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

Oct 262010

With the explosive increase in people using social media, such as Facebook, I find myself being sent an array of video clips from You Tube. Usually these are accompanied by a message that says “Isn’t this amazing?”, “Isn’t this funny?” or “Isn’t this terribly cruel?”. However, often the message is totally inappropriate considering the content. Although the sender thinks I’ll be impressed, in the, grammatically incorrect, words of the song ‘It don’t impress me much’.

Flying donkey’

One of the first things I was sent with a totally inappropriate comment was a photo of a donkey hitched to a cart with a load so heavy that the donkey is hanging in the air from his/her harness ( My friend sent me this picture with a message saying “This is so funny, I know you like donkeys so you’ll love this!”. I didn’t love it or find it amusing. It so vividly illustrates some of the problems working equines face – hard work, heavy loads, often in extremes of temperatures with little opportunity for shade or rest. Their owners are usually dependent on these animals to earn enough money to feed their families. I was shocked and saddened that this was being circulated as something funny – and that my friend thought that I’d actually like it!

Nearly 10 years later I had just started working at the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and a video version of the same scenario was circulating – as a ‘funny video’ ( I wrote to one of the newspapers that was promoting it in their online video section: I highlighted the plight of the donkey in the scene and they replied saying that it’s what their readers enjoy! Judging by the thousands of views and comments, they were right.

Last year I was visiting The Palestinian Territories in my role at WSPA, working with the Palestine Wildlife Society in their community project to improve equine welfare. They are partnering with donkey owners in Bethlehem and surrounding areas to explore together what changes they could make to the way they manage and care for their donkeys, mules and horses to improve their welfare and quality of life. One of the community representatives approached me with a mobile phone and showed me the same video of the donkey mentioned above. I thought that he also finds it ‘funny’ and that I’d use the opportunity to discuss overloading with the owners. However, he showed me the clip and then said, through an interpreter, “Isn’t it so terrible? Does the owner not care? Does he know not to load the cart that much?” I was very moved – at least not everyone finds it amusing.

Does the means justify the end?

A more recent example of a video clip with an inappropriate message is a video of a horse competing at high level dressage. Apparently the horse was trained using clicker training and I was sent this as an example of something impressive because so many people know I promote reward-based training methods.

Watching the video I observed a highly stressed horse, mouthing, swishing tail, very tense. I was not impressed. “But he was trained using clicker training” – Don’t get me wrong I think that in the right hands clicker training can be a wonderful and positive training experience for human and horse. However, clicker training can also be done in a way that is not a positive experience for the horse. Maybe the horse had learnt some movements through clicker training, but was it done well? Did the trainer work for long periods frustrating the horse to get the desired movement? Was the horse given the opportunity to walk away to graze or have a break when he wanted to? The video showed a very ‘unhappy’ horse, irrespective of if clicker training was used.

Naturally nagged

A third, and final, example is a natural horsemanship video that was beautifully edited, with soulful music, showing a lady riding a horse bareback and bridle-less. The horse lies down on command and other similar tricks – accompanied by a message “How lovely, something for us all to aspire to”. Again, what does observing the horse tell us? To me the horse looked hyper-vigilant and tense, looking for every subtle cue from his owner. This is most likely the result of being trained so extensively using negative reinforcement that the horse has stopped thinking for himself or exercising choice and has become ‘shut down’, like a robot. Impressive perhaps – but only because this shows how horses can learn to respond to subtle cues.


Of course it is generally inappropriate to make assumptions about what happens during the rest of the animals’ lives and training sessions apart from just the few minutes in these videos. However, we should always encourage people to consider what the horses are telling us in such footage rather than the message from the person sharing it.

It is interesting and sad that people are so impressed by what we can make horses do and not by what they do just by being horses. Why do we find it so impressive when a human can train a horse lie down? Because people intrinsically know that as a prey species this is a big deal for a horse? Many people consider dressage to take the horse’s natural movement and put it under control of the rider. However, behaviour is only normal and natural if it is done in context and for the ‘normal’ amount of time. Thus a horse in a field spinning quickly to avoid a threat is natural, spinning repeatedly as a trick is not – yet people so often find such abnormal behaviour impressive.

