Jan 292010

Once upon a time, a horse owner said to an alternative therapist: “Thanks very much for treating Billy last week. He was much more relaxed than usual in the stable that night, and he went really well when I rode him the next day – more forward going, more supple and more willing than usual. I’d like you to come and do him again”.

Very satisfactory for all concerned. The horse was going well, the owner was happy and the therapist had a new client. Except for one thing – the therapist hadn’t treated Billy last week. She’d gone to the yard as requested and met not the owner but the groom, who through a misunderstanding had asked her to treat another horse. The owner, not knowing this, had ridden Billy the next day and had attributed her good ride to the treatment she thought the horse had had the day before.

Now this alternative therapist had an enquiring and scientific mind and decided to conduct an experiment. She asked a friend of hers whether she could give the friend’s horse a free session of her therapy. She didn’t want the friend to watch what she did, but she did want the friend to give her feedback afterwards. And she didn’t do anything to the horse at all. While the friend thought she was doing the treatment, she was actually sitting in the manger reading a book and the horse was eating his hay. When the therapist later asked the friend what had happened, she was not altogether surprised to hear a tale about a very relaxed horse who “went so much better than usual when I rode him the next day”.

Unlike most stories that begin ‘once upon a time’, this one is true. It illustrates very nicely the danger of attributing a change in our horse’s behaviour or performance to something we have just done. Or, as in this case, that we think we have done.

You might suspect that I enjoyed telling this story because I am highly sceptical of alternative therapies, and you would be right. However, that isn’t really the point here. The therapy in question, unlike many, actually had some biological plausibility: it was a manipulative technique that many people find relaxing and invigorating, and it is not beyond the bounds of possibility to suppose that horses might also get at least temporary benefits. The point is that the intervention (or non-intervention) could have been anything: a veterinary treatment; a new feed or feed supplement; a new saddle or bridle; a visit from the farrier or equine dentist – you name it. The only necessity was for the owner to believe that any improvement in the horse’s behaviour following the intervention must have been a result of that intervention. As we have seen, the intervention didn’t even have to happen. All that was required was for the owner to want to make that connection.

The fact is that a horse will vary from day to day in how lively, enthusiastic, supple or willing he feels and there can be many reasons for this: working hard the day before, a slip in the field, more time than usual in the stable, the weather, the time of day, his social relationships and the amount of sleep he’s had, to name only a few of the possibilities. It is just unfortunate that we, with our pattern-recognising, all-too-human brains, are likely to come to the wrong conclusions about the reasons why, because of what we want to believe. If we have given the horse something we believe will improve his performance – and especially if we’ve paid a lot of money for it – we are likely to think that any subsequent improvement in performance is a result of what we did. As you can see, the fact that a change in behaviour followed an intervention does not prove that the intervention caused the change, and this is where science comes in.

Science is just a way of testing things. It’s not esoteric or mysterious. All you do in essence is ask a question, test it and then come to a conclusion. Imagine you own a nervous horse who is reluctant to eat from a bucket in the stable. Your bucket is black. You wonder whether the colour of the bucket makes any difference. So you go round the yard and borrow as many different-coloured buckets as you can. Each day you give your horse his feed in one of them (including the original black one), and record something like the time he takes to start or finish the feed, or the number of times he knocks the bucket over: something you can put a number to. Then once you have tested them all several times over several weeks, you compare the results from the coloured buckets with those from the original black bucket. You’ve used the scientific method to test whether bucket colour makes a difference to the time it takes your horse to eat a feed. You have results that you can use. If the horse eats best from a blue bucket you’ve solved your original problem. If you find no difference, you’ve still got a result. Now it’s time for a new idea: what else might make my horse reluctant to eat? This is how we make progress in science.

Unscientific ideas tend to start with the conclusion. You have the same horse with the same problem, but rather than doing the experiment, you just go out and buy him a yellow bucket because you believe that according to ancient Chinese philosophy, yellow is the colour associated with comfort, security and eating. The first problem with this approach is all the untested assumptions it makes: that the Chinese philosophy makes sense; that horses see the same colours in the same way that we do; that they respond psychologically to colours in the same way that we do and so on. The second problem is the likelihood that having bought the bucket you will then go on to notice all its positive effects while ignoring any negative ones, thereby reinforcing your original decision. And whether the results are good or bad, you have no idea whether the bucket really made any difference, because you haven’t done anything to find out. You haven’t compared buckets of different colours before making a decision: you’ve started with the decision.

What if you then wanted to start a business selling buckets for nervous horses? The person who found out that her horse preferred the blue bucket would have to do a more careful experiment to see whether her results were likely to hold true for all nervous horses, not just her own. She would need to try harder to avoid having her results affected by human errors such as wishful thinking, existing beliefs and her expectations, or by variation due to age, sex or breed among the horses, and would need to show that the positive results for say blue buckets were more than she would expect purely by chance. She would need to know whether the results made sense in relation to what is already known about horse biology, such as whether horses can actually distinguish blue from other colours. I won’t go into details, but the scientific method includes techniques to deal with all of these, helping to make a study as objective as it can possibly be. This person could then use her evidence to advertise her buckets: “Blue buckets decrease eating problems for 96% of nervous horses”, if that was what she found. The person who began with the assumption that yellow buckets were the ones to use, however, would have to convince other people to accept her beliefs without any evidence, and so would probably rely almost entirely on testimonials from satisfied customers. You might have thought that was fair enough, before you read the story above and discovered how easy it is to be led astray.

So, if you wanted a bucket for your own picky anxious horses, which bucket-seller would you choose? The person who sold blue buckets because she had done the experiment on lots of horses and discovered that most of them ate best out of blue ones, or the person who sold auspicious Chinese yellow buckets because she believed them to be effective? Sure, this is a trivial example, but horse owners make almost daily choices on behalf of their animals, and some of these choices could have large effects on their horses’ health, soundness and sanity, not to mention their own bank balances. Much of what we are offered has never been properly tested to see whether it is safe and effective. Wouldn’t it be better to buy from someone who had done the work and testing before putting the product on sale? Some things have been tested, and have been shown to be ineffective, but they are still for sale. Wouldn’t you like to be able to tell which these are, before you spend your money? That’s why we need science.

Note to readers: I’m well aware that it is not always easy to tell the difference between what is supported by science and what is not, so I intend to write more about this in my next article.

By Alison Averis

(Enjoyed this article? Then please donate a little to The Equine Independent to keep us writing. You can donate via paypal to mail@theequineindependent.com – Many thanks (Emma Lethbridge -editior))

Jan 242010

Beware that the below video contains scenes of animal abuse.

I am saddened and horrified to report that this appalling abuse of a horse occured at a Uk college in the south west of England. There is never any excuse for this ignorant, and quite frankly abhorrent use of the whip. This is not horse training, it is purely and simply animal abuse and it must be stopped before the next generation of students from this college propagate the belief that to treat any animal like this is OK.

