A series by SUSAN McBANE explaining equestrian and scientific terminology in relation to equine behaviour and psychology, and its effects on horses and training
(THIS series is based on a glossary of equestrian and scientific terms presented at the First International Equitation Science Symposium, 2005, and an updated version published in ‘Equitation Science’ by McGreevy and McLean, 2010. The glossary description is given in quotation marks, followed by Susan’s discussion.)
BLOCKING: ‘(a) Preventing a horse performing appropriately in any given gait by the application of simultaneous rein and leg pressure [aids]. This can result in conflict behaviour. (b) The deleterious effects of the simultaneous application of two intense cues [aids] such that neither will be learned (Hull, 1943).’
IT takes a thinking, considerate human to look at horses’ lives from their point of view and evolution, and treat them accordingly rather than applying human ideas and logic to horses’ brains and actions. Quality research into equine physiology, biomechanics, psychology and behaviour has increased greatly over recent decades but its results have not always found their way into the wider horse world. When they have, they have often not been accepted.
The founding of the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) roughly ten years ago came not a moment too soon. There had been rumblings and outcries from knowledgeable and caring horse people around the world about the increasingly irrational, inappropriate and harsh methods of training and riding which had developed over the previous few decades. ISES set out to promote logical, ethical and effective techniques for training horses based on evidence from scientifically rigorous research into how they move, think and perceive the world.
What has this to do with Blocking? It is important because, from what I see, almost everywhere in the westernised horse world riders are taught to do exactly what is described in the description at the beginning of this article. Therefore, they naturally admire and aim for a way of going, achieved by blocking techniques, that is alien and potentially harmful to their minds and bodies.
‘I WANT THAT HORSE!’
Humans were initially attracted to horses as food animals but soon harnessed their useful qualities of speed, strength and endurance. Watching them cavorting about, tossing their heads, shaking their flowing manes and arching their long tails must have created a desire to be mounted on such an impressive means of transport.
There are many different ways of training horses. The principles of horsemanship developed over the six thousand years since horses were first tamed and, even today, there are many different methods – some good, some bad, some kind, some cruel, some effective and some less so.
Horses are ridden using pressures from our legs, seat, hands (via the reins and bit or noseband) and voice, those being the means our bodies provide us with. Good, early training teaches a horse that pressure on his sides from both his rider’s legs means ‘go’ and pressure on both sides of his mouth or on a noseband means ‘slow down’, ‘stop’ or ‘go backwards’. It is amazing how readily a horse will obey us if he understands what we want. He soon learns that pressure from one leg means ‘move sideways away from the pressure’ and pressure/a pull on one side of his mouth (‘direct rein’ aid) means ‘turn towards the pressure’. Before long, he learns that pressure on his neck from one rein means ‘move your forehand away from the pressure’ (‘indirect rein’ aid).
A LITTLE SCIENCE
Good trainers know, sometimes instinctively, what equitation science has recently shown, and what the best horsemen and classical trainers have always done – that as soon as a horse has done what we’ve asked the pressure/aid must be stopped or the horse will never learn to connect or associate it with what he did in response to it. The cessation or release of the aid tells the horse he has done the right thing to stop the pressure. If the aid does not stop, he will keep trying various moves to get the pressure to stop. Whatever he was doing the instant (not two or three seconds) before we stopped the aid is what he will associate with that particular feeling. This is why we must learn to think as quickly as a horse – like lightning – in order to release an aid the instant he responds correctly. If we consistently do this, we shall become successful and humane trainers.
If we release late, and the horse is already trying some other move, we confirm that move as the one he thinks we want, and he is already on the path to confusion and anxiety. This sounds harsh on us, but it’s not really. We just need to be on the ball and in the moment. Quick and adaptable as horses are, he will soon start responding quicker and we can make our aids lighter. This is learning by ‘classical conditioning’, coming up later in this series.
Also, once the horse is doing what you want don’t keep asking him to do it, as riders are often taught to do: this, too, will confuse him and that’s the first step to his becoming anxious and fearful, which in turn can cause violent reactions or ‘conflict behaviours’ (called ‘resistance’ by the ignorant) or dull and resigned because he ‘can’t do right for doing wrong’ so gives up. My classical trainer of the 80s, Dési Lorent, used to say, by way of explanation: ‘Don’t keep asking for the salt once you’ve got it’.
The good science referred to earlier has revealed beyond doubt that horses, like humans, get upset when asked to do two opposing things at the same moment, such as ‘slow down’ with the bit and ‘speed up’ with the legs, which is what ‘blocking’ means. Horses cannot ask us to clarify our muddling instructions, so if their rider applies bit pressure (slow/stop/back) and leg pressure (go) at the same moment, they react to (try to remove) the strongest pressure. If they feel even, of course they become even more confused.
We all know that horses look wonderful when they are loose in the field, prancing along with a spring in their step and arching their necks and tails. This is the very Look that we want our horses to produce under saddle, and certainly when we want to display them to an audience, usually judges. What is not generally known today, because it is not widely taught, is that the ‘round’ neck and head carriage involved comes naturally as a result of correct work and allowing the horse to go independently in his own balance so that he can develop the correct ‘riding muscles’. The exercises needed are correctly performed bending exercises (initially large curves, then loops, serpentines and circles) and transitions between gaits and within them (shortening and lengthening of stride within the horse’s natural rhythm).
