noun: choice; plural noun: choices
an act of choosing between two or more possibilities.”the choice between good and evil”

Or in the horse world the choice between doing what is asked to avoid an aversive stimulus or doing what is asked to gain an appetitive or to not engage with us at all. All too often it is only the choice between a rock and a hard place. So do as I say or there will be aversive consequences.

An example is liberty work.

Definition of liberty:-

1 :  the quality or state of being free:
a :  the power to do as one pleases
b :  freedom from physical restraint
c :  freedom from arbitrary or despotic control
d :  the positive enjoyment of various social, political, or economic rights and privileges
e :  the power of choice
So how much freedom of choice do our horses have when we have them constrained by a halter and rope.
Are they really free or are they tied to us by arbitrary or despotic control e.g do they stay as the consequences of leaving are unpleasant – so if we train online first the horse may learn that he has no choice but to stay or he will be “corrected” (a euphemism for punishment).  What do you do if your horse decides he doesn’t want to do what you wish him to do? That is the key, do you just think of a better way to phrase the question or do you “correct “ and insist he comes back?
Of course they may stay as the reward is worth staying for, however with positive reinforcement they often stay as they enjoy what they are doing – that in itself becomes rewarding.
If my horse decides to leave he is free to do so. I then have to think “why” has he left. Is what we are doing not enjoyable or is the reinforcement not salient enough or can he not do the behaviour due to some physical reason or does he not understand?
If a horse is trained with aversive stimuli he soon learns how to avoid or escape those stimuli. This can result in conditioned suppression or even learned helplessness or hypervigilance.

hyper-vigilance – the animal learns to become super-vigilant and watches the trainer’s every nuance so that he can respond – again, this is still a form of trying to get the trainer to stop or reduce the amount of negative reinforcement but because the animal appears so active, (‘on-his-toes, you might say) this is unfortunately so often interpreted as keenness for training.

conditioned suppression – horses learn to suppress normal behaviour when the conditioned aversive is present. It is measured by comparing the rates of behaviour with and without the presence of the conditioned aversive (i.e., using a suppression ratio).

learned helplessness – this can occur when a horse is subjected to aversive stimuli but is unable to escape through being in a round pen or online. Learned helplessness may happen when a horse perceives he has no control over anything and what ever he does results in an aversive event – punishment or negative reinforcement so he gives up try to escape from the aversive stimuli.

Learned helplessness can be gradual – e.g riding school horses may learn that what ever they do doesn’t stop the kicking and pulling so give up trying to escape the aversive stimuli and appear quiet and suitable for the novice rider.
Other horses in the same situation may develop avoidance behaviours such as bucking, kicking, rearing.

Flooding and Learned Helplessness in horse training- what it is and how to recognise it.


So you want to have a good relationship with your horse.

You are disillusioned with traditional horsemanship so look toward natural horsemanship as a more empathetic way of being with your horse.

Natural horsemanship looks at how horses interact with other horses but it does not see the whole picture. We are not horses and horses know we are not horses, so a horse to horse relationship does not work for an interspecies relationship.

Natural horsemanship is often based on dominance e.g gaining respect from the horse. Horses do not have any concept of our ideas about respect. Also they say we must be the leader of the herd – horse herds are very fluid and have no one leader. The stallion may protect his mares and the most experienced horse may be the one who knows the territory and where the resources are so other horse may follow them. The horse with the most need can also instigate herd movement, the mare with foal at foot may need to drink more so she may move to the watering hole and the herd will follow.

There is also a genre of horsemanship who see mares driving youngsters away and think that is how to gain “respect”. Driving a horse out of a herd is punishment – do we really want to use punishment?

Horses are an affiliative species they need to live in a herd to protect and nurture their young. They cannot afford to fight amongst themselves, and what we see in domestic herds is resource guarding – due to insufficient space and food.

Horses form pair bonds and what we do in domestic situations is move horses around – they have no say in who is in their herd and so friction occurs. We may move horses several times and even if we keep their pair bond it may be difficult for the horses to fit in with a new herd. Even worse is when they are sold to another person and that person expects the horse to compete the next week, It may take a new horse months to feel safe in a new home.

So how we train them also impacts on their emotional wellbeing.

Do you drive your horse away? Do you chase it round a pen ( to gain respect)?

Think about why you do these things and how the horse may feel. Horse are very good at putting up with thing they don’t like, they can’t afford to show fear in the wild and so this impacts on our relationship. We may think we have a calm, relaxed and obedient horse but inside the horse may be just holding things together and suppressing their emotions.

OK I hear you say you love your horse and he loves you, he comes when called, he lets you ride him and seems very obedient.