Please help name this instructor and stop this abuse. If you recognise the college or instructor please send a letter or email, or make a call, to the BHS or the WHW (contact details posted below) stating her or the colleges name with a link to this video.

The British Horse Society can be contacted on the following details:

The British Horse Society
Stoneleigh Deer Park

telephone: 0844 848 1666
fax: 01926 707800

The WHW (previously known as ILPH) can be contacted on the following details:

telephone: 01953 498682
fax: 01953 498373
e: info@worldhorsewelfare.org

Mail: World Horse Welfare
Anne Colvin House
Ada Cole Avenue
NR16 2LR

Reported by Emma Lethbridge.
Thank you to Heather Moffett at Enlightened Equitation for bringing this clip to my attention.

Update …

Thanks to some investigation by one of our wonderful members we now have the name of both the college and the instructor and will be passing on their details to all the necessary authorities.

Jan 222010

Whilst at a trade show early in 2009, I got chatting to a lovely lady called Vicki who was manning a stand on behalf of the Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust (GHDT). It had always been an ambition of mine to be involved with charity work abroad. After explaining that I, along with my business partner, run a small business teaching children how to see the world from a pony’s point of view, Vicki mentioned that my work could come in handy and to get in touch with the charity director. A few days later, after an hour long phone conversation, I was signed up to go to Gambia for two weeks in December 2009. My journey was soo amazing it has taken me a few weeks to process it all in my own mind, and it’s been harder still to condense it down in to a short article, but here it is…

After a six hour flight, an overnight stay in the capital, a three hour wait for a ferry, a six hour car journey, two 45 minute boat journeys and several wee stops in a prickly bush, we approached the small village of Sambel Kunda in West Africa. The journey to our destination could only be described as epic. We arrived in the pitch black and could hear the commotion before we could see anything. It was over whelming, the whole village were out with drums and whistles; they were dancing, clapping and singing. The children were chanting ‘welcome, welcome, welcome’ and I heard one man say repeatedly ‘Heather is here and she has brought her friends’…wow… we had arrived!

In the early morning sun the following day, there was the first opportunity to get a good look at where we were. The charity have a large two storey house that caters for the large groups of volunteers that visit throughout the year. Overlooked by the house’s balcony are two large paddocks where the donkeys and horses have a good run around and stretch their legs before the sun gets too hot. 30 degrees would be considered a cool day! A short walk away is another yard for all the stallions.

22 of us have left the cold behind to come to Sambel Kunda and offer help in any way it’s needed. Among them are – a vet, veterinary nurse and a small team whose sole purpose is to build a playground next door to the local school. I have come as prepared as I can be with lots of teaching notes, visual aids and lots of laminated pictures to show the children.

The first week of our stay is dedicated to the ‘Horse & Donkey Show’, which is an annual event. We spend the first few days sorting out all the tack that has been kindly donated by people in the UK. Then we put up marquees, bunting and notice boards. It’s the night before the show and we already had competitors arriving. There are no luxury horse boxes here; some people have to get their horses and donkeys across the river and some have walked for two days to get to us.

Show day gets off to a flying start with the secretary’s tent inundated with competitors. Some horses and donkeys have just a thin piece of rope around their necks or through their mouths, this is swiftly removed and they are sent off to their show ring sporting a new soft head collar. With such a large group this year, there is plenty of help for judging classes, stewarding, running the tack stall, first aid stall and manning the veterinary tent. The vet is busy all day treating various injuries, giving wormers and advising people to visit the dentist and/or farrier who are also on hand all day. The day is a resounding success, we see lots of horses and donkeys in beautiful condition, we have a fabulous write up in the main Gambian newspaper and the Donkey Club boys get to show off their new game of ‘Donkey Ball’ to a huge and excited crowd.

It takes another day to put everything away, and once the volunteers for the first week are safely on their way home, it’s on with the general running of GHDT. There is plenty to do at the GHDT, not only is there on-site wound checks needed on various animals, but the GHDT also travel to 10 local schools to teach children about the care of horses and donkeys, and to lots of markets each week to treat any sick or injured animals.

Going out to the local Lumo (market) is where the harsh reality of the Gambia hits you. The days are long, hot and extremely dusty. People queue to see the vets and staff and we see everything from horrific injuries to illness and disease. The weeks cases included; a horse with a septic tendon sheath; a horse with a badly swollen and broken penis; maggot infested wounds; burns; sores from poorly fitted and ill maintained harness; rubs and sores from tethering and abscesses. Lots of horses had a heavy worm burden and levels of emaciation I have never seen. It sounds horrendous, but once you are there in the thick of things, you quickly get past the shock and have to just accept the reality of the place and get on with the job of patching them up as best you can and sending them on their way.

The charity is very well known in the area, so sometimes on the way back from markets people would call and ask us to stop in on their compound on our way through, which we willingly do. There is currently a neurological disease affecting many horses and donkeys in Gambia. It is not yet known what causes this but it’s most often fatal. I saw one such case with a little bay horse that had been down on the ground for three days before the owners called the GHDT staff. Generally speaking Gambian’s don’t believe in putting things to sleep on religious grounds, but when they could see how much this little horse was suffering, they agreed. It was a distressing experience and I fought every ounce of my being not to cry for him, but I was blown away by how professional and swift the GHDT staff were in dealing with the situation. They have received superb training from UK vets and they come in to their own in situations such as these. In order to learn more about this disease they had to take samples from various parts of his body, which is a job no one enjoys, but without these samples they don’t have a hope of finding the cause.

Each evening everyone came back to the house and we filled each other in on how our days went. It’s not the easiest thing for such a big group of strangers to suddenly live together, but we came together brilliantly. From making each other laugh over dinner, to looking after each other when a tummy bug worked it’s way round us. We took it in turns making the tea and keeping the gas powered fridge stocked with beer (what a luxury that was!).

During this trip, I quickly realised that all the things I had prepared to teach and show children were just not suitable. Even things that are so basic for us here in the UK, like providing ‘Fibre, Friends & Freedom’ are not appropriate. Gambians can’t offer an environment where their horse or donkeys have friends as they have a working animal, not a pet and they often struggle to support the one they have They can’t offer the animal freedom; when they are not working they are usually tethered to a pole within the family compound. In terms of Fibre, they offer them what there is available, which is a hay so coarse that you snap each piece like a twig.

It also quickly becomes clear that you can’t come to the Gambia and tell people what to do. It is far better to do things, let people see the benefits it brings and they’ll soon follow suit. As an example, I stood talking to a young boy about his donkey at the show, I gently stroked the donkey’s ears and neck and the donkey promptly leaned against me and fell asleep. Within a few minutes I had a group of children with me all eager to have a go and even starting to argue over who got to stroke the donkey.

