The power of in­di­rect train­ing

Through a mix­ture of em­pa­thy, prag­ma­tism and horse sense, in­di­rect train­ing of­fers an ef­fec­tive way of chang­ing a horse’s be­hav­ior and gain­ing his trust.

EQUUS - - Equus - By Janet L. Jones, PhD

Through a mix­ture of em­pa­thy, prag­ma­tism and horse sense, in­di­rect train­ing of­fers an ef­fec­tive way of chang­ing a horse’s be­hav­ior and gain­ing his trust.

We’ve all been there: at the cross­roads of the be­hav­ior we want and the be­hav­ior our horses pro­vide. They’re co­op­er­a­tive, even gen­er­ous, most of the time. But some­times horses say no. And when a half-ton an­i­mal says no, we aren’t al­ways sure what to do. We in­sist, they re­sist; we de­mand, they deny. A bit like rais­ing teenagers, right? These con­flicts arise be­cause of a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence be­tween hu­man and equine brains.

Just above our eyes rests a mass of brain cells called the pre­frontal cor­tex. This area is re­spon­si­ble for “ex­ec­u­tive func­tion” like plan­ning, or­ga­niz­ing and eval­u­at­ing. It al­lows us to iden­tify com­plex goals and plan step-by-step ac­tions to meet them. Without ex­ec­u­tive func­tion, we would have lit­tle ca­pac­ity for fore­thought, time man­age­ment, de­ci­sion-mak­ing or goal-ori­ented be­hav­ior. Our at­ten­tion spans would be short, and we’d have trou­ble chang­ing our be­hav­ior to ac­com­mo­date new de­mands.

The pre­frontal cor­tex is im­ma­ture in a teenager; horses have none at all. A kid’s brain will ma­ture by age 25. A horse’s brain will never be equipped to gov­ern ex­ec­u­tive func­tion. In­stead, an equine brain al­lo­cates space to per­cep­tion, fear, rapid move­ment and as­so­cia­tive learn­ing.

Good train­ing tech­niques take these struc­tural dif­fer­ences into ac­count. We can’t ex­pect horses to learn in ways that re­quire ex­ec­u­tive func­tion be­cause their brains sim­ply do not have that ca­pac­ity. When a horse acts up, we tend to in­sist and de­mand. Why? Be­cause hu­man brains are built for goal achieve­ment. Train­ers have suc­cess with di­rect com­mands be­cause their cues are clear, their bal­ance is sharp, their rid­ing mus­cles are toned and their school­ing strate­gies are pre­cise. But most ama­teurs don’t have years of ex­pe­ri­ence man­ag­ing bad ac­tors. They’re much more likely to build trust with their horses through the use of in­di­rect tech­niques that match the ma­chin­ery of the equine brain.


Buddy is calm in the arena but ner­vous leav­ing the farm to go out on the trails. The usual route tra­verses a 20-foot-wide pas­sage, nar­row rel­a­tive to the open spa­ces nearby. A three­story hay shed looms on Buddy’s right, throw­ing shade on the whole en­ter­prise. To the left is a park­ing lot for heavy equip­ment: snow­plows, field plows, 14-foot wheel rakes, over­sized snow­blow­ers and a sickle bar hay mower with edges that glint like knives in the sun. Two steel drags the color of dirt lie cam­ou­flaged on the ground, gap­ing with holes ideal for catch­ing a hoof.

Then there’s that im­paler guard­ing the en­trance to this gaunt­let. OK, it’s ac­tu­ally a ro­tary ted­der. Seven feet tall in its up­right po­si­tion, when stretched out the ted­der turns cut hay that’s dry­ing in the field. About 50 steel tines, each the di­am­e­ter of a pen­cil, pro­trude like spikes from its body.

Many horses balk when the gaunt­let comes into view. They tense their mus­cles, crane their necks up­ward and big-eye the tow­er­ing hay shed.

Buddy’s trainer prefers the di­rect method: She pushes him for­ward without let­ting him pause. When he re­sists, she clucks and pushes harder, even­tu­ally adding spurs and then a crop. When he at­tempts to turn his head, she redi­rects with a sharp bump on the reins. Often, this di­rect tech­nique be­comes a spec­ta­cle as the horse strug­gles to get away and the trainer re­dou­bles her ef­forts to pre­vent him from suc­ceed­ing.

