Mojo – Around a round pen

February 22nd 2021

Mojo had been got in by the yard – too muddy for me to get in the field. He seemed relaxed but did have his ears back, so may be there was some frustration creeping there. I tried to slow down and speed up my walking but there was no way he was going to trot.
Trot needs much more work – he will trot if I have his head collar and lead rope on. I will re-watch the videos with regard to getting trot on cue. He will trot over poles if I throw a frisbee or have him on line. Will try and video that next time.

Around a round pen.

I am doing the Connection Trainings course on starting to lunge, this starts with going round a round pen.

We have done this before but Mojo was a little unsure what to do.

Around a round pen.

Mojo wasn’t too sure what to do as we haven’t done this for a while. He was a little distracted by the sand school mirror and the other liveries going down the drive.

The first video shows him following the longer target and he is a bit sticky and shows some frustration when it keeps moving.

The next video I tried a longer stick but he got totally confused by that, so we did some poles exercises and some cone targeting. He then seemed ready to have another go.

The last video I walked on the outside of the pen and he seemed more confident doing that, then I went back in the pen, and he followed my hand rather than the target stick. He is a little distracted as one of the other horses is going down the drive.

2017 and onwards.

What will 2017 bring?

I am studying to be an equine behaviourist but so far am unsure whether I want to practice as a behaviourist. The equine part of the equation seems to be the easiest component. Changing peoples long held believes is very difficult, so many don’t even understand the basics of how animals learn. I don’t blame the average horse owner as they are not taught this at riding schools or even in colleges at diploma level.
If people are using pressure to motivate horses they need to understand that it is the relief of that pressure that reinforces the behaviour. This is basic negative reinforcement but I did not learn about this from the British Horse Society or even when I was doing natural horsemanship. I did learn that it is the release that teaches the behaviour but not that it was the use of an aversive stimulus nor was negative reinforcement ever mentioned.
It was only when I investigated clicker training that I learned about positive and negative reinforcement. The more I learned the more convinced I was that positive reinforcement is better for the emotional health of the horse, it gives them a choice. They can say “no” instead of being too afraid to object due to the adverse consequences of non-compliance. Even when I was doing natural horsemanship the horse was not allowed to walk away as this was seen as being “disrespectful”.

Benny taught me so much – he was very adept at escaping the escalating aversives and he introduced me to positive reinforcement.

Mojo is teaching me even more, horses can teach us so much, if we listen, than any human can.
We do not need to subscribe to any particular genre of horsemanship, we need to learn as much as we can from as many sources as possible. Only then can we truly decide what is in the best interest of the horse. To be blinkered or brainwashed by clever marketing is very limiting but unfortunately very common.
So I do find the human animal very hard to understand  – it is the human who has to change if the horse is to have a better life.

The Cook Book

The Cookbook Approach to Horse Training

There are many who would really like to know all the answers, to be able to work through a book to train the perfect equine. There are many who try to provide this service, they produce glossy ads and videos showing how you can have a rapport with your horse. Some even give you a step by step program to obtain the perfect partnership.

What is wrong with the Cookbook approach?

Well for a start each horse is different, as is each owner/rider. No horse has ever read the book so has no idea what people want him to do, he is just busy being a horse.
Any book or program can only provide a framework – the trainer needs enough knowledge to know how to adapt and improvise.

If we have a cookbook what happens if you don’t have all the ingredients for a recipe? It probably all goes wrong unless you have enough knowledge to be able to adapt a recipe or make one up from scratch.

The same can happen in horse training if all you do is watch a few videos or read a few books without a true understanding of the subject.

What knowledge does an owner need to be able to be the trainer of their horse?

They need to know how horses learn – so an understanding of operant and classical conditioning.
Some physiology and an understanding of biomechanics will help to keep the horse healthy and sound.
An understanding of equine body language and emotions is also needed.
Certain programs can teach you the basics of horse care – the BHS Horse Owners Certificate looks at the care of the horse physical needs.

Studying the learning theory and emotional side of things may be a bit more tricky. There are however excellent behaviourists around who can help and several good online resources.

However pick a course or person who is not attached to an organisation that uses only pressure/release types of training. This may have a place in training but it should not be the only way to motivate a horse. Avoid those who use escalating pressure to teach behaviours to horses. Horses are very good at learning to avoid the pressure but it can be detrimental to their emotional state.

Some organisation teach equine psychology but have an emphasis on their own brand of training, so they justify the use of aversive stimuli and ignore positive reinforcement. Some never mention that what they use is negative reinforcement so many are under the illusion of it being positive reinforcement.

We do have to be careful as any training done badly will cause problems – this goes for both negative reinforcement programs and clicker training programs. There is much more to reward based training than a clicker and some food.
To learn safely and effectively try to find someone who can come out to you or who can do some video lessons and give good feedback.

