Recently I went to a workshop with horse behaviourist Justine Harrison at Sparsholt college with my friend Rhianna and it was an amazing experience. I learnt so much about how horses learn and act and why they behave in certain ways. We covered many topics such as different learning/training methods.
We started by learning the difference between positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment. We were shown examples of the uses of these techniques on animals like horses, donkeys, dolphins and zebras. Justine talked about how lots of traditional horse training is through negative reinforcement. This is when something the horse doesn’t like is taken away when the horse does what he is asked – like when you put pressure on with your leg to ask them move forward and then take it off when they move. Just because it is called negative reinforcement that doesn’t mean it is bad, but Justine also explained how much can be taught to horses with postive reinforcement, for example rewarding with food when the horse does what you want. This can be really fun for horses (and for people).
We did lots of different activities such as watching videos of Justine working with her clients and looking at slideshows put together by Justine about how the different training methods work. At one point we even did an activity where we trained someone else that was there to do a task, using positive reinforcement to train them. That was funny and showed how easy it is for our horses to misunderstand what we are asking them to do.
Justine left us with lots of resources and information about better and kinder ways to train horses than more traditional methods.
We learned that it is important for horses that they have the 3 F’s : Friends, Forage and Freedom. Horses are herd animals and so prefer to be with their friends, or near them at least. They need to be able to eat whenever they want (but perhaps they will need to be restricted in some way to make sure they don’t get too fat) and they should have lots of turnout time. These are the needs of horses to be happy and healthy.
We learnt to recognise signs of pain and stress such as scraping the ground, excessive blinking and the “equine pain face”. Many of the techniques and information that I learnt in the workshop are now things I use every day when training or riding my horse, Woody. There is so much information to learn and I think the more we know about horses, how they learn and what they may be trying to tell us when they behave a certain way, the better riders and handlers we can be.
Overall it was a great day with great people and everyone learned so much that is still useful to us every day. If you get the chance I would definitely recommend having a look at Justine Harrison and her work.