How does my horse feel and why does it matter?

Much of the training I’ve been doing with my homebred mare Rosie has been without tack.

She has learned to come when I call her,  to stand by the gate for me to mount, to walk on and whoa,  to turn on the forehand and the haunches,  all with the help of a bridge signal and a primary reinforcer such as food or scratches (and yes, scratches are primary reinforcers for this mare!).

Because this has been trained in the field,  without restraint of any form,  she has always had complete freedom of choice.  The field itself provides her with plentiful reinforcement in the form of grass to eat and trees to rub on, and herd mates to mutually groom with.

I have always felt privileged that she enjoys the’ work’ that we do and voluntarily chooses to take part in it.  However,  recently,  I decided to introduce a bitless bridle.  Not because I intended to use the reins as anything other than neck ornamentation,  but because I was working in a field out of sight of the house,  and my husband was worried that I hadn’t any emergency brakes. 

I wasn’t going to use the reins for pressure or restraint, simply to help him indoors feel more relaxed,  however, I have taught this mare how to yield to pressure,  because I believe it is a valuable skill for any horse to have,  in order to be safely tied up and to be handled by conventional horse people with the minimum of fuss and confusion.

It is also immensely helpful when they get caught in a wire fence as she did as a yearling,  and rather than pull through the pressure she calmly worked out how to extricate herself.  I taught this using very very light non escalating pressure, and used appetitives to reinforce the smallest try, and I believe that she found it minimally aversive.

The significant thing is that she does know that a headcollar and leadrope mean that this is a situation in which there is minimal choice, eg we are walking down the road, or the vet/ dentist/ farrier are there (although all these things have been introduced in a very positive way and are minimally aversive). Anyway,  I digress!

So, although I didn’t intend to use the reins as part of my training, I did wonder would she feel in any way that her freedom of choice had gone, that she was under compulsion to participate.

We did a few sessions with no obvious change in her demeanour.  Then came crunch time. The grass in the field was a little low, so I was supplementing it with hay.  Every time I arrived at the field,  I got a brief hello then they tucked in and ignored me. So this particular evening I arrived with not only my hay, but my hat, and the bridle. I put the hay down, then went to the gate,  put my hat on, held the bridle out and waited.

Rosie quickly got munching, then, after a few mouthfuls she lifted her head to look at me. I saw her take in the hat and the bridle,  then the head went back down. Oh well, I thought, competing resources,  and the hay is winning, and maybe she isn’t so keen on the bridle after all.

But wait! She took one more mouthful, up popped the head and she came sauntering over,  shoved her head in the bridle and stood by the gate,  for all the world saying ‘come on mum, what are we waiting for?’.

Once I was on, she happily walked across the field away from the hay on a verbal cue.

From a mechanical viewpoint, we can argue about the strength of competing reinforcers and from an emotional perspective we can talk about conditioned associations and how reinforcement history has created a very positive relationship. 

These are the scientific terms that describe what happens when a trainer and a horse interact. However the terms themselves don’t always effectively describe that ethereal otherness, that extra depth of relationship that comes from lasting love and affection, and from a two way trust.

In science we are taught not to anthropomorphise,  but sometimes, the only way we can effectively communicate what we mean to one another is in anthropomorphic terms.

If a lay person asks me what this anecdote about Rosie means, I’ll say this.

I believe that this means that she trusts me, that she knows that I listen to her opinion and value it, that she truly is a willing partner, but that, when safety demands, she will do what I ask (some might call this respect,  I still call it trust).

How many times do we hear these words bandied about, but how often really do trainers give horses choice and freedom of expression? How many trainers actually take the time to listen to their horse’s opinion,  to read their subtle body language? How many horses do what they do because they enjoy it? And how many because they’ve learned there is no choice?

Can you take your tack to the middle of the field, put the saddle on first, then the bridle,  and mount without touching the reins? How much does your horse choose to be ridden?

Happiness is a horse called Rosie.
(Nb Turning is a work in progress! )