An “Ethical Practice”: The Research behind Natural Horsemanship Techniques

We finally have quite a foundation of knowledge with research to support it. I wanted to talk about one of the most popular methods to reach “9”. As previously mentioned, there are many different formulas to reach 9. 8+1, 7+2, 6+3, 5+4… but which method should we use? I witnessed and experimented with different training methods to get the results I wanted. As we just talked about how horses think and learn, there are certainly some methods that we can cross off of our list. But what about methods that claims to be ethical? When learning and experimenting my way through training methods, I did run into some that I felt made sense. I tried them, they worked, and then I was sold. I was starting to use “natural horsemanship” as an alternative to traditional Xenophon methodology. I used it on all my horses, purchased the home curriculum and equipment, and taught it to all of my students. My horses were calmer, my results were faster, and there was equine psychology to back it. But what did the research say?

Natural horsemanship uses herd dynamics and horse to horse communication as the foundation for methodology. This is why it all seemed to make sense to me, for the horse. It was clear, and I could observe a herd in pasture and confidently understand where each cue came from. A horse pins their ears and delivers a kick to the chest of another horse, the horse backs up. We mimic this by putting up a snarly face, shaking the lead rope, and/or tapping the horse’s chest with stick; using pressure-release to get the horse to back up. It all mimics the dominance factor of the equine herd hierarchy. Sure, like I said, it makes sense and it works, it is yet just another method to reach 9. However, it all assumes that the horse will consider us part of the herd, another horse, the leader. Where did this assumption come from? Is it possible for the horse to truly think of a predatory two legged creature as one of its own?

While it is suggested by renowned trainers that humans can enter the horse hierarchy through mimicry of behaviors (Roberts, 1997; Parelli, 1995), the research finds this to be muddy waters. Round penning or “join up” has shown to be ineffective in its attempts to be ethical. Studies have shown that a simple hand touching of an unbroken horse raised the same amount of chronic stress as any other aversive stimulus such as a whip (McGreevy, 2004). And it is thought that the horse does not “join up” to the trainer, it simply learns how to avoid being chased (Krueger, 2007). From this perspective it really seems more inhumane. The horse is enclosed and cannot use their flight responses. So the horse remains in a state of hypersensitivity due to the chase. The reward for “joining up” is some “gentling” or petting and rubbing. While scratching and rubbing on the withers or forehead have shown to lower heart rates and stress (Feh and deMaieres, 1993), when applied to round pen training, petting and scratching had no significant effect on the horses’ tendency to then follow trainers in the round pen in a study done by Krueger (2007).

There are many surrounding questions regarding human leadership for the horse. One thing we are trained to assume is that a horse “bonds” to a human and would therefore seek out the human’s companionship. However, there is little evidence that a horse would approach a human in a pasture with anything other than mere curiosity or from being conditioned to do so. Studies show that after a “successful” session of round pen training, horses showed no increase in their tendency to follow trainers (Krueger, 2007). Due to the human chasing, applying pressure, and causing stress in an enclosed area, the horse merely joins the human in a case of “learned hopelessness”. Trainers who base interactions with horses on herd equilibrium: flight, herd instinct, and hierarchy are overlooking the factors of foraging, coalitions, kinship, affiliations, as well as the reality of the effects of conditioning on all innate responses (McGreevy and McLean, 2007). The misunderstanding that training should depend on the horse’s response to “want to bond with us” is anthropomorphic.