All the time I learned to ride and train via both the BHS and natural horsemanship it was never explained that I was using negative reinforcement. Natural horsemanship did teach how to apply the aversive stimulus (pressure) and that is was the release of that aversive that reinforced the behaviour. However it was never called aversive or negative reinforcement.

Most people aren’t stupid and can understand the basics of learning theory if they are given the facts. Only then can they decide what motivation to use. The horse can be motivated by learning to avoid the application of pressure (-R) or he can learn to seek something he wants (+R).

Chasing, driving, applying more pressure can lead to a horse who suppresses his natural flight response. It can even lead to complete learned helplessness. This can be seen in traditional and natural horsemanship training, the dead to the leg riding school horses, the totally bombproof horses, natural horsemanship trained ones who don’t do anything unless told (because they fear the correction).

We need a balance – a safe horse but one with character, one who feels safe to express an opinion – even when it isn’t one we agree with. How many people mount horses who don’t willing stand at the mounting block – I know I have in the past got on my horse and before I was fully onboard she would walk off.
We can of course teach this with negative reinforcement  – making the wrong thing uncomfortable and the right thing easy. However do we really have a willing horse if he only performs a behaviour to avoid the consequences of not doing so?

We can equally cause conflict if using +R if the horse is still afraid but wants the food. This is why we need to learn more than the basics, learn about different rates and types of reinforcement, learn to fade out targets and clickers for established behaviours. Learn what conflict looks like and how to recognise fear and frustration and how to avoid triggering flight responses. Learn what to do if things don’t go to plan, learn to read all the very subtle signs our horses give us.

What ever we can teach using negative reinforcement can equally be taught using positive reinforcement – the difference is how the horse feels about the process. We do need knowledge and imagination and lots of patience.

Dominance, leadership, respect are often spoken about but have little place in our relationships with horses.
Trust, partnership and providing all our horses needs is far better in my opinion.

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.

Mojo Trotting

I have struggled to get Mojo a bit more animated when following a target, probably due to me not going fast enough. So my daughter came to help today, we put 2 cones out as he stations nicely at these and then she got him to follow the target stick and upped the reinforcement for trotting, he was getting quite lively towards the end. However Liz can run faster than I can so I need to get his trotting on a cue so he can trot to the cones by himself.

Before this he was very wary meeting a new person, a few big startle responses as Liz touched him, but he soon decided she was trustworthy and really seemed to enjoy the session.

When you have a horse who is nervous like Mojo you have to go slowly and desensitise to so much. It is like starting a horse from the beginning. Restarting often takes much longer than starting a youngster with no experience of aversive methods.

Counter Conditioning

Counter conditioning alongside systematic desensitisation is very powerful. If we do slow desensitisation we can get horses accepting of aversive stimuli, but if we pair that with an appetitive – food or scratches or anything the horse values and wants more of – then we can change how they feel about the aversive. It can even become something they want, rather than something they just tolerate.
Too often we halter horses and spray them, clip them  etc, without thinking about how the horse feels, horses sometimes provide a lot of feedback in the form of pulling away, fidgeting or even being openly petrified, but often they just shut down as they feel they can’t say “no”. So what do some people do in those scenarios were they acknowledge the horse has a problem? They may hold them tighter, tell them off and even sedated them to be clipped.
How much better is it to take time to desensitise and counter condition? Well Mojo was petrified of fly spray, the first time I sprayed him was in his stable and he nearly squashed me against the wall he spooked so much.
What did I do about it? Well I started systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning. Starting at a distnace with the spray so he noticed but did not react, all at liberty – then they can flee if necessary.  I used my verbal bridge signal “good” and rewarded him – sometimes with a scratch, sometimes with a treat.
Gradually over the last few weeks he will stand next to me and not flinch when the water is sprayed, (I used water to conserve the fly spray – but need to counter condition the smell of the fly spray once he is OK being sprayed.)
Today I did this in the field and he stayed and stood still whilst I sprayed water high in the air so the droplets actually fell on him, a few weeks ago he would have startled big time and run off.
I can now spray his legs from about a metre away but if I get too close he looks aways – so there is still some conflict present.
We must be very mindful of avoiding conflict – he wants the treats or scratches but is still unsure about the spray – this is why slow progress is better than force.
Clipping will be next but as he was sedated last time it may take much longer to overcome that fear.
He is still a little touch sensitive on his head, but getting better, he was targeting my hand today with his cheek – that is a new behaviour and not solid yet.

His feathers are still a sensitive area, but I can brush them and put cream on the sore bits if I run my hand down his legs, he gets a big butt scratch for that.

I have had Mojo for just over 2 months now so he has come a long way. He is very quick to learn new things and very eager to participate in the shaping programs.

Buyer Beware!

There seems to be a rise in video courses aimed at helping people help themselves. The expansion of social media makes it easy to disseminate information to the masses.

Whilst I feel there is a need for this type of learning and there are some excellent courses available online – please choose carefully.

