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.


Can we reward a horse for performing a behaviour under pressure?

A question I am sometimes asked is whether it’s acceptable to use an aversive stimulus (pressure) to produce behaviour from a horse and to both remove the aversive AND mark and reward the desired response with food or a scratch. And to call that positive reinforcement training.

The way I want to answer this is to help you to think less about the reinforcement method (and there are only two – negative and positive) and more about how the behaviour was produced.

Because with every behaviour there is emotion – how the horse feels.

And there are two types of learning always in play and that go hand in hand.

One is classical conditioning – which is how horses (all of us in fact!) form perceptions  or associations with things – how we all come to feel about things – our conditioned (learned) emotional responses to stimuli and events. Classical conditioning is all about feelings and about how we respond because of how we feel.

And the other is how they learn as a result of the consequence of their behaviour – and how they feel about that consequence. So how the animal perceives the consequence of his or her behaviour will determine whether that behaviour is repeated in future. That is operant conditioning. Learning by experiencing consequences for behaviour.

And when we are wanting to train behaviour there are always two types of changes in the environment that involve stimuli affecting the horse – one comes before the behaviour and causes it to happen – as an activator or trigger of the behaviour, and the other comes after the behaviour as its consequences. And this consequence determines whether the horse will repeat the behaviour.

But in each case – the stimulus that comes before – the antecedent as it is known in behaviour science – and the one that comes afterwards – the consequence, evoke emotional responses.

So the question is can we really reward a horse for performing a behaviour under pressure, even if we use food as well as relief as a consequence?

So let’s start with making sure we understand how reinforcement works.

When we use positive reinforcement, it is important to remember that the reinforcer always comes after a behaviour has been performed.

Likewise negative reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement involves adding (hence positive or the plus + sign) something that causes the horse to want to repeat the behaviour that the reinforcement follows.

Negative reinforcement involves removing (hence negative or the minus – sign) something that caused the behaviour, immediately we get the behaviour or a try towards it.

Both are reinforcement and will strengthen the behaviour they immediately follow, but one is aversive reinforcement (an aversive that has been used to produce the response is removed) and the other is appetitive reinforcement (an appetitive is added, as an immediate consequence of the response).

If we use pressure, or existing pressure-trained aids or cues (those that would be followed by an escalation if ignored – meaning either that the aversive used to produce the behaviour persists until the animal acts to escape it, or the aversive is increased in strength or another type of aversive is added), then if we remove the aversive when the horse does something we want, that is negative reinforcement – pressure, followed by relief.

If we also give food after the behaviour has happened or we intentionally bridge (using a marker signal that the horse has learned predicts that food is coming) as we remove the aversive, and give the horse a treat, that is not what I would call positive reinforcement for the horse, because the behaviour was produced under aversive stimulation.

I would describe that as an attempt at counter-conditioning. The horse performed the behaviour under conditions in which they were either afraid or in some discomfort or annoyed. If they were not in any discomfort or annoyance or fear they would ignore the stimulus used to produce the behaviour and there would be nothing to reinforce.

As a bare minimum, even if we think we are using shaping to produce a response using aversives, for negative reinforcement to work, the stimulus applied to the horse has to be unpleasant enough for the horse to want to act to escape it.

All we can hope to do if we give the horse food after he has performed a behaviour to escape or avoid an aversive stimulus is to change how he feels about the stimulus he just experienced. And that is classical conditioning. Not positive reinforcement.

And the trouble with that is that people are SO likely to escalate if the horse ignores that light aversive (because being able to make the horse do what we want is positively reinforcing for the human) that we can be trying to counter-condition for ever because we keep re-associating the cue with aversive onset.

If you want to train using positive reinforcement then the best way to do it is to learn about how to produce behaviour without the use of aversives, pressure, discomfort – call it what you will – any stimulus that the animal values when it stops.

Positive reinforcement goes hand in hand with target training, where we make use of the natural investigative behaviour of horses to approach novel objects. We classically condition a marker signal to mean that food or a scratch is coming, and then we use that marker signal to reinforce the horse for approaching the novel object that we plan to use as the target.

Looking at, approaching or touching that object will result in the trainer giving the marker signal and then offering the horse some food or a lip curling scratch.

Within seconds you have a way to now cause the horse to move, to stand still and to alter his posture without ever using any aversive (pressure) or learned aversive (aid or cue learned by association with aversive onset) to produce that movement.

