Dec 132011

Despite many people using clicker training successfully on the ground with horses, people often feel confused by how how to apply it once on-board. I’ve tried a bit of ridden clicker in the past so thought I would share my thoughts and experiences. For me it is all down to two issues – exactly what I want to be rewarding and exactly why I want to be rewarding it. How to do it then rather falls into place a bit more just by using the same principles that we would use for CT on the ground.

So starting with what to reward…..

Firstly you can reward in a very general sense. You ride normally with the usual sort of mild -R that includes various cues and releases (if you’re doing it well, anyhow) and then click and treat periodically if you find the general effect pleasing. There are plenty of people who do this and claim that the clicker adds something to the training. I suspect that it does in some cases but only in the sense that the horse gets a bit of a break and a bit of nice experience and so gets a generally positive association with the session. That’s all a good thing but it doesn’t aid the learning very much because the click isn’t actually being paired with a specific behaviour. The potential pit-fall is that some horses will get very worried about trying to work out what behaviour they are being rewarded for and will lose that sense of positive association. Obviously if the pressure used is perceived by the horse to be quite aversive then that too will undermine the limited positive benefits of the rewards. For me, this approach isn’t actually clicker training because there are crucial elements missing – learning, choice, a genuine tapping of the brain circuits that govern learning via positive reinforcement and release dopamine….. So it’s not something I ever do and can’t see that changing…… (But never say never and all that!)

So alternatively we can reward something more specifically, still within a “normal” -R-based riding session. You still have the “generally positive” associations for the horse but with the added benefit that the click is being paired with a particular behaviour that you have chosen to work on. You use shaping in the normal way and the horse has the opportunity to learn the new behaviour, or refinement of an existing behaviour. You still don’t get the element of choice in your training and I would say it’s debatable how much the horse really feels positively reinforced when it is part of a schooling session in which the horse has not necessarily chosen to participate. But it’s a good way of marking exactly what you want so you give the horse a good opportunity to get the right answer quickly, rather than having to work out by more aversive-based techniques. Of course, you can still have a horse who is worried about getting the right answer because of the way you are combining +R and -R – how is the horse supposed to know when he is expected to offer behaviours and when he is supposed to follow cues? But if the pressure is minor (and always was minor, I don’t mean starting big and then scaled down so that the high-pressure stuff is always lurking there as a threat…..) then most horses should be able to cope. I’ve used this sort of approach a couple of times with my horse. Once I was trying to get him to speed up a bit instead of our slow dawdly sort of plod which can sometimes take forever to get anywhere. I confused the hell out of him and ended up with tiny steps instead. I was interfering with his natural rhythm and (in hindsight) actually what he needed was regular osteopathy and the freedom to just get on with it instead of being micro-managed. The other times I tried it was out hacking when he would dive for he hedgerow so much we took forever to get anywhere (can you see a pattern emerging…….??! It’s always down to the impatient human, isn’t it?!). I would click after a random number of steps, aiming to get him to eat after a click rather than when it suited him. We’d had a really successful time of doing this in-hand, going across a dairy pasture so I figured I could do it on-board. The main difficulty I had was that hedgerows are not all the same the way a dairy field is. I would click at the wrong moments because he wouldn’t want to eat whatever plant was there and he would continue to dive for the plants he wanted, click or no click. Again, I found we were more successful when I just gave up the micro-management and accepted that if I’m going to ride in a bitless bridle (and with half-rubbered reins with the rubber all wearing off so I have NO grip!) then I should take what I get. I probably just need some different reins…..

Finally there is the approach where you do the CT properly. You start from scratch and free-shape everything. This might involve following another horse so you can elicit the movement easily or you might use targets or you might genuinely free-shape it and wait for the movement to shape. Then you could incorporate something like David Dodwell’s Horse Morse Code where you have a clearly-defined set of cues to pair with the behaviours you have shaped. The more complicated the cues/behaviours the more you might be tempted to revert back to including a bit of -R to help clarify what you want, so if you want to stick to free-shaping you would need lots of imagination and lateral thinking to make it work. I took this approach with Jak for a while. We’d done loads of conventional dressage in the name of trying to keep him supple and hold off his arthritis. It made him miserable which was why I started looking at +R in the first place. So I started thinking how I wanted to start again and free-shape things. I didn’t really have anyone to do this with so didn’t have the option of following another horse (probably how I would want to do this with a new youngster or abused horses etc) so the way I tried was to elicit forwards motion on the ground by using a series of targets (upturned flower-pots) and then planned to extend this to on-board. It worked at walk but when trying it at trot I only ever seemed to succeed in annoying him. So I tried just sitting on him and aiming to capture forwards motion. There was a hilarious workshop when it tipped it down with rain and I spent 15 minutes or so sitting on Jak, everyone soaked and Jak immobile. There was absolutely nothing we couldshape into ridden CT work.

So this all really got me back to why I wanted to do it. By this point, when I took Jak out for a hack he would be enthusiastic, supple, fun and clearly not phased by my occasional use of pressure. I wanted to retrain dressage for his benefit but we’d kind of moved beyond that point. The hacking we do had him moving much more freely than the dressage ever did because he was much more enthusiastic and self-motivated. Treats weren’t going to change that. I could eventually see that the free-shaping dressage was a great clicker challenge for me and I wanted to do it for me. One day with another horse I may still do it but just getting on with it and having fun is right for Jak now.

