California Riding Magazine • April, 2012

Jody Ambrose
Equine behavior management 
complements dressage and other
training methods.

Well-known dressage trainer and rider Jody Ambrose has added a new aspect to her training business. More than a decade ago, Jody became intrigued by the science of analyzing and shaping behavior promoted widely by canine and marine mammal trainers. That initial curiosity led her down a path toward becoming certified as an Equine Behavior Consultant by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.

Perhaps more important than the certification is the proof she's witnessed of the power of understanding why horses do what they do, and of learning how to motivate them to do what we want. Through this process the horse's stress levels are greatly reduced and mutual trust is built, opening the way toward the harmonious relationship sought by most horse owners regardless of their discipline or competitive ambitions.

"The body language we think of as 'tension' or 'lack of harmony' is a horse's way of communicating frustration, often due to physical difficulty or not understanding what's expected of them," Jody explains. "We tend to give animals too much credit for knowing and sharing our intentions, and mistakenly attribute lack of cooperation to stubbornness or stupidity. Correction and force can work as training methods, but usually lead to undesirable side-effects because of stress."

Today, she applies behavioral science to her dressage program, and also works with "problem" horses from any discipline. It's not a substitute for anything she learned during many years of traditional dressage education, but rather a complement to that and to any other training modality. Whatever the issue, the first step is recognizing signs of stress, identifying and reducing the underlying causes, then deconstructing the behavior you want and communicating it in a way the horse understands.

Through various opportunities to study with expert trainers of many other species of animals (from dogs and zoo animals to, believe it or not, shrimp!) Jody gained a new perspective on how horses learn, based on observable behavior, not unverified assumptions.
In traditional riding, negative reinforcement is the main method in the form of pressure/release. Pressure from the aids is applied in specific sequence and removed when the desired movement is attained. Some horses feel rewarded by that release of pressure but many do not, or are at least not strongly motivated by it. Often when a horse lacks comprehension, ability or motivation, he gets punished with a physical correction, eventually resulting in shutting down or dangerous acting out. "Behavior doesn't lie," Jody states. "If the horse knows what I want, is physically capable of doing it and is motivated enough, the behavior happens. Failure means I haven't done my part to help him be successful."

Positive reinforcement is a frequently successful, behavior-driven technique. "It's pretty simple, it all breaks down to motivation," Jody explains. "A behavior happens more frequently because it is reinforced or it happens less frequently because it's punished." This concept is critical in all aspects of training. When training a horse for piaffe, for example, it's important to first teach the horse how to do the movement through "shaping," then teach him when to do it. "In traditional training, a horse is sometimes punished for performing a new movement at the wrong time. The science tells us that anything a horse is punished for, he is less likely to do again. When I train a difficult movement, at the start I am not really concerned with having them perform reliably on cue."

Voice and touch are familiar forms of positive reinforcement in the horse world, but neither are inherently reinforcing experiences for horses. Food is, and Jody often uses treats in the early phases of teaching a horse a new skill.

How does that work in a dressage context? Of course, you can't lean down in the middle of a test and give your horse that cookie he equates with doing piaffe. Instead, Jody's training method starts with food as a reward, then builds a connection in the horse's brain between the movement and the reinforcing experience of a treat. The eventual goal is to systematically remove the food from this process but retain the psychological motivation. "I believe that for most horses, the feeling of working in balance with the rider is something they enjoy, and that feeling itself can eventually be conditioned as a stronger motivator for top performance." Jody acknowledges that some view the use of food as bribery. In that perception, she notes, the horse world is "10 or 20 years" behind where trainers of dogs, dolphins and many other species are. Food is generally a very powerful motivator, so it's an extremely effective tool that just about anyone can use if they understand a few important principles.

Well Received

Jody has been building her equine behavior expertise over the last several years and is grateful that it's been well received by her friends, clients and colleagues. Before venturing down this interesting path, she was a competition-focused rider and trainer with many Grand Prix under her belt. She's worked with many of the dressage world's best, including Olympian Robert Dover, noted "S" judge Sue Curry and Laurie Falvo Doyle. That credibility gives her a platform to introduce concepts that are admittedly still "weird" to some. 

"I'm so fortunate to have received the training and background I have. I would never abandon that knowledge and experience," Jody says. "What I'm doing now isn't about changing that, it's about communicating more effectively to the horse and allowing the horse to give us its own valuable feedback. Everyone likes to feel heard, even horses!" Jody continues to compete and welcomes students with competitive goals, along with those without them. Those in a rush for ribbons at the expense of their horse's well-being need not apply, but otherwise, Jody believes that nearly every rider shares the goal of wanting a better relationship with their horse through a sense of trust. Her expanded training program makes that possible for everybody. She notes that eventing riders have been particularly receptive to her work, because they know their safety and success depend upon the relationship they develop with their equine partner.

Last but not least, Jody emphasizes that physical well-being is essential to achieving balance and harmony. To that end, Jody works with a team that includes certified Equestrian Pilates® instructor Kirsten Hill, fitness trainer Bridget Braden-Olson, doctors who are equestrians and understand the physical and psychological demands of riding, as well as equine chiropractor Dr. Cheryl Ricketts-Mulvey and veterinarians who appreciate the value of behavioral management.

Along her journey, Jody has been asked to share her knowledge of domestic equine behavior with zoos seeking help with zebras, camels, giraffes and rhinos. She's also worked with service dogs for most of her life and currently participates in the training of assistance dogs for veterans with post-traumatic stress. The techniques work for any species, including humans. Jody's constructive style of teaching with emphasis on motivation and clear, two-way communication is another aspect that sets her apart.

Another transition for Jody's business is her recent relocation to RidgeMar in Del Mar. At press time, she was supervising the construction of a dressage court next to the facility's new cafe. "RidgeMar is giving me the opportunity to build my ideal arena, with premium footing, tons of mirrors and lights for evening riding. My clients and I feel incredibly lucky to have been welcomed by such an upscale yet laid-back and friendly atmosphere." The popular, family-owned boarding facility is the perfect place to expand her business, and owner Alison Mundo is supportive of Jody's comprehensive training approach. Right next door is the riding simulator at Rancho El Camino, which Jody uses to build skill and confidence in riders.

For more information on Jody Ambrose visit SmrtHorse.com, email jadressage@yahoo.com, or call 858-278-4123.