TRUE TRAINING 26 - What Falls Mean to the Horse

Dec 15, 2020 by Janet Jones

Last post, we talked about the inevitable: falls. We know what it means to a rider to fall, but what does that experience mean to a young horse? What is her equine brain learning from a rider’s fall?


Green babies who have not yet experienced a rider’s fall don’t know that it can happen. We try to keep their minds in this blissful state of ignorance for as long as possible by sticking like glue. The reason for this is that the first fall can act as a very powerful reward in the horse’s brain. If it’s not handled well, next thing ya know, Missy learns to produce face plants whenever she wants to stop a training session. After all, any young horse is agile enough to kick over her head, buck high and hard, twist in the air, spin out from under a rider, walk around on her hind legs, or bolt into runaway speed. We don’t want her to learn to connect these natural actions with happy consequences.


Why is that first fall so powerful in the horse’s mind? Because it’s a huge surprise. From the horse’s point of view, rapid separation has never happened before. It’s extremely unusual. Most young horses even show surprise in their body language and facial expressions immediately after a rider comes unhitched, as if to say “Hey, what happened? Where’d you go?”


And if you recall from Posts 2 and 3 on catching, or from my book, surprise is the strongest element of training by reward. When we reward a horse, dopamine is released in her brain. It acts like glue to bind the association between her most recent behavior and the reward that tells her that behavior was correct. When a reward is surprising, a larger amount of dopamine is released, cementing the association even further.


I recommend non-edible rewards most of the time and offer them only for very specific good behaviors. Giving horses indiscriminate edible treats that are not connected to specific behaviors reduces your training power. For that reason, avoid the carrot just for being cute, the sugar cube for being hungry, the apple because too many grew on your tree this year. Indiscriminate treats like these weaken the power of rewards. A horse who is handed carrots for nothing on a regular basis is not surprised by an edible treat—oh look, another carrot, ho hum. For that reason, her brain does not release extra dopamine and fails to recognize the special nature of the link between behavior and consequence.


Now… back to falling. When a rider falls, the green horse is not only surprised. She is also released from work momentarily and allowed to run off to a safer place—both potent rewards. Multiple simultaneous rewards plus the element of extreme surprise combine to turn on a fire hose of dopamine. Her brain automatically links those rewards to the most recent behavior that occurred. Perhaps you just fell for no reason. (If so, please—no more green horses for you!) But much more likely, the horse spun or bucked or scooted forward, causing you to fall. And that action is now cemented in the horse’s brain with some very strong rewards.


What to do? Use the tips in Post 25 to avoid falling. But when you do fall (on a baby, it’s not “if,” it’s “when”), reduce rewards immediately. Stand up and catch the horse right away. Curb your temper; it’s not the green horse’s fault that you fell off or that she bucked. She’s a horse, and horses do these things. Get back on the baby immediately and put her straight back to work trotting or cantering. The best approach, if possible, is to return to the initial pre-fall task in a new location, like on the opposite side of the arena. When she performs that task, reward her with praise and strokes. Then try it in the same location where your unscheduled dismount occurred. Keep trying until you get the result you want, then reward the horse and cool her out.


That’s all well and good if you’re able to get back on the horse. But what if you are injured or frightened? In that case, ask a more advanced rider, preferably a trainer, to get on your baby right then and follow the same procedure of working the task in a new location, then the pre-fall location. If this is a new difficult task that the young horse cannot yet perform, drop back one step to the task just before it and ask for that. For example, if you’re asking for a canter depart from a walk when the fall occurred, you could drop back to a canter depart from a sitting trot. There will be plenty of time tomorrow to begin teaching the depart from the walk.


Many riders think they should hammer the lesson into the horse’s brain at this point, but that’s not correct. You don’t want to make that big a deal out of your fall, and you don’t want to scare a young horse. These two results will only hamper her neurological learning ability. Just get back on, achieve the task a couple of times and either stop there or go on to some other type of work. The choice depends on how much time is left in your session. If you fell during the first five minutes, you’ve got a good bit more work to do on some other task.


Finally, if all this talk about falls alarms you, remember that horses need a LOT of training before they are reliable mounts for novice or even intermediate riders. Have a professional trainer assess your skill to be sure that you’re giving your young, green, or difficult horse a strong foundation for a life of reliable service. It’s better for both of you.