CT for me is no longer about feeling I have to train everything with CT to make everything positive. It is more about doing enough CT and free-shaping that he can retain his sense of choice and autonomy that it is no big deal when I haul his head out of the hedgerow, or any of the other occasions when I resort to pressure. Most of our rides are just point-and-go, rather than planned training sessions. I prefer to retain CT for free-shaping stuff that doesn’t matter to me so he can have absolute choice in whether to participate. Anything else I feel dilutes the power of CT. But these thoughts are purely where I am with Jak today. Another day, another horse I may think differently and I think this flexible thinking is really crucial to these sort of discussions so people don’t feel there is a set way of doing things. A clicker is only a communication tool, you could use it to mean a smack is coming (please don’t!). Its use with horses is still relatively recent and we are all still exploring.

Nov 112011

In my work as an equine behaviourist I am often asked if it is ‘bad’ when a horse does certain behaviours such as licking and chewing, yawning or pawing the ground. Owners know that such behaviours can be a sign of stress, anxiety, frustration or fear and quite rightly worry about them. My answer is inevitably ‘it depends’ followed by many questions. This reflects the exciting and occasionally frustrating thing about studying animal behaviour – it can be complex and difficult to work out why animals do the things they do.

In general, you can’t take a single behaviour in isolation and say for sure what is happening. For example, a horse pawing the ground might be due to frustration or confusion during training, at feeding time or when tied up but horses might also paw the ground when exploring, grazing, clearing snow, if irritated by mites or in some play patterns/communication with other horses.

To help us consider whether an animal is behaving in a normal or abnormal way, or if they are showing a behaviour due to stress or a different reason we need to ask lots of questions and to consider the behaviour in context. Would a horse do this behaviour in the wild? In what situation? Is the behaviour we are seeing out of context or in context? Is the intensity/frequency of the behaviour normal? Is the behaviour a learnt behaviour? What is maintaining the behaviour? For example, a horse eating some wood is normal, around 10% of their diet is browsing on bushes and trees, but eating their way through a stable or tree would indicate some behavioural issues. Swishing the tail might be in response to irritation from flies, or a warning that you are getting too close.

We must appreciate that a snap-shot of behaviour is not enough to make statements or conclusions from – only comments and suggestions of what the motivation might be and what the animal might be thinking/feeling. However, the more we learn about species-specific behaviour, the more educated our questions will be, the better we will be able to interpret the answers and ultimately the better we will be able to understand animals.

With the increasing number of different training methods this is now more important than ever. Until there is a better understanding of how to interpret equine behaviour and body language people won’t be able to assess whether the way they manage their horse is meeting his/her needs (one of the first things to consider before training a horse or trying to solve a behaviour problem) or which training methods are more ethical and which should be avoided and thus make informed choices. I feel that more emphasis on learning and applying what is known about animals before ‘following’ a trainer would greatly help the horses who share their lives with us.

By Suzanne Rogers, Learning about Animals (

(P.s. Learning About Animals has so great events and courses coming up so make sure you check them out. Emma


HORSES:  Series of six evening classes in equine behaviour
Six evenings every Thursday from January 19th – 1st March 2012
Held at the Holistic Horse and Pony Centre in East Horsely, Surrey. 7.30-10pm. More details coming soon. Limited places so early booking recommended or contact me to express an interest before the full details go out.

First Aid for Dogs: course with Claire Hemmings
Saturday 25th February 2012
£40 for the four-hour course. Details. Taking bookings now.

RABBITS: Rabbit behaviour day
Sunday 26th February 2012
A whole day dedicated to rabbits. Covering rabbit behaviour, body language and communication, how to have a happy rabbit, how rabbits learn and how behaviour problems can develop.
£20 for the day; £15 for members. Details. Taking bookings now.

DOGS: The Holistic Nature of Canine Behaviour Problems with David Ryan
Saturday 24th March 2012
This one-day seminar explores the nature of dogs, how they maintain emotional equilibrium, why they fall into problem behaviours and the principles behind some simple solutions. Includes case studies, anecdotes and the opportunity for audience discussion.
£45; £33.75 for members. Details Taking bookings now.

HORSES: Exploring the latest findings in equine cognition
31st March 2012
Morning lecture with equine scientist Leanne Proops; £15, £11.25 formembers. Details) Taking bookings now.”)

Oct 172011

Over the years many horse owners have said to me ‘why does my horse seem to learn things over night and perform better the next day?’ Well that’s because your horse really does learn over night through a process called latent learning. Latent learning is really interesting! It is a psychological phenomena whereby information is better recalled 12 – 24 hours later than at the time of learning without further reinforcement. So if your horse, or indeed you, learn a new piece of information, over night your brain will consolidated the short term memories into long term ones and you will better be able to recall this information. Memory consolidation is also thought to be a key function of sleep, sleep thus aids learning, which is why it is not a good idea to stay up the night before an exam cramming information. The recall of this information will not be as good as if it had been learnt a night or so before. With regards to latent learning mammal brains behave in very similar ways, so you and your horse will have this learning process in common.

The science bit. Neurologically latent learning is thought to occur because neurons in the brain require time in order to create connections, or strengthen present ones, which encode the new information. The creation of connections in the brain is how we learn new information. For information to be transferred to long term memory from the short term memory engaged at the time of learning, something called Long Term Potentiation (LTP) needs to occur within Hebbian learning. Bare with me! Hebbian learning can be simply defined as the formation of new neural connections in response to new information to encode memory. These new connections require LTP to form a strong connections between neurons at the cellular level. LTP is how the neuron cells in the brain stregthen their connections.