You can even train a horse to target other body parts to a target prop or to your own body – to your hand or leg for instance. I’ve taught my horse to target his belly to my leg when I am standing on a mounting block or rock or gate so that I can get on. He knows to position himself until his belly comes into contact with my leg, so that he is lined up to make it easy for me to just either swing a leg over or put my foot in the stirrup.

Together with good use of other objects such as mats or poles or pens to form posture or movement, we can use target training with positive reinforcement without ever associating the behaviour or ourselves or the environment in which we are training the horse with aversives.

Now wouldn’t that be good for the relationship!

Pressure….and RELIEF

A little while ago I read an article from a Natural Horsemanship instructor in which she wrote a description of how this method of horse training works.

She said:

“Essentially, Natural Horsemanship methods work on understanding the principles of pressure and release and how to carefully time the application of pressure and the release (or reward) to enable the most efficient learning with the least amount of confusion to the horse.”

This apparently simple description has some omissions and a common flaw. Like many people who want you to follow their way of training horses, the description given of aversive stimulation with negative reinforcement (which is the correct way to describe pressure and release) is that the removal or reduction of the aversive (the release part) is a reward to the horse. It emphatically is not and we have the work of many neuroscientists to show that now without any shadow of doubt.

Natural horsemanship methods universally involve three uses of aversives. They don’t have a monopoly on these though of course – many other traditional and classical and straightness training methods, and techniques promoted by followers of Equitation Science, do the exact same things.

The first is aversive stimulation to produce desired behaviour, with negative reinforcement of the correct response. An aversive (“pressure”) is applied to produce some approximation (a “try”) of desired behaviour and any behaviour by the horse that is in the right direction of the desired behaviour is reinforced by the removal or reduction (the release) in the salience (the strength as perceived by the horse) of the aversive.

This is experienced in the brain of the animal as relief.

The process for this is that the animal experiences the onset of something unpleasant applied by the trainer – something that motivates the horse to take action to escape. As soon as he acts in the way the trainer wants, the horse will experience the removal or reduction in strength of that “something” unpleasant. The feeling that goes with successful escape or avoidance is relief.

The animal then, after a few repetitions, becomes vigilant, hoping to notice any warning sign that the trainer might be about to apply the aversive again, so that this time he can act to avoid it. This warning – whatever the trainer does before applying the aversive – becomes the command to the horse that tells him that he can avoid the actual aversive by acting when he see or feels the warning. It’s sometimes referred to as horses learning “what happens before what happens happens” and the process by which the warning command is learned is a form of classical conditioning called fear conditioning. The horse learns to fear the signal that precedes the aversive onset and acts as if it were the “real thing”.

The second way in which an aversive (pressure) is applied in these aversive forms of horse training, is in an attempt to discourage unwanted behaviour. The trainer tries to ensure that the onset of an aversive stimulus is experienced by the horse as an immediate consequence of any unwanted behaviour. That kind of treatment would be described as positive punishment, if the tendency of the horse to perform the behaviour in that situation decreases.

I was with someone recently who had, like many, been encouraged to hold out her arm to “block” a horse that was going to bite while she was saddling, so that the “horse will run into your arm”. That would be considered positive punishment if the tendency of the horse to bite in that context reduced or stopped, having experienced an aversive (pain) from coming into contact with the long bones of a person’s arm as an immediate consequence of him attempting or threatening to bite.

What this technique didn’t do was to address the reason why the horse felt the need to bite in the first place and of course while the horse might suppress his desire to bite, when the threat of that arm being held out to block him exists, it can result in a whole lot of other avoidance behaviour or displaced behaviour or redirected aggression instead. Or the horse might just shut down – go into a state of learned helplessness, once he learns that nothing he does results in escape or avoidance of aversives.

This is because this blocking tactic does not address the underlying issue – it doesn’t address the reasons why the horse was motivated to bite in the first place.

Similarly “bumping” a horse with the rein or half halting, or hitting (or threatening to hit) the horse on the side of the neck or head with a stick, or using the rein attached to the bit to make the horse go back on the rail or on track if he comes off track when riding in an arena would be considered positive punishment, if the behaviour of coming off the rail or off track (on a circle for instance) reduced in frequency.

