Positive Horsemanship.

Behaviour and stress.

When looking at behavioural problems in horses we need to look at all aspects of the management and training of the horse.
It is rarely just one thing that is compromised. If you only take your horse to a trainer they will probably only look at the physical aspects of behaviour, many problems are due to how we keep horses, what we feed them as much as how we train and how often we train.
Stress is a major cause of equine behavioural problems – to much aversive training, little turnout (especially in the winter), a diet not suitable for the horses work or temperament.
All these need addressing, for feeding advice ask an independant nutritionist, for physical problems liase with your vet. Look at how aversive your training is for the horse, just because a horse is obedient does not mean he is enjoing the work. Horses are very good at learning how to avoid aversive stimuli – this is why they are easy to train. They will learn cues to perform a behaviour so we don’t have to escalate the aids.
There is a revolution in the horse world at the moment with more people learning about the impact of aversive training and turning to using more positive reinoforcement.
It is not a battle between traditional training or natural horsemanship or reward based training – it is a matter of our own consciences – what we feel is right for our horses. We know our horses better than anyone else, but I do know that I am not comfortable with chasing my horse around to make him do things, or to use pressure to force or coerce.
If we remove all tack and put down the sticks and strings what we have left is how the horse feels about us. Does your horse stay with you if you don’t have any equipment?
Is he free to leave without fear of punishment, can he just be a horse in your presence?
Of course some will stay due to previous aversive training – it can take a while for some horses to realise they can do something without being asked. Many horses are too afraid to do anything for fear of correction (punishment).
You only have to watch videos of natural horsemanship training to see horses who stand like robots until cued to do anything.
The stress, caused by being always vigilant, waiiting and watching for a cue and trying to get it right every time so they can avoid correction, can be great.
Even very animated horses are often in a state of frozen watchfulness, watching how to avoid the flick of the whip, we often see liberty trainers with sticks.
At one clinic I attended with Smoke the cliinician was insistant that the only way he could train more than one horse to do a liberty demo was to use escalating pressure – so the horse had no option but to obey or be punished.
There was some excessive waving of the lead rope and extremely big movements from the trainer to get Smoke to back up.
This is so much easier with a target stick and positive reinforcement.
So much of what I do is easier with +R, but we do have to let go all previously learned behaviour in ourselves. How do you get a precise marking of a behaviour with -R when, often, our timing is dreadful? Using a verbal bridge to mark a behaviour still need good timing but I find it is easier to click or say “good” than to release pressure.

So when you watch demos or videos or read about how to train behaviours bear in mind how the horse feels. Stress is a common cause of physical and behavioural problems. A  little stress (excitement) is good but prolonged stress e.g never being able to relax – either in the field (if he hasn’t a pair bond), stable ( if he can’t interact with other horses) or in training (due to frozen watchfulness) is not good for our horses.


Winter is always a difficult period for equestrian folk, waterlogged fields, horses that have to be stabled more than usual, lack of daylight to ride and train. So many negatives but also a lot of positives.

If we can’t ride then a little groundwork goes a long way. Set up some horse agility type obstacles, weaving, poles, tarps, umbrellas and numerous other things can be used to desensitse horses to novel objects.

Clinics, lectures and demos at indoor venues are a good way to keep up the enthusiasm, choose a trainer/clinician whose ethos you share. I have just been to a talk by Alison Short, a well respected dressage trainer, on goal setting and rider strategies.