If natural horsemanship bases training tactics on the idea of herd dominance, let’s explore what dominance is and why it is important. Dominance refers to an ordering between group-living animals, not necessarily linear (Appleby, 1983) which dictates the priority of access to resources. Drews (1993) defines this as: “an attribute of the pattern of repeated, agnostic interactions, between two individuals, characterized by a consistent outcome and default response rather than escalation of conflict”. Grazers living in a social setting utilize this language of dominance as strategic survival strategies. Remember survival of the fittest? Fitness pertains to the amount of offspring you have, not the same “fitness” that we tend to think of. Every species wants to live long enough to have optimal amounts of offspring in order for the species to continue to thrive. The language of dominance allows for conflict to be minimized during competition for a valuable resource. Conflicts can harm individual fitness as well as the integrity of the entire herd (Krause and Ruxton, 2002). Dominance is also context specific. A dominant horse in relation to food might not have dominance priority to shelter access (Kiley-Worthington, 1990). So if dominance is constructed to avoid conflict for resources, how does the human fit in the “dominance hierarchy”? They don’t. Humans have no reason to condition a horse to move out of its way in order to obtain the same resources. The horse is simply classically conditioned to move away from the human through force and pressure and “natural horsemanship” becomes a false justification.

Now that we understand that placing the human in the herd is a silly concept that is not biologically accepted by the horse, what about psychologically? Natural horsemanship is classical conditioning through negative reinforcement (the removal of forced pressure in order to encourage a behavior to continue). After the horse learns that they do not want to experience the pressure, they are conditioned to respond to a lesser cue, hence the “whisper, ask, and tell” idea behind increasing pressure. When we compare negative reinforcement to positive reinforcement, what do the results look like? Well, Sankey et al. (2010) put this question to the test and measured and compared equine heart rate and emotional state under the two different types of reinforcement. The team of researchers measured the horses’ short and long term perception of the human, just after training and five months later. 21 ponies underwent experimentation. They were of mixed breeding made up of 11 mares and 10 geldings from two different riding schools. None of which were ever taught to back up nor had prior introduction to the trainer. The ponies were fitted with heart rate monitors in their training sessions which typically lasted one to three minutes, once a day, for five days. Each pony was given three chances, at 10 sec each to respond to the cue “recule!” which is French for “go back!” The negative reinforcement group used an adverse stimulus such as a carrot stick in front of their head and body. By trial one, if the pony did not back, the stick was shook in front of the pony until they stepped back. Right when the pony stepped back, pressure was let off and the pony was led back to its home stall/pasture. The positive reinforcement group was started the same, given the vocal cue, but by the second trial, the experimenter gave the cue and stepped toward the animal with no contact or pressure. When the pony stepped back, following the trainer, a reward of a carrot or pelleted feed was immediately given and the pony was lead back to its home stall/pasture.

Not to my surprise, the results showed numerous statistically significant differences. While none of the ponies understood the vocal command on day one, by day five 11 out of 11 ponies understood from the positive reinforcement (PR) group and 7 out of 10 from the negative reinforcement (NR) group. The PR ponies were quicker to back on command than the NR group. 5 out of 10 NR ponies responded by the second trial, and 2 by the third. All 11 PR ponies responded by trial number two. Behaviors during training sessions differed. Most NR ponies side stepped during their training task while none of the PR ponies did. All NR ponies laid their ears back in at least one of the five day sessions when the carrot stick was applied while all of the PR ponies pricked their ears forwards during an average of three out of five sessions. Most NR ponies were reported to have their head raised with some tossing while backing up. Most PR ponies had their heads either neutral or lowered. The NR ponies displayed hollow necks while backing and PR ponies displayed rounded necks. On day one, before the experiment, the groups showed no difference in heart rates. Over the entire training period the mean heart rate was higher in NR ponies than PR ponies. Studies even indicate that on day one, heart rate increased at the exact moment of agitation from the stick. There was no heart rate increase in the PR group, not even when the experimenter stepped forward toward the pony or while receiving treats. From day three on, the NR ponies showed increased heart rates before the researcher even gave the vocal cue, predicting the averse stimulus. Before training, both groups showed similar interest responses to the human. After training, PR ponies were faster to initiate contact with the trainer and spent more time near the trainer, while only two NR ponies came to greet their trainer. After five months, again only 2 NR ponies came to greet the trainer (one being the same pony as in the short term trial) and 10 out of 11 PR ponies greeted their trainer. PR ponies were faster than NP to initiate contact with an unknown person and spent more time near her. These are astonishing results of only five training days consisting of only one to three minute sessions! The use of positive associations also yielded faster and stronger results with better memory recollection, thus becoming a win across the board. And we have plenty of research to support the interpretation of the results.