If, when he stays on the rail we leave the horse alone, he of course experiences no aversive consequence (other than that experienced from the effort of trotting around the rail, should he have sore feet or legs or be unfit or have an ill fitting saddle or bumpy rider) but neither does he experience a reward. If he comes away from the rail, and we make it “uncomfortable” or threaten to do so, he experiences the onset – the addition – of an aversive as an immediate consequence, and that can act to discourage the unwanted behaviour. This is positive punishment.

So, these aversives-based methods use a mix of consequences.

They use aversive stimulation to motivate the horse to perform a desired escape or avoidance behaviour, with negative reinforcement (stimulus removal or reduction) to make that behaviour more likely to be repeated. And they use the immediate onset of some kind of aversive stimulus – attempted positive punishment – to try to reduce or eliminate unwanted behaviour. I use the word “attempted” intentionally because often the behaviour is just suppressed only when the potential for that aversive to come on exists, and actually, because the motivation to do it remains, the behaviour is rarely actually eliminated.

The other way in which aversives are applied, is in an effort to get a horse to accept stimuli or situations it finds aversive and to cease responding to them. We want the horse to accept and ultimately ignore irrelevant things. That could be traffic, other animals, noises, general commotion, tack, rugs, yard tools or equipment and so on.

Sometimes the horse is exposed, at liberty, unrestrained and in an open area where he is free to choose to leave, to a potentially aversive stimulus – a novel object or potentially frightening situation at very low strength, and then perhaps the stimulus is removed – or the horse is removed from the situation – when the horse relaxes. The stimulus strength is increased very slowly and gradually, all the time making sure the horse relaxes completely before proceeding. If that’s done well it can be an excellent way to get horses used to new things without them experiencing fear or feeling trapped, or giving up trying to leave because their escape attempts are futile. The horse gets to choose to leave if it’s too much for him. Ideally, if it’s done well he will never choose to move away, never to return.

More commonly however, the horse is restrained on a halter and lead rope or in a bridle and confined in a small pen or in a stable or trapped up against a wall and subjected to an aversive event or stimulus until he ceases to try to escape, whereupon either the strength of that stimulus is reduced or the stimulus is moved away or the horse is let out. This is called flooding, with negative reinforcement, the horse being removed from the aversive stimulus or situation – (or vice versa) to reinforce a reduced response.

Sometimes called approach and retreat, other times called overshadowing, this is in almost all cases flooding with negative reinforcement. With a horse physically restrained or believing himself to be so, we should always assume that the horse will experience this as flooding. Flooding is routinely used in an effort to have horses habituate (have them learn to tolerate and cease to try to escape) to being weaned or removed from the herd, to being stabled, tied, travelled, saddled, being exposed to tarpaulins or balls or flapping flags or coats or clippers or water or veterinary procedures.

It is not very often that you will see a horse being exposed to aversives for habituation purposes in a wide open space where they could leave should they find the situation too much.

I’ve recently been asked to help someone who has a horse that is fearful of being stabled – it could be fear of separation from the herd or fear of being confined or the horse could have had some past experience of aversive treatment in the stable or over the door. In this case it’s probably a mix.

It could even be likened to PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) as the horse was force-weaned from his mother and that involved locking him in a stable for days on end.

Despite being stabled daily for some years, the horse is still stressed in the stable and tries to get out of the stable whenever the door is opened, whether someone is in the way or not. The horse will follow a person into the stable and he will go into the stable if pressure is applied to send him in there, but he immediately tries to come out.

I always take history of the horse including medical, management and training history. When asked about what she has already tried, the person involved has tried natural horsemanship for quite some time. The approach recommended was to have the horse on a halter and lead rope in the stable and to use a stick to block the path of the horse and to make the horse back up when it tried to leave the stable by hitting him between the front legs on the chest. This was described to the person who owns the horse as pressure-release and that when the horse backed up she should “reward” the horse by ceasing to hit the horse on the chest.

Bear in mind that the horse is afraid to be in the stable and that he is going to experience the addition of an aversive (being hit on the chest) when he tries to escape the stable. When he backs up away from the door that aversive (pressure) will be removed to reinforce his behaviour of backing up. Having followed this advice for a while, now, when the person opens the door to go in with the horse, the horse shoots to the back of the stable and shakes or turns his hind end on her and threatens to kick. She decided she doesn’t want the horse to do either of these things.

