"Three Beats" Rule
Posted by Irina Yastrebova on Monday, March 30, 2015 07:06 PM
A while ago I was referred to a work done by Dr. Andrew McLean. He has created the Australian Equine Behavioral Center and developed a system called "Scientific Equitation". There is a list of articles on his website explaining the basic principles of his system of training horses. His work is based on the current scientific knowledge on how animals, horses in particular learn. It is very interesting approach and I strongly recommend to at least read his work and make up your own mind about it. AEBC Articles
Here I am going to focus on just one aspect of this work - a "three beats" rule. It is a timing idea. If your aid (half-halt or driving aid) didn't produce any results by the third step in walk or trot or by third stride in canter your horse didn't respond to the aid and continuing to apply the aid turns into nagging, pulling or simply noise which the horse becomes very accustomed to and stops paying attention. Plus if the correction comes later than 3 beats the horse will not associate it with an aid a rider is trying to teach to the horse. This is all about how a horse learns on the mental level. We are not talking about situations when a horse cannot perform something due to lack of strength or coordination. This is purely a simple response to pressure whether to leg or rein.
Exploring this idea made me aware how easy it is to get drawn into an argument with a horse. For example, before a rider realizes he/she has spent several seconds trying to get a simple transition from walk to trot and already gave the horse a dozen kicks. Same with a half-halt. If the horse didn't respond to it by third beat and a rider still trying to get a result the rider is pulling and the horse is leaning. The rider must change what he/she is doing, otherwise, the horse is learning to get strong in the contact. Dr. Andrew McLean came with a term "motivational" pressure.This means that after applying a light aid and not getting a response the next aid must be strong enough to get a response right away. A lot of times you hear and read that leg aids, for example, must increase gradually until you get a desired response. I never liked that idea. I thought it made riders kick a lot and do too much. I was right and there is a scientific proof. Again, it all ties into "three
beats" rule. On a first beat you apply light aid, no response, you immediately apply enough corrective aid to get a response and then by third beat it is a release and the horse gets rewarded for doing the right thing. If, on the other hand, a rider applied a light aid, then a bit stronger one, then a strong one, then spur, then whip by the time he/she gets a result the horse already forgot what it was 6 strides ago. The horse cannot connect the light aid with the response it gave several seconds later. Next time the rider applies a light aid the horse has no idea what that means.
This aspect of horse's learning abilities is very important to remember when the situation gets tough and a rider gets emotionally too involved becoming angry, annoyed or upset with the horse. At this moment humans tend to prolong the correction/punishment. Partially it is to vent out their own frustration and partially thinking that the horse will learn quicker. I have done that myself and I have seen others do it. Prolonging correction/punishment will only teach a horse confusion and fear. The horse will not be able to associate that he is being circled here 5 times in a row in a tight circle because 1 min ago he pulled on the rein, or spooked, or did something else. He will remember his rider's anger, strong aids, uncomfort of a tight circle. He will not remember why it all started.
Another valuable aspect of remembering a "three beats" rule is during riding figures and movements. This is especially common problem for dressage riders, including myself :) Very often when the movement began the horse was light and responded well but in the middle or by the end things start to fall apart - the horse may lose impulsion, become heavy in contact, or fall inside/outside. The horse is no longer moving in balance and self-carrige. The rider in order to finish the exercise ends up holding the horse together. The rider at first probably tried to correct the problem with light aids avoiding to disturb the movement. However, if this didn't produce any result the rider should have remembered the "three beats" rule and realize that he/she is holding the horse together. At this moment the rider should forget about continuing riding a figure or movement, there is no value in it. The rider must address the problem and if this requires changing the movement or gait, or
direction then so be it. From my personal experience, I hold because I want to finish what I have started and disturbing it is very much against my nature. I catch myself riding my horse in a training session like I am riding a dressage test. If this sounds familiar to you it is important to change such approach and focus on quality of the work done in terms of guiding the horse to work in balance and lightness and avoid doing the work for him just to finish or continue something.