Positive reinforcement produces a win for the horses. It showed no signs of increased heart rate or stress, and a win for humans who formed stronger bonds along with faster training success with quality results. Horse are not the only creature to have greater success with positive reinforcement training (rhinoceros: Holden et al. 2006; primates: Laule et al. 2003) and a recent study by Sankey et al. (2010) showed that horses trained with positive reinforcement learnt faster a series of handling and veterinary procedures using such strategies than horses trained without it. Arousal levels need to be significant in order for learning to occur and stress is known to impair attention and learning (Mendl 1999). Stress may drive the attention from the task itself to the human holding the stick which causes the vocal cue to be associated with the stick rather than the task (Shors 2004, Bisaz et al. 2009) as it did with the NR ponies by day three. And as far as behaviors goes, studies show us that head tossing indicates discomfort (Warren-Smith and McGreevy 2007; Sondergaard and Halekoh 2003) as our PR also ponies displayed. Positive reinforcement promoted roundness and self-carriage, encouraging fundamentals of equitation (Warren-Smith and McGreevy 2007). Hinde’s study (1979) shows us that a succession of negative interactions can lead to a negative memory of the partner, hence why the recollection and trainer greeting was much higher in PR ponies. It is quite clear for horses and for researchers that human presence with positive reinforcements leads to a more positive perception of human and handling procedures (Hausberger et al. 2008). And other studies (DePassille et al. 1996; Munksgaard et al. 1997) show that fear of humans and handling is reduced in the horse when human presence was associated with food rewards. We already knew that horses have good long term memories, but we have underestimated them. Hanggi and Ingersoll’s 2009 study showed that horses can recall tasks more than ten years later! Horses can also generalize their daily positive human interactions to unknown humans, thus decreasing stress and increasing equine welfare in a human controlled world (Henry et al. 2005), which may be why PR ponies were all more comfortable approaching strangers.

With significant differences all across the board, what does this tell us? Horses, being prey animals, do not look at humans as herd members. As humans, predators, the best thing we can do is train with positive reinforcement. Natural horsemanship is a false justification to use classical conditioning with negative reinforcement, force, and pressure cues. Horses do not bond to a human leader than uses force and domination. Horses bond to humans who create positive associations without force, exhibiting themselves as non-threatening. While taking away negative reinforcement can sometimes be difficult to do, especially when riding, many equitation trainers insist on the importance of secondary positive reinforcements in correspondence with primary ones. Researcher and equestrian Oliveria (1991) would stress for a horseman to have a pocket full of treats when working with a young or green horse. He claimed that people would laugh at him, calling him “unmanly” when he would give treats to his horse. This is the notion in the equine industry; I have witnessed cases of it firsthand. However the research and the data do not lie. The results speak for themselves. If we can all stop looking for the next trend in horse training and just simply start creating more positive associations, we can witness more togetherness and peace among horses and humans. If the pony study showed us one key thing, it is that we only need a few short but positive interactions to truly change horses’ perception of humans. It’s time to create a relationship that can be perceived and interpreted just as it is; a human and a horse.

Works Cited

Appleby, MC. (1983) The probability of linearity in hierarchies. Animal Behaviour 31: 600-608.

Bisaz, R., Conboy, L., Sandi, C. (2009) Learning under stress: a role for the neural cell adhesion molecule NCAM. Neurobiol Learn Mem 91: 333-342.

DePassille, AM., Rushen, J., Petherick, JC. (1996) Dairy calves’ discrimination of people based on previous handling. J Anim Sci 74: 969-974.

Drews, C. (1993)The concept and definition of dominance in animal behavior. Behavior 125: 283-313.

Feh, C., de Mazieres, J.,1993. Grooming at a preferred site reduces heart rate in horses. Anim. Behav. 46, 1191-1194.

