Starting a young horse in a 'sympathetic' way reduces stress during training

Researchers wondered if there would be a difference in the amount of stress if young horses were started in the traditional way, or with the help of a ‘sympathetic’ training method. By that they meant methods in which the behaviour of the horse, non-verbal communication through body language and respect for its natural needs play an important role. In other words, the same way we approach horse training at This indeed proved to matter. 


The scientists studied the behaviour and heart rate of 28 young KWPN horses during a 5-week training period, in which they were started under saddle. After that, each horse had to take a simple dressage test in walk, trot and canter, in which they had to be able to make large circles on both hands. 


In the traditionally trained group, all horses received the same amount of training time per day according to a predetermined schedule. In week 1 they were lunged in a halter, then in a bridle, and then with a saddle on. Riding commenced in the second week. In addition, the horses were put on the long reins and lunged with double long lines. Within one training session, the rider hung over the saddle, sat up fully in the saddle, and the horses were walked on the lunge line and trotted with a light rein contact. After this, the rider began to take up more and more contact, and by the end of week 2 all the horses walked and trotted loose under the rider. The trainers then focused on rhythm and form in all gaits. 


The Freestyle method was used for the other group, which broadly corresponds to the training method we work with at All aids were taught step by step and one by one before they were combined. Each horse received its own training schedule that was adjusted to reflect its progress. First the trainers did groundwork, they taught the horses to come off pressure, they worked on the long lines and did obstacle training. During these sessions, the rider began to hang over the unsaddled horse. If that went well, the rider sat up on the horse while the trainer led the horse. After this the horse was introduced to a bareback pad and a bridle with a leather bit, and the horse was lunged with bridle and bareback pad. The riders initially rode on the double lines, and eventually groundwork was combined with riding loose on the arena. 


During a test after the training period in which a person approached the horse, the sympathetically trained horses were found to snort much less than the traditionally trained horses. During the training period, the traditionally trained horses showed more anxiety and stress related behaviours, such as high muscle tension, a high head carriage, lip movements and gnashing teeth. The final dressage test showed that the differences in behaviour and technical performance were relatively small, but that the average heart rate was higher for the traditionally trained horses. Starting young horses in the sympathetic manner thus provided the same level of training within the same time frame as the traditional method, while these horses experienced less stress during training. 


Here is the link to the scientific study ‘A comparison of sympathetic and conventional training methods on responses to initial horse training’

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