Look up at the stars… because it’s not about your feet

Ask yourself some simple questions about your interactions with your horse.

Is the horse who nudges you with his nose when he smells carrots in your pocket trying to move your feet?

Is the horse who turns his backside towards you so you will scratch his tail trying to move your feet?

Is the horse with flies in his ears, who bends his head and moves towards you to rub on your shoulder, trying to move your feet?

Is the horse who has spent 14 hours confined in a 12 x 12 foot stable just in a hurry to regain some freedom, friends and grass and to escape confinement? Or barging out of the door to try to move your feet?

Is the hungry horse that pushes past you to get to the hay you’re bringing trying to move your feet?

Horse nebula diana huang deviantart

Is the horse who is alone and frightened in the trailer, without the essential companionship of another horse, trying to move your feet when he takes off down the ramp?

When you get knocked aside by a horse rushing through a gateway because he is afraid to touch the electric fence, is the horse trying to move your feet?

Is the horse that is shying at a plastic bag that blows past unexpectedly, or who takes off when a dog starts to bark behind him… is he really trying to move your feet?

The simple answer is NO.

To all of those.

There are many other obvious explanations for why the horse is wanting to move his own feet away from or towards a situation, but none of them is concerned with any kind of malevolent desire for dominance over humans that he thinks may be achieved by causing their movement.

All behaviour is motivated by a desire for reinforcement. That could be positive reinforcement – we get something we really like – or negative reinforcement – we escape or avoid something we find unpleasant, uncomfortable, painful or frightening.

A horse behaving in any of the ways described above is simply either trying to get to something she likes or needs, or away from something she does not like or fears. Sometimes both at once. That is all.

The most capable being in the horse-human partnership is us. We are the ones who can show the horse how to get what she wants by positively reinforcing (rewarding) what we do want, rather than by positively punishing (correcting) what we don’t.

We can acknowledge the horse expressing his desires and use that information constructively.

We can make changes to the environment or our management of the horse and how he lives (such as widening the gateway of an electric fence or moving the horse to somewhere he does not have to be stabled) or we could work to desensitise the horse to things she fears, like flying plastic bags or barking dogs, or we could associate things the horse fears with good stuff happening – such as associating leaving the herd with lots of good things happening for a few seconds inside the trailer, before taking the horse back to the herd (the thing he wants most of all as a – negative – reinforcer).

We can change the perception of the horse of things she fears or worries about or that causes her anxiety so that she doesn’t feel the need to run away in the first place.

And we can move our feet – out of the way.

In order to be the leader for a horse we do not need to move their feet. It’s not about feet at all.

I am reminded of the quote by Stephen Hawkings who sadly died today. He was of course talking about the universe in its entirety when he said these words but they apply equally to all of the sciences including the science of behaviour :

“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder…..”

The leader in the relationship between horse and human is the one with the plan.

The one who can imagine what the horse might want, who can anticipate what certain situations might lead to, and who prepares in advance.

Science has shown us that we, the humans, with the relatively enormous neo-cortex, are the ones who have the ability to plan. So we can manage the horse’s environment in a way that does not create predictably unwanted behaviour and we can make changing his perception of feared situations and things and training him desireable behaviours a priority.

Giving the horse good reasons to want to wait and relax, to walk calmly, to have no fear.

Without making anyone move their feet.

It’s not rocket science. It’s behaviour science. The stars of behaviours science are those who are helping horses be calm, confident, cooperative and consenting. Without force, fear, frustration or feet-moving.

RIP Stephen Hawkings and thanks for the inspiration to look up at the stars again today.

Horse Nebula art work by Diana Hung.

Foraging for food. It’s neither mugging nor rude.

I never think of horses who try to get the food from my pocket or bum-bag as pushy, rude, impolite or any of those “bad horse” labels.

And it isn’t mugging – which implies that the horse is trying to rob us.

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It’s perfectly natural and normal for a healthy confident horse to try to find food when they can smell it or have become aware of the source of it.

In fact when I am training a wary horse or pony I usually give a little cheer when they start to investigate the bum bag.

Those kinds of “bad pony” words like “rude”, “pushy”, “bargy”, “invading my space” or “mugging” are likely to lead to people judging their equine friends as being badly behaved, impolite or violent thieves, none of which are true.

They are behaving naturally.

But this judgmental language is much more likely to lead to the person feeling justified in using aversive corrections or reacting defensively to a horse who shows natural foraging behaviour or who feels a need to protect her food from other horses or people.

Horses forage for food. They will move bits of hay or other plants aside with their muzzle in order to try to get to the bits they want.

Also, if you watch babies suckling (I always think sheep are the best example of this) they have to nudge the udders to get the milk to flow. When horses nudge us this is often the same behaviour happening in a different context, and it is completely normal.


Sometimes, once they have seen us move our arm and hand to the food bag or pocket, they will then try to nudge our arm or hand to get it to move to get out the food. This just shows how fast horses are to learn by observing what happens before what happens happens.

They really aren’t pushy or mugging or impolite or barging. They are simply very good at detecting food, and excellent observational learners.

Until we train them how to get additional or different food to what they already have (never train a horse without some other forage available if you want them calm and unconflicted) they are doing what mother nature genetically predisposes them to do to stay alive.

Horses who don’t try to get to food when they can identify that we have it, are either unwell, too wary, they have enough already, or they are well trained.

Please share this to help people to understand more about the true nature of horses just doing what Mother Nature made them to do.

The words “bad / no / good manners”, “polite / impolite”, “rude”, “pushy” are not helpful descriptors of behaviour, they don’t reflect the true nature of horses and the danger is that they tend to lead us towards judgmental language, a corrective mindset and a predisposition to feel justified in using correction with horses doing what has for eons saved them from becoming extinct.

When you hear or see people using this language it’s useful to model a different way of talking about horses, that paints them in a more positive, and non judgmental light.

I’d really like to see folk use the expression “foraging” or “food-seeking” rather than “mugging”, and if your horse is pushing or nudging you for food, take that as your cue to change the environment and put a barrier between you. That will enable you to move away so he can’t be doing it, while you get to work on training.

In the end if what we want to achieve is a horse who does not try to take food from our pockets or bag, then it comes down to a few basic things. Horse-appropriate horse-keeping (access to friends, forage and freedom), good health, and of course correct use of food to train them to do what we DO want.

When can I stop using food?

One very common question I see from people who are learning about positive reinforcement is this. “Will I always need to use food?” or “When can I fade out the food?” or “Other trainers say that food is just needed to kick-start behaviours and then the horse will learn to like doing it and do it for its own sake. Why am I still having to use food?”

It’s a fascinating set of questions because it got me reflecting on the alternatives to using food in training, and whether the aversive can ever be “faded out”.

Let’s clear up some of the misconceptions.

There is one situation in which you can very often discontinue the use of food in training and that is when food is being used for perception modification.

That involves following a very mild / weak (small, quiet, far away, short lasting) stimulus with something appetitive in an effort to switch (from fear to happy anticipation) the perception the animal has about that stimulus.

An example would be following the bark of a single small dog in the distance with a handful of pony nuts for a pony who is worried about dogs that jump and run and bark around him (while ensuring the dog could not come any closer). Pretty soon the horse would come to associate the dog bark with food coming. Done skilfully and gradually this can change the horse’s perception of dogs as a threat.

We do use counter-conditioning regularly, together with systematic desensitisation (which is more or less what I have described above), and sometimes we use it on its own.

An example of using it on its own would be feeding the horse some pieces of carrot while watching the dustcart / dustbin lorry drive slowly past his field gate.

If you use food as counter-conditioning for the purposes of perception modification then it’s perfectly possible to discontinue the use of food once the animal has lost their fear of a stimulus or situation.

Perception modification changes behaviour by changing how the animal responds emotionally to stimuli. An animal who is no longer fearful will not try to run away.

However, if we are using positive reinforcement, which involves adding an appetitive stimulus as a consequence of a behaviour in an effort to strengthen it, then like negative reinforcement, the behaviour must continue to be reinforced to be maintained.

A behaviour that no longer produces reinforcement will begin to weaken. Imagine you were working for someone who paid you either in cash or board and lodgings and food to work for them.

If they stopped paying you, or paid you less, or paid you less frequently or sometimes didn’t provide any food for you at all, or provided food that you didn’t want to eat, would you want to continue to put in the same effort?

The same is true with behaviours elicited using aversive stimuli (also sometimes called pressure – anything the animal finds psychologically or physically unpleasant).

For example, if when using an aversively trained cue (sometimes called an aid) for a behaviour, we failed to enforce the cue with an actual aversive stimulus for non-response, we would expect the behaviour produced by that cue to weaken because it would no longer associated with an aversive. And if we failed to remove the aversive or we continued to use the conditioned stimulus (the aversively trained cue) when the animal did the correct behaviour then we would also expect responsiveness to weaken (or the animal to try a different behaviour) due to lack of reinforcement.