Giles, SL., Nicol, CJ., Harris, PA., Rands, SA. (2015) Dominance rank is associated with body condition in outdoor-living domestic horses (Equus caballus). Appl Anim Behav Sci 166: 71-79.

Hanggi, EB., Ingersoll, JF. (2009) Long-term memory for categories and concepts in horses (Equus caballus). Anim Cogn 12(3): 451-462.

Hausberger, M., Roche, H., Henry, S., Visser, E. (2008) A review of the human-horse relationship. Appl Anim Behav Sci 109: 1-24.

Henry, S., Hemery, D., Richard, MA., Hausberger, M. (2005) Human-mare relationships and behavior of foals towards humans. Appl Anim Behav Sci 93: 341-362.

Hinde, R. (1979) Towards understanding relationships. Academic Press, London.

Holden, MD., Gregory, J., Watkins, V., Radford, L. (2006) Operant conditioning programme for White rhinoceros and Indian or Greater one-horned Asian rhinoceros. Int Zoo Year Book 40: 144-149.

Kiley-Worthington, M. (1990) The behavior of horses in relation to management and training: towards ethologically sound environments. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 10.

Krause, J., Ruxton, GD. (2002) Living in Groups. Oxford University Press.

Krueger, K. 2007. Behaviour of horses in the “round pen technique.” Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 104, 162-170.

Laule, GE., Bloomsmith, MA., Scapiro, SJ. (2003) The use of positive reinforcement training techniques to enhance the care, management and welfare of primates in the laboratory. J Appl Anim Wel Sci 6(3): 163-173.

McGreevy, P.D., 2004. Equine Behaviour- A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists. W.B. Saunders, Edinburgh.

McGreevy, P.D., McLean, A.N., 2007. The roles of learning theory and ethology in equitation. J.Vet. Behav.:Clin. Appl. Res. 2, 108-118.

Mendl, M. (1999) Performing under pressure: stress and cognition function. Appl Anim Behav Sci 65: 221-244.

Munksgaard, L., DePassille, AM., Rushen, J., Thodberg, K., Jensen, MB. (1997) Discrimination of people by dairy cows based on handling. J Dairy Sci 80: 1106-1112.

Oliveria, N. (1991) L’art equestre. Ed Crepin Leblond, Paris.

Parelli, P., 1995. Natural Horsemanship. Western Horseman, Colorado Springs, CO.
Roberts, M., 1997. The man who listens to horses. Arrow Books, London.

Sankey, C., Richard-Yris, MA., Henry, S., Fureix, C., Nassur, F., Hausberger, M. (2010) Reinforcement as a mediator of the perception of humans by horses (Equus caballus). Anim Cogn 13: 753-764.

Sankey, C., Richard-Yris, MA., Leroy, H., Henry, S., Hausberger, M. (2010) Training experience induces lasting memories of humans in horses, Equus caballus. Anim Behav 79: 869-875.

Shors, T. (2004) Learning during stressful times. Learn Mem 11:137-144.

Spondergaard, E., Halekoh, U. (2003) Young horses’ reactions to humans in relation to handling and social environment. Appl Anim Behav Sci 84: 265-280.

Warren-Smith, AK., McGreevy, PD. (2007) The use of blending positive and negative reinforcement in shaping the halt response of horses (Equus caballus). Anim Wel 15:481-488.


Equine Cognition and a Breakdown of Applied Learning Theories

Now that we looked at equestrian sports from the horse’s perspective and also dug into origins and explanations of traditional training; let us once again jump to some studies to find out how horses learn. By studying equine cognition, we can develop methods that make the most sense for the horse, thus improving equine welfare. We must first look at their mental capabilities. Horses have a poorly developed pre-frontal cortex; this prevents them from being able to develop abstract thoughts (Kandel and others 2000, Premack 2007). With that being said, we understand that horses only live in the moment. They are unable to think about the future or the past. Memories are triggered by some sort of environmental stimulus. This would explain why horses create habits of continuous spooking at the same spot in a particular environment. Horses also lack the ability to solve problems. Learning is only through trial and error. Interestingly enough, horses have excellent long term memory (Wolff and Hausberger 1996), on the flip side, their short term memory is very poor (McLean 2008). Most trainers can say that they witnessed at least one horse that possessed a learned fear from an incident long ago. That learned fear from their long term memory tends to overshadow all of that recent desensitizing and retraining. All of these discoveries of equine cognition should be taken into consideration when formatting a training method.

