You and Your Horse

Finding your own way with horses

“Pferdgerecht”: What is a fair and appropriate association with the horse?

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“Pferdgerecht”: What is a fair and appropriate association with the horse?

Where I live and work in Germany there is a term which you come across sooner or later whenever you read or talk about horses:  “Pferdgerecht.”   This is a term which is as untranslatable as other German words such as schadenfreude or angst which have been adopted as English.  Although one might say that “pferdgerecht” is a word the English language would be enriched by adopting this has not happened as yet. So I offer “fair and appropriate for the horse” as a rather long-winded but accurate translation of the term. It is a concept which is constantly there when we read and talk about horses and it is naturally a theme which really gets us going and touches a nerve because, after all,  who doesn’t want to treat their horse both fairly and appropriately?

On the other hand, what exactly do we mean by it?

The four factors involved in a fair and appropriate association with horses

Over the years for me personally four factors have stood out as a good basis for a fair and appropriate association with horses:

  1. Fulfillment of the horse’s basic needs.
  2. Motivating work  with the horse.
  3. Good communication, which means having a common language that sets a framework for trust and understanding and makes my horse confident that it can predict how I will react.
  4. Creation of the best possible learning opportunities

Fulfillment of the horse’s basic needs
The horse is a herd animal and a prey animal.  To make it feel safe in our company (which is obviously a pre-requisite for the horse if the horse is to link up with us and be ready to learn) it needs various basic conditions:

  1. Adequate food and water
  2. Enough movement
  3. Enough social contact with its own kind (see this article)
  4. Enough fresh air
  5. Enough care and medical attention
  6. Tack that fits properly and does not hurt (bridle, saddle etc.)
  7. A feeling of security

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I, as its trainer, have the responsibility to create these basic conditions!  Always take the time and the trouble to fulfill these fundamental needs of the horse.

But this is not everything!

As well as these fundamental needs stated above my experience has shown that there are three further factors which are decisive in having a fair and appropriate association with the horse and these are:

  1. that we ask enough of our horses and in a way that is as varied as possible
  2. that we are predictable from their point of view in how we behave and handle them
  3. that we take care to provide good learning opportunities.

Motivate your horse by offering varied training

In my eyes many horses are trained in much too one-sided a way.  They learn to be led, pick up their hooves, be loaded up, be lunged, carry a rider…the normal horse training programme.  Rather the same thing happens to our children in school, the very thing that should be the first step of all gets missed out, which is that need to learn how to learn and how to do so with interest and motivation!

  • How can I encourage my horse to develop its own ideas and make me creative suggestions?
  • How can I come to communicate with my horse in a positive way so that the training develops on a basis of two way understanding and does not resemble military drilling?
  • How can I make my horse into a reliable, intelligent friend trained in many and varied ways?

For me the foundation of a good person-horse relationship is best laid through good ground work.  With the help of my body language, aids through the halter or cavesson, voice commands and whip signals I explain to my horse what I want from him.  To start with, every single correct response that my horse gives is responded to with positive reinforcement by me.  This positive reinforcement is done by rewarding with titbits, with my voice and by stroking and giving the horse breaks for play.

As far as I possibly can, I just ignore any inappropriate or incorrect responses.

Create trust through being predictable and giving positive reinforcement

A point that has so far only rarely been heard or read about is that it is very important for a horse that we humans are predictable. Only then can they extend their trust to us and  understand what we want from them.

An Example

Have you perhaps seen something like the following?

A horse that is tied up to be groomed starts pawing at the ground while it is being groomed…

How does the person grooming it react?

I am just giving an example of what I have seen so often:

The person says: “Stop it!”

The horse stops for a moment – then starts again…

The person ignores it for a while, then gives it an irritated slap on the pawing leg and says “Hey, I mean it, stop that!”

The horse stops for a moment, but then starts again…

The person goes away (fetching the saddle).

The person comes back, puts the saddle on, the horse is praised for being saddled up (even though it is still pawing away…)

Have you experienced similar situations yourself?

How we often make it difficult for our horses…

From the horse’s point of view the situation is as follows:

For exactly the same behaviour it gets completely different reactions, from punishment to no reaction to praise: all three!  It is extremely unlikely that this horse will stop doing what it was doing wrong and likely that the person is going to be irritated by its horse’s behaviour every time it is groomed.

This is really the way to make everything for us and our horse unnecessarily difficult.

The solution:  be predictable

A horse understands and learns when it always gets the same reaction for its behaviour.  It learns well and with interest when we turn our attention to what we want it to do and re-inforce this behaviour.

I can say this from my personal experience:  a predictable person gives the horse the feeling of safety it needs by setting borders.

This means, in our example:

  • When I (and any other people nearby) immediately remove my (their) attention and go away when it starts to paw the ground
  • and give it positive attention and praise in the moments when it is standing still

then my horse is much more likely to learn to stand still.

It should be taken for granted that good learning conditions exist.

Take the trouble to create good learning conditions

Good learning conditions imply, above all, that the horse feels safe and well in its surroundings.

It is our task to create such surroundings.

An example:

When we want to lead a young horse out of its trusted herd and expect him to stand calmly out of sight of other horses it is highly likely that we are going to be dealing with a fidgety and nervous animal.  From the horse’s perspective we are taking him to a place which is putting his life in danger.

His instinct says to him:

  1. you are cut off from your herd, you are being delivered without protection to the wolves and the lions
  2. you will probably be eaten.

Relaxing when you have this in the back of your mind is bound to be difficult!

You can create a better chance of a positive outcome, just to give an example, by getting the young horse slowly used to being led out and separated from the herd in company with a trusted and, if possible, respected herd leader horse.  In this way you would be fulfilling the basic above mentioned requirement for a safe environment which is necessary to make any learning possible at all.

Conclusion

When I want to have a fair and appropriate relationship with my horse it is always important to check,

  • if the basic requirements of your horse are provided for,
  • if you are devising work for your horse which is interesting, varied and positive,
  • whether you are predictable from the horse’s point of view in your behaviour and your communication and
  • if good learning conditions exist

If you continually reflect and take a self-critical look at these four aspects you will find countless starting points to make your association with your horse yet more fair and more appropriate.

(Translated by Katy Schütte)

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