Two weeks suddenly seemed like two minutes; I’d just about got used to the heat and dust, understood what is needed from an education point of view and begun to appreciate the sheer scale of it all, before I found myself boarding the plane to come home.

My experience in the Gambia has left me questioning so many things that go on in the UK. For example, if injuries like the ones we saw were sustained in the UK, the horse would be put to sleep without hesitation. As mentioned above animals are rarely put to sleep in the Gambia and not only do they recover from their injuries; they recover extremely well and go back in to work, even from broken legs. It makes you think that perhaps we are too disposable with our horses here. Amazingly, they also recover from these injuries with little medical intervention, including pain relief. The charity relies on vets volunteering from the UK and often has to manage for several weeks without one present. They also rely on drugs donated from the UK, so once they run out there’s nothing else to offer.

I found the behaviour of the animals very interesting. You will see a lame horse, trotting down the road, pulling a fully laden cart, with rubs and sores all over him from the harness, but he doesn’t spook, nap or attempt to flee. They stand calm and still whilst you treat what must be painful injuries. They are resigned and accepting of their life where there’s never a mutual groom, a good roll or frolic in the sunshine with a herd of friends, but can they miss or crave something they’ve never had?

Another interesting thing is that the children ride on the rump of the donkeys and we all told them to sit forward. As soon as they did this, the donkey would dip his head to the floor, drop his shoulder and deposit the child on the floor! To be fair, the donkey doesn’t seem to mind the child sitting so far back and will walk, trot and canter on command. So, were we right to tell them to move? From the look we got from the child on the floor, I think perhaps he was OK as he was!

There are two people I met who cannot go unmentioned. The first is Heather Armstrong who runs the charity, a woman for whom there is no commendation high enough for what she does. She oozes a calm and radiant energy and yet works so incredibly hard. She is constantly organising the next set of volunteers, ensures they have a safe (albeit long) journey and are well prepared for the task and environment ahead of them. She has to negotiate with officials, village elders, local dignitaries and the Gambian Government to continue her work or bring in something new. She organises training for the staff and teachers to keep them motivated and up to date so that they can offer the best possible care. She spends her year travelling to and from the UK (which as described above is no mean feat), she keeps everything running smoothly and is always so thankful of any small gesture offered to her charity. Along with other members of her family, Heather has dedicated her life to improving the lives of the horses and donkeys of the Gambia and of the Gambian people by sponsoring their education and aiding their health care. As I tried to take stock of everything around me I found it hard to imagine what their lives would be like without Heather and her charity.

The second person is Anna, an angel on earth if ever there was one. Anna is from the UK and is in her second year of volunteering there. She has to be so many things all at the same time. She has to be a nurse to sick and injured animals, a nurse to sick and injured people, she has to be a diplomat, book keeper, teacher, mother and mentor – she is a shining star; not only to the GHDT but to so many people and animals of the Gambia who have been taken under her wing. Nothing seemed to phase Anna and she never ran out of patience even when she must have heard her name called 100 times from people, all wanting something from her.

I have been humbled to tears during this trip; by the people I met and worked with, by the spirit and will of the horses and donkeys and I’m so very proud to have been part of this project if only for a very short time.

By Joni Caswell.

For more information on the Gambia Horse & Donkey Trust and to see photo’s of the amazing playground everyone worked so hard to build, please check out www.gambiahorseanddonkeytrust.co.uk . GHDT are also on Facebook.

For more information on the school sponsorship programmes, please check out www.sssgambia.co.uk

Jan 172010

I had a thought and as it rambled though my mind I wrote it down. Now I would like to share that thought with you.

How do I know that I am the person to work with a particular horse?

Working with equines is not about the individual trainer or owner, no matter how great their equine training skills, marketing or publicity may be. It is about the sheer brilliance and ability of the horse, donkey or mule to figure out what on earth we humans want, what they have to do to survive, to receive rewards and to avoid discomfort. An incredible amount of equine intelligence and behaviour goes into just dealing with humans.

When people are derogatory towards other trainer, horse owner or methods of training, their comments often reflect their own egos and personalities. It is so often about them, not about the horse. The only true way to find the horseman inside each of us is to let go of our egos and say “it does not matter what other people say about me, I am truly in the deepest part of my soul and conscience working for the horse. I am the lightest I can be and I have continued to improve and learn more as I expand my own comfort zones, it is not about me it is about the horse,” only then are we truly moving in the right direction. Perhaps we should not be so quick to judge others until we have evolved to be the best horseman we can be.

There are many good trainers who advocate thousands of different methods. Their words are incredibly convincing and motivating to others trying to emulate the trainer’s skill with horses. However, what we should be doing is trying to emulate the greatness of horses, with their ability to learn and their ability to develop an understanding of different methods of communication and ways of thinking. They are the most amazing creatures, and if we give them a chance, they would teach us about ourselves, but we seldom give them that opportunity.

When we are insulted or verbally attacked by another person for what we are or what we do, the immediate reaction is to fight back and justify ourselves. We argue, “no you are wrong, I am right, I did it because…” but this aggressive defence does not often work as the person who has initially attacked us has two options of recourse. They can fight back and attempt to justify what they have said or what they have done because of their beliefs or situation. As people push against our beliefs, we fight back to justify our feelings and thoughts and this tends to encourage more of a fight response in our challenger and a vicious circle is created. Unfortunately, we see the same thing with horses when they do not understand something or if they behave in a way that says “I don’t like the way I’m being handled.” The tendency is to push back, by making more work for them, applying more pressure, using a harsher bit, a firmer spur or a bigger smack.

The second option available to our verbal challenger is to concede, they could say “You are absolutely correct, I was wrong, I criticized you for the wrong reasons. I attacked you because I was personally upset by you, because I was angry and felt threatened.” It is very difficult for us to admit that we are wrong or that perhaps our egos have been motivating our actions. When we work with horses we must learn to take truthful responsibility for our behaviour and then learn to think, “Ah! I can see you do not understand. I need to explain what I want a different way. I need to change the way I am communicating, I need to be patient and work with you,” then we could all become better horsemen. When we are verbally attacked we should listen to what is being said and look for the motivations behind the words, just as we should look for the motivations behind our horse’s behaviour.

If the true nature of equines was not to be amenable and compliant with a willingness to adapt to the confines of captivity we would never have domesticated horses as a species. Ability to learn is one of their greatest attributes, yet we humans have not learnt the lessons that they are teaching us. We take our own ego, aggression and discomfort and put it onto the horse and make the horse pay the price of our lack of balance, lack of control and lack of understanding and then the horse mirrors back what it is forced to work with in us. We overfeed them, under-exercise them, limit their mental stimulation and we wonder if they suffer. We too become bored, we become angry, we become overweight and we suffer. Our horses mirror the things we do to ourselves, how we humans deal with domestication determines how our horses behave.

