Author Archives: maxineeasey

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

Communication or Motivation? Which do you think you need?

Often when I am asked to help people with horses, or when I teach small groups about how horses learn, I ask the people participating what they most want out of the lesson or class.

Very often the first thing people say is that they’d like a better relationship with their horse and usually when I ask what that means they say that they wished their horse would listen to them more or they complain that they don’t seem to be able to get through to their horse or to communicate with him.

If your horse does not respond when you ask him to do something, generally or in specific situations, it is really useful to think about this from two angles.

Think about whether you have a need to improve your communication skills, or whether you need to improve your motivation skills. And in the moment, when you are with the horse, think about whether you have a communication issue or actually whether it is a motivation issue.

I was sent a great sketch today by someone who had done a course with me a few weeks ago and who had really taken to heart that suggestion. She had evaluated her predicament – the horse ignored her cue to walk on out of the stable – to look at what might be the problem.

Is the issue that the horse does not understand what to do when you give the cue, or is she confused about which behaviour is required? Or is it that the horse does understand the cue but is either not able to “hear’ it or is simply unmotivated to respond?

Because when we say that the horse does not listen, that can sometimes sound as if the horse is intentionally ignoring or disobeying what the handler or rider is asking.

But why would that be? Could it be that the horse does not understand what we want? Or is it more likely that the horse is just not motivated to do it right now?

If the horse is accustomed to experiencing correction when he gets things wrong, could it be that he is not motivated to try, for fear of making a mistake?

Could it be that he is actually so distracted, attending to other things in his world, that he can’t actually hear what you are asking anyway?

Could it be that responding to what you ask could in fact result in some pain or discomfort for the horse? Could responding result in him having to move away from something he is very attracted to, such as his friends, his hay, or the safety of home? Or would it mean going towards something he finds worrying? So is something more motivating – attractive or repellent – working against you and what you have to offer?

What two things do we need to be able to train horses?

In order to train any animal – horse, hound, husband, hamster or hippopotamus – we need a minimum of two things. We need both communication and we need motivation.

Communication is about having a way of explaining to the horse what it is that you would like him to do.

Motivation has to do with convincing him that it is worth doing. But it’s also about keeping his attention so that he is not distracted by other things that could deplete his motivation to stay focused on the trainer and what she has to offer.

So motivation encompasses two aspects – it is both about having the horse want to do what you want, and having him not feel a stronger urge to do things you don’t want, instead.

Communicating and motivating using positive reinforcement – rewards

Training equines using positive reinforcement involves explaining what you want the horse to do, using non-aversive ways to cause the horse to choose to perform the behaviour, and then marking and giving a reward for tries in the right direction. It’s the addition of the reward that makes it positive reinforcement – the positive meaning that something desirable is “added” in this context.

We then gradually improve the performance in stages. That could include increasing the amount of time the horse can do whatever it might be, or the distance from which he can be asked to do it, or some other qualitative dimension such as energy, enthusiasm, relaxation or posture. Once we have the behaviour beginning to happen reliably that way, we can introduce a cue, which is a signal that tells the animal precisely what behaviour will be rewarded. Once we have behaviour on cue, we can get that behaviour again in the future, just by using that cue.

This part of the process is largely about how we explain to the horse what we want – so the communication has to do with having a way to first show him what to do and then getting it on cue so that we can communicate what we want again in the future. All the while making it worth his while to do it by using rewards – things he likes – for his efforts. Once he learns to like doing that behaviour because it feels good to do it, we can fade out the food or scratches – the things that kick-start the behaviour (without kicking of course 😉 because once the horse learns to like that behaviour he will want to do it for its own sake and we can randomly and periodically top up that feeling with a thank-you bridge and treat.

For example, we can form behaviour by using a target prop, which shows the horse where to be and / or how to move himself. We can use any object as a target to teach the horse to stand still. One way to do that is to teach him to stand on something such as a mat. Or we can teach him to put his nose on something in front of him, such as a Jolly ball, and gradually increase the time he can spend doing this. I teach horses to touch a tie ring or I hang something on the tie ring to teach them to keep their nose near or on that target for an increasing amount of time, in preparation for teaching them to stand quietly and calmly when tied.

Both kinds of targets show the horse where to be to get rewarded – either by having his nose on or near something, or his feet in a specific place.

