Monday, 22 August 2011

Why so tense?



Stress and tension plague us in modern times. Too many voices. Too many demands. With white knuckles and gritted teeth we soldier on. We can spot the signs of tension in a person – but what about a horse?

As judges we’re trained to recognize technical errors, lack of talent and lameness. What about signs of tension? We’re talking about this more, but the more subtle signs are easily clouded by a flashy mover, which naturally impresses us and we feel inclined to reward.

Conflict behaviour is a term in learning theory describing the way horses respond when they’re confused. Short rigid necks, busy mouths, fixed ears, hasty steps – these happen when a horse feels torn between the mixed messages he’s getting from his environment or his rider. Simultaneous, opposite signals or noisy cues trigger a horse’s flight response and when there’s no way out, he acts out (often subtly) or zones out (learned helplessness).

I admit, it’s a dilemma – comparing a talented but tense horse with an average happy one. It’s enough to stir some conflict behaviour in judges! Would honing the penalty system to include specific signs and degrees of tension be a step in the right direction? What about educating our riders beyond the mechanics and posture of the sport to the science of how horses learn? ( the “whys” behind the “hows – my passion!)

What do you think?

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