Responses to actual aversives (things the animal automatically finds unpleasant) are called escape behaviours. It’s escaping from the aversive that provides the relief that acts as reinforcement.

Responses to conditioned aversives (commands or aids that the animal has learned are predictors of aversive onset) are avoidance behaviours. The behaviour is performed to avoid aversive onset. In order for this to happen the aid has to predict aversive onset and have been “fear-conditioned”. The animal responds to the aid in fear of it escalating to an actual aversive.

Both of these are forms of reinforcement. Escape and avoidance behaviours are all negatively reinforced – either by making an aversive stop or avoiding it being applied.

An example of escape behaviour would be the horse coming to a halt when the rein pressure is applied to the bit. For that behaviour to be reinforced, the bit pressure must immediately be removed for a correct response.

An example of avoidance behaviour would be the horse coming to a halt when we breathe out, sit deeper into the saddle, or say “whoa”, because we consistently follow those things by rein pressure to the bit or noseband if the horse does not halt. The horse expects rein pressure for non-response and so acts when he perceives those other cues, to avoid the rein pressure.

Both forms of the behaviour of coming to a halt are negatively reinforced.

What this means is that when we handle or ride our horses correctly (in this case I mean using negative reinforcement correctly) in traditional riding or using classical or natural horsemanship methods, every movement the horse makes is negatively reinforced either by aversive escape or aversive avoidance.

When we handle or ride our horses using positive reinforcement our aim is to produce the behaviour without anything that causes the horse to seek to escape or avoid of something aversive.

Instead we elicit the behaviour without using anything that is an actual aversive or a threat of an aversive, and we reinforce the behaviour by (usually, for precision purposes) marking it and then adding something appetitive as a reinforcer.

But, just like negative reinforcement, we still have to reinforce that behaviour to maintain it. There has to be something in it for the horse to make the effort to perform the behaviour in preference to doing his own thing.

Horses don’t do anything much that involves effort without some form of reinforcement. There is of course reinforcement in searching for forage and playing with friends (if you are in a playful mood).

But a horse trained using either aversives or appetitives would never choose to perform a dressage test, jump around a cross country course or walk, trot and canter on an endurance ride for 25 miles right past a plentiful supply of food under his feet, without very frequent reinforcement – negative or positive.

So if a trainer suggests to you that it’s possible to train and maintain behaviours without ongoing positive reinforcement with a primary reinforcer – food (which might be given less frequently once you have trained the horse to perform behaviours for longer – we call this shaping for duration) then think again about whether this really makes much sense.

Yes, it is possible for horses to find it reinforcing to go out for walks, in company with others, on foraging expeditions with quite intermittent additional reinforcement from us because they find that activity enriching and they do so in an expectation of finding reinforcement in the hedges or verges.

But it’s unrealistic to expect to be able to do something like dressage or jumping or behaviours involving a lot of physical effort without regular and indeed very frequent reinforcement.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. We all, I think need to realise that there’s no shame in providing ongoing positive appetitive reinforcement for desired behaviour. If we aren’t doing that then we don’t have any option but to be using a lot of negative reinforcement. Because there are only two kinds.

I am very happy to regularly positively reinforce behaviour produced without pressure.

If I wasn’t using appetitives (food mainly) to train repeatable desireable behaviours I’d be having to use some kind of aversive reinforcement (escape or avoidance) for EVERY move my horse was making.

And for reasons that have to do with my own ethics and desire for a “different” type of relationship, I’d rather not be associated with anything the horse finds unpleasant.

So using lots of food to maintain behaviours as I develop them is no big deal for me.

We have a choice, but it’s really only a choice between two things. I am much more comfortable using food on an ongoing basis than I ever was or will be using aversives.

Ten Principles of Training with Positive Reinforcement

We have recently launched a new Facebook group called Horse Charming for people who want to learn more about training with positive reinforcement.

You can apply to join us here https://www.facebook.com/groups/HorseCharming/

As part of the process for applying to join the group we asked people to explain what they understand by positive reinforcement.

We get a variety of responses that range from precise psychology definitions to the view that it involves being kind, firm but fair, or that it somehow involves using energy.

I decided to jot down some principles that we would hope would help people to better understand what training with positive reinforcement involves, and what it does not.

It does seem to be increasingly quite important to explain what it does not involve because there are many misunderstandings, maybe because people have seen others using a clicker to mark behaviour produced using traditional “aids” or perhaps they believe that it somehow involves food deprivation. While there are people who do routinely employ these techniques in an effort to get animals to do what they want, or to please other people, in our opinion these do not meet the description of training with positive reinforcement.

What we care most about is how the animal feels during training. We care much less about what he does in terms of any performance of behaviour.

Here are the principles that we regard as being consistent with a description of positive reinforcement:

1) The behaviour happens without an aversive prompt.no whips

An aversive prompt or event is something the horse finds painful, uncomfortable, unpleasant, frustrating, irritating or annoying in and of itself.

Examples would be being approached by another animal or human that he fears, being touched or tickled (with the hand or an object) somewhere he doesn’t like, being tapped or hit with a stick, being squeezed, nudged, kicked or jabbed by the rider’s heel or spur, or being pulled by the rein or lead rope. It could also include having an object thrown or waved or swung towards him, such as a clod of earth, a stick, a flag or a string or rope.

If the horse appears to act to make something stop or go away, seeks to move away, seeks to move something away from himself, and repeats a behaviour that made that prompt stop or go away, it was probably aversive to the horse.


An aversive prompt is something that the horse has come to believe will result in something unpleasant (uncomfortable, painful, annoying, frustrating) to happen to them if they don’t act to avoid it (e.g. someone holding a stick in a position in which it has been held before being waved at or used to hit or tap the horse, or someone saying “Walk on!” before squeezing the horse with their leg, prior to kicking or jabbing with a spur, or someone changing body position or making a sound (like “Whoa”) before pulling the rope or rein.

2) The behaviour either occurs spontaneously, or it is prompted using a food lure or a target.moonshine

Behaviour that happens spontaneously is rarely accidental when we are proactively training. That doesn’t mean that we don’t opportunistically capture behaviour the horse performs incidentally, but most of the time we would work to intelligently arrange the environment so that the behaviour is more likely to occur.

An example of this would be laying a line of poles on the track where the horse lives so that he has to walk or trot over them to get around the track to the hay.

Horse owners regularly use food lures to produce behaviour. Eagerness to be caught is often produced by an owner giving a treat to the horse once haltered. Enthusiasm and confidence in a stable area might be produced by the horse finding that there are other horses there and some feed in the stable. Carrot stretches form a regular part of every conscientious horse owner’s exercise plan for their horse. All of these are forms of luring.

Target training involves teaching a horse to touch a specific object (called a target) with their nose or with any other body part. Target training can be used to produce any of the movements or postures that would be traditionally produced with aversives.

Target training is achieved using the natural tendency of animals to explore novel objects, together with positive reinforcement.

It is also possible to use physical manipulation to produce behaviour – handling a horse’s feet for cleaning and trimming often involves manipulation. Because this can often be disliked by horses at first we prefer to deal with that issue first using systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning before going on to mark and reinforce the horse for consenting to being handled physically.

Once behaviour has been taught using food lures and targets then it’s usual to switch to a learned cue for the behaviour and to fade out the lure or target in favour of reinforcing the behaviour these have been used to produce.

3) A performance of a correct behaviour results in something appetitive being gained by the horse.christine winge

Positive reinforcement is so called, because it involves the addition of something that the animal desires and which they are motivated to obtain or gain.

We use the  + sign in the shorthand way of writing positive reinforcement to indicate that it involves addition. It can be written either as  “+R” or “R+”.

The catch-all term for “things the animal likes and wishes to obtain” is “appetitive”. It’s easiest to remember this if you think that it’s something for which they have an appetite.

Positive reinforcement is said to have happened when the animal choses to repeat a behaviour because something they valued was added or gained as a consequence of (immediately following) their behaviour.

This will usually be food or scratches.

Food is singularly the most commonly used and most powerful form of positive reinforcer for as long as the animal has an appetite for that kind of food.

Never assume that the horse will find being scratched on a particular body part appetitive. It is necessary to seek the consent of the horse to be scratched and to test whether and where they enjoy it.

Not all horses will find scratching reinforcing, and their interest in being scratched will change seasonally.

When attempting to use scratching as a reinforcer, be aware that most horses will not find a couple of scratches for a few seconds in anyway motivating and they can become frustrated if they aren’t scratched “correctly”! Watch horses groom each other. It’s done with teeth and it last a good few minutes! If your fingertips are not on fire and your nails aren’t filled with grime, you need to try harder, or find a good hard scratching brush.

4) Typically, an audible marker signal (bridging stimulus) is used to pinpoint the moment in time when the animal has performed a desired behaviour.23633300_1406652829445143_1914573613_o

This helps the animal to understand which behaviour is being reinforced and improves precision and comprehension.