In domestication there is no true ‘natural’ environment, trainers created the term Natural Horsemanship to make clients feel better for the restrictions domestication and training places on our equine partners and to set it apart from traditional methods. I am not knocking our attempts to be more understanding trainers and to create better environments for our horses to live in, this is essential to our horse’s physical and mental health. However, I would like to stop us hiding behind the word natural as an illusion of perfection in horsemanship. Horsemanship is in the process of evolution and Natural Horsemanship is just a step on the evolutionary path that one day will hopefully be replaced with an even better form of horsemanship, perhaps behavioural science. Nothing we do to the horse is natural compared to the life of the free roaming horses.

The horse in the feral situation has a capacity for compassion, aggression, fight, flight, softness, rest and play. All the aspects of their personality are balanced and whilst individuals may have different characteristics, they can display them all, from the stallion that will play with his foals to the mare that will discipline a youngster. We humans often advocate and lecture with the intent to promote our own greatness, our own ability and our method. However, in horsemanship it is not our way that we should seek, it is the horse’s way and we must begin to reach into the very essence and soul of the horse to understand who we are and who we need to become as human beings, to truly release our potential as horsemen, as parents, friends and partners.

People ask constantly “What do I do when?”, “What do I do if…?”; “How do I deal with this situation?”; “What does this mean?”, as if there should be a dictionary of horse terms that we can use to identify their every single motivation, action and belief. As yet we humans are incapable of indexing our own behaviour, so what chance do we have with the horse? The answer to these questions is always, “it depends.”

Hopefully we all know what it is to feel love yet everybody’s definition of love is a unique perception. True love, love for a friend, love of an object, love for gardening, all of these feelings are different. So how can a trainer say with certainty what a horse thinks or that certain behaviour should always be met with a set pattern of training? There is an uncertainty in true horsemanship, that if we let it, will create growth and strength and learning within the trainer. I believe that in every horse owners lifetime comes a horse that does not fit everything we have previously learnt. With this animal we either begin to learn and grow, we become stale and stubborn, or we sell the animal to someone else and they learn the lessons instead. This is what the horse can give us, an understanding of ourselves but we have to “leave our egos at the door” because it is not about us.

We have domesticated another species and for 6,000 years we have restricted them, we have controlled the very nature of who they are, yet we search for the beauty of who they can be when they are free from our influence. When they are doing everything we ask or when they are running across the plains of Nevada, we perceive them as a most beautiful spirited animal. When their behaviour contradicts what we want or when they question us by communicating “I can’t do that,” when they show us “I don’t know how to do what you ask,” or when they act based on fear, the unenlightened tendency is to label them as troublesome, stubborn, difficult, or deceitful.

This journey of horsemanship, is not about learning to be a horse, it is about learning to be the best human being we can be. We need to find balance, to be able to set a boundary, to be able to say no, that’s not I want you to do. It is not whether we say no, it’s how you say no that is important to the horse. Horsemanship is about being able to open yourself to the possibility of being wrong, the possibility of change, the possibility of needing to know more, it’s about being able to put your tools down and say “I understand and accept the effort involved in making the try, thank you.”

When we criticize another person for their lack of ability or belittle a trait that we find unsuitable, have we first looked at ourselves to establish if we are without that trait, that we are perfect and that we can do everything? There is strength in softness and vulnerability, in being able to decide when to pick our battles, when to open our hand and let the rein go, when to step back and accept that it is OK to make a mistake. There is strength in being able to take responsibility for ourselves and we should learn not blame ourselves for the mistakes. We take responsibility for mistakes and learn from them and move forward, and there lies the subtle difference between blame and responsibility.

Our lives are governed by who we are. There is no reason to believe that horsemanship would be any different. We can be our own greatest enemy. We cause ourselves to be shy, to lack confidence, to be afraid, to be angry and to be impatient. We allow our brains to run freefall in a series of thoughts connected to the emotions, causing us to rebuild or destruct exactly who we are time and time again. We let this happen every day of our lives, yet we seldom grasp the opportunity to truly change, and to use change as a path to becoming a better person.

The first part of change is not to try and change, it is to accept the potential and possibility of change. When we change the way we think, we can truly change who we become and how we behave. It will be uncomfortable, but we can do it and we will be better for it. We can develop more understanding of ourselves, so we do not waste our potential by settling for anything less than the best we can be. However, choosing to learn will be a difficult and often painful road to follow, so we should not start the journey lightly. We all have a destiny to be the best that we can be, whether that means we become the best road sweeper, best nurse or the best horse trainer we can be does not matter, only that we strive to improve. We cannot possibly hope to obtain perfection in every single area of everything we do, but we must continually be open to the possibility of being the best that we can be, to challenge our potential, to actually begin to develop our knowledge of who we are.

Why did I have this thought? Well, so often I hear equine professionals say “The horse was fine, the owner was the problem!” It is time we all took more responsibility for who we are as horse people and worried a little less about what our neighbour believes to be true. When I talk about horse trainers I believe anyone who interacts with a horse in anyway is teaching it something and is therefore a trainer. Universally we need to accept the horses are the smart ones, after all they have to figure out what we want. Not enough credit is given to their ability to adapt and deal with the difficulties of working with humans.

The followers of “Natural Horsemanship” advocates are about to do exactly what they claim they despise in traditional training methods, namely make an exclusive club and pass judgment on other trainers and methods and develop the ‘We’re right so you can’t be’ attitude. The antidote to this is simply more walking the talk. What individuals do when training their horses is their choice. However, the common thread of Natural Horsemanship is putting the horse first and if we all do that, then in a few years we should all end up in the same place. Behavioural science is perhaps the next step in the evolution of horsemanship because it is not subjective, but horsemanship will always remain a balance of Art and Science and to ensure we use the science correctly we must first know ourselves.

I would wish for every trainer to recognize the efforts and bravery of the horse before they extol their own virtues. After all it is the horse that is doing the learning and the horse that has to overcome their fears and phobias. Horse trainers should remain humble, as it is clearly the horse that deserves the credit first. I feel it would be best if we trained ourselves before we trained our horses.

How do I know I should be working with a horse? I open myself to the possibility that I should not be working with them and then I leave my ego at the gate so that I can hear what the horse has to say on the subject.

Like I say it is just a thought that I had, and then I wanted to share. However what you think is far more important to your horse than what I think.

By Ben Hart


© Ben Hart April 2009

Jan 102010

I was asked recently whether I think that horses have the capacity to be naughty or if this is a label we give horses because we as humans think in those terms. My initial reaction was to write an article about this from the perspective of animal cognition: naughtiness implies that the animal understands what we want them to do but makes a conscious, deliberate decision not to do so, do horses have this capacity? However, taking a step back I realised that ‘naughty’ is a term that is overused for both animals and humans alike and this is where we should start.

