Ditch the Dominance

This article is interesting and adds to the debate about dominance based training or even those based on leadership concepts.

Don’t Be So Dominant During Training – The Horse

“The “alpha” concept of showing dominance when training a horse doesn’t coincide with what equitation science research is revealing, scientists say.”

This is the original research –

Quote – Highlights

“It is unlikely that horse–horse social status translates to analogues of human–horse interactions.
The concept of leadership as advocated in many training manuals proves to be unreliable in the horse.
Horses’ responses to training are more likely a result of reinforcement rather than a result of humans attaining high social status and a leadership role.
Knowledge of horses’ natural behavior and learning capacities are more reliable in explaining training outcomes than the application of dominance and leadership concepts.”

So it can be seen that we need a good understanding of equine ethology and learning theory as it relates to training horses.



The art and skill of a horseman, the ability to ride a horse. These are some of the definitions of the word horsemanship.

So anyone who rides or trains, (we all train horses whether we know it or not, as they learn something from every interaction with humans), is a horseman and practices horsemanship.

We live in an age of rapid communication via social media, emails and the internet. People often want rapid results with their horses but that is not always good for the horses mental and physical well-being.

People can start a young horse in 2 0r 3 weeks, but that does that make it fair and ethical?

I think it is time to stop differentiating between genres of horsemanship. For centuries horses have been trained via the use of pressure and often force. It is a testament to the nature of the horse that they allow us weak humans to train them.

All the horse wants is food, water, safety, equine friends, to be allowed to be a horse in a natural environment. These are things the horse seeks for himself – they are primary reinforcers.

We now have a code for animal welfare – the 5 freedoms which we can apply to horse management and training.

Whips, sticks, spurs and any other man made artefacts are artificial aids.

If we use the natural aids of legs, hands and weight is it better?

It depends how they are taught and how the horse perceives them.

I don’t intend to go in to the pros and cons of various methods as I think there is no need for following one particular genre of horsemanship. All animals learn by associations and consequences.

Horsemanship is both an art and a science. It is up to each practitioner to understand the science so they can practice the art.

If a trainer is happy to use negative reinforcement and then escalate when the horse doesn’t comply then it is an individual decision. No amount of anyone preaching that it is physically and psychological unethical will change peoples opinions. They have to come to the realisation for themselves.

My stance is that if people use negative reinforcement it must be the lightest amount of pressure and an instant release once the behaviour is performed. Plus a very specific command put in place so the horse learns he can avoid the pressure by performing the required behaviour. This is avoidance learning and the foundation of many horsemanship programs – unfortunately people often don’t learn correctly and escalate the pressure to force the horse to comply. Or they nag the horse with legs and whips but never release – often seen in traditional riding.

If the horse doesn’t understand what you have asked you have either not been clear or the horse physically cannot do the behaviour.

If we keep asking with escalating aversive stimuli then we may damage our relationship with the horse – we become part of that aversive stimulus. So often a horse stays when he could physically leave because leaving will be “corrected”. Watch videos and decide why horses perform so well at liberty – is it because the trainer gives them something they want or because there will be aversive consequences for the horse if he leaves.

Change is happening as more people use positive reinforcement, many only for ground work but an increasing number are teaching classical riding using nothing more than a click/bridge signal and an appetitive reinforcer.

Whatever trainers use to motivate the horse it must be applied correctly, the removal of an aversive stimulus or the use of a verbal bridge signal must be at the instant the horse performs the desired behaviour.

Not all pressure/touch is aversive so we can use the minimal touch to guide a horse and add an appetitive reinforcer, the horse decides which is the most salient.

What people need to learn is the correct use of reinforcement, whether negative or positive and the importance of being observant of the horses body language. Unfortunately not all practitioners are good at the timing, both negative and positive reinforcement need good timing, otherwise horses may be reinforced for the incorrect behaviour.

We do the best with the knowledge we have at this moment in time and my aim is to learn as much as possible about how horses learn and how different training affects their emotional state.


Aversive – Causing avoidance of a thing, situation, or behavior by using an unpleasant or punishing stimulus, as in techniques of behavior modification. (

Appetitive – 1. An instinctive physical desire, especially one for food or drink.
2. A strong wish or urge: an appetite for learning. (

Liberty and why I don’t use a whip.

Liberty and why I don’t use a whip.