So, what would impress me?

What would I forward on to other people as an impressive horsemanship? What would I aspire to? I think the answer goes something like this: A video clip showing a group of horses grazing in a large open space. A human approaches and one of the horses leaves the herd and approaches the person with relaxed body language suggesting this is because he wants to, not because he feels he has to. The horse is greeted with a big scratch. Then horse and owner walk off together, exploring the landscape, sometimes walking, sometimes riding. If they meet an obstacle that the horse is unsure of the human lets the horse take his time to consider the situation, rewards calm behaviour and they calmly continue on their way. The horse is allowed to graze and browse, the human might take time to photograph the landscape but the horse quietly waits because they are used to spending such calm time together and as such he isn’t having to watch the human for every small command she might give. This is the type of video I would think as something to aspire to – but I suspect it would never get a million hits on YouTube.

Oct 142010

Positive reinforcement (+R), particularly when used in conjunction with clicker training, is commonly combined with the use of negative reinforcement (-R) and/or punishment. Typically the aversive stimuli (i.e. the pressure applied) in these cases will be mild and the combined approach is used to clarify and/or hasten the training. Is there anything wrong with this? Are those of us who would say “yes” just being dogmatic and purist in our approach to positive reinforcement? Or do we all need to take a step back and think more carefully about just how positive our positive training actually is?

Firstly I still don’t know of anyone who uses only +R all the time with all their horses and don’t believe it is possible (or useful). But I do believe it is possible, and extremely valuable in some cases, to have discrete sessions in which only +R is used – i.e. free shaping. For some horses, in some stages of their lives, I would say free shaping should make up most of the interaction they have with humans. But that depends on the horse and the stage it is at. More generally, outside those specific free-shaping sessions, the vast majority of emotionally well-placed horses will suffer no ill consequence for the occasional mild aversive stimulus. A gentle pull on the reins to stop or to raise the horse’s head from the grass will not cause psychological trauma to the well-adjusted individual.

But if you are going to use – within the same session and/or to achieve the same behaviour – a combination of +R and -R then various things can happen. This isn’t only because of bad training but also because of what is going on in the horse’s brain at the time.

The first reason is practical – if the horse is experiencing two different reinforcers pretty much simultaneously then the horse is going to be reinforced more by one of them than the other. This is known as “saliency” and is effectively the relative value of the reinforcers from the perspective of the horse. Does he find more value in the release of pressure or the reward? They are unlikely to be identical in value. The presence of the click and treat may well help the horse’s understanding along and confirm to him that he is performing the correct behaviour, but that is not the same thing as true positive reinforcement. The horse may well still be changing his behaviour because he is searching for the release of pressure, not because he is actively trying to earn a reward. The presence of rewards does not make your training positive; it is all down to the horse’s perception of the training and the reasons why he chooses to change his behaviour.

Another objection I have to the combination of positive and negative reinforcement is the issue of what Karen Pryor termed “The Poisoned Cue” . Due to classical (i.e. Pavlovian) conditioning, if you are using pressure then the level of pressure the horse feels in its training will become associated with you and your training equipment/environment . It’s a bit like receiving a phone call from someone you don’t want to speak to, you start dreading the phone ringing. So if you combine the pressure with some form of positive reinforcement, the positive reinforcement will be diminished in value (like getting a pay cheque, knowing that it’s all going to go straight out again on bills), possibly to the point of being irrelevant. While you could argue that some +R is better than nothing (in fact I *did* used to argue that) I have also seen a demonstration by someone combining CT with a well-known pressure-based training method and it was really really awful. More on that in a moment….

