Monthly Archives: January 2015

Do horses look at things to out-focus us?

The startle response of a horse is his involuntary reaction to the sudden appearance of an unexpected or unfamiliar stimulus.

Anyone with a horse has probably experienced the horse startling in some or all of these types of situation:

  • When something suddenly comes into the environment or to the attention of the horse, such as a bird flying out from a bush, or a person whizzing past on a bicycle, or a judge passing a rosette to the rider
  • When the horse is surprised by a sudden noise, such as the air brakes on a bus or truck, the clatter of hooves that are out of sight, fireworks, or a bird scarer going off
  • When something with which the horse is familiar in one place, appears in a different place or position to normal, or moves differently to normal – a jacket or rug hanging over a wall or fence, a feed bucket blowing across a field in the wind

When a horse notices something like this at low strength – from a distance, at low “volume”, small in size, and when he is otherwise calm and relaxed, the startle response may be no more than a sudden shift of the attention of the horse towards whatever has distracted him. He might momentarily divert all of his attention to appraising whatever it is, he may turn around or approach it to have a better look, he may keep very still so as to listen.

Having performed whatever investigation he deems necessary to decide that it is benign, he might then return to whatever he was doing having filed that “something” in the box in his brain that is labeled “not to be worried about”.

At greater strength, or when the horse is already anxious or under stress, the startle may be followed fairly rapidly by freeze, or freeze then flight, or fight, or a bit of each – such as a horse freezing for a few moments before setting off in flight, kicking out behind him as he runs away.

The thing to remember about the startle is that it is involuntary. The horse cannot choose whether or not to startle at something that appears suddenly, any more than we can.

There are some horse trainers who advocate the use of correction – the addition of an aversive stimulus – to discourage what is sometimes called a loss of “focus” from horse.

But are horses really trying to “out-focus” us or challenge our leadership when they look at things that come up in the environment or that come suddenly to their attention?

It would appear not, because the startle response is a reflex – which means that it is a reaction that is not under the horse’s conscious control.

This is why it is described as an involuntary response. The horse cannot control his startle response any more than we can stop ourselves from blinking if something is squirted into our eye.

The lack of a startle response from a horse should actually be a cause of concern for horse owners. A horse that seems not to notice sudden or unexpected events could be suffering from injury or illness. Many horses that are unresponsive or seem oblivious to what is going on around them – so called “bomb-proof” horses – are in reality often in a depressed state of learned helplessness. This is where horses cease to respond to things that they might reasonably be expected to perceive as threats, having been subjected to unpredictable and inescapable or persistent aversive treatment.

The fact that the startle response is involuntary, makes the correction of startle behaviour by the addition of an aversive stimulus – a bump on the rein to bring the horse’s head back to the centre, or a tap with a stick, or even a half halt – a rather unfair and pointless intervention from the human, because a horse cannot choose whether or not to startle, any more than we can.

The horse does not have a choice. The startle is a reaction over which he has no control.

The best way to prevent a small startle escalating into a full-on flight response is preparation.

That would involve introducing the horse to very low strengths of different distractions, stimuli and situations in advance, at home or where we can carefully control the environment so as to avoid overexposing the horse.

Dominance, Disrespect and the many reasons why horses come into our space

Horses come towards us, into our imaginary personal space, with their head or feet or body for a number of reasons. This is often a real safety problem for owners, or for people who handle the horse for them.

Sometimes people describe a horse that does this as “pushy” or “bargy” or they describe the horse as “disrespectful” or “dominant”.

People describe the behaviour of horses like this, often without thinking about it, because that is what other people do. For the most part, horse owners and workers in the horse industry learn how to handle horses by listening to, watching and copying what others say and do, often without any formal education in horse behaviour, or in how horses learn or in the application of that to training. That isn’t unusual. It’s how we learn many attitudes and behaviours.

None of these words – dominant, disrespectful, pushy – actually describes the behaviour itself or give any real information about the events that have led to the behaviour. Nor do they give any clues as to the context in which a horse might display this behaviour of coming too close for the comfort or safety of a human being.

In order to change the unwanted behaviour of a horse to something we DO want, we first need to look at what is giving rise to or triggering that unwanted behaviour from the horse. In what situations does the horse do this and why might that be?  If we only focus on how we create a different consequence for the horse of doing something we don’t like, we are only really looking how we make the consequence of doing so unpleasant for the horse by punishing it.

It helps much more, every time, to look at what is causing the unwanted behaviour, and to change the cause if possible before looking for ways to stop the behaviour, which usually tend to default to the use of correction, punishment or aversive means of control.