After a month of these episodes, Buddy walks the gaunt­let, not be­cause he trusts his trainer but be­cause he is afraid of her. He tight­ens his back, locks his jaw, in­verts his neck, and ma­neu­vers his shaky feet at a minc­ing walk … but he goes through.

Buddy has learned to fear his rider in ad­di­tion to his en­vi­ron­ment. The added fear will cause him to be­come dou­bly ner­vous next time he’s in a scary lo­ca­tion. With prac­tice, Buddy has also be­come more ag­ile at whirling, bolt­ing, buck­ing and rear­ing. He has learned that bad ex­pe­ri­ences hap­pen in nar­row places, quire a lot of m for­get. But

so his trainer be­lieves she has won.


On day one, Star’s trainer feels her be­gin to stiffen up as she ap­proaches the gaunt­let. He an­gles her away without fan­fare and fin­ishes the ses­sion with other tasks. He wants time to de­velop a strat­egy tai­lored for the equine brain.

On their next out­ing, Star’s trainer takes her an eighth-mile away, where he has dis­cov­ered a route of­fer­ing ac­cess to the gaunt­let from its op­po­site end. Other horses graze nearby. There are no omi­nous struc­tures or heavy equip­ment. Long views open in ev­ery direc­tion. En­ter­ing the gaunt­let from this end, Star will be fac­ing her barn, mov­ing to­ward friends and fa­mil­iar places. The trainer knows, but Star does not, that this side route is only tem­po­rary---a teach­ing tool to be dis­carded once the lessons are learned.

When Star is com­fort­able near this easy end of the gaunt­let, her trainer dis­mounts and leads her into it. The mare can fo­cus more ef­fec­tively on her task when she’s not car­ry­ing a rider. He strokes her neck and

praises her after 10 or 20 steps, wher­ever she is still calm and he has met his goal for the day. They turn back be­fore she mis­be­haves and at his re­quest, not hers. He adds a few steps each day, turn­ing back be­fore she tenses. If he mis­judges and Star sud­denly stops, he en­cour­ages her to take two or three steps for­ward and praises her when she does, then turns back. In this way, mov­ing for­ward yields a nat­u­ral re­ward.

Oc­ca­sion­ally, some­thing fright­ens Star. A bird flies by or a dis­tant en­gine back­fires. Her trainer spends a day or two hand-graz­ing near the scene of her fear. It’s amaz­ing what a fright­ened horse will ig­nore when fresh grass is avail­able. When Star re­gains her readi­ness to learn, her trainer re­sumes the step-by-step process un­til he can lead her all the way through this path of least re­sis­tance. Now he can mount up and be­gin

rid­ing Star through the gaunt­let. Soon she will ne­go­ti­ate the nar­row pas­sage calmly from ei­ther direc­tion.

After a month, Star will walk past the im­paler, through the shade of the hay shed and away from her stall. She does so without con­cern. Her low head bobs in nat­u­ral rhythm, her body is fluid, her feet steady, ears soft and for­ward. She trusts her trainer, know­ing that he will not ask her t in one gulp. more likely wish, even i about the ne


The frontal phys­i­ol­ogy of our brains makes di­rect thought so easy for us that it is hard to sup­plant. Frontal lobe com­prises 41 per­cent of the hu­man brain, more than any other area. Un­less we con­sciously hold it back, pre­frontal cor-tex takes over-set­ting goals, cre­at­ing strate­gies, plan­ning steps to goal achieve­ment. It de­mands di­rect re­sults from di­rect tech­niques.

Hu­mans use two ad­di­tional brain re­gions along with the pre­frontal cor­tex to eval­u­ate new in­for­ma­tion and de­cide how to re­spond. First, the thal­a­mus (T) col­lects in­com­ing in­for­ma­tion--sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, ver­bal and non­ver­bal cues. Sec­ond, the basal gan­glia (B) pre­pare the body for move­ment in re­ac­tion to that in­for­ma­tion. At that point, adult pre­frontal cor­tex (P) in­ter­venes to con­sider

the new data and de­ter­mine whether and how to act.

In a horse, T col­lects in­for­ma­tion, and B pre­pares the body for in­stant move­ment. But there is no P to hold re­ac­tions back. So the horse per­ceives some­thing and re­acts in­stantly. This abil­ity has al­lowed the species to sur­vive for the last five mil­lion years. Train­ing is partly a process of teach­ing horses to de­pend on us for pre­frontal de­ci­sions.

