Lyviera is a Selle Francais mare who was initially bought by a riding club’s owner to be his personal competition horse. While she excelled in show jumping and was very strong in cross country, she was difficult in dressage, specifically very stiff on one side and difficult to get “on the bit.” He therefore decided to keep her as a riding club horse. While training at this riding school, I had her on loan for a year and did some eventing with her, and we got very good results in show jumping and cross country.
I only bought her many years later when I was in the position to get my first horse. At the time, she was being kept in a stable almost all day, every day, fed hay once a day, twice when I was loaning (as I asked) and fed 9 litres of concentrate a day. She would go out in a field with other horses for only about two weeks a year, and on rare occasions she would be turned out for about an hour.
When I bought her after years of not seeing her, she was very underweight and had chronic stress, evidenced by self-mutilating behaviour (biting at her chest and flanks, not enough to cause bleeding but enough to cause inflammation and bruising of the skin). While I could hack her alone without her napping, she was terrified to be left in the field without me, even with other horses present. She was one of those horses that a misinformed person would say “loved her stable” and “love people more than horses.” The truth was that she never had the opportunity to have a strong relationship with other horses and was already over the fear threshold by the time you started walking her to the field. Her stable and I were her safety bases, because worse things seemed to happen to her outside the stable and without me by her side.
When I got Lyviera, I initially planned on becoming a traditional horse-riding instructor, so I rode her and worked her traditionally for about a year. I had a pretty serious training schedule, which involved one lunging session a week, one hack a week, and four riding sessions, three of which were focusing on pole work or jumping. She had one day off a week where I would just come to groom her and graze her in hand. We did competitions too, jumping and cross-country.
However, I felt like Lyviera was struggling, and being the sort of person who loves learning new things, I started looking around for different approaches to training and care. I initially found some information about bit-less riding and was quickly intrigued. I put her into a halter for hacking out and a mechanical hackamore for cross country and show jumping, even. Little did I know at the time that these options weren’t the best for her. I then learned about barefoot — Lyviera had thrush all her life, and it took a long time to repair the damage done by years of shoeing and being kept in a dirty stable most of the time.
I found out about natural horsemanship and Alexander Nevzorov roughly at the same time. Little did I know that both use aversives to get results, the former worse than the latter. I just wanted to do the best for my horses, and the techniques looked kinder than the ones I had been taught in the past, as most of them worked at liberty with their horses or without bit.
One of the ideas Nevzorov promotes during the process of training a horse is no riding, no competition. This inspired me to give Lyviera a break as I became aware that years of poor riding and poor management in the riding school environment, in addition to my own extensive riding, may have hurt her back quite a lot.
While Nevzorov’s methods aren’t compatible with a humane, science-based approach like clicker training, a lot of his ideas allowed me to spend more time paying attention to my horses’ feelings and doing groundwork at liberty with minimal aversives instead of riding. Looking back, I think any exposure to alternative ideas is good when you come from a traditional equestrian background, even if these thoughts are not necessarily 100% correct. Similarly, I know quite a few trainers who now swear by positive reinforcement-based training, whose journey initially started by being introduced to a natural horsemanship trainer. Of course, it would be best for everyone to skip the “middle man” and start with books like Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor, but whatever gets people there!
I stopped competing with Lyviera around the same time I started looking at alternative training methods. I never held on to any teacher or technique for very long, and found myself always looking for new things to learn — I think this allowed me to progress quickly and find out about clicker training.
I worked with Lyviera and my other horse, Heros, using the clicker. Heros was from the same riding school as Lyviera, and they were stabled next to each other. We initially got Heros because we felt so sorry for him, locked indoors 23/7, on dirty bedding, with swollen legs and an injured back due to being ridden with a saddle that did not fit. Although we did not get him for Lyviera’s benefit, they did recognise each other immediately and enjoy running around together!
One of the things I used to do a lot with Heros was “vocabulary lessons,” which is basically glorified targeting tasks with voice cues. We became known for our cognitive enrichment and found our place in the clicker training community online through others sharing these “vocabulary lesson” videos.
