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

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.



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. (


  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

Negative Reinforcement

Negative Reinforcement

It may well be that – at this moment in time – it is not possible to use only positive reinforcement in equine training.
If people wish to compete in mainstream equestrian events then they will need to use -R unless they retrain or train from scratch everything with +R. There may well be a time when the horse world catches up with other animal trainers in the use of +R.
It isn’t something that many positive reinforcement trainers talk about and talking about -R on some Facebooks groups gets you banned. However we must know how -R works and how it can affect the horse.
If we work on the LIMA principles of using the Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive stimuli to train behaviour and apply behaviour modification programs then I think we are doing well.

Negative is just a mathematical notation – so subtracting something to reinforce a behaviour. Of course if we remove something the horse likes and wants that can be construed as negative punishment if the behaviour decreases, as it may well do if the horse can’t get what he wants.
 So to be reinforcing the stimuli removed must be something the horse wishes to avoid, so an aversive stimuli. The removal of the stimuli is felt as a relief to the horse and can be very light leg and rein and weight aids. So the leg is conditioned to mean forward and is reinforced by the removal of the aid.
Negative reinforcement does trigger different neurotransmitters and hormones than those triggered in positive reinforcement. Using Jaak Panksepps 7 emotional systems, that all mammals share, we can see which system is at work in any quadrant. 
So with +R we see the SEEKING system in action in a positive way – horse learn to solve problems, they are empowered to share in their learning. The PLAY system is important too as horses learn through PLAY just as other mammals do e.g human children.
So what system is -R using?
 If we use another behavioural model – Paul Gilberts 3 Circle Model – we can see that using an aversive stimulus to form a behaviour is in the THREAT circle. Panksepp 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.

diagram of the 3 circle model of emotional regulation

Of course we need to achieve homeostasis of the emotional systems as soon as possible by removing the aversive stimulus 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. Horse 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.

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.
 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.

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.

Paul Gilbert

Jaak Panksepp

HPA axis