Ever heard of Stockholm Syndrome?

“psychological response wherein a captive begins to identify closely with his or her captors, as well as with their agenda and demands.”

What has this to do with horses? Well we feed them, we keep them safe and we control all aspects of their lives. Does this mean they actually love us, or are happy with our demands upon their time. Does this mean they are happy to go to competitions and perform for us? Does this mean that we can use aversives to train them and they are happy with that?

Both natural horsemanship and traditional horsemanship use mainly negative reinforcement to train horses.
Negative reinforcement is the removal of an aversive stimulus to reinforce a behaviour. What people forget is that we first have to apply the aversive stimulus before it can be removed.

Examples are pressure and release, so conventional leg aids, whips, spurs and training sticks. Many of these become conditioned aversives so all we have to do is pick up a stick or whip and the horse knows he must comply to avoid any escalation.

People say their stick is an extension of their arm – so think about what you would do with your arm if you could reach the horse. What happens when you drop the stick or don’t have one? If your horse doesn’t do what you want then you can be sure the stick is a conditioned aversive stimulus that causes a conditioned emotional response.

Horses are very good at learning how to avoid conflict and so they mostly comply with our requests but that does not make it OK to use aversive stimuli to form behaviour.

What is an aversive stimulus and why does it matter?

Dictionary – aversive. adjective. Causing avoidance of a thing, situation, or behaviour by using an unpleasant or punishing stimulus, as in techniques of behaviour modification.

So why do people use them in horse training?
Mostly because they don’t know any other way to train and they have been taught that they have to use bits and physical pressure to coerce the horse into submission.

Negative reinforcement works because the animal wants to stop the aversive stimulus, so they become compliant.

Why does it matter how we train?

It matters because of how it makes the animal feel, emotions are important, why would we want to cause an animal to learn avoidance e.g he avoids the aversive stimuli if he complies with our request. However if he doesn’t the aversive stimuli is often increased. So there are genres of horsemanship that use phases of aversives stimuli to cause a horse to respond.

Positive punishment is linked to negative reinforcement, e.g the horse stops and refuses to walk forward the rider or handler jerks on the rope or applies pressure with their legs, or even swings to end of the rope at the horse. The horse goes forward – if the stopping becomes less frequent the horse has just been punished. If the rider uses leg aids and the horse goes forwards and the aids are relaxed this is negative reinforcement, the horse learns he can escape the pressure if he goes forward at the first request. If we use voice commands he can avoid all pressure, voice is used in western riding and on the lunge so we don’t have to keep chasing the horse around.

If you hear people say they “corrected” the horse for unwanted behaviour it is a euphemism for punishment.

The alternative.

FEAR and force free, positive reinforcement.
Behaviours are formed by capturing, targeting, and allowing the horse to think for himself, to problem solve.

We set up the environment for them to succeed, we don’t punish non compliance unless it is an unsafe behaviour and then we may instead teach them an alternative behaviour.

Can we use negative reinforcement in an ethical manner? It depends on the horse and how he perceives the stimuli. We can use pressure – not all pressure is aversive, think of scratches, grooming and massage – all may feel good to the horse.
We can use pressure to form a behaviour and counter condition that as a tactile cue.
If we aim to use positive reinforcement as much as possible and avoid any escalation of the negative reinforcement that we need to use then I do think we can be ethical horse trainers.

The world is full of pressure – it may be physical or emotional but we can keep it to a minimum with careful training, desensitisation and counter conditioning, general management of the horses environment and providing all his needs. So friends, forage and freedom to be a horse.

Does Stockholm syndrome apply to horses – I don’t know but some horses do learn to be obedient and love their owners even though the are chased and subjected to escalating negative reinforcement. I will leave it up to you how you interpret your horses behaviour, but it is worth considering how the horse feels about what we do with them.

Behaviour and Emotions revisited

Fear Conditioning?

I watched an interesting video of a TED talk and the neuroscientist said that we make our own emotions. This sits well with the James-Lang theory.

Emotions aren’t inbuilt, but the physiological states that makes us feel these sensation are often hard wired but backed up by our previous experiences.

So might this explain why counter conditioning works with fearful horses? We need to look at why they are fearful and remove the fear stimulus and/or change that stimulus to something appetitive. Sometimes it takes only one exposure to a fear provoking event for the problem to arise. An example might be a horse who experiences the adrenaline surge when a pigeon flies out of a hedge as we ride round the arena. The physiological response of flight or fight becomes associated with the hedge, very often, not just the pigeon. So the horse might spook more at that particular spot every time we ride past.
 Think how you feel when driving your car and someone pulls out in front of you and you have to take evasive action. We can be rational about this and most people are not too scared to continue driving, but it might make us more vigilant in future at that particular junction.