I think the danger is that people misuse the whips, sticks or ropes and chase horses or threaten them. This is common in some forms of liberty training that use negative reinforcement.
Whips and ropes and even people can become conditioned aversive stimuli, so just the presence of the tool or person affects how the horse reacts.
I used to carry a dressage whip when riding my mare, I never touched her with it but she knew it was there (previous training had taught her how to avoid the whip by being obedient but it was a fear avoidance response). Do we really want to train using avoidance? Or do we want a partnership with the horse, horses can become excellent puzzle solvers once we give them a choice.

So for me (and it is a personal choice) I only use a stick as a target to form behaviours. Once on a cue we can fade out the target and use a variable schedule of reinforcement, and a variety of reinforcers – these may be scratches, food or even a favourite behaviour.

Horse and handlerhorse being postively reinfrced

Horses do like to play, as long as we can keep them under their emotional thresholds. Too much activation of the SEEKING system can also cause distress, just as activation of the FEAR (flight response) system can.
If we use aversive stimuli to train then horses can become very vigilant as they work out how to avoid the whip, stick or rope. This hyper-vigilance is exhausting and often we see very animated horses with liberty trainers and as soon as the trainer stops the horses seem to go to sleep, people then mistake this for a happy relaxed horse. We must be careful to watch the horses emotional state in all training.

Negative reinforcement isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if used sparingly and correctly. However we must be aware of how and why any reinforcement works and how it affects the horse.

Positive reinforcement stimulates the cognitive area of the brain, whereas negative reinforcement stimulates the flight/fight response especially in situations where the horse is driven away or chased with a whip.

So I start with the horse at liberty, rather than training with aversive stimuli until the horse learns he can’t leave. This is often what happens in many forms of liberty work, the horse is trained to stay because the consequences for leaving are something he wishes to avoid.
No pressure halters, ropes or round pens are needed when we really give the horse a choice using positive reinforcement

Conditioned Responses

So you have a nice gentle horse who doesn’t respond to your requests.  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 I was once told to “smile” whilst whacking 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 elicits 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 elicits a conditioned response.

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

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. Positive reinforcement engages the horses SEEKING system and increases motivation. Counter conditioning can change their perception of scary objects or people as we pair them with an appetitive stimulus.

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.

Animal Welfare

Models of Animal Welfare

Well we learn something new each day, there is a new model which has been out for a while but I hadn’t come across it before today. This is why it is important to keep reading and studying and not get stuck in the past with outdated information.

The original model for animal welfare was the Five Freedoms.

• Freedom from hunger and thirst.
• Freedom from discomfort
• Freedom from pain, injury and disease
• Freedom to express normal behaviour
• Freedom from fear and distress

The Five Domains Model

Nutrition: Provide ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor.
Environment: Provide an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
Health: Prevent or rapidly diagnose and treat injury and disease.
Behavior: Provide sufficient space, proper facilities, and the company of the animal’s own kind.
Mental experiences: Ensure conditions and treatment that avoid mental suffering.

“The Model is not intended to be an accurate representation of body structure and function. Rather, it is a focusing device designed to facilitate assessment of animal welfare in a systematic, structured, comprehensive and coherent manner. The purpose of each of the five domains is to draw attention to areas that are relevant to welfare assessments. The Model therefore facilitates identification of internal physical/functional states and external circumstances that give rise to negative and/or positive subjective mental experiences (affects) that have animal welfare significance. As the body functions as a dynamically integrated whole entity, the specific body functions or states, external circumstances and related affective experiences identified via the Model inevitably interact. Accordingly, there may be overlap between factors considered within different domains. However, awareness of the potential for this avoids problems when using the Model, as illustrated below (see Section 2.3 and Section 3 ).”
Quote form the paper referenced below.

The reasons for this model are explained in the paper by David Mellor

This article explains it a little more simply.

Behaviour and Emotions

Behaviour is what the animal does, so any observable action the animal takes.
Behaviour is not my horse being a “pratt” or “taking advantage” or any other label humans are so quick to use.

So how do we analyse behaviour? We look at the ABC’s of behaviour as used in behavioural analysis.
A: Antecedent

B: Behaviour

C: Consequences

P: Prediction of future occurrence of behaviour in B.

Antecedentsomething that comes before a behavior, and may trigger the behaviour.
Behaviour – what exactly is the animal doing – in terms of actual behaviour e.g biting, kicking. There may be warning signs before an actual unwanted behaviour e.g tail swishing, pinned ears or a shift in weight before a kick or a bite.
Consequence of the behaviour – is it being punished or reinforced, i.e is the behaviour increasing or decreasing.