If an animal is experiencing genuine positive reinforcement then it is believed from neuroscience studies that a particular region of the brain is activated and dopamine is released. This is the opioid which makes us feel good when something good happens. Over time, this dopamine release can take place even in the absence of an actual reward. So if we do lots of reward-based training and trigger dopamine, then even just our arrival at the field can do the same, whether or not we have treats. It’s not just about the horse wanting us for our treats. We make the horse feel good. This is the neurological basis for the Pavlov’s dogs result. We feel genuinely pleased when our payslip arrives, because of what it represents, even though it’s only actually a worthless piece of paper.

If we do pressure-based training or even just “neutral” training then there is no dopamine released, even when you release the pressure. A different brain circuit is stimulated and, depending on how much pressure you use, there may be an adrenalin release, i.e. a stress response.

If we mix the two whilst training the same behaviour then the dopamine response is likely to be over-ridden by the adrenalin. Even if you normally do -R (depending on the degree of pressure – either physical or emotional) and decide to have an occasional pure +R session, you may still not be getting the dopamine release because of what you normally represent to your horse. So the best-case scenario may well be that you are not positively reinforcing your horse at all. You might be giving it treats but that is not the same thing as the horse FEELING positively reinforced. That’s not to say this is necessarily bad, and it may help your training along a bit if your timing is good, but it makes sense to be doing what you think you are doing and not complicating the session with red herrings.

The use of +R can encourage a horse to offer behaviours in the attempt to earn a reward and this puts the horse in a very emotionally vulnerable position (which is why a proper +R free-shaping session will reassure the horse that it is ok and that there is no negative consequence for a wrong answer). If pressure is likely to be used as well when the horse gets the wrong behaviour then it can create a major conflict in the horse’s mind, increasing the stress yet further. If a lot of pressure is being used then the best thing for the horse to do is just do as he’s told so as to avoid the pressure. If he is being encouraged to offer behaviours spontaneously as well then it puts the horse is a very difficult position. It’s like when you’re at school and you have to summon up the courage to speak in front of the class and then the teacher tells you you’re stupid. This isn’t just “bad training”, it can also be technically good training in a very unempathic way and it is something I have seen from various trainers who (perhaps inadvertently) prioritise the achievement of certain behaviours above the feelings of the horse. The horse I watched who stands out in particular was being trained with a combination of a Natural Horsemanship method and CT. The pressure was all at a relatively low sort of level but that didn’t stop the horse being very stressed about what it was being expected to do. He clearly knew the cost of getting a wrong answer but was unable to just switch off and respond to cues because the CT element demanded that he offer behaviours. The difference in attitude of a horse under this sort of conflict and a horse having a true free-shaping session are just such worlds apart that it’s very hard to do justice to it on a keyboard….

There is nothing wrong with doing low-pressure or neutral work, no-one is living in a state of constant dopamine fix! But if you never receive it you are unlikely to be in very emotionally developed place. In humans we call it “depression”. The horse is not likely to be making psychologically healthy choices and enjoying his work, merely responding to cues and trying to keep out of trouble. The ideal is that the horse is engaging his brain and thinking “howabout if I try a step backwards”, rather than “I need to move away from pressure” – free-shaping is often very much about “brain exercises” rather than physical training. There are, of course, caveats to these generalisations that can be made in individual cases. When I clicker trained my horse to walk backwards, I did start the training by “cheating” and using a light hand pressure on his chest and so negative reinforcement was involved to help him understand the behaviour I wanted. But once he understood the right behaviour, he started to offer it spontaneously and any residual association with the pressure was clearly counter-conditioned by the on-going purely positive free-shaping. It is better if you can avoid this sort of short-cut by correct shaping but if the alternative is a horse who is likely to become frustrated by not understanding the right behaviour then it may be appropriate – feel and judgement are always crucial.

My personal preference for a horse in an emotionally “good” place is to have some pure +R free-shaping sessions interspersed with just “normal” -R. For dealing with specific problems I would take a step back and devise a shaping plan with tiny steps so that each step gives the opportunity for reward and positive associations with the task. For horses in an emotionally difficult place then I would say many more free-shaping sessions are necessary before the horse is ready for -R and these sessions may need to be spread out over a long period of time. It is time well-spent and will create the foundations for a much more successful horse-human relationship.