Being in this community gave me more access to humane, science-based resources. People would recommend books to each other and I would read them. I would also read the blogs post by other trainers, watch videos, etc. Eventually, as I learned more and more about animal learning and behaviour, I became very dedicated to positive reinforcement, to the point I retrained Heros to non-aversive, +R trained cues for riding. This was also point at which I decided not to pick riding back up with Lyviera until I had the resources to do so in a safe environment without aversives.
Riding Lyviera for the first time in five years
The process of riding Lyviera required a lot of preparation long before the actual riding sessions themselves. When I moved my three horses to their new yard, I knew I wanted to “reback” Lyviera to be ridden, but I first allowed her a few months to settle in to her new environment and make sure she would perceive the arena as a safe place. I did this by taking her up there every time I was training Heros, who she was bonded to, and doing groundwork using positive reinforcement.
The second thing I did was to teach Lyviera to line up at the mounting block. I taught her this by transferring her hip and shoulder targeting, which she understood in the context of me standing next to her, to me being on the mounting block. I also spent some time counter-conditioning her to having her back touched and having some weight on it. I allowed her to walk away when she felt things were too much or if she was no longer interested; it was important for me to make sure she knew she could say no, and that she could say no in a very simple way that was safe for everyone involved. It made her saying yes so much more meaningful!
The first session was all about giving meaning to the mounting block, and to her behaviour of lining up at the mounting block, by getting on. She needed to know what she was saying yes to when lining up. I would get on her back, let her move about a little using a target to obtain forward movement, and then dismount and start again. This is basic ABC: The antecedent being me standing on the mounting block, the behaviour being her lining up, and the consequence being me getting on and her getting a treat, or alternatively her being cued to perform a behaviour that could lead to a treat. I did put a bit-less bridle on her head in case of an emergency, as she hasn’t been ridden for so long. I did not end up using it.
In the second session, I started to transfer the back-up cue (which is target-based) from the ground to her back. While doing this, I also introduced her to an “off button” by getting her to touch my foot (using the target) and getting off instantly upon her touching it. In the future, the antecedent for this behaviour would be discomfort, fear, confusion, or whatever make her want me to dismount. I worked on both behaviours, back-up and “off button,” in the same session, as I wanted to offer her an alternative to ending the training session. I also must specify that the consequence for asking me to get off is the release from potential discomfort, but also the opportunity to continue interacting with me on the ground (and gain treats). I feel this is important to say as some horses may be conflicted by their desire to get treats but for the riding to stop.
My hopes for the future
As I am retraining Lyviera from scratch in an arena, I am in the position to film and document her progress, which I think is extremely valuable to improve horses’ welfare, but I do not want her to feel like she must comply. This is why in the first video we published I explained how animals can consent to riding and other procedure using a “start and stop button,” which is one of the first thing we established. More videos and training goals will only appear if she keeps enthusiastically saying yes.
We went through a roller coaster with Lyviera, with her at first not wanting to leave my side or stay out in the paddock with other horses, to her walking away from me once she found out that I couldn’t stop her from doing what she wanted. She found confidence to say no and, at a later stage, once she learned that I would never force her to do anything, to say yes.
Her interaction with other horses has changed so much; she will mutually groom with about half of the horses in the herd, which I never thought I would see from her!
People are under the impression that aversives (negative reinforcement and positive punishment) are necessary to ride horses safely, which is simply untrue. Considering how much we can do with other species of animals without aversives, I am still amazed that some people believe horses are miraculously the one special animal on the planet. They tend to justify the need for aversives by creating emergency scenarios such as “What if your horse decides to stop in the middle of the road with traffic about?” There are situations were some aversives may need to be used because they are an emergency where safety or health is compromised, but most people I know do not encounter such situations on any kind of regular basis, and if they did it would raise questions about their competence.
Is there limitation to riding horses using exclusively (minus these emergency situations) non-aversives techniques? Totally, and this is a good thing. If you cannot go and complete a standardised BHS dressage test using positive reinforcement, ask yourself why can you when using aversives? If the horse truly wants to participate, then the absence of aversives shouldn’t be a factor, right? We expect horses to perform certain behaviours that they do not enjoy and do not benefit them, for the sake of entertainment (at the amateur level) or financial gain (at the GP level). I am personally okay with these limitations.