Mar 212010

Are pressure halters and thin rope halters good or bad? Pressure halters are just collections of webbing, buckles, brass fittings or plastic they are not inherently good or bad. That said people immediately leap to the conclusion that it is the hands that hold them that determine their label. I personally don’t think it is anything to with the hands that hold them that makes them good or bad. For me it is the brain that operates the hands that counts. What I mean is that the perception of the human being involved will determine whether they see pressure halters as good or bad not whether they use them well or badly.

These individual perceptions are determined by personal beliefs about the true nature of horses, how we believe they should be trained or what our personal training ethics are.

If our beliefs are that a horse’s nose is extremely sensitive and that concentrated pressure in this area is unnecessary to communicate with them, and likely to be painful or even just uncomfortable and prevents them from expressing their natural behaviour then we will view any use of the pressure halter as unacceptable. If our view is that it is acceptable to use pressure or pain on the nose of horse to train them, or that due to constraints we have to get the work done as fast as possible, or the horse has to be safe and therefore using pressure in this way is justified, then we will say the pressure halter is a good thing.

The mere mention of pain will cause people to focus on the pressure that is applied and, pressure halter advocates immediately defend their use of the pressure type halter by saying “well I can be really light with a pressure halter” “ pressure halters give me better timing, and are clearer for the horse because the pressure is more concentrated.” What is interesting is that pressure is only a small part of the learning process what is more important to learning is the timing of the release of pressure. A growing awareness of the principles of negative reinforcement has meant horse handlers now have a greater understanding of the importance of the release of pressure during horse training. This release of pressure is what communicates to the horse how to remove or avoid the pressure in future similar situations. This is the crucial factor that everyone knows, but tends to under play in the pressure halter debate, had someone thought about it more carefully perhaps the term release halter ™ would have added more marketing hype to the product.

My personal feeling is that we simply don’t know how sensitive a horse’s nose or poll are. We don’t know how a horse perceives pain or if there are differences in the perceptions of individuals. By relaxing and controlling my thoughts I can personally have the dentist drill my teeth for a filing without any anaesthetic but for other people that would be unbearably painful, is it not plausible that similar variances exist in equines? People will again justify the use of a pressure halter by saying it isn’t pain it is just discomfort or pressure, personally I don’t want to take the risk that I might be using pain to train.

I imagine if I was teaching a simple behaviour to a child, such as shoelace tying I could teach them using a little bit of pressure, now obviously the best way to teach this behaviour is to use reward and praise, which is on the whole what we do. Funny how we use so much positive reinforcement with young children, while they learn to crawl, walk, talk and become potty trained but chose to use negative reinforcement and punishment in so much of the rest of their lives, but that’s a different article. Anyway, say I choose to use the pressure caused by gently prodding the child with a drawing pin and releasing this pressure when they make some right move. I can justify my method by saying well I am very light with my drawing pin and it is not as bad as hitting them and it certainly is very clear when I release the pin. That pressure will be perceived differently by each child and could even distract the child from learning and could even lead to some fear or breakdown of our relationship with the child if they are particularly sensitive. Somehow in this context perhaps this argument for only light pressure does not hold up so well. I know it is an absurd illustration and that is exactly why I use it. When I know a gentler more effective way of training exists, that does not have the potential pitfalls is it not ethically right to avoid using the drawing pin?

Everyone accepts that the pressure exerted from a pressure or a rope halter is greater from the same pressure on a flat head collar. It has to be, if we apply the same amount of pressure to both, the pressure is spread over the area in contact with the horse’s nose, so the wider the area, the less the pressure, the narrower the area the more pressure per square centimetre, and this is not taking into account the closing or restricting nature of some pressure halters.

It seems to me this might be why people claim their communication with the horse is clearer with the horse if they use the pressure halter lightly, because as I have previously said it is the release of pressure that communicates with the horse, and the greater the pressure the more the horse will want a release from it. What happens is the horse makes a choice, they want to avoid the pressure they feel on their poll or nose and therefore they choose a different set of actions, and this choice is magnified by the application of higher levels of pressure. A pressure halter puts on say, 10 on the applied pressure scale, whatever that might mean in real terms does not matter, just that the light applied pressure to be a reading of 10 on a scale that could range between 10 and a 1000, the harder you pull the higher up the scale we go. When the pressure is released and the applied pressure goes to zero. So we have pressure release cycle that goes ten- zero, ten – zero, ten – zero. There is big difference in the horse between 10 and zero which is what causes them to choose between pressure and no pressure. The scale starts at ten as even the lightest touch on the rope has to scientifically exert more pressure than a flat head collar with the same pull.

With a flat head collar we might be putting on a pressure of 2, on a scale of 1 to 500. Again the release cycle pattern we get is, two – zero, two – zero. So this lower level of pressure is not as convincing to the horse that they have to modify their behaviour to avoid it. This is why pressure halter and rope halters work, there is the greater difference between even the lightest pressure and the release, than there is with a flat head collar. Yes you can put on a considerable amount of pressure with a flat head collar too, but it will never be a severe as a pressure halter at the same level of pull applied to the rope.

We accept that using a thinner bit causes more pressure and discomfort to the mouth compared to a wider rounder bit, and most horse trainers who consider themselves emphatic or natural would hopefully not advocate the use of a thinner harsher bit to solve a ridden problem.

