"You just have to be more strikt, your horse is messing with you. "Sentences like these can be heard at every stable. They come up, for example, when your horse stops and won't let you lead him on, when he fidgets at the farrier and doesn't give his hooves properly, or when he keeps running to fast during training on the oval track and you have no idea what you can do.
If we assume that our horses make fun of us in training when they storm off again and again when they are supposed to be tolt slowly, we assume that horses do this deliberately and purposefully. But can horses do this at all?
To answer this question, we need to take a look at the horse's brain.
The horse brain is structured differently from our human brain. Probably the biggest difference is that the cerebellum is much more pronounced than the cerebrum.
The cerebellum is the control organ of voluntary motor activity and it plays an important role in relation to the coordination of the horse ( (vgl. Physiologie der Haustiere, Thieme Verlag).
The cerebrum controls most of the horse's activities by processing information from the sensory organs. At the same time, it is the seat of consciousness and memory, because the prefrontal cortex is also located in the cerebrum. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for aspects such as planning, social behaviour and cognitive performance and is much more developed in us humans than in our horses.
From this we can conclude: A horse is not at all capable of fooling us riders because it lacks the corresponding brain power to act with foresight and planning.
But that does not mean that horses are stupid! Rather, a horse behaves in a way that is in its nature: It strives to survive, to secure its existence and to satisfy its needs.
Transferred to the training situation, this means that a horse will always do what is asked of it - provided, of course, that it understands what is asked of it and can physically implement it. The horse has learned that nothing will happen to it if it bows to the rider's wishes. This ultimately ensures - to put it bluntly - its survival, existence and satisfaction of needs.
Stress in horse training
In recent years, a lot has happened in the field of equine behavioural research. Today, we know more and more about how stress affects the horse's body.
If a horse feels stress, for example, the flight instinct is activated. The horse itself has little influence on this instinctive behaviour because the emotions are controlled by a specific area of the brain. This area of the brain is activated as soon as a perceived danger occurs. In addition, adrenalin is released in the body, which ensures an increased readiness to flee. The stress hormones attach themselves to the hippocampus, which is more or less the horse's learning area. The result: the horse can neither think clearly nor learn, nor can it control its flight reflex.
Of course, this is a very simplified presentation and does not cover the topic of stress in its full depth. But at this point it would go too far to go into the chemical processes in the horse's body and the different types of stress. If you want to delve more into the subject yourself, we recommend the book Fear, Stress and Insecurity in the Horse by Christine Dosdall, Viviane Theby and Kathrin Wycisk.
So if a horse repeatedly starts to run away from under the saddle during training, it is very rarely because the horse is making fun of the rider because it feels like running. More often it is because the horse feels stress and the flight reflex has been activated.
Stress is more common among horses than you might think. Studies show that at least every third leisure horse suffers from stomach ulcers - as a result of stress - and every fourth horse shows depressive symptoms. (Source: barnboox)
The most common stress factors include:
Lack of space
Mental and physical overload
Our task is to build up the training in such a way that our horse feels as little stress as possible. Only when he trusts us can his reaction to frightening stimuli steadily decrease.
Of course, it does not mean that a horse should never experience stress. After all, moderate stress can also increase the horse's learning performance. It only becomes problematic if the stress is too strong or longlasting, and if we also punish our horse for its behaviour because we think it is taking the piss.
It is not possible to say in general terms which factors cause a horse stress. This varies from horse to horse. Furthermore, there is no clear definition of stress. In the book Fear, Stress and Insecurity in the Horse it says: "In general, it can be said that stress is the body's reaction to a stress stimulus with the aim of surviving a situation of increased stress. "
Basically, however, it can be said: Everything that overstrains the horse physically and/or mentally and/or causes it pain creates stress.
Stress can be recognised among other things
high muscle tone
a head held high
a tense mouth
a pinched tail or a beating tail
wrinkles above the eyes/eye triangle
Reflect on the training situation, reduce stress
So when our horses don't react the way we want them to in training or when we are dealing with them, we shouldn't get angry straight away. Instead, we should ask ourselves what the reason could be that our horse behaves the way it does.
Example 1: My horse is lazy
Many riders are annoyed that their horse is lazy. "That's too strenuous for him now", they often say uncomprehendingly. But it goes without saying that the exercises and lessons are strenuous for our horses. When we go to sport and train, we also find the exercises strenuous.
Sometimes, however, these supposedly stubborn and lazy horses are simply particularly clever: they refrain from expending unnecessary energy because they need it in case of flight. And we remember: a horse strives to survive and secure its existence. We have to make the strenuous training so palatable to such a horse that it is motivated to cooperate and realises how worthwhile it is to expend energy.
Which motivator works best with such a horse cannot be said in general terms. A motivator does not always have to be praise for food. If you are honestly and openly happy with your horse and acknowledge its performance, this is often very motivating. Exercises can be built up in small steps so that learning success is guaranteed. And when horses notice that their bodies are changing positively, that they are getting stronger and more stable, this often motivates them to work on demanding lessons together with their humans. At this point we have another book tip for you: Selbstbewusste Pferde by Imke Spilker.
What is certain in any case is that anger and frustration are completely out of place with these horses.
Example 2: My horse runs way to fast
If a horse runs away under the saddle when it is supposed to be tölting slowly, it may be that it cannot (yet) physically implement the slow pace because it lacks the necessary carrying power and balance (keyword: speed stabilised). It can also be that it cannot understand the rider's aids because they were not given correctly or were taught incorrectly, or that it is in pain because it is forced into a posture that is uncomfortable for it. It can also be that the saddle or the clinging, stiff rider presses uncomfortably on the back.
But maybe the horse just needs a break to recover physically or mentally - after all, horses can only concentrate for about 10 minutes at a time. Physical or mental overload very often causes stress. The behavioural biologist Marlitt Wendt writes about this in her book Vertrauen statt Dominanz: "[...] Reasons for various resistance and apparent dominance problems are the over- or under-challenging of the horse in everyday training. [...] Horse-friendly training is oriented towards both the physical and the mental possibilities of a horse. [...]" (S. 99)
Treating the horse with respect and understanding
So instead of getting angry that our horse does not behave the way we want it to and punishing our horse for what we see as unruly and wrong behaviour, we should rather start to show our horse more understanding. We should ask ourselves what could be the reason that he reacts the way he does. For example, we could shorten the training sequences, we could make the learning steps easier, we could have our equipment checked and the like.
And it is obvious that small-step training makes it much easier for us to reach the big goal: Our horse is much more motivated to train with us and due to the reduced stress factor, the muscle tone is also reduced. The quality of movement therefore increases because our horse can move in a much more relaxed and supple way.
In the end, we are all Sportsfreunde. A Sportsfreund is not only a (horse) sports lover, but also a friend with whom we do sports together. And we should treat this friend with as much respect and understanding as we would wish for ourselves.