By Catherine Bell

(If you want to know more this is a brilliant video compliments the article –

(Thank you to Catherine for an interesting article.  Enjoyed this article? Then please donate a little to The Equine Independent to keep us writing without a subscription. You can donate via paypal to Even the smallest amount is greatly appreciated. Thank you for reading from everyone at EI.)

Oct 042010

How similar is equine thinking compared to ours, is a common thread running through many articles on animal behaviour and animal-human relationships. Most owners feel a greater contact with their animals because they give their pets at least some human thinking abilities and our close proximity to our pets actively encourages it. So, there is deep interest and investment in demonstrating how similar animal thinking is to our human capabilities. Don’t get me wrong I think it is important to understand the ways animals think. However, I do believe we come at the whole question of how animals think from the wrong end. Instead of can animals think like us it would be better to ask how can we think like our animals?

Anthropomorphism is the process of giving non human objects human emotions. We pat the car we have given a name as it starts on a cold morning or we blame the washing machine for breaking down just when we needed it most, as if in some way it had chosen to let us down deliberately. It is difficult not to anthropomorphise with animals, after all most of us spend our early years watching mice that fall in love, cats that hold vendettas against mice, rabbits that problem solve, dogs that can talk and birds that are jealous and vain. Yes, Mr Disney surely knew what he was doing when he created the cartoon animals that were almost human. Perhaps he knew how much we would connect with those crazy critters if he made them just human enough that we could identify in them all our own emotions, but we could laugh at them because they were animals.

If we give our pets human emotions through the process of anthropomorphism, then we run the real risk of attributing our flawed thinking to our pets and, in my experience human thinking is often flawed. We struggle with complex emotions such as jealousy because we gain pleasure or even happiness from possession of inanimate objects. Sometimes we mistakenly believe those possessions are other people and act with anger if other people take an interest in our supposed possessions. We want what other people have, even when we already have all we need and so greed is born. We are vain, our appearance can determine our happiness, with humans having the ability through self loathing to starve or eat themselves to death because our image of ourselves in not real.

Hundreds of thousands of books, workshops and training sessions are delivered world wide every year on self help. All with the aim of improving our self esteem, creating happiness, reducing stress and managing anger not to mention the massive market for relationship counselling and advice. Through spiritual leaders we have seen that spiritual practises such as Buddhism require a life time of work to control our thoughts. If our human thinking was the shining beacon that we believe it is, these books, lessons and coaches wouldn’t be needed or at least in less volume.

We lie to ourselves that we are the top of the IQ tree. Well we set the tests, so I guess we would do pretty well wouldn’t we? Yet our brains in terms of evolution have been developing for a relatively short time and the brain of the modern man from hunter gatherer to I T business whiz kid has only had about 100,000 years to evolve, no wonder we struggle to use this supper powerful personal computer.

Without practise and considerable effort our ability to understand our own thinking is limited, yet we do have the ability to understand that other humans are and do experience similar emotions to us. We have what is known as an understanding of self. Certain functions we take for granted as adults have not always been with us as children. We develop conscious memory from the age of about three when the hippocampus, part of the brain that lays down long term conscious memory matures. As the brain begins to develop new parts of the brain come online, which is why peek-a-boo is such an entertaining game for babies. As the parietal cortex starts to work we become aware of fundamental spatial qualities of the world and we know faces can not just disappear but the modules of the brain that tell us where the face goes have not yet matured. Then between the ages of eighteen months to two years we develop self-consciousness we no longer point at our reflection in the mirror as if it were another child we instead begin to recognise what we see as us, we develop the sense of I that most people feel in their heads.

