Speaking the language – Part 26

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 published in ‘Equitation Science’ by McGreevy and McLean, 2010, the standard book on the subject. The glossary definition is given in quotation marks, followed by Susan’s discussion.)


‘The process whereby the unconditioned or conditioned response becomes elicited from a conditioned stimulus (Pavlov, 1927). In equitation, it is the process where learned responses are elicited from more subtle versions of the same signal or to entirely new signals.’

PERHAPS I should say at the outset that the word ‘classical’ in this month’s topic is not specifically to do with our understanding of classical riding, although classical conditioning in the behavioural/scientific sense certainly takes place during classical riding.

A very famous classical master of the 20th century, Nuno Oliveira, had a saying which explains the process of classical conditioning although perhaps he wasn’t thinking of that when he coined it: ‘At first, you may have to shout the aid and the horse will whisper the response. In time, you can whisper the aid and the horse will shout the response.

Both the above quotation from the glossary we are following and Oliveira’s saying mean that in the early days of a horse’s schooling or training, known among equitation scientists as Foundation Training, a very apt term, or in the re-training or rehabilitation of a horse who has been subjected to inappropriate techniques and has become something of a ‘problem’, we need to be very deliberate and consistent with our aids, and may need to apply more pressure, and for longer, than we would like but, gradually, the horse learns what to do (he becomes classically conditioned to the process) and responds quicker and to a lighter, more subtle aid.

This can only happen, of course, if the rider gradually uses increasingly lighter and more subtle aids to give the horse a chance to respond to them, and become classically conditioned. It can only happen, also, if the rider stops (releases) the aid instantly when the horse responds as she wishes, which tells him that he has responded in such a way as to stop that aid. Sadly for many horses today, riding with aids ‘on’ all or most of the time is actually often taught as correct whereas it is anything but.

For instance, keeping the horse on a persistently over-firm bit contact (an extremely common rider/trainer fault) upsets him, ‘deadens’ his mouth (he becomes habituated or used to the (probably painful) pressure and ignores or tolerates it), and gives him no chance to learn to balance himself and become that prized possession of a well-balanced horse who is genuinely light in hand on a contact which is comfortable for himself and his rider.

The same thing happens with leg aids. Many riders today, sometimes without realising it, give the horse a leg aid, usually with the heel, at every stride. Teaching riders to ‘keep your leg on’ as in using it at every stride simply habituates him to it and teaches him to ignore the leg, or heel, pressure. He cannot become classically conditioned to light leg aids (or develop ‘light sides’) under these circumstances.


You will note that the quotation indicates that learned responses can be elicited from entirely new signals. A simple way to elaborate on this is to use the example of weight aids, widely used among good classical riders but not so much elsewhere. Although many horses respond naturally to weight aids, such as the rider purposely putting more weight on one seatbone or down into one stirrup than the other for turning or straightening, when teaching very basic responses to aids (signals or cues) it may be simpler for the horse to be taught only bit and leg aids at first. When he is used to these and responds lightly and quickly (having become classically conditioned to them), we can introduce weight aids as well for turning, and gradually reduce the use of the rein, bit and legs (but see below under ‘A Word of Warning’).

Initially, a young horse will be taught to turn right, for example, in response to pressure in his mouth from the right side of the bit and vice versa – this is the ‘direct rein’ turn, using the inside, (right) and, more clearly, open rein. When he is responding to this quickly and lightly (having become – that phrase again – classically conditioned to it), we can introduce turning (right, in the case we are considering) in response to the outside (left) rein pressed sideways against his neck, the ‘indirect rein’ turn, gradually reducing the use of the direct, inside rein until it is simply an open rein inviting him round, with very little contact.

AN IMPORTANT POINT: It is crucial that the outside rein is NOT pulled backwards to give the indirect turn aid, as is often done, to the confusion of the horse who could think you want him to turn left (because there will be pressure on the left side of his mouth), and to the rider when the turn to the right doesn’t happen. All you do, while giving a light, inside, direct rein turn to the right, is also press the outside, left, indirect rein sideways against his neck just in front of the withers.

AND ANOTHER: Be careful not to carry your left hand over the withers to the right side: this will probably result in the horse turning his head and neck left and his quarters right, which is exactly what you don’t want.