This is where we can use counter conditioning. We change the physiological response of the adrenaline surge to one of anticipation of an appetitive event e.g food. We can rewired the horses neural circuits to make the hedge a good thing and the physiological response will change.

With humans we can use Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to change how people perceive the feelings that physiological responses cause. So butterflies in the stomach can give us a feeling of anxiety or it can prepare us for a challenge in a good way.

So the James-Lnag theory is:-
Event – Arousal – Interpretation – Emotion

It therefore depends on our and our horses previous experiences as to how we/they interpret events.

Fascinating stuff and I need to read more around this subject, but these are my thoughts at this moment in time. As always my interpretations not a full analysis of the scientific facts. However you might like to watch the video and read more – just follow these links.

The James-Lange Theory of Emotion

Animal Training

I have just finished Karolina Westlund Friman’s Advanced Animal Training course.

Much to digest and organise into usable training strategies, I need to be more disciplined in writing shaping plans and setting up the sessions.

Now I am going to do Stage 2 of the Natural Animal Centre Equine Behaviour Qualification. In preparation I am reading “Physiology of Behaviour” by N. Carlson (2013) which I managed to get as a PDF some time ago. That along with Paul Chances book on “Learning and Behaviour” ought to keep me busy for a while.



Punishment Callus

How to avoid problems with negative reinforcement.

If we use R- there are certain things we can do to negate possible negative side effects.

1. Use very low level aversive stimulus to form a behaviour. DO NOT trigger a flight response or use escalating aversive stimuli. Horses can habituate to the stimuli and then more is needed for the required reaction.

2. Remove the aversive stimulus as soon as the animal starts the behaviour, DO NOT wait until the behaviour is finished.

3. Use shaping – so reinforce small approximations of the final behaviour

4. Put the behaviour on a command so the animal can avoid the aversive stimulus when they respond. Either verbal or visual, be consistent and predictable.

5. Don’t use the same command for different behaviours.

6. Use a combination of R- and R+ e.g form the behaviour using an aversive stimulus and remove the stimulus and give a appetitive reinforcer at the same time -.e.g food or scratches.
This may counter-condition the aversive stimulus rather than cause poisoned cues.

An interesting phenomenon is Punishment Callus

“Animals habituate to aversives – this is referred to as the punishment callus. So, escalation is typically not the best solution.” Karolina Westlund Friman

Punishment Callus

When the animal habituates to an aversive stimulus and stops responding. So people escalate the aversive stimulus but the animal may habituate to that too. What have you got left for an emergency situation?
We don’t want animals to habituate – aversives need to be kept for emergency (life and death situations) use only.

If we use mild negative reinforcement e.g a light touch until the animal moves and there is no emotional reaction to the stimulus, it is still aversive but not enough to cause flight or avoidance reactions. Just enough for the animal to want it to stop, it then may do no harm and used in combination with a positive reinforcer may counter condition rather than poison the  cue or result in punishment callous. The aversive stimulus must be extremely low level and not escalate.

This is why the LIMA principles and the Humane Hierarchy make more sense than starting with mild aversives and escalating as the animal habituates. It is like the old riding school ponies who had been kicked so much they habituated and switched off.

PS I still prefer to use positive reinforcement but it is good to know that the odd time we use negative reinforcement like this we do very little harm to our relationship.

Don’t Be Callous: How Punishment Can Go Wrong

7 ways to get behaviour

More on poisoned cues – see previous post too

Poisoned cues

This is a really important topic for any animal training, whether you use positive or negative reinforcement but especially if you mix the 2.

Mixing can just be using a mild aversive to form a behaviour then clicking and positively reinforcing the behaviour, this can counter condition the aversive stimulus. This has to be done very carefully to avoid poisoned cues and punishment callus.

“Praise the horse or dog when he gets it right. Correct him when he gets it wrong. That describes many styles of standard animal training. It also describes the perfect set-up for poisoned cues. When you link corrections with motivation, you get problems—that’s what the basic research tells us. The bottom line is this: corrections do not work.” Karen Pryor

Back up is an example – do you use pressure and then say back? So eventually “back” is the command.
Or do you use a target stick and allow the horse to follow that back, reward and say “back” for the cue?
The verbal cue would be the same but the emotions of the horse different. If we mix them and use both aversives and appetitives for the same command/cue you can see how the horse may experience conflicting emotions.

We need one cue for one behaviour, but if we mix quadrants the horse can feel unsure what the consequences of the behaviour will be. We need a separate cue for a positively reinforced behaviour – do not use the command you used if the behaviour was previously taught with negative reinforcement. It is the command/cue not the behaviour that becomes poisoned.