Do animals develop this sense of I? Well there is some evidence to suggest that some may do, the great apes, an occasional elephant and a crow perhaps, but I am not sure we really know. Some researchers say animals do not have this sense others say that they do and some say the tests that are used are not a understanding of self just the ability to understand the concept of mirrors. Yet we pet owners commonly believe that our pets can understand our complex emotions. A common statement I hear is from the dog owner, who on returning home to finds their dog has disgraced themselves in some way and claims the dog knows they have done wrong, they can see by their dogs behaviour that they are feeling guilty for letting the owner down. The dog shows signs of submission or hides away and this is seen by the owner as an acceptance of guilt. Well may be or may be not, perhaps the dog is simply offering what they see as the appropriate behaviour for the situation. The dog’s behaviour is not related to what they may have done sometime before but rather the body language and vocal tones of their human companion at that moment. Having learnt the human signs of anger and discovered that appeasement or avoidance are the best method to avoid trouble the dog may simply be offering what it considers appropriate behaviour for the human behaviour they see. They do not have to be able to understand the owner is angry or upset they may simply read the body language and be conditioned to avoid conflict that they know follows this body language. May be they always adopt submissive behaviour on the owners return and sometimes the owner can attribute this to a misdemeanour? This behaviour in the dog is not any less incredible for not being attributed with thinking like a human, to my mind it is a testament to their learning ability and perceptual skills that allows them to read us humans and act accordingly.

I am often asked how intelligent is a horse or a donkey and is it true that a mule is more intelligent than both. To be honest, I don’t believe it is important to measure or compare animal IQ. A horse is good at being a horse and while it might not do well on a human IQ test, if we dump a horse and a human in 100,000 acres of wildness and leave them for a couple of months the horse will have far better chance of survival than the human, so who is the smartest in that situation?

All have animals have mental abilities that we can measure such as memory, reasoning, problem solving etc. Providing the tests are related to the animal’s innate abilities then we will have a pretty good idea of what they are capable. Dogs may innately be better at problem solving due to the evolutionary ancestors pack hunting skills and association with man but are they anywhere near the capabilities of the human brain, unlikely. This doesn’t mean they are not smart, just that they are not human.

Imagine two Zebras, George and Graham we will call them just to anthropomorphise a little, grazing along side each other on the plains of Africa as the sun comes up. A sudden ambush by a pride of lions, a moment of panic and a short chase sees Graham becoming lion breakfast. How does George respond? Well if he was human he would spend most of the rest of the day telling all the other Zebras what had happened and how it could have been him and thinking to himself what if I had been closer it would have been me or perhaps suffering the guilt of having survived when his friend did not, pretty soon he would have an ulcer from all the worry and “what ifs”. Fortunately, George is a Zebra and while being physiologically stressed by the attack and perhaps even feeling some sense of absence or loss he is soon back in the moment concentrating on eating and surviving and avoiding lions just as he was before the attack, and that’s why Zebra’s who lead such stressful lives don’t get ulcers. Yes of course, change their environment to a zoo and confine them and the environmental stress might give then ulcers but not in the wild.

Animals have a simplistic uncluttered thinking that is not judgemental, doesn’t blame everyone else for their problems and they are capable of learning. However, even our closest relative the chimpanzee can take up to seven years to fully learn the art of cracking a nut with a stone tool.  I am not saying animals are not sentient beings or capable of emotions far from it, but rather that humans are overly complicated creatures that are not yet well adapted to their environment and far from in control of their massive brains.

Trying to label how an animal thinks is like trying to describe the sensation of meditation if you have never meditated. We may have a knowledge of what meditation may be, we can use words like peaceful, calm, relaxed and focus yet these words describe only states of mind, they don’t add up to the experience of meditation. The only way to know what meditation is like is to practise meditation. The only way to know what it is like to be an animal is to be an animal. As that is unlikely to happen, no matter how hard we try, we can only experience their world through our senses and label what we believe they feel like.

The problem with giving human emotions to animals is not that may or may not experience human emotions as scientists continue to debate, but that the general human way of thinking is flawed. Our thinking is sometimes controlled by ego, the conditioning of our parents during childhoods and our evolution. So to label an animal as jealous, naughty or deceitful are faults of the human mind not of the animal mind. We can spend a life time thinking back to past injustices or panicking about our future. Do animals think “if only my mum had loved me more when I was a puppy!” probably not. Their behaviour may be effected if they were weaned to young or not socialised but that is their behaviour.