We also need to look at the function of the behaviour. Nikolaas Tinbergen’s 4 questions are useful.
Causation/mechanism – the physiology behind the behaviour, hormones, affective neuroscience emotions. How does it contribute to the behaviour?
Function – What is the adaptive value of the behaviour. Why does it happen? Does it help survival?
Development – How does the behaviour develop over the animals lifetime?
Evolution – Why did it evolve, what is the benefit?

Plus any obvious emotions attached to the behaviour – I use Panksepps Emotional Systems, this is obviously a subjective rather than objective observation. It is still useful as we can often miss the very subtle changes in body posture the animal may exhibit.
Jaak Panksepp is a good source of learning about the 7 basic emotional systems of all mammals.

1. SEEKING – can be a positive or a negative emotion depending on whether the horse is seeking something they want or seeking to avoid something they don’t like.

2. PLAY- this is self explanatory and something we can tap into when training.

3 CARE – the mutual grooming and nurturing side of horses.

4. FEAR – can be as little as mild anxiety or a full flight response.

5. RAGE – fear can escalate into aggression or frustration if the horse can’t escape or get what he wants.

6. GRIEF or PANIC – may be seen in separation anxiety.

7. LUST – may be seen in the over arousal of clicker trained horses before impulse control is established, or in the normal behaviour of stallions and mares.

Paul Gilbert 3 Circle Model is another model that may be useful.

In Paul Gilberts 3 Circle Model – we can see that using an aversive stimulus to form a behaviour is in the THREAT circle. Panksepps would be the FEAR system, this does not have to be all out flight but aversive enough for the horse to want to avoid the stimulus.

Positive reinforcement works on the DRIVE or SEEKING system, but we can also get horse stuck in this mode too – so they get frustrated if reinforcement isn’t forthcoming or we are slow with reinforcement.

Of course we need to achieve homeostasis of the emotional systems as soon as possible by removing the aversive stimulus (if we use negative reinforcement) and also by putting the behaviour on a command – so the horse can avoid any escalation. So in any training session the horse can be in the RED zone but we need to get him back in the GREEN zone. Horses stuck in the RED zone can become hypervigilant – if the HPA axis is triggered then cortisol is released and this takes a long time to dissipate, so a little bit of adrenaline keeps them motivated but too much and it tips into distress rather than eustress. Horses in the BLUE zone (when we use positive reinforcement) can also get stuck and become frustrated and over aroused trying to figure out what will get them the appetitive reinforcement.

So for me keeping the horses under their emotional threshold is essential. As emotions and behaviour are linked and we need to look at the whole horse, so environment, husbandry, equine ethology and training all interact. E.G. The Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare.

Classical and operant conditioning are present all the time, even when we aren’t training. So the horse is learning by associations and consequences in all situations. They are not types of training or methods but scientific principles (laws) of how we all learn. There is no one size fits all recipe for training horses, horses all have their individual needs, personalities and experiences and these affect how they react. Some might find a touch with a hand pleasant whilst another may find it aversive and unpleasant.

Know the species you train (ethology) and know the individual as much as possible. This makes it much easier to keep out of the red zone and learn to recognise which zone they are in at any given moment.

Whatever we use whether +R or -R we need to understand what is happening and how we can use them for the good of the horse.

What is the difference between a cue and a command?
A cue is used in +R training to tell the horse reinforcement is coming. In -R we use the word command as the horse rarely has a choice – so often it is a “to it or else” scenario, the horse performs the behaviour to avoid any escalation of an aversive stimulus.


James Lange  Theory of Emotions

Paul Gilbert

Jaak Panksepp

Physiology of Stress


Science Quotes

Negative reinforcement = removing a stimulus (first the stimulus has to be applied to form the behaviour then removed as a reinforcement). The stimulus has to be aversive otherwise the horse would enjoy it or it would be neutral and the removal would not be reinforcing.

Positive reinforcement = adding an appetitive after the behaviour has been performed (the behaviour can be formed using target training, capturing the movement or using mild tactile touch, a bridging signal is used to mark the exact time of the wanted behaviour.)

This explains what happens in some natural horsemanship programs – it may seem like magic or a deep connection with the handler but it is the laws of learning being applied – even if the handler is unaware of them.

“Contrary to NH trainers argumentation, it seems that during the “natural” training, the horse does not follow the human because it feels safe and accepts the human as a herd leader, but because the human removes aversive stimuli in response to animal’s gestures that reflect higher submissiveness to the trainer or the relaxation (e.g. lowering of the head – Rietmann et al 2004). The affiliation signals that shorten the distance may be wrongly interpreted by the human [Goodwin 1999], and recent research have shown that horse’s response to humans is context-specific and may be based on negative reinforcements rather than on the social strategy [Kruger 2007, Warren-Smith and McGreevy 2008, McGreevy at al. 2009].”