Gradually, your horse will turn lightly and instantly to the indirect rein because – you’ve got it – he has become classically conditioned to do so. Because horses naturally control their forward direction with the shoulders and forelegs rather than the head and neck, turn aids from the indirect rein are actually easier for them and result in better-balanced turns.

If your horse is new to indirect rein turns, you can make your aid, and training, clearer by tapping with your knuckles or fingertips on the ‘indirect’ side; that is, if you want to turn right, give your light, direct, open rein to the right and tap, fairly firmly in the early days, on the left side of the withers. Short, sharp feelings like this equate to nips, bites and kicks in horse communication and they mean ‘go away’. Horses naturally move away from them so they learn this type of turn very quickly, and you can soon start gradually replacing the taps with your sideways rein aid pressed on his neck. (Once he has turned, stop the tapping or rein pressure the instant he is where you want him or he will keep turning.)

In equitation science, the hands (reins/bit) are used to slow down, shorten the stride, stop and rein back, and to turn the forehand. The legs are used to ask for ‘go’, lengthening of stride, changes of gait, increases of speed or energy and to turn the hindquarters. This makes aids very simple for the rider and very clear to the horse.

If you like (and I do), you can classically condition your horse to turn from your seat – a weight aid – as mentioned near the beginning of this article. This obviously works best if you’ve taken the trouble to give yourself a stable, balanced, classical seat (see Sylvia Loch’s book ‘The Classical Seat’). If you want to turn left (let’s have a change), just push your left seatbone forward a little, and your horse will almost certainly turn, if a little hesitantly at first. To enhance this aid, you can put a little weight on your left seatbone, and also down your left leg by stretching it down into your stirrup. Sylvia describes this as ‘stepping down into your stirrup’. Even if you do nothing else, your horse will turn because he wants to stay balanced under your weight.

However, to classically condition him (getting the same result, a turn, from a new signal – see quotation above), you need to give a ‘turn’ rein aid a second later, keeping both on together in the early days. I’d wait until he’s responding well to the indirect rein turn aid before introducing the weight aid. Once he has turned, just return your seatbone to its position level with the right one (otherwise he could well keep turning). He will very quickly become accustomed to this naturally-feeling aid and you will find it a great advantage in your riding.

A WORD OF WARNING: It is always most important to keep your horse up to the mark on his obedience to the bit and leg aids because these are much more likely to get you out of trouble in an emergency. It’s fine to ride with nearly everything condensed down into your seat and weight like a bullfighter, and your voice which is a great training aid sadly under-used today, but if your horse is charging hell for leather towards something you’d rather not encounter, such as a brick wall, a motorway, a lorry, a deep lake, the sea or whatever spells D-E-A-T-H to you, he’s most unlikely to stop from your seat or voice.

Revise his responses to bit and legs every time you ride. If he is losing obedience, promptness or lightness in his responses to those aids, as in everything else return to basics and revise them. It only takes a few minutes. Do not get angry with him because it’s not his fault. It is a natural process to become less and less responsive to a learned skill or response, as opposed to a natural or instinctive, ‘hard-wired’ one, if the teacher does not keep the horse up to the mark.

In hand, revise his ability to respond lightly to your leading aids. He must walk at your speed, not his, in your direction (including back for a few steps) every time and must stop and stand still (known as ‘park’ in equitation science terminology) when told. He must not pull you around, he must not barge, trample you, loiter with no intent of going with you, stop to investigate things, graze, talk to his friends, unless you say he can. All these things are safety essentials for him and for you. He must get into that habit and you must hold him, and yourself, to it if you want to be as safe as is reasonably possible around horses. Don’t think that because you’ve taught him something once the switch is turned on for ever. Revise everything regularly.

BOOKS TO READ: To learn more about equitation science, equine learning theory and how horses think and operate, try the following books.
‘Equitation Science’ by Paul McGreevy and Andrew McLean: ‘Equine Behaviour’ by Paul McGreevy: ‘Inside Your Horse’s Mind’ by Lesley Skipper: ‘Knowing Your Horse’ by Emma Lethbridge, and ‘The Horse Behaviour Handbook’ by Abigail Hogg.

LEARN MORE AT: 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’. A hard copy costs £3.50 and a digital copy (include your email address) costs £2.50. Please make your cheque payable to ‘Equine Behaviour Forum’ and send it 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’ magazine (see advert this issue). For information on lessons and clinics, visit www.susanmcbane.com, ring 01254 705487 or email horses@susanmcbane.com

Author: Features Editor

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