By way of example about the difference between dog and human thinking. Say we have a rescue Labrador who has previously been starved. Humans may imagine how they would react and behave had they been treated in a similar way and think how terrible that is and accept him always scavenging for food. Others will say dogs live in the moment and it doesn’t matter what happened in the past so don’t allow him to get away with that behaviour. The truth is perhaps some where between the two. The dog that has had bad experience will have had the connections in the brain changed as a result of that experience and those changes influence future behaviour, but the dog is not constantly thinking back to being starved and worrying that might happen again, as a human might do. They may have a higher motivation for food but their behaviour is not driven by fear of not being fed again it is influenced by the neural connections made earlier in their life. If this wasn’t the case the dog would have a very sort memory and forget everything they learned just moments before, this is not the case, nor is it the case that they are thinking back to when they were starving because as soon as they realised that food was regular and readily available they would reason that they no longer had to rush their food and scavenge.

A horse is not intrinsically good or bad it is just a horse. To one person a horse that kicks is disrespectful and naughty to another they are just communicating their fear and to the horse, well they are just being a horse. It is our perception and labelling that determines if a behaviour is good or bad without humans to judge there is no good or bad, just behaviour. Our own beliefs colour our perceptions and judgements which go on to influence our actions. We see our pets not as they are but as we are, until we understand the true nature of animals and the true nature of ourselves we cannot hope to improve our training and handling or our pets. When we label our animal with a negative human emotion we and other humans then treat the animal according to the label we have given it, and this then negatively influences the behaviour of the animal.

A horse is just a horse, surviving, breathing, feeding, reproducing and socializing not good or bad those are our human judgements. Once you understand this you remove incorrect thinking from ourselves and free ourselves from the turmoil of perception of bad and good, past and future and you can work in the moment. When these powerful human emotions negative or positive are removed you can see things as they truly are, you can act based on behaviour not emotional response to behaviour.

To best help our animals we don’t need to believe they think like us, we need instead to learn to think with their brains. When we do this, we truly open up the possibilities of communicating fully with our animals, without the transference of our mistaken human judgements and the burdens on the animal of our flawed emotional states and, we see them as they are not furry humans but independent individuals dissevering of our respect not our judgement.

By Ben Hart

(Thank you to Ben for an interesting article.  Enjoyed this article? Then please donate a little to The Equine Independent to keep us writing without a subscription. You can donate via paypal to Even the smallest amount is greatly appreciated. Thank you for reading from everyone at EI.)

Sep 232010

Am I the only person to be concerned about the increasing trend to control and overcome natural equine behaviour? Now before all the training people leap on me, yes, I do know that all our interactions with horses have an effect on their behaviour, and that all training is designed to do just that. I’m not talking about that, though. What concerns me is the idea that normal horse behaviours are problems, for which you need a solution that – very handily – someone can sell you. I’m not sure whether the demand has come from horse owners and riders, from manufacturers trying to sell products, or simply from the modern desire for a quick and easy fix (such as using herbicides instead of weeding the garden).

In the 6000 years since horses became domesticated animals we have done much to bend their wild natures to our own ends. But it seems that it’s only in the last few years in the developed countries of the world, as the idea of the horse as working partner has faded from living memory, that we have been trying to suppress their natures altogether. Rather than accepting that horses are nervous, flighty and sometimes argumentative creatures with strong social and sexual drives, we have decided that it’s acceptable, even necessary, to treat those natural instincts as problems or conditions that need to be cured or controlled. Hence the whips, spurs, tight nosebands, severe bits, training aids and food supplements.

A recent study by Hockenhull and Creighton (2010) found that in a survey of over 1000 non-professional horse owners in the UK, 79% used one or more artificial aid such as a martingale, or noseband other than a simple cavesson, and 85% routinely fed dietary supplements. Astonishingly, almost one in three owners – 27% – gave their horses four or more dietary supplements along with their feed.

