The Concept of Fairness

Being fair is an important concept in a training philosophy.  Fair is defined as being free from bias, dishonesty or injustice; marked by favoring conditions; and legitimately sought, pursued or done.  Relevant synonyms include:  just, impartial, rational, honest, and evenhanded.  These concepts are reflected in training in a variety of ways.  First, be fair by creating a situation where your horse can successfully perform the required task.  Second, be fair in the use of rewards and discipline.  Third, be fair by making an honest and rational analysis of what is happening during your training session.

Creating a situation where your horse can succeed in the task required:  When working your horse, ride with accuracy and pre-planning so your horse has every opportunity to perform correctly.  If you want your horse to do a 20 meter circle in a round frame with forward intent, you must ride a geometrically correct circle with the same amount of bend in the body the entire way around.  Each time you fix your circle’s geometry, effectively introducing straight lines and turns, you interrupt the flow and balance of the movement and your horse.  This makes it more difficult for your horse to maintain what you want and allows the naughty ones an opportunity to misbehave.  If you want to turn down the centerline and proceed straight on the centerline, making a sharp turn onto the centerline disrupts the rhythm, causes the haunches to swing out, and creates a wavering line for the first half of the arena.  Pre-planning the turn from the corner before the centerline, picturing a geometrically round half-circle onto a straight line, allows your horse to maintain his rhythm and frame through the turn and minimizes the number of adjustments required to transition from a curved to straight line in the horse’s body.

This concept of fairness includes being aware of your environment and other influences.  If you have a deep spot in the arena or a section that is not level, it is unfair to expect your horse to maintain his balance or conduct a difficult movement through these areas.  If it is cold and windy and your horse is fresh,  if your horse is tired or sore, or if you have had a bad day and are grumpy, do not set you and your horse up for failure by expecting to work on the newest or hardest movements that session.  Work on equitation, geometry, transitions, or just go for a trail ride.

Creating a situation for success is particularly important when training new and more difficult movements.  You want your horse to enjoy learning and not be afraid to make a mistake when trying to understand a new concept.  One of Matt’s favorite quotes from his mentor Chuck Grant, a USDF Hall of Fame member and recognized father of American dressage, is “ask often, receive little, reward generously.”  This is where the rider needs to manage their expectations and set realistic goals.  Start small, with a couple of steps of the new movement at first, gradually increasing the number of steps until you attain the required duration of the movement.  When the movement starts to fall apart, abort, reorganize and try again.  Better to reorganize and restart than attempt to fix something within the new movement itself.  Expect that your progress will follow the “two steps forward, one step back” philosophy.  Be patient, all horses (and people) learn at a different pace and with different methods.  If your tried and true training method for the movement is not working with a particular horse, be creative and try new approaches.  If the horse or rider are getting frustrated in a new movement, stop working on it and go back to something known, that can be achieved successfully and rewarded.  Once both horse and rider have returned to a calm and receptive state, begin working on the new movement again.

Fair use of rewards and discipline:  Positive re-enforcement is the key to a happy, willing horse.  Make sure to take every opportunity to let your horse know they have done the right thing.  There are a wide range of rewards for your horse during a training session.  Ending the session, taking a break, giving a quiet pat or rub, saying good boy, stroking their withers or neck with a finger, or just softening the reins for a moment are all ways to say good job, thank you for the effort.  It is also important to always end a session on a good note.  If you have had a difficult ride, make sure to make time at the end for something the horse can do successfully, even if it is just a transition, so they can receive a reward.  Pay attention to what the horse likes to do so you can use it for a happy ending.  For example, our Andalusian stallion, Enamorado, loves the extended trot and our paint, Rooster, thinks Spanish walk is the coolest thing ever.

Being just, evenhanded and rational are extremely important concepts when it comes to discipline.  Is discipline required, or was the behavior a miscommunication or mistake?  There is a big difference between a horse who crow-hopped and one that tripped, even though it may feel the same to the rider.  Does the punishment fit the crime?  Is the discipline crafted to address the issue or is it just an expression of frustration or anger?

Our mantra for training is “Ask, Tell, Demand.”  Ask with the initial cue, Tell with a stronger aid or correction, and Demand with a much stronger aid or correction.  When applying this to moving forward, Ask by squeezing with both legs, Tell with a spur and Demand with the whip.  Always give the horse a chance to respond to your aid before increasing the degree of a correction.  Allow the horse the opportunity to do the right thing.  If they make the wrong choice, then you can move on to the next stage of correction.  Over correcting often escalates a situation.  Instead of a spook corrected once and allowed to redirect back to work, over correcting turns the spook into a fight where each correction leads to worse behavior, such as running away, rearing or bucking.

Finally, timing is everything!  Whether it is a reward or a form of discipline, there is a 3 second window for your horse to correlate your action with their previous behavior.  So be generous with your praise in the moment of good behavior and be quick to correct, allow a response, and correct again when implementing discipline.

Making an honest and rational analysis of the training session:  It is important to make an objective assessment of each instance of a training session that acknowledges both the good and bad.  What was correct?  What was incorrect?  What can be done differently to make that movement better next time?  If something went wrong, what did the rider do to contribute to the issue?  It is easy to blame the horse for mistakes and bad behavior.  However, many times the rider either caused the issue or made the issue worse than it needed to be as discussed previously.  For example, a rider was unable to pick up the left lead canter at a show.  She left the arena angry with her horse, put him away with no cookies and held a grudge against him for the rest of the show.  A review of the video showed that she bent his head right and positioned her leg biometrically incorrectly each time she asked for the canter.  The horse did exactly what she asked him to do, canter right.  He was being obedient, not belligerent, and deserved cookies for performing a more difficult task of picking up the counter canter, instead of punishment.

Final thought:  While this article has touched on three facets of the concept of fairness as it relates to training, the concept applies to all areas of horsemanship and is an integral part of building a positive and productive relationship with your horse.