We use the word naughty to describe some of the things an animal or child does that we don’t like and infer that they are doing it ‘on purpose’ – that they know that they are doing something we do not want them to do. We often call children ‘naughty’ when more accurately they are frustrated, tired, find something funny that we don’t, or are expressing an opinion that differs from ours. If we call a child or a horse naughty we conveniently don’t have to look at ourselves to see if it is something that we are doing that is the underlying cause of their behaviour. Through the label of ‘naughty’, especially for horses, we convince ourselves that punishment is justified.

For example, consider a child who doesn’t want to have a bath. He/she is expressing an opinion. We as adults often don’t want to do things and either we do them because we understand that we have to, or we simply don’t do them. Rather than punish the child for getting frustrated that his opinion doesn’t change anything, we change tact – we find a way to motivate the child to have a bath through making bath-time more fun, or we explain that we understand but that he/she must have a bath and afterwards they can do something nice, such as play.

However, we expect our horses to understand without explaining. For example, consider a horse that doesn’t want to be caught. It is much easier to label them as ‘naughty’ rather than address the fact that he/she would rather stay in a field than go somewhere with you. The horse is expressing an opinion – we should listen rather than dismiss it, which might cause frustration and make the situation worse. I am not saying that you should let your horse do whatever he/she wants to do but rather we should work with him/her in the same way that we work with children at bath-time.

Another pertinent question is why should a horse do what we tell them to anyway? Horses have evolved to live in herds and social living requires a division of roles. Some horses are leaders of the group but those that follow would not do well to trust just any of the members of the herd, they do not all have equal knowledge of where the best resources are, for example. Therefore horses follow proven leaders, and we need to gain their trust through ethical and effective training before we can expect them to do what we ask them.

With horses, we are quick to use punishment to get what we want – such as hitting a horse with a whip to ‘encourage’ him to walk in from the field. Although using such methods we can train the horse that he ‘must do as we say, or else’….is this really the relationship we should be aiming for with our animals? A horse trained this way might be very obedient but will learn to suppress behaviour in the presence of their owner and never express an opinion but most of us want a partnership and this is not the way to go about it. Owners who listen to what their horses are telling them, and use a patient, flexible and compassionate approach to training their horse, have animals that express opinions, but who listen when an alternative is suggested and trust their owners.

In summary, the question to ask is not whether or not horses can be naughty but ‘why is my horse doing this?’ – then we have started on the path to a partnership with the horses in our lives.

By Suzanne Rogers


Jan 062010

How we think determines our success or failure with horses. Horses, will clearly let us know what they think of us. What they think of their work, stable companions, environment, feed and so on. Equine behaviour offers us information, it lets us know when we are getting something right or something wrong. However, very often we do not want to know what our horses are thinking or how they are feeling especially when it does not suit us. It is easier just to label the horse as having a problem than ask ourselves why.

Our thought processes determine our success or failure with our horses and the success or failure of our relationship with them. Sometimes we need to change, or modify our thinking, become more responsible and aware of our actions and thoughts for the way forward to become clear and logical.

Observation, perception, motivation, awareness and our understanding of these areas within our own behaviour help greatly when training/working with another species.

One way of determining if you have an understanding of other minds (a theory of mind) is by observing your ability to reason about the motivation of others. This includes horses. Understanding and working with motivation is one of the essential elements of success when interacting, training and riding horses.

Our perceptions of what we see are just as important, as they determine the decisions we make. Our perceptions are guided by the context in which they are received. Often the context in which information is received not only affects WHAT we learn but can affect HOW we learn and in turn forms our personal set of principles – something Ayn Rand picks up on in her collection of essays titled Philosophy Who Needs It.

“You have no choice about the necessity to integrate your observations, your experiences, your knowledge into abstract ideas, i.e. into principles. Your only choice is whether these principles are true or false, whether they represent your conscious, rational convictions – or a grab-bag of notions snatched at random, whose sources, validity, context and consequences you do not know, notions which, more often than not, you would drop like a hot potato if you knew”

When observing equine behaviour, it is easy to see what we ‘want’ to see as opposed to what is really happening. Observation alone does not necessarily teach us much because we tend to focus on the totality of the horse rather than the many elements that go to make up the animal and it’s individual characteristics and behaviour.

Observation alone means we remain ‘outside’ of what we are seeing. We are engaged with watching the horse, which means we are not aware of ourselves at the same time. Observation, by itself, usually remains unconscious. By turning pure observation to consciousness, we start the process of awareness. When we learn to combine awareness with conscious observation we can start to avoid error in interpretation. When we can stop placing our interpretations on what we are seeing and activate our sight, in full consciousness. Then we can start to learn in detail.

Sanjida O’Connell in her book Mindreading says “We do not just watch people as if we’re anthropologists from Mars, we speak to them and they tell us what they’re thinking. But even in conversation, we do not always say what we mean, or even mean what we say, and most people, again unconsciously, look at the underlying meaning rather than the words themselves.”

She offers an example given by Steven Pinker in his book The Language of Instinct reads:

Woman: I am leaving you

Man: Who is he?

We know immediately whom the ‘he’ stands for, but we only know this because we guess what is going on based on our own assumptions – not because it is a fact.

When training, riding or working with a horse we tend to be responding to our map of reality, not reality itself. What our mind stores is not experience but our own individual translation, symbol, or representation of that experience. Everything we do or say on behalf of horses relates to this. To work with equine behaviour we need to become fully conscious of our interpretations of information, of ourselves, our behaviour, our understanding and our motivations.

A helpful exercise is to watch DVD’s of trainers and riders working with horses and turn the volume off so you are not influenced by what you are being told. Remove your preconceived ideas and focus on the detail not the whole picture. By practising conscious observation you should begin to hone your skills at gathering more information with the volume off rather than on. This exercise will begin to fine tune your observation and reasoning skills.

Mark Berkoff makes a very important point in his book Minding Animals. “ If we are to draw reliable inferences from our work, we must be sure that we are not influencing the animals to the point that we are unable to answer the very questions we are interested in.”

To truly understand equine behaviour and motivation, we need to look at ourselves. We need to take responsibility for our own behaviour and expectations. We have to stop expecting answers and solutions without any effort. We have to stop wanting the ‘end result’ with out the ability or understanding of how it is achieved.

We need to start thinking how, why and what we can do to help horses understand and tolerate their humanised world. We need to learn how to improve our own abilities. It is up to us to become responsible and work in the best interest of the horse. When we start understanding the equine brain by using ours, then we are working from the seat of intellect, sensation and intelligence.

“The horse could and did give man a total education. He had to be tamed and befriended and could not be fooled by honeyed words. Thus, only those who had the humility to blame themselves and never their mount could benefit from the education a horse could offer.” – Charles De Kunffy.