If a horse is fearful of the trailer or kicks because it hurts to pick up their feet, obviously as the pressure goes to ten on the scale the horse is more motivated to seek no pressure. If they do the required behaviour and the pressure comes off the desire to seek that release will have to override their fear or pain or excitement which already exists. For that to happen you have to believe that the discomfort felt by the horse is quite considerable. I have seen a horse that had not loaded for 15 years, ridden 25 miles to a demonstration load using a pressure halter in under 15 minutes. Given that in 15 years everyone and their dog is likely to have tried to load the animal and failed, to me this demonstrates the higher level of force that a pressure halter can apply albeit at a much higher level of force on the rope. To cause the horse to choose to deal with the terror of the trailer and years of fearful experiences rather than feel the pressure on their poll and nose must surely show how forceful pressure halters can be. Imagine your own fear or phobia and how much pressure would be required to make you pick up the spider or snake or perhaps climb to the top of a ladder within 15 minutes? I know we can argue it was in the best interests of the horse in case they ever needed to go to the vet, I am not at this point saying it was right or wrong only that the pressure applied must have been considerable for the horse to choose the trailer.

The flat head collar used lightly is a choice between zero and two that’s not a major discomfort compared to the choice between ten and zero so the horse will perhaps choose to ignore the pressure, at this lower level they can deal with it and so seeking the release is not so motivating for the horse to change their behaviour as it does not over ride their fear or pain.

However, my argument is this; the pressure halter interferes with our thinking and our learning. The pressure halter becomes for many people the one solution to ten problems. I think they stop us from asking the two most important questions, why and how. Why is my horse behaving this way and how can I best help him to learn a more suitable behaviour. It is possible to justify the use of the pressure halter because “the horse has to be safe, we don’t have the time, they are dangerous without it” and if that is an individual’s choice that is up to them. However, I don’t what to hear owners keep saying “oh in the real world….” This is just an outdated defence, we create our world and, we choose what is acceptable and what is not so when enough people choose that force in not acceptable the real world changes.

For me personally, I never say never, if it was purely in the best interests of the horse, such as emergency veterinary treatment, that a pressure halter is something I might consider with great hesitation if it was impossible to control the horse or sedate them and other options had failed first, but only if it was best for the horse not because it was easiest for me.

I also think pressure halters stop us developing our own skills as a horse person and our horses’ potential. For me I want to develop lightness based on not being able to force the horse to seek the release of pressure but rather allowing it to learn they can deal with the situation and to build their confidence while developing problem solving abilities. People talk about willingness and wanting their horse to want to be with them. This willingness is difficult to achieve if the choice is between discomfort and no release. They use pressure heavily and then get lighter not accepting the horse is quite capable of understanding that if they do not respond to lightness they will feel increased pressure, and so are still in fact responding, all be it psychologically, to the original heavy pressure that conditioned the response.

If trainers want to use pressure halters that choice is theirs, I would prefer for the sake of horses they didn’t, but it is the choice of the individual based on their ethical beliefs. However, at least people should be honest about the how and why pressure type halters work. If pressure halters didn’t apply more pressure than a flat head collar at the same contact, pressure halters would be no more effective than a flat head collar. People justify their use of a pressure halter by saying they use it lightly, and when I say ten on the pressure scale that is lightly but it is still not as light as two on the scale. Using a flat head collar is not an excuse to pull harder because it doesn’t hurt the horse much, putting more pressure on with a flat head collar is also destructive to lightness.

It is important for me to give any horse I work with options, and that the motivation or persuasion I use to overcome fears and problems actually relies on positive reinforcement or the minimum pressure I can use with a flat head collar which will be less than a pressure halter. I prefer to use a flat head collar because I think it increases the choices between pressure and no pressure. More than that having taken away the element of increasing pressure the trainer develops a great sense of timing to apply the lightest pressure, and we do horses a disservice if we think they can not feel the change in pressure between two and zero on our imaginary scale. Further more, not using pressure increases the trainers imagination and their reliance on their ability to shape behaviour. With less force we have to invent smaller steps which our animal will find easier to achieve while working towards the desired goal. This process of successful shaping is what creates a relationship, confidence and trust and ultimately to safety and willingness. We shouldn’t be putting our horses in situations where they react so big trainers justify the use of a pressure halter for control.

I am not saying if you use a pressure halter you are not a good trainer, I am saying that I don’t think the regular use of pressure halters encourages trainers to be as light as they can be and I think that reliance on the pressure halter to solve equine problems such as leading and loading stops the trainer from thinking to their full potential. I think if we use a pressure halter it can lead to the application of the law of the hammer – “when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” the routine use of pressure halters stops trainers using their imagination and creative abilities to find more positive solutions to problems. When we know we can load the horse with the pressure halter why explore any other possibilities?

If a trainer feels the need to use a pressure halter because of the situation they find themselves in that is their choice but they shouldn’t pretend it is ok because they only use it lightly and it isn’t really causing any discomfort. The reason pressure halters work is because they cause more discomfort or potential pain however you measure and categorise that, than a flat head collar causes when used at the same level.