Of course there are always literature searches to do, I found this paper on the Psychology of Equine Performance
This quote is of particular interest to me:-
“The majority of training is based on the use of aversive stimuli in the form of either punishment to discourage undesirable behaviour or negative reinforcement to encourage appropriate behavior [40]. For the latter, it is the removal of the aversive stimulus which provides the reinforcement for the correct behavior and which, with consistency, leads to early anticipation and avoidance of the training aid so the animal becomes responsive to the most subtle cue from the rider. Timing is therefore critical and poor timing may lead to the learning of unanticipated and inappropriate responses [40]. Although employed to a much lesser extent, training can also be achieved through positive reinforcement. Because responses are associated with reward acquisition, they are much more variable as, evolutionarily speaking, it pays an animal to explore the limits of what is required to obtain a reward so it can maximise efficiency through minimal effort [41]. However, the key issue with positive reinforcement (and where it contrasts most with negative reinforcement and punishment) is that emotional responses to the training situation are often entirely positive rather than largely or wholly negative [42,43]. This may be extremely important in shaping the horse’s perception of being ridden and the relationship which develops between the horse and rider, as a result (which may be particularly important when the rider and the trainer are the same person).”
Plus this also:-
“Firstly, long-term inappropriate application of negative reinforcement schedules may result in a chronic stress situation for the animal, potentially leading to reduced health [66], high reactivity to acute stressors [67], or, for some individuals ‘learned helplessness’ (behavioral depression) [68]. ”

As part of my equine behaviour course I am studying stress responses in horses and the impact excessive use of negative reinforcement and forceful training has on the immune system (immunosuppression is implicated in many equine illnesses) as well as the overall psychological well-being.


Some time ago I passed the Equine Psychology course run by the Centre of Excellence (written by Alizé Paris V.Muckensturm, of Fairhorsemanship). The content of their courses are good and as long as people realise they have no academic standing then they are fine. So I thought I would do the Applied Behavioural Analysis one – this will be useful for the Equine Assisted Learning CIC where I volunteer.
Over the last few months I have done some free short courses in human psychology and it is fascinating. Also much of it is very useful for horses too, especially the learning theory and affective neuroscience. We do need to learn as much as possible about how horses learn and communicate and how their emotions are affected.

Image of the diploma

I am now embarking on a course run by the Natural Animal Centre in Equine Behaviour. At this stage I am not sure I actually want to work as a behaviourist but is will be useful when Equine Partners are in a position to retrain rescue horses.
Almost at the end of the first part of the course and it is very interesting and is making me do some research and fine tuning my observational skills.

Mojo October 7th 2016

There was some competing motivation before we started today, hay in the field so he didn’t want to leave. However he did put his halter on and was good to bring in and go in the stable. Feet were a bit sticky but he was still enough to saddle.

Mojo was not settled enough today to line up correctly. I will only sit on him when he feels like he is calm and relaxed about it all. I am not agile enough and it is not fair to him either. May be I need a higher mounting block.
So we just played a little in the school and quit for the day.



Just back from Devon where I was reunited with Benny. We rode out a few times and did a little in the school. He hasn’t forgotten how to target, or side pass at liberty, even though I haven’t done anything like that with him for 2 years.


This topic as been covered before but it is always worth revisiting.

