Monday, 18 June 2012

Making the Connection

source: horsemagazine
The Scales of Training section of our wiki is now complete, though we will still add relevant content. One of our members posted a video of a GP Dressage horse working in a bitless bridle, which made me ponder: is it possible to demonstrate 'Contact' without a bit?

If we take a literal defnition of contact to be 'the soft, steady connection between the rider's hand and the horse's mouth', then this would be difficult without a bit. But if we are looking more at the overall  back-to-front connection then maybe this is possible?

The issue of whether the FEI should allow riders to compete in bitless bridles was discussed at the 2011 Global Dressage Forum and you can read the report by Eurodressage here: Bitless or Not, it's about Having the Choice.

The Ridden Horse Behaviour project is focussed on assessing and describing the observable behaviour of ridden horses rather than training methods, so we are sitting on the fence with this one! Do feel free to post your own opinions below though, but watch the video first!

(It is not possible to embed this video, so please click on the link)

Uta Gräf riding bitless: video

Tuesday, 12 June 2012


As a  follow on to the introductory article on the origins of horse behaviour:  Why Does My Horse...? I have started to look a little more into individual differences between horses. In humans, this is referred to as 'personality', but is it appropriate to use this term when referring to horses? I don't think so, as 'personality' defines characteristics belonging to a 'person'. The word 'horsonality' is even worse: what is a horson? It sounds like a horse-person hybrid! If we must coin a word to refer to a horse's unique  characteristics then 'horsality' or 'equineality' is probably more correct.

Semantics apart, are there likely to be measurable  individual 'personality' differences between horses? Well yes, It does seem as if there are. But  these are more likely to be behavioural differences rather than what the horse actually 'thinks'.

Some research has attempted to adapt human psychometrics for horses. But as the horses can't complete the tests themselves, the results may be affected to some extent by the personality of the assessor.  In one study, handlers were asked to rate horses according to the Big Five factors. One of the major theories of personality states that all individual differences can be described according to how you score on each of the  'Big 5' traits.

These are:
  • Conscienciousness
  • Openness to Exerience
  • Extraversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism.

You can read the results of the study here:

Can Judges Agree on the Personality of Horses?

If you are interested in the human application of these traits, please check out the 'Psychology Articles' page of this blog for some fun interactve articles where you can explore your own personality traits.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Nature vs Nurture

The  'Why Does My Horse.....'  feature has not attracted any questions yet, so I've written a slightly more in depth article to get you all thinking!

image source:
There are two approaches to a horse that's displaying undesired behaviour under saddle. One approach is to ask "why is this happening?"  whereas another is  "how can I stop this happening?".

Now while the latter might lead to a quicker response and possibly nip some genuine disobedence in the bud, my thought is that it's always wise to consider the root of the issue and go for a 'bottom up'  approach. Anyway, if you'd like to read more on this the full article is here: Why Does My Horse...?

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The Training Pyramid

The 'Scales of Training' section of our teaching and learning resource is now complete, though as it is a 'wiki' there is plenty of scope to adapt and add to it continually.

Please let us know what you think!

Monday, 28 May 2012

Rhythm vs Relaxation: the verdict!

Thanks to all of you who took part in the poll, and added comments to my previous post. There were also some very interesting contributions on this thread on the British Dressage Forum.

The poll will remain open on our wiki, but here are the results so far:

Interesting results? If you have any further comments or observations, do please feel free to post them below:

Monday, 21 May 2012

Getting in the Rhythm

I've been working on the 'Scales of Training' section of our Ridden Horse Behaviour Wiki, and pondering over the first two elements of the scale: rhythm and relaxation. Now, I think most of us would agree that without relaxation, trying to work on any other training aspect is futile. Yet, the German Scales of Training normally quote rhythm as the first element. Is this because there are two schools of thought? I don't think so. I think it is more with the translation of the terms. We tend to think of relaxation as referring to mental relaxation, but the German term 'Losgelassenheit' encompasses the physical aspect as well, and includes looseness and suppleness . Maybe we should think of mental suppleness rather than relaxation?

So which do we think is the most important thing to establish first in a young horse's training? Read a bit more about it here and / or take our simple poll to compare your opinion with that of others!

If you can't activate the poll below, it's also available  here: Rhythm or Relaxation poll

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Horses in the media

I apologise in advance that this post only has a tenuous link with ridden horse behaviour, and is largely full of trivia!

The 'Britain's Got Talent' victory of Ashleigh and Pudsey over and above an operatic singer and a male voice choir got me thinking about our relationship with animals and how this is exploited in the media. If any of you missed their amazing winning performance you can view it here:

There are rumours that the winning duo are now Hollywood bound, and are likely to be offered a lucrative advertising contract. The use of animals in media campaigns has always fascinated me. I can understand when they are used to sell things like dog food, but they are often used to promote completely unrelated items. What is the psychology behind this? Why are horses good at selling beer?!

I am sure I'm not alone in wondering if one of my horses could learn some tricks in time for next year's program as £500,000 would fund a fair few sets of horse-shoes. Meanwhile you can see my own particular favourite 'horses in the media', including some brilliant cross-discipline ridden horse behaviour,  here.