There is one thing we need to touch base on before we get into learning theory, the situational necessities a horse needs in order to optimize learning. We must remember that every time we are touching the horse, we are teaching them something. Training does not start when the human is ready; some think it begins when entering an arena. Training sessions start with that initial approach to go halter your horse in the pasture, walk him to the barn, tie him up, groom and tack, etc. We are either teaching them to work with us or against us. If your goal is to have more harmony with your horse, yet you ignore his signals, you are destined to cause confusion. In his book Gallop to Freedom: Training Horses with Our Six Golden Principles, Frederic Pignon, a phenomenal horse trainer and performer, describes his experiences with his no punishment equality training philosophy. He explains that confusion and miscommunication is more abusive, cognitively speaking, than straight forward abuse or neglect. While neither is encouraged as a training method, pure abuse and neglect teaches the horse that the human is unsafe, period. Using ethical training in the ring but still acting controlling and rough in the barn tells the horse you want his trust before you go and turn on them, displaying true predatory tendencies. The same is true for the more common reverse situation; kindness in the barn then rough and controlling riding sessions. Any type of animal training needs consistency. That starts the moment you enter the horses’ environment and does not end until you are away from the stable grounds.

Horses, prey animals without the mental abilities to reason, have safety hierarchies that need to be fulfilled before they can learn. First, they need to feel safe, and I mean in terms of equine safety, not a human influenced version. They need forage, fresh water, and social contexts. Their hierarchy will not allow them to move forward in learning without having their basic needs met. Safety comes before food. For instance, if a horse does not feel safe on a trailer, they will not eat until they are returned to safety or gain comfort (commonly by company, as they are herd animals). If a horse does not feel safe in the ring, at a show, on the trail, then it is unlikely that they will learn anything that session. They will resort to fight or flight until they finally have their safety needs meet. It is important to know how to read your horse. Fighting a horse that does not feel safe will only make you a stimulus that triggers fear responses in the horse. Many humans that use training techniques that try to control the horse often are the main causes of stress in the animal. Taking a horse back to the herd in order for them to feel safe is not “giving up”, it is fulfilling the horse’s safety needs, thus creating comfort. Again, they lack higher reasoning, so in the moment, if you are the active wall between the horse and his safety, you are causing the stress. If you can be the human that helps reduce stress, in time you will gain real trust, have an animal that will enjoy learning from you, and have quicker quality results. You will be the human the horse runs to rather than from. Knowledge is the ability to read and identify the horse’s physical and emotional needs. Wisdom is the consciousness of consistently placing the horse’s need and the relationship before the desire to obtain results.

So how do horses learn? Many studies show us that horses simply learn through applied learning theories. These include:

Operant Conditioning: Behavior influenced by a type of reinforcement
Classical Conditioning: Associations between two events
Habituation: Involves elimination of a response to a stimulus in their environment

Operant Conditioning (4 Types)

Positive Reinforcement– Is the addition (positive) of a stimulus in order to increase (reinforcement) a desired behavior. This can be a treat or a scratch in order for a behavior to occur again.

Side note: Studies have shown that a scratch at the withers lowers heart rate, a great tool to help calm nervous horses. Horses in social behaviors tend to “make friendships” by scratching each other at the withers (Feh and de Mazieres 1993).

