Integral to understanding horse behaviour and performance are the animal’s basic nature and learning processes.
“A horse has certain needs beyond physical care – it has behavioural needs that we don’t always recognise, like the need for socialisation,” explains McLean.
“Horses are often kept in stables with bars between the stables and although they can see each other, there is more to socialisation than just being able to see another horse. For example, being able to touch each other can make a horse braver and bolder and I have seen this work in practice with Manchester Police in the UK. They took down the bars on their stable partitions last year and reported that their horses were then much bolder when out on patrol. If you isolate people, you end up with problems and mental health issues and it’s the same for animals.”
Learning processes are also an important element of Equitation Science and they can be harnessed to improve performance. The correct use of the pressure-release technique can enhance performance while also respecting horse welfare, says McLean.
“When we train horses, no matter what sport, we train them to go forward, stop and turn in hand and under saddle, and underpinning that is the use of pressure release. The release of pressure makes the animal see that there is a positive outcome and then a horse can move from the merest touch. They respond well to pressure release, as long as it is done well. If a trainer or rider doesn’t release the pressure, or releases pressure at the wrong moment, the horse becomes confused,” says McLean.
“There is little doubt that horses seem to enjoy galloping – it’s their nature. But doing that better in racing will improve performance. Outstanding horses, like Winx and Black Caviar, show a background of very good training and their jockeys rarely resorted to using a whip. Rather than seeing them as unusual horses that ran without needing the whip, maybe part of their running success was because the whip wasn’t used. Studies have shown that using the whip increases the tempo but decreases the stride length in galloping horses, and yet the majority of horses that win races do so by lengthening their stride.
Equitation Science can also help horses run straight, rather than having to rely on a lugging bit.
“If you train the horse to be straight, his biomechanics are devoted to forward running. I worked with the late Peter Hayes a few years ago and taught his horses to do some shallow serpentine turns – we turned the horse right from the right rein and then released the pressure, and turned it left from the left rein and released the pressure – and then they stopped leaning on one side of the bit and ran straight,” explains McLean.
“Recognising the horse’s flight response is also important because there is a big difference between galloping without fear and galloping fearfully. Teaching horses to lead correctly by your side matters, too. If they lead calmly in the saddling enclosure, research shows they are then more likely to be in the winning group in a race.”
Everyone in the horse’s ambit talking the same language can also enhance performance and wellbeing.
“It’s important for everyone in the stable to use the same signals and techniques and to move calmly around horses. A calm, quiet environment makes the horse’s life better. Horse welfare and successful training depend on each other,” says McLean.
“The two goals are improved performance and improved welfare. You can’t have super performance with poor welfare. Looking at the animal’s whole life is the answer for all performance, then we can enable animals to become bolder and happier.”