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