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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 hand 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

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.

How do positive reinforcement trainers get their horses to behave?

What many people find baffling about force-free, rewards-based training (positive reinforcement) is how it is possible to get the horse to do something in the first place, so that we can reward it.

This is because, until we come across this very different way of training, we have all historically only ever been shown how to use some kind of pressure (aversive stimulation) to get behaviour. Which means that while we like the idea of using a new way of training that is more genuinely rewarding for the horse, we can get a bit stuck for ideas for how to get the horse to do something we can reward!

When it comes to their behaviour, we ideally want 3 key things from our chosen way of keeping and training our horses and ponies:

  • We want to be able to produce repeatable desirable behaviours
  • In doing so, we want to avoid causing the horse to choose to perform undesirable behaviours
  • We want to reduce or eliminate undesirable behaviours

In order to produce repeatable desirable behaviours using positive reinforcement, we need to be able to do 3 things. We need to have a way to create the behaviour in the horse in the first place, then we need to reinforce that behaviour so that the horse will want to repeat it, and finally we need to pair it with a cue that can act as a unique prompt for that behaviour, so that the horse knows exactly what behaviour to perform to obtain reinforcement when that cue is given.

What is reinforcement?

Reinforcement makes behaviour more likely to be repeated. There are only two types of reinforcement. One is where the horse gains something he values and that provides him with a pleasurable outcome. The other is where the behaviour results in escape from something that is unpleasant, or that the horse expects to be unpleasant.

Successfully escaping or avoiding an actual or anticipated aversive (unpleasant) stimulus provides the horse or pony, donkey or mule with relief that it’s over or has been avoided. These types of reinforcement of behaviour are going on all the time, with or without our involvement, and even if we don’t realise what they are or know what they are called.

The foal that struggles to his feet when he is born, who eventually wobbles his way on his unsteady legs towards his mother for his first drink, gains life-giving milk and colostrum. His first experience of the world is of positive reinforcement – the gain of something appetitive and life giving.

The horse that turns his back to the wind and lowers his head in a hailstorm firstly escapes the painful feeling of hailstones on his face and then avoids further stinging pain by adjusting his position relative to the wind direction. His behaviour of turning away from the hail is negatively reinforced initially by his escape, and then he maintains or repeats that behaviour to avoid the pain from the hailstones. These are 2 forms of learning known as escape and avoidance learning, and these are what everyone relies on when using aversives to train horses.

The behaviour of the horse that pulls away from his handler when being led from the stable to the field is reinforced when he gets to the field full of grass and to his friends – more so if he ran out of hay hours ago, does not get much turn-out, is very anxious about being separated from his friends and experiences aversive handling when being led.

Whether we consider his behaviour to have positively reinforced (we imagine his behaviour results from him gaining food and friends and freedom), or negatively reinforced (we think he experiences temporary relief from the unpleasant psychological and physical feelings of being starved and hungry and separated and confined and restrained), we can definitely know that this behaviour of pulling away from someone leading him is reinforced, if it keeps happening – even though we cannot know for sure what it is that he finds most reinforcing.

We know that behaviour that results in reinforcement will be repeated, so if we want to train a desirable behaviour, we need to have a way to form that behaviour first and a way to provide a reinforcing consequence for the horse so that the horse wants to do it again in the same circumstances. Only then can we get it on cue.

The key difference between positive reinforcement training and every other kind, is that as trainers we try to use ways of forming behaviour that do not involve creating aversive situations for the horse to escape or avoid.

How do we get behaviour so we can reinforce it?

Whether we choose to deploy negative reinforcement or positive reinforcement strategies, there are only 6 different ways we can form behaviour – or indeed that behaviour comes about, whether it is behaviour we want or don’t want – in any animal.

In combination with an immediately reinforcing consequence (a motivation to do it again), these are the only ways we have to either cause the horse or pony to want to do the behaviour, or to explain to them what we want them to do.

The first and universally used way of training horses in ground and ridden work in traditional, classical, straightness training, academic training (such as that promoted by the Equitation Science advocates), western riding, and in all flavours of natural horsemanship, is aversive stimulation. An aversive (unpleasant) stimulus is applied to cause the horse to perform a behaviour that it will perform to escape or avoid that stimulus. Provided that when the desired behaviour happens, it is immediately reinforced by cessation or reduction in strength of the aversive, then the horse will consider that behaviour to have worked for her and will repeat it in the future.