“Many papers show unambiguously that positive reinforcement is the most effective training tool [e.g. Lieberman 1993, Sankey et al. 2010, Waran 2003], although application of such stimuli only in horses are impractical [McGreevy 2007]. The positive impact of rewarding has been widely discussed and reported in scientific literature; yet, this kind of reinforcement is still unwillingly applied in equine practice based on the conviction of its negative effect on equine behaviour which undoubtedly reveals the partial ignorance of documented scientific research. It has been shown that in the process of young horse training rewarding evoked positive responses of horses to humans, which persisted during subsequent months [Sankey et al.2010]. Additionally, enhanced interest in training and improved memorisation ability were observed.
The use of positive reinforcements motivates horses to confront challenges and undertake learning, and ensures perception of training as positive interactions [Sankey et al. 2010]. This is related to activation of neurophysiological processes associated with the dopaminergic system [Jay 2003].
Moreover, expecting a reward itself produces the same effect, which is not the case when aversive stimuli are employed [Schulz et al 1997]”


  1. 1.
    moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity.
    synonyms: moral code, morals, morality, moral stand, moral principles, moral values, rights and wrongs, principles, ideals, creed, credo, ethos, rules of conduct, standards (of behaviour), virtues, dictates of conscience

    “the ethics of journalism”
     So what is ethical horsemanship?
    It is different for each of us, for one person it may be following a natural horsemanship program, for another it may be only training using positive reinforcement. For others it may be a combined approach – so using all quadrants of operant conditioning.
    All we can do is share what we do and not try to change other people – they will change when they are ready.
    However we do need the science behind how each quadrant works and how this impacts on equine welfare.This is a useful article – 

    Especially useful is the section on Response Prevention (Flooding).
    “Another cause of concern is that, if an animal is being restrained and exposed to uncontrollable aversion, learned helplessness may result. In this case, the animal will be apathetic and may superficially appear to tolerate the aversive stimulus, but its welfare is seriously compromised.”

    So much of what we see in main stream and even natural horsemanship circles is actually flooding, the horse on a longline being “desensitised“ to a scary object. The horse in a round pen can also be experiencing flooding – there is no escape and the only option the horse feels he has is to give in and submit to the handler. This can happen accidentally – e.g trying to clip a horse by restraint and continuing until the horse appears to be OK with the procedure. I know I have done this in the past without realising the consequences.

    So for me personally to be ethical in my horsemanship is to cause no harm to the animal, to be very aware of the emotional impact any training has. Watching for frustration, anxiety and any indicators that tell me the horse is over his emotional threshold.
    The use of positive reinforcement as much as possible at any moment in time, I may have to use negative reinforcement in situations where I have not trained a satisfactory response. So some unforeseen veterinary procedures may need the horse to be restrained – however I can counter condition this to make it easier for the horse. Other people handling the horse may use negative reinforcement e.g pressure and release, so the horse does need to know how to respond appropriately.

    So following Friedman and Fritziers Humane Hierarchy.

    image of the hierarchy of humane training


Approach-Avoidance Conflict

Medical Definition of approach–avoidance conflict
1. :  psychological conflict that results when a goal is both desirable and undesirable—called also approach-avoidance; compare approach-approach conflict, avoidance-avoidance conflict

This is can occur when the appetitive stimuli is greater than the aversive stimulus e.g trailer loading when the horse is afraid of the trailer but we use a target and +R to get the horse in the trailer. The horse may still not be unafraid of the trailer. So we do need to use desensitisation and counter conditioning first before any attempt to load and travel a fearful horse.

Avoidance-Avoidance Conflict

Medical Definition of avoidance–avoidance conflict
1. :  psychological conflict that results when a choice must be made between two undesirable alternatives—compare approach-approach conflict, approach-avoidance conflict
This is where we use an aversive stimulus to get a horse to do something he doesn’t want do to. So trailer loading when we use aversive stimulus to coerce a horse in to a trailer. The horse is still afraid of the trailer but is more afraid of the external aversive stimulus. Pressure applied to a halter, tapping with a whip, using lunge lines or the rhythmic pressure often used in natural horsemanship.

If we don’t alter the horse feelings about the trailer he may still be afraid of traveling. If he travels enough times and has good experiences the horse may well habituate to travelling but the initial process is stressful.

The use of desensitisation with counter conditioning changes the emotional responses around the lorry/trailer. The following is an excellent article written by Dr Helen Spence.