I promise that the next post will be back on track!

Friday, 11 May 2012

Spring Grass!

The grass is starting to look very green in the UK after all the rain we've had recently, and several people are commenting that their horses are a bit full of themselves as a result. Is there actually any truth behind this connection or is it just an excuse? 

The most obvious thing to note is that your horse may simply be consuming more grass and consequently has more energy. Fast growing grass does not necessarily have a higher sugar content: in fact as a percentage it might actually be lower than when the grass is 'stressed' such as during a drought. However the sheer volume of consumption may over-ride this. Eating too much 'rich' grass is just like any other starch overload in the horse: the digestive system is overwhelmed leading to excess fermentation and toxic by products. This digestive disturbance may well cause behavioural problems in some horses, and of course is a pre-cursor to the dreaded laminitis in susceptible horses and ponies (article on digestive supplements here)

Secondly, spring grass is often deficient in Magnesium. Magnesium plays an important role in the functioning of the nervous and muscular systems, so a deficiency could cause behavioural as well as physical issues. This is why many calmers are based on Magnesium. Supplementing with Magnesium is only likely to help if there is a deficiency, but if your horse does display nervous or excitable behaviour connected with spring grass, it's definitely worth trying.

Finally, spring grass may have higher levels of oestrogens, especially if it contains certain types of clover. This can disrupt the horse's hormonal balance. Some mares will run milk at this time of year, and I've known a few geldings get a bit fruity!

So, if your horses is a bit full of itself at the moment, yes, it may well be the spring grass!

Monday, 7 May 2012

Launch of Article Series

My post on Learned Helplessness created quite a debate on the British Dressage forum. The thread did quickly go off topic, which seems to be quite a common occurence! Anything that creates a healthy discussion is good though, and I'm sure it's because we are all essentially passionate about ridden horse welfare.

To answer some of the points that were raised, I've expanded my post into a full article, which you can access here. I hope this will be the first of a series of articles to discuss the application of scientific theory to ridden horse behaviour, using easy to understand language. The next article will expand on how ridden horses learn. If you have ideas for further topics please post them below.

Due to a limit on the number of pages a blog can host, the articles will be on a separate web platform, but you will see that there is a new page on the left side bar where they can all be accessed. To maintain free hosting, this site does have avertisements, which I hope you will not find too distracting (or expensive!)

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Why does my horse...?

We are starting a new  feature enabling you to ask your own questions about  ridden horse behaviour. Each month we will answer the best or most popular one. Your question can be quite specific, like 'Why does my horse spook at dock leaves?' or more general, like 'Why do horses bolt?' The behaviour you ask about can be quite subtle, or extreme , like this one!

A bit of background... 
Most ridden behaviour is comprised of one or more of these 4 elements:

Innate species specific behaviour
This refers to behaviour ingrained in all horses (indeed all equids)  which has developed by natural selection to maximise survival. Examples are herd behaviour and flight responses. These innate tendencies are so strong that they may still affect horses under saddle despite centuries of domestication.

Breed/ line specific behaviour
These are behavioural tendencies that have  developed through artificial selection. These tendencies may be breed specific or line specific. So your horse’s temperament is to some extent  ‘pre-wired’ , which can affect how it responds to training.

Learned behaviour
pain related behaviour
This is what we tend to think of as ‘training’. However horses do not distinguish between formal or informal training sessions: every time you ride your horse it is learning. Hence the need for consistency .

Physiological or pain- related behaviour.
Horses are generally quite stoic about pain, but this often underlies what are perceived to be behavioural or training difficulties.

Each month we will take one question, and look at how each of these factors may play a part in creating the observed behaviour. To ask your question, please join our facebook community by liking our page on the left sidebar, and then add your question to the post on our page. Simples!

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Learned Helplessness - an idiot's guide!

There have been so many references lately to Dressage horses displaying signs of learned helplessness that I decided to blog about what learned helplessness is (and is not!)

Any internet search on this topic will usually refer you to the work of Seligman and his colleagues.  They conducted several experiments, mostly on dogs . To understand the experiments you need a basic understanding of learning theory. At its very simplest this states that animals (and indeed humans) tend to repeat behaviours which lead to positive outcomes and/ or the avoidance of negative outcomes. For example, if a bell was rung followed quickly by an electric shock if you didn’t perform a particular action such as pressing a lever, you would very quickly learn to press that lever! This principle is an integral part of training the Dressage horse: a light leg aid signals the horse to go forwards – if it doesn’t go forward then it receives a tap with the whip. Horses quickly learn to avoid the whip by moving off the leg.

In Seligman’s experiments they set up various situations where the stimulus (signal) was applied but the animals were not offered a way of avoiding the negative outcome. So the bell would be followed by an electric shock regardless of any action (more here). Animals (and humans) subjected to these unavoidable negative outcomes learn that they are helpless.  Even if the situation changes, and there arises an opportunity to avoid the negative outcome, many of these animals don’t even try as they have come to believe that any action is futile. In humans this is sometimes seen in victims of repeated abuse and also in some who are clinically depressed. Animals and people suffering from learned helplessness are usually very withdrawn and non-responsive: they feel powerless to change their situations.