The second way is through physical manipulation, also called moulding (or sometimes sculpting), and this is also used routinely with horses. This involves physically moving the entire animal or part of the animal into a position by direct contact with their body. This could involve taking hold of a body part (the head or a limb for instance) and pushing or pulling on the animal’s body directly to cause all or part of him to move into a position or place. This is also achieved by attaching restraint or manipulation devices to his body – such as halters and ropes, around the head, body or legs.

Most horse owners use manipulation routinely every day – for leading and feet handling. With horses we should always assume that this way of making them move or preventing their movement will be aversive to them initially, and that they will be either frightened or very likely to resist that pushing or pulling to begin with. They can of course learn through negative reinforcement (they are released only if they remain relaxed or when they cease to struggle) to comply, but their compliance should never be assumed to imply consent, confidence, acceptance or willingness – since it is accomplished entirely through coercive means.

Alternatively, by introducing them to being handled gradually, slowly and gently, without any restraint or additional aversives being used, they can learn through positive reinforcement to like it and to cooperate enthusiastically even if their movement is restricted. Horses do what works for them. If we are, for instance, teaching them to have their feet handled, and their struggling results in escape because we cannot hold onto their foot, that struggling will be repeated. Every farrier knows that! So it’s better to go slowly, building the time they can consent to their feet being held and handled, gradually, checking that the horse is totally relaxed before we start, and checking for relaxation at all times when training for all physical handling, than to risk creating a problem that can be difficult to overcome.

Other less generally useful ways to form specific behaviours but that fit with a force-free philosophy include using a food lure. A common every day application of this is for carrot stretches. Sometimes a horse that has not been trained to lead yet can be enticed with food to go somewhere, pending proper training. Often though, people try to use food to entice horses to go somewhere they do not want to go and then trap them, and doing this can make a horse forever suspicious of people offering them food. But even if we don’t do that, a horse following food is focussed on the food, not especially on his own behaviour, so, other than for carrot stretches, it’s preferable to only use food to lure a horse as a temporary measure. Getting a horse trained properly to lead and load and giving him no reason to feel coerced or tricked and trapped into doing things – as soon as possible – is preferable to using a food lure.

Social or observational learning (learning by watching what happens to others and then doing what they do) happens with all social species including horses and can work to our advantage. Horses will see that if their mother is relaxed in certain situations that these need not be feared. Sometimes it is useful to use another horse as a lead to show an uncertain horse that he need not fear crossing water or over something on the ground, and we could reward the horse with some food or a scratch for doing that. But if the nervous horse is simply following another to avoid being left behind he may not always learn confidence in himself or to like being in that situation, even if we think we are rewarding that behaviour. We might just be using the confident horse as a lure for our nervous horse and not teaching him anything at all.

Ways that are unique to positive reinforcement

When we switch to using more positive reinforcement, two additional important options for getting behaviour to happen become available to us that are not available with a negative reinforcement approach.

The first involves creatively contriving situations in the environment of the horse, in which the behaviour is most likely to happen on its own, and then marking and rewarding it.

So we set up the ideal situation, wait for the behaviour to happen, and then make sure that the behaviour results in something that is immediately reinforcing for the horse.

In positive reinforcement training this is called “free shaping” (where successive steps in the direction of the finished behaviour are reinforced) or “capturing” (where the complete behaviour happens and can be opportunistically reinforced). If we are clever in our set-up, the behaviour we want is going to be the one the horse is most likely to choose to perform.

We must observe closely the behaviour of the horse, and then reinforce by marking and rewarding, usually with food – any behaviour that is a step in the direction of the finished product. If the horse wants to do a behaviour anyway, we don’t even need to mark and reinforce it, but unless we do, we won’t be able to get it it to where it can be made repeatable – on cue – and therefore something we could reproduce in the future.

The marker signal I refer to is called a bridging stimulus or bridge, because it bridges the short time lapse between when the horse performs the specific behaviour we want, and receives the food or scratch.

The second and most commonly used technique, and one that can only be used with positive reinforcement, is target training.

