For many decades, I've trained horses and people using behaviorist learning theory, the core of McGreevy and McLean's _Equitation Science_. While their presenting habituation, desensitization, and classical and operant conditioning almost as if they were NEW annoyed me, I agree with most of what these authors say. Yet I cannot recommend their book because it violates my two most sacred principles: Write with clarity and vigor and STAY OFF THE MOUTH!
Review of the WRITING in _Equitation Science_
Like many academic writers, McGreevy and McLean lean on jargon and other tired academic conventions. I teach academic writing so I'm all too familiar with this impersonal (boring), abstract (fuzzy--and boring), noun heavy (slow and ponderous--and boring) style. Using mostly verb-driven sentences, top science writers prune jargon, clarify difficult concepts, and create reader interest with specific examples, even humor. In contrast, McGreevy and McLean take freshman psychology material and grind it until it sounds like string theory, causing me to swear.
This book incited so much swearing from me, I tangentially recommend science writer Steven Pinker's Google Talk as an example of lively academic work:
This neurobiologist, psychologist, and linguist displays the style of top notch academic presentation. (Warning: the section on swearing starting around 20:07 is an academic version of George Carlin's Seven Dirty Words and almost as funny.)
For anyone interested in academic writing, I recommend _Stylish Academic Writing_ by Helen Sword.
Review of the RIDING theory in the Video and in _Equitation Science_
For horsemen interested in the theory of Equitation Science, instead of the book, I recommend McLean's lecture from Equitana 2011: "Dr Andrew McLean. Biomechanics and Learning":
I enjoyed this concise primer on the behaviorist flavor of Learning Theory until McLean started talking about the aids around 25:45. When McLean said, "Don't worry about the seat because that's classical conditioning," I started swearing--again. I ride mostly with my seat, and my experience suggests the horse's back can provide an unconditioned response, so I want proof it does not. "Everyone knows" should not come from the mouth of a scientist. That's anecdote. What studies provide evidence that hands and legs trump weight and seat?
Yet neither lecture nor book provides anything convincing. For example, page 75 of _Equitation Science_ says this:
"It is difficult to train a horse to stop from the seat alone. Instead, you _must_ [emphasis added] train a stop response from the rein and then link it with a specific cue from your seat (C[onditioned] S[timulus], e.g. bracing against the action)."
"Bracing" is a whole other controversy, so I won't address that, but, in my experience, the rein prompts more bolts than stops, something McGreevy and McLean corroborate on page 93 when they write: "[T]he horse's natural reaction to mouth pressure is most likely NOT to slow its legs but to run faster to flee from this source of pain."
Trying to reconcile pages 75 and 93 left me reeling with questions. If fleeing is the natural reaction to the bit, then how does the horse learn to stop from this pain? If pain produces the stop, then how does inflicting pain jibe with ethical horsemanship? And why is producing a stop response off the seat difficult?
Since one day in 1969, I've used upper body and pelvis, legs, and THEN the reins to stop horse from first ride on. After bellowing at me for trying to use the reins to halt, an 86 year old former cavalry officer told me that green horses typically respond to a rider's centered weight by slowing. Most riders, he added, kill the response by failing to reward it. He warned me to "preserve the [horse's] back" by staying in a half seat when starting a horse, halting only at session end by sitting deep, then vaulting off. I followed his orders on the fourteen Arabs, part-Arabs, and Anglo-Arabs I've started. All slowed or stopped on the first ride. In fact, they stopped so well I shifted from snaffles to bosals and cord halters.
However, I suspect rider and horse body build, coordination, and other innate mental and physical talents may dictate which aids will work best for a particular rider and a particular horse. For example, three students with back trouble failed to halt off the seat. After surgery, two halted off the seat quite easily. Riding style could be another issue. When I read _ES_, I wondered if McGreevy and McLean learned on jumpers. The video shows a young McLean over fences. Many jumper folk stress hands and legs, and most of teach what works for us.
I realize my successes teaching the stop off seat, legs, and then a touch of hand prove no general rule. The sample is too small, but I find consistent success both starting horses and rehabilitating "problem" horses (and riders) encouraging. This method also worked for Reiner Klimke, who trained horses of disparate temperaments to the Grand Prix level and rode in six Olympics, winning a record six gold and two bronze medals in dressage. In his 1985 work _Basic Training of the Young Horse_, Klimke said this:
"How do I teach the young horse the half halt [and the halt]? Definitely not by pulling on the reins. The aids . . . are a combination of weight, leg and hand. The rider sits deeper in the saddle and applies both legs, and at the same time pushes the horse into quiet responsive hands"(74).
That's what I learned that day in 1969 when Flame galloped off with me. The old cavalry captain yelled, "Drop the [expletives deleted] reins and SIT UP!" I did, and to my astonishment the mare slowed. With her in a canter, he yelled the rest of the sequence. I rocked back my pelvis, closed my legs, and pushed Flame into a fixed rein. She folded up like an accordion and stood square. Difficult? After that, halts came easy, like magic--except for one off the track Thoroughbred who'd obviously been schooled off the mouth.
I could go on for twenty more pages, but enough here. _Equitation Science_ left me with notes for dozens of posts on _SwiftHorse_, my blog. A good many will be positive. Despite my complaints, _ES_ gave me many good insights, especially the section on clicker training. But then there's that use of the term "bracing" and some inconsequential but interesting--to me at least--factual errors. I love to fact check too; that goes along with teaching academic writing.