When using positive reinforcement, timing is everything. The reinforcement must be administered as closely as possible to the desired behavior. A secondary reinforcement is commonly used, and my personal favorite is the clicker. Due to the horse’s poor short term memory and the realization that a lack of behavior can still be considered a behavior, I can make a click sound at the very moment they give the desired behavior, in which they are already classically conditioned to predict a treat. This prevents lag time in between behavior and treat. Too much lag time and now you may be unconsciously rewarding a different behavior. Timing must be precise, timing is everything. It kind of reminds me of a game show, when they get the right answer then *ding ding* goes the buzzer, the contestant predicts a victory and a prize, and in this case a *click* and a treat. The secondary reinforcement results in quicker training and is extremely effective. We will dive deeper into this later.

Negative Reinforcement – Is the removal of a stimulus (negative) in order to encourage a behavior to continue (reinforcement). This can look like the removal of leg pressure to get the animal to move forward; or the removal of rein pressure when the horse stops.

Negative reinforcement is a common tool used in both classical riding and natural horsemanship through the use of the releasing pressure to encourage a desired behavior. Natural horsemanship stresses the importance of the timing of the release in order for it to be effective. I often find issues with negative reinforcement since it just doesn’t appear to be too much fun for the horse. Usually there is no way around the use of it. For instance, even just a slight tense up from the rider to have the horse ever so slightly feel the cue to move forward still falls under the category of negative reinforcement. And unfortunately, false learning often happens due to lack of comprehension from the human. The example in Gemma Pearson’s study, an equine behaviorist and veterinarian liaison for the recently mentioned ISES, is a common example of improper handling. If a horse fears clippers and lifts their leg to avoid it, the human may move the clippers away from the horse to avoid cutting him on accident. Well that just so happened to teach the horse that when they move away from the clippers, the unwanted stimulus will also be removed, thus causing a falsely learned behavior. This is often generalized with other stimuli such as grooming or washing of the legs. Now we have a horse that was unconsciously taught to respond to stimuli on his legs with hypersensitivity.

Positive Punishment – Is the addition (positive) of a stimulus in order to end or eliminate a behavior (punishment). This can look like a smack to stop a horse from biting or kicking.

So in the context of our hypersensitive horse that was falsely taught to move away from stimuli on the legs is now snatching up the leg higher and faster as the behavior starts shaping and refining (the initial response starts building towards the desired final outcome). His actions may result in kicking or striking out. The human then applies positive punishment and smacks the horse to stop this behavior. The horse is kicking out due to the negative reinforcement and does not associate kicking out with the positive punishment of the slap (remember the bad short term memory). The human just created boat loads of confusion. Such a simple task eventually grew into a scenario which causes discomfort, doubt, and unsafe feelings, yet the human does not even acknowledge this perspective.

Negative Punishment – Is the removal (negative) of a stimulus to end or eliminate a behavior (punishment). This can be viewed as the removal of a feeding in order to stop a horse from behaving badly under saddle, or removal of a mare from a stud behaving with spirit.

Of all the operant learning theories, this one cause more issues than it fixes. Again, we have to be reminded of their poor short term memory and our lack of precise timing. The horse will mostly likely not identify the behavior for which it is being punished for. Both punishment methods usually will just result in welfare consequences due to anxiety or fear of the human associated with punishment, causing dangerous situations for both horses and humans.

Classical Conditioning

Classical Conditioning -Is the process of making associations of two previously unrelated events. Anyone remember Pavlov’s dog? While studying digestive physiology, he noticed that the dogs would start salivating when he rang the bell to signal that it was feeding time. They would salivate at the sound of the bell even though there was no sight or smell of food. They learned to associate the bell with food through consistent associations.

Horses are great at classical conditioning. Operant conditioning allows the horse to control their environment while classical conditioning allows for predictability of their environment. This is so important for their survival. For example, the boss horse pins their ears and takes actions to demand that everyone moves out of his way through a series of kicking and biting. It does not take long for the subordinate horses to associate the pinned ears with the dominant action. The herd quickly learns to move away (conditioned response) by sight of pinned ears (conditioned cue). The ability to predict the outcome reduces stress in the lives of prey animals.