The brain comunicates messages from cell to cell through the use of chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters. LTP is the formation of new neurotransmitter receptors which responds to the neurotransmitters release by connecting cells. The more receptors there are at the connection the stronger the response of the neuron cell will be. Stronger connections mean more effective consolidation of memories from short term to long term memory and thus better learning. For the protein necessary for LTP to be synthesised takes up to 24 hours and is aided by sleep. After 24 hours your horse will have a consolidated long term memory of their training.

(Interestingly, it is also theorised that the forgetting of information is caused by the weakening of neuron connections, known as long term depression.)

At the level of training this means that after you have achieved a reasonably high correct response rate in your horse, even if this has taken only a short amount of time, there is no point in continuing to drill the horse as LTP will still require time to convert the information into long term memories. Letting the horse ‘sleep on it’ is really the best thing you can do, because until the horse has had time to form the new neural connections and possibly strengthen old ones the horse can not perform at a higher level, even if the trainer drills them. In fact, if the trainer continues to drill the horse the horse may become bored or tired which would have the opposite of the desired effect. Not only will the horse be unable to produce a better response but, in addition, the horse may become bored or tired and thus have negative memories of the training. However, if the horse is allow to rest after the trainer has acheived a desirable correct response rate, the horse will be better able to perform the trained behaviour after this time as the new information will be encoded through enhanced connections in brain. Allowing time for latent learning to occur will mean that the horse will be more able to provide the correct response reliably during subsequent training sessions.

For example – You are training a new behaviour, say training your horse to perform a basic turn-on-the-forehand. After 15-20 min your horse is producing turn on the forehand steps on cue 8 or 9 times out of ten. Rather than continuing to drill the horse in turn on the forehand for an hour and maybe getting a 9 out of 10 correct response ratio, not to mention a very fed up horse, it would be best to reward the horse greatly for their correct response and end the session or move on to a different activity. The next day the horse will have consolidated the turn-on-the-forehand cue to long term memory and will be better able to respond correctly and the trainer able to continue refining the movement with out drilling the poor horse. This is the brilliance of the latent learning phenomena!

If you have any questions on anything included in this article feel free to leave a comment and I will get back to you.

Thanks you for reading.

Emma Lethbridge

Oct 102011

Here are a collection of briefs (abstracts) from the latest papers published in Equine science. The abstracts below include information which may inform your training, your husbandry or at least provide some interesting commentary on equine-kind and how we as humans interact with them in the domestic environment. Included are a collection of abstracts from the latest scientific papers published this year and so provide the most current insight into the horse and their behaviour. Whether you are a casual rider or a professional horse person this is information that you need to know. I hope you enjoy this collection of abstracts as much as I did. If you have a question about any of the below abstracts, or the terminology used, please feel free to leave a comment and I will happily answer your questions.


Concurrent Lactation and Pregnancy: Pregnant Domestic Horse Mares Do Not Increase Mother-Offspring Conflict during Intensive Lactation

Jitka Bartošová, Martina Komárkova, Jana Dubcová,Luděk Bartoš, Jan Pluháček

Lactation is the most energy demanding part of parental care in mammals, so parent-offspring conflict arises over milk provided by the mother. In some species females commonly become pregnant shortly after parturition of previous young. This further intensifies mother-offspring conflict due to concurrent pregnancy and lactation. In equids it has been well established that pregnant females wean their foals earlier than non-pregnant ones. Intensified mother-offspring conflict was presumed to associate with pregnancy also during the period of intensive lactation, i.e., before the weaning process starts. We investigated the effect of pregnancy on suckling behaviour characteristics as indicators of mother-offspring conflict in domestic horses. Contrary to expectation, here we provide evidence of a decreased mother-offspring conflict related to pregnancy in lactating females during first two trimesters of pregnancy. Pregnant mares provided longer suckling bouts and did not reject or terminate suckling of their foals more often than non-pregnant mares. Our results suggest that pregnant mares cope with parallel investment into a nursed foal and a foetus through enhancing nursing behaviour in early stages of pregnancy before the initially low requirements of the foetus increase. They compensate their suckling foal with the perspective of its early weaning due to ongoing pregnancy.