By Emma Kurrels


© 2009 Emma Kurrels Voices for Horses
First published May 2002 updated 2009

Jan 062010

A common criticism of those who train horses using positive reinforcement is that we are so busy discussing behavioural theory that we do not do anything practical with our horses, just a few “tricks”. Or that our training is so constrained by theory that there is no “feel”. Or that what little practical work we do with our horses takes so long it is not viable for most people. Or that we have dangerous horses who gallop into busy roads and leave us waiting desperately for them to stop so we can click and treat.

I’m not being facetious, I have been accused of all these things and I would argue that none of them is true. So what do we do with our horses?

Most of us learn to use positive reinforcement via clicker training. And when starting clicker training it is true that most of us start with simple targeting exercises that may be perceived as “just tricks” by the uninitiated. But targeting is considerably more than just a trick. It involves the horse spontaneously touching a novel object in order to earn a treat. The handler clicks at the exact moment the horse performs the correct behaviour and this helps the horse to understand which behaviour has earned the reward. In order to succeed, via a certain amount of trial and error, the horse must overcome any fear or wariness of the target, it must inhibit any other behaviours such as mugging or biting and it must make a choice to act autonomously. The horse also starts to associate us and our training with good things happening. So even in the early stages of clicker training, we are using the clicker to help the horse develop in confidence, self-control and personal growth, as well as potentially helping to improve our relationship. Not bad for a few minutes’ work.

A free-shaping session such as this (i.e. using pure positive reinforcement without cues or lures) can be particularly valuable for a horse who is reluctant to offer behaviours as a result of previous aversive training. It provides a safe environment where mistakes are tolerated and not corrected. The horse can learn to make choices, secure in the knowledge that there will be no negative consequence of choosing the wrong answer. Free-shaping can therefore be an extremely valuable tool in the rehabilitation of mistreated horses, with very strong analogies with human counselling. An acute level of “feel” is crucial, taking this approach well beyond the crude “stimulus- response” training of the 1950’s behaviourism movement.

But for the average horse-owner who is not trying to rehab a rescue case…..

Clicker training can be a great tool for solving minor problems. On one livery yard I had to take my horse across a dairy pasture in order to reach his field. All the horses would dive for the grass and we would struggle across, trying unsuccessfully to hold their heads up. I thought it would be a nice clicker exercise and used shaping to teach my horse that it was OK to graze when he heard the click. Initially I would click every couple of strides *well before* he tried to dive for the grass. He started to wait for the click because he knew he was then allowed to have grass. Gradually we increased the number of strides before the click. It wasn’t long before we could cross the dairy pasture before grazing – unlike all the other horses who continued to dive for the grass. I like this example as it illustrates nicely that, although clicker training and shaping may initially appear to be long-winded, they actually save time and solve problems more quickly in the long-term because we are appealing to the horse’s choices rather than fighting them.

Some clicker trainers choose to have a clicker with them at all times so as to “capture” any behaviour they like at any time. Thus clicker training can be used alongside any general handling or riding that people do. For various reasons (and a whole new article in itself), I prefer to reserve clicker training for well-defined clicker sessions but those sessions might specifically be for teaching behaviours such as picking up feet, loading, leading, standing still or learning to move away from light physical pressure. Most commonly I use clicker training for free-shaping over, under, through or around obstacles, picking up a toy or pushing a football for increasing confidence, patience and enhancing a relationship based on mutual trust and choice. I also use it as a way to give my horse scratches on his itchy spots without him demanding too “emphatically” – he will spontaneously back away from me to “ask” for a scratch which is much safer than his previous barging.

Perhaps another key point is not so much what I do as what I do not do. I try to be aware of any inadvertent reinforcement I might be giving my horse which encourages him to behave in ways I see as undesirable. I take note of any behaviours he gives me and, instead of trying to stop them happening, I try to ignore them* and learn the circumstances under which they arise. This takes me to the root cause of the behaviours and so I can remove the cause, rather than worry about the behaviour which typically then disappears of its own accord. Ignoring unwanted behaviours is an essential part of training with positive reinforcement and is perhaps one we tend to over-look when we are thinking about “what to train”. Learning to just sit and observe is difficult, particularly if we perceive that our safety is at risk, but the more I trust in the horse’s innate cooperative nature, the more I can avoid confrontation, increasing both our safety and our mutual trust yet further.

When not engaging in a clicker session I am happy to use mild pressure to make requests of my horse, particularly when riding. But that does not stop me from using the basic principles of learning theory – I am careful to release pressure with good timing and I try to keep the pressure constant so that the horse has a chance to learn how to release it . And, perhaps most crucially, I continue to use shaping. Shaping – i.e. the breaking down of any task into its tiniest component steps – is arguably the factor that is the difference between keeping safe and becoming a liability. If I do not want to exert excessive pressure on my horse in order to keep us safe then I need to have completed sufficient early training that excessive pressure would never be required. It is shaping that almost guarantees that we will not have a dangerous horse who gallops into traffic because we would have never put him in a situation like that – we would have devised a shaping plan with an end goal of “riding safely in traffic” and broken the task into many training steps. There may be the odd rare occasion for which we cannot prepare, but the more we use shaping and a non-confrontational approach, the less we find that our safety is compromised.

(* it may sometimes be necessary to extract myself as quickly and as safely as possible, perhaps resorting to aversives if need be – but this would be a one-off situation into which I would avoid getting again without additional prior shaping/training)

By Catherine Bell


Interviews by Catherine Bell

Interview with Ben Hart (www.hartshorsemanship.com)

Prominent trainer Ben Hart was asked five questions regarding his use of clicker training and/or positive reinforcement. These are his answers:

1. What sort of behaviours do you typically train with positive reinforcement /clicker training?

I try to train everything I train with as much positive reinforcement as possible, with clicker training the most common behaviours are standing still, picking up feet, over coming ear shyness, leading

2. What behaviour/reward would you use most often to introduce the horse to the clicker?

Standing still or targeting depending on the animal their confidence, history and individual nature

3. What are your thoughts on free shaping versus combining negative reinforcement and punishment with clicker training?

I love and prefer free shaping, it takes a lot more skill, awareness, timing and imagination. I don’t think you should ever combine positive reinforcement and punishment you end up with too many problems and associations with punishment, and anyone who combines pressure halters and clickers is misguided and wrong. As for Positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement my general rule would be only if the negative stimulus is mild enough not to to cause a negative emotional response and that the negative stimulus is not escalated. So the negative stimulus may be mild enough to help the equine respond – an example might be my hand on the leg of a horse that does not like picking up their hooves. They can feel it and respond but not fear it or increase their flight reaction.

4. Under what circumstances would you feel clicker training is inappropriate?

There are limitations as described in my clicker training book (The Art and Science of Clicker Training for Horses). I would say it is inappropriate if it is used while the animal is in pain or if the trainer has bad timing or if the trainer is using it to replace a lack of their own ability i.e. if you don’t have the ability to train a behaviour without clicker training you shouldn’t try to do it with clicker training. Or if the clicker training is combined with punishment.

