nowadays, for the most part. Certain nosebands can aid in giving stability to the bit (ie, flash or drop) but the noseband is most often used to prevent a horse from opening its mouth to evade the bit, to the extreme of strapping a horse's mouth shut completely. Can that stability of the bit not be achieved by other means? For example, using a bit that is naturally more stable by virtue of its design (ie, eggbutt, full-cheek, Baucher), and by allowing the horse the opportunity to pick up the bit of its own accord? Is it really necessary to restrict the horse's ability to evade the bit? Can this instead be approached by other means?

Part 2: The Purpose of the Noseband

From the article:
"A correctly fitted noseband not only helps to show the youngster the right acceptance of the bit, but also prevents that it establishes unpleasant reactions like gaping, crossing the jaws or even putting the tongue over the bit which can happen no matter how good the rider’s hands are."

So what about the youngster started in western disciplines, where a noseband is not used? When these youngsters are started correctly they also show the right acceptance of the bit and do not exhibit unpleasant reactions - despite the absence of a noseband. Personally I start all youngsters (regardless of discipline) in a plain rope hackamore:

In such a manner the horse understands expectations and to release to pressure to the rider's hands and the reins before the bit is ever in his mouth. Introduction to the bit later is usually uneventful and in fact the youngster usually even stops chomping at the bit and accepts the bit quietly within the first ride. On the other hand, I cannot argue with the benefits of setting the young horse up for introduction to the bit successfully by establishing boundaries (ie, limiting the horse's ability to evade the bit) as proposed in the article. Makes sense - assuming the noseband is used in moderation, to establish limitations without actually strapping the mouth shut. Still, is this really necessary?

From the article:
"There are FEI disciplines such as reining and endurance in which we mostly see horses without nosebands, but then these are riding styles which do not need a constant bit contact and are mainly ridden with loose reins not effecting the jaw. Dressage is about having a constant, though light contact with the horse’s mouth and for this we have to impact it. Does this automatically mean a choice between gaping or a firmly closed noseband?"

I think this proposes a valid point, but only to an extent. The validity in the argument is that it is true a reining horse is not in contact with the rider's hands in the same way a dressage horse is. However the 'to an extent' part comes into play because even a reining horse or a good bridle horse is on the bit in the same way a dressage horse is. The dressage horse should be just as light as the bridle horse or reining horse and the horse initiates this contact, not the rider. As such, I believe the answer to the question posed is: no.

"Amongst dressage riders outside the competition ring we can see youngsters and advanced horses alike ridden up to high level without a noseband, for example through the followers of the French Philippe Karl, a fairly controversial figure in dressage."

I found Karl's student Corinne Daepp's statements in the article very intriguing. I am not sure whether or not I agree on her premise however the results speak for themselves regardless, in that she and many other proficient and professional riders are able to develop horses in a manner where a noseband is not necessary. I find this interesting and can agree with it based on my own experiences:

"Badly trained horses with tongue problems or which are heavy in the hand improve if I take the noseband off their bridle. Some horses do open their mouths if I remove it, but it stops as soon as they become light on the bit."

From the article:
"Ruth Klimke...: “Uta Gräf and her stallion show that a highly trained horse does not need a noseband or a bit. My daughter Ingrid rides Abraxxas (her Olympic champion in three-day-eventing) over small jumps and in tempi changes only with a neck ring.”
German Martin Plewa, an international eventing rider in the 1970s, the German national eventing coach for many years and today the chief of the German Riding and Driving School in Münster, also expressed in a seminar some years ago that a highly trained horse should be able to do without any noseband. Former chief rider of the Cadre Noir and FEI judge Colonel Christian Carde, like the Henriquets a representative of the French approach, is in unison with Klimke and Plewa’s and told Eurodressage: “If a rider has good hands there will be no gaping of a well trained horse, so a noseband is dispensable.”"

"In principle it should be. However not all horses reach this level of lightness, not even the most highly trained one. Furthermore not all riders, not even at Olympic level, have that ideal contact with the bit, nor have those soft and feeling hands which are required to get such a contact."
(bolded done by me)

In my opinion, then these riders should not be winning at the Olympic and Grand Prix level. Allowing these riders to force their horses' mouths shut in lieu of correct classical training and correct riding is NOT acceptable, in my opinion. If these riders at the Olympic and Grand Prix levels do not have this ideal contact with the bit (whereby contact is an essential step of the training scale as a result of the overall process of training) and do not have the soft and feeling hands required for such contact, how are they winning? Incorrect contact whereby tension is present does reflect in the horse's movements:

"When the chewing musculature is braced for whatever reason the neck and the back of the horse become fixed and automatically the hind legs are affected as well."