Effects of Repeated Regrouping on Horse Behaviour and Injuries

Janne Winther Christensen, Eva Søndergaard, Karen Thodberg, Ulrich Halekoh

Applied Animal Behaviour Science

Volume 133, Issues 3-4, Pages 199-206, September 2011

Domestic horses are faced with social challenges throughout their lives due to limitations in social contact, space restrictions and frequent changes in social companionship. This is in contrast to natural conditions where horses live in relatively stable harem bands. Currently, little is known about how repeated regrouping affect horse behaviour and welfare, and it is unknown whether horses may adapt to regrouping. In this study, we aimed to investigate the effects of an unstable group structure, caused by weekly regroupings, on behaviour and frequency of injuries in young horses. Forty-five horses were included in the study and were randomly assigned to the treatments; Stable (S; seven groups of three horses) or Unstable (U; eight groups of three horses). The experimental period lasted 7 weeks, during which horses in Stable groups remained in the same group, whereas one horse was exchanged between Unstable groups every week. The groups were kept in 80 m × 80 m grass-covered enclosures and were fed additional roughage on the ground daily. Social interactions were recorded in Unstable groups immediately after each regrouping (30 min), and in both Stable and Unstable groups on day 1, 3 and 6 after each regrouping (2 × 20 min/group/day). Injuries were scored by the end of the experimental period. The level of aggression shown by horses in Unstable groups immediately after regrouping was not affected by week (F5,35 = 0.42, P = 0.83), indicating that horses neither habituated, nor sensitized, to repeated regrouping. Compared to horses in Stable groups, more agonistic behaviour was shown by horses in Unstable groups (i.e. non-contact agonistic; F1,65 = 5.60, P = 0.02), whereas there was no treatment effect on other variables. The level of play behaviour appeared, however, to be more variable in Unstable groups. There was a significant effect of week on the level of contact agonistic interactions as well as greeting behaviour, due to a high occurrence in weeks 4–6. Non-contact agonistic interactions constituted the major part of agonistic interactions (66%). Possibly as consequence, no serious injuries were registered and there was no treatment effect (U = 184; P = 0.11). We conclude that the behaviour of young horses is affected by group management, and that horses appear not to adapt to weekly regroupings.

Competition Horses Housed in Single Stalls (II): Effects of Free Exercise on the Behavior in the Stable, the Behavior during Training, and the Degree of Stress

Hanna Werhahn MS, Engel F. Hessel Prof Dr, Herman F.A. Van den Weghe Prof Dr Ir

Journal of Equine Veterinary Science

July 2011

Although housing horses in single stalls limits their natural behavior to a great extent, this housing system is widespread in Germany, especially for competition horses. To improve the welfare of this system, free exercise on pastures or paddocks is deemed suitable, but it is also feared because of injuries and decreased willingness or motivation to perform. In the present study, three treatments were investigated with regard to their effect on the behavior of six competition horses in the stable, behavior during training, and on their degree of stress: daily training without free exercise (no turnout [NT]), solitary turnout for 2 hours after training, and 2-hour turnout in groups of two after training (group turnout). The horses’ behavior in the stable was continuously analyzed through video recordings (2 pm to 6 am) on 3 days at the end of each treatment. The degree of stress was evaluated daily by heart rate variability at rest. The behavior during training was evaluated by a questionnaire answered by the riders, and the distance covered during training was measured by global positioning system. When NT was allowed, the horses showed less lying in the stable compared with the treatments with turnout. Heart rate variability measurements resulted in great individual differences, but generally, there was a higher degree of stress shown with the treatment NT according to the following parameters: standard deviation of inter-beat-intervals (SDNN), square root of the mean of the sum of the squares of differences between successive inter-beat-intervals (RMSSD), and ratio between low frequency and high frequency (LF/HF). The willingness to perform was evaluated as being slightly better in the treatments with turnout than in the treatment without turnout.

Motivation for Social Contact in Horses Measured by Operant Conditioning

Eva Søndergaard, Margit Bak Jensen, Christine J. Nicol

Applied Animal Behaviour Science

Volume 132, Issues 3-4, Pages 131-137, July 2011

Although horses are social animals they are often housed individually with limited social contact to other horses and this may compromise their welfare. The present study included eight young female horses and investigated the strength of motivation for access to full social contact, head contact and muzzle contact, respectively, to a familiar companion horse. Horses were housed individually next to their companion horse and separations between pens prevented physical contact. During daily test sessions horses were brought to a test area where they could access an arena allowing social contact. Arena access during 3 min was given after completion of a predetermined number of responses on a panel. Fixed ratios (FR) of 8, 16, 24, 32 and 40 responses per arena access were applied in a random order, one per daily test session, within each test week (Monday to Friday), and the number of rewards per daily test session was recorded. All horses could access all three types of social contact in a cross-over design, and an empty arena was used as control. Motivational strength was assessed using elasticity of demand functions, which were estimated based on the number of rewards earned and FR. Elasticities of demand for the three types of social contact were low (−0.20), and not significantly different, although increasing FR still resulted in a decrease in rewards obtained for all three types of social contact (P < 0.001). Across FR-levels horses earned more rewards for social contact than for an empty arena, as shown by much higher intercept values (2.51 vs. 0.99; P < 0.001). However, the elasticity of demand for infrequent access to an empty arena (−0.08) was lower than for social contact (P < 0.01) and not significantly different from zero (P = 0.07). Horses performed more social behaviour the lesser the restriction on social contact (full > head > muzzle). However, the finding that horses showed a similar and high motivation for all three types of social contact suggests that they are valued equally highly in a situation where the alternative is no social contact.

Preference and Demand for Exercise in Stabled Horses

Joyce Lee, Toby Floyd, Hollis Erb, Katherine Houpt

Applied Animal Behaviour Science

Volume 130, Issues 3-4, Pages 91-100, March 2011

Operant conditioning and two choice preference tests were used to assess the motivation of horses to be released from straight and from box stalls. The motivations for food, a companion, and release into a paddock were compared when the horses had to work for each commodity at increasing fixed ratios of responses (panel presses) to reward in an equine operant conditioning stall. The motivation for food (mean ± SEM = 258 ± 143) responses was much greater than that for either release (38 ± 32) from a straight stall into a large paddock alone or into a small paddock with another horse (95 ± 41) (P = 0.04). When given a two choice preference test between exercise on a treadmill for 20 min or returning to their box stalls, eight of nine horses chose to return to their stalls. In a two choice preference test six of eight horses in box stalls chose to be released into a paddock alone. Horses were given a series of two choice preference tests to determine how long they preferred to be in a paddock. After 15 min in the paddock the horses were re-tested, but all chose the paddock when released into a paddock with three other horses. They were retested every 15 min until they chose to return to their stalls. They chose to stay out for 35 ± 6 min when other horses were in the paddock but for only 17 ± 2 min when they would be alone. When deprived of stall release for 48 h the horses chose to remain in the paddock with other horses for 54 ± 6 min, but showed no compensatory behavior when they were alone (duration chosen = 16 ± 4 min). These findings indicate that horses are not strongly motivated to exercise alone and will choose not to endure forced exercise on a treadmill. The social context of voluntary exercise is important; horses are willing to stay out of their stalls longer if other horses are present and will show compensatory behavior only if other horses are present. These finding have implications for optimizing turnout time for stalled horses.