For a horse that fears being in the stable and isolated from friends, we have to ask the obvious question, which is this:

In what way will experiencing relief from pressure to back up away from the stable door ever be experienced as a “reward” for that horse, when the reason the horse is doing this is because he is stressed about being isolated in the stable?

Indeed for any horse, whether he is just minding his own business standing quietly in the stable looking out of the door, or whether he wants to come forward to escape what he perceives to be an aversive situation, how could we have ever believed that not being hit on the chest anymore with a stick because you just backed up would be experienced psychologically as a reward?

A person with an education in Psychology and who is up to date with the latest information we have from the science of Affective Neuroscience would be able to explain that the removal of an aversive stimulus (the release of pressure) is not ever experienced psychologically or neurologically as a reward. At best it is relief. Other neuroscientists would describe any use of aversives as punishment regardless of whether such a stimulus were being used to produce or stop behaviour. In any event removal of one type of aversive may be no relief at all, if the horse is still in a situation he finds frightening or uncomfortable or painful anyway.

People who repeat this information – that escape or avoidance of aversives is a reward – do not always intend to mislead you. They are just repeating what they’ve been told by someone else who perhaps has no qualifications in horse behaviour or psychology or neuroscience and who probably hasn’t read about the emotional aspects of learning. The emotions the horse experiences when you stop hitting her with a stick or loosen the rein are not experienced in any way at all like the emotions experienced when she is given a carrot. Not even remotely.

Please share this so that we can educate the novice student of the horse that the escape or avoidance of something unpleasant is never experienced as a reward.

It’s called pressure…. and RELIEF.

The Emperor’s new clothes

I have recently been reading a number of articles, responses to questions on Facebook or comments made in relation to the use of aversive stimuli with negative reinforcement (pressure and relief) for controlling the behaviour of horses or for training repeatable responses with horses.

It reminds me of the story of the Emperor’s new clothes.

In the story, by Hans Christian Andersen, the vain Emperor hires two rogues who promise to make him an amazing new outfit from a fabric that is invisible to anyone who is stupid. The garments do not of course exist and the Emperor himself, his ministers, and the townsfolk, pretend to be able to see and admire his new suit, for fear of being considered stupid.

Then a child in the crowd through which the Emperor is parading in his new clothes, shouts out the truth, that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all. The Emperor embarrassed, suspecting that the assertion is true and that he has been duped, continues the procession in his birthday suit.

These questions and answers I have seen going around about the use of aversives in training, reminded me of this story because everyone seems to be going along with the tale of the miraculous properties of the fabric used for the Emperor’s new clothes and no-one wants anyone else to think they are stupid, even though they can see for themselves that it can’t be true.

Negative reinforcement is said to have happened when the future frequency of a behaviour is strengthened (happens more frequently) because that behaviour results in the removal, escape or avoidance of an aversive (unpleasant) stimulus.

In English, this means that if something we don’t like happens to us, and the action we take to escape it is successful, we will repeat that behaviour next time. Not only that, but we will start to notice what happens before the bad thing happens, and start to take action sooner, to avoid the bad thing.

In order for that behaviour to be more likely to be repeated, the stimulus (the unpleasant thing) needs to be sufficiently unpleasant to prompt some behaviour that is a step in the direction of the required response, and the stimulus must be removed or reduced in strength the instant that a correct response occurs.

Pressure and relief is a way to deploy the phenomenon that is negative reinforcement, to train repeatable behaviours. In a nutshell, the handler or rider must apply an aversive stimulus (one that the horse either innately dislikes or has learned to dislike by association) until a desired response (desired by the person, not the horse) is performed, and then provide the horse with relief from the unpleasant stimulus by removing it, reducing it, or ensuring that the horse escapes or avoids it by performing that correct response.

It is possible to teach commands for behaviours by introducing the command for the behaviour immediately before applying the aversive. With repetition, the horse learns that the command is a signal that warns that an aversive will follow, and the horse will begin to respond to the command to avoid the aversive. The command given can be anything the horse can perceive – a visual body language gesture, an audible verbal command word or sound, a shift in the weight on his back, or a touch from the leg, or movement of the rein by the rider. Even the rider or handler taking in or letting out a breath. These can all be conditioned to predict aversive onset.

It must be noted however that any command given, comes to be learned by the horse to be a reliable predictor that an aversive will follow if s/he does not respond to the command, and that learned and previously neutral command comes to be aversive (producing the same emotional response) in its own right, by association with what follows.

