International Society for Equestrian Sciences (ISES) Conference 2014: a review

The content was interesting and stimulating. The venue was ideal. The welcome from all that we met was friendly and warm. The company was great. The food and service at the venue was excellent. The practical sessions were inspirational. The journey was comfortable but Gatwick was ‘stressful’. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the welfare, training, care and riding of horses – join ISES today ! There, that just about does it I think. What’s that ? You want details ? Oh, okay then. Here’s a bit of detail for you to chew over, digest and discuss if that’s what you’ve a mind to do 

The venue was in the center of Denmark so there was a 3 hour train journey from Copenhagen airport to Vejle but being met by a member of staff from Aarhus University (who organised the conference for ISES) made the final part very easy. The venue was a conference and outdoor center called Vinsted Hotel and Conference Center and was about 20 mins from Vejle. It is a purpose built center and was excellent in every way – food, service, staff helpfulness, rooms, facilities ad-lib water bottles and coffee – were all very welcome. Considering the center was catering for our party of about 300 the service and food was of a very high standard at all times.

The conference sessions were split into ‘themes’ for the three days. The first theme centered around the Interpretation of Equine Stress Responses and so it suited one of the research items – the use of cortisol and heart rate to determine stress in college riding school horses – ideally. Definitions of stress were given from a scientific point of view and the concept was outlined in the horse. Differing methods of determining stress and stress related behaviour were presented and these included the use of heart rate – or more particularly heart rate variability rather than the absolute value – as well as the role of hormones, stereotypic behaviours and causes, whether equestrian professionals can actually identify stress (the research suggested they couldn’t by the way !!) and how the horse exhibits pain. The latter has interested me personally for some time as the pain response in horses is very difficult to identify (they can’t be asked like you or I can and they are very willing and co-operative which doesn’t help at times) so some very good research on facial behaviours to help this was welcome. At each coffee break I had to stand by the poster on cortisol that I’d taken and answer questions from the other delegates on it. The questions were interesting and made me really think about what we’d done and why, however, I got through it okay. Worse questioning was to come though ….

Theme 2 followed in the mid afternoon and this was on Learning and Cognition. Many of the research presentations were centered around the use of learning theory – Pavlovian, Operant Conditioning, the establishment of Conditioned Emotional Responses (CER) – more on that on Friday’s practical demo – and was familiar to me. I felt on solid ground most of the time. How the neuroscience of the brain works in relation to learning and how stress can affect it, how foals learn from the mare, how the use of symbols has helped one set of researchers to give the horse a ‘voice’ were all topics for presentation.

In the evening I had to give a 10 min slot to each poster I’d taken (6 of them !) to other delegates and take questions. This was a fearsome task for someone who’s actually a naturally reserved person I can tell you. However, good levels of interest was shown in all our work, hand outs were taken by many, questions were answered with conviction and all seemed to pass of well – except for one delegate who was like a ‘dog with a bone’ about the study taken on shod v’s unshod v’s partially shod horses and movement ! It would have to be the most complicated to explain in a short time wouldn’t it. Firstly he’d never heard of the ETB Pegasus equipment that we’d used, he was adamant that 2D video was better and wanted to know what motivated us to do it in the first place. Luckily the bell rang and I had to move to the next poster – thanks for that Mel when you were actually needed you were in Spain !! Nice. Apart from the two mentioned above I also took study work on the defecation behaviour of stabled horses and how to ‘toilet train’ them; the proposition that the canter stride of a horse through a double fence is not the same as it’s normal canter stride and that it actually changes the length of the 2nd stride despite what some trainers feel; the effect of different mounting pressures by a rider on the horse’s back; the effect of a GPS v’s a Total Contact Saddle on heat generation on a horses back and stride length. All the work was received well by others and sat very nicely alongside that of other universities and researchers of high standing which was really pleasing – the peer review process was worth the frustration all along then !