5. Do you have a favourite case study you could share with us?

My favourite example of the pitfalls and limitations of clicker training is a horse called T. He had a very bad start in life. His new owner rescued him and, as she was learning about clicker training, she tried to help him overcome his problems, you couldn’t even go safely into the stable with him. Long story short, but in the first few lessons T become frustrated and more aggressive and actually badly bit the owner. Following my advice they stopped clicker training and spent two years building his confidence and her own. She shaped T’s behaviour using positive reinforcement whenever possible. Once his owner had done all this work and was safely able to confidently enter the stable were they able to re-start clicker training and he is even being ridden now. The owner was brilliant but clicker training in the wrong place with the wrong person at the wrong time simply wasn’t the answer.

Interview with Becky Holden (www.enlightenedequitation.com)

1. What sort of behaviours do you typically train with positive reinforcement/clicker training?

I mainly use clicker training for general schooling. From backing to high school movements. I also use it for problem behaviours, picking legs up, standing still etc. But I mainly use it to back up the classical principles of schooling both from the ground and under saddle.

2. What behaviour/reward would you use most often to introduce the horse to the clicker?

I usually introduce the clicker with target training. I like to teach something fun first; especially if the clicker is going to be used in an area the horse has problems… Also this gives the owner who may also be learning time to come to terms with the method and see how it works.

3. What are your thoughts on free shaping versus combining negative reinforcement/punishment with clicker training?

Through the introduction I always free shape as I feel this is where the horse can truly think for themselves and work out what the click means. I also enjoy liberty schooling where I will totally free shape. But for me personally I cannot get away from combining negative reinforcement with clicker training.  When positive and negative reinforcement is combined eventually the negative aspect of the request isn’t a response to something the horse doesn’t like but becomes a request the horse understands.

Horses cannot learn anything effective when they are stressed, punishment causes stress. Punishment doesn’t tell the horse what to do instead, so controls instead of teaches. Pre-clicker days I was the kind of trainer that used praise and punishment as a way of teaching both horses and dogs, the results, inconsistency! The most valuable thing I learnt when I first started to clicker train is to focus on what I wanted. I realised to punish my focus was on the past and focused on something I didn’t want. Clicker training changed my thought process completely around!

4. Under what circumstances would you feel clicker training is inappropriate?

When the horse owner isn’t ready or open enough to learn about it. Clicker training can sometimes awaken horses and this can scare the poor horse owner half to death!

5. Do you have a favourite case study you could share with us?

I have lots,  it is hard to decide which one to tell you about!

I was holding a demonstration with Heather Moffett and she arranged for her friend to bring along their home bred show pony, she was a 5 year old mare. They produced and backed show ponies for a living so the pony was backed at home. They had attempted some clicker training but never got past the targeting stages, but now they were having problems under saddle and wanted to see how the clicker would help. Now, this little mare arrived like a fire breathing dragon! It was then pointed out that as well as the problems under saddle she was terrible to deal with at a show which isn’t good for their business. I did begin to wonder slightly if this was the best candidate for a demonstration! I began by just walking around the school the mare was very stressed and alert in her new environment but dealt with it in a very boisterous and pushy manner, she had been known to rear when at the show ground and would never stand still. So each time I got a tiny step in the correct direction I would click and treat. Each time she halted politely click/treat; I soon had her attention and went on to some target training. She had sure remembered what this was all about so we left the first session there.

Now the problems under saddle where the same as in hand but she would run backwards and threaten to rear each time the leg was used, her owner was told to use more leg and this just made the problem worse. So in the 2nd session we tacked her up in saddle and bridle and I worked her from the ground, we worked on the pony moving off leg aids from the ground with my hand giving the aid to walk on,  her reaction to this was to run backwards, I just kept my position and walked back with her, clicking all the correct calm responses. It was amazing to see this highly breed highly sensitive mare say ‘oh that what that feel means’, I wouldn’t of expected anywhere near this much achievement if working with the horse on a daily basis but the demo ended with the owner riding walk and halt transitions with no resistance. When she dismounted she was in floods of tears at the transformation that had been made. The poor pony had been screaming out ‘I don’t understand’ so, until the demo, the behaviour had just gotten worse and worse.

Interview with Alexandra Kurland (www.theclickercenter.com)

(Abridged by Catherine Bell (www.equinemindandbody.co.uk ) with the author’s permission, from an article by Alexandra Kurland)

1. What sort of behaviours do you typically train with positive reinforcement/clicker training?

Over time I have developed a systematic, very detailed training program for clicker training your horse. This includes (1) foundation exercises (i.e. simple exercises for introducing the horse to clicker training), (2) improving ground management skills, (3) safety (on and off the horse), (4) training for performance (i.e. meeting your riding goals)

2. What behaviour/reward would you use most often to introduce the horse to the clicker?

The foundation lessons are: Targeting, “The Grown-ups are Talking, Please Don’t Interrupt”, Head Lowering, Backing, Ears Forward, Stand on your Mat. These foundation lessons are not a check list: “Yup, got my horse to back. Did that one. Next . . . ” These are lessons you will be using and perfecting through the rest of his life. Once your horse understands these basic lessons, they give you tools for managing his emotions as you work on more complex behaviours You want to take your time with this foundation work. The more you perfect these simple lessons, the easier everything else becomes.

3. What are your thoughts on free shaping versus combining negative reinforcement /punishment with clicker training?

Free-shaping is a part of the program. You will be learning about timing, free shaping, capturing behaviours, targeting, incorporating negative reinforcement into a positive reinforcement training program, breaking your training down into small steps, developing cues and bringing a behaviour under stimulus control, chaining, training by priority and many other important concepts using these simple behaviours.

4. Under what circumstances would you feel clicker training is inappropriate?

Clicker training works with all horses. Having said that, any training method, if not done correctly, can produce behaviour you don’t want. When I start a new horse with the clicker, I use protective contact. That means there is a barrier between me and the horse. If I am dealing with a pushy, aggressive horse, or one who is simply over-excited by the training process, I can simply step back of his space to keep myself safe. “Aggression comes from a place of fear”. That’s an important statement to remember. And it isn’t just horses who become more aggressive when they’re afraid. People do, too. And that often means they end up choosing harsh training methods. In clicker training we avoid the things that might trigger our fear by making good use of protective contact.

Interview with the Natural Animal Centre (www.naturalanimalcentre.com)

1. What sort of behaviours do you typically train with positive reinforcement /clicker training?

Positive reinforcement and clicker training can be used to train many different behaviours, in our Positive Horse Magic system (a training system for horses based entirely on positive reinforcement) we begin by teaching ground skills to promote calmness in the horse, by building on this base we encourage movement whilst the horse remains calm. Included in this is targeting behaviours, follow behaviours and even things like trailer loading all at liberty!

