Mojo Up Date

It has been a while since I wrote anything on this blog, winter is always a difficult time of year for horse owners. Our fields are muddy and Mojo is a mud monster. He is still out unrugged, he does come in if the weather is particularly foul or the fields get too poached.
Consequently I have only done basic care with him, a little bit of target training on the yard so he remembers, and some standing still on the yard too. He has a stationary target and stands there and eats hay whilst I groom him or pick out his feet. I am revisiting foot lifting as his fronts are perfect now but he still struggles a bit with the hinds, some times more than others. One of the liveries said when she got him in from the field he seemed a little stiff – probably slipped in all the mud. I checked him and did his stretching exercises – I do these with a target stick and he was very supple laterally. He is not so good at stretching down between his front legs but that was more that he was unsure of where the target was at first. He stretched his near hind but was a little stiffer on the off side, this is always the side the physios pick up on.

We have regular physio visits and/or massage therapy. Plus saddle checks – not the I sit on him very often but it is important that he is comfortable.

I do hope the wet weather stops soon and the fields can recover, we are fortunate to have a good school that doesn’t freeze or flood, so I can take him in there to do pole work or long lining – I must get on and do these again but can’t rustle up the enthusiasm in the wind and rain. Horses like just to be horses and as long as they are cared for and happy they will be OK. Plenty of forage in the field and friends to groom and hang out with, some shelter by the trees and a stable to come in to occasionally to dry out and have a sleep.

I will make a list of things we need to revisit and reintroduce tack in the school before riding him, I don’t want him always to associate the arena with being ridden. The arena needs to be a place where fun things happen and I wont ride unless I know he is OK with everything to do with being ridden.

Gone are the days when I just got on a horse, even when they are fidgeting or moving away from the mounting block – yes I have done that in the past but I know better now. This equestrian journey is never ending – as it should be for everyone. We never know everything and learn all the time – if we don’t we get stuck in the past and never progress in our horsemanship.


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.

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.

Emotions in Animals

Do animals have emotions? Wel I am sure most animals lovers would say a resounding yes, but scientists tend to want hard evidence.

On Monday I spent the day at a seminar with Professor Jaak Panksepp, in Oxford. A day full of information which is taking time to process.

Jaak Panksepp has done years of research into affective neuroscience – the science of emotions.
During this time he has discovered brain pathways that are involved in emotions. Using animal models to identify these pathways has led to discoveries that are useful in the field of human psychiatry.

The 7 basic emotional circuits are common to all mammals, human however have greater reasoning powers due to our large neocortex. So horses can’t plot our down fall (which may be a good thing given how some people treat them). Horses are ultimately animals that rely on instinct and reflexive behaviours.

Affects (emotions) produce comfort zones for animals, the core emotions are unconditioned and instinctual. SEEKING, FEAR and RAGE, followed by LUST and CARE as all animals need to reproduce. PANIC is separation distress and PLAY helps young animals learn – they can practice survival skills.

The feel good emotions are those of PLAY, CARE and LUST.
The emotions that feel bad are FEAR, RAGE, and PANIC.

The SEEKING circuit is active all the time and is involved in the animals survival, so seeking food, companionship, safety etc. It is about wanting things not just acquiring them, so the incentive (motivation) is as important as the reward.

PLAY is a big part of learning – children with ADHD benefit from play rough and tumble activities.

Horses play and need to be allowed to play with field companions, social isolation is often associated with displaced behaviours.

It was interesting that Jaak Panksepp said there was no initial difference between male and females play behaviour but that over time females played rough games less ( due to them being physically smaller and therefore often losing the game). This seems to happen in horses too – mature mares seem to play less than geldings of any age.

The use of aversive stimuli in animal training leads to the FEAR system being activated – as the animal looks to escape and avoid the aversive stimulus. If we do need to use aversive stimuli then we need to put in a safety signal – so the horse has a chance to avoid or escape the stimuli. Often horses will sigh deeply during training – it is a sigh of relief, when they finally learn to escape the aversive stimuli.

As animal trainers and carers the more we understand how emotions help or hinder behaviour, the more we can train empathetically and ethically.

We cannot separate behaviour from emotions.

This all linked in very well with the course by Jo Hughes “How Horses Learn ,Feel, and Communicate”

If anyone wants to learn more then this is a course I highly recommend.