Let’s go back to the Dressage horse and look at jaw flexion. The usual sequence is: rider places light pressure on the jaw via the bit – horse flexes jaw – rider eases rein pressure. If the horse doesn’t yield then the rider may increase the pressure. So the horse is offered the option of avoiding the stronger pressure by relaxing its jaw. Result = happy horse, light in the rein.

But what if the horse is not offered a way of avoiding the increasing rein pressure? So the pressure is continually increased and applied even when the horse is in maximum flexion?  Is this in line with learning theory? No, of course it isn’t.  But is a horse ridden like this in learned helplessness?  Probably not. Because when it is offered the option of avoiding the pressure it does so: otherwise horses warmed up in hyperflexion would not ‘come up’ when presented in the test.

Just a bit more...

There have been suggestions that there are grades of learned helplessness, or that it may be context specific. An example could be a riding school horse that is dull to the aids, but a different ride altogether if taken out of the school environment.  Another suggestion is that horses can cope with learned helplessness in a certain situation if they ‘know’ that this is not permanent.  So a horse that may feel ‘helpless’ while ridden may be able to cope if the rest of its daily routine is stable and allows self-expression. At the 2011 Global Dressage Forum, Richard Davison light- heartedeadly likened this to girls at the supermarket checkout who look thoroughly bored but can cope because they know that at the end of the shift they can go out clubbing! These are nice ideas, but the whole point about learned helplessness is that it becomes overwhelming and the feeling of helplessness tends to be extrapolated to all situations. Horses in true learned helplessness would probably not be trainable, or even rideable. They would be withdrawn, unresponsive and unthrifty. They would certainly not go out and perform expressive tests at Grand Prix level!
I hope this post has clarified that whatever your opinions about hyperflexion and its physical effects on the horse’s way of going (I have mine, but will keep them to myself!), successful dressage horses trained by this method are not in learned helplessness.

Please feel free to post comments or questions below. If you’d like to read a longer and more scientific discussion of learned helplessness in horses, you can access a review article here.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Postulations on Posture!

Enter wiki here!
This week we have been uploading content onto the 'Posture' section of our Ridden Horse Behaviour wiki. We are trying to keep content simple, descriptive and objective, but this isn't always easy! Assessing the moving horse in real time will always involve some subjectivity because the human eye is simply not fast enough to capture what is happening 'frame by frame'. This is why you will sometimes see a photograph of a ridden horse showing behaviour which is not really representative of the overall picture: digital photography means that different stills from the same sequence can display the good, the bad, and sometimes the downright ugly! 

If you have any clips or links yourself that illustrate interesting posture in the ridden horse, we would love to receive them. You might like to also read this article on Relative Elavation and Self-carriage found here, which is also the source of this super diagram.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Wiki Horse!

Our new Open Educational Resource goes public today!

click here to enter wiki

The resource is designed to help students and industry trainees get a better understanding of ridden horse behaviour. We hope some of the pages may also be of interest to trainee Dressage judges and competition stewards, but anyone with an equine interest is welcome to view it. The wiki is purely descriptive and we are not discussing training methods or saying what is right or wrong (there are plenty of others keen to do that!)

You will see that there are a lot of gaps as it is still very much work in progress and we are uploading new content daily. The aim is that it becomes a collaborative resource: if you feel you can contribute some expertise you can apply to be a wiki member, which will enable you to upload your own content. Alternatively you can submit video footage on a stick, or via a link.

If you'd like to be updated when more content is added to the wiki, please follow this blog by email or like our facebook page.

We hope you enjoy!

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Body talk!

This week I am busy uploading content onto our Ridden Horse Behaviour wiki, which hopefully goes public at the end of the week.  

 The section on body language is focussing on the eyes, ears, mouth, nose and tail as these seem the best indicators of the horse’s internal state.

 It was interesting to see a poster presentation at the 2011 ISES conference investigating the attractiveness of equine photographs. The researchers,  Inga Wolframm and M Schnaudt, fitted participants with eye tracking equipment and asked them to rate 25 photographs of horses for attractiveness, and state whether they would  consider buying the horse (if they were looking to buy!). The results showed that the eyes, mouth and ears are the areas most looked at by potential buyers. Qualitative analysis of the photographs considered most attractive showed that the horses chosen all had pricked ears, an alert expression, and a mouth without tension. 
So back to the wiki: so far only ‘ears’ are complete!  I have been scouring YouTube for examples of happy ears in the ridden horse and  I think these are the winners:

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Hello World!

Welcome to our Ridden Horse Behaviour blog :)

This blog will run alongside the 'Ridden Horse Behaviour' wiki , which goes live next week. The wiki is an open access collaborative website, with the aim of increasing the understanding of ridden horse behaviour. It's going to be video based with minimal text and we are very excited about it!

There has been a lot of press lately about behaviour and welfare aspects affecting top level horses, but we are also (in fact mostly) focusing on horses ridden by amateurs and recreational riders.

Here is the story of one of my own horses, in a video that was presented at the International Society of Equitation Science (ISES) conference in 2011.