According to Jaak Panksepp there are 7 basic emotional systems all mammals share.
What do we need to engage in training our horses?
SEEKING/desire system, PLAY/social engagement system and CARE/maternal system.
What do we need to avoid triggering?
FEAR/anxiety system, RAGE/anger system, GRIEF/separation anxiety system
Seems so simple but it is so easy to induce frustration in training, the horse will SEEK a reward by performing a behaviour and if we are late in rewarding a desired behaviour or the behaviour is one we don’t want and we ignore that behaviour, the horse may become frustrated. This is often the point people give up trying to use positive reinforcement.
Of course we can use negative reinforcement e.g pressure/release, and even positive punishment, in our training and insist our horses do as we ask.  We can use pressure without it being aversive/uncomfortable for the horse but we need to be careful to monitor their emotional state. Each horse is different and we need to adjust our training to suit the horse.
Recently I saw a post where the person said that sometimes if we pick up a stick or whip it doesn’t have to be the object that is a threat but that the persons body language may change (e.g if the stick gives them more confidence). Interesting thoughts on very a controversial subject, are tools an extension of ones arm with no threat potential, just like a guiding hand? Or is it a threat – do this or there will be a negative consequence? Only the horse can say for sure, but we can look at their emotional response to our training methods and allow them to say “no” if they feel uncomfortable with our request.
My one problem is this – as horses have emotions just as we do, is it fair and ethical to force them to do things we want that may not be what they want? How do we know what they prefer, do we give them a choice? I know horses who line up at the mounting block and seem to enjoy going out to explore – activating the SEEKING system.
A very difficult question to ponder and to answer.
Also keep in mind the emotions elicited by the use of negative reinforcement. These are the negative emotions of FEAR and RAGE. An aversive stimulus is something the horse would rather not experience, so the discomfort of a pull on the halter, a whip to “encourage” them forwards. These work by the horse wanting to avoid them, so they comply with our very slight requests – what people call light or subtle aids.
As I have said before fear does not have to be the full blown flight response – the other signs of the FEAR system are freeze, fight and fidgeting.
The fidgeting can be divided in to appeasement behaviours and displacement behaviours. So the horse who can’t keep his feet still, the horse who snatches at grass in an abnormal way, the horse who can’t give us 2 eyes, the horse who lowers his head in an attempt to say “look I am not a threat”.
All these are worth thinking about especially as the International Society of Equitation Science have a huge influence over training and welfare, but also advocate the use of negative reinforcement in the initial training of horses. Although I do find their statements confusing as they have this after the paragraph explaining operant conditioning:
”WELFARE IMPLICATIONS: The use of pressure/discomfort has the potential for serious welfare implications that range from escape, aggression and apathy to learned helplessness.”

Affective neuroscience of the emotional BrainMind: evolutionary perspectives and implications…
Cross-species affective neuroscience studies confirm that primary-process emotional feelings are organized within primitive subcortical regions of the brain…

PS I work with a wonderful set of people doing equine assisted learning, the horses always have a choice, if they start looking at all uncomfortable or stressed they are removed from sessions and given a break. Horses do pick up on our emotions and we do need to know our own horses very well and watch for signs of distress and fear/anxiety.

My first sit on Mojo.

Behaviour is information – it is how non-verbal animals communicate. What we do with this information says a lot about us as people and trainers and caregivers.
If we get on a horse who clearly is saying “no” we are in danger of breaking any trust they have in us.
Mojo said “no” a lot when I got him, “no” to the mounting block and “no” to new people, “no” to having his feet trimmed.
It has taken a long time to gain his trust and to get on him too early would have damaged that.
Last week he had his feet trimmed by a new farrier and although a little unsure at first soon relaxed and gave the farrier his feet.
He also comes voluntarily to the mounting block and isn’t so afraid of new people.
Yesterday was the first time I have sat on him. That is all I did sit and walk 2 or 3 steps forwards. Rewarding every step and giving him a lot of fuss and reinforcement. I dismounted without any finess and he was fine with that too. So a big jackpot for all that and back to his stable for his feed.
When Liz sat on him the first time, a few months ago, he shot off and didn’t look relaxed, yesterday was totally different.
He stood nicely for his tack and even a breast plate was not an issue. That is for my benefit as it gives me a little more security with something to steady myself, if he gets frightened by environmental factors at any time.
The new yard is quiet and he is in a herd – a new one now as Smoke wouldn’t let him join his gang.

Conditioned Responses

So you have a nice gentle horse who spooks. What do you do? According to one trainer chase it round with a bag on a stick and then when the horse tries to escape smack him with the whip.
Someone I know has also heard a trainer say “smack him hard and then give his face a rub to tell him you still love him”. Oh and smile whilst you whack the horse on the chin with the lead rope clip.

Yes we need to smile more whilst with our horses – it helps us relax but it does not make horse feel any better if what we do frightens them.
All those times you smack, tap or kick a horse to go forward you are initiating a startle response – even if you never hit your horse it has the same affect. Is hitting your boot or the sandschool floor or wall to startle the horse forwards any better for the horse?
Eventually you only have to pick up a whip or stick and the horse obeys – it looks like magic but it is a conditioned response.

In classical conditioning the first time the horse sees a whip or carrot stick it is a neutral unconditioned stimulus – it illicits no response. Once the whip or stick has been used as an aversive stimulus to provoke a response it becomes a predictor of the aversive so has been classically conditioned.