Horses are very object-focused and naturally investigate new objects in their environment, which means that when they spot something they have not seen before they will be drawn to investigate it. They do this as part of natural investigative behaviour, the purpose of which is for the horse to work out what is good, what is bad and what is neither.  It’s the way we all have of deciding how to classify objects and situations and events for future reference. Targeting makes use of the natural tendency of the horse to take an interest in and investigate novel objects with nose and feet. No pressure is required – we just mark and reward the first attempts at investigation and shape the behaviour in small increments from there.

Targets give the horse a good reason to move or put himself somewhere in space. The bridge signal – the marker we use to say “Yes! That’s it!” to the horse – gives him information about the moment in time he did something we want more of.

That marker – for which you can use a clicker, a whistle, a tongue cluck or any unique, short sharp sound made with your voice – is called a bridging stimulus or bridge for short, because it bridges the small time lapse between when we mark the behaviour or the “try” that we like, and the moment we deliver the reward. It buys us time between the exact moment when the behaviour happened and the moment we can deliver a reward and it makes for a very precise mechanism for communication – letting the horse know exactly which behaviours and emotions we want more of. We can use that signal at a distance or when riding or long lining – when we aren’t right next to the horse – to mark the precise moment in a stream of behaviour. The horse learns in literally minutes, to repeat what he was doing when we bridged, and that the treat or scratch will follow.

The target is the way we have to communicate – to explain to the horse where we would like him to be and being bridged and rewarded for going to or staying at or following a target motivates the horse to do so again, for what he has to gain.

We can also use a target to teach a horse to move – he can follow a target held by a person – forwards, backwards, left or right, up or down – and he can be taught to move along a line or circle of targets on his own. This can help us to teach the horse non-aversive, no-pressure cues for each of the gaits – walk, trot, canter for example, or to halt. We can also use targets to teach the horse to respond to rein cues for turning or for lateral or vertical flexion, for lateral movement, for straightness, or to form biomechanically healthy posture when moving. An example of that would be the use of a target to teach the horse to stretch down and forwards when ridden.

The other way to form behaviour so that we can mark and reinforce it is by setting up a situation in the environment of the horse so that the behaviour we want is the one the horse is most likely to perform (without using pressure to create that situation). This is usually called free shaping. There is no way to show the animal how to do what we want – we just set the environment up so that it is most likely to occur.

So for example, pole work can be used to help the horse to learn to stretch down and forwards or to pick his feet up more or to be relaxed about jumping. When he is learning to go over poles or a small jump because he wants to go towards a target rather than to move away from – to escape or avoid – pressure, his emotional state can also be more relaxed and his posture will tend to match.

Training the horse to ignore distractions – things that compete for his motivation

Force-free, positive reinforcement (reward) based training also involves desensitising the horse to all the things that might compete for what we have to offer as a motivator. A horse will be interested in doing what we ask if there is something he can gain by doing it, but he will also weigh up the value of that relative to other things in the environment that he has to deal with.

A horse is going to be much more willing and mentally and emotionally able to respond to our cues if he is not distracted by other things in the environment that he might find frightening or worrying or annoying, or indeed more interesting and attractive!

Force-free training involves introducing the horse, without restraint, to new, potentially frightening – and therefore attention grabbing – things at very low strength, allowing him to become totally confident with something at that “hardly anything at all” strength before gradually increasing the intensity, all the while making sure that the horse is aware of but does not feel the need to move away from the stimulus.

Strength can include distance, size, noise level, position in relation to the horse, touch or smell sensation, general energy level or commotion. One small dog standing quietly 10 yards ahead might be a weak stimulus. Three big dogs barking and running up behind him is likely to be way too strong a stimulus for a horse that is wary of dogs.

Adding positive reinforcement into that process of confidence building, can, if used appropriately, have the horse associate good things with new stimuli and events that might otherwise be frightening, or to stimuli and events that we know are distressing for our horse.

If the horse discovers that whenever a particular type of event happens or whenever he encounters new things, then good stuff happens, it can change the horse’s expectations from skepticism and wariness, to enthusiasm and eager anticipation of new or existing experiences. It can actually change how he feels about the process and prospect of encountering new things as well as of the new things themselves.

A horse that is not distracted by things coming and going in his environment is going to be much more easily able to focus on what you are trying to communicate and much more interested in the motivators you have to offer. So training horses to ignore irrelevant distractions is key to keeping the horse focused on you and on the task in hand.

Motivation trumps communication

I would go so far as to say that motivation trumps communication every time. You can communicate all you like and you can be great at it, but if there’s nothing in it for the horse to listen, or the horse isn’t listening anyway because he is too distracted, why would he do anything you ask at all?

