In this excerpt from his book Two Brains, One Aim, former international eventer and popular clinician Eric Smiley explains how horses learn and asks whether how we warm up supports or thwarts what we’re trying to teach them.
To help horses learn and achieve, you must know what you want and how you can explain it to them. We have always been taught that horses learn by repetition, but I am not sure people always understand the hows and whys of this statement. Just doing something often does not, in itself, make it better. It is only when a task is done well and done often that it becomes good. This is called a conditioned reflex.
Let us look a little more closely at the process.
Humans have the ability to watch and copy, as do animals. Humans also have the ability to think how and why, and what the outcome might be. Horses do not. The horse responds to your input, but he is not like you: he does not understand the hows and whys, or that there is a progressive training process that will take the partnership to an end result. You should not assume the horse will reason or understand what you want—to do so may lead to disappointment.
Intelligence is defined as the ability to reason. Sometimes, when it comes to simple tasks that are in their interest, horses do reason, but their intelligence is not like yours. They live and think in the moment.
Create a Learning Pathway
As the horse is given a stimulus—for example, a simple “move forward” request from the leg—if he chooses the correct response and moves forward, you give him a reward, confirming that he has made a good choice. By doing this, your create an important link both from yourself to the horse’s mind and from the horse’s mind to your body. A neurological pathway has been created.
But what if the horse chooses the wrong option? A pathway that leads to a crossroads or junction could prompt an incorrect decision. To prevent this happening, you repeat the same stimulus and, when the correct response is produced again, the pathway becomes more familiar and easier to navigate.
This neurological process produces a substance called myelin, which wraps itself around the nerve that is delivering the message and insulates it. This insulation helps the message travel faster. The more the pathway is used, the more insulated it becomes, so the faster the message travels down the motorway, and as a result, the horse’s reflex becomes quicker.
Warm Up the Body, Switch On the Brain
When I talk about warming up, people’s eyes light up in recognition. This is where the warm-up of muscles happens, just like the human athlete! It is where you stretch and supple and increase the horse’s circulation to help him do the tasks you are about to ask of him. This is what we are taught and it sounds very logical, but I look at in a different way.
When the blind man’s guide dog has his harness put on, he is immediately on duty. There is no warm-up. If a guide dog needed time to wind up into work mode, the blind man would be put at risk.
We know that horses learn by repetition. They learn both good and bad things this way—they have no measure of what is correct except when you tell them. As I watch people warm up, I see horses on a long rein being allowed to be hollow, fall in or out, and perform sloppy transitions. Then after 10 minutes the horse is encouraged to come into a shape and work more correctly. Is this not a waste of 10 minutes and a contradiction to learning by repeating good practice?
A horse in his natural environment is ready to take flight at any time. He can go from zero to 30 mph to get away from danger, doing himself no harm whatsoever. You take a horse out of the stable where he has been for 12 hours and turn him out in the field, only to watch him buck, squeal, and gallop. So warming up the muscles is not the priority. Yes, muscles must be warmed up, ligaments need stretching, and the athlete prepared, but the priority is to immediately engage the brain with an acceptance and understanding of the aid. Just like the guide dog.
This point was nicely illustrated at the International Eventing Forum in 2015, where Olympic medalist and 2017 Badminton winner Andrew Nicholson rode four horses in quick succession during his presentation. When he was asked who was warming up his next horse, he replied, “No one. Horses need to get used to switching on quickly.”
How much better would it be if horses were conditioned to think, “Tack on, accept” and “Tack off, I’m off duty”? This is very clear to all. As the rider gets on, the horse thinks, “I’m ready and listening, what now?”
The response is only a matter of conditioning the mind of the rider and horse. Of course, I am not advocating jumping 5 feet (1.50 m) or asking for piaffe in the first few minutes—or indeed demanding that you should expect good work immediately. The first 10 to 20 minutes should comprise simple exercises to test forwardness, straightness, and regular paces.