I have been asked on more than one occasion about the use of pressure halters for bargy, pushy or so called disrespectful horses – be they the knotted rope kind or the Dually halter designed by Monty Roberts. Both of these are devices designed for making the consequence for the horse of his unwanted actions an aversive, painful one, should they be applied with any force. That is what those tools are for – as are Chifney bits and chains.

Tools like these halters and bits, or other aversive techniques, such as using a stick to drive a horse backwards by hitting it on the chest until it backs away, or swinging a rope that might hit a horse that comes to close, only deal with the symptom. They do not deal with the cause. And if we only try to change the outcome for the horse, without changing his motivation to come too close or into our space in the first place, we may never be successful in changing anything about the behaviour of that horse, and we could in fact make it far worse.

If we want to change the behaviour of a horse, we can do much better than looking for devices or techniques that make it painful for him to do the wrong thing, or that use the pain of being hit with a stick or whip or rope to make him back off.

We need to consider how the horse is living, how much time he gets outside, whether he has the company of an established group of other horses of his own or similar age and stage, whether he has adequate forage, whether he is healthy and sound, and what experiences he has had at the hands of humans who have trained him so far. Because every person the horse comes into contact with the horse is training the horse, whether they know this or not.

I have listed below some of the reasons why horses come too close to people, and what is likely to be creating and reinforcing that behaviour for the horse.

Horses can come too close to people …..

1) Because we are new to them or we’ve just arrived and they are curious to investigate us. Horses investigate with their eyes and nose and mouth (and for things underfoot with their feet).

One of the ways in which horses investigate things is to touch them and to do that they need to be close. They also investigate by licking, biting, nuzzling, pushing and shoving.

2) Because they want to initiate play. If you watch horses in genuine play with each other, that can definitely involve being close up, and often involves a lot of touch, pushing with the nose, nip and tuck and grabbing hold of skin or hair or rugs if horses are rugged. When we wear loose clothes it can be easy for a horse to take hold of a sleeve or hood or a pocket flap. I once saw a friend picked up by the lapels of her coat and literally lifted off the ground by a playful gelding, much to her surprise – and relief when he let go!

Flapping our hands at a horse who does that can be a “game on” signal to a horse, and even if we think that by slapping them or shoving or pushing them away we will discourage it, often this can be great fun for a horse and they will come back for more!

3) Because we have on us something the horse wants (food) and his behaviour of coming towards us has been reinforced by the gain of that resource. If we feed horses from our hands, the closer we feed the horse to our body the more likely he is to come into our space for food, especially if foraging on or frisking us or nudging us to get us to give him something has led to him being given food. A horse will repeat whatever he was doing right before you give him food – however you deliver that – by hand, in a haynet or in a bucket feed.

It is however possible to use food very constructively and effectively to improve the confidence, relaxation, motivation and enthusiasm of a horse as part of a structured programme of positive reinforcement training. This involves marking and rewarding desirable behaviour, creating that behaviour without using aversives (pressure) to do so (through the use of target training or free-shaping or capturing). It is particularly useful and, in my opinion, an unsurpassed way to train horses without using fear or pain for control, and is most suitable for healthy horses that are kept in conditions where they have freedom, friends and adequate forage.

But it must be done by first teaching the horse how and where to be and engendering the right emotional state in the horse (neither over-excited or frustrated) when we have food on us and this takes skill, timing and attention to detail and is best begun and progressed under the guidance of an expert.

If you want to know more about what would be involved in reward-based training for your horse, then look at our about us page and click on a name to see the contact details of someone near to you or who you have already come across.

4) Because we have the means to provide something or do something for the horse that he wants us to do and he needs to be close to us for us to do that. One example would be the horse that wants something to rub on when he has nothing else in his paddock that is suitable to use as a rubbing or scratching post.

His behaviour of coming towards us might be reinforced either by the relief he gets from being able to scratch or rub that itch when he rubs his head on us or if we swish horseflies off him, or because he derives great pleasure from it. The horse can’t tell us whether he feels relief or pleasure from being able to rub on us, or be scratched, so it’s always the animal that determines the kind of reinforcement involved.

If you would prefer your horse not to rub on you, then a good thing to do is to make sure he is provided with scratching or rubbing post or bag (these can be made easily using an old rug) on which to do that, or you could buy one here:

5) Because we represent the means for him to get to somewhere he wants to go, to get something he wants and he needs to be near us for us to do that. That could be to or from field or stable, where there is an expectation of obtaining food or water or access to herd mates, or shade or shelter. His behaviour of coming towards us and into our space is reinforced by us then haltering and taking the horse to somewhere he wants to go.

6) Because we are standing between the horse and blocking his passage to something he urgently wants to go towards. This could be food, water, shade, shelter from rain, wind, heat or flies, other horses that he likes to be with or somewhere that has any of those things.

