Speaking The Language, Part 18


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.)

BLOW-UP:  ‘When a ridden or handled horse becomes hyper-reactive during training and exhibits behaviours ranging from mild tension to bucking or breaks from the gait in which it is meant to be travelling. It is most common in early training and exposure to novel environments as in “showing”. It is generally a symptom of conflict behaviour.’

Although the term ‘blow-up’ is not common in the UK, we use other terms which mean the same such as ‘explode’, ‘go berserk’ and ‘go bananas’. It is a reaction of horses who are pushed to extreme behaviour when they cannot cope with their situation. Like many equine reactions, it is widely misunderstood and usually seen as resistance and evasion. In reality, it is an understandable, justified and natural reaction to excessive stress and pressure.

‘Hyper-reactive’ in the description above means that the horse becomes much more sensitive to anything which stimulates him such as aids, the environment, noises, happenings and other horses. This is all part of the flight-or-fight response natural to him as a prey animal when faced with anything upsetting or which he perceives as threatening to his comfort and safety.

The horse will be tense, maybe trembling and stiff (with contracted muscles, ready to flee). If his head is free, it will be up. His eyes will be wide, nostrils flaring and ears pointing towards whatever is worrying him, gathering information via all his senses. His posture will be hollow and his leg movements fast and short, preparing him to gallop away. He may ‘paddle’, and ‘explode’ if his rider or handler restrains him. Stress hormones surge around his body producing defensive behaviour, which some term ‘naughtiness’, such as shying, spooking, bucking, bolting and rearing, which are all part of the flight-or-fight response now at full throttle. He needs to get away (including maybe from his rider or handler) and that is all his brain can concentrate on.

‘Conflict behaviour’ is described in the glossary as responses to stimuli, as described above, that involve hyper-reactivity; this can range from mild tension to violent reactions. It arises partly because of fear of the situation but also largely through confusion. In equitation, confusion resulting in conflict behaviour is caused in several ways.

One is the modern technique of applying two (or more) opposing aids at the same moment, such as giving leg aids that the horse understands to mean ‘go’ and bit aids that he understands to mean ‘slow down’, ‘stop’ or ‘go backwards’. Examples of this are driving the horse up to a restraining bit contact and using bit pressure to persuade, or force, the horse to adopt a vertically flexed head carriage (expecting the horse to be able to work out that the same aid/feeling means two or more different actions). Another way is by our trying to make a horse approach something or someone frightening or unpleasant, or tolerate something similar such as veterinary treatment.

Poor yet widely taught training philosophies and techniques in modern equitation are major culprits in creating conflict behaviour, too. Incorrect use of what equitation scientists and ‘behavioural’ trainers call ‘negative reinforcement’ easily triggers conflict behaviour. Negative here, to be correct, is used in the mathematical sense of meaning ‘minus’ – subtracting or taking away something (that is, stopping applying a stimulus such as an aid). Reinforcement means rewarding, strengthening the likelihood that the horse will in future respond as we require. If we do not take away or stop our aid when the horse has done what we want, he has no way of learning that the action he has just performed is the right response to that aid or pressure.

A good example of this is failing to release bit pressure when the horse is standing still in response to our bit aid to stop: so many riders keep up the pressure in halt when it is not only unnecessary but counterproductive because the horse has already obeyed. What more can he do?

Similarly, if a rider gives a leg aid and stops it, expecting and waiting for the horse to obey, but he doesn’t, the rider has rewarded the horse for doing nothing, or maybe the wrong thing, by stopping the aid. The horse has learned the wrong response and it’s our fault. The glossary calls this ‘the reinforcement of inconsistent or incorrect responses’ (from the horse). Horses will connect what they were doing the instant before the pressure/aid stops with that aid, so if we apply a leg aid for turn about the forehand, say, but the horse reins back instead and we stop the aid, the horse has learned that our aid for turn about the forehand means rein back.

We must keep up our correctly and clearly applied aid till we get the response we want, then we must stop giving it. Horses learn new responses by trial and error. A horse will try the action he thinks will remove the pressure (aid) but if the pressure keeps up he will try something else and so on, till he does something that does stop it.  Then he has learnt what to do to stop that particular pressure. On a basic level, the whole of equitation is about getting horses to respond to our aids as we wish. It is a huge subject, as we all know, and to achieve success we need to apply and release (stop) our aids in such a way that the horse learns the right response.

It makes sense to use aids that are likely to result in our desired action. So, if we want a young, green or spoiled horse to turn left, say, we can (1) put weight via our seat on the left side of the saddle (without leaning over) and look left, (2) give him a vibrating, open inside rein to the left and (3) tap with a finger on the right side of his wither. Give those aids in quick succession and, I suggest, in that order, but not all at exactly the same moment, and keep them up till you get your move to the left. Then stop them all instantly so that the horse knows he has responded correctly.

The seat aid helps because where you put your weight (and where you look) the horse will almost always go. Horses make changes of direction with their forehands so by turning the head a little with the inside rein you are encouraging him to move his forehand in that direction. The tap on the withers is horse-speak for ‘move away’: horses know from herd life, starting with their dams, that short, sharp feelings such as nips or kicks mean go away.

