Australian neuroscientist Dr. Andrew McLean kicked off day two at the Global Dressage Forum with a speech on equine behavioural psychology. His session consisted of two sections, a scientific lecture on behavioural conditioning and a practical demonstration of handling a horse with behavioural problems
. McLean ’s goal was to provide a clear-cut theory on equine psychology to optimize the training of the dressage horse. By applying the wrong training methodologies that are not commensurate with the horse’s psychology, optimal learning will be diminished.
The horse’s learning processes break down into three components: cognition (mental ability), ethology (the natural behaviour like the flight response) and psychology (learned behavior). The human brain is different from the horse’s brain because it has a dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which enables reasoning.
The horse’s psychology depends on habituation (desensitizing to stimuli), operant conditioning (trial & error; reward and punishment) and classical condition (association). Operant conditioning works via positive and negative reinforcement. The reins and aids of pressure are negative reinforces that are used for ‘good’. Pressure is applied to the horse to motivate it. There needs to be an immediate release of pressure at the desired response to get optimal learning.
McLean stated that training horses means controlling their legs. In a practical demonstration with Imke Schellekens’ rambunctious young stallion Aachen (by Arpeggio), McLean taught the stallion to step back from pressure and pay attention to his handler. Aachen entered the ring very unconcentrated and pulled his handler from left to right. McLean ’s goal was for the horse to stand still and relax. Every time Aachen made a move forward, McLean put it in reverse by lightly taping the whip on one leg at the time. McLean noted that stressed horses are slow learners because cortisol and prolactin gets pumped in the brain and induces brain atrophy.
He touched upon the notion of “learned helplessness” in which a horse is forced into a state where it becomes completely stressed and has to surrender its will, feeling totally helpless. McLean came across as very academic and displayed the wealth of knowledge he so far has acquired of equine psychology at the Australian Equine Behavioural Centre. After his session, McLean told Eurodressage that he wanted to show that “clear and consistent signal/responses have the greatest influence on anxiety levels and training the horse to be completely obedient to light aids is the key to relaxed cooperation.”