The animal will be motivated to repeat whatever he was doing when you marked that behaviour. The food reinforcer must immediately follow the marker signal.

5) Comfort, safety, confidence and freedom from pressure are pre-requisites to training with positive reinforcement. These are neither denied nor withheld so as to achieve desired behaviour or to discourage unwanted behaviour. We do not create discomfort to motivate the animal to behave for the purposes of seeking comfort.

Confidence, comfort and safety and freedom from pressure are constants we aim to maintain at all times during training with positive reinforcement.

6) Positive reinforcement does not involve the removal of food and does not require (nor should it involve) the animal being in a state of hunger.anna mason poshcob

In fact hungry animals would be in a state of discomfort – and since this goes against principle 5, causing an animal to experience hunger is inconsistent with the objectives of positive reinforcement. This is partly because food deprivation creates anxiety and frustration – both of which are aversive states and partly because it can cause physical damage in horses, including ulcers or colic.

Using food with hungry animals could be considered to be negative reinforcement.

This is why, in our particular application of positive reinforcement, we always advocate that the animal has eaten for a period of time before training and that there is other food available to the horse when training with food, at least in the initial stages.

This gives the animal choices either to eat the food that is available or to engage in training to obtain additional or different food.

7) While scratching can be used as a reinforcer, this may or may not be a positive reinforcer to the animal.scratching mark cosmo

For the chronically itchy animal, (such as an animal with sweet itch, severe fly bites or another skin irritation) being scratched could arguably be negatively reinforcing as it may provide temporary relief from discomfort.

Negative reinforcement increases the frequency of a behaviour that results in reduction or removal of something the animal finds unpleasant. In this case a behaviour that is followed by scratching may be strengthened because the intense irritation of their itching is temporary relieved by scratching.

That of course doesn’t mean we are suggesting you don’t scratch the itchy horse (although arguably as we know this can exacerbate some conditions, so it may not actually be advisable). We would prefer to recommend common ways to manage conditions like sweet-itch such as barrier fly rugs, oil based topical barrier creams and lotions and shelter from midges at critical times.

The difference of course between this and other types of negative reinforcement is that we don’t intentionally cause the horse to be itchy so as to use scratching as a reinforcer.

8) Positive reinforcement is a form of operant conditioning. It increases the strength or frequency (the animal is likely to repeat or make more effort to perform) of behaviour it immediately follows.wendy powell

For positive reinforcement to be effective (and in fact for any form of reinforcement or punishment to be effective) it must be immediate.

Reinforcement must quickly follow the specific behaviour or stream of behaviour to be strengthened, and the reinforcer must of be a type and quantity that is valued by the animal.

The value of the reinforcer must exceed the cost to the animal of the effort required to perform the behaviour. It’s a net sum game!

If the behaviour is not seen (over time) to be increasing in strength or frequency, then either something is punishing it, the animal is obtaining more valuable reinforcement (positive or negative) for doing some other behaviour, or it is not being sufficiently well reinforced.

9) We do not reinforce the animal. It’s the behaviour that we are attempting to strengthen through reinforcement.

Only the animal can decide what they find reinforcing and punishing, and they tell us through their behaviour. The future behaviour of the animal tells us whether they found the outcome of their past behaviour to be reinforcing or punishing.

10) There is always an associative learning (classical conditioning) element to training with positive and negative reinforcement / with positive or negative punishment.alison kingsbury

What that means is that the animal’s perception of us is formed on the basis of what they see us as representing in terms of their own emotional experience.

Our entire relationship is formed on the basis of what the animal associates with us and our behaviour.

Our behaviour can in essence, come to predict “treats” (something appetitive) or be seen as a threat.

With positive reinforcement training we attempt to associate ourselves with only good things and to avoid any use of coercion, force or threats.

We avoid making ourselves aversive to the horse and we try never to associate ourselves, or be the bearer of any kind of pressure or unpleasantness.

Verbal cues. Threat or treat?

I often see people discussing the use of voice commands and cues (verbal prompts to the horse to perform a behaviour) or praise (when we use our voice in an effort to let the horse they know they did something we like).

I thought it might be useful to consider how horses come to learn what voice commands or cues or verbal praise actually mean, by way of a short lesson in the science of behaviour.

Vocal cues and commands have to be learned

To begin with, when we first train a horse to perform a behaviour, they have no idea of the meaning of either voice cues or praise.

Both of these types of use of the voice have no significance to an untrained horse.

She doesn’t know what they mean at all, and they have to be learned.

Before training any animal, we could use a verbal command and the animal is unlikely to perform anything other than what they are already doing, or what they choose to do based on other things going on in their environment.

The process by which these sounds come to have meaning has to be learned by every animal, and it’s a form of associative learning.

What that means is that the animal comes to associate the sound we make with our voice with some other event or stimulus.

It’s a form of sensitisation – we take a neutral stimulus and by following it by something else that is meaningful to the horse, the neutral stimulus comes to be a predictor of something and can thereby begin to elicit its own emotional response.

The way in which vocal cues and praise are learned by the horse in any aversive training method is the complete opposite to the way they are learned in a positive reinforcement model.

By the way, I should say that this is not going to be a lesson in how to train cues – because that is much too complex to do in a blog post, and would require you as the reader to have some good foundation knowledge of the practice of training with positive reinforcement – and I don’t intend to try to do that in this article. The structured lessons we provide are the way to go about learning that.

But what I can do is to talk about the fundamental differences in the learning of commands and cues between systems using aversive prompts with negative reinforcement of correct responses (so that would be in traditional and natural horsemanship based methods) and those using positive reinforcement.

Commands and Praise in Aversive Training

In an aversive (negative reinforcement) system, the command can be given first, and then some kind of aversive stimulus is applied to produce the behaviour from the horse.

Imagine saying “Walk on!” or clucking with your tongue, or making a kissy noise, and then using a lunge whip, or your legs or a whip tap to apply some kind of aversive stimulus (also called pressure) to produce the behaviour.

As soon as the horse performs the correct behaviour (or makes an attempt which is in the right direction), the trainer should take that aversive stimulus off.

After some repetitions, the command now predicts the onset or application of the aversive stimulus and the horse will act before the aversive is applied (assuming there is no other competing motivation – something more salient than the aversive from the trainer) in order to avoid it.

The process involves escape learning (the horse learns that he can escape from the aversive stimulus by acting) and then avoidance learning.

First of all the horse learns that he can escape the aversive stimulus (and make it stop) by “behaving” and then he realises that there is a warning that is given before the aversive stimulus is applied.

Pretty soon the horse will recognise the vocal command and because he will now be anticipating the aversive onset, he will act before it is applied, thus avoiding the actual unpleasantness of the aversive stimulus.

When people describe horses as “anticipating” or “making assumptions” about what they should do, it is very often because they have read signals from the handler or rider, perhaps given unintentionally, that they are about to apply an aversive stimulus.

A horse might start to “offer” to do something, because he thinks that this will mean he can avoid the onset of the aversive.

Psychologists refer to the learning process in this model as “fear-conditioning” when commands are learned in this manner. The command predicts that an aversive will be applied to make a specific behaviour happen. The command is enforced by aversive application if the animal does not respond, until he does the correct behaviour.

And in fact, it is necessary to enforce the command (make the horse do the behaviour) in order for the meaning of the command to be maintained.

The command comes to mean “perform [insert relevant behaviour] to avoid experiencing some aversive stimulus until you do.”

Equally in an aversive training system, praise acquires a specific meaning.

Usually praise is given in the period after the animal has performed the desired behaviour (and the aversive stimulus has been removed), or during a period in which the animal is continuing to perform the behaviour so that the aversive stimulus is not re-applied.

So as an example, if we say “Walk on!” and give the horse a squeeze or a little kick with our legs to cause him to move, then in a negative reinforcement system, we should stop squeezing or kicking once he walks on if we want to increase the likelihood that he will walk on in future when we do these things. This is how we should negatively reinforce his correct behaviour.

The right thing to do if the horse were to stop walking (in an aversive training system) would be to repeat the cue to “Walk on” and then re-apply the lunge whip, leg squeeze, whip tap, or kick. But not to keep using legs and cues to keep the horse going, because otherwise there is no relief for a correct response, and relief is required to strengthen behaviour.

While the horse is walking (which is what we prompted him to do) we should discontinue all input from us by way of pressure – and leave him alone.

Otherwise we are not providing any reinforcement (absence of pressure) for the behaviour we wanted.

So now, assuming our horse is doing what we want, and having taken the pressure off, we verbally praise our horse, then the praise comes to signify a period of time during which the horse will not be subjected to anything aversive (at least for a second or two, or however long it is before we ask him to do something different, or he stops doing the commanded behaviour).

If the praise is given AS the pressure / aversive stimulus is taken off or ceased, then the praise acts as a conditioned negative reinforcer. It tells the horse “here comes a short period of nothing aversive from the rider / handler, following the behaviour just performed”.