If you use logic and correct timing, like this, you keep stress and confusion to a minimum. To make the horse feel good, reward him, again instantly, by rubbing or stroking him firmly around the withers as horses do when they mutual groom. This reduces horses’ heart rates and makes them feel calm and good. Don’t pat him because of the short, sharp, unpleasant association.

All these aids, and others, can pretty soon be reduced to very light ones and become a conversation between rider and horse. Horses ultimately respond quickly, lightly, calmly and very willingly. Most horses are followers, not leaders, with an inclination to co-operate, and they all, under normal circumstances, want a quiet life with no hassle. Myriad observations of wild horses and ponies show this and you can see it to some extent in an established domestic herd. Some herds, though, such as those with floating populations interfered with by us are often not so calm and settled, and observing them can give a false impression of equine nature.



That quotation is by Nuño Oliveira, a devoted, lifelong student of the masters who had gone before him, and of the horse’s mind, and himself generally thought of as the greatest and most innovative, yet traditional, classical rider of the 20th century. I was fortunate enough to be trained by an equally devoted student and long-time friend of his, Dési Lorent. Whether a rider is ‘classical’ or not, many people – and I have taught some of them and had the privilege of riding their horses – do appear to ride by thought alone.

In time, basic aids can become more and more refined, lighter, increasingly subtle, and the horse will respond quicker and quicker to ever-lighter aids. This is called ‘classical conditioning’. We can eventually reach the point where we can use our torso, seat and weight to influence our horse and, beyond that, merely our thoughts! Horses trained in this way – logically, using what we now know about how horses learn, calmly and allowing time for them to absorb, react and think about things – yes, horses are capable of thinking! – are not prone to blowing up unless something genuinely terrifying happens. On the other hand, those forced to work with people who rush them, are inconsistent with their training methods, do not use techniques easy for the horse to understand, use pain, punishment and force to get their results produce horses working on the edge of fear most of the time who are certainly likely to blow up – and get more pain from their ‘trainer’ as a result.

Riders who ride by thought alone, incidentally, could be unwittingly using what is known as the ‘ideomotor effect’ described by Alison Averis in an article in ‘Equi-Ads’ some time ago. Our subconscious causes us to make the tiniest muscle movements which we are unaware of but which our horses can sense. This can also work against us: think of the number of times your instructor has told you not to do something you didn’t realise you were doing, which your horse was obeying and which you didn’t want him to do. Oh, what a tangled web we weave – for ourselves and for our horses!



Having covered the type of thing which causes horses to become so frightened, confused or frustrated that they ‘blow-up’, let’s consider how to avoid it by using ethical, kind and effective techniques in our dealings with them.

Getting our timing right is undoubtedly a prime requirement for a calm, confident, willing horse who understands what we want. Although early in training horses will respond in order to remove any pressure (aids) we are applying, in time this becomes more like a conversation with the horse. Those trained in this way observe us closely, including by feel, and can be seen and felt to wait, sometimes in a questioning way, for our vocal or physical aids – ‘What do you want, what are we doing next?’ In-hand or under saddle, position your horse so that he will find the move easy, give the aid by positioning your own body and giving the aid/s and, once he is performing the movement, instantly stop the aid, keep your appropriate position and let him do it – don’t keep asking him. Praise him with voice or stroking near the withers and when you want to finish the move just put your body in position for the next one or sit neutrally. He will take his cue from that.

Acquiring body control and position: Yours, that is. Riding is an athletic pursuit for you and your horse. You need strength, suppleness and co-ordination, earned through practice and training. The classical seat is so effective because it is mainly about weight distribution and all-important balance so that you can work together with the least effort. It is easily adapted to jumping and fast gaits. I recommend The Classical Seat book and DVD’s by Sylvia Loch. Pilates and yoga are also very helpful.

Contact: It cannot be denied that knowledge of an educated, effective and kind bit contact, and an enveloping, reassuring and guiding leg contact, not to mention the wealth of communicative nuances available from the rider’s torso via the seat and bodyweight, are all becoming as rare as a straight answer from a politician. ‘Hold your horse’s hand’ securely but comfortably with NO pulling. Keep your elbows still, on your hips, and use your fingers more than your hand: hold the reins between index finger and thumb so you can close or open the other fingers to allow two-way communication. Let your legs fall softly down your horse’s sides, in contact but not pressuring, working by gentle, clear touches.

Your minds: Try this riding-by-thought thing. Think to and about your horse and see if you can receive his to you. And practise, practise, practise.

FURTHER INFORMATION: The Classical Riding Club (www.classicalriding.co.uk), the International Society for Equitation Science (www.equitationscience.com), EquiSci for the UK (www.equitationscience.co.uk), the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre (www.aebc.org.au) and the Equine Behaviour Forum (www.equinebehaviourforum.org.uk). Also, follow up the links and publications on each site.

(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 co-publisher of ‘Tracking-up’ (see advert this issue). For lessons and clinics in and near Lancashire, ring 01254 705487 or email horses@susanmcbane.com.

Author: Features Editor

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