2. What behaviour/reward would you use most often to introduce the horse to the clicker?

When teaching the horse what the clicker means we often use targeting onto an object such as a cone, the final goal being to have a horse touch a cone on the floor to encourage calmness though head lowering.

3. What are your thoughts on free shaping versus combining negative reinforcement/punishment with clicker training?

To get true enthusiasm from your horse where he is never fearful of getting the “wrong answer” we would only use positive reinforcement with clicker training. The set up of the task is what is most important to encourage easy wins for your horse. The use of negative reinforcement or punishment (even the removal of food while you wait for the next behaviour) can be detrimental to the training process and damage the power the clicker brings. From a scientific learning theory and physiology perspective in makes no sense to confuse the situation with the use of anything but positive reinforcement.

4. Under what circumstances would you feel clicker training is inappropriate?

If you are training a horse who is fearful or frustrated we would not start with clicker training – the possibility of the horse automatically associating those negative emotions with the clicker is too high and more work has to be done first from a management perspective to alleviate those frustrations

Jan 062010

The first question is why do we need anything other than the customary practice we’ve built up over the years? And the answer would be that many of those practices are remnants of a past that was radically different from today.
You only have to go back a little over a 100 years and the horse was still the single most important utility in human society. Large numbers of horses were used commercially, for transport and draft in and around towns and cities, requiring them to be kept locally and intensively. Large numbers of military horses were concentrated in cavalry line accommodation to allow for daily group training or immediate deployment.

Those conditions of use and the utility value of horses joined together to produce an attitude that was completely different to that of today: the following quote is from a recent book by Ann Norton Greene: By century’s end, the people driving the horses were in most cases mere employees, who thought of horses as company property. As managers demanded the hauling of larger and larger loads, the employees sometimes abused the horses to satisfy them. (1) Pretty much the whole focus of horse management during the age was how the greatest use could be made of the horse – and, once the horse is confined in a building behaviour becomes of less importance, except where it either interferes with or restricts use.

Go back further in history and we come to a time in which many horses were kept extensively by nomadic or semi nomadic peoples. Their survival required that they knew the horse in a very different way. Without fences and walls and gates your ability to manage and maintain a herd of horses for the use of your immediate or extended family depended entirely on how well you understand their behavior. Each day your primary task was to make certain the herd had sufficient feed and water, or you could expect them to voluntarily relocate! With the horses constantly moving they tended to stay far fitter and healthier, and there was far less need to protect the tough durable hoof that such movement produces. But competing stallions, geldings and mares need to be effectively managed, and in such a way that organized cavalry maneuvers can be mounted rapidly. Very little of the knowledge from this older past has trickled down, often because it was held by people with no written language – which is a great shame. There may be a lot more useful lessons to be learnt from those more distant times than from much closer history.

And so here we are at the present. We have a very different environment to that of the 1800 or 1900s. The commercial and military use of horses across the developed world has all but vanished. There is no longer the necessity for large groups of horses to be kept so close into towns and cities that they need to be managed intensively and in confinement. By contrast there are greater pressures on real estate, which, for a space hungry animal such as the horse, is a major threat. There are also developing concerns over the environment, requiring that we think about how horses fit into the larger, sustainable, picture. Plus there is the growing movement of people that want to connect with animals in a more open, respectful, practical and ethical way.
Arguably what we need is an up to date and complete philosophy suited to these present needs, rather than a mish-mash of customary practices from the past that reflect a different reality. Behavior based horse management (BBHM) is one attempt to create one.

You’ll note that the word ‘natural’ is completely absent so far – and for good reason, since the meaning is so very open to perception. For example ‘natural behaviors’ would likely refer to those found in an ethogram of a particular feral or semi-feral group – in a single, specific, environment. But whilst free expression of those behaviors has often been seen as synonymous with ‘good welfare’, the behaviors a native pony may need to carry out in the New Forest, or a brumby in the Australian outback, are not necessarily going to be the same as those of a fully domestic horse living in the suburbs of an industrial city. In each case what the horse needs is to carry out a package of behaviors that allow it to become functionally adapted to its specific environment. How natural or not those behaviors are, or by what standard they’re ‘naturalness’ might be judged is really irrelevant.

In any case for most horses it’s the human element within their environment that has by far the most powerful impact. And if the horse is going to survive in a domestic environment its ability to interact with people successfully is essential. There are behaviors that might work for feral horses but that don’t fit the majority of domestic environments. Encouraging the expression of a behavior from the ‘wild’, but that has a negative effect on the ability of the horse to function well in a domestic environment makes no good sense, no matter how ‘natural’ it might be.

BBHM operates on a principle, shared with conservationists and the organic movement (2), that what is needed is a caretaker, whose role is defined as “a human who assists animals in their daily interplay with their environment”. (3)
So the caretaker’s role is to assist the horse to adapt functionally, and fortunately horses are very adaptable creatures. Even so, there are going to be environments to which it is simply not possible for the horse to adapt, and in which it fails to function well. What makes sense in that situation is to acknowledge the reality, and move the horse out and into one where successful adaptation is possible. Across the remaining range of environments how much work the caretaker has to do will depend; in some the horses are going to need a lot of assistance to get through each day, in others far less.

So what would ‘successful adaptation’ mean? Let’s consider a horse kept primarily for riding. The horse will need to be healthy, and both physically strong and fit enough to carry the rider’s weight in comfort and safety. The horse’s senses need to be operating efficiently so that the horse is able to make decisions while being ridden that impact on rider safety. The horse needs to be well rested and in a well balanced emotional and psychological state in order to interact well with both the rider and the riding environment. Effective communication must exist between horse and rider, plus a co-operative attitude in which the horse carries out the movements that are communicated to it willingly – and for that to happen the attitude of the horse to that particular person, and really to people in general, has to be good. And obviously the adaptation should have some duration – so however the horse is kept it has to be sustainable over an extended period.

If they are to assist the horse to adapt functionally caretakers have to be able to design and manage environments that reliably produce the desired outcome. And for it to have widespread value it has to be done at a reasonable cost.

A majority of the horses that are slaughtered each year have failed to adapt in some way. Physical problems such as with feet from insufficient movement, or lower leg lameness’s from being put into work too early, allergic reactions to housing, obesity and other systemic issues from feed problems, plus the raft of psychological problems; dangerous or anti-social behavior, stereotypies, work intolerance, anxiety and depression. The aim of a philosophy like BBHM is to facilitate successful adaptation to the benefit of all involved – horse, people and the greater environment.

By Andy Beck


1. Norton Greene, A. (2008) HORSES AT WORK – Harnessing Power in Industrial America. Harvard University Press.
2. Algers, B. (1990) “Naturligt beteende – ett naturligt begrepp?.” Svensk Veterinartidning.
3. Segerdahl, P. (2006) Can natural behavior be cultivated? The farm as local human/animal culture. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics (2007) 20:167-193