As you can imagine, the use of vocal cues and praise is poorly understood by almost all riding instructors and horse trainers in the aversive training world that I have come across, and few seem to understand that this is how their verbal commands and praise comes to have significance for the horse. Consequently, for the most part they don’t really give the horse any consistent information.

Commands come to mean “do this [insert relevant behaviour] to avoid an aversive” and praise means “there’s going to be a break from some specific type of aversive stimulus / pressure.”

This of course assumes that the horse isn’t finding doing the commanded behaviour unpleasant, hard work, frightening or painful in the first place. And that’s a whole other story.

Cues and praise in appetitive (positive reinforcement) training

By contrast, in a positive reinforcement model, we get the behaviour happening first, without using any pressure or aversive stimulus to produce it, and then once it is being offered reliably, we introduce a cue. So the behaviour will have been positively reinforced (and this is why the horse will offer that behaviour) and then we can introduce a cue.

The cue becomes associated both with the behaviour that follows it (and we have to introduce the cue AS the behaviour is happening or as we cause it to happen – for example by presenting a target) and with the positive reinforcement that follows.

Cues come to signal the opportunity for positive reinforcement for the behaviour described by the cue.

As for “praise” in a positive reinforcement model – well we can see the bridging stimulus / marker signal / click (if you choose to use a clicker) itself as being a form of “praise” because it is conditioned (learned) to predict that there is going to be food or a good long lip curling scratch.

There really isn’t a much better and more precise form of praise than a short sharp use of a bridging stimulus at the instant that the horse has done a behaviour (or sequence of behaviours) we want more of. And that’s because we would follow that with some food as reinforcement to maintain the association between the bridge (the positive reinforcement equivalent of praise) and the food or scratch (the primary reinforcer).

Verbal praise can also function as a “keep going signal” (a subject for another day and a detailed description) – a stimulus that comes, after correct training, to predict that continuing the behaviour will result in the behaviour being bridged and reinforced eventually.

In summary, vocal cues and commands and praise have no meaning until they are associated with something.

A command becomes a threat that an aversive will be applied for non-response. A positively trained cue becomes a predictor of treats for a correct response.

If we want praise to acquire meaning to a horse, it has to be followed by something that has its own meaning and significance to that animal.

Praise on its own will have little significance if any, until the animal learns that it predicts “something” – whether that is something nice, or the temporary absence of something unpleasant. We choose nice!

Given the choice of threats or treats, we choose treats. We hope you do too!

How to horse without force

Quite recently I’ve seen a lot of organisations or individual professionals who train animals, promoting themselves and what they do as being “force-free.”

I thought it might be useful to examine what might be meant by force-free and to attempt to define it more specifically.

The challenge is, that when it comes to behaviour science and animal training, there is no scientifically agreed definition of the terms “force” or “force-free”. These terms do not exist in behaviour change science, and do not have a “standard” agreed definition in any scientific work that relates to animal keeping or training that I can find. If you think you have found one, please let us know.

If someone says they are “force-free” or that they don’t use any force in their training, all it really means is that they believe that what they are doing or teaching others to do does not involve force. It’s all a matter of opinion, and as we know, opinions differ.

So I am going to share my opinion of what constitutes force when it comes to keeping and training animals. You are welcome to agree or disagree because, like I said, it is a matter of opinion.

It’s probably worth saying that I have yet to achieve the goal of keeping my own horses in a way that is 100 per cent force-free. I’ve literally moved to another country in order to be able to keep them at home and to maximise my chances of being able to operate their living space and their handling and training without any form of compulsion. But I am not always successful.

I keep track of how many days we’ve been able to operate without actually using a halter and lead rope or where we’ve been able to meet their needs and look after them without any compulsion or fear, frustration or apparent stress. At least then I know I am making progress.

The fact that I keep my horses in paddocks surrounded by electric fencing, while we figure out how best to use the grazing here is a major concern to me, and something I spend lots of time agonising over! But that is a short term issue while we rearrange the land and repair damage to fences and gateways and build a holding area for winter, and get onto a rotational system and learn how best to use the resources we have.

When I fail I learn. It causes me to evaluate whether I could have set up the environment better, or done more desensitisation training (not that you can ever do too much) or picked a different time of day, or got someone to help me.

The key I have found though, is to have a clear idea in our own mind about what constitutes force or forceful handling or forceful animal-keeping or training, so as to be very mindful of it when planning on doing things with our animal friends.

I may not go many days that involve what I would consider to be true zero force at the moment, but zero force is my goal.

I believe it’s achievable and that if we adopt a mind-set that is about having a strong intent to be zero-force then it causes us as owners to behave differently. If I approach a situation thinking, “How can I do this without needing to rely on using force?” I believe I will be much more likely to take action to reduce or eliminate the need for it.

The attitude or belief that “using force is inevitable and unavoidable” can cause us to lower our standards and aspirations and to make excuses when the reality is it is often our own lack of planning or forethought that gets us into situations that require the use of force.

Meanwhile let’s turn attention to how we might specifically define force.

Based on my own personal cogitations and explorations into the subject, I would currently define force as follows:

1) When an animal is put under / subjected to an aversive stimulus until it does a behaviour desired by the handler or rider.

This would ordinarily be described as pressure-release / pressure-relief / negative reinforcement. Technically, negative reinforcement describes what is said to have happened when a behaviour increases in frequency as the result of the removal, or the reduction in the strength of an aversive stimulus.

However, in order for a behaviour to be negatively reinforced, there has to be an aversive stimulus applied, (or the animal has to believe one will be applied) to produce or prompt the behavioural response in the first place. So to give it a complete description I prefer to talk about “aversive stimulation with negative reinforcement” to make it clear that the behaviour has been produced in response to some aversive trigger or predictor.

I regard this as using force, because the animal is subjected to some unpleasant, annoying, uncomfortable or painful stimulus, or kept in a situation in which s/he is uncomfortable, anxious or stressed until s/he performs some approximation of a correct behaviour. At which point the handler or rider attempts to provide relief from that situation.

The information this gives to the horse is “you will experience this unpleasantness until you behave differently”.

This is the core method being used in all forms of “natural horsemanship” training. It’s often described as the method used in traditional training, but my own observations are that this is rarely the case.

Unfortunately I usually see aversives / pressure being applied and removed with little regard to the behaviour being performed. Pressure comes on and off and on and off, sometimes without any understanding of the need for aversive removal for reinforcement, and aversives are not necessarily (if ever) reduced or removed when the horse does what the handler or rider wants.

Many folk who are riding traditionally or who are trying to emulate high level riders in equestrian sports seem to me to want to have the horse permanently held in what must be after a short time an uncomfortable “frame” as a means of restraint, with little relief from pressure on the bit or noseband. I am all for horses moving correctly but this can be achieved using either positive or negative reinforcement without the need to hold the head of the horse in place.

2) When an animal is put under / subjected to aversive stimulation until it ceases to perform a behaviour that the handler wants it to stop doing. This would ordinarily be considered to be and referred to as a “correction”.

This form of force can only be referred to as positive punishment if the behaviour has measurably decreased in frequency if the same conditions occur in the future. Very often this doesn’t happen. The reason it doesn’t happen is because as a method of compelling a horse to stop performing a behaviour, it fails to address the reasons why the horse was performing that behaviour in the first place.

Correcting (smacking, admonishing, scolding, lead rope yanking, or burning with your cigarette end – I have recently been speaking with a client in the UK who shows horses, who was advised to do this by a judge) does not change how the horse feels about the trigger stimulus or event that caused him to choose to bite you.

3) Use of manipulation (picking up the animal or using any device attached to the animal) to move all or part of a resisting or protesting or shutdown (learned helpless) animal into a place or position the handler wants.

That would include the use of 1) or 2) combined with manipulation / physical manhandling.

I stress that I regard this as force if the animal shows aversion (resists, moves away, tries to move a handler away from themselves or resigns / submits), because it is very possible to touch or pick up or otherwise manhandle an animal without them finding this aversive and without them complying in order to be released.

There is a big difference between co-operation and consent. A horse may co-operate with, for instance, their legs being held onto and pulled around by a trimmer or farrier if their “co-operation” has been negatively reinforced by being released from being handled or restrained. If we are holding the foot of a horse and the horse resists or struggles a little bit (or a lot!) and we only let go when the horse relaxes, or “yields”, then that would be flooding, with negative reinforcement, if the horse became more likely to comply in the future.

But this is very different to the horse participating and consenting. The horse who is restrained (prevented from moving away) and “forced” to have his foot held until he relaxes it and who gets “better” at having her feet done in future for this reason is probably complying but not necessarily consenting.

To teach an animal that they have the choice and the chance to give consent, we have to make sure they are agreeing to being touched or held onto in the first place and we must let go when they resist, or when they otherwise indicate that they want us to let go.