A typical example of this might be the use of verbal commands in lunging, where the horse is given the command “Walk on” or “and….Trot” just before the application of the lunge whip behind the horse, which, when applied at a sufficiently aversive level, will produce the desired response.

Another example might be pointing and turning our body in the direction we want the horse to go, before applying an aversive both through steady pressure on the halter through the rope or lunge line, and aversive pressure with a stick and string or lunge whip or flag behind the drive line of the horse to cause it to seek relief away from each of those pressures by going out on a circle.

Alternatively a seat aid for halt – experienced by the horse as an alteration in the weight, balance or feel of the rider on his back – is given immediately prior to the application of an aversive through the reins connected to the bit in the mouth of the horse. This seat aid – which initially means nothing to the horse since s/he has had to be first desensitised to the movement of a rider on top – comes to predict an unpleasant sensation in his mouth, and the horse will, if correctly trained, learn to halt from the seat aid to (hopefully) avoid the unpleasant sensation in his mouth from the bit. If the seat aid does not work, then of course the rider will apply the aversive pressure to the mouth of the horse through the reins to make the horse stop.

Many equine behaviourists and trainers insist that having horses learn how to respond to pressure from handlers and riders is essential for the safety of both.

I used to agree with that, but the more I look at how people handle horses, I no longer do.

For one thing, horses already know how to “respond” to stimuli they do not like – they often tend to pull against or lean into pressure so as to avoid being pulled off balance.

The other is that I rarely see people handling horses who understand how to take pressure off when the horse does respond. So I don’t see negative reinforcement of desired behaviour happening for the most part in any event. Even if we trained our horses to respond to light pressure, unless these “other people” handling them are equally well trained to apply pressure lightly and wait for the horse to respond, the horse is going to be hurried and pulled and pushed and prodded into position anyway.

The best we can do is to train the horse to respond to commonly used verbal or visual body language or touch cues, and desensitise the horse to all the things that might detract from his willingness to respond to those.

However, there is another issue I want to address and it is the fact that I keep seeing people repeating what they hear said by others, that it is possible to teach horses behaviours in small steps, using pressure-relief (an aversive stimulus being used to prompt a desired behaviour) without escalating the aversive stimulus. They go along with that idea, perhaps because they don’t feel brave enough to question an authority figure, much the same as did the townsfolk watching the Emperor parade naked.

Escalation would involve either increasing the strength of the aversive or adding another type of aversive to increase the overall aversive experience of the horse, provoking the horse to want to take action to escape that situation.

Even the act of keeping an aversive stimulus “on” at one apparent level of strength results in escalation in the sense that the stimulus can become increasingly aversive to the horse. Imagine for instance being repeatedly tapped on the back of your leg with a whip. Even through each application of the whip may on its own be exactly the same in terms of the physical amount of effort used by the person holding the whip, over time the sensation would become increasingly intolerable.

The same can apply to any form of steady constant pressure. As an example, imagine holding a 2 kilo bag of sugar in your hand, with your arm stretched out in front of you for a few seconds. Not so bad. Now do it for a whole minute. Now do that for 10 minutes. Over that time, even though the bag of sugar weighs the same amount, it will begin to feel heavier and heavier to you as you hold out your arm, and more and more unpleasant to do so, due to the muscle fatigue you will be experiencing, resisting the forces of gravity.

So even though an aversive might not appear to us to be being escalated – the person is for example only pulling on the head of the horse with the same amount of pressure as was originally applied – the muscle fatigue involved in resisting that force is such that a stimulus maintained at that same level with no more pressure apparently being added can eventually become sufficiently aversive to a horse that he will act to make it stop. That pressure gets “heavier” or stronger or more intense, on its own.

Part of the reason for suggesting that we can use aversives without escalating, is, I am sure, that most equine behaviourists, and many very dedicated and self-educated and experienced consultants in equine management, behaviour and training generally tend to discourage the use of particular techniques for escalating pressure to either suppress or increase behavioural responses, such as are deployed in some natural horsemanship methods in particular.

