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(Getting) A New Horse

"Relationship comes first, then training"

Warwick Schiller

"Work first and foremost on fostering a safe environment. That comes from acknowledging the tiniest changes in the horse's behaviour as they interact."

Warwick Schiller

Getting a new horse 'attuned', and feeling safe and connected is the only option if you want a proper relationship. Taking the time with your ground work - time really well spent - is vital, particularly with the troubled ones; a shut down horse is far harder to work with than the Red Zone ones, as it's such slow, patient work to get them through.

A horse is only ever asking one question all the time - am I going to be safe? And all we need to do is assure them that the answer is a resounding 'Yes'.

Thanks to new science we now know that space and time are vital for learning - using rest periods wisely is crucial as rest allows the brain to assimilate and process what's gone on, to solidify the learning. There's a really interesting study out there - using two groups of horse, one group was worked for 50-minutes with no rest moments in their training; 30% got the training right then went straight back to their old behaviours. The other group was worked for 1-minute, followed by 1-minute rest; 60% got it right, and also learned their training without resorting to their former behaviour and fight/flight responses.

This type of test has been repeated numerous times with different groups of animals, with the same results every time. So, build in plenty of breaks during schooling as there's absolute certainty in the science showing the new knowledge is assimilated, so you'll get further faster, and with deeper change.

There's also some interesting research with learning-related seratonin-release (the happy hormone). During the rest period initially you'll get a dopamine release (the reward hormone), but you need the seratonin release thereafter because seratonin is crucial for learning - the lick-and-chew response is demonstrated as proof. Here's why.

The association taking place within the brain has been identified from functional MRI scans. From performing a simple training task then left in peace, the brain then replays the task exactly the same as it happened during the rest period - the MRI shows the parts of the brain that are then replaying the learning. If the horse is left peacefully for longer, new parts of the brain start to fire up; these are the parts associating the task with other learning and memories - a really important part of confirming the new knowledge.

It's also important not to fuss too much after the learning as the horse needs this longer time to assimilate.

To conclude, the take-home message here is that the brain assimilates learning better by reflection than by frequent repetition - how many times have we said it's always best to 'sleep on it'?!

Meanwhile, to help your new horse along the way, a month's course (1kg) of our StressTonic can help to 'normalise' the stress response. Also, make sure your horse's diet is as anti-inflammatory as possible - we want to keep that gut as calm as possible, so it's hay, hay and more hay - never haylage! And avoid those ultra-processed feedbags full of inappropriate pro-inflammatory junk fillers. Everything's covered for you on this in our 'Feeding our Horses/Why what we feed has to be right' page.

Updated - Oct'21

* Anna Blake, of Relaxed & Forward Training, writes incredibly insightful blogs on how to truly understand a horse and their 'calming signals'. She's just posted 'What Does Having a Connection With a Horse Mean?' - it's full of perception and proper interesting - makes me feel a whole lot better about my relationship with my horses, who basically ignore me! 😉