I am all for a farrier or trimmer holding onto a horse’s foot if they are in the middle of trying to remove a shoe and there is a risk of injury to person or horse from shoe or nails if they were to let go. I just think that unless it is a genuine emergency, they probably should not be trying to remove shoes from an animal that is likely to struggle in the first place. For their own safety. And that it’s our responsibility to train the animal for this predictable situation, so that we don’t put our farriers or trimmers at risk.

4) Restraint. Preventing the voluntary and desired physical movement of all or part of an animal either by a person holding onto the animal or leaving the animal attached to a fixed object or leaving the animal wearing a device that prevents voluntary movement of all or part of the body. Including attaching to the animal any rope, harness, collar and lead, head collar and rope, bitless or bitted bridle, martingale, draw reins, (and any other reins or head-gear attachments designed to restrict movement) hobbles, tethers or jesses.

For many animals restraint is aversive in and of itself. Just because an animal ceases to try to be free of restraint does not indicate acceptance. If anything this is much more likely to be indicative of learned helplessness – a condition in which the animal ceases to seek to escape an inescapable aversive situation.

Again, like manhandling and manipulation, it is possible to restrain an animal with their consent with careful desensitisation and counter-conditioning and / or positive reinforcement.

5) Routine and prolonged confinement of a healthy animal in a cage, crate, stable, trailer, horse box, round pen or yard, car, kennel.

Use of any construction designed to restrict or deny freedom of movement.

If we thinking about the ethology of the horse, and from the point of view of the horse, we would never assume that any horse would initially feel safe being contained in a small space, or to be isolated from others.

Sometimes we choose to keep horses in stables, pens, stalls and so on, for their longevity or comfort.

Perhaps because they would get laminitic on unlimited grass, or be miserable in heat and flies. But there is ample evidence that prolonged physical confinement is detrimental to the emotional and physical well being of horses.

I firmly believe that it is essential to train horses for confinement in the event that they have to be kept stabled, stalled or in a small outside yard or small pen for medical reasons, where movement must be restricted or where controlled exercise is prescribed.

I am also a strong advocate of training them to handle being travelled and separated is also important, should they need to be transported to a vet. But I also recommend that this must be done in advance, and I believe this can be done on a gradual basis, associating short periods of confinement with good things happening.

But we all have emergencies! And that’s where the final paragraphs of my definition of force are as important as the rest. So please read on to the end of this article if you are feeling judged about your occasional use of force or for keeping your horses confined for some of the time. There are good and legitimate reasons to keep horses confined in some circumstances and training them for confinement, but it will require some exposure to being confined to be associated with something they really like.

The ideal would be to give them the choice when it comes to shelter from heat, flies, wind, snow and ice or mud. Sometimes we personally wish we had much more say and choice of how they are turned out to graze and we wish our horses had more say in whose company they keep. When it comes to confinement and horse keeping, sometimes we have to do the best we can with what resources we have.

When I had my horses at livery I am certain that they both suffered far more from being out without any shelter in summer than they ever did stabled over night of the muddy fields in winter. But that’s just my opinion!

6) Exposing the animal to a feared stimulus, event or situation while preventing escape either through confinement or restraint or correction, until the animal ceases to seek to escape and appears to calm down or give up.

This is more commonly known as flooding. It’s extremely commonly used – and often done in conjunction with negative reinforcement – the animal is released only when they appear to be calm or calmer – and punishment – the animal is corrected for trying to escape.

Where correction or “response prevention” methods are used, in which aversives are added (bit or halter pressure or whip taps on the chest given to stop the horse from going forward or to make the horse back up, rather than go forward in flight) to prevent attempts to escape, this can result in conditioned suppression.

7) The use of food to lure animals into confinement or that results in restraint or aversive handling.

This may seem an odd one. But for a force-free trainer there are few things as difficult to deal with as an animal who has been entrapped with food. It associates an unpleasant experience with the appearance of food, and can seriously impair the efforts of any trainer to use food from people for counter-conditioning purposes.

8) Withholding access to food in an effort to build an appetite or hunger. This is sometimes used by trainers to create motivation to do a behaviour the animal has previously resisted or is expected to resist, because we know that deprivation creates motivation to satisfy the animal’s innate needs (for forage, friends or freedom – depending on the species). This can put the animal into an approach-avoidance conflict situation where they have to choose between something they need (food) and something they don’t want to do.

Contrary to popular belief – ethical positive reinforcement trainers would never withhold food from an animal to produce motivation to behave for food. It remains a common practice, referred to as “weight management” amongst some bird trainers, and a practice that is being challenged by advocates for force-free training such as Barbara Heidenreich.

But as far as our organisation is concerned, our instructors actively encourage people to try to always have the horse’s normal source of fibre forage available (grass or hay) when training horses because of the nature of the digestive system of equines as trickle feeders. We also find that this mitigates the risk of conflict, particularly with horses whose owners are making the transition from aversive methods or where the horse has become sensitised to and is fearful of people, places and things.

9) Making access to food (or indeed friends or freedom) contingent on enduring a feared stimulus.

This means making food available only if the animal approaches or stays close to a feared stimulus.

This is different to using food for counter-conditioning. When we use food for counter-conditioning purposes, the animal does not have to “behave” to get the food.

What I am referred to here are some uses of positive reinforcement to “encourage” animals to approach or touch feared stimuli. This can create emotional conflict, and in many situations the use of habituation techniques or a structured programme of systematic desensitisation (graduated exposure) and counter-conditioning (pairing a very mild aversive stimulus with something the animal finds very desirable) would be a preferable solution.

10. Yeah, but!

I hear you! Your wails of “Yeah but!” and “What if….?” are loud and clear and coming from all around the globe!

I can hear your fingers on the keyboard as you compose your retort of “So, are you expecting us to let our horses just walk out in front of traffic because to prevent that would be a form of force?”

To quote our coach Vikki Spit, “No we aren’t. And if any other of our friends walked out in front of a car, we’d push or pull them out of the way as well.”

In the end we do what we have to do for the horse. But if you have a horse in a situation in which they aren’t trained yet with positive reinforcement at all, or they aren’t responding to the cues you have trained with positive reinforcement, then ideally it’s preferable to stay away from roads. Because whenever you apply an aversive stimulus – pressure – to stop or to produce a behaviour, you run the risk of the animal associating that with anything in the environment that she is responding to, through the process of classical conditioning. And you risk potentially sensitising the horse to traffic by associating its approach with something that the horse finds unpleasant.

I’ve just been talking to a student of mine who has a new horse, and one of her first observations about him was that “He doesn’t know anything!”

By this she means that she has no behaviours trained with him at all, he has not been desensitised to being hosed with water, and yet she is having to currently handle him in and out of a stable and try to cold-hose some wounds he gained on his journey to her yard.

The reality is that we can all get into situations for which we are unprepared or for which the horse is untrained.

When we are in those situations we often think we have no option but to use either medical sedation or aversive means of control, restraint or confinement. Very often we are right, and when there really is no other option then I’d be the first to recommend restraint or negative reinforcement if it were essential to get something done for the good of the horse.

But sometimes we also need to use our imagination so that we don’t feel like we have no choice but to use force.

I am very proud of my student – especially as she is a new horse owner – that she had the imagination to get the help of some people to scratch the horse all over while she examined his wounds.

Until we have some behaviours trained with positive reinforcement, or we find a place to keep them where they don’t really need to be handled at all, then if we have to make a behaviour happen, or do something for the horse where – for their own immediate safety or medical treatment – consent is not really an option, then I’d say that when all else has failed, then some form of force may well have to be our choice.

I can easily justify the use of force on a temporary or occasional basis, where the animal would suffer if we didn’t, or to bring the animal’s suffering or distress to an end sooner.

But I also think we need to use our imagination and resources much better to demonstrate that we’ve exhausted the options available to us in terms of how we keep the animal and organise his environment, and to prevent the animal from being at risk of, or coming to emotional or physical harm in the first place.

Avoiding the need for forceful handling probably comes down to us having learned strategies to prevent and avoid it, and to cultivating a much more active imagination!

What needs to be true for me to ride a horse with positive reinforcement?

I wrote a bit of an essay for my private students group recently and they liked it a lot so it’s finally been promoted to a blog post.

Its about what needs to be true for us to ride our equines successfully using aversive-free methods.

I wrote it specifically for someone new to training with positive reinforcement (+R) who wanted to have a bigger picture of where the training of standing still and facing forwards or target training were going to lead, and how they translated into riding eventually.

So this is for anyone who is interested in what it takes to train a horse for riding with +R, and its sister processes – systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning.

So for clarity, my definition of training with +R means using a way to form the behaviour that does not involve any form of aversive stimulus. So that means that we do not use any traditional “aids” and there is absolutely no use of bits or bitless bridles, no rein contact or pressure on the horse’s head.

The rider’s legs hang loose down by the side of the horse and are not used to prompt the behaviour from the horse. It also means no use of conventional whips, crops or schooling whips or natural horsemanship type sticks, flags or whip-whop ropes or lead ropes or whatever.