References for Jaak Panksepp
The Archeology of Mind –
Video of Jaak Panksepp

Affective Neuroscience –

Habituation in Horses

Just starting the third module on Jo Hughes Learning Theory course, I think courses like this are a must for all animal trainers, owners and those who have any interest in ethical treatment of animals. Along with the ethology of the species with which you intereact.
This module looks at habituation, desensitisation and the fine lines between this and, flooding and sensitisation.
I know I have been guilty of flooding a horse – e.g trying to desensitise Benny to wormers did not go well when I first got him, made him a lot worse.

If you put a saddle on a horse for the first time and allow it to buck it out or run until he accepts the saddle – with no means of escape – waiting until he is calm and has given in – that is flooding. That may seem obvious but there are much more subtle examples of flooding and some of it goes badly wrong.

Liz admits she flooded Smoke trying to clip him the year before last – it has taken a while to undo. Failed flooding usually ends up with a horse even more sensitised to the fearful stimulus.

Horses are neophobic so any new stimuls invokes the startle/fear respones. They do need to habituate and be desensitised to our envirnoment for them to be and feel safe. Desensitisation is a form of habituation in a controlled manner – stimulus at very low levels and gradually increased so as not to trigger a flight respone.
Flooding triggers a flight response with stimulus at full strength, with no means of escape, until the horse habituates – which may be never!

Why Do You Do What You Do?

Just take a few moments to consider why we do what we do with our animals. I am following Cathy Siretts blog on mindfulness – it is useful to apply mindfulness in the work we do with animals too.

Do you want your horse to do things for a reward or to avoid an unpleasant/aversive stimulus?

Do you want to need to escalate pressure if the horse doesn’t comply with a request? At some point if using pressure/release (negative reinforcement) you may well need to go from the lightest of touch to the harshest of pressure. E.G going through the phases in Parelli training, using a whip or spurs in conventional training.

What do you do if your horse runs off at the first signs of pressure? Do you use a bracing position so they can’t escape? Have you ever consider how the horse feels in that scenario? Positive reinforcement trainers advocate giving the horse a choice – so often start at liberty.

Do you know what equine appeasement behaviour looks like?

Does your horse come to be haltered or do you have to play a game first? Is your horse staying with you to get something or to avoid something?

Want to learn more then look at or or

Jo Hughes has a just started the Academy of Positive Horsemanship. – a wealth of resources but a paid for site.

I do use some pressure/release but do not agree with escalating – there has to be a better way with these sensitive animals. They give us so much and rely on us when we keep them in captivity, we owe it to them to be the best horse people we can be.

Benny taught me so much, he still is a little hesitant to go out alone but is getting better with hosepipes etc since we started using positive methods. He was the one who reared and ran off when pressure was applied – he was definitely sent to teach me to be a more empathetic horsewoman.

Everything we do in our horses presence teaches them something – sometimes they learn things we don’t want – so it pays to be mindful in every interaction with them.

The difference between using positive reinforcement as opposed to negative reinforcement is the emotional response of the animal. Behaviours may look the same and the cues can be the same but how does the horse feel? Only the horse truly knows.

If you wish to know more use the above links and get some expert advice, this is not a method but more tools in your toolbox.

Wishing you all a very Happy New Year.

Animal Advocacy

If we have captive animals we are their advocate. We have a responsibility to care for their mental and emotional well-being as well as their physical well-being. So it is up to us to take time to learn about their ethology, anatomy and physiology, nutritional needs and how best to care for them in our man made environments.

Learn from experts, people who have studied these subjects.
As Dr Helen Spence said ” if you want to understand biology learn from a biologist; if you want to learn about a disease go to a specialist doctor or vet; if you want to learn about how animals learn (we are animals too) go to someone who has studied with experts in learning theory or a psychologist who has studied this to degree level.” This is a slight paraphrase of the actually conversation.
More information about Dr Spence

There are so called “experts” in all these disciplines who do not have the correct knowledge. So if in doubt ask what qualifications they have, ask them to point you to research that supports their point of view. In this age of social media we all have to be careful who we take advice from.

It does astounds me that so many animal owners don’t know much about the anatomy and physiology of animals in their care, although it shouldn’t, as many people don’t know how their own body works.