Natural horsemanship methods are often criticised for promoting outdated ideas about dominance between animals, flooding (forced, restrained exposure to high strength and enduring frightening stimuli or events – the “throw them in at the deep end and leave them there until they swim” approach), aversive punishment (corrections) and the use of escalating pressure, which involves increasing strengths of aversive stimuli, sometimes escalated quite quickly to high strengths that can cause considerable fear or aggression or both in horses. Natural horsemanship has no monopoly on those things, just a convenient label. A trip to a weekend local horse show would be enough to see all of those things happening, although arguably with less skill in the giving of relief.

However, the question that I have debated with myself and with other qualified and experienced psychologists, equine behaviourists, riding teachers and trainers was the extent to which it is ever possible to use aversives to form and reinforce behaviour or to suppress it, without escalating.

I say that because I am seeing equine behaviourists and horse trainers of all persuasions suggest to those less knowledgeable about learning theory, that it is possible to form and reinforce complete behaviours from horses using very light pressure and relief, or very mild aversives, without ever escalating.

That means using some form of very mild aversive to get a response and removing that aversive when the horse responds without ever increasing the strength of the aversive.

It seems to me that while they might know something about negative reinforcement – you can produce a level of response with an aversive and get it again if you repeat it, they have forgotten about the other form of very simple learning that is always going on, and that is habituation.

If I take the use of light leg “aids” as an example, then if we were to be able to only use light aversive stimulation (pressure) to cause a horse to go forwards, then we would be able to just squeeze the horse lightly with our legs on his sides, or touch him with our heels, and the horse would walk forwards.

But this simply makes no sense. Folks who tell us this would have us believe that if we have a horse who has never been ridden, has been desensitised to things pressing around his middle (such as a girth or cinch), then touching the horse with something else in more or less the same area is going to produce a response.

It won’t. If it does, it probably means the horse has not been desensitised to the girth or the rider’s legs hanging down by his sides at all and is still reacting fearfully or with annoyance to having things in contact with his sides. Because the thing we must do before ever riding a horse is to ensure that he is not in any way reacting to the tightness of the girth or cinch around his middle and that he accepts touch all over – meaning that when touched with the hands, with the rider’s legs or with any item we might want to wear or carry, he does not react at all. That is an essential prerequisite to safe riding.

If he is reacting, then further desensitisation must take place such that the horse completely ignores the feel of the tightness of the girth or the feel of a rider’s legs touching his sides before we ever attempt to ride. If we don’t, the horse will try to get away from that sensation by moving, or by bucking or kicking out or biting or tail swishing at the source of the annoyance or discomfort, much as he would if he had a fly on him. Much the same way as horses do when ridden with spurs.

What actually has to happen for a horse to learn to respond to a very “light” aid or signal in a pressure-relief model is that this light leg touch or squeeze from the rider needs to be applied first and then it needs to be followed quite soon afterwards by some higher strength aversive stimulus in order to get a response.

The touch from the leg then, after some repetitions, comes to be the warning signal that another aversive stimulus is coming – whatever the rider chooses to use that is sufficiently unpleasant to cause the horse to walk forwards to get away. Through repetitions of this, the leg aid or touch or squeeze will come to be learned to be associated with that more significant aversive that follows and the horse will act sooner to avoid that. And it is also essential that, if we are trying to teach the horse to walk on for instance, that it is only when steps of walk forwards happen that the aversive is removed.

Various methods are recommended for applying an aversive to cause a response, but the rider has to make a response happen pretty soon after that “light” touch or verbal signal or whatever is used, or the horse will remain (or become) habituated to that light aid, much as he should to the rider’s legs just hanging there in contact with his sides. And when he habituates, he will ignore it.

In some systems the use of a whip tap to the horse behind the rider’s leg, on the boot of the rider or on the shoulder or rump of the horse might be recommended either to cause annoyance or a little stinging pain or to startle the horse into a flight response forwards.

In others, the rider might be advised to slap themselves or the horse on the body with a rope or with a special rope device (called by the fun sounding name “whip-whop”) to cause the horse to startle and move off. Some natural horsemen like to use a coiled up lariat and slap themselves with it on the leg and then the horse on the rump, which startles the horse into going forwards.

Some systems might advocate a little kick with the heels be used to follow the squeeze. Others seem to favour clucks and smooches given verbally by the rider or instructor, followed by some leg slapping or rope shaking, or some kind of general commotion from behind on top of the horse perhaps also with verbal chastisement to move. “GET ON!” seems to be a favourite local to me.