None of those things are used to produce behaviour or reinforce it. If a headcollar or bitless bridle is worn it’s for insurance or safety reasons – and used only when something untrained-for happens to stop the horse so the rider can get off.

So, there are two key categories of training that I work on with horses I am wanting to train for riding with +R. And an extra one if you want to ride or walk out with a horse away from where they live.

Category 1) Get behaviours required for riding on cue

This means training the horse to respond to non-aversive cues (which could be one or more of audible, visual or touch – including weight shifts from the rider) for producing movement from the horse. So these are cues that you would need to be able to manoeuvre a horse:

– Stand still
– Whoa (come to a halt from ANY gait)
– Walk on
– Trot
– Canter
– Back up
– Turn the front end of the horse
– Turn the back end of the horse

Movement (walk, trot, canter) I assume to be in a straight line without turning, other than to avoid environmental obstacles.

Those manoeuvres are more or less the minimum required to be able to ride a horse out on a trail or hack – and to be able to negotiate gates.

I also assume that when training movement that the movement is trained in such a way as to produce biomechanically healthy posture.

If you have cues for the horse that you can use to produce stand still, walk on and whoa and you’ve trained those cues so that they work when you are on the back of the horse, then you can technically ride, with positive reinforcement-only cues, in a fenced off space.

With those behaviours on cue, you can get on (the horse needs to stand still for this), you can get the horse to move forwards (I’d count “riding” as being on top of a moving horse) and you can bring the horse to a stop and then get the horse to stand long enough to get off again.

But you’d of course be a bit mad to do this without the other category of training which I personally consider to be as important – if not more important!

Category 2) Desensitisation (and often also) counter-conditioning to distractions

This involves teaching the horse to be blasé and disinterested in, and to pretty much ignore everything but the cues coming from you.

If you really want both yourself and the horse to have a good experience riding, then you want a horse that is very focussed on the cues coming from you and not on other things going on in the environment.

So she needs to be confident about everything she might meet, she needs to be calm (she will be if she is well trained using +R and understands how to respond to your cues and she is confident about what he might meet) and she needs to be able to focus on cues from you when necessary.

Some people like to call this “connection” but what it means is that the horse pays most attention to the cues from us and little or no attention to “cues” or interference or distractions from the environment.

That doesn’t mean we want the horse so focussed on us that he doesn’t even notice other things in the environment – but that when he notices them he goes “Oh, it’s a dog / car / cyclist / other horse / pheasant / plastic bag / squirrel / llama / cow / sheep / quad bike / tractor ….. whatever.”

So the key thing is to work and work and work on exposing the horse to those kinds of stimuli and experiences, starting at super low strength, and either reinforcing the horse FOR ignoring them or after they’ve had a look and decided that whatever it is is now boring and ignorable, OR pairing those things with food from a great distance and keeping that distance large to begin with so that when they appear the horse thinks “Oooh dogs! My favourite!” or “Oooh tractors! My favourite!” etc etc.

This is where you really want to spend a lot of your time with a horse that you want to ride. Because it’s that ability to ignore the rest of the world and to be ready to pay attention to cues from you that can make all the difference between riding being fun and riding being frightening – because you feel you have no control.

And let’s be honest, if you are on top of an animal that has the capacity to go from nought to quite fast (I’ve never got above about 15mph on my horse but that felt fast!) or quite fast to stop, and to turn through 180 degrees or do a handstand or belly button display at a moment’s notice then you want to feel like you do have some influence over when that happens .

The other special category of training is the one you will need if you ever want to ride a horse anywhere but his own paddock or field or track.

Category 3) Desensitisation and counter conditioning to separation

Unless you are lucky enough to be able to take your horse out with his best field friends whenever you ride and those field friends are also calm and confident and well trained horses, then you will almost definitely have separation anxiety as an extra and huge challenge when it comes to taking horses out away from home whether riding or on foot.

I’d say this is something that has to be worked on ALL the time, even once you think it’s really good and improved you can never do too much work on desensitisation and counter-conditioning to separation.

Part of the key is to make sure that you start by leaving the property in distances that should be measured in millimetres and and not kilometres (I call this micro-hacking) and that the horse has a LOT of appetitive experiences away from home. The other is making sure that you become a big conditioned positive reinforcer for your horse so that he associates you and being with you with good stuff.

We know that horses do show conditioned place preference. They will gravitate towards places and things where they’ve had good experiences and away from those where they have had bad experiences. We want to be one of those places where they’ve had lots of good experiences – so that we are a portable place they will prefer to be!

When it comes to training the specific repeatable behaviours we want on cue (the first category) then my personal preference is to do as much of that as possible with target training and I always walk out and ride with a target stick so that I can use that in situations where I may need to get a horse’s attention back if I’ve lost it, or to convince a horse to want to go a direction that would not necessarily be his choice that day.

So for those just starting out who are wondering why so much emphasis is placed on standing still and basic targeting – this is why.

It’s what we need for everything else! And a great way to #recycleyourwhip, to boot.

Don’t forget that we at Horse Charming are always available for personal coaching, face to face or by video on any aspect of training horses for riding.

Have a look at our page on courses, consultations and lessons for more information on that.

Skinning the cat on the road to Rome

People who don’t like to have the practices they sell by way of horse training explained from a psychology, neuroscience or ethology perspective will sometimes try to suggest that doing something as simple as explaining how their method works to them or others who follow them is disrespectful to their ideas or way of thinking.

They will argue that there is more than one way to skin a cat or that several roads lead to Rome or that it’s possible to get 9 by adding 6 and 3 as well as by adding 4 and 5.

They will argue that we should all “respect” each others ideas and opinions about how to form and reinforce or reduce behaviour in a horse.

This always smacks to me of wilful ignorance – when someone rejects information that they could read in any psychology text and shoots the messenger or encourages others to do so, and chooses to disagree with it simply because they don’t like it and the implications of it for what they do to horses.

I respect science and people who rely on it and I actually think that anyone who sells services to other people to teach them how to train horses is negligent if they fail to inform themselves fully about how learning comes about, instead relying on folklore, as the basis for what they sell by way of advice to others.

Because if you don’t know how animals learn then you can give a lot of advice on technique and tools and never produce the end result you want, even if you do it correctly.

Training horses is not simple arithmetic. You can get the same result by frightening or annoying or pressurising a horse until he does what you want or you can teach him by setting him up to do it on his own and rewarding it.

If 9 is behaviour and all you want is some action out of a horse then 5 + 4 or 6 + 3 or 2 + 7 or 11 – 2 are all viable ways to get there. That is not in dispute.

They might all “work” for the trainer or for you to get to 9, but what about how they feel to the horse?

Numbers do not care which way we add them up to get to 9 and vehicles do not care how they are driven to get to Rome.


When we use systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning our aim is to expose the horse or donkey, pony or mule to a feared stimulus or situation at a strength at which the animal can cope and shows no fear – and to pair something liked with that in order to change the animal’s perception and emotional response from fear, dislike or avoidance to either neutral or attractive.

When we use positive reinforcement, our aim is to set up the environment so that the animal will choose the behaviour we want more of so that we can mark and reinforce that behaviour with something the animal enjoys, so as to encourage her to repeat it.

In both those cases this involves us actively making effort to avoid the animal experiencing physical or emotional discomfort.

This is very different to traditional or natural horsemanship training in which the animal is put under emotional or physical pressure – some kind of aversive stimulus is applied – until the animal does something we want.

Horses are, for most people I want to train, not just numbers and not vehicles. And the cat does not want to be skinned anyway.

From the point of view of the horse, training horses is not just about getting to 9. It really matters a heck of a lot to the horse which road to Rome you choose to take.

Poisoned cue, or poisoned you?

I’ve been inspired recently to finally write about something that often happens when we first start to train our horses with positive reinforcement.

It happened to me. It will be happening or have happened to you as you switch from aversive training to training your animals with positive reinforcement.

It will be happening to those people who are sometimes using aversives and sometimes using appetitives (food or scratches) as reinforcers with their horses.

It will be happening to those who are using aversives to get behaviour and then clicking and treating (or just treating their horses) for it.

It will also be happening to people who think they have never intentionally made themselves aversive to, or used aversives with their horses, but who have horses who have been owned by other people who have done so.

You will recognise it when you see the difference between how your horse reacts when you are with him, compared to how he reacts when, say, you have a family member or friend who rarely sees your horse come and visit, or a positive reinforcement instructor come and teach you how to train your horse.

What you will notice is that your horse may react differently to someone she rarely sees, or has never met, or who they have only known as someone who comes bearing treats.

It’s the story of how I watched my horse fall in love with a lovely equine behaviour and training specialist Dr Helen Spence – right in front of my eyes – and what it brought home to me.

It’s pretty sad and at the same time enlightening and empowering if you choose to let it be. I hope you do because my intention is not to make you miserable or guilty or regretful but to actually inspire you to make some really significant changes to how you behave around your horses sooner rather than later.