What so often happens today to achieve the Look quickly and with as little effort as possible is that horses are put, with more or less coercion, into the required outline and worked in that shape, either on the ground in ‘training aids’ (called by a client of mine ‘equine bondage’) or under saddle with a hard, unrelenting bit contact, rather than having the posture developed through good work. The head is often held in firmly, squeezing the throat area, with the horse usually going in one of the ‘behind the vertical’ ways, and the neck consequently shortened so the whole forehand is cramped, while the rider’s legs are strongly and persistently squeezing, kicking and maybe spurring, or a lungeing whip is being used ‘over-enthusiastically’ to cause activity and unnatural and excessive lift by the legs.
Instructions heard during this process are such as: ‘Ride him into your hand’, ‘Drive him up to the bit’, ‘Get him between hand and leg’, ‘More energy/activity’, ‘Ride him forward on to the contact’, all of which mean ‘make him go and stop him at the same time’ – blocking him, in fact.
With all the confusion, distress and anxiety swirling around in his head because of this highly pressurised way of riding, it is clear that the horse is neither going to learn what any of the aids mean nor associate work with pleasure and confidence stemming from trust and joy in his own body. Forcing a way of going can cause a horse pain, injury and fear, with the behavioural results described earlier. By having to use muscles and other tissues in ways for which they are not designed, the horse develops the wrong musculature and insidious injuries not always recognised. The artificial Look which results is not considered wonderful or beautiful by truly knowledgeable horsemen and women.
DOING IT RIGHT
As good training progresses, horses, as mentioned, respond faster to increasingly lighter aids. They are strengthening up and developing correctly, and are calm, enthusiastic and co-operative. It is very rewarding to rehabilitate a horse who has been worked in the wrong way. So, how should you apply the aids so that you are not blocking your horse?
Bit aids: Forget about sending your horse with your legs up to a restricting bit aid at the same moment because, of course, this will block him. Keep your legs still down his sides, touching him but not applying pressure.
To slow down, stop or rein back, apply steady, fairly light pressure to both sides of the bit. If the horse does not respond within a couple of seconds, vibrate the contact a little with both hands rather than increasing the pressure. Also, use your seat appropriately for the new movement, gait or speed, and use your voice to give a single command that he understands, making it the same every time. The voice is a valuable help in training and can, if necessary, be dispensed with as the horse becomes reliably responsive to physical aids.
To turn, in early training, give a light, maybe vibrating contact with the inside, open rein, asking the horse to look where you want him to go. The old classical aid of turning your wrist so that your fingernails face the sky is most effective in turning. Keep your outside rein still on his neck and open the fingers of your outside hand a little to allow his neck to turn to the inside. Fairly soon, you can start using sideways pressure on his neck just in front of his withers with the outside rein as well, gradually allowing it to take over from the inside, direct rein. Turning with the outside, indirect rein aid creates a more balanced turn, with a guiding effect on the forehand. You can also put a little weight on your inside seatbone and move it forward slightly, also stepping down a little into your inside stirrup. Keep your upper body upright – no leaning!
Leg aids: It is clearer to the horse if you give aids in different places on his sides for different purposes so he learns the difference and responds correctly, confidently and quickly. Keep your bit contact lightly in touch.
To move up a gait, give a squeeze with both legs with the upper, inside calf, vibrating if necessary. To ask for more activity or power within a gait, use the inside lower calf or ankle.
To turn the hindquarters, use the leg away from the direction required, that is, right leg to move left. Move it back a few inches, ideally moving the whole leg back a little from the hip joint if you can, and squeeze, vibrating if necessary.
These basics will set you on a road that is clearer to your horse, resulting in better performance. With any aid, keep giving it till you get your response. If you stop before this, you will have ‘rewarded’ the horse for not giving the correct response. This causes confusion, especially when you ask again. Also remember that where you put your weight (via your seatbones) and where you look, your horse will go unless you are giving him conflicting, blocking aids, such as asking him to turn right but pulling the left rein, looking left or having more weight on your left seatbone than your right. If you are not used to seat weight aids, sit centrally with equal weight on both and in your stirrups until you can practise with someone good at them.
(The Equine Behaviour Forum published the full glossary in its magazine ‘Equine Behaviour’. For your copy, send a cheque for £3.50 payable to ‘Equine Behaviour Forum’ to the Editor, Dr Alison Averis, 6 Stonelaws Cottages, East Linton, East Lothian, EH40 3DX.)
SUSAN McBANE has an HNC in Equine Science and Management, is a Classical Riding Club listed trainer and Gold Award holder, co-founder of the Equine Behaviour Forum and a Practitioner Member of the International Society for Equitation Science. Author of 44 books, she is a co-publisher of ‘Tracking-up’ (see advert this issue). For lessons in and near Lancashire, ring 01254 705487 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.