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

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