Jun 192013

I have a rocksteady faith in building a relationship through lots of positive reinforcement, before you’re even allowed to actually work with pressure. And that’s not just because then you can’t do what you’ve always done quite instinctively (push just a little bit, pull just a little bit, tap just a little bit, hit just a little bit); instead you now have to start thinking about how learning actually works. Learning to work with positive reinforcement teaches you what it really means to “get what you reward”. Only after understanding more of that, you can start working with pressure in a more ethical and yes, more efficient way.

“It is highly likely that there are emotional components to operant conditioning, and that affective states themselves can act as reinforcers or punishers.” is a sentence coming from the research paper ‘Conceptualising the Impact of Arousal and Affective State on Training Outcomes of Operant Conditioning‘. I’m always intrigued by how carefully these things are being worded – “it is highly likely” that horses experience emotions during training, and that influences the training outcome? Duh!

Anyway, in this paper horses are being tested on two tasks: going to a target at a distance, and moving forward under saddle. Targeting works best with positive reinforcement. Moving forward works best with negative reinforcement (leg aids).
Ofcourse, my immediate reaction as a clickertrainer is that this perfectly shows how inefficient food rewards in the saddle are when you don’t have a bridge, and when your horse didn’t learn long ago already that it’s perfectly alright to actively experiment towards the right answer, until he hears the bridge. It’s the bridge, stupid! (*).

But that’s not what this research is about, really. The paper actually shows how the efficiency of a method (from the learning quadrant) changes with the task and the accompanying arousal. Leg aids tap into the flight reflex of a horse, so the arousal is higher and the efficiency as well. On the other hand, when a horse gets too aroused from positive reinforcement, it might hinder learning efficacy as well, depending on the task. Yes, we’ve all seen that, especially  when we start a horse with clickertraining.

But, the researcher adds: “there are good reasons to preferentially use positive reinforcement”, because “all operant training approaches will be negatively affected by a negative affective state.” With that she means that horses become optimists or pessimists, with all accompanying long-term hormones and plenty of room for poisoned cues (the lay word for approach-avoidance conflict).

“Arguments that certain operant conditioning approaches are more effective than others may be true in some circumstances yet may fail to take into account the merits of first manipulating arousal levels and affective state to create conditions in an animal that best complement training methods associated with ease of application and promotion of positive affective state and appropriate levels of arousal.”
Or, to use more common words: the most important is that your horse gets to know you as a nice person, before you start taking dance lessons (tango or rock&roll or walzing) when both of you start frowning about who puts which foot where, and if you go there, then where do I go. Because it’s the relationship that makes all the inevitable muddling and jumbling and pulling and pushing and staying behind the movement alright. It’s the relationship that gives plenty of room for making errors with a smile.

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 (http://www.dogwelfarecampaign.org/).

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.

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 www.gla.ac.uk/external/ebf/ 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. www.equitationscience.com

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

Skeptvet (2010). Risks of herbs and supplements finally getting some attention.  www.skeptvet.com/blog/2010/02/344/

Jan 242010

Beware that the below video contains scenes of animal abuse.

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

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

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

The British Horse Society
Stoneleigh Deer Park

telephone: 0844 848 1666
fax: 01926 707800

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

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

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

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

Update …

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