And the horse that is super-motivated, calm and focused is the best kind to have because even if you aren’t great at explaining what you want, or he needs to put a little effort into guessing something, he will try, because he is optimistic that it will lead to a reward eventually.

How does pressure motivate and release teach?

By contrast, when we use pressure to communicate what we want, and relief from that pressure to motivate the animal to perform behaviour, he acts to escape or avoid that aversive stimulus or event. Escape or avoidance of aversives is not psychologically and neurologically rewarding for a horse, and although sometimes people who advocate the use of pressure to get behaviour might instruct you to “reward” the slightest try by removing or reducing a pressure stimulus, the reality is that removal or escape or avoidance of pressure is not experienced in the brain of the horse as a reward.

Relief is probably the best term to use for what we feel when we are successful in escaping or avoid something we dislike.

Pressure motivates in two ways. When we apply an aversive stimulus, the horse is naturally motivated to want to escape it and move away from it because he finds it unpleasant and wants it to stop. The horse will act and keep trying different things until something he does results in him getting away from or otherwise making the aversive experience stop.

Aversives motivate the horse to act to be free of them. A horse swishing his tail to get a fly off him is motivated to do so to get rid of the fly because the fly is annoying and also because he knows from experience that it may bite, causing pain, if he doesn’t.

A horse moving back when he is tapped on the chest with a stick is motivated to do so to make the tapping stop because it is annoying or painful.

A head-shy horse moving away when a person reaches for his head is motivated to do so because he dislikes being touched or fears what might happen if he is touched or if the human comes closer.

Once the horse works out that it is his action of moving backwards that made the tapping with the stick stop, he will move away again next time he is tapped on the chest with a stick. This is because he learns quite quickly how to make the tapping stop.

This is called escape learning. The horse learns to move to escape the actual aversive he is experiencing.

Then, after a little while he will notice what happens before he gets tapped on the chest to make him back up. He will look for signs that the tapping on his chest is about to happen, because he will learn that he will be tapped if he doesn’t back up when he sees that signal. And he will begin to back up when he sees that signal, to avoid being tapped. This is called avoidance learning. The horse backs up because he learns that by doing so when he sees the signal that tapping is about to happen, he can avoid being tapped on the chest with the stick.

When he accomplishes escape from (he moves when being tapped) or avoidance (he moves because he thinks he will be tapped if he doesn’t) of the aversive, and obtains relief from that, that in turn motivates the animal to perform the behaviour that led to that outcome – the aversive ceasing. This is because all of us, horses included, value aversives (and things that predict them) when they stop.

With positive reinforcement, instead of showing the horse where not to be (“don’t be here where I am tapping if you don’t want to be tapped”), we show the horse where TO be. “I will mark and reward any attempt you make to go towards or touch this target. Now I will place the target a bit closer to your chest and if you shift your weight back a little to reach it I will mark and reward that, and if you step back to reach it I’ll mark and reward that too!” Pretty soon, the horse is taking nice confident biomechanically healthy steps of back up, following a target, and we can begin to introduce a cue for that behaviour and fade out the target and gradually increase the number of steps the horse can take once cued to back up. Horses trained in this way begin to very quickly learn to perform behaviours because of what they have to gain, rather than because of what they can escape or avoid.

Why do horses ignore us?

Now, when we are asking for the back up – and this is true whether we are teaching it using bridge and target training (giving cues) or aversives (giving commands) – the horse can easily be distracted by something else that might come into his world. If it is distracting for more than a moment or two, it will almost certainly work against what we have to offer by way of motivation.

If the horse fails to respond, and appears to ignore our cue or command, there could be several reasons for that, but they are almost always to do with motivation and rarely to do with communication.

It could be that responding would be aversive to him – frightening or painful, for example – more aversive than enduring either the aversive he is experiencing from being tapped on the chest or aversive enough to cancel out the motivating value of the reward on offer for following the target, depending on which we use.

Imagine if the horse had joint or back pain or an injury that made backing up difficult for him.

What if there is something behind the horse that he is worried about and does not want to be any nearer to?

Imagine that the horse is being backed away from something he’d rather stay close to – such as home, or another horse friend he does not want to be parted from, or his dinner?

What if he is suddenly really frightened by something else that comes into the environment and he has to give it his immediate and undivided attention?

In all these situations a horse might appear not to be listening because he may not respond immediately, or at all, or he might appear to be unmotivated because he does not put in any effort, or a lower amount of effort than we would like.

