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?


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



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 something 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.

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.

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.

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]”

Stable Door Kicking

Why do horse kick stable doors?

First look at what triggers the kicking and at what may be reinforcing the behaviour. If you can’t decide what the trigger is then contact a qualified equine behaviourist – some do consults via Skype and video but they will need to see the behaviour to assess why the horse is behaving as he is.

It may be frustration at being in a stable, limited turn out is not good for horses but is often needed in bad weather due to yard rules.

If the horse is kicking due to anticipating feeding then vary the time he is fed or ignore until he is quiet and then feed, he will soon learn that being quiet gets him attention/food but kicking doesn’t.
The behaviour can be reinforced by giving the horse attention or by feeding the horse first to stop the kicking.

Obviously never leave a horse hungry and make sure they have as much turn out as possible. Provide as much enrichment as possible so they can cope better with confinement. Vices can be helped by changing management – if it is possible – more turn out with friends, plenty of forage etc.
For examples of enrichment –

Punishment may work but is not ethical in my opinion, so don’t listen to those who say use a water pistol or electric fence tape or any other home made remedy.


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.