So how is a horse being ridden at the uppermost levels with his jaw cranked shut still winning if his movements are incorrect, if his neck and back are fixed and his hind legs are thusly affected??

Continue to follow Eurodressage for more articles concerning the use of nosebands. Part 3 of their series concerning nosebands is to concern top riders and trainers and their choice in nosebands.

Next time you adjust your noseband on your horse consider why and how you use it and ensure you are using it for the right reasons and that your noseband is not potentially actually inhibiting your ability to train your horse.

Happy riding!
(and to be clear, no, I am not anti-noseband... just anti-incorrect-use-of-the-noseband-or-any-other-equipment-for-that-matter)

PS. Twice-weekly posts are scheduled to be published over the next few weeks :-D

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


One common 'rule' some trainers seem to set is that a horse must w/t/c on the first ride. Their reasoning being that by doing so you establish the expectations of achieving w/t/c, right off the bat. Fail to do so and you may run into resistance later in asking for, say, the canter, if it was not asked for on the first ride. I feel Pat answers this query aptly here:

To recap:

There are no rules

There are goals, principles, and timelines - the horse is in charge of the latter, the trainer is in charge of the goals

If the horse offers you something - take it!

Slow and right will beat fast and wrong

To further explain what Pat meant:

Any trainer has specific goals in mind as they work with a horse whether that be to have the horse greenbroke or at w/t/c or they intend to develop that horse into a proficient reiner or maybe a jumper. You, the trainer and rider, are in charge of these goals and must possess and seek the right education and knowledge to attain these goals. The horse should always be left in a better state than when one commenced work with that horse and in such a way the goal of always developing the horse to be a better horse - calmer, braver, smarter, more athletic - will be attained.

The horse is in charge of the timeline. The trainer may work with the horse in such a manner as to influence the timeline however the horse is ultimately in control. As this pertains to achieving w/t/c with a horse - the horse is in charge of whether that occurs on Day 1 (ie, the horse offers up w/t/c) or whether it occurs on Day 65 (as an extreme example). It can be detrimental to a horse's training or affect a horse negatively to tell the horse to w/t/c on the first day if that horse is not sufficiently prepared for such. Instead the trainer may wait for the horse to be ready for w/t/c and as a result the end product (ie, the w/t/c) will be a better product. A trainer has to walk the fine line of being effective with a horse and attaining their goals within a reasonable time frame and pushing that horse to progress and improve, while respecting that horse's timeline. A horse should never be intentionally pushed beyond its capabilities either mentally or emotionally or physically. It is never fair to ask a horse for something he is not ready for, then to punish him for responding in a negative manner. When we instead respect and follow the horse's timeline, we will often accomplish goals faster and better because we do all the prior and proper preparation to get the horse there.

The word principle refers to a basic truth, law, or assumption. A rule or a standard. The horse is in charge of this too because the only rule or truth that may be applied to a horse is what works for that horse. This means the trainer or rider must constantly adjust his or her approach to the needs of that horse. While one horse might need seemingly endless repetition, another horse might require to be challenged and progressed in a fashion that effectively stimulates his mind.

As a trainer our goal is to always set the horse up in a position to succeed, sans force. If we cater to the horse (while maintaining boundaries) and consider his wants and needs, preserve his dignity, and treat him with respect and love, we find the horse becomes more willing and starts to offer us different answers. What we ultimately want becomes the horse's idea because we set him up in such a way to work with us as a willing partner and to choose the 'right' answer. If you are confident in the horse's response, you can take what the horse offers and say 'yes!' to your horse. In such a manner you are working in true partnership with your horse whereby you are interacting and communicating back and forth, harmoniously.

Lastly, there are certain situations and scenarios (etc) whereby we might have to push a horse quicker than we would like. Optimally however the ideal 'slow and right will beat fast and wrong' rings true. Take the time it takes to establish a solid foundation with a horse, to really prepare that horse for the next step. The result will be a happier horse and a more thorough foundation that lacks the holes a 'fast and wrong' job creates. In the end, having to struggle through those holes in a horse's training and having to go back and fix a horse's basics or foundation will take far more time than the horse who was started correctly from the start. The horse who is worked with in a manner as Pat describes will progress rather quickly because he is interested in learning and is actively seeking to be your partner and work with you.

In my experiences it is not necessary to w/t/c a horse on the first day - I cannot recall a horse I have ever started in such a manner. Instead, we establish the basics. As the horse is comfortable with each step we progress to the next. Working with a horse in such a manner I have never encountered any struggle or resistance in later obtaining trot or canter.