Science in the saddle

12 July 2005

Don’t whisper it too loudly at the pony club, but equine behaviour specialist Paul McGreevy claims that traditional horse training methods are unscientific, can cause undesirable behaviour such as bucking and rearing, and lead to an unnecessarily high turn-over of horses in elite equestrian sports.

Dr McGreevy will present his research into horse training techniques, ranging from recreational riding to dressage and racing, at the inaugural Equitation Science Symposium next month at the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre in Melbourne.

The ESS symposium will include papers covering the division between training procedures and principles of learning theory, and the methods currently used to achieve standards expected of performance horses. 

Pictured: Paul McGreevy rides a three-year-old Andulasian.

“Confused horses lead to wastage: young, badly behaved horses tend to get put down. If we can educate the next generation of riders we’ll reduce behavioural wastage,” Dr McGreevy said.

In a paper on the epidemiology of horses leaving the thoroughbred and standardbred, or trotting, race industries, Dr McGreevy and his colleagues detail a survey of 1,258 thoroughbred and 981 standardbred trainers. They found 6.3 per cent of thoroughbred horses left racing for knackeries in the 2002-3 racing year, while 16.6 per cent of standardbreds ended up in a knackery.

Australia has two abattoirs that export horse meat for human consumption, and 33 licensed knackeries that produce meat for pet food sold locally.

“The total turnover rates in thoroughbred and standardbred racing were 38.6 per cent and 38.1 per cent respectively,” Dr McGreevy said, with most horses going to studs or different trainers.

Dr McGreevy found the animals at greatest risk of being sent to a knackery were geldings. Those with “unsuitable behaviour or temperament” were at especially high risk.

“These findings suggest that improved foundation training may reduce the high wastage rates in the racing industries and the number of horses entering slaughterhouses,” he said. 

Dr McGreevy said horses could be trained using a combination of positive and negative reinforcements in the same way as laboratory rats.

“Traditional horse training comes from a military background, which demanded horses that were so compliant they lost all sense of self-preservation,” Dr McGreevy said. The expectation was that horses should be submissive to the commands of a rider, with the blame falling on a horse if it failed to conform.

“This expectation can force horses into a state of conflict,” Dr McGreevy said. “We argue that a horse that has learned to buck and rear is solving the problems that training has created.” 

Complicating the training process is a traditionalist theory that horse riding is an art and should not be subjected to scientific mechanisms, leading to confusion surrounding terminology used in training horses and riders.

“The need for precise definitions is accepted in human psychiatry and is increasingly called for in veterinary behavioural medicine,” Dr McGreevy said. “In contrast, non-scientific terms are customary in equestrian circles and are added to by contemporary trainers and self-styled horse whisperers.

“Several descriptors may be used for the same behaviour, depending on the observer.  The use of such terms may encourage imprecise and inappropriate interpretations of equine behaviour.”

While so-called horse-whisperers such as Monty Roberts and Pat Parelli have raised awareness of horse behaviour, Dr McGreevy said their work continued an anthropomorphic approach to equine training and had not been scientifically evaluated.

“They have also created a whole new jargon, which has further set back a scientific approach to horse training,” he said. “They are putting their own interpretations on horse behaviour which have not been tested.”  

Effective and humane horse training involved subtle application of pressure and immediate removal of the pressure once the animal complied.

To control pressure applied on a horse’s mouth, a key area of control for riders, Dr McGreevy has developed a rein gauge.

“An instructor can then see the force a rider is applying, and instruct on the amount of pressure to apply,” he said.

“Equitation students encounter a few measurable variables such as rhythm, tempo and outline alongside many more ethereal ones such as impulsion and harmony. This unbalanced mixture and the dearth of mechanistic substance frustrates attempts to express equestrian technique in empirical terms, accounting for some of the confusion and conflict.”

Keynote speaker at the symposium will be Professor Frank Odberg from Belgium’s Ghent University’s department of animal nutrition, genetics, breeding and ethology. Symposium speakers will also urge a review of International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI) regulations that require spurs and double bridles in dressage.