When discussing about horsemanship it is often considered that a talented horse person is the one who can handle all horses in all kinds of situations — even the hard ones and even in dangerous situations.
Why are horses sometimes hard to handle? A horse is a big animal who moves fast. Many of the natural behaviors of a horse can be very dangerous to a person beside the horse. When situations escalate people’s abilities to handle horses are in a real test. They have to be able to get the horse to change its mind, to make it stop, whatever it is doing when causing a dangerous situation, and do something else.
Even though it is absolutely necessary and sometimes even lifesaving for horse people to be able to handle escalating situations, I don’t think it lies at the heart of horsemanship. What lies at the heart of horsemanship is the ability to work every day with horses in a way that abilities to handle emergencies are very rarely needed.
What makes horses dangerous?
There are roughly a couple of reasons why horses can be dangerous. The most common ones are pain, fear and other states of high excitement. Because of its big size, even a calm horse can be dangerous to a human, if the horse doesn’t know how to be careful. Calm horses move slower than the excited ones, however, and therefore there is more time to react to their movements and reactions.
In terms of safety the most important thing is that the horse has to be able to keep calm in all kinds of situations. This requirement comes with some challenges, because during their evolution horses have developed special skills to survive in sudden and threatening situations. The first skills they usually use are quick flight or fight, and neither of them is safe for a human.
The ability to handle a horse in a mode of flight or fight does not lie at the heart of horsemanship, however. Instead, the most important skill is the ability to teach the horse to cope with its environment in a way that it doesn’t have to use the mode of flight or fight in the first place.
A talented horse person has good training skills. One of the simplest and most important types of learning is habituation. If a horse person knows this phenomenon well, it helps enormously in handling horses.
Habituation means that after several repetitions, one doesn’t respond to a stimulus that previously caused reactions. After habituation, the stimulus doesn’t change the behavior or the emotional state anymore. The opposite phenomenon is called sensitization. Sensitization means that reactions to a certain stimulus become bigger and faster. When horse trainers are habituating horses they have to be able to avoid sensitization.
Habituation is fast and effective when the stimulus doesn’t cause big reactions. When the horse is only a little hesitant, it will habituate quickly. Sensitization in turn happens fast, if the horse suddenly panics or experiences fear often or continuously.
The trainer has to make sure that the horse faces lots of situations that might be scary for it. At the same time the trainer keeps these situations easy enough for the horse to be able to habituate and not to become sensitized. This work has to be done gradually and repetitively. This kind of work is called systematic desensitization.
A horse who has been habituated to many kinds of surroundings and changes in its training, is more calm in new situations.
In the opposite, a horse who has many experiences in panicking and being fearful or getting punished becomes sensitized and may become even more fearful and anxious.
In other words, the skills in handling hard horses and horses in dangerous situations do not lie at the heart of horsemanship. Instead, the most important skills in horse training are the ones that make horses to feel easy — and those are the skills that make a talented horse person.
Anna Kilpeläinen, Sanna Karkulehto
Read more articles by Anna Kilpeläinen
10 Training Principles by Internationa Society for Equitation Science
Encyclopaedia Britannica: Types of learning
Understanding and Implementing Principles of Learning in the Equine Veterinary Practice
About the author
Anna Kilpeläinen is a Finnish riding instructor and animal trainer who also holds a Bacherlor’s degree in education.
For 20 years Anna taught riders of all levels in riding schools. Since 2010 she has been working as an entrepreneur focusing on instructing and horse-training. Anna is also a sought-after lecturer in topics of horse training and welfare. She gives lectures and clinics around Finland. During the last couple of years her lectures have gathered thousands of horse-enthusiasts around the country.
In 2015-2016 Anna has been one of the creators and lecturers of the ’Equine Wellfare Tour’ together with Tuire Kaimio, Minna Tallberg and Minna Rautioaho. The tour was organised by the Equestrian Federation of Finland. The lectures have been vastly popular with more than 1000 spectators around Finland.
Currently Anna also works as a teacher for future animal trainers in horse-training.