Positive Horsemanship.

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Mojo Ridden

A couple of snippets from our 2nd lesson with Sally Ede. Mojo was calm and relaxed and focused. I used my body and a slight open rein to turn. We used scratches as reinforcement and he was forward going so only a slight touch with the leg to indicate ‘yes” that is what I want.

I now want to add verbal cues to the rein cues but that will come after I get more confident riding. At the moment Mojo doesn’t seem bothered by my riding and as long as he is under his emotional threshold all is well.

I did feel a little guilty as I wanted to use more positive reinforcement in our ridden sessions but I also need to know he can be ridden  by anyone, as he will most probably out live me.

April 2018

I took Mojo into the school this afternoon, he did get a bit over excited as I haven’t done much with him recently. He was watching this morning when Liz whilst rode Smoke and saddled Indi and sat on him, I thought at the time Mojo looked as if he wanted his turn. So after lunch he got his wish.
He followed me over the poles and then I threw his frisbee for him to target.
He lined up at the mounting block and targeted on the off side. Did his ‘carrot’ stretches and then I got out my little trimmers and did some SD and CC with them. He wasn’t bothered about them until I walked around a bit, but the reaction was just a slight elevation of his head and neck.
He did target them fine when off and after a few minutes he targeted my hand with the trimmers running. I stopped there and gave him a big jackpot and lots of praise. Lots of scratches too as he is shedding like mad and I have just bought some lovely grooming mitts.
Then I left him eating and went to put some hay in his stable. He then didn’t want to come out of the school, so I just stood and held his head collar at arms length – he soon came and but his nose in and went back in his stable – he was going to have his tea before going out again.


Mojo up date – he had been in all night as he asked the yard owner to come in last night. Apparently he looks directly at her kitchen window and stamps his foot when he wants to come in to his stable. It was obviously too wet for him last night as at 5pm he was happy out and at 7ish he was at the gate asking to come in.

He was a very muddy beast and quite hot, with all his hair, this morning, I brushed as much as I could and got lots of hair out. Then we went in the school to walk over the poles that were nicely laid out in a fan shape. Mojo was very good at this but did knock a few out of place. Then did his “carrot” stretches using a target and then giving the food. I left him in the school after the end of session signal and he went to look in the mirrors at the end of the school, he seemed quite intrigued at his reflection.

We just need some dry weather for a prolonged period so the fields are not so waterlogged. Is this really Spring?

Mojo Ridden

Mojo was ridden by Liz Hibberd, he was very cool today, we used the “walk on” cue and the target. Then phased out the target and Liz just cued him to walk.
He had one little spook when he trod on his own feathers – I really must cut them again.


He even had a little trot at the end, then lots of praise, scratches and treats.


Liz also sat on Indi for the first time and walked a few steps, we used my hand as a target and then the “walk on’ cue. Indi was very relaxed and we called it a day after a few steps.

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.

Conditioning the bridge signal

To commence reward based training with Mojo I have first to classically condition the bridge signal. A bridge signal is to tell the horse he has done the correct behaviour, it is applied as soon as the behaviour we want occurs – the reward can then be given once the horse is calm and relaxed e.g not mugging or looking for the reward.

To condition the signal we start with the unconditioned stimulus(UCS) (food or scratches etc) and get an unconditioned response (UCR) – the horse accepting the reward. We then pair the UCS with a neutral stimulus (NS) (the bridge signal) – this can be a verbal noise or a clicker. The NS then becomes a conditioned stimulus and the UCR becomes a conditioned response as it becomes associated with the reward. So the bridge signal says “yes that is what I want”.

I decided to use a clicker to mark as a bridge signal.

Day 1

My first clicker session with Mojo didn’t go too well. My aim was to classically condition him to the clicker – so pairing the sound with the reward. However poor Mojo jumped and ran off when I clicked, it was a rather loud clicker – so now I have a softer sounding one to use to desensitise him to the sound before going any further.

Day 2

I have just been down to see him and his owner was there so we took him to the indoor school and I tried with the quieter clicker and he was fine. A few times with that and I tried the louder one and again no reaction apart from looking for a treat. I got him to stand nice and calm with his head straight. So I now feel happier about it all.

For more information about the terms used here Karen Pryor as a list which I found useful.

Clicker Training glossary

Jo Hughes is in the process of making a video to show how to get the head straight and to help with impulse control – so I will watch that before doing any more with Mojo. I am away for a week so will recommence once I come back. Mojo is out in the field all day and night, so is enjoying just being a horse with his friends. I will of course go and see him in the field before I go.