All of these things are about motivation – rather than communication. There are the things that the horse fears could get worse if he does respond to the tapping on his chest, or he is so distracted by some other potential threat that he does not even notice that he is being tapped, or even that a target is there for him to move towards.

When horses are afraid, two things happen – one is that they produce cortisol – the stress hormone, and the other is that they also produce adrenalin – the hormone that mobilises us physiologically for flight or fight. Some of the things adrenalin does are to dull pain sensation, to mobilise muscles to run or for combat and to cause us to focus on the one most important thing in the world right now to the exclusion of others – and that will be whatever we perceive as the threat. The biological function of the dulling of the pain sensation is so that in a life and death situation we will run away or fight, even when we have some pain from injury or disease, because it gives us a greater chance of escape and therefore survival.

Imagine the usual way of loading horses into trailers – which is to use some form of pressure and release. If the horse fears being in the trailer, is afraid to put his feet on the wobbly ramp, he has had bad experiences before when being loaded or being in or travelling in a trailer, or bad experiences on arriving somewhere on a trailer. All of these past bad experiences will compete in his mind as motivators to stay away from the trailer, with what we have to offer for going in there. And if we are using pressure to load him, all we have to offer is relief from pressure, by reducing or removing the pressure being applied, when he makes any attempt to go towards or in the trailer.

Imagine a horse that is experiencing some as yet undiagnosed pain in his legs or back. Imagine we have a horse that is quite unfit and we are asking him to move with energy on a difficult deep arena surface. We might find that he is difficult to motivate using pressure, to make smooth transitions through the gaits or to maintain gait. We might find that we need to use a lot of pressure to keep this kind of horse going or to motivate him to move at all. We might be able to add more pressure to cause him to move but as soon as that pressure comes off, he falls back to trot or walk or to his sluggish gait.

This can be because the pain or discomfort from the extra effort he is experiencing to move in this situation, is something he feels as a cost for the effort he makes to move to avoid or escape the aversive from us.

When he performs the cost-benefit analysis that determines his motivation to move, he might just say “no” or put in a lack-lustre effort because the pain or effort of moving is greater than the pain or discomfort of the pressure from the rider or handler.

Horses like this tend to make just as much effort as is necessary to escape or avoid the aversive coming both from the human and the environment or from within their own body – and no more. Adding more pressure does not make all of the other competing motivations disappear. A horse that moves at all in that situation can just be moving because it’s worse for him if he doesn’t.

So while he might “hear” your command to move, he might remain unmotivated to do so for many different reasons of his own that we might not even be aware of.

When we are asking horses to move using rewards, the exact same things can happen and the remedy is the same – if we want to get the behaviour we need to increase the value of the reinforcer which means making the reward value greater and building up a history of good experiences in that context. But we get a much clearer idea that something is working against us when we are training with food and other rewards than with pressure.

And we should always always eliminate pain, disease or discomfort as reasons for poor motivation or unwanted behaviour, because they will always work against any motivator we try to use.

If any behaviour is difficult to maintain or is not getting better no matter what we do – then we can know for sure that something is punishing it. Something is detracting from the value of what we have to offer. And this is true whether we are using relief from pressure (negative reinforcement) or we are providing rewards as a motivator.

When we train with positive reinforcement, without threats of pressure, restraint or force, we really do get to see a lot of the truth about how the horse really feels about doing something.

We really get a much clearer insight into what is detracting from what we have to offer as a motivator, whether that is mental, emotional or physical discomfort.

When we teach horses to learn to ignore irrelevant distractions using slow, low level exposure (systematic desensitisation) and counter-conditioning (associating good things, such as high value food rewards) to stimuli and events and situations that might give the horse cause for concern, we can completely alter the perception the horse has of those situations or stimuli. We can change how he feels about them. And when he does not feel the need to be worried, or to prepare himself to flee or fight, he will be able to focus on what we are asking, completely.

If we put effort into getting a good history of positive reinforcement as we teach the behaviours we want, and if we teach the horse how to find a relaxed, confident, focused emotional state, without using pressure, and reward him with things he will be keen to work to gain, then what we are asking will be the only thing that he will want to pay attention to. Because doing so will be worth it, for what’s in it for him. The best communication between horse and human takes place without the use of aversives, and the best motivation – and the one that feels good to all of us – is the motivation to work for what we can gain, not for what we can avoid.

That’s Horse Charming.