This can work against us. For example horses who shy at needles. Pretty soon they see the vet and are overwhelmed with fear before they even interact with them. On the bright side, horses can easily be re-trained with counter conditioning. If a horse has an innate fear response to something, you can create positive associations using a stimulus they would enjoy rather than fear. An example would be a worming tube; most horses dislike it due to of the awful taste which they associate with the sight of the tube. All of the sudden you cannot get within two feet of them with the tube in your hand. To counter-train this, you can use a clicker and start with the reinforcing of calm behavior around the worming tube. Later, you can progress to reinforcing interest in the object followed by mouthy behavior with the tube. Giving him some honey or sugar water is another method that can produce positive experiences while creating new associations. Consistency is the key. Each horse is unique with different likes, needs, personalities, etc. This is the fun part; you can get creative when exploring what type of stimulus drives your horse, sparking his interests and curiosities. You can also make your cues to be whatever you would like, like constructing a new language that only your horse would understand.


Horses will get accustomed to different aspects of their environment through frequent exposure which results in an eliminated or lowered fear response. An example would be a horse that is desensitized to machinery and vehicles due to stabling near a farm or busy road. Habituation is useful, however there are limits. Progress can be a long road. Habituation lays as the foundation for desensitizing training. There are a few different practices for behavior modification based on habituation.

Flooding– Involves overwhelming a horse with an averse stimulus until it ceases to react. An example would be locking a horse in a stall with a foreign object in hopes that the horse will eventually get over their fear. Problems due to flooding are elevated stress levels or actually causing more fear. They are unable to act on their flight response and find yet again another situation where the human is the cause of stress.

Stimulus Blending– Is a method that combines an averse stimulus with a non-averse one. For example, asking a horse to lower his head by a pull of a rope at the same time you blanket a nervous horse. A stimulus such as lowering is asking the horse to relax into pressure which may help the horse’s nerves while the blanket goes on. This method may be effect but still may cause elevated stress. It is typically done with negative reinforcement also known as “pressure-release”.

Approach Conditioning – Natural horsemanship calls it the “approach-retreat” method. A prey animal naturally runs from things that will chase them. Through approaching then retreating, the horse can quickly habituate to the ability to chase something. They are not too overstimulated at a single time and may gain interest if they find the stimulus to be harmless. The learning is based on negative reinforcement; the removal of the object reduces stress to increase the likelihood of acceptance.

Overshadowing– A method based on the idea that the horse cannot focus on two simultaneous stimuli. When approached with two stimuli, the horse prioritizes which one to focus on while the other stimulus undergoes habituation.

Overshadowing commonly acts as a “quick fix” method, especially in situations of immediate attention like vet or farrier care. Such encounters occur under time restraints and are not meant to be training sessions. A common example is the lip twitch. This may just be a distraction. It may get the job done but does not address the actual acceptance of the averse stimulus.

Counter Conditioning– The act of using classical conditioning to change a feared stimulus to a positive one. Pearson gives a good example of the use of clippers. A horse that fears clippers can be counter conditioned by receiving a treat once they hear the sound of the clippers (more precision with a clicker). As previously mentioned, classical conditioning requires accurate timing. Clippers need to be turned on before delivering the click or food; if the opposite, they cannot associate the two. The stimulus must come first, then an immediate reward.

This is my favorite method for getting a horse over their fear. They are simply making new positive associations. This is intriguing, progressive, and does not break the spirit of the horse. They undergo less stress with counter conditioning while unlocking their curiosity for the previously feared response.