The Dog Whisperer” who is currently starting a UK tour is under massive investigation by leading welfare organisations for the adverse training methods he is reported to use, including such items as pronged collars. Yet pressure halters, whips and spurs are used in full view of every welfare organisation and apparently are acceptable forms of training for equines. Yet if I started training dogs using a whip or perhaps a spur device or a pressure halter with brass studs on, I suspect there would be an immediate investigation and outcry. Why do we treat the two species so differently? Ignorance is no longer a defence.

I don’t think for one moment the vast majority of advocates of pressure halters would endorse the use of whips, spurs and harsher bits as a solution to problems and I think that is because the marketing of the pressure halter has been such that it has been sold as a tool that if used effectively is very quick and therefore the horse “teaches himself.” The name given to some pressure halters has even been mistaken for being nice to our horses, rather than making our horse be nice!

I believe that pressure and thin rope halters are a barrier to more ethical training for equines and so I want to call on trainers around the world to stop using such equipment as routine and prove that their methods work when they don’t have the option to apply this level or type of pressure to the nose, if it is about the horse, about good timing about being natural and about learning then this shouldn’t be a problem should it?

The very desire to only use pressure halters lightly indicates people want the best for their horses and I think the best for a horse is not a pressure halter but for a horse to have choices, with a trainer who has soft open hands, a creative imagination and the ability to shape behaviour effectively while thinking with the horse’s brain not their own.

By Ben Hart


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Feb 282010

With my toddler’s second birthday fast approaching, the subject of boundaries is close to my heart. The “just you wait until….” brigade has been out in strength, warning me of the need to enforce boundaries before my toddler turns into a monster. Funnily enough, different people with the same message gave me similar warnings about my horse when I decided to take more of a positive approach to his training. I am still waiting for him to turn into a monster – did I just get lucky? Could I get lucky again? Or could I just be doing something right?

We tend to think of setting boundaries as rigid rules which must never be broken. We are horrified if we find ourselves in the situation where our horse or child is testing the boundaries. What should we do about it? Is it a dominance issue? How can we re-enforce the boundaries ethically (missing the irony in trying to “force” anything ethically)? What will people think? How will we cope?

Perhaps the last two questions are the key to the issue. We rarely stop to consider why we have set those boundaries. Of course, we tell ourselves that it is for the good of our horse/child but very often there are other reasons, perhaps more subconscious. We are terrified of what people might think and we are terrified of the unknown. But suppose, just suppose, that the real question we should be asking ourselves is “are my boundaries reasonable?” If the horse/child in question thinks not then we have a whole new world to explore.

The only writer I have seen delve into this thorny subject is Alfie Kohn, author of “Unconditional Parenting”, which I would recommend to anyone with children and also to anyone with an interest in the use of non-manipulative positive reinforcement with animals. It is a wonderfully challenging book which really got me thinking about how we can use positive reinforcement to enhance the personality of the horse/child, instead of just trying to achieve certain behaviours for our own advantage. One of his “principles of unconditional parenting” is to consider whether or not we are making a reasonable request of the child:

“Here’s a very unsettling possibility: Perhaps when your child doesn’t do what you’re demanding, the problem isn’t with the child but with what it is you’re demanding. It’s remarkable how few books written for parents even raise this possibility. The vast majority of them take whatever their readers want their kids to do as the point of departure, and then offer techniques for getting compliance. In most cases, these techniques involve “positive reinforcement” or “consequences” – that is bribes or threats. In some cases, they involve more thoughtful and respectful ways of interacting with children. But almost never are parents encouraged to reconsider their requests.”

I find this so refreshing. And I would say it happens even less frequently in the equine world, hence my need to quote from parenting books.

We all need to be consistent when teaching boundaries, and it is great that this is so well-recognised. But sometimes I think we have gone too far the other way. From the point of view of the horse/child, our boundaries must often seem totally arbitrary and not sensible. If we could be slightly more flexible in our choice and implementation of boundaries then we could allow a lot more harmony into our relationships. Instead of trying to enforce an unreasonable boundary we can simply relax it slightly. The occasional relaxing of boundaries
does not turn anyone into monsters, very often the opposite can happen and our horses can become safer because there is less confrontation. The biggest obstacles to our relaxing of boundaries are our egos and our fear of what the consequences might be. Those are not reasons to continue to enforce unreasonable boundaries, just reasons to explore within ourselves and our motivations for choosing our boundaries.

The accompanying photograph shows a time when my ego got the better of me. It was a sponsored ride and I wanted to do the photographer’s fence and buy the picture. My horse refused the jump a number of times and ultimately I fell off. I decided not to try again. ‘What? And teach your horse that refusing gets him what he wants?’ I hear you say. Actually, since then I have started listening and generally allow him to refuse if he doesn’t want to jump. He very rarely refuses, despite there never being any consequence for “non-compliance”. If he does then there is a reason for it – on the day of the sponsored ride I am pretty sure that the reason was the hard ground at that particular fence hurting his shoulders (long-standing problem). My safety was compromised, not by my horse’s “disobedience”, but my failure to listen to him.

The opportunity to make choices and decisions is very often lacking from both traditional and “natural” horsemanship. Almost all forms of instruction, including most clicker training and positive reinforcement, involve manipulating our horses’ behaviour to suit our own goals. But what about our horses – do they not have opinions too?