In teenagers, whose pre­frontal cor­tex is not fin­ished grow­ing, a sim­i­lar process oc­curs. Teens have some ca­pac­ity for ex­ec­u­tive func­tion, but it’s slow and in­con­sis­tent. So, T col­lects in­for­ma­tion, B pre­pares the teen to re­act, and P might or might not eval­u­ate and de­cide. Hence the spon­ta­neous house par­ties and drink­ing ex­per­i­ments.

Adults whose frontal lobes are not work­ing well have the same prob­lems our horses do when it comes to ex­ec­u­tive func­tion. Such dam­age can oc­cur through brain in­jury or nat­u­ral de­te­ri­o­ra­tion. Fron­totem­po­ral de­men­tia is a good ex­am­ple. A dis­ease of the el­derly that is dis­tinct from Alzheimer’s, this form of de­men­tia is caused by the shrink­ing of the hu­man brain’s frontal and tem­po­ral lobes. Mem­ory, lan­guage and in­tel­li­gence re­main nor­mal un­til the end stage. But ex­ec­u­tive func­tion is se­verely im­paired from the start.

In­di­vid­u­als with fron­totem­po­ral de­men­tia can­not set goals, man­age their time, plan ac­tions in ad­vance, adapt flex­i­bly to new de­mands, make rea­soned de­ci­sions or or­ga­nize their own be­hav­ior. Sound fa­mil­iar? Often, brain dam­age pre­cludes aware­ness of these prob­lems. Pa­tients be­come frus­trated eas­ily and act out with in­ap­pro­pri­ate, ag­gres­sive or even vi­o­lent be­hav­ior. No one likes to be treated as if their mem­o­ries, lan­guage skills or in­tel­li­gence are im­paired when they are not.

Vic­tims of ex­ec­u­tive dys­func­tion also have trou­ble or­der­ing the steps of a task and telling sto­ries in se­quen­tial nar­ra­tive. Think about de­scrib­ing to a non-horsey friend how to put on a horse blan­ket: “Hold the blan­ket at the neck cen­ter and place or swing it over the horse’s with­ers. Straighten the blan­ket over the horse’s hips. Fas­ten the front buck­les, then the belly straps, and fi­nally the hind leg straps.” One, two, three. Our brains au­to­mat­i­cally think of the pro­ce­dure se­quen­tially. If your pre­frontal cor­tex is func­tion­ing prop­erly, you don’t say “Fas­ten the belly straps” be­fore telling your friend to place the blan­ket on the horse’s back.

Equine brains fo­cus on one thing at a time, like a bite of grass or a shoul­der-in, not on an or­dered se­quence of ac­tions that lead to a long-term goal. In ad­di­tion, just as our brains are built for ex­ec­u­tive func­tion, equine brains are en­gi­neered to pay spe­cial at­ten­tion to fear. In­di­rect tech­niques work also be­cause they iden­tify one task at a time, help­ing horses to over­come their fears.

The same meth­ods work for fron­totem­po­ral de­men­tia vic­tims---set a re­al­is­tic goal for them, cre­ate a strat­egy, iden­tify the steps, don’t ask too much all at once, re­spect their in­tel­li­gence and com­mu­ni­cate clearly. Try sim­i­lar tech­niques with dif­fi­cult teenagers whose pride and in­tel­lect pre­clude di­rect con­fronta­tion. They might be the smartest kids in the world, but their frontal lobes---and ex­ec­u­tive func­tion ---are not fully de­vel­oped.

Equine brains fo­cus on one thing at a time, like a bite of grass or a shoul­der-in, not on an or­dered se­quence of ac­tions that lead to a long-term goal.


To un­der­stand and ap­pre­ci­ate how the in­di­rect tech­nique can help you and your horse, con­sider a few ex­am­ples. In each of the fol­low­ing cases, be sure a vet­eri­nary check has de­ter­mined that the re­sis­tance de­scribed is not linked to pain or ill­ness.

Daisy won’t pick up the cor­rect lead? Urge her into a can­ter and change

direc­tion to ac­com­mo­date which­ever lead she chooses. I know---that’s heresy! But re­mem­ber, the in­di­rect method is only a tem­po­rary tool. When Daisy learns that you want her to can­ter on the proper lead for each direc­tion, then you can be­gin train­ing her to depart into that lead from your out­side leg.