There seems to be a widespread perception (Hockenhull & Creighton 2010; McBane 2010) that the apparent increase in horses behaving inappropriately, and the proliferation of ways to modify their behaviour that do not rely on the skills of the rider, is because many more horses these days are owned by novices who use artificial aids and dietary supplements to help with problems that they lack the skills or knowledge to solve. However, this survey showed quite clearly that the riders using the largest number of artificial aids, and giving the most dietary supplements, were those who described themselves as committed amateurs, rather than leisure riders, and who rated their level of skill as ‘high’. These products, it seems, are used most by the very riders who ought to have the skills and knowledge not to need them.

Many years ago, the sports writer Simon Barnes wrote a monthly column for the UK magazine Horse & Rider. One sentence that he wrote has stayed in my mind ever since: “The whip is an admission of failure.” He meant that by carrying a whip, he was, in effect, saying “my own body and legs and hands and personality are not

good enough to motivate this horse to go forward willingly.” The trouble is that we have an equestrian culture – and this recent study confirms it – in which fierce bits, and crank nosebands, and training gadgets that resemble bondage outfits, and whips, and, more than anything else, spurs, are seen as the badges of honour of the skilled riders, the serious, proper riders, as opposed to the ‘happy hackers’. How would it be if everything changed, so that using an artificial aid proclaimed to the world, “I’m not a good enough rider to fix this problem without this gadget.”? What would it take to make that happen?

This isn’t a perfect world; all horse-rider relationships are works in progress; and none of us are quite as good as we’d like to be, but I do think horses in general would have a better time if we could change our culture to one of using as little equipment as necessary, rather than as much as possible, and if more people were in the habit of questioning what they do and the kit they use. For example: Does my horse really need this? Would something else, like some extra riding lessons, or less hard feed for the horse, be another way to solve the problem? Am I just using this equipment because I’ve always used it, or everyone else uses it, or the professional riders I admire use it?

I always feel sceptical about the merits of the various feed supplements designed to modify horse behaviour and suspect that they work largely by convincing the rider that the horse will be calmer, or less bolshy, or whatever, while taking the supplement, and so she rides with more confidence or tact, and so the horse behaves better. The causes of inappropriate behaviour are likely to lie in the realm of inappropriate feeding, housing, exercising, training or care, and it seems improbable that small scoops of this or that herb, or vitamin mix, or other magic powder can have much effect if some major aspect of the horse’s life is wrong. Indeed, the labelling on the packaging of many supplements gives the impression that nothing is guaranteed: phrases such as ‘believed to be beneficial for X’, or ‘may help horses suffering from X’, or ‘traditionally used for treating X’, or ‘to support the function of X’ enable the manufacturer to suggest that their product will help with something while not making any direct claims that would get them into trouble with Trading Standards.

When you use herbs, what you are giving your horse is an unknown dose of an unknown number of active ingredients, of unknown strength and in many cases unknown effect, with unknown side-effects and interactions with other supplements and prescribed medicines and, in products from less-reputable companies, unknown contaminants including heavy metals and prescription drugs. Skeptvet (2010) gives a comprehensive and alarming list of publications on the subject. However, whether riders are inadvertently poisoning their horses with these products or not, the fact remains that the majority of riders seem to think it’s OK to use drugs to modify their horse’s behaviour – because that’s what these products essentially are. Is that really an acceptable way to treat these animals that we say we love?

I do suspect that a lot of behavioural or temperament problems in horses could be solved not by adding substances to their concentrate feed but by giving them less of it, and by giving them more exercise and a more varied and exciting life.

The underlying problem seems to be that many people find the natural behaviour of horses difficult to deal with, or frightening, or in some way undesirable, and this is possibly because it’s so different from our own behaviour. About ten years ago, Equine Behaviour Forum member Emma Creighton conducted a scientific study into the aspects of horse and pony temperament that are important to riders and handlers. Her findings were that most of the respondents preferred horses who were in the mid-range of emotional reactivity, were highly sociable and responsive to humans, and were extrovert and open to new experiences. These preferences were independent of rider age, years of experience or level of skill. What came as a surprise was that the horse temperament described as ideal by most people was more a description of the average dog than the average horse. Emma suggested that since we have shared more years of our history with dogs than with horses, we perhaps relate better towards, and have an inbuilt predisposition towards, animals that behave like dogs. Is this why we try so hard to stop horses behaving like horses?