It is well-documented that we benefit from making choices, for example Alfie Kohn goes on to say (with references):

“When teachers give their students more choice about what they’re doing, the results are impressive. According to one summary of the research, the advantages include ‘greater perceived competence, higher intrinsic motivation, more positive emotionality, enhanced creativity, a preference for optimal challenge over easy success, greater persistence in school (i.e. lower drop-out rates), greater conceptual understanding, and better academic performance’.”

There’s no scientific evidence to suggest that horses might experience all of this, and I’m not suggesting that it all applies to horses. But our mammalian brains are not so different that I think the analogy is irrelevant. Why would horses not also benefit from a share in the leadership, after all, that is what happens in a wild herd. Different horses take on the leadership role in different situations, depending on their expertise and desires. My experience with my horse certainly convinces me that there is a psychological benefit to us sharing the decision-making and that this enhances our mutual trust and relationship.

Relaxing boundaries is not something that should be done instantly as this can indeed create monsters that are unhappy in their confusing new world of freedom. This is a mistake often made by people who suddenly decide that they want to switch to using pure positive reinforcement and drop all their boundaries. The changes should be made gradually, giving you both opportunities to feel your way and work out what is genuinely important to you. The journey becomes more about moving the boundaries than enforcing them and our goals can become more about the relationship and mutual understanding than the jump or competition. Whether other people like or approve of our new goals can matter less and less as we enjoy the benefits of our new way of “working” with horses.

You may laugh at my naivety but I am looking forward to having a two  year-old. I am looking forward to learning more about myself, my son and our journey together. I refuse to call it terrible…..

Feb 212010

Often “modern” trainers talk about traditional training with a sense of moral high ground and perhaps a note of superiority creeping into the voice during any comparison of tradition and modern horse training. I think the term traditional is often incorrectly used as a substitute label for a belief that a method of training is wrong, old fashioned and out dated. So, what is traditional and what is modern? It seems to me that if we are to make any reasonable comparison we should first establish what might be encompassed in these ideologies.

Perhaps we should turn to the dictionary for a more accurate definition?

TRADITIONAL; handing down from generation to generation of opinions and practises; the belief or practise thus passed on.

If we take this meaning of traditional, it encompasses many successful styles of riding and training such as the European Riding Schools, The British Horse Society, Germanic Dressage trainers as well as the Vaqueros to name but a few. Through these methods of training the potential of the horse as an athletic performer has been stretched considerably. These traditional methods have in many cases stood the test of time and have been extremely successful at getting horses to do what trainers wanted them to do. These traditional methods worked and continue to work or they would have been abandoned long ago.

So if the negative classification “traditional” is not due the length of time a method has survived or the success it has enjoyed, it must relate to the content of the training method. Exploring the content of traditional methods we find a common thread through them all. No matter how well concealed or attractively labelled there is a definite content of punishment and force that seem to run through these methods. The use of punishment or avoidance of negative stimulus to motivate horses learning, is perhaps one mark of traditional training. The whip and the spur are the most obvious aids of the traditional methods.

Having identified what we mean through the term traditional it is equally important to consider, what is modern? In the dictionary modern simply refers to; of present or recent times. Again here lies a problem, traditional trainers are improving their skill and updating techniques and are still currently used in the vast majority of training yards around the world, so they must be modern. However, just because a method is currently being used doesn’t make it modern.

When we talk of modern training we are really talking of the methods of motivating the horses’ performance. Many people now consider a method of training to be modern provided it appears to use a minimum amount of force and therefore many Natural Horsemanship methods fall in to this category.

However, I am not sure that we have finished the evolution of horse training just yet. While Natural Horsemanship may be relatively recent is it really modern? If we look at the training of a few other species we find the answer to this question.

In modern marine mammal training the use of the scientific principle of behaviour are the natural choice of trainers. Dog training is evolving into the more common place use of operant conditioning in the form of clicker training. Zoos are happy to use positive reinforcement to train large often potentially dangerous animals to comply with the challenging difficulties of confinement and zoo management.

For me, modern horsemanship is not Natural Horsemanship, which is just a step on the evolution of equine training, but rather modern is the applied science of behaviour. Behaviour is a method of training where the rules are studied, proven and where the principles can be applied in different species. The principles of behaviour underpin all other training methods and this is why I believe that behaviour training is the most modern and up to date ways of training equine currently available.

Having identified likely traits and examples of both modern and traditional methods of training we can make a comparison between traditional force based methods of training and the application of the science of behaviour.

Difference No 1 – The way the horse is motivated.

In traditional training, punishment or the avoidance of negative stimuli are the main motivating elements of training. The horse works to avoid the whip or release the pressure of the spur and bit. In modern training, the use of positive reinforcement for desirable behaviours is a common motivation for the horse. When negative reinforcement is used in modern training it is used minimally and is not escalated to excessive physical force. In modern training the use of punishment is highly undesirable.

Difference No 2 – How mistakes are viewed.

Mistakes made during traditional training are seen as a hindrance and are the cause of frustration which slows learning down. Mistakes are seen as something to be avoided as much as possible. Modern training on the other hand, expects the horse to make mistakes. Mistakes are seen as essential to learning, hence the term trial and error learning. The modern trainer recognises that during the process of learning, mistakes provide the horse with important feed back on consequences of their behaviour.

Difference No 3 – The use of successive approximation.

