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

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.

Know your animal.

I am doing a course with Karolina Westlund Friman on animal training, a generic course for all animal trainers.

In one module we learned how important it is to know the species you work with. This brought me to revisit a blog I did a while ago about Fixed Action Patterns and share one by Mary Hunter on how this can be used in training.

From my Positive Horsemanship blog – first published in 2014.

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 – now called Modal Action Patterns as they aren’t as fixed as first thought.

The six properties of fixed/modal 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.

Useful blog about using this knowledge in training.

The 5 Domains and Behaviour

If you have a “problem” horse then analyse the problem.
Is the horse fearful or not understanding what you are asking, is the horse insufficiently trained for what YOU want to do?
Is the horse in pain – that is the first thing to eliminate.
Does the horse have the freedom to express normal behaviours in the company of other equines?

Look at the 5 Domains

1. Good nutrition
2. Environment
3 Good health
4. Appropriate behaviour
5. Positive mental experiences

All of these need to be species appropriate.|


If once all avenues have been considered the horse is still behaving abnormally and all vet checks have been done, then contact a qualified equine behaviourist. By this I mean one who is registered with either the IAABC or other recognised body – not an instructor or coach, or self-styled behaviourist. Be very wary of any who NEED to use pressure halters to “cure” unwanted behaviour.

Why a behaviourist?

A behaviourist will look at the whole horse, management and horse-human interactions.
Most behaviourists will not train your horse but write a behaviour modification program and suggest management changes.
Some trainers are good at spotting behavioural problems but may not have the knowledge to know how to help. They may be able to overshadow the FEAR response with training – often all that happens is the horse stops fighting and becomes resigned to his/her fate. However the danger is that of spontaneous recovery of the undesirable behaviour, if there is a certain trigger in the environment.
Horses are exceptional in their ability to shut up and put up with what we do to them. It is often the ones who don’t give in that are labelled dangerous but are they?
If we give them time and use classical conditioning and positive reinforcement in a structure behaviour modification program then they can often learn to trust humans again.

These links have more information and some useful graphics.

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



We hear a lot about “respect” in the horse training world. Especially in natural horsemanship, but what does it mean?
It is a human concept that usually dictates what behaviours we don’t want our horses to perform. So if the horse wont standstill it is deemed disrespectful etc. What happens then is that the horse is “corrected” (euphemism for punishment). This does nothing to tell the horse what to do instead.


1. a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their qualities or achievements.
2. due regard for the feelings, wishes or rights of others.

How do these definitions fit with the view of horses needing to respect their humans? Can horses have “due regard for the feelings wishes and rights of others”?
Do they have the cognitive abilities needed to have respect?

For me it is the we humans who need to respect the horse, we can have due regard for how our horses feel when we train them.

This link is revealing as they say if the horse doesn’t go forward we use increasing aversive stimuli, spanking first yourself and then the horse. So the horse learns to go forward to avoid the aversive stimuli – how does this instil respect?
How does that fit in with definition number 2? Do horses have no rights in our relationship? Is it “do as I say or else” suffer the consequences?

We all need to decide for ourselves what we are happy doing to our horses and often people do things to the horse rather than it being a partnership.

Does your horse have choice? Is your horse staying with you at liberty because he fears what will happen if he leaves? What happens if he doesn’t obey?

Only you can answer these questions but they do need asking.

We also need to look at the various emotional responses affected using negative and positive reinforcement.

In negative reinforcement there is always the underlying threat of an aversive, this triggers the FEAR system. It may be only mild anxiety but the emotions and accompanying neurotransmitters and hormones of fear are present. Fear does not have to be the full blown flight response – the other signs of the FEAR system are freeze, fight and fidgeting.  There are also appeasement behaviours and other signs that a horse is having problems.

In positive reinforcement we trigger the positive emotions, CARE, PLAY although done badly it can trigger RAGE in the form of frustration.

So respect is a human construct and really comes down to training what we want our horses to do.
They do what they have been reinforced for doing, so it your horses isn’t doing what you want then it is a training issue not a lack of respect. Training takes places every time we are interacting with our horses – whether grooming or feeding or walking them to and from the fields.

When using reward based training we can teach the horse what to do as an alternative behaviour, so we can teach him to station on a mat or stand at a stationary target. Once reliably performed a verbal cue “stand” or “wait” can be added. The more reinforcement history a behaviour has the stronger that behaviour becomes.
So instead to saying the horse is disrespectful think of him as being insufficiently trained.
What we wanted is a horse with good impulse control so we feel safe. Horses are large animals and can be dangerous if we don’t understand them.
They don’t instinctively know what we want them to do so we have to train for safety but without suppressing their natural curiosity.

Please ditch the term respect when talking about the horses relationship with humans as they don’t have the cognitive ability to know what “respect” is.
Instead describe what the horse is doing that you don’t like or don’t want him to do and then retrain with +R a behaviour you do want. Also remember all interactions with our horses is training – not just the formal sessions in the school.