Investigative Behavior's Influence on Horse Jumping

Investigative Behavior's Influence on Horse Jumping

Although it's considered "an old trail horse trick," investigative behavior (letting the horse sniff and touch something new) applied in the training ring might help jumping horses gain confidence with new jumps in the show ring.

The feeling of an impending refusal is unmistakable: On your approach to a jump, your horse suddenly gets stiff in the neck and back, holds his head and ears high, and flares his nostrils. Most of us have been taught to increase the aids at this point--tighten our legs, hold the horse's head steady and straight with the reins, and maybe give a tap or two of the crop.

But according to an equitation scientist and international show jumper, there might be a better, "more humane" way to encourage a horse to proceed over a jump that's just as--if not more--effective as increasing the aids.

It's all about allowing "investigative behavior," said Angelo Telatin, MS, director of equine studies at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Pa. That means letting the horse sniff and touch something new (in this case, the obstacle) and stretch out the neck in what scientists call "telescopic movement," for as long as the horse needs. Although it's considered "an old trail horse trick," investigative behavior applied in the training ring might help jumping horses gain confidence with new jumps in the show ring.

"There is a way to train jumping horses without 'overpressuring' them," Telatin said during a presentation of his case study on investigative behavior during the 2011 International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) Conference, held Oct. 26-29 in Hooge Mierde, The Netherlands.

The study was based on a concept of "generalization," meaning the horses would likely consider new jumps in the show ring to be similar to new jumps in the training ring and would therefore be less afraid of them during a competition.

"I thought, well, a jump is made of colors, but it's also made of smells and of textures, and these things generally remain ... consistent, because they're usually made of wood or plastic," he said.

Angelo studied 50 show jumping horses divided into two equal age groups of older or younger than 8 (the age he considers an important cut-off point for resolving jumping behavior issues in his training experience, he said). Seven of the horses (all in the under 8 category) had been trained using the investigative behavior technique; the other 43 had been trained with traditional methods (the rider applies more pressure to prevent a refusal) and had all been brought to Telatin because of poor performance (refusals) in the show ring.

Some of the horses--especially those over the age of 8--had the "fight-or-flight mechanism so deeply ingrained in their minds" that they wouldn't even begin the investigative behavior on their own, Telatin said. In these cases he would dismount the horse and lead him to the jump to help begin investigative behavior and, if necessary, bring in a more experienced horse to help lead the training horse toward investigative behavior of the jump.

The horses were tested in real competitions over the next six months and were allowed to "have their heads" to use telescopic movement in the show ring without slowing down their performance.

In the end, most of the under 8 horses (24 of the 25) showed clear jumping rounds in competition, including all seven of the horses that had been trained from the beginning with investigative behavior. For most of this younger group, at least three months of investigative behavior training was required before they exhibited clear rounds.

The over 8 group generally showed improvement, but only five of the horses jumped clear competition rounds within six months, Telatin said. Having had more time to build up negative experiences than the younger horses, they might need longer than six months to overcome their fears, he added. However, the results also seemed to be related to rider skill in allowing the horse to have his head for telescopic movement.

"Any slight mistake of the rider with the horse's head, and the horse would fall back into the 'fight-or-flight' mechanism," Telatin said.

Telatin said his research confirms that horses' (especially those younger than 8 years) jumping performance can be improved through investigative behavior, which has been found in other studies to be related to an "emotional state of mind of the horse," Telatin said. However, further studies are needed to ascertain "which variables are preventing the older horses from improving," he said.

"But even if their performance is not improved, it's at least a more humane way of training," he added.

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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