Horse Council BC Equine Education Conference 2012 – Speaker Dr. Andrew McLean

horse council bcThe Horse Council BC will be hosting the second annual Equine Education Conference from January 21 – 22, 2012 at the Delta Vancouver Airport Hotel.  I was most pleased to see that Dr. Andrew McLean will be a speaker.  He has developed and manages the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre, the most internationally recognised horse training and behaviour modification centre in Australia.

Andrew McLean holds a PhD in equine cognition and learning, has been an accredited horse riding coach for over 25 years and has written top-selling books and numerous peer reviewed journal articles.  He has represented Australia in Horse Trials, competed at state and national events in FEI level dressage and eventing and has also show jumped to Grand Prix level.

On the AEBC website you will find parts of his PhD thesis where he set out eight training principles. The table below gives a link to each of these 8 principles together with the short description Dr. McLean has given.  The full accounts are long but well worth reading.  You will find that the principles are very well backed up by experience and often by experiments.  The last column gives my attempt to capture the essence of each principle in a ‘catch’ phrase.

Title Dr. McLean’s description My ‘catch’ phrase
1 The Pressure Principle: The removal of physical pressure or discomfort reinforces (rewards) whatever behaviour precedes the moment of removal (i.e. leg(s) rein(s), spurs, whip-tap, headcollar). The horse only learns as pressure is removed.
2 Pavlov’s Principle: Relaxation and attentiveness can only occur if the horse responds to predictable signals that do not invade the pain threshold. Thus, training the horse to respond unconditionally to light aids in hand and under saddle is essential. The horse does not learn if feeling pain.
3 The Exclusivity Principle: Each response should be trained and elicited separately (do not pull on the reins (stop) and kick with the legs (go) at the same time). Only one cue (aid) should be used at a time: the sequence of cues can be rapid.
4 The Shaping Principle: Responses should be progressively improved, step-by-step, learned response by learned response, toward the final outcome. Learning builds as more difficult tasks are achieved and rewarded.
5 The Proportional Principle: Increasing pressures of aids should correspond with increasing levels of response i.e. a small leg aid should result in a smaller go reaction, while a bigger aid should produce a stronger go response. Light cues for small responses and more powerful cues when a bigger response is needed.
6 The Self Carriage Principle: The horse must travel in-hand and under saddle free of any constant rein or leg pressure, otherwise he will switch off to them. Most often the horse should be moving naturally without needing cues.
7 The Fear Principle: Fear is quickly learned, not easily forgotten and is strongly associated with the movement of the horse’s legs. It is important to learn to identify the range of fear responses in horses and to diminish them to avoid the horse experiencing them. Fear is ever present and can trigger movement.
8 The Mentality Principle: Appreciating the similarities and differences in mental ability between horses and humans is crucial to effective and humane training. Horses react rather than think.

Some of these principles will no doubt be regarded as controversial by some horsemen.  Perhaps the most controversial is #8 although there are many others who would agree with what is there.

How Horses Think

Cherry Hill, for example, in her book, How To Think Like A Horse, does suggest that whether horses think depends very much on your definition of think.  Most often their actions are not governed by logical analyses of what is happening around them.  Rather they are controlled by instinctive reactions to their surroundings and circumstances.

In the same vein, Temple Grandin, internationally acclaimed speaker who is autistic, has drawn a parallel between the way horses perceive the world and how autistic individuals do so.  She discusses this view in an article, Thinking the Way Animals Do.

A horse trainer once said to me, “Animals don’t think, they just make associations.” I responded to that by saying, “If making associations is not thinking, then I would have to conclude that I do not think.” People with autism and animals both think by making visual associations. These associations are like snapshots of events and tend to be very specific. For example, a horse might fear bearded men when it sees one in the barn, but bearded men might be tolerated in the riding arena. In this situation the horse may only fear bearded men in the barn because he may have had a bad past experience in the barn with a bearded man.

The Horse’s Brain

The picture of the horse’s brain that suggests to me is that it resembles a very large data warehouse.  Each small storage unit in this warehouse contains a perception of a certain physical situation coupled with the reaction the horse should take if that situation arises.

When the horse encounters a changed situation, its brain immediately finds the associated storage unit and then takes the reaction specified for that situation.  This all happens incredibly fast so the reaction is immediate.

Temple Grandin has suggested this is similar to the way Google deals with images if you do an image search.   The advanced image search that Google has now introduced is an even closer analogy. In this search process, you can drop an image in the search field and within a fraction of a second you will see what the image is about with other images of the same object or place. Assessing the image is the most difficult part of the process.  It would be not at all difficult to have the software spit out an appropriate reaction to that image.

Training an associative brain such as this will clearly be very different from training a brain that largely works by logic. Dr. McLean coaches riders and National Federations around the world on the optimal use of this learning theory for the improved welfare of the trained horse as well as for gaining improved performance.

Over to you

Do you accept these 8 principles as a basis for improved training? Would you express them differently?  Would you put them in a different order?  Your comments would be most appreciated.