Ginny's Blog - January 27, 2014


"Horses, Hearts and Emotionality"  
  by Ginny Elder

Tim McGaffic and I worked with a couple horses this weekend using a heart rate monitor along with some positive reinforcement training to gather data about horses and their emotional stress.  Tim is a gifted and talented horseman that is committed to studying horses and improving training methods based on the nature of horses as dictated by their ethology. Heart rate monitors are currently used in fitness training but they also can reflect pain and emotional stress or anticipation in horses.  We were curious to see if one can calm down an emotional state as reflected through heart rate with positive reinforcement as a primary reward and increase understanding and learning in the horse while incorporated with traditional techniques. Our supposition is that positive reinforcement can help the horse understand what is being asked by mitigating his emotional state to a cognitive state. I was riding and Tim was monitoring the heart rate of the horses and using Positive reinforcement  to signal the horses for the big “YES” or “ that’s right” , ”thank you” or however you want to put it.  Tim and I worked the horses with clicker training on the ground to show the horses the meaning of the bridge sound and then transferred it into the saddle using the word “good”.  We also do use stroking the horse in front of the withers as a positive reinforcement.  What we discovered was that while in the saddle we could lower the heart rate and help keep the horses in the “zone” of learning.  This is extremely effective for remedial horses and those with training issues.

The results blew my boots right off.  It was a humbling experience for a “professional instructor” on many levels.  First, we know how emotional horses are but are we really listening?  The second thing that came to mind was how sloppy and imprecise we tend to be with our communications whether it is an application of an aid or the timeliness of a reward.   Third, the immediate feedback of the heart monitor of the effect of time, training and positive reinforcement was undeniable.  The use of technology like heart rate monitors help us to objectively “see” how horses are responding to training and management.  Adding technology may well be the wave of the future and confirm what classical masters have been telling us for centuries. Using heart rate feedback could result in break though advancement in horse training beyond our current methodology and imagination.

I shared my excitement of this weekend with my long time coach and mentor Charles DeKunffy.  He is the consummate horseman and a master in the world of classical riding.   I was fired up telling him my weekend adventure with the heart rate monitor….that the heart numbers reflected “my  feeling “ of the horse and it’s response to the training at hand.  Charles was thrilled to hear there is a way to empirically show what riders the reality of the moment in their horse.  That elusive thing called feel. The ability to feel and respond dictates successful training with all horses in all disciplines.  The heart rate clearly shows our ability or lack of in our training, management and communications with our horses.

The heart rate monitor fits under the saddle and measures the BPM of the horse’s heart.  Horses being prey animals are quite stealth at keeping their internal emotions to themselves unless of course they are pushed to hard  and to fast that results in a firestorm fight or flight response.  Most of the time as we are handling our horses and unbeknownst to us, inside their mighty chests beats the heart of a chicken!  They are the consummate worriers…even our old campaigners show their concern and stress through an elevated heart rate.   What we observed by monitoring heart rate was by using positive reinforcement and being respectful of their cognitive state of mind  reflected in their HR and simply slowing down and training in smaller steps  how quickly their heart rates can be lowered and learning improved with a lot less stress and angst for all parties concerned.

One of the horses that we worked this weekend was Cindy Lippon’s horse “Don’t Step Back” aka Donnie.   Donnie is an Irish Sport Horse and competed on the Irish Three Day Olympic Team in Sydney Australia where they took a team fifth place. He is now 22 but please don’t tell him that.  He was and is a world class athlete.  He also is extremely emotional and can get high and explosive literally in a heartbeat!  By using the heart rate monitor to keep tabs on his stress level and anticipation we were able to see the amazing effect of positive reinforcement training on his heart rate through various requests and maneuvers.  At one point during a canter sequence his heart dropped 30 points in seconds from 105 to 75. By scaling back to a simpler movement then returning to the more complicated work his anticipation which had been building, lowered as reflected in his heart rate.  When we began to canter again I could feel the change in his body and movement and the HR monitor verified it. As a rider it is thrilling to have that kind of feedback in the moment.

What does Donnie really think?  Don’t ask if you “can’t step back”!


We have all heard from many important horsemen to “Take time but don’t waste time”.  Charles says if there is one thing riders must keep in mind  is “you have time”. By educating ourselves to work mindfully in sync with the horse’s input, verified by the beating of his heart you can improve the quality of training efficiency and I suspect a lot of frustration and heartache for both horse and rider.  By supplementing positive reinforcement with traditional negative reinforcement methods it is the frosting on the cake that many of us are not using or consider as a legitimate training method.  Why is that?  Horsemen tend to become rigidly bound in traditional training methods.  They are our comfortable pathways of habit.  Granted change is hard but when we stop learning we turn our backs on the possibility of excellence in training and compassion.  Without attempting to understand the nature of horses and their process we are self- limiting our potential and our horses.  In other words we know what we know and cling to it like a drowning man to a raft.

This is where my lesson in humility came in as the rust was clearly evident in my response time, my own idiosyncrasies and of course my own habits. You all have heard that horses don’t lie?  As I struggled to create new pathways in myself the horses were very generous in letting me know if I was getting it right.  They are excellent in their release and positive rewards to the humans! 

Like a horse I can’t lie.  I was mildly horrified that I was so obtuse and clumsy.  I pride (the same pride that goeth before a fall)myself  on my sensitivity  and feel with horses but seeing the heart rate ebb and flow brought an even keener sense of the struggles horses have in being our partners.  I went too fast, didn’t reward quickly enough and didn’t allow enough soak time.  Soak time referring to just letting the horse be and absorb the training. It’s amazing that they understand our “white noise” communications at all.  Just goes to show what docile and generous creatures they are. Heart rate and positive reinforcement are tools to add to the methods we already have in our equestrian tool boxes.

It is a humbling and yet exhilarating experience to keep learning.  It is thrilling when you have a conversation that is clearly acknowledged and responded to by your horse.  It is fun for both you and the horse.  I can’t help but reflect on the abuse, cruelty and consternation that could be alleviated by continuing education and by adding objective effective techniques to our training and management of horses.

I am grateful to Tim McGaffic for taking the time to share with me his deep understanding and knowledge of the nature of horses and his keen insight into both people and horses.  I, perhaps like many of you reading this blog, was slow to understand the implications of adding something positive to my horse’s lives because of the quicksand of tradition.  It’s a good idea to carefully examine ideas and information that are new to us along our journey as horsemen and never fear learning something new and outside our comfort zone. 

I hope that you will always be a thinking horseman… is the kindest thing you can do for your horse.

Best, Ginny

January 27, 2014