Modern trainers understand the process of shaping behaviour and create written shaping plans for their training goals. Small logical steps in the learning process are considered essential. Desired behaviours are broken into as many small steps as possible and each step is completed before training progresses. In traditional training there is an awareness that horses have to learn things in the correct order, but the steps are generally large and no written plan exists.

Difference No 4 – The thinking required of the animal.

In traditional training the horse is required to comply and perform with what is expected of it when asked, without question. The traditionally trained horse has to get on with doing what it is told to or face the consequences. The horse is not allowed to have an opinion and if it does, it is often considered to be stubborn or difficult. Questioning the process of learning and experimentation are not acceptable in traditional methods of training. Modern trainers want the horse to think and experiment with the learning process. In fact, modern trainers use operant conditioning which requires the horse to solve problems and think for itself.

Difference No 5 – The application of direction

In modern training the use of operant conditioning means that the horse is encouraged to offer behaviours. The horse is likely to offer behaviours because it is motivated to seek the positive consequences of their actions and the trainer selects the appropriate behaviour to reinforce. In essence the horse performs and the trainer responds. In more traditional training the trainer applies pressure through the aids and the horse tries to find the behaviour that will avoid the discomfort. The trainer gives instructions and direction to the horse through force and physical discomfort that are likely to result in a desired behaviour. In other words the trainer acts and the horse reacts.

Difference No 6 – Understanding the science.

Traditional trainers know what to do to get the horse to comply, but not always why it works. Traditional trainers tend to have very little understanding of the consequences of the application of punishment on learning but they know it might get the desired results. Traditional methods of training use the principles of the science of behaviour even though they do not realise it or do not really understand the correct application. Modern trainers fully understand the consequences and effects of punishment, negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement on equine behaviour. The modern trainer understands a full range of scientific principles, such as counter conditioning, systematic desensitisation and flooding and knows how to use it appropriately.

Difference No 7 – Asking why behaviour exists

Modern trainers spend a great deal of time asking, “Why does my horse behave the way it does?” Accepting that horses have a reason for everything they do is the mark of a modern trainer. Understanding the causes of behaviour allows the modern trainer to apply the correct training to each and every training situation. The modern trainer thinks with the horses’ brain and in doing so empathises with the horse. Traditional training tends to expect the horse to get on with it. Consideration of the horses’ emotions is not a notable part of traditional training. Traditional training focuses more on how to over come difficulties without much consideration for the reason they may exist.

Difference No 8 – Methods of getting results

Traditional training tends to have a set pattern of training that is applied to all horses and all problems. No consideration is given to the horses’ individual distinctiveness or learning style, every animal is expected to fit the method. Modern trainers tend to have ten solutions to one problem and not one solution to ten problems. Modern trainers find the best approach to each individual horse and adapt their training to suit each horse as an individual. If one way of teaching a desired behaviour is not working, a modern trainer will try something else and keep trying new things until they succeed without ever resulting to physical force.

Difference No 9 – Blame and labelling

In traditional training methods problems and errors in the training process tend to be blamed on the horse. Horses are labelled as stubborn, difficult or naughty and the trainer then acts towards the horse according to the given label. In more modern training the trainer takes full responsibility for any problems or difficulties that arise during training. Blame is negative and unproductive, responsibility is constructive. By taking responsibility for a problem the modern trainer remains in control of the situation and can change the outcome by changing their behaviour. When the horse is blamed for the problem then the trainer can do little but wait for the horse to do something different.

Difference No 10 – Control

The traditional trainer wants control and dominance over the horse and is happy to show the horse “who is boss” and “teach them a lesson.” The modern trainer wants a partnership and a balanced relationship with equal input from each side.

Difference No 11 – How the trainer views the horse

Modern trainers understand the complexities of working with a flight animal that still requires every generation to be domesticated. Modern trainers understand the true nature of equine to be fearful inquisitiveness. Modern trainers believe in the true nature of equines, namely that they are adaptable willing creatures who will comply with the requirements of a much weaker and slower species. Horses are stronger and faster than we are and in truth do not have to do anything we want, yet in most cases they do. It is widely believed in traditional training that horses can be deliberately lazy and do things to deliberately upset the trainer. The traditional trainer is more inclined to call the horse stupid or label them as awkward and deliberately difficult. The traditional trainer is more likely to become frustrated at the horses poor performance than the modern trainer.

Perhaps by now you are thinking am I a modern trainer? Well the answer lies in how you think and behave as much as in how your horse behaves. Do you understand the science of behaviour and the applications of principles such as positive and negative reinforcement, extinction bursts and spontaneous recovery? Do you create a detailed shaping plan before you commence training and for each lesson do you shape the desired behaviour correctly? Do you put the horse first and create a win win situation every time? Do you use systematic desensitization and counter conditioning to over come the fears and phobias your horse may have? Do you have a partnership with your horse and are you happy to accept the responsibility for problems? Does your horse show enthusiasm for training sessions and even after mistakes continue to show enthusiasm for learning? Do you look for behaviours to reward rather than behaviours to shut down or punish? If you answered yes to all the above then the chances are you are a modern trainer and you should reward yourself for your enlightened behaviour and thinking.

Unfortunately despite my best efforts to classify training methods there really are no hard and fast rules for the label of traditional or modern. Age of the method certainly does not determine whether it is traditional. Twenty four centuries ago, I am pretty sure Xenophon would have been considered modern. In fact he describes the effects of both positive and negative reinforcement 2,400 years before they are “discovered.” Much of his writing speaks with compassion and empathy for the horses’ plight and it still has relevance today.