There are some links to articles and an excellent podcast at the end of this post.

Next post will be about how to avoid some of the pitfalls of negative reinforcement and punishment callus.


Just wondering why people compete their horses. I am not competitive but many people like to pop out and do the odd competition for fun. There are also those who earn a living from competing and breeding competition horses.
Is it to show off our horses, to show our skill, to show we are better than someone else? Or is it just a bit of fun and gives us a goal to work towards, so we have an idea of how far we have progressed?
I can understand that riding across country might be exciting and even jumping for some – gives them an adrenaline kick.
Do we consider what the horse likes doing or (as is so often the case) hates the least?
Can we ever know whether a horse is running and jumping due to pleasurable stress (eustress) or just running due to not having a choice and experiencing anxiety (distress) and not enjoying the experience. We all need a bit of adrenaline to motivate but too much is bad for us and bad for our horses. Put me on a roller coast and i would be terrified but someone else may enjoy the thrill. We are all different and I suspect so are the horses.
However I see many people saying their horses love to run and jump but the body language and facial expressions of the horses tell a different story.
Horses have a unique ability to put up and shut up and accept what we do with and to them. Do we take advantage of this to the detriment of the horse?

Research methods matter.

A recent study in to the benefits of bitless versus bitted bridles has caused a lot of controversy.
Mainly due to the methodology of the study, it seems to be the result of people filling in questionnaires about their horses behaviour before and after switching to a bitless bridle.

This is the article –

Anecdotal experiences are often useful in sociological research but are they useful in this type of research?

The replies to the questionnaires were implying a correlation between bits and the behavioural problems – it is not proof that the bit was the cause.
Other factors are that we don’t know how the horses transitioned to going bitless, were they ridden differently, did the training method change e.g from using negative reinforcement to using positive reinforcement?
Did some horses have some other underlying problems unrelated to being ridden in a bitted bridle that changed coincidentally at the same time they were transitioned to bitless?

It says 53 had fear of the bit – so the rest did not, was there a difference in the fearful horses reactions to bitless to that of the fear free horses?

There is research about the damage caused by harsh bit use so I am not suggesting bits are needed or that they don’t cause some problems with incorrect use, but neither am I suggesting that bitless bridles are the answers to behavioural problems.

Also problematic is the use of only one type of bitless bridle. I know from personal experience that my pony didn’t like this particular bridle type – but that is not saying it is detrimental to all horses as my cob loved his.

Another thought is that correlation is not the same as causation.

5 reasons why anecdotes are totally worthless


“horses have a unique ability to just accept their situation.” This is a quote from Bob Bailey. This being the reason they are so trainable. However we have a duty of care towards them to make sure we never abuse this trainability. I saw a video recently of a very shut down horse being described as an introvert – this apparently was why the horse was so quiet. To me the horse just looked depressed and was putting up with the things done to her. Please ditch the labels and learn to look at the whole horse, posture, facial expressions etc not just whether they are quiet and accepting. Many horses put up with what we do due to being punished for incorrect behaviour – they then become too worried about doing the wrong behaviour so they do nothing. Correction is a word often used as a euphemism for punishment.

This article has good images of depressed/shut down horses compared to alert and resting posture.


Take a few minutes to think about how you train and keep your horse.
Does your horse obey to gain something appetitive or to avoid something aversive?

Do you abide by the LIMA principles?
Do you know what the humane hierarchy looks like?
Do you understand the 5 Domains of animal welfare?
How can you tell whether your horse is “happy”?

I don’t have all the answers but they are worth thinking about next time you are with your horse. Negative reinforcement is what most people use but it must be understood and used appropriately until you learn how to train without aversive stimuli. There are other components of how we all learn and they are worth exploring. Of course punishment is a last resort and only to be used if we are in a dangerous situation with an insufficiently trained horse.
Not every one will want to change and if you consider your horse happy with what you ask then you may not even understand the reason to change or even to learn more.
The more tools we have in our tool box the better trainers we will be.
There may be some cognitive dissonance too as we learn new ways of doing things, we try to rationalise why we do what we do.

The key is to learn about equine body language and the signs of appeasement and calming behaviours. Once seen they can’t be unseen and pop up all the time – watch videos and analyse the horses reactions. Know the signs of a distressed horse, learn what eye wrinkles mean and tight lips and chins. We all need a little adrenaline rush to get us going but too much and a horse way over his/her emotional threshold is not a good sign. Nor is it healthy for the horse, horses are very good at disguising how they feel.

LIMA principles

Language Signs and Calming Signals in Horses

The 5 Domains of Welfare

Research into how horses may hide stress