Regardless of the equestrian discipline to which it is applied, equitation science pursues knowledge at a unique interface between two species with motivations that cannot be expected to collide. Horses did not evolve to be ridden nor did we evolve to ride them.
Our greatest responsibility is never to forget that the horse’s welfare is paramount: it is a privilege to ride horses and remarkable that the possibility exists. Therefore, every horse-trainer should maintain an open mind about possible limitations in horse learning and confusion arising from training methods. This is especially important when the vast range of required responses in the trained horse is compared with the limited number of sites on the animal’s body for eliciting those responses.
Given that in equitation we are dealing with an animal that, so far at least, appears unable to extrapolate, we must always be mindful of the potentially confusing effects of applying pressure signals in common or overlapping sites on its body to elicit different responses. Failure to do so explains much of the confusion that typifies unwelcome behaviour in horses. Much of the behavioural wastage tragedy is a result of our unclear interactions and the impossible expectations we place on horses. What is needed, therefore, is a reappraisal and restructuring of contemporary horse-training within the framework of established and empirically tested principles of learning. And that is the purpose of Equitation Science.
Technological advances such as applied tension and pressure detecting technologies will also help to educate riders of all levels in how best to apply the core principles of learning theory. By reducing confusion among riders and therefore conflict in horses, such technology forms a foundation for continuing advances in training practices and the design of equipment that will allow Equitation Science to make horse-riding safer. In an apparent paradox, electronic devices are the most impartial means of establishing the effectiveness of less orthodox coaching and riding tools, such as imaging techniques. These new technologies may also prove to be the best means of elucidating the behavioural qualities that characterise humans who are said to have ‘horse sense’. By helping to up-skill humans who lack this sense, improvements in coaching and equipment will also reduce the rate of euthanasia because of unacceptable horse behaviour.
Tension and pressure detecting technologies could equally be used to measure the qualities of effective coaching, not just effective signalling to the horse. They may also provide objective information and test novel technology for riders who are geographically isolated. For example, because Australia is removed geographically from Europe, its elite competition riders struggle to readily access higher levels of coaching. The validation of novel measuring and feedback technology will be the first step towards elite riders accessing real-time feedback from remote coaches.
As clinical equine behavioral medicine matures, we will become better at identifying individuals that are high risk for certain disorders and managing them accordingly. We should also become more skilled at identifying horses that have true learning deficits rendering them likely to show dangerous or sustained fight and flight responses. The impact of such advances on human safety will be significant.
Despite the unique challenges that the study of horse riding and horse handling present, the future of equitation science seems fertile and fascinating. It promises to tell us a great deal about our beloved horses and possibly about ourselves.