In 1959 Üdo Burger in his book, The way to Perfect Horsemanship, writes “All horses must eventually learn to stretch the reins and none are incapable of doing so. To form the horse into the shape that will give the rider complete control, a certain tension of the reins is essential. However, it should not be forgotten that horses are not all made the same: we will never be able to effect radical change in the shape of a body and we cannot expect to mould two horses into an identical form.”

Many “traditional” trainers have a great understanding and empathy with the horse, they have soft hands and can help the horse to learn what is required of it with the minimum of pressure or force. Many trainers who would be considered “modern” have poor timing, use excessive amounts of punishment and negative reinforcement and force the horse to comply all of which is carefully concealed with clever marketing and scientifically incorrect analysis.

Given the same length of time and quality of animal the results achieved by a modern or traditional trainer could produce a performance of identical standards. It is obvious that the difference between traditional and modern training lies not in the results but more in how the behaviour was achieved. The thought processes and behaviour of the trainer is the difference between traditional and modern methods.

Crediting the horse with emotions and empathising with their difficulties in adapting to domestication are the great leaps forward in human thinking that have allowed us to improve equine training, which we can compare to traditional methods. Understanding the practical application of the science of behaviour is the development that will create the modern trainer of the future.

As always we “modern” trainers should guard against complacency working to improve and understand more in the hope that we are just part of the evolution in horsemanship and that in time, better and even more “modern” methods of training will advance our partnership with the horse.

So perhaps for the time being we should not compare modern and traditional, as the saying goes “don’t compete create.”

By Ben Hart

© Ben Hart September 2006

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Feb 142010

For a while a conundrum has been playing with my thoughts. It all started one chilly but sunny Saturday, during an ordinary training session, whilst training a horse that for the purposes of this article we will call ‘The Pony’. It was nearing the end of the session when The Pony tripped over a protruding root an came very close to stand on my foot. In an effort to preserve my foot I quickly asked the horse to move back with a little pressure on the chest. A fairly benign act in response to which The Pony quickly ceased stumbling toward my vulnerable metatarsals and politely backed away. The training session continued without incident but a question remained in my mind.

Pressure and release is a commonly used method of horse training, within equestrian literature it is often cited as a simple but effective use of negative reinforcement. Whether it is a pressure on the chest of a horse to ask for a reverse, the use of the head collar to lead the horse, a gentle pressure on the reins to ask for a halt or the use of advance and retreat to approach a nervous horse, it is almost impossible to avoid the use of negative reinforcement in training. However until the incident with The Pony it had never occurred to me that positive punishment maybe an inextricable part of negative reinforcement. Can negative-reinforcement occur with out positive punishment? The Pony had be negatively reinforced for reversing away from me by the release of pressure, but it had been the addition of the pressure which had prevented further advancement.

Negative reinforcement is defined within all behaviour literature as the removal of an unpleasant or aversive stimulus in response to a wanted behaviour to reinforce the behaviour, and thus encourage the behaviour to reoccur in the future. This is a definition that most people are familiar with. However, the training incident with The Pony made me think – in order for something to be removed it must have been applied at some point in the past. For the aversive stimuli to be removed to reinforce a behaviour it must at some point have been applied. The addition of an aversive stimulus is the definition of positive punishment, the effect of positive punishment is that it reduces the likelihood of the behaviour it is a consequence of occurring in the future. Pressure on the chest of The Pony prevented further forward advancement towards my foot, so is it that I positively punished the forward movement? And as an extension of this thought, is it that every use of negative reinforcement begins with the use of positive punishment?

This is may seem like a conundrum based in the semantics of academic definitions but the practical consequences of positive punishment being inextricable from negative reinforcement are not dismissible. The most important practical consequence of positive punishment is that it discourages the behaviour it is associated with from occurring again. When applying the negative reinforcer, be it pressure or the advance of advance-retreat training, we must be careful that the behaviour it is being applied to is unwanted or the positive punishment would diminish a desired behaviour. The training should thus ensure that the negative reinforcer is attended to with regards to not only the timing of its release but also it’s application, this will ensure that wanted behaviours are not punished.

The problem of positive punishment being inextricable from negative reinforcement and the two training methods not being mutually exclusive is one that has impacts on training which could effect the psychology of the horse, the effectiveness of the training and the welfare of the horse. Punishment has been correlated with side effects which are important to our training of horses and must be understood to preserve the horse’s well being within training. Although this article is not the place to detail the problems and side effects of punishment I will briefly outline the most important ones below.