Target training – how we take advantage of natural horse behaviour

Target training takes advantage of the natural behaviour of horses to investigate novel objects. We can carefully present a target prop to a horse or put a target prop on the ground near to the horse and by bridging and rewarding his voluntary approach to investigate it by looking at, sniffing or touching it with his nose (or feet if we are using something we want him to put his feet onto) we can teach the horse that his behaviour of touching this object will be positively reinforced.


This is all done with no pressure being put on the horse to approach the target, as none is needed. This is actually one of the most natural ways of creating behaviour – allowing a horse to perform what is a perfectly natural investigative behaviour when presented with novel objects.

Targeting can be used to form every behaviour for which aversive stimulation is normally used. It can be used for groundwork whether in hand or at liberty, and for ridden work, with or without anything on the head of the horse. We can use stationary targets such as cones or mats or dressage arena letters, and we can use a stick with a target on the end of it for teaching movements.

Once the horse learns that he will be positively reinforced for touching a specific body part to or being near the target, or for following a moving target (all of which takes seconds for most horses to learn), or for stepping on a target, we can use this to influence the movement of all or part of the horse. Having formed the behaviour using a target we can then substitute an alternative cue (visual, voice, touch) so as to reproduce the behaviour, and discontinue the use of the target. The target is just a way to show the horse where to be and what to do, and once that behaviour is on a cue the target prop can be faded out of the picture and is no longer needed to get the behaviour to happen, because the cue now achieves that purpose.

Done well, and built up into more complex behaviours over time, it is a very easy way to influence the movement and posture of a horse without the tension or anxiety that arises when the horse is vigilantly looking out for aversives, such as in a situation in which the people he is with are the source of routine aversive stimuli – so much so that for the horse, people come to have significant threat potential.

Targeting can be used to teach all ground work and ridden movements – catching, haltering, leading over any surface or into a trailer, for teaching halt and standing still, backing up, moving the front end away, disengaging or moving the hindquarters over, circling, straightness on circles, stepping under behind, crossing over in front, lunging, long lining, moving in a forward-down stretched posture, for shoulder in, haunches in, side-pass, rein cues for turns to left and right, shifting the weight back, lateral and vertical flexion, walk, trot, canter, jumping, back and leg and abdominal muscle engagement.

Name something that you want the horse to do by way of moving his body (or keeping it still) and it can be trained with imagination and with bridge and target training.

For the most part, what we want to do with horses either involves them being really good at standing still and relaxing or it involves influencing their movement in all directions at all paces, in time and space.

To have that biomechanically healthy movement we need the horse to have the right kind of balanced, relaxed energy and enthusiasm.

If you have yet to learn how to incorporate target training into your way of training your horse, don’t miss out on some fabulous ways to make both every day handling and biomechanically healthy movement easy and enjoyable for your horse, without pressure.


How long will it take…?

When I go to help people with their horses, a common question I am asked is about how long it will take to fix a problem behaviour.

So by problem behaviour, I mean a behaviour that the horse or pony chooses to perform in one or more situations and that is dangerous for any people involved, dangerous for the horse him or herself (short or long term), which puts other animals in danger, has the potential to result in damage to someone’s property, is inconvenient or annoying to the owner or to anyone else coming into contact with the horse.

The issue we always have to deal with, with any problem behaviour, is that it almost always has a long and strong history of being reinforced.

We know that behaviour that the horse keeps repeating or that is happening more often is being reinforced by something. The horse or pony is getting something out of performing the behaviour.

The question is, how is the unwanted behaviour reinforced? What is the horse getting out of performing this behaviour?

Behaviour can only be reinforced two ways. It can result in the horse getting away from something it perceives as unpleasant, painful, stressful, annoying or frightening, or from something that has come to be a reliable predictor of an experience that is.

Or behaviour can be reinforced because it results in the horse getting to something it likes, such as grass.

Behaviours that have a long history of “working” for the horse to BOTH get away from something or someone that the horse associates with unpleasantness, AND to something that the horse wants – food or friends or freedom – are very difficult to alter because they have been doubly reinforced both by escape and by attaining a desired thing.

There is probably no more sure fire way to guarantee that a behaviour will be repeated than to cause the horse to feel the need to flee a situation it strongly fears and then ensure it gets to grass at the end of it.