So the unconditioned stimulus is the whip when first seen, it is then paired with an aversive action and becomes a conditioned stimulus that illicits a conditioned response.

So the conditioned stimulus (CS) has been associated with the unconditioned stimulus (UCS) to create a new conditioned response (CR).

In some instances it may be the trainer who has this effect – ever seen a horse not want to be caught by one person when everyone else has no problems? It is certainly worth looking at why that might be – does the horse associate one person with having to do something he doesn’t like and the others are neutral in the mind of the horse – e.g he has no history of them schooling or riding him etc.

There are better ways to train horses, do we want our horses to be afraid to ask questions? Afraid to say no I can’t do that? Or do we want to have a horse who is not afraid to express an opinion – OK there will be some times when that opinion is unsafe but we can redirect their behaviour or teach an incompatible one.

These articles are worth a read – especially the last part of the first article where it gives this example

“Example:  A horse misbehaves with a farrier, and the farrier hits the horse several times with his rasp.  Because this horse is very sensitive, being hit causes him a lot of pain.  In this case, being hit is an unconditioned stimulus and fear is an unconditioned response.  In the future, whenever the farrier arrives the horse feels fearful and trembles.  The farrier is now the conditioned stimulus and the horse trembling is the conditioned response.  The initial event was so traumatic for the horse that it took just one pairing of farrier and pain to create the conditioned response.”

Insert any other person in the place of farrier and you can see how easy it is to create a conditioned fear response. It takes a long time to undo a fear response like this. So it may not be your farrier who caused the problem but the horse will associate any person who looks or smells like a farrier with fear.

This is why I am spending so long counter-conditioning Mojo. PS he was a super star for his foot trim yesterday.


Mojo at his new yard.

Mojo moved to the yard where my daughters horses are, it will be easier if they are all together.
He was a little unstable travelling so it was a slow journey. However he arrived safe and sound and calmly walked off the lorry.

Day 2

Mojo in the new field

Mojo in the new field

He was introduced to Smoke – my daughters appaloosa on the second day and had a run round. He is now in with the herd with 4 other horses.

Day 3

Mojo seems to have settled well. Put him in the school so he could have a look round. A big lorry went past so he had a little run round. Then I went in with him, as the cones were already in a line we did some targeting. He went from cone to cone on the walk on cue. Then I just stood by one cone and sent him to the cones either side of me. He was very calm and touched each cone and came back for a scratch or treat. Stood on his mat and lifted his feet. Then back to the stable yard for his feed. I picked out both front feet whilst he ate. He was just loose in the yard (with the gate closed incase he decided to go and investigate).

Thought for the week

I keep reading how clicker trained horses happily take wormers, are easy to bridle, learn new things quickly etc, etc. As if they have monopoly in having happy horses. Well I have had a variety of horses over the years and they all bridled themselves, all had unique personalites and were allowed to express opinions. I listened when they showed me they were unhappy with lunging or anything else.
We need to get away from this separation of training methods. We need to all work together to make the lives of horses better. We need to train without triggering fear. We need to understand horse behaviour and how they learn and how emotions are interwoven into behaviour.
Yes I agree positive reinforcement is better than escalating negative reinforcement. But we need to stop sounding holier than thou because we use more positive than negative reinforcement.
It is known that emotionally good use of positive reinforcement is beneficial, we also know that over arousal when using +R is not good.
If we can help one another instead of bickering then the horse would benefit. We ought expend our energies in helping those who really do use abusive methods find a better way. If that is teaching them the correct use of mild negative reinforcement and helping them read the horses emotions then is that a bad thing?
I strive to use positive reinforcement but we all know life happens and it is not always possible. We need to stop making people feel guilty, non of us are perfect and we all need encouragement as we learn.
PS not all pressure is negative reinforcement, not all pressure is bad. We may need to use different words to avoid confusion. Plus it is the horse who decides what is or is not aversive.