Does Attention make the Difference? Horses’ Response to Human Stimulus After 2 Different Training Strategies

Paolo Baraglia, Chiara Maritia, Leonardo Petria, Francesco De Giorgiob, Claudio Sighieria

Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research

Volume 6, Issue 1, Pages 31-38, January 2011

We hypothesized that in an open environment, horses cope with a series of challenges in their interactions with human beings. If the horse is not physically constrained and is free to move in a small enclosure, it has additional options regarding its behavioral response to the trainer. The aim of our study was to evaluate the influence of 2 different training strategies on the horse’s behavioral response to human stimuli. In all, 12 female ponies were randomly divided into the following 2 groups: group A, wherein horses were trained in a small enclosure (where indicators of the level of attention and behavioral response were used to modulate the training pace and the horse’s control over its response to the stimuli provided by the trainer) and group B, wherein horses were trained in a closed environment (in which the trainer’s actions left no room for any behavioral response except for the one that was requested). Horses’ behavior toward the human subject and their heart rate during 2 standardized behavioral tests were used to compare the responses of the 2 groups. Results indicated that the horses in group A appeared to associate human actions with a positive experience, as highlighted by the greater degree of explorative behavior toward human beings shown by these horses during the tests. The experience of the horses during training may have resulted in different evaluations of the person, as a consequence of the human’s actions during training; therefore, it seems that horses evaluate human beings on daily relationship experiences.

Trailer-Loading of Horses: Is there a Difference Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement Concerning Effectiveness and Stress-Related Signs?

Payana Hendriksen, Katrine Elmgreen, Jan Ladewig

Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research

Volume 6, Issue 5, Pages 261-266, September 2011

The traditional way to train horses is by the application of negative reinforcement (NR). In the past few years, however, the use of positive reinforcement (PR) has become more common. To evaluate the effectiveness and the possible stressor effect of the 2 training methods, 12 horses showing severe trailer-loading problems were selected and exposed to trailer-loading. They were randomly assigned to one of the 2 methods. NR consisted of various degrees of pressure (lead rope pulling, whip tapping). Pressure was removed as soon as the horse complied. PR horses were exposed to clicker training and taught to follow a target into the trailer. Heart rate (HR) was recorded every 5 seconds and behavior denoting discomfort was observed using one-zero sampling with 10 seconds sampling intervals. Training was completed when the horse could enter the trailer upon a signal, or was terminated after a maximum of 15 sessions. Of the 12 horses, 10 reached the criterion within the 15 sessions. One horse was eliminated from the study because of illness and 1 PR horse failed to enter the trailer. A Mann–Whitney U-test indicated that the horses trained with NR displayed significantly more discomfort behavior per training session than horses trained with PR (NR: 13.26 ± 3.25; PR: 3.17 ± 8.93, P < 0.0001) and that horses in the PR group spent less time (second) per session to complete the training criterion (NR: 672.9 ± 247.12; PR: 539.81 ± 166.37, P < 0.01). A Mann–Whitney U-test showed that no difference existed in mean HR (bpm) between the 2 groups (NR: 53.06 ± 11.73 bpm; PR: 55.54 ± 6.7 bpm, P > 0.05), but a Wilcoxon test showed a difference in the PR group between the baseline of HR and mean HR obtained during training sessions (baseline PR: 43 ± 8.83 bpm; PR: 55.54 ± 6.7 bpm, P < 0.05). In conclusion, the PR group provided the fastest training solution and expressed less stress response. Thus, the PR procedure could provide a preferable training solution when training horses in potentially stressing situations.

Using Differential Reinforcement to Improve Equine Welfare: Shaping Appropriate Truck Loading and Feet Handling

Charlotte Slater, Simon Dymond

Behavioural Processes

Volume 86, Issue 3, Pages 329-339, March 2011

Inappropriate behavior during common handling procedures with horses is often subject to aversive treatment. The present study replicated and extended previous findings using differential reinforcement to shape appropriate equine handling behavior. In Study 1, a multiple baseline across subjects design was used with four horses to determine first the effects of shaping target-touch responses and then successive approximations of full truck loading under continuous and intermittent schedules of reinforcement. Full loading responses were shaped and maintained in all four horses and occurrences of inappropriate behaviors reduced to zero. Generalization of the loading response was also observed to both a novel trainer and trailer. In Study 2, a changing criterion design was used to increase the duration of feet handling with one horse. The horse’s responding reached the terminal duration criterion of 1 min and showed consistent generalization and one-week maintenance. Overall, the results of both studies support the use of applied equine training systems based on positive reinforcement for increasing appropriate behavior during common handling procedures.