It’s the story of how easily we can become a source of conflict for our horses and how that can affect their emotions and behaviour.

Whenever I go to teach someone I am aware of it, and I am tuned in to the behaviours that horses will show when they are anxious about the person at the same time as wanting to stay around to get the food. And that is because I see it an awful lot.

The reason I mention it is because a friend has recently become more aware of the phenomenon known as the poisoned cue and has been particularly emotionally affected by seeing how an animal “looks” when they are experiencing this kind of training.

The term, coined by Karen Pryor in 2002 refers to a cue for a behaviour that is associated with both negative and positive reinforcement at the same time.

To poison a cue all it would really require is for a person to give a cue, enforce the cue (make the animal perform the cued behaviour) with some kind of aversive stimulus, and then remove the aversive and click and give the animal a treat.

If the animal were to then perform the behaviour on cue, the trainer would click and treat. If when the cue were used the animal did not perform the behaviour, an aversive stimulus would be applied to compel the animal to perform the cued behaviour, and the trainer would then click and treat.

What happens in this situation is that it produces a different kind of emotional response to that seen when either negative reinforcement alone, or positive reinforcement alone are used.

Animals typically show reluctance, and visible signs of anxiety or distress and very often the animal can appear to freeze or show hesitation in responding.

The advice of those in the know about this phenomenon is that when we realise that we have poisoned a cue, the best thing to do is to completely change that cue. Retrain the behaviour from scratch, using only positive reinforcement (and one of a choice of free shaping, luring or target training), and introduce a new cue altogether. If that is an audible cue it needs to sound totally different, and if it is a visual cue it needs to look completely different.

That means that we need to move differently if our movement is any part of the cue, and we need to make a totally different sound if we are using a vocal cue.

And that’s all very well. But there is a limit to how different we can make those cues and even to how practical it is to do so.

If we are training our horse to lead, for instance, we can’t do that without walking ourselves. And for many horses, the movement the human makes walking is a conditioned predictor of the lead rope pulling on the halter on their head, for any horse with a traditional or natural horsemanship training background.

So the cue may be extremely difficult to change – even if we use a different vocal cue (if we ever did use a vocal cue in the first place) because our movement is an unavoidable part of the cue.

But the killer thing to realise – and it kills you inside when you do – is that so is our very presence there, while all this is happening – at our hands – with the animal.

Everything in the environment can become associated with and therefore part of the cue. And in fact our very presence is a cue in and of itself. When we are with our animals, we are the universal stimulus that predicts both positive AND negative reinforcement – appetitives and aversives – if that’s what we are doing.

It’s important to remember that there are only two forms of reinforcement. If we come from a background where we haven’t been using appetitive training (using food or scratches as reinforcement for behaviour that has not been produced using any kind of aversive stimulus) there really is only one other kind of reinforcement we can have been using if we’ve been intentionally trying to train behaviours and get those on cue.

And that’s negative reinforcement. Behaviour that is trained through negative reinforcement is produced by the application of some kind of aversive stimulus. It’s the cessation of or reduction in the strength of the aversive that reinforces the desired behaviour.

The only other alternatives to getting an animal to do (or not do) what we want, are sedation, manipulation and restraint.

In the end, even if we completely alter how we train our horses – overnight, all-in, removing all use of aversives (all and any kind of pressure, coercion, force, threats or corrections) from our training approach, we simply cannot expect to instantly change how we have come to be perceived.

Not overnight, not in a week, maybe not for years, and perhaps in some cases with severely human-traumatised horses, never.

In the same way that if we started to wear completely different clothes around people, I am not at all sure that even if we wear different clothes, a different hat, change the way we walk or try to use a different tone of voice that any horse is going to be fooled by that.

For one thing it would be immensely difficult to sustain and for another there are way too many things about ourselves that we do or that we “are” that differentiate us from other humans or other animals.

The first time we often see this poisoned cue “effect” is when we first start to train our horse with positive reinforcement.

We can see it either when we are training a default behaviour – stand still and face forward (differential reinforcement for behaviour incompatible with foraging on us) or doing some basic target training, or even during some initial desensitisation and counter conditioning to something – including to ourselves as humans or ourselves as an individual.

What we can see is the horse showing sign of anxiety. They come close because that’s where the food is, but then what we see is them fidgeting or face-pulling or ears back or the turning the head away as an appeasement signal / calming signal. This is happening because the horse feels threatened, but they are staying put because they want the food.

It’s a perfect example of a behaviour performed in a conflict situation where the horse wants one thing – the food – but wants to avoid the other – being chased away or in any way treated aversively – as is their reasonable expectation when their whole life experience has been of mostly aversive handling from people.

What they most often show though is a mix of frustration about the food and anxiety about the situation and the person.

So the nipping, the nose pushing, the behaviour of walking across us when we try to walk with them or away from them, the ears back, the tightness around the face, tail swishing, pawing, fidgeting, distractability, lack of focus, geldings dropping their willy, yawning, licking and chewing or even turning to scratch themselves a lot are so often borne out of that toxic mix of anxiety about us as a species or as individuals tangled up with frustration about not being able to get the food out of us, or to even be able to think straight about how to.

Very often this behaviour is attributed – incorrectly – to clicker training. It’s believed that it’s the clicker training with food that causes horses to nip, push, barge, bite, charge, drop their penis or snap at us.

It’s not. It’s the fact that the horse is in a conflicted emotional state. And that conflict is caused not by the food alone, but by the combination of food and the aversive expectations the animal has because of what we – or others – have done before.

What this means is that when we are training we need to be thinking really hard about how to mitigate and reduce that, as well as recognising (and not beating ourselves up about the fact that) it’s inevitable to some extent because we are aversive predictors when we first start out.

It’s why we so often advocate protected contact – training from behind a barrier. It means that as we learn to change our own behaviour in response to undesirable behaviour from our horses, we are less likely to react reflexively and defensively if a horse goes to nip or push us – because to do that would be a perfect way to confirm their pessimistic perception.

The other reason for protected contact is so that we can have some distance between us and the horse. If the horse is anxious with us close but stays close to us for the food, then it’s very difficult to even begin to help them be calmer. But if we stand a little way away from them – something that the barrier would allow us to do without them following – that makes it impossible for them to perform some of the behaviours we would not want to see, and would find hard to ignore, and it can help them to feel less anxious about what we might do.

The final thing I could add on this is that it’s the big reason why we advocate short sessions of training early on.

These two things – training in protected contact and short sessions – are things that it seems so hard to convince people to do. It’s as if people feel that they aren’t good trainers if they have to be behind a barrier or if they can only train for 1 minute. They aren’t. The best training I’ve seen has been behind a barrier and for 20 seconds at a time.

And the reason for this is that, like any other aversive to which we are trying to desensitise and counter condition the horse, we want to make those exposures really short, and sweet and over fast.

Low strength, short duration exposures to mildly feared stimuli would be the recipe for desensitisation and counter conditioning.

If we are trying to counter condition the horse to us as a species or individual then training that is measured in seconds and not minutes is the key.

As is training in which the horse feels she can leave if she wants to.

And training in which the food value isn’t so high that the horse over-faces himself because he wants the food.

And training in which the horse feels protected from us and in which we protect ourselves and our horses from our own reflexes or patterns of correction or chastisement or defensiveness.

I’d been a poisoned cue for years with my horse when he met Helen Spence.

It’s normal! Sometimes we behave in ways the horse finds aversive, sometimes we don’t.

Sometimes we bring food. Sometimes when we bring food we also drive the horse away from it and cause the horse to fear us when there is food around.

Sometimes I was asking for behaviour with aversives and clicking and treating for it.

Sometimes I was using target training alone or free shaping or luring.

At other times I was using negative reinforcement and punishment.

But when I saw the response of my horse to Helen, everything changed for me.

He’d never met her before and when he did the experience with her was appetitive from start to finish (apart from one part when he went totally over threshold due to some other nearby horses running around) and in which she and I were in the training area with him. I am sure he did not associate that with us.

But what I saw was his expression when he was with Helen. He was all “You seem really nice. What are we going to be doing?”

With me I could see he was always thinking “Not sure about you. You’ve been pretty horrible to me in the past. How do I know you’ve really changed? But yeah, I’ll touch your hand for some food if I must.”

And to make it worse I had to “Parelli” him back on the trailer to go home after that clinic. I promised I’d never take him to another away from home clinic and I made some other promises to him then as well. Not that it mattered to him what I said. We can promise and praise and apologise with words all we like – but it’s only ever our behaviour that counts.

Watching Archie with Helen was like watching a good friend with a new partner who adores her – and her him, after seeing how different she looks to all the times you’ve seen her when she has taken back (for the umpteenth time to your bewilderment) a husband or partner who has been abusive or unfaithful or selfish. It’s difficult to see how there will ever really be trust in the relationship. The wife is always guarded or expecting the worst nightmare to repeat itself. Expecting to be betrayed or hurt or to be overlooked or taken for granted.

