Would your horse prefer his work to be varied or familiar?

By Amanda Barton

Do you think your horse is inherently easy to train? No? Have you ever wondered why?

When my Icelandic horse was young I once got a call from a lady in the field next to mine to complain that my horse had destroyed her electric fence energiser.  That sounded a bit unlikely but sure enough, when I went to investigate, the unit had been pretty comprehensively demolished. The clips had been removed from the unit, the earth stake had somehow been repositioned and goodness knows what happened to the connection to the fence.  The better I got to know this horse the less surprising this sort of thing became.

I recently came across a lovely description from Elsa Sinclair to do with the relative trainability of different horses.  She suggested an ‘Interest vs Variety’ scale to help to understand how well individual horses can tolerate interest and novelty relative to the safety of comfort and familiarity.  If you imagine a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is a passion for the comfortable and familiar and 10 is a desire for interest and variety then my Icelandic would have been at a 9 for interest and I always needed to be on the ball to stay one step ahead of her.  

Right at the other end of the scale, I am working with a horse right now that is a 1 on the scale and he would strongly prefer to stay in the realm of comfortable and familiar.  To be honest, I have never come across anything quite like him.   Any sort of variety is potentially concerning to him and its hard to generate curiosity or interest in pretty much anything new.  

This scale can be thought of as a ‘trainability’ scale as the higher the number the horse is on the scale the more trainable he would be considered.  The downside is that horses that like variety can be exhausting and you need to work hard to provide interest and novelty in your training.  You might think that there aren’t many upsides to a horse at the low end of the scale as they can appear to lack enthusiasm for work and are easily overwhelmed.  But there is an advantage.  Once you have established your training they can be very consistent, solid and secure in the things that they have learnt, it just takes longer to get to that point. 

In the course of working with my 1-on-the-scale horse I have really started to question the idea that we need to be constantly introducing new tasks, exercises and challenges to our horses.  That may be true for those that are at the top end of the scale but the majority of horses are going to be 7 or below.  In other words, they and happy and more confident with the familiar. 

I do a lot of work with rehabilitation exercises and owners are often worried that the horse is getting bored with the simple, repetitive exercises that are required for rehab but I think its more a case that once the human is bored then the horse will soon lose interest.  Given that horses need to eat roughage for at least 16 hours a day, I suspect that they don’t experience boredom nearly as much as we do.  

However, horses at the top end of the scale often need a different approach. I am working at the moment with a client and her young Connemara pony and I would say that he’s an 8 or 9 on the scale.  He gets frustrated if things are not varied frequently and that frustration can quickly turn to pushing and biting. Interestingly, if we can stop our request after a couple of repetitions and give him a chance to be curious about the equipment and his surroundings (within reason) by allowing him to use his senses of touch, smell and sight then the biting and pushing never arises in the first place.  We had a lot of success by cutting him a reasonable deal where we ask him to work on our idea for something like 30% of the time and he was allowed to explore on his terms for about 70% of the time (you could use 60/40 percentage if you prefer, but you get the idea).  It was interesting that this approach stoped the problem arising and there was no need to get exasperated with him when he started to push and bite or to get into a discussion about that.  If we tried to understand his intense curiosity and allow him to satisfy this the problem was solved.  

The long and the short of it is that we need to determine the variety, number of exercise repetitions, level of challenge and difficulty of what we are asking the horse depending on our assessment of each individual horse, not on our personal opinion of we think we should be doing or worse still, what we think we should be seen to be doing.