So, if we want to alter the behaviour of our horse or pony or donkey or mule then we need to do 3 key things:

1) Identify the things that are triggering the behaviour and then take action to reduce or eliminate those triggers.

That action might involve a mix of medical attention and treatment, management changes (feeding, housing, turn out, social contact, enrichment) and the processes of systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning.

2) Identify the behaviour we DO want the animal to perform instead. Then put a LOT of effort into training and positively reinforcing the behaviour we want so that the horse is more likely to choose to do that.

3) Prevent positive reinforcement of the unwanted behaviour if possible.

I intentionally do not say that we should prevent negative reinforcement of unwanted behaviour.

The reason for this is that if the behaviour is triggered by actual or anticipated pain or fear (such as fear of being forced, trapped, confined, isolated, or having no access to food), then preventing escape from that situation (escape being something that would lead to negative reinforcement of the undesired behaviour) can produce other undesirable outcomes.

It can lead to the horse becoming more frantic or determined, and increasing their effort to escape such that the behaviour becomes even more dangerous. Prolonged failure to escape or to obtain any relief can then eventually lead to learned helplessness, apathy, and depression.

In other cases, where responses are suppressed, this can lead to stereotypical or displaced or redirected behaviours due to frustration or chronic stress.

While a horse may give up trying to escape with the stimulus or situation at one strength their response may then become stronger when the horse sees a window of opportunity to escape or perceives the situation to become unbearable.

Preventing negative reinforcement, when the behaviour is happening in fear or pain is flooding, and flooding rarely, if ever, works.

The question is, if we have a horse that performs a dangerous or inconvenient or annoying behaviour in its efforts to seek reinforcement, then we will need to be willing to spend time and effort to alter how that horse feels about the situations that trigger this behaviour.

This will almost always involve making significant changes.

When people ask me how long it will take for a horse to stop performing an unwanted behaviour, I always end up asking lots of questions.

My questions include things like this:

  • For how long has the horse been doing this?
  • How many times do you think the horse has done this and been reinforced for it?
  • Do we know all the situations in which the horse shows this behaviour?
  • Have we considered all the things that might be triggering it?
  • Are we sure we know what is reinforcing the behaviour?
  • How easy is it going to be to prevent this behaviour being positively reinforced?
  • How many people will we need to convince to change their behaviour towards the horse?
  • What changes can we make to the way the horse is kept and managed?
  • Do we know what we want the horse to do instead?
  • How many hours a day are available to spend training the horse to perform the alternative, desirable behaviour?
  • How many days each week is it going to be possible to practice that?
  • Is it possible to stop doing the things that trigger the behaviour, while we go through a programme of changing how the horse feels about the triggers and while we train the new behaviour? So that it doesn’t keep getting reinforced?
  • How easy will those who manage and handle or ride the horse find it to stop performing their old patterns of behaviour?
  • How much self-awareness and emotional self-control do those people have?
  • What could be the barriers to them being able to persist and follow a programme of change consistently?

The extent to which a horse can change his or her behaviour depends on how the horse is kept and cared for and on the extent to which we, as the people involved with the horse, are able or willing to change what we are doing.

Horses will only change how they feel about situations and only change how they behave in those situations if we are willing to make changes to how we care for and keep them and train them. Which means that the behaviour that has to change is ours, together with that of anyone else involved in taking care of or managing or handling or riding the horse.

When training a replacement behaviour and changing the things that trigger the behaviour of the horse, it can be a slow process and setbacks or hiccups must be expected.

Eventually with time and persistence the scales can tip, but it is also perilously easy to undo a lot of our own good work if we lose patience or we get frustrated, or we give up too easily and revert to old habits and patterns if we lose faith.

Trust andveritas_filia_temporis_by_oscargrafias-d7zrhfx confidence can take years to earn and can be broken in seconds.

There are no quick fixes.

In the end while the management changes and methods of training that I will recommend WILL work and are proven scientifically to be effective, the only way that management adjustments and changes to our way of training will really work is if we apply the changes.

The only training that works is training that we actually do, repeatedly, and correctly.



The amazing image I have used here is called Veritas filia temporis by the artist oscargrafias.