By Alison Averis

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

If you find these questions interesting, you would probably enjoy being a member of the Equine Behaviour Forum and joining in the correspondence in our quarterly magazine. See for more information.


Creighton, E (2003). Equine temperament and welfare. Equine Behaviour 59, 13-16.

Hockenhull, J & Creighton, E (2010). Can we blame the widespread use of artificial training aids and dietary supplements in the UK leisure horse population on novice owners? In Proceedings of the 6th International Equitation Science Conference, p40.

McBane, S (2010). Conflict behaviours – causes, effects and remedies. Equi-Ads, September 2010, p40.

Skeptvet (2010). Risks of herbs and supplements finally getting some attention.

Sep 142010


Attributing attention: the use of human-given cues by domestic horses (Equus caballus)

Leanne Proops and Karen McComb

Recent research has shown that domestic dogs are particularly good at determining the focus of human attention, often outperforming chimpanzees and hand-reared wolves. It has been suggested that the close evolutionary relationship between humans and dogs has led to the development of this ability; however, very few other domestic species have been studied. We tested the ability of 36 domestic horses to discriminate between an attentive and inattentive person in determining whom to approach for food. The cues provided were body orientation, head orientation or whether the experimenters’ eyes were open or closed. A fourth, mixed condition was included where the attentive person stood with their body facing away from the subjects but their head turned towards the subject while the inattentive person stood with their body facing the subject but their head turned away. Horses chose the attentive person significantly more often using the body cue, head cue, and eye cue but not the mixed cue. This result suggests that domestic horses are highly sensitive to human attentional cues, including gaze. The possible role of evolutionary and environmental factors in the development of this ability is discussed.

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Post-conflict friendly reunion in a permanent group of horses (Equus caballus)

Alessandro Cozzi, Claudio Sighieri, Angelo Gazzano, Christine J. Nicol and Paolo Baragli

Gregarious animals living in permanent social groups experience intra-group competition. Conflicts over resources can escalate into costly aggression and, in some conditions, non-dispersive forms of conflict resolution may be favoured. Post-conflict friendly reunions, hence reconciliation, have been described in a variety of species. The aim of this study was to explore, for the first time, the occurrence of reconciliation in a group of domestic horses (Equus caballus) and learn more about strategies used to maintain group cohesion. The behaviour of seven horses living as permanent group in an enclosure for at least 2 years was observed by video for 108h from June to August 2007. We used a Post-Conflict/Matched Control method to assess the existence of reconciliation and third-party affiliation. Behaviours recorded Post-Conflict, or during Matched Control periods, were classified as affiliative based on previous descriptions of visual communication patterns in horses. The proportion of attracted pairs over total post-conflict situations was significantly greater than the proportion of dispersed pairs, both during dyadic interactions (p<0.001) and during triadic interactions (p=0.002). The results of the present study show that both dyadic reconciliation and third-party post-conflict affiliative interactions form important social mechanisms for managing post-conflict situations in horses.

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The Horse (

The Horse website is free to join and has many articles on both equine health and horse behaviour written by professional in equestrian industry.

This is a particularly interesting article on ‘licking and chewing’ behaviour in horses which explores a possible biological explanation for this little understood behaviour. –

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‘The Thinking Horsemanship Forum is for anyone (beginner, professional or somewhere in-between) who would like to understand more about the behaviour of horses (and other animals) and how they learn. We prefer to study the published science into learning and behaviour and its practical application to training than to follow any commercial methodology. In particular we aim to use positive reinforcement (sometimes although not always via clicker training) and increased motivation in order to train our horses, rather than the traditional methods of increasing pressure.

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By Emma Lethbridge