Fostering Adherence to Horse Behaviour Counselling

Ruth Jobling, Emma Creighton

Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research

Volume 6, Issue 5, Pages 276-286, September-October 2011

Counseling services that aim to improve understanding of horse–human interactions are on the frontline of the horse welfare agenda. The aim of this research was to determine characteristics of horse owners seeking advice about their horse’s behavior that predicted their adherence to that advice. The established science of human behavioral change has largely been applied in the field of health psychology to identify predictors of behavior. A thorough review of human behavioral change literature identified 10 cognitive variables (e.g., attitude toward horse behavior counselors) that had the potential to predict adherence to the advice of a horse behavior counselor. Established self-report questionnaire methodology was adopted to survey an opportunistic sample of 52 clients of horse behavior counselors before they received the advice (initial cognitive profile), 10 days after (post-communication changes), and at 3-month follow-up (long-term changes). Data were preliminarily analyzed using correlation analyses and subsequently, multiple regression analyses were used to generate a model for adherence. Horse behavior counselors cannot influence what clients perceive when they come into the process, but are able to influence cognitive variables during the communication. The amount of post-communication change in value of the outcome of adhering to the advice (β = 0.338, P = 0.033) and attribution of the horse’s behavior problem to external factors (e.g., facilities, time; β = 0.309, P = 0.050) were significant elements of a multiple regression analysis that explained 23.6% of the variance in adherence 10 days after the communication (F2,35 = 6.700, P = 0.003). At 3-month follow-up, there were no associations between adherence and the earlier cognitive profiles, but clients who showed a 3-month increase in positive attitude toward horse behavior counselors were more likely to show long-term adherence (r = 0.389, P = 0.019). Horse behavior counselors may benefit clients by demonstrating the effects of their advice early in the communication, so that clients value their efforts to adhere to the advice and continue to do so. Horse behavior counselors may also foster adherence to their advice by emphasizing external causes of the horse’s behavior problem, which clients may find more controllable than internal causes such as their level of skill or fear. Developing the client’s perception of a controllable cause of their horse’s behavioral problem may build confidence in their ability to address the problem and encourage adherence.

Thanks for reading,
Emma Lethbridge

May 252011

There are many websites, books and people (including me) claiming expertise in equine behaviour. They give advice to horse owners, demonstrate practical work with horses and often sell specialized tack or other tools that claim to fix a myriad of problems. However, many of the messages are confusing and conflict with each other – it can be difficult for people who want to learn about behavior to identify credible sources of information and find training methods that will not only work but also be enjoyable for owner and horse.

Horse sense/horse nonsense?

Many of the methods of horsemanship that are becoming increasingly popular in the UK simply do not make sense. For example, some claim to be based on how horses communicate in a herd but then upon investigation equine behaviour is actually being interpreted through the eyes of humans, ignoring the findings of people who have studied horses and published research. Some claim that their methods are kinder than other methods but again these claims are often made by those who have little understanding of how animals learn, or how horses communicate that they are stressed, anxious and frightened. Thus, there is a gap between what we know about horses and what is being marketed and sadly many of the methods people use in an attempt to improve their relationship with their horse do the opposite – the horse becomes frightened of the owner.

Learning from dog training

The world of dog training has faced the same problems. In the past, much dog behavior was interpreted in terms of ‘dominance’. This was due to early studies on wild wolves and their social structure. People were quick to apply this to pet dogs with disastrous results. However, scientists later realized that it is wrong to apply what they had seen in some wolf social structures to that of the domestic dog – and certainly wrong to think of the human as part of a canine social structure. Theories of training based on dominance were thus disproved. However, because of the simple message ‘you need to dominate your dog!’ some owners and trainers are still basing their training on this flawed reasoning. For a useful guide to this topic see the information on the Welfare in Dog Training campaign website (

Using science as a basis for how you treat your animals therefore seems a much better idea than believing what people tell you because that is what they have come up with. However, as more is found out about behavior we might need to leave some of our theories behind – it is important to think as scientists and make decisions using the information available. The Equine Behavior Forum aims to help people interested in equine behavior to find out about the latest research and do just that.

Time to stop keeping horses in stables?

This year’s symposium started with Dr Emma Crieghton (Newcastle University) presenting her work on group housing for horses. Although intuitively many of us would suggest that keeping a social prey species in a small wooden box for many hours a day is not going to meet their behavioural needs, stabling horses is an embedded part of equestrian culture in the UK. Emma first compared horses living in single stables to humans living in jail cells. Keeping horses in stables results in well-documented behavior problems such as stereotypical behavior (crib biting, weaving, box walking etc.). Research shows that the more time horses spend in stables the more behavioural problems are reported by the owners and that stabled horses have disrupted feeding behavior and are more likely to have an abnormal level of activity upon release.

But is it practical to keep horses in social housing such as large barn areas with more than one horse? Emma described her work with the Blue Cross comparing horses kept in social housing with those in individual stables. They found that:

  1. Horses kept in social housing take less time to manage than those kept in traditional stables
  2. Horses kept in social housing require less bedding than when kept in traditional stables
  3. Horses in social housing are less ‘dirty’ than those kept in traditional stables
  4. Horses in social housing are a little more difficult to catch but this might be because the carers were not used to catching horses kept in groups.

In addition, little aggressive behavior between horses was seen in social housing. Therefore it seems clear that social housing for horses is preferable than traditional stables – both for the welfare of the horses and for ease of management. Emma reported some encouraging changes made by welfare organizations and colleges moving towards social housing. Those of us working with horses and their owners now need to ensure that this information is more widely available and to provide support for people considering a change of management system.

