There are 10 Principles of Horse Training laid out by the International Society for Equitation Science that horse trainers around the world should look to as the gold standard in horse training. Failings in any of these categories can cause confusion and distress in the horse leading to conflict behaviours, aggression or apathy. Not only do these compromise performance, but also horse welfare and rider safety.
1. Train According to the horse’s ethology and cognition
This includes understanding the way the horse’s brain works, what he is capable of and what he simply can’t be expected to do mentally. Ethological considerations include keeping the horse as close as possible to his natural environment which means sufficient grazing time and contact with other horses.
2. Use learning theory appropriately
This is the science of how your horse learns. It includes the correct use of positive and negative reinforcement, methods of habituation, operant conditioning and shaping. It will also give you an understanding punishment and its limitations in horse training.
3. Train easy to discriminate signals
Train easy to discriminate signals for acceleration (including longer, faster and upwards transitions), deceleration (including slower, shorter and downwards transitions), turning of the front feet; yielding of the hind feet, head carriage / flexions.
4. Shape responses and movements
Reinforce basic attempts before gradually shaping in the desired behaviour one step at a time. Address the legs of the horse first and the head and neck position last.
5. Elicit responses one at a time
Horses simply can’t respond to two opposing signals at once so keep all aids separate. Acceleration signals must be separate from deceleration signals ie legs without reins, reins without legs.
6. Train only one response per signal
Each signal should only have one response attached to it eg leg for go forwards not for slowdown or step back. It is no problem to have multiple signals per response but you should not have a signal with two possible answers attached to it.
7. Form consistent habits
This is done through repetition where the signal doesn’t change and neither does the environment / context until the habit is reliably formed.
8. Train persistence of responses ie Self Carriage
The horse must be taught to hold their own speed, stride length, direction of travel and head carriage without the need for constant signalling from the rider.
9. Avoid and dissociate flight responses
The flight response is resistant to extinction in the horse’s brain. The more he practices tension the more likely he is to display it. It can also appear spontaneously years later and should be avoided at all cost.
10. Demonstrate minimal levels of arousal sufficient for training
The horse must be sufficiently relaxed during training for it to learn.