And I felt like it might be for that abusive partner who knows what he has done, and has made all his pathetic excuses for it, but is now watching his wife with her new lover.

It was when all my knowledge of poisoned cues came together. I knew all about poisoned cues but I hadn’t really been looking hard enough at myself as part of the cue.

It was when I saw my horse with someone with whom he had only good associations – probably for the first time in his life – that I saw the way in which we become poisoned ourselves as individuals – or by association – as a species.

Because the way he looked at and behaved around me was very different to the way he looked at Helen.

And I stood there trying hard not to cry, being angry at myself for all the claptrap I’d fallen for in the past and being mad as hell at the people who were perpetuating it. And feeling like I needed to rescue from it all the horses of my friends still doing it. It was a typical grieving process.

We positive training converts and apostles don’t bang on about avoiding aversives with horses for the sake of it.

We don’t do it because we think people who use aversives are all evil or nasty. I firmly believe that the only reason most people are using aversives with horses is because they don’t know what else to do or because they are themselves in deep emotional conflict that is resolved by their apparent cognitive dissonance.

They love their horse but they are also afraid of their horse. Or they love their horse but they care too much about what other people think of them.

Or they love their horse but what they want the horse to do is just 1 percent more important than how the horse feels about it.

And that will be true of all other aspects of their life. The relationship we have with the horse is where everything about our belief systems, our attitudes, our neuroses, our fears and our desires is laid bare.

We don’t bang on about aversives because we want to shame people out of being aversive with horses. It’s because we’ve experienced the shame of the realisation of how the horse is looking at us.

We do it because many of us have been through that grief and felt intense shame ourselves deep down inside. And because the only way out of that feeling is through it. As fast as possible.

The best way to make peace with yourself is honesty. If I could save anyone from the experience of seeing their adored horse fall head over heels with someone else then I would. It’s a killer. It breaks your heart.

But it is also intensely empowering if you choose to let it be so.

I saw my horse fall in love with Helen and it made me determined to BE his Helen Spence.

I saw that look and I said to myself “I want THAT!”

We’re a work in progress, but I think we’re doing OK. Actually no, I will correct myself. We’re doing really great.


The Effects of Combining Positive and Negative Reinforcement during Training – Nicole A. Murrey https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/26ba/1a8d8ee2c088af43f80e10b7e0f65748cd01.pdf

How the choice of reinforcement effects the perceptions horses have of humans. Sankey, C., Richard-Yris, MA., Henry, S. et al. Animal Cognition (2010)


Do you use clicker training? Or do you want to be a positive reinforcer?

Years ago when I first started using clicker training it was with the mindset that I wanted to “fix” my horse.

He had had a horrible existence in his early life as evidenced by some of his dramatic escape behaviour when ridden and on the ground. He would buck sky high at the drop of a hat.

It was a learned behaviour he had likely acquired in some fairly major one-time-learning event and it was his behaviour of choice in any situation in which he was either being put under pressure to do something he did not want to do, or prevented from doing something he felt was very necessary or preferable to what the rider wanted.

I had one lesson years and years ago and very early on our relationship in which in an effort to get more impulsion from my “lazy” horse, my instructor had me “tap” him with a schooling whip, in the usual position behind my lower leg.

He bucked each time I applied the whip, and then started to buck before I could apply it, so my Advanced Instructor informed me of the need to keep whipping him until he stopped bucking and went forwards instead.

The solution for lack of forwards was hitting and the solution for stopping was “pull its bloody back teeth out”.

That was the beginning of the end of my respect for the methods of those in the mainstream equestrian establishment.

I enlisted the help of numerous more experienced friends to ride Archie in an effort to find a solution. We used to have parties at home on his gotcha day (which is incidentally Halloween and for a good long while it did seem that we had the horse from hell) and I would ask all my friends to form a circle. I would ask those who had ridden him to take a step forward into the centre.

And then I would ask those who had been bucked off or who had otherwise fallen off to take a step back to rejoin the circle. There was only one person standing in the centre and that was my lovely and loyal friend Anne P who gave us an incredible amount of patient and good humoured help over the years. I think without her help we would have had more disasters than we did. She was the only one who managed to ride him in a way that entitled her to the great honour of being allowed to stay in the saddle.

During that time I dabbled with clicker training for a while but no one I read or asked seem to have any clue about how to keep him from bucking.

I used clicker training as what I called an accelerator for a long time – I’d use some aversive stimulus (pressure) to try to get some behaviour and then click for it, but it never really produced any great increase in performance, enthusiasm or attitude. And it didn’t stop the bucking.

I progressed to following many of the different strains of so called natural horsemanship and I finally began to understand some of what my BHS instructor had been trying to convey.

I got really good at using punishment (corrections) to deter unwanted behaviour and intercepting or avoiding doing things that might get us into a bucking situation.

And at the same time I kept using clicker training alongside the punishment and negative reinforcement as a “tool” to try to get more of what I wanted.

What I realised after many many years of intense study of and major expenditure on learning about so many different methods (all of which boiled down to the same thing) was that what really matters is not what tools you use, but how your horse perceives you overall.

I was “using” clicker training and I was “using” natural horsemanship and I was “using” various bits of equipment and tools and techniques and principles because in the end it came down to the fact that I had the “user” mindset and that I was so frustrated because I couldn’t use my horse the way I wanted.

I was using my horse as a vehicle for my entertainment and enjoyment. And the only reason I was putting effort into all that learning was because I was missing out on what I wanted and had dreamed of when I brought him home to live with us in 2001.

For as long as what the horse wants to do is even 1 percent less important than what we want then we tend to see training methods as tools.

This is what I call the horse operator mindset. Those who have had that horse operator mindset like myself, want to learn ways to better operate the horse as a vehicle or a piece of equipment.

We want to manoeuvre his body around either with us on the ground or on his back, we want him to comply with our requests to go from a to b without any resistance. We want him to show no reaction to any of what we consider to be irrelevant stimuli, because his inattention to our commands detracts from what we want or it makes us nervous or afraid or frustrated.

We want him to listen to us and do what we ask immediately without hesitation or question. We look at horses who behave like that for their riders and we say “Oh isn’t he a good horse” when the reality is that he is often a disenchanted and helpless automaton. We applaud and reward the skills used to produce a compliant ridden horse with gold medals at the Olympics. That level of control of the horse is regarded as the pinnacle of achievement.

Those of us in the horse operator mindset say we want a relationship with the horse but the reality is that we only appreciate him when he is doing what we want and we are very ready to correct him when he steps out of line.

That is not a partnership or a friendship. I can’t even think of a word for it but a horse in that situation is really little more than a slave.

If we want that kind of relationship with a ridden being, we would all be much better off and happier with a motorbike (although I’ve been bucked off one of those as well – but that is another story).


What we need to ask ourselves really is whether we see clicker training as a tool or whether we want to be positive reinforcers to our horse.

When we aim to be positive reinforcers for our horses then we go beyond operant conditioning as a tool to get more of what we want and we begin to see that we are a conditioned stimulus to our horse.

What that means is that horses learn and make decisions about how they perceive us whenever we are present, based on how we move, what we do or say, how we react or respond to them as fellow beings, the choices we make about our own actions and behaviour and the things to which we expose our horses. These all have meaning to the horse and they associate all of that with, and form their opinion of us and what we represent, accordingly.

Horses have opinions and form perceptions of us that are based on all of those things about how we behave.

We can’t use clicker training one minute and then be correcting the horse for unwanted behaviour the next, or using some kind of aversive control in one context and then giving the horse a treat or scratch in another and expect to have ourselves be positively regarded by our animals.

If we really want it to be about the relationship, then we go beyond using tools or techniques or methods and we ask ourselves how we can go about enabling the horse to express his opinions and to make genuine choices and how we can stop associating ourselves with unpleasantness, coercion, force, pressure, correction or compulsion.

Being a positive reinforcer is much more about an entire way of being – a lifestyle – and not about the choice of tool or method of reinforcement, of which there are only two.

If you’re not putting all your effort into avoiding the use of aversive stimuli to deter or to produce and reinforce behaviour, then you might be using clicker training as a tool but you aren’t yet in the positive reinforcement mindset.

For me, for my team and for the people we like to help with their horses this is about making dramatic and profound changes to the co-existence and relationships of people and horses and about challenging the attitudes that people have towards horses and ponies.

It’s not about using clicker training as a tool or an accelerator or as a means to an end or to get the horse to behave himself or to do some kind of entertaining trick or to improve his “performance” as a vehicle.

It’s about forming relationships with animals that involve busting a gut to associate ourselves with good things.

We don’t “use” clicker training. Our aim is to be perceived by our animals as positive reinforcers.

Adopt that mindset, and this will change everything about the relationship you will have with your pony, donkey, mule or horse.

In fact it is the only thing that will change the attitude and behaviour of your animals.

Because in the end the only attitude and behaviour you can really change is your own.