Comparing (aversive) training methods

The second speaker was Dr Veronica Fowler (Institute for Animal Health, Guildford). Veronica presented the preliminary results of a long-awaited study. There has been considerable discussion in the equine training community about whether or not some natural horsemanship methods, such as those by Monty Roberts, are more ethical (as claimed) than other approaches. Equine scientists argue that a key component of these methods known as ‘join up’ is based on flawed interpretation of equine ethology and without understanding of how horses learn. They argue that join up and the subsequent training cause stress to horses, are based on motivating the horse through fear and involve erroneous interpretation of body language and behavior. It was thought that this study was about researching scientifically if these methods are actually stressful to horses through recording the heart rate (a controversial method of measuring stress in itself) during such a training process. However, the study presented was actually a comparison between the Monty Roberts technique and a ‘conventional’ technique for the initial training of riding horses. The methods were not described apart from join up being used by Monty Roberts and ‘conventional/traditional’ training being used by the other trainer. The hypothesis was that the former would show less conflict behavior, decrease psychological and physiological stress and not have any compromise on performance.

The study was conducted at Sparsholt College with 14 untrained horses; 4 mares and 10 geldings. The horses arrived 2 days before the study started and were stabled with ad lib hay apart from two, ten minute sessions a day turnout in the school. The horses were trained for 30 minutes per day each and then on days 21 and 22 a series of tests were completed (ridden flatwork and an obstacle course) and judged by a panel of multi-disciplinary experts.

So what did they find? The horses trained by Monty Roberts were saddled quicker than by the conventional trainer and the horses had a lower heart rate during the procedure. The horses trained by Monty Roberts had a lower maximum heart rate when a rider was first introduced. The horses trained by Monty Roberts performed 30% better on the tests at the end.

What does this tell us? Firstly, is speed important in training horses? Does it matter if one method takes a little longer than the other? Secondly, for many people interested in the ethics of training this study compared one aversive method with a different aversive method. As such the results aren’t that interesting but this study has perhaps been the push needed towards more research of this kind. Hopefully future studies will compare aversive methods with those that apply what we know about the science of learning and equine behaviour (those based primarily on the use of positive reinforcement). Surely this study can’t be far behind so we must try to curb our frustration that this method might be cited for years to come to show that Monty’s method is less stressful than another method, and consider it as an early step in successive approximation (shaping) towards research that will give us the whole picture comparing different methods on criteria that are important to the horse as well as the human.

From theory to practice?

The final presentation was by Dr Andrew McLean (Australian Equine Behaviour Centre) and was entitled ‘equine learning theory and its effect on training and behaviour’. Dr McLean introduced the subject of cognitive ethology and its importance and asked the audience to not think of the horse as human but to instead train properly – not punish the horse for not knowing. He explained that humans have previously thought that horses must be submissive but that we don’t need the flawed concept of needing to dominate our horses, just to be a good trainer. I must admit to finding some of the presentation confusing as many well-established learning theory terms were described in a way that doesn’t match what is published elsewhere. Also Dr McClean is known for publishing and promoting positive reinforcement but appeared to describe training that focused mainly on negative reinforcement and positive punishment. Although I don’t doubt that his application of learning theory to training is a vast improvement on some traditional methods, this left the audience a little confused at the gap that seemed to exist between the theory and practice, and lead to a lively discussion in the questions and answer sessions.

Final thoughts

Overall the symposium was an excellent reminder that science provides evidence for the application of ethology. The challenge now lies in helping the results reach the horse owners, and therefore horses, who need it. Only then can we change the equestrian culture surrounding management and training to one based on what we actually know about horses, not assumptions. The symposium highlighted for me that perhaps the biggest challenge lies in ensuring that research undertaken provides answers to questions that reflect the modern equestrian world and that it is not so far behind as to answer questions no longer being asked.

Mar 102011

EQUITATION SCIENCE by Paul McGreevy & Andrew McLean

Published by Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, paperback, 314 pages. ISBN 978-1-4051-8905-7. Illustrated in colour and B&W. £29.99.

Science is neither more nor less than the best method we humans have yet devised for finding out how things work. Most fields of human activity have been immeasurably improved over the years by objective enquiry, gradually separating out what is true from what merely appears to be true, or from what we would like to be true. Those who ride and train horses have come late to the party. Equitation has become mired in half-truths and hearsay, and in unrealistic human expectations of horses. This important new book shows that despite our propensity for getting it wrong, it is not actually that difficult to get it right.

People struggle so hard to do the right thing, to train their horses ethically, to manage life so that they and their horses feel safe. It can be bewilderingly difficult to work out why your horse responds to his environment and to you as he does. Equitation Science has deconstructed this immense complexity into a simple message. It is this. If you can train your horse, ethically and reliably, to go, to stop, to move the shoulders over or to move the quarters over when signalled to do so, you can by using these signals singly or in various combinations shape your horse‘s behaviour into any of the equestrian activities you wish to practise, and your horse will have the sense of security and well-being that comes from having a predictable, controllable environment. You will also find you have to deal with fewer problem behaviours such as bucking, spooking, refusing to stop, napping, refusing to load, barging and rearing, as these are almost always the result of failure to train the basic responses.