Choose a course that is backed up by the science of learning, where the providers can answer your questions personally.

Recently I studied with Jo Hughes of the Academy of Positive Horsemanship and learned about the ethology, and body language of equids and how emotional systems cannot be separated from behaviour. This along with learning theory gives us the tools to help our horses.

Connection Training has just launched new courses on the theory and practice of positive reinforcement. Connection Training have many courses from basic horse handling to training lateral movements inhand and under saddle all using positive reinforcement.

Horses are individuals and we need to tailor our training to each one. There is no one size fits all – so next time someones says a horse is right brained or left brained ask them exactly what that means in terms of behavioural science. We know from human psychology that left and right brained theory is inaccurate. It may be better to think of horses being either optimistic or pessimistic, but beware of labels. Ask them to explain what they do in terms of positive and negative reinforcement.
Many natural horsemanship program sound kind to the horse but use a lot of negative reinforcement with varying degrees of escalating aversive stimuli. I am not saying we should never use negative reinforcement but be aware of how it affects the emotions of the horse.

We do not need to buy into a system, follow a particular clinician or even believe everything we are told, even the most experienced horse trainers get things wrong.

All quadrants of operant conditioning along with classical conditioning are useful and help us understand what we are reinforcing or punishing in our interactions with horses.

So it is up to each person to choose how and what they learn, I do feel that with the increasing price of lessons and the intrusion of health and safety and political correctness we have lost a valuable resource in our UK riding schools.

Many people buy horses and then learn by trial and error – to the detriment of the horse or they have a few lessons on well trained horses and think they can ride anything. Owning a horse is a big commitment and we owe it to them to learn as much as we can.

My background is BHS Stages 1 and 2 plus lessons with classical riders, and many years spent caring for horses. I was manager of a livery yard, for a while, I never stopped learning.

Recently I have been overcoming some confidence issues with help from some very supportive people – a psychologist and an excellent instructor and a lovely pony belonging to a friend.

The lesson on my daughters horse was good too – this is me and Smoke, yes I do use negative reinforcement when riding other peoples horses but now I know how and why it works.

My daughters horse Smokin Hotshot and me.
Smokin Hotshot

The 5 Freedoms

How often do we hear people say they use aversive stimuli (pressure/release) because horses use it between themselves? Well yes they do but it is a threat behaviour – they give fair warning too – ears back, a slight shift in weight before a kick. Horses know these signals and can get out of the way. We don’t have ears that move or tails that swish but we can use our larger brains to find a way to communicate that doesn’t involve threats and escalating pressure. It isn’t easy which is why many don’t even try or go back to using aversive stimuli even when they have learned how the horse perceives these aversives.

If we use negative reinforcement and most of us do in some form then we need to be mindful of the fact and make sure we release effectively.
Personally I don’t like to hit my horse with the clip on the end of the rope – which is advocated by some genres of horsemanship, but I do ride traditionally trained horses and so use conventional aids – negative reinforcement, leg on – leg off etc.
It is the understanding of how classical and operant conditioning works that is useful for us, to enable us to choose wisely and ethically.

What I learned at the recent Thinking Horsemans weekend was that we have a duty of care and only we can decide what we are happy to do with our horses, but it is important to be able to read the horses body language – and their emotional state before any training can begin and assess it as we progress.

It was interesting that one speaker suggested that round penning was punishment based – yes horses send other horses away but that is as a punishment, so why do we then think it good to send horses away on a circle so they can be persuaded to follow us?

I love that most reward based training starts with the horse at liberty – giving the horse a choice. I missed the second day but there was a talk about autonomy – with a scale where reinforcement and punishment was at one end of the scale and autonomy at the other end. If a horse is on line it has no choice but to stay (unless like Benny they learn to use their size to leave). Leaving tells us a lot about our relationship.

The 5 Freedoms of welfare can be used to assess whether our training is ethical.

1. Freedom from hunger and thirst. Don’t train when the animal is hungry or thirsty, they will not concentrate and may mug you if you are using positive reinforcement with food rewards.

2. Freedom from discomfort. Check that the horse has all their needs met – environmental (is it a safe area to train in) as well as physical e.g back, teeth,feet and tack are comfortable.

3. Freedom from pain – don’t add aversive stimuli if this will cause pain to the animal – e.g hitting the horse with a whip or line to insist on a behaviour. Don’t use positive punishment unless in an absolute emergency where the horse is inadequately trained.

4. Freedom to behave normally, don’t insist on a horse looking straight ahead if there are distractions – it is normal behaviour to orient towards any possible scary stimulus in the environment.

5. Freedom from fear and distress, are you sure your training doesn’t cause a fear response? Sending a horse out in a round pen uses the fear response and is punishment. Using aversive stimuli to drive the horse forward initiates the flight response, e.g traditional lunging, and natural horsemanship circling.

I am sure you can all think of other examples.

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.