The science of horse tack and training aids. Part 2

In barn aisles and social media platforms, equestrians debate, disdain and defend the use of training aids.

Pro: Artificial aids “aid” riders in training effectively and safely.  They are useful tools to influence and contain the responses of a 1000 lb animal or motivate one, unresponsive to learned signals .

Con: These gadgets are training shortcuts, compensating for a lack of skill. They’re  bad for the industry; spectators see them as abusive and this reflects poorly on our sport.  They stifle normal equine behavior and are a source of stress. As one writer for the UK magazine Horse & Rider once asserted, “The whip is an admission of failure.”  

I’m convinced the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Let’s lift the lid on the tack box, looking objectively at the evidence concerning training aids – how to use them, choose them, and avoid the ways we might abuse them!

1.            How to choose them:

We teach horses in a language of aids – cues or signals to bring a response.

An artificial aid  is equipment used to back up a rider’s light aid.  Examples are spurs, whips, martingales and draw reins.  There are endless variations on these themes – devices used in the quest to lift, lower or supple the neck, round the back, slow down the legs or speed them up.

As decision-makers  in the horse/human partnership,   we owe it to our horses to clearly define our expectations – what are the boundaries of speed, shape and direction? Six or twelve foot canter stride?   How much lateral bend in my horse’s body? Short frame or longer outline?

What shape of “box” are you setting around your horse? 

When my horse stays inside the box, without being held in place, that’s self-carriage – kind of like cruise control.  He’s discovered, by trial and error, the box’s boundaries – meeting my aids with any unauthorized changes.  For example, if he speeds up, he’ll meet my rein contact. If he cuts a corner, he’ll find my inside leg. If his rhythm falters, he’ll encounter my leg, nudging him forward again. In turn, my horse discovers what I DO want by trial and error, finding release, within the box. Negative reinforcement is the main way we train horses, taking away (negative) the annoying pressure to reward (reinforce) the behavior we want.

Our ultimate goal is to use the lightest of pressures. However, if a horse becomes desensitized to those light pressures, a rider may choose an artificial aid as a reminder.

 The training aid you choose may depend on:

  • Which boundary of the box you wish to emphasize
  • How much pressure  it takes to motivate your horse
  • Your current level of skill to use the tack effectively
  • What’s permitted in the schooling areas and show rings of your riding association

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