Friday saw Theme 2 continue in the morning with research presentations on the objectivity (or rather the lack of it !) in dressage judging (this was a really interesting proposal put forward by Andrew McLean about how dressage judging should change to make it less subjective and more transparent), the effects of patting and scratching your horse and how science could be embedded into equitation. The afternoon was centred around a set of practical activities at the Billund Equestrian Centre (below)

his is a most impressive center set in fabulous ground with masses of space for outdoor arenas of all shapes and sizes. Inside we were shown how one riding school facility teaches youngsters about horses and how to ride. The youngest in their school is 14 months old and the eldest is 14 years. When we went in to the indoor arena there were already 1o standard sized Shetland ponies and one larger pony at liberty. Each had different coloured brushing boots and a bitless bridle or neck strap – the purpose of this would be clear soon enough.

Then in came the youngsters. They were in different coloured teams that matched the pony colours and there were teams of three people – two youngsters and one parent or older helper. The first ‘task’ was for the children to locate and catch their pony. They had to learn how best to approach a pony at liberty and did so with elegance and ease that belied their young years – something that I see much older students that I come into contact with struggle at times so a very valuable lesson in horsemanship. One of the children then mounted the pony (mostly without assistance so another valuable lesson). None of the children had a saddle, many rode with just a neck strap and the child on the ground gave feedback/encouragement to the one riding as the helper helped as needed. Part of the programme is about teaching the helpers/parents how to teach using learning theory and it really works. There was one main instructor and one commentator so all in all 11 ponies and 35 people in the arena at once – I know people that would have a heart attack at that ! Each team then proceeded to do a different activity with the instructor going around and advising as and where/when needed. Some were lunging, some where practicing teaching the pony to walk in a straight line up and down an old fire hose laid on the ground, some were trotting with and without holding on and arms held out straight like an aeroplane, some were actually doing this sitting backwards (!), some were teaching their pony to go through a frame of hanging plastic strands and then some were practicing falling off in a safe way and gaining confidence in doing so. It was inspirational ! All were using learning theory (for humans and ponies), all were safe (the only accidental fall was when some clapped at the end and a pony took a step sideways too quickly for the child) and all were having great fun. This is how learning should be – and could be if our equestrian participants could really understand how to do it and teach this way (I don’t think many can by the way !).

After this demonstration we had one on how adults can be taught to fall safely using Judo techniques of falling which was great fun to watch. The instructor here teaches the Danish National Event Teamthese techniques. This was closely followed by a further demonstration of how show jumping horses with behavioural problems – running out, speeding up, not going near the water trough, not willing to canter steadily and act like a ‘psycho’ (the riders words not mine !) – were all helped in the space of some 45 mins ‘simply’ using learning theory. There was no coercion, there was no force just gentle teaching with removal of martingales and flash straps !! The teaching of the horse who didn’t want to go near the water trough was especially interesting to me as mine is not keen on water …. Look out Chiron Horse – we’ll get you into it anytime now ! Very impressive and not at all like some of the ‘training’ one sees on a regular basis in some schools in the UK. It was very much about establishing a positive conditioned emotional response (CER), being patient and gentle. It’s the way I hope I deal with the horse that I’m a human to. A demonstration of riding from the Danish National Academy followed on classical dressage riding. All the participants were brilliant and their time and effort was much appreciated as it allowed the delegates the opportunity to see much of what had already been discussed in the conference hall.

In the evening there was a gala dinner which was superb food and wine and folk dancing led by a group of children from a local primary school. It was great fun !

Saturday for me was a travel day as I had to get the train back to Copenhagen for my flight. However, the conference theme was one of Sustainable Training and Riding with research presentations on preparing horses for competition from a physiological point of view, how the heart functions in exercise, how the horse’s body moves in various gaits in relation to other body segments, falls in XC, could the unshod horse be an advantage in dressage (oh yes !), rein tension (it’s too much in many riders and should ideally be the weight of a Mars Bar) and then a number of ‘free’ papers.

The whole experience was highly interesting, inspirational in parts, gave much ‘food for thought’ and I would encourage anyone to join ISES and take part in how equestrianism around the world develops. The delegates came from NZ, Australia, North America and all over Europe. All had one thing in common – the welfare and care of the horse and to do so in an ethical way. Long may it continue ….


Jumping in a Total Contact Saddle

Jumping in a Total Contact Saddle