If you find your horse is particularly anxious to be somewhere other than where he is, then think about how you could change your management routine or make different arrangements so that he does not get so frustrated. Is he out in a field with no grazing and deprived of forage? Could you provide hay in the field so that he is not so desperate to get to hay in the stable? Is he always fed hay immediately he comes in? Have you created an expectation that is now producing frustration in the horse that is showing in his behaviour?

Is he being left out in the field or alone in the stable block and anxious about being alone? All of these are things to consider if the horse is trying to move faster than you are from A to B or is pushing past you to get to where he wants to go.

7) Because we are in the way and blocking his exit, when the horse is attempting to move at speed away from something – to escape or avoid a situation or environment or a specific stimulus or event that he does not like or fears. His behaviour of moving away from something he dislikes or fears is reinforced because he gains distance from it by doing so. He escapes or avoids it.

Think about what it is that he is afraid of. Changing how he feels about the thing he is fleeing so that he no longer fears it will stop him wanting to flee at all.

8) Because we are in the way when the horse is acting to escape or avoid something he does not like by attempting to move that “something” away from him. This would be something that he sees as a threat or as an actual aversive. This could be another horse, another person, a fly even. If he feels he cannot escape it (option 5), he may take action to get it away from him and we might be in the way and get caught in cross-fire.

9) Because the horse wants to move us away from him because he sees us as a potential threat to his safety (because his experiences with us involve aversives), or to him keeping something he already has that he likes and wants to keep (his friends or food or freedom), or as an actual aversive (he fears or dislikes us in that context and wants us to move away from him).

In that context the behaviour of the horse is negatively reinforced when he is successful in moving us away from him when he comes towards us to drive us away. What we need to consider is how we change the perception of the horse about us by changing our own management or behaviour towards the horse. This kind of behaviour from horses is usually man made.

10) Because we have applied an aversive stimulus to the horse when the horse moved away from us (which was effective in positively punishing the horse for moving away), and we have removed or reduced the intensity of that aversive stimulus when the horse has approached us, negatively reinforcing the horse for coming towards us. So the horse may choose to come towards us in future in any potentially similar scenario so as to avoid being chased away. What I describe here is what happens usually in round pen training and can result in horses coming towards people much faster than they would like and closer than they would like because the horse wants to make sure he is not going to be chased away.

11) We have applied an aversive stimulus to drive the horse towards us or to have the horse keep up with us, while preventing his escape away from us with some restraining device such as a halter and lead rope, and we have negatively reinforced coming towards us by removing or reducing the intensity of that aversive stimulus when he moved towards us. This could be when leading – by applying an aversive behind the horse to cause him to keep up or when trying to draw the horse forwards toward us while we are facing him. Or we have been leading the horse in a halter and very short lead rope, so that the horse comes closer to us to escape the pressure on his head from the halter.

12) Two other reasons that horses push on us or nudge us or block our path have to do with how mother nature programmed the horse with innate behaviours she uses as a foal when she wants food from mum.

One of those is to nudge or shove a person in the chest or side or on the arms in the exact same way as foals will nudge the udders of the mare to trigger the milk to let down. Unless you’ve spent time around mares and foals you may not be aware of this, but if you’ve ever walked in the countryside when lambs and ewes are about then the way in which the lambs vigorously nudge the udders of the ewe is unmistakable! The way in which a horse will nudge a person with food on the them or who is the means to get some food is more or less exactly what she is doing when she nudges mum’s udder.

Sometimes that behaviour also gets performed also in other contexts – such as when a horse nudges a person when they want to get their attention for some other reason – such as to be let out of a stable – but the behavioural origins are the same.

The other is when a horse cuts across in front of us when we are walking with the horse or the horse is being led. Sometimes that’s because we are holding onto their head, and the head slows down but the hind feet don’t – the effect being that the horse kind of tail slides so that they appear to be cutting across us. But they may also do that if we have something on us that they want – we are carrying hay or we have food in our pockets or they need us to stop and change direction in order to do something they want. One of my horses will sometimes do this if I am in their paddock and they are hoping I will move the electric fence. It’s not rude, it’s not dominant, it’s just the horse saying “please stop and move the fence so we can have some more grass”. To get mum to come to a halt so that he can drink, a foal will move in front of the mare to stop her walking off.

When a horse does that to you in situations in which food is at stake there’s a good chance that is what he is trying to do.

13) Does this list never end!!! Well no, probably not! I am sure there will be others I’ve missed or overlooked or taken for granted. But this last one is one that again is about innate behaviour – behaviour that horses are hard wired to do for survival. You’ve probably seen wildlife videos where, when attacked or threatened by predators, members of a herd of animals will bunch together for mutual protection, often ensuring that the young are on the inside of the group and surrounded by adults.