The book isn’t – and the authors stress this – an attempt to diminish the emotional bond between horse and rider, or to reduce artistry and harmony to a mechanistic process. It is just the first serious attempt to discover how the horse-human interaction actually works, and how the process can be improved. What is really happening when the rider or handler gives a particular signal or aid? How does it feel to the horse? What does the horse learn and how does he learn it? Equitation Science is not a threat to that incomparable feeling of togetherness that we all strive for in our work with horses. It is a way to make that feeling happen more reliably, with less stress to both parties. The authors are also fully aware that horses have thoughts and emotions, but by focussing on the underlying biological mechanisms they help the reader avoid the mistakes that can be made when we misinterpret those thoughts and emotions.

People used to think, with some justification, that the earth was at the centre of the universe and that the sun went round it. Their observations, their common sense, their mental powers of reasoning and deduction supported this explanation. The truth turned out to be rather different. In many ways our thinking about equitation is still at that anthropocentric stage: our observations, our common sense and the workings of our own brains have led us to assumptions that aren’t actually true. Most of these assumptions relate to what goes on inside horses’ heads: how they think and how they learn. That is why it is so good to see that Equitation Science begins with a superb section on the current state of research into equine intelligence and mental capabilities. Knowing the background about how horses probably think, and the mistakes we make in overestimating their powers of reasoning and comprehension while underestimating their ability to learn from everything that happens to them, really helps us to communicate with them in the way that is most straightforward for them, rather than the most obvious to us.

Equitation Science includes three scholarly and fascinating chapters on the different types of learning, and how these relate to common techniques used in the handling and training of horses, whether traditional or modern. It explains positive and negative reinforcement: what these are; how they work; what happens when they go wrong; and what to do about it if they have gone wrong. It explains why punishment is almost always a bad idea. It emphasises how essential it is to be absolutely consistent with your signals to the horse. These concepts are then used to show that training horses successfully and ethically is not a matter of applying force and getting submission, or of turning your horse into an automaton, or of expecting your horse to be able to read your mind or to wish to please you, but of establishing habitual responses to light, clear signals. As the authors state, most horses are trained by negative reinforcement, where the trainer gives the horse some sort of physical signal which is discontinued once the horse responds. Done properly, this is no more unethical than using a telephone to elicit a particular response from the person who hears it ringing, but done improperly it can be a recipe for confusion and pain for the horse, and frustration, anger and escalating violence for the trainer. Since there is so much potential for giving the horse a bad time using this type of training, the authors take pains to insist on the correct principles. The signals or aids given to the horse should start off light and become lighter as training proceeds. They should never be intensified to the point of hurting or frightening the horse. They should be stopped the very instant the horse responds.

Riding instruction has focussed for centuries on rider position, which is visible and teachable, rather than on how the horse actually learns. If you don’t know about learning theory, all you can do is copy the posture and style of the experts and hope for the same results. The adaptability of horses has allowed us to get away with this, but the number of people killed or injured by out-of-control horses, and the huge number of horses who die before their time because of intractable behaviour, surely indicate that we could do better. The authors of Equitation Science suggest that all riders and trainers need to understand learning theory, so that they are able to avoid confusing their horses with conflicting signals, or inadvertently reinforcing – and therefore training – undesirable behaviours. This knowledge enables riders and trainers to think far more clearly about what response they want, how best to elicit it, and how to show the horse he has got it right. The book describes, in exact and clear detail, how to break down your training goals into small, achievable steps, how to use appropriate signals that your horse can easily distinguish and how to use them at the precise moment at which he is most able to respond.

There are excellent chapters on the challenges faced by the horse in work and competition, and how he can be helped to deal with these by correct and ethical training. Tack, harness and other methods of control and restraint are discussed, helping the reader to distinguish between those that benefit the horse-rider partnership and those that do not. There is a chapter on the horse’s fight and fright responses, with advice on how to avoid stimulating these in training. The book closes with a summary of ethical equitation, based on our current knowledge of horses, and with ideas for the development of the science and its practical applications in improving horse welfare.

The reference list is also immensely useful. Many of the publications listed don’t come up on internet searches, so unless you have access to a university library it is hard to find out about the relevant research. Those who like to have all the background information will find much of interest here.

Some snippets I particularly liked: the reminder that ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ when applied to reinforcement are not value judgements, as in ‘good reinforcement’ and ‘bad reinforcement’, but mathematical descriptions denoting whether the behaviour is reinforced by having something added or something taken away. I also appreciated the welcome news that your own personality and manner as a trainer are less important than your ability to be totally consistent in your signals to your horse: you don’t have to be bombastic or even particularly assertive in order to be successful.

Equitation Science is more of an academic textbook than most books about horses, but although this requires readers to think, it also results in the most pleasing flashes of insight. Previously incomprehensible horse behaviours suddenly start to make sense, and one’s own contributions to problem behaviour become blindingly obvious. While the writing style is necessarily quite formal, the authors’ passion and enthusiasm for their subject shines through, and the text is enlivened by touches of dry humour. The important points of each chapter are summarised in text boxes, and much of the information is also shown in tables, which are handy for quick reference. The illustrations are excellent too.

The authors have done their best to avoid technical language, but there are still a few terms that the non-specialist will find unfamiliar. There’s an excellent glossary of the terms used in equitation, but a glossary of the terms used in animal behaviour research would have been helpful.

It’s expensive for a paperback, but for the price of a decent private riding lesson you get enough information to change your relationships with your horses forever.

Equitation Science is the most important and informative book I have ever read on the subject of training and riding horses, and I thoroughly recommend it.

Alison Averis is the editor of Equine Behaviour, the Journal of the Equine Behaviour Forum.