When we were thinking of getting a budgerigar I bought a book about them, same when we inherited a cat. Before I owned horses I studied for BHS qualifications. Even though I was a senior nurse in a critical care unit I went to specialists when I wanted to learn first aid.

What I didn’t study was learning theory and I regret not doing so earlier.

Max Easey is a good source of knowledge, I did her How Animals Learn course – Max has studied with some of the best animal trainers world wide and is married to a psychologist so can check the facts with an expert.
Max has a post on Facebook about some of the language used by some horse trainers and what it actually means, don’t get sucked in by pseudo-science. Find Max on Facebook

We all want an ethical way of caring for and training our animals, so go out and ask the experts. We all utilise the principles of learning theory but don’t always understand why what we do works.

I can only speak for horses as I have more experience with them than other animals, but even with 40 years of riding and caring for horses I am still learning.

Traditional horsemanship, natural horsemanship and reward based training have a lot of common ground so we must all work together for the good of the horse.

Emotions in horses.

While studying how animals learn I have been introduced to the work of Jaak Panksepp. Panksepp is a psychologist/neuroscientist whose research suggests all mammals have the same basic emotions.

Here are some of my thoughts on the subject – just my unscientific take on the emotions felt by horses.

Affective Neuroscience
Jaak Panksepp

7 systems for emotions according to Panksepp.

1 Seeking – on all the time
2 Rage
3 Fear
4 Grief – formerly panic
5 Lust
6 Play
7 Care

We must avoid anthropomorphism – i.e projecting human feelngs and attributing them to the horse.
Marthe Kiley-Worthingting termed the phrase “conditional anthropomorphism” which allows us to see that the horse does have emotions and can express rage, fear, lust etc.

How does this relate to the way we train horses?

Panksepp describes the SEEKING system as follows:
“This emotional system is a coherently operating neuronal network that promotes a certain class of survival abilities. This system makes animals intensely interested in exploring their world and leads them to become excited when they are about to get what they desire. It eventually allows animals to find and eagerly anticipate the things they need for survival, including, of course, food, water, warmth, and their ultimate evolutionary survival need, sex. In other words, when fully aroused, it helps fill the mind with interest and motivates organisms to move their bodies effortlessly in search of the things they need, crave, and desire. In humans, this may be one of the main brain systems that generate and sustain curiosity, even for intellectual pursuits. This system is obviously quite efficient at facilitating learning, especially mastering information about where material resources are situated and the best way to obtain them. It also helps assure that our bodies will work in smoothly patterned and effective ways in such quests.”

The seeking system stimulates the dopamine pathways –

Play, care and lust are all positive emotions – they make the horse feel good.

Rage, fear and grief all have a reason and are necessary for survival – the need to run from predators or escape from capture.

I think the positive emotions are fairly easy to understand – mutual grooming, grazing, mating, playing.

Fear is a physical response to possible attack – invokes the flight/fight response. Which in extremes can caused them to run blindly, more normally it is short lived until the danger has passed. However it takes a while for the hormones to get back to a normal level.

Rage gives a captive animal the energy to struggle free, frustration is a mild form of rage and may be experienced if the animal doesn’t get what he wants.

Grief is more of a psychological reaction to extreme (in the horses mind) events – separation from friends can invoke this reaction.

With fear we can do systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning E.G to scary objects, dogs, hosepipes etc.

Grief is less easy to deal with – gradually separation from field companions – letting realise they will return (any other strategies – please feel free to comment).

The role of food in training.

All horses seek to eat – they are designed to graze continually – they have a complex digestive system which may be compromised by not allowing this behaviour.

Some horses show self-stimulating (addictive behaviour) around food. Geldings and stallions may become sexually aroused when training. They want more and more of the food we have. To help reduce this they need to have the time to chew and process what we teach them.

This is linked to frustration and can escalate to aggression in some animals – if we are stingy with the rewards.

Fixed Action Patterns

Kondrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen received the Nobel Prize in 1973 for their work in developing an interpretive framework that crystallised the data they collected on animal behaviour in the field (ethology) and in the laboratory (neuroethology).