Horses will choose do a combination of running away, turning to assess the source of something novel, (something new that may be a threat), and bunching together. They will even run in the direction of the source of a threat in order to bunch together with other horses. They do that while managing to avoid collisions with each other because this is what they learn to do as young horses when playing in the herd. And they will also band together to attack predators and try to drive them away, particularly if they have young.

But like other species, there are situations in which, if they can’t get to other horses, and they cannot get away from the threat – and often they can’t if they are on the end of a lead rope or in a confined space or small paddock – a horse will try to bunch up with any other living thing around, for safety reasons, when they are scared. It’s a mercenary  “selfish” act from a survival perspective. The animal in the centre of the bunch is less likely to be taken by a predator than one on the periphery.

It’s pretty much like the things some humans do when we’re afraid – we might want to hold onto the hand of another person or run into their arms for protection. Even a shy child might instinctively hold onto and hide behind mum or dad’s legs when feeling anxious or vulnerable or shy. We might grab the arm of the person next to us in the cinema when there’s something that makes us jump in a movie. That’s just another form of bunching up or clinging together that is a survival reaction that many social animals do when they are fearful. We are all the same when it comes down to it. There is safety in numbers and being in the centre of the group or close to another is what we do when we don’t feel safe.

I remember walking with my brother, my horse and a friend with another horse through a local forest. My brother and I were walking side by side – he was on my left and I had my horse on my right because my brother is quite scared of horses. My horse Archie kept dropping back behind me and trying to get in between my brother and I. This bothered my brother who felt the horse was being rude and trying to get to him and that he’d be squashed.

I explained to him that for Archie – who was naturally feeling a little anxious because we were away from home, even though he had a friend with us – wanted to be in the centre of the group and that if we let him walk there, as was his preference, he would probably be more relaxed, and actually less likely to spook and trample my brother.

My brother’s attitude to the horse changed the instant he began to understand why Archie was trying to get between us. He was no longer a naughty annoying pushy barging horse who might be stupid enough to mow my brother down because he wasn’t looking where he was going. Once I’d compared his behaviour to the elephants, or wildebeest, or buffalo he’d seen on nature programmes he began to see the similarity and relevance. And suddenly he stepped aside and let Arch walk between us, petted him on the neck and said “Good boy, we will make sure nothing can get you.”

As you can see if you’ve made it to this point of the article, none of these reasons for the horse moving towards us or into our space or across our path are about disrespect.

None of these reasons for the horse moving towards us or unto our space are about dominance over us – although they could be about inter-horse dominance if we make the mistake of getting between horses that are fighting over a scare resource or scarce shelter or a mate or if we have misused food in training a horse.

Dominance is about control over resources. Behaviours that are about dominance are seen in animals in contexts where there is competition for resources such as food, water, space, shelter and mates, and in some species / individuals, territory.

A hungry horse might get frustrated and attempt to grab food from a person who had food on them and who did not successfully show the horse how to get that food safely, or who denied the horse access to food or water or deliberately teased the horse with it.

The horse might try to move a person away from a food source if the horse felt that his access to food was threatened, and particularly if that behaviour had previously been reinforced. But for the most part, a lot of the behaviour that involves people experiencing horses coming too close to them for safety has nothing whatsoever to do with dominance or disrespect of the horse wanting to move our feet to get the upper hoof. Often it has much more to do with horses being kept in inappropriate environments or handled inconsistently – sometimes being pulled towards, sometimes being driven away –  or exposed to frightening procedures, stimuli and events without preparation or consideration for how this might make a horse feel.

If we can keep horses in environments that are more suited to the needs of horses, introduce the horse to things that he may find frightening slowly, so that he does not feel the need to run away or bunch up with us, and teaching the horse where to be in relation to us by giving them a specific place to focus – such as a mat or target, we can eliminate many of the issues and injuries caused by horse and human collisions or too-close encounters.

I quote from the linked position statement from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviour: “Dominance is defined as a relationship between individual animals that is established by force/aggression and submission, to determine who has priority access to multiple resources such as food, preferred resting spots, and mates (Bernstein 1981; Drews 1993).”

I do not want my horse’s food, his preferred resting spot or his mates. So while we need a good understanding of how behaviours typical of the actions of a horse feeling the need to exert his dominance might occur in domestic horses (so as to avoid creating them by poor management of the resources), I have no need or desire to be the mythological alpha horse in my herd of two in order to convince him to want to do what I would like him to do or not do. I can just work out what I DO want him to do in those situations and make it worth his while do that instead.

For more excellent information on horse behaviour, and particularly on the whole subject of dominance in horses, read and also share this superb article by Emily McDonald and support the campaign to ditch horse handling and training practices based on unscientific, made-up ideas and beliefs about horses and horse behaviour.!ditchdominance/ct6q