I understand that this is a long article, but I cannot stress enough just how important it is for a trainer to be aware of equine cognitive function. It is an amazing realization when we begin noticing things we may have done incorrectly due to lack of awareness. It is common for people to hold the horse to higher cognitive standards or unconsciously communicate mixed signals. Confusion between horse and human are the most common reasons for “misbehavior”. Our horse is our mirror. They always act in the moment. However, they can undergo a complete transformation if we are prepared to handle both averse and non-averse stimulus using methods that reduce the stress of the horse. Now that we have the knowledge of the horse’s learning abilities and different methods of teaching, we can choose the ones that are the most mutually beneficial. If you want to produce love, curiosity, enjoyment, and involvement from the horse, you yourself have to offer love, curiosity, enjoyment, and involvement. Together horse and human can unlock a true understanding of one another.

Works Cited

Feh, C. & De Mazieres, J. (1993) Grooming at a preferred site lowers heart rate in horses. Animal Behavior 46, 1191-1194.

Kandel E.R., Schawrts, J.H., & Jessell, T.M. (2000) Principles of Neural Science. 4th Edn. McGraw-Hill Medical.

McLean, A. & McLean, M. (2008). Academic Horse Training. Australian Equine Behavior Centre.

Pearson, G. (2015) Practical application of equine learning theory, part 1. In Practice 37, 251-254.

Pearson, G. (2015) Practical application of equine learning theory, part 2. In Practice 37, 286-292.

Pignon, Frederic. 2009. Gallop to Freedom: training horses with our six golden principles/ Frederic Pignon & Magali Delgado; with David Walser. Trafalgar Square Books. North Pomfret, Vermont.

Premack, D. (2007) Human and animal cognition: continuity and discontinuity. Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences 104, 13861-13867.

Wolff, A. & Hausenberger, M. (1996) Learning and memorization of two different tasks in horses: the effects of age, sex and sire. Applied Animal Behavior and Science 44, 137-143.

The Historical and Traditional Dynamics of the Horse and Human Relationship

In this modern world, now more than ever should we be on our guard about what we are learning and where the information is coming from. Throughout my educational career, I developed habits of questioning everything. This later lead to my bachelor’s degree in biology. Anytime information was tossed around, instead of immediately absorbing it, I wanted to make sure the information I was given had measurable reasoning behind it. Horse training is a different story. Throughout our riding careers, starting with riding lessons, we are constantly being given the “how” but never the “why”. Young riders are told how to make a horse move, stop, etc. but they are rarely given explanations as to “why” we do so in a certain fashion. The information is thrown at us from a “professional” and that is that. As long as it gives us the product we are looking for, aka “seems to work”, we never seem to question it and we just simply accept it. As I recently touched on critical thinking within the equine industry, I had my hunches of what I wanted my horse training to look like. I wanted a method that was based on research. I did not search for a quick method based solely on a favored end result. I wanted a method that would be justified on the means of truth and solidity. I wanted to produce outcomes without the use of “tools” that are there to bandage the foundation together. I was looking for horse training that answered the question of “why”, with measurable and empirical support. I just could not get myself to make the claim; “I accepted it because that is what I was taught”.

The end results of horse training methods can look similar, but a trained eye can see the difference between a broken horse and an unlocked horse. Just like 4+5=9, so does 7+2. Oh and there is 8+1. So why is the scientific formula important for deciding what kind of rider or trainer you want to be? I chose not to use the first method that was given to me just because it came from a “professional’s” mouth or just because it lead to 9. Judging training methods based on the final end result gives you a false sense of proper methodology. On the professional side of the horse world, I have witnessed many different ways to reach 9. Some methods I immediately rejected, some were OK, some made no sense, but all in all ,the product was 9. Scientific reasoning will give you the best formula for 9. A method in which you can trace back every bit of reasoning as to why you are using it. One that is produced with ease from both the horse and rider. Fear the trainer who uses a method but has no real idea why they are using it or how it impacts their subject of study (the horse). We need to study in order to produce our magic formula. We need to study other methods, study the horse; the behavior, cognition, survival needs, physical responses, etc. We can produce a formula based on the different aspects and responses of the horse, not just on the desired results. That is exactly what I aimed to do when I started my first graduate school research report.

I am in a theatre/production program with a background in science. My central aim is performance, particularly with horses