Conditioning the bridge signalConditioning the bridge signal

Conditioning the bridge signal

New Loan Horse

I have a new loan horse, Mojo, he is a 9 year old Irish cob abut 15.1 and piebald.
He belongs the the lady whose horse I was having lessons on and he was her daughters horse. Mojo is however a little on the sensitive side with regards to being touched. So I will spend time assessing this and doing systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning. Mojo was the field companion of Benny so I do know him quite well.

A picture of Mojo in a bluebell wood.

Mojo in the bluebells.

Is the avoidance of an aversive a reward?

Is release of pressure a reward?

Following on from the previous post I have been researching the role of dopamine in emotional reactions. A very limited literature search – the subject is vast and I am not an expert. There are of course other hormones and neurotransmitters involved in all processes.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in movement via the substantia nigra, but dopamine is also produced by the ventral tegmental area of the brain. It is this area that seems to be stimulated when a reward is received or anticipated. Dopamine in these instances make us feel good. (1)

In horse training, when using the addition of an aversive stimulus to initiate a behaviour, e.g traditional and natural horsemanship, it is the removal of the aversive stimulus that is reinforcing. This is negative reinforcement as described in learning theory.

Research has shown that a transient release of dopamine occurs when an aversive stimuli is removed. (1)

So if this is correct then it may be a reward, but horses don’t seem to actively seek the application of an aversive event to gain that “reward”. They actively learn to avoid the aversive stimulus, by complying at the first indication (a cue) that an aversive stimulus might follow if they don’t comply.

Research goes further to explain this phenomenon –

“a new theoretical explanation of conditioned avoidance: (1) fear is initially conditioned to the warning signal and dopamine computes this fear association as a decrease in release, (2) the warning signal, now capable of producing a negative emotional state, suppresses dopamine release and behavior, (3) over repeated trials the warning signal becomes associated with safety rather than fear; dopaminergic neurons already compute safety as an increase in release and begin to encode the warning signal as the earliest predictor of safety (4) the warning signal now promotes conditioned avoidance via dopaminergic modulation of the brain’s incentive-motivational circuitry.” (2)

It is clear from the above that if we use aversive stimuli we must put a cue in place to predict the aversive – so the horse can avoid the application of the aversive.

When we use appetitive stimuli to reinforce a behaviour it is the anticipation of the appetitive that initiates the release of dopamine. (1) So horses actively seek the reward and can get quite animated in doing this and may offer more than we expect.

So in training should we limit the use of aversive stimuli and increase the use of appetitive stimuli?
Horses may feel good if they avoid an aversive stimulus but how do they feel during the conditioning (training) process.

Hence the title “Is the avoidance of an aversive a reward?”

All these are fascinating questions and I do not know the answers – but it does make me more aware of how and why horses learn and how they may feel about the process.

(1) https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mouse-man/200904/what-is-dopamine
(2) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23759871

How Horses Learn, Feel and Communicate

This is the feedback I gave Jo Hughes about the course I am studying:

How Horses Learn, Feel & Communicate

I am studying a course run by Jo Hughes of the Academy of Positive Horsemanship, on how animals learn, feel and communicate.
This is an extremely useful course for anyone who has contact with horses, we all need to learn to communicate and ethically train horses. Horses are learning all the time – whether we are actively doing a training sessions or just taking them to and from the field and stable.
This course is a mixture of video presentations, articles from various websites and questions to get us thinking about why we do what we do and how the horse may feel about this. The scientific content is at a level anyone can understand.
One example is looking at videos of flood desensitisation and assessing the possible emotions felt by the horse. Then we had to find videos to illustrate this technique. It was a bit daunting as sometimes it is difficult to decide what is or is not flooding. P.S flooding is not a technique that is recommended.
Jo is very patient and makes excellent videos presentations, she is always willing to answer questions, and assist in our training problems.
I can whole heartedly recommend this course.
Gill Langridge

If you wish to know more go to her website and sign up for the next course.
Academy of Positive Horsemanship

We owe it to our horses to learn as much as possible, the more tools in our toolbox the better able we are to pick the best for our horse.

There are no rules or methods, only principles – every horse is different and we need to be flexible in our handling and training.

The more I learn, the more I realise there is to learn, happy learning to everyone, where ever you are on your lifelong journey of never ending self-improvement.

Horse Charming

Max Easey – horse charmer extraordinaire has a website. An excellent resource for all your horse charming needs.

Horse Charming

Max has studied with some of the best positive reinforcement trainers both in the UK and the USA. As a linguist Max can explain in ways we can understand, making the learning process both educational and pleasurable.