  • Punishment teaches only what not to do and does not suggest a more appropriate behavioural replacement for the one being punished.
  • Punishment can invoke emotional reactions in horses, such as fear or aggression. These reactions are more likely with physical punishment. In order to avoid these reactions, any punishment applied should be sympathetic to the horse’s personality i.e. how reactive they are and also to the situation. Positive punishment and negative reinforcement are both based in use of stimuli which are to a greater or lesser extent unpleasant for the horse, such as pressure, and as such it must be ensured that the horse is not stressed by the punisher in order to ensure emotional reactions are not experienced.
  • Pain-elicited aggression can be induced if painful physical punishers are used. Pain can heighten a flight/fight response and cause aggressive reactions in the horse as they try and escape the threat of pain, therefore positive punishers which cause pain should never be used in training.
  • Anxiety caused by punishment can actually impair the horse’s ability to concentrate and learn effectively. Extremes of emotion inhibit the brains cognitive abilities and thus impair attention.
  • Learned helplessness is a condition induced through the incorrect use of punishment. Learned helplessness occurs when the horse feels they cannot avoid punishment over a sustained period of time. The horse learns that any attempts to escape are futile and thus the horse will not attempt to escape or avoid the punishment, even once an escape or avoidance method is offered.
  • Avoidance behaviours – if the horse learns to associate a person or situation with punishment, the horse may logically try to avoid that situation or handler.
  • It is also possible for horses to selectively suppress the punished behaviour until punishment is less likely, either when the punishing handler is no longer present, or when the horse believes that it is less likely to be punished for the behaviour.
  • Punishment can reduce the horse’s interest in their work, if a horse is punished the horse’s motivation will be diminished and thus the horse is less likely to participate willingly in training.

If negative reinforcement by its definition begins with a positive punishment these problems that are associated with punishment are consequently also a problems intrinsic to the use of negative reinforcement. It is therefore essential that they are considered carefully if negative reinforcement is to be used in training. The application of the negative reinforcer must follow the rules of applying positive punishment if side effects are to be avoided in the horse.

The rule of applying punishment to avoid side effects are as follows, the punishment must be –

  • Immediate
  • Consistent
  • Never painful
  • Never dealt in anger
  • Specific to targeted unwanted behaviours and not delivered randomly or accidentally.
  • Never used during confusion

Obviously each horse has their own tolerance levels for different stimuli. An aversive stimulus for one horse may not be unpleasant for another. However given that negative reinforcement is based upon the release of an aversive stimulus, it is highly likely that the stimulus use as a negative reinforcer could also be a positive punisher for the horse. I would be interested to hear if anyone could think of a training scenario in which the negative reinforcer when applied could not be considered a positive punisher because I must admit I could not think of one.

To finish this article I would like to say that I don’t believe that we can avoid the use of negative reinforcement in training but any part of training that uses aversive stimuli, i.e. negative reinforcement or positive punishment should be carefully considered with regards to the strength of the stimulus and its application.

By Emma Lethbridge

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Feb 072010

Have you ever wondered how squirrels remember where they hid their food? Or how animals that migrate know the route to take each year? Or how birds living in large groups remember where their specific nest is among thousands? These are just some of the questions that spurred research into how the brain records information about the environment and the animal’s position in that environment. This work can help us to understand how feral horses find their way around their range and even how our domestic horses can find their way home if they escape or they end up without a rider.

Map and compass

Animal navigation is a complex process that we are only beginning to understand: first the animal determines its current location in relation to what he/she knows about and then chooses the appropriate direction of travel towards its destination. This is called the ‘map’ and ‘compass’ system (reviewed by Frost and Mouritsen, 2006). [N.B. for brevity I will use ‘she’ when referring to a horse]

Horses that live in large areas naturally ‘home range’- they move to different parts of their range as the seasons affect the available resources. Homing can be defined as navigation within near- to medium- distance unfamiliar space (reviewed in Frost and Mouritsen, 2006). Herds use the same routes every year and the alpha mare, who will have made the journey many times before, leads the movement of the herd within its home-range. So, how does the alpha mare know where to go?

Making maps

Since the 1970s, researchers have been studying the cellular mechanisms by which the processes of cognitive mapping, spatial learning and spatial memory occur. This just means studying at the level of cells how animals map their environment, learn about it and remember it.

Let’s consider the first time a horse moves to a new part of the herd’s home-range. When an animal is placed in a new environment, the brain processes sensory information about its surroundings – for horses, a great proportion of this information will be visual. Within minutes of experiencing the new ‘place’, about half of the million specialized brain cells called ‘place cells’ (first described by O’Keefe et al., 1971) in the part of the brain called the hippocampus are fired. The ‘view’ is split up into overlapping fields (‘place fields’) and each field is assigned a place cell. As the horse’s head moves into a place field, the cell assigned to that field fires and some cells stop firing, providing orientation in the field (reviewed in Rotenburg et al., 1996).

The place cells recording these overlapping fields are not actually next to each other – which is efficient because each place cell can be used in more than one spatial map. The hippocampus records the memory for several weeks and only if the information is to be retained does it move to the part of the brain where information is stored, the cerebral cortex (reviewed in Rotenburg et al., 1996). This mechanism has been proved for ‘near space’ navigation but is also relevant to longer distances because during a journey there will still be shorter-term destinations (e.g. resources along the way such as rivers to drink from).

Learning the route

Until 1996 scientists were not sure whether animals learn about their surroundings as a map or react automatically to various stimuli they come across. Two research groups helped to solve the mystery and significantly added to our understanding of cognitive mapping (Tsien et al. and Rotenburg et al. 1996). Both groups, using different methods, disrupted the way that connections between cells change in strength (called synaptic plasticity, which occurs during learning) and found that indeed, the animals were no longer able to navigate around their environments – spatial learning was affected. The involvement of synaptic plasticity shows the link between learning and spatial orientation so we now can hypothesize that animals, including horses, learn about their surroundings as a map rather than just reacting automatically to things in their environment.