They observed what animals do and how and where the individual animals spent their time. They recognised that the behaviour of animals seemed to be constructed of elementary motor and sensory units. (Reference Animal Physiology – Eckert 4th edition 1997)

Motors units were called Fixed Actions Patterns and sensory units Key Stimuli.

The six properties of fixed action patterns:

1. they are complex motor acts, each consisting of a specific temporal sequence of components – they are not simple reflexes.
2. they are typically elicited by specific key stimuli rather than general stimuli.
3. fixed action patterns are normally elicited by an environmental stimulus: but if the experimenter removes the stimulus after the behaviour has begun, the behaviour will usually continue to completion. This all or none property distinguishes them from simple reflexes.
4. the stimulus threshold for fixed action patterns varies with the state of the animal, and the variation can be quite large.
5. when they are presented with the appropriate stimulus, all members of the species (perhaps that are the same age, sex or both) will perform a given fixed action pattern nearly identical.
6. fixed action patterns are typically performed in a recognisable form even by animals that have had no prior experience with the key stimulus. That is these patterns are inherited genetically, although in many species the patterns can change with experience.

The last property has provoked the debate about nature versus nurture and recently epigenetic studies.

All animals have innate behaviour patterns – to understand the species we must understand their ethology. What does mean in terms of horse training?

Is it this small statement that users of negative reinforcement take out of context? A horse will push another horse so we do the same?

They do use pressure when resource guarding – they push another horse off the hay – the other horse backs off. Horse innately know how to read the facial expression of other horses – so the flattening of the ears in a certain way may mean go away or I will do something more drastic.

Does this mean we have to use this system – no because the horse knows we are not a horse and therefore we do not have the same fixed action patterns.

Do horse receive positive reinforce  – yes, by grazing, mutual grooming, playing and mating.

So by our training we can habituate the horse to accept things it may be innately afraid of – e.g trailer loading, clipping etc.

Trailer Loading

Emotional systems which may be triggered:

fear – of being captured in an enclosed space
grief – separation anxiety on leaving the yard

Can we override these systems and replace with more positive emotions?

My thoughts on this are: (these are my personal and non-scientific thoughts) please correct if incorrect or you have any other suggestions.

For my example I will use trailer loading.

A trailer or lorry is an enclosed space which a horse would probably not naturally enter if he didn’t have an obvious escape route.

The horse therefore may be anxious – have a fear response on seeing a trailer – an unusual object.
We can encourage the horse forward by using negative or positive reinforcement or in some cases luring which is often a mixture of the two.

Negative reinforcement (pressure/release) – we can encourage the horse forward by applying pressure and releasing on the slightest movement forward – the removal of the stimulus (pressure) is negatively reinforcing. Repeat this over and over again and maybe go from phase 1 (a gesture to suggest the horse moves forwards) to phase 4 where there is more physical pressure put on the horse.
If all goes well the horse will eventually associate the gesture to load with an addition of the aversive stimuli and work to avoid the pressure.

The horse loads and continues to load and may even load himself. My question is – has the horse begun to like the trailer or has he loaded to avoid any unpleasant things happening? Is the innate emotion – fear – still there? Yes, they do eventually habituate to trailer loading if we are consistent.

Positive reinforcement (reward based training/clicker training) – the horse has already begun to be target trained so will follow a target to the scary lorry – bridge and treat for the slightest try.
Continue this targeting and reinforcement until the horse will load himself following the target.
Again the horse habituates to the trailer and load with us just using a cue. The inside of the lorry now has positive associations – satisfies the seeking emotion – food is provided.

So with positive reinforcement have we altered the horse emotional state from that of fear to that of seeking? So trigering dopamine release rather than just supressing the flight and fight respones?
Above is a reference to research on the physical state of horse to trailer loading.

If grief is triggered in any scenario then that needs to be addressed as a separate problem – please add any thoughts on dealing with separation anxiety as I have limited experience.

In depressed, shut down horses the seeking system is switched off, some horses have been so micro-managed that they are afraid to offer any behviour incase they get corrected or punished – both clicker training and well timed, non-escalting pressure/release should never cause the seeking system to shut down. In fact in reward based the training the horse will often offer more behaviours in an attempt to get a reward, we can then capture the behaviour we want and reinforce.

Please feel free to comment, pull this apart and add your thoughts. I may be on the completely wrong track with all this – but it a fascinating and complex subject.