Whatever the system of pressure-relief that you follow and whoever you copy, there is no system that will teach you to just sit there squeezing lightly with your legs if the horse doesn’t respond to the neutral or mildly aversive feel of the squeeze. Because all that will happen if you do, is that the horse will habituate to that level of pressure (be that physical pressing or psychological warning threat that an aversive will follow non-response) and stop responding to it at all.

Whichever particular application is used, it is necessary to apply a sufficiently strong aversive and to either continue to apply it, or to increase it until a response is produced, whereupon that stimulus should be removed.

Should a horse fail to respond to a light pressure or mild aversive then unless that aversive is either:

  1. maintained at that level until it becomes aversive enough that the horse acts escape it, or
  2. increased in strength in some way, or
  3. another, additional type of aversive added to provide additional motivation to act

…then the horse will almost certainly habituate to the mild aversive or light pressure being applied at that level and future responses will be fewer and / or weaker.

Trainers actually rely on this process of habituation – where animals learn to ignore stimuli – in the first place during the halter training and backing process when we desensitise the horse to things it would otherwise fear or resist – like the feeling of the weight and pressures of the head collar or bridle on its head, the saddle on its back or the tightness of the girth or cinch around the middle.

Unless and until the horse shows no response at all to the feeling of these things, it would not be safe to ride or lead at all.

And that’s the trouble with mild aversives. If you’ve been trying to use mild aversives with a horse either to cause it to move or to stop it from moving and this isn’t working, then it is because either the horse is distracted by or attracted to something more important than your very light pressure, or the horse has simply habituated to it and needs to be re-sensitised – sometimes called “reminded” – that non-response will result in escalation.

If the horse experiences repeated applications of very light pressures or very mild aversives without any escalation or added aversive stimulus to produce a response, the horse will habituate and ignore those stimuli. And that means that at some point when you use that same mild aversive it won’t produce anything at all by way of a response. And it is inevitable that this will happen at some point due to the many things that compete for the attention of the horse.

To add to that, we also know that responses to aversive stimuli tend, in any event, to be reduced over time to produce only the effort that is necessary to achieve escape or avoidance. Once the horse has learned that he only needs to go forwards a step or two to make the aversive from the rider stop, then that is going to be all he will do. Which is why riders (and some instructors do teach riders to do this, so I do not judge the rider for this practice) seem to end up continuing to “remind” the horse that he has to keep going.

One alternative, in a pressure-relief only paradigm, is strong escalation, and it is this that is disliked by those objecting to the natural horsemanship form of escalation. That kind of strong escalation means that when the horse breaks gait to a lower (or higher) gait, the aversive is applied quickly and fairly severely to a level where the horse will not break gait because he fears what will happen if he does. For horses breaking gait down, pressure is added quickly to reproduce the desired gait. For those breaking gait up, pressure is added quickly to reproduce the lower gait. Arguably this kind of practice effectively punishes any failure to maintain gait and the horse experiences relief and freedom from aversives only when he maintains the gait asked for. Some horses take to this quite quickly. They want an easy life. It’s easy to get them to move if they are wanting to move anyway from nervous energy or because they have been stabled for a long time. I am thinking competition dressage horses. It’s not so easy to persuade those horses to slow or stop. And the converse is true with so called “lazy” horses that actually often become slower and less responsive in this kind of system due to learned helplessness.

It is also worth mentioning that the inability to maintain gait without constant reminders or corrections in an otherwise fit horse, should be a warning sign of possible physical discomfort. Always eliminate pain as a cause of unwillingness to stop or unwillingness to go.

So, back to the use of mild aversives / light pressures.

Once a horse has learned that the light leg pressure will be removed if he walks on (and escalated to some degree if he doesn’t, until he does walk on) then what are we to do to produce a trot? Because the same light leg pressure used to produce the walk is only sufficient to produce the walk.

What about when we want a faster trot, or even canter? If we apply the same light leg pressure when in walk to get the trot and there is no response from the horse, then what are we to do? Because in reality, if we get no increase in the level of response, we are on the road to also having the horse habituate to and ignore that light leg aid for walk as well as for trot.

And by the laws of habituation, we know that frequent and repeated exposure to low strength stimuli results in a reduction in response, and eventually to no response at all. So we can’t keep using mild aversives because they will habituate and if we don’t want the horse to ignore our aid or command we need to make the behaviour happen to maintain the association between that command, the aversive used to produce the behaviour and the negative reinforcement (aversive removal) that follows a correct response.

