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.

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

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