Since this early work into place cells, two other types of brain cell have been discovered – head direction cells (HDCs) and grid cells. HDCs are those that fire when an animal orientates its head in a certain direction (Knierim et al., 1995). There are different HDCs for different head orientations and they are influenced by landmarks, and information concerning how the head moves.

Later, grid cells were discovered (Hafting et al. 2005). These are found in the part of the brain called the entorhinal cortex and fire strongly when an animal is in specific locations in an environment. Grid cells have multiple firing fields, which tesselate the environment in a hexagonal pattern. The grid cells are anchored to external landmarks, suggesting that grid cells may be part of a self-motion-based map of the environment. It has been suggested that grid cells add a ‘place code’ in the entorhinal cortex, providing associations between place and events (for example to associate a place with good resources) – needed for the formation of memories (Sargolini, 2006).

Finding the way

Exactly how animals navigate long distances is still being researched but there are some interesting concepts that are probably relevant to equine homing behaviour:

  1. Minimization of stimuli: We only pay attention to meaningful cues. In the same way that when asking for directions we don’t need to know the detail of who lives in all the houses you pass but just need to know where to turn right – or if you are looking for someone in a crowd who is meeting you at the airport you won’t notice the detail about the other people there – horses do not take note of all the cues in the environment, just the important ones (perhaps a big tree that is good for rubbing on or a sheltered site).
  2. Features theory: In the same way as above, we, and horses, can remember part of a route without having to remember everything about it.
  3. Context: In the same way that we might not recognize the postman out of his uniform if we see him in the supermarket there is a context-specific element to mapping.
  4. Landmarks: It is likely that horses use landmarks in recognizing their home range. The famous ethologist Tinbergen proved that animals use landmarks to find their nests. For example, if an insect’s nest is surrounded by a set formation of pine cones, the insect leaves home, you move the pine cones to a new location, the insect will return to the pine cones and not to the nest. Landmarks that horses might use could be trees, boulders, houses etc or could be patterns of smells.
  5. Prototype theory (Hernstein, 1976): if a route is followed many times then the ‘ideal’ will be remembered. For example, if you do the same journey to work every day you don’t remember the first time in particular, you only remember specific times if they were very good or bad. In the same way, if a foal takes a similar route many times she will only remember some of them.
  6. Central pattern generators (Randall et al. 1997): are sets of brain cells that activate cells resulting in movement according to pre-set patterns. When a horse sees a visual stimulus associated with its home range, central pattern generators could cause automatic walking behaviour towards that visual stimulus. Animals do form a ‘map’ as described above but there might be an element of automatic behaviour within that map.
  7. Time: Horses need to know when to move from one area at a particular time to get to the new area at the right time for plentiful resources. It is suggested that a ‘time tag’ could be added to the memory formation (e.g. when the trees are green, the journey should be started).


When a horse is moving within her home range or being ridden out on a hack, she is learning about the environment – including about information about landmarks and features – such as areas that are sheltered or particularly good grazing areas. If the horse is wild, feral or kept almost naturally in a herd, as a foal she will follow the group to different resources at different times of the year. She will remember (via prototype theory above) the ideal situation with respect to, for example, crossing a river.

Physiologically, as the foal enters new environment, place cells will be fired within the place field, and when she orientates her head in a certain position, the corresponding head direction cells will fire, influenced by landmarks and information about the position of her head during orientation. When she is in some specific locations within her home range, grid cells will fire, to add the place coding to the memory associated with the event (good areas for food, for example).

Although further research is needed into how place cells, head direction cells and grid cells work together in determining orientation in space and in navigation, we are on the way to an improved understanding of the complex mechanism of homing behaviour.

By Suzanne Rogers

© Learning About Animals 2009

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


Frost, B.J. and Mouritsen, H. (2006) The neural mechanisms of long distance animal navigation. Current Opinion in Neurobiology 16, 481-488

Hafting et al. (2005) Microstructure of a spatial map in the entorhinal cortex. Nature 436, 801-806

Herrnstein, R. J., Loveland, D. H., & Cable, C. (1976). Natural concepts in pigeons Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, 2, 285-302

Knierim, J. (1995) Place cells, head direction cells, and learning landmark stability. J. Neuroscience 15, 1645-1659

Liang, K.C. et al. (1994) Involvement of hippocampal NMDA and AMPA receptors in acquisition, formation and retrieval of spatial memory in the Morris water maze. Chin. J. Physiol. 37, 201-212

O’Keefe, J. and Dostrovsky, J. (1971) The hippocampus as a spatial map. Preliminary evidence from unit activity in the freely-moving rat. Brain Research 34, pp. 171–175

Rotenburg et al. (1996) Mice Expressing Activated CaMKII Lack Low Frequency LTP and Do Not Form Stable Place Cells in the CA1 Region of the Hippocampus. Cell Vol. 87, Pp. 1351-1361

Sargolini F, et al. (2006) Conjunctive representation of position, direction, and velocity in entorhinal cortex. Science 312, 758-62

Tinbergen, N. (1951) The study of instinct. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Jan 292010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Alison Averis

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Jan 172010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Ben Hart

© Ben Hart April 2009

Jan 102010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Suzanne Rogers

Jan 062010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woman: I am leaving you

Man: Who is he?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Emma Kurrels

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