With horses that have – through breeding or management – a greater desire to move, and whose breeding is such that they have a strong flight response, it tends to be quite easy to produce movement with very mild aversives. That is why we see so many of those breeds of horse such as thoroughbreds and warmbloods performing in dressage, compared to more “cold-blooded” native breeds and cobs.

Getting the so-called hotter blooded horses to move with aversives is not so difficult, because they have been bred for the flight response as well as for the long ground covering legs and light bodies. Getting them to stop tends to be more challenging and that tends to be more where we see aversives being escalated through the bit.

Cobs and many native breeds can be the opposite – they tend to be much easier to persuade to stand still or go slowly (unless they are afraid), they can be notoriously difficult to motivate to use any energy in schools and arenas and yet are the safest and most fun if all you want to do is have a pootle around the block on a hack. Getting them to put in any more effort than that without escalating aversives, if aversives is all you have, is very difficult and explains a lot why they don’t feature quite so frequently on the dressage scene.

So, what I really wanted to do was to make sure that no one is still feeling stupid, and I hope I’ve done my job. If you have been trying to use very mild pressure or a very mild aversive with a horse to produce a behaviour, and the horse’s response is getting no better or has died off altogether, it’s not because you are ignorant or doing it incorrectly. It is because this is what happens.

The fact is that it simply is not a realistic expectation to set that in a pressure-relief paradigm we can use very mild pressure or a learned visual or vocal or touch signal to forever produce the same or increased effort in behaviour and never escalate with an aversive to make the behaviour happen.

The use of mild pressure or a mild aversive with no response from the horse results only in one thing and that is habituation to the stimulus, such that there will, in very few repetitions of that, be no response at all.

So the question is, what DO we have to do then if mild aversives won’t work?

Well, if you wish to pursue training a horse in a pressure-relief model, then it is going to be essential to keep adding or increasing the strength of aversive until you do get a response. It’s unavoidable. How you choose to go about doing that is a personal choice and the extent to which you are willing to escalate is a moral decision. Sometimes people find themselves working harder and harder to get a response and the horse does less and less, because they are just not the kind of person who is willing to escalate to the extent that might be required to get a “snappier” response. They love their horse and they don’t want to have to do that and frighten or make him mad to get more from him.

Sometimes when I am teaching pressure-relief to people and horses – something I prefer to do usually only where there are physical imperatives for the horse to exercise, such as weight management and physiotherapy, or where the owner has yet to learn how to use pressure-relief correctly, I might try to find out what the person thinks is the least aversive thing that will produce a response from the horse and go from there.

I will try to use very mild aversives (the smallest increment necessary to get some movement) and mark and positively reinforce that for horses that are ready to be trained with positive reinforcement. That way, I can get the horse thinking that there is something more in it for him than the threat of more pressure if he doesn’t and we can often improve performance and effort hugely by just using the mild aversive a few times to form the behaviour initially and then get it on a non-aversive cue and build from there using successive approximations with positive reinforcement alone.

There is still an issue with that though from two perspectives. One is that if the behaviour breaks down then we have no other way to reproduce it other than using the original aversive used to form it.

The other – and I must stress that this is not because the training doesn’t work but because people find using aversives to get behaviour very reinforcing for themselves, and have usually practised that a lot – it is all too easy to slip back into old habits and escalate.

For that reason I prefer to use target training for many things for which aversives are commonly used. It just takes the temptation out of it, for everyone who escalates automatically without thinking because this is what they have been trained to do for so long!

What I will never do though is to mislead anyone who wishes or who is for the time being compelled (for example on vet’s orders to exercise a horse) to continue using pressure and relief, to expect that they will only ever need to use a teeny tiny mild aversive and never increase it if they are expecting to get either longer duration or more effort or indeed continued effort from the horse.

It’s an impossible dream.

If we only have aversives available to form and reinforce behaviour, we will always have to escalate for some behaviour at some point, to keep the association going between the command for the behaviour from the handler or rider, the actual aversive stimulus that will produce the response from the horse and the reinforcement produced by his effort to escape or avoid that.

Anyone who was wondering how it can possibly be that we can get more output from a horse in an aversive paradigm without increased input was right. The Emperor, sadly, is in fact naked.

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.