Pokey drags around the arena? Let him “draft” a few horse lengths be­hind a faster buddy … or a mare. He’ll want to pick up his pace. Once he’s mov­ing out, cir­cle him away from his friend and praise his speed. Fol­low the buddy again as needed. It’s much eas­ier to main­tain pace than to cre­ate it in a slug­gish horse. After a few weeks, you won’t need to fol­low.

Smarty swings her hips away from the block, or walks off, when you try to mount? Prac­tice mount­ing at the end of the ses­sion when she wants to stand still, rather than at the be­gin­ning when she’s rarin’ to go. Stand her next to a fence so she can’t move her hindquar­ters away from you. Face her into a cor­ner so she can’t walk away with you in midair. Later, you can trans­fer her suc­cess to the be­gin­ning of your rides and to open ar­eas.

De­spite your best ef­forts, Stormy de­faults to a hy­per-jig through­out your rides? Get off and lead her for a while, en­cour­age her to re­lax on a longe line, or put her to easy work like a steady trot and ig­nore the fuss­ing. In other words, back off ---added stress doesn’t re­lieve ner­vous­ness. If the arena’s a mad­house, wait till to­mor­row or ride at a qui­eter time. En­cour­age Stormy to move calmly rather than try­ing to “work her down” to a state of ride­able ex­haus­tion. Give Stormy tasks she does well, so she has a chance to suc­ceed ev­ery day. Re­sume her ed­u­ca­tion when she is quiet and ready to learn.

The in­di­rect tech­nique works well on the ground, too. No horse likes to be ap­proached head-on with a brisk Type A ad­vance. In­stead, walk con­fi­dently but eas­ily to­ward the horse’s shoul­der to hal­ter him. When ad­min­is­ter­ing med­i­ca­tions, try ap­proach­ing from the side rather than the front. It’s less con­fronta­tional, safer for you, and your horse can see you bet­ter over there, too. In­stead of yelling “whoa” 10 times while longe­ing or round-pen­ning, slow your horse’s move­ment by break­ing eye con­tact or squat­ting down; speed it by en­gag­ing eye con­tact and stand­ing tall.

With all train­ing---di­rect or in­di­rect ---praise often for good be­hav­ior, so that your horse can dis­cover what you want. You can use di­rect and in­di­rect train­ing in a thou­sand cre­ative ways once you know the ba­sic rules of each game.


The di­rect method is so com­mon and so hu­man that we know its tenets by in­stinct. We ask a horse to per­form a new task. If he does, we’re golden! The di­rect method has worked. Praise the horse, prac­tice the task on up­com­ing days and pat your­self on the back.

But what hap­pens when the horse re­sists? With the di­rect tech­nique, we do not al­low the horse to evade a ma­jor goal. We de­mand re­lent­lessly un­til the horse per­forms as de­sired.

Un­for­tu­nately, this di­rect be­hav­ior

With all train­ing–di­rect or in­di­rect–praise often for good be­hav­ior, so that your horse can dis­cover what you want.

comes most nat­u­rally when we are tired, an­noyed, or wor­ried---ex­actly when our horses need it the least. We do not ac­knowl­edge the horse’s fears. Such ses­sions are usually long and sweaty---often dan­ger­ous---be­cause each party re­fuses to set­tle for less.

Set­tling would be “let­ting him get away with it.” Some read­ers have been think­ing that through­out this ar­ti­cle, so let’s pause to un­pack the id­iom. What ex­actly are we let­ting the horse get away with? Tak­ing time to ob­serve? Mas­ter­ing nat­u­ral fear? Learn­ing how to per­form a task? De­vel­op­ing trust? Yes! These qual­i­ties are ex­actly what the best train­ers are try­ing to teach.

Di­rect train­ing often bi­ases hu­man com­mands over a horse’s fear. The horse must do as we ask. Why? Be­cause we asked. I don’t know about you, but ev­ery time I de­mand be­hav­ior “be­cause I said so,” the re­sults stink. It doesn’t work on any­body---chil­dren, teenagers, adults or horses. On the rare oc­ca­sion that this at­ti­tude ap­pears to solve a prob­lem, it cre­ates many new ones.

I am not sug­gest­ing that the di­rect method be dis­carded. There are times when a horse must learn to obey. Pe­riod. Horses need to be brought up short when they mow you down at the stall door, head for the barn at a dead run or bite to get at­ten­tion or treats. The same is true for dirty stops at jumps, buck­ing that’s in­tended to un­seat or re­fusals to move for­ward. Such horses need pro­fes­sional train­ing, and often it will have to be di­rect.


If your horse’s be­hav­ior is not dan­ger­ous, and if you have the nec­es­sary eques­trian skills to cor­rect it, then train your mind to con­sider in­di­rect tech­niques.

Start by hon­ing your sen­si­tiv­ity to­ward the horse un­til you can feel up­com­ing prob­lems be­fore they be­gin.

Ob­serve the horse’s mus­cles, head po­si­tion, eyes and ears, tail. Listen for changes in breath­ing. Al­low your legs to de­tect the ear­li­est stage of lat­eral eva­sion, a slight bend­ing away rather than for­ward move­ment to­ward the area of con­cern.

Move the horse gen­tly onto a dif­fer­ent tra­jec­tory be­fore the early in­di­ca­tion of con­cern morphs into a prob­lem. The in­di­rect method is not ef­fec­tive after the horse has blown up. You would be re­ward­ing bad be­hav­ior if you were to turn away at that point. Move to a task your horse per­forms well, then praise her and put her away.

Now, here’s the hard part: Sit down and think. Why is my horse evad­ing this task? Is he sound and pain-free? What ex­actly is he afraid of? How does he per­ceive the situation? How can I break the task down into small steps that will be eas­ier for him? Put your­self in your horse’s po­si­tion and imag­ine how you would feel if you were forced to ap­proach some­thing that scares you.

When you have an­a­lyzed the situation from an equine per­spec­tive, set a goal and plan the se­quence needed to achieve it. Small goals are best for horses---we’re not try­ing to cure cancer here. Fear is ev­ery teacher’s enemy, so your plan must re­duce the horse’s fear one small step at a time. The most com­mon er­ror with in­di­rect train­ing is mak­ing the steps too large.

De­velop your plan on an equine time frame. Step 3 be­gins only when the horse has mas­tered step 2, and we have no way of know­ing how long that will take. If you ask the horse for too much one day, go back to the pre­vio

him a chancce to suc­ceed at some­thing he has al­ready learned. Re­mind your­self to slow down.

Re­vise your plan freely, but not dur­ing a mo­ment of equine re­sis­tance. Re­mem­ber the often-re­peated def­i­ni­tion of in­san­ity: “Do­ing the same thing over and over again and ex­pect­ing dif­fer­ent re­sults.” Note your horse’s re­sponses to your ef­forts, and change your steps as needed after you’ve had a chance to re­con­sider them. If you listen well, your horse will tell you what you need to know. E ffec­tive­haul, day horseby day, train­inglit­tle by is lit­tle.a long When you’re at the cross­roads betw be­tween good and bad be­hav­ior, adopt the mind­set that your horse is try­ing her best--usually she is. Praise lav­ishly for good be­hav­ior, ask for only a lit­tle more at each step, of­fer her the time she needs, and she'll give you what she can. Maybe next month she will be able to give you what you want.

Our brains push us to use di­rect train­ing at ex­actly the mo­ments our horses’ brains re­quire in­di­rect train­ing. To train well, honor the equine brain. There’s no use de­mand­ing that our horses think like we do. They can’t. Try an in­di­rect tech­nique and see how it works. As the poet Emily Dick­in­son once wrote, “Suc­cess in cir­cuit lies.”

About the au­thor: Janet L. Jones earned her PhD in cog­ni­tive science, the study of the hu­man mind and brain. She won UCLA’s dis­ser­ta­tion award for her re­search on brain pro­cesses. Now pro­fes­sor emerita, she taught the psy­chol­ogy and neu­ro­science of mem­ory, lan­guage, per­cep­tion and thought for 23 years and is the au­thor of three books. Jones be­gan rid­ing at age 7. She has com­peted in West­ern, English, rein­ing, hal­ter, hunter and jumper classes through­out the West and uses the prin­ci­ples of dres­sage with ev­ery horse. Jones cur­rently owns a 17.1-hand off-the-track Thor­ough­bred who makes ev­ery day in­ter­est­ing. Read­ers can reach her at ride­with­y­our­



P pre­frontal cor­tex B T thal­a­mus basal gan­glia

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.