Backing/Starting A Horse To Be Ridden With R+: 'Should I Do It Without Any Tack?'
Updated: Jun 22, 2022
[Picture caption: woman sits on chestnut horse who isn't wearing any equipment]
I received a private message from someone asking my opinion on preparing a horse to be ridden for the first time using positive reinforcement (R+), without the use of any tack or equipment. This is a subject on which I've had strong opinions for a while but have never shared publicly. This felt like a good opportunity to air some of my concerns, in the hopes that by doing so it possibly prevents both horses and people from experiencing situations which could result in physical or behavioural injuries.
As a former instructor and horse trainer, I've started (and restarted) horses under saddle using what many would call horsemanship methods:
•I've systematically prepared horses through groundwork training and desensitization to tack/equipment before riding
•I've taught them cues to move their bodies forward and backwards or move one part of their body in isolation (hindquarters, forequarters etc.).
•I've taught them to yield their bodies to the feel of light pressures, from my physical touch and equipment such as halters & leadrope, as well as 'suggested' pressure, from my body or equipment such as flags.
In short, before I swing my leg over their backs for the first time, I do my best to ensure that they have been taught to calmly accept any direction I may need to give them once I am on them.
I do this because I have both witnessed and personally experienced the power - and fallout - of an ill-prepared horse being ridden. This often results in physical and/or behavioural injuries to both horse and human. For example, despite me thinking I had adequately prepared a horse (when clearly, I had not), one eventful ride resulted in me sustaining a fracture to my thoracic vertebrae and the horse developing a strong fear of people falling off when he bucked hard.
Despite ideal preparation, 'life' can still happen when a horse is initially ridden: the neighbour sparks up her chainsaw; a dog runs into the arena through the hole in the fence; or, as has happened to me, a horse tied up outside the arena pulls back hard or someone driving down the road paintballs the side of the arena in which you are riding. In such moments, I have been grateful that I took the time to teach my horse to calmly accept equipment that aids in me directing their body so that I could employ immediate response prevention.
Response prevention is 'the procedure of altering the environment to prevent unwanted behaviour from occurring' (Chance, P. 2003). Response prevention is not punishment, but it can be an effective, low-stress alternative to prevent unwanted behaviours occurring. In situations such as the ones described above, response prevention is used to prevent a small startle response from becoming a more catastrophic chain reaction of behaviour: the horse startles and spooks, the rider slips, the horse sees and feels this change of position and bolts, the rider falls off. The rider is physically (and possibly behaviourally) injured, and the horse has been subjected to a preventable situation where fear conditioning rapidly occurs.
Utilizing equipment on a horse for their first ride doesn't guarantee that physical or behavioural injuries won't occur. But through response prevention, equipment, much like the fence around an arena where a horse is started, absolutely can minimize any harm that may occur.
I understand fully how new trainers may find it a powerfully appealing picture to see a horse being started under saddle completely equipment-free. However, as a clinical animal behaviourist and IAABC certified horse behaviour consultant, I feel strongly that such pictures fail to consider the potential unintended, dangerous ramifications for both horses and humans. For people and horses, some injuries can't ever truly be healed. Physical or behavioural scars may remain. Despite the use of evidence-based, low-stress behaviour modification techniques to help horses overcome behavioural injuries, relapse of learned fears is sadly common. This is a reality, no matter what quadrant we may strive to use when starting a horse. Many of my clients face this reality when we work together to help their horses overcome a wide range of learned fears.
In summary, I feel strongly that we owe it to both the horses and the wonderful generation of new, R+ horse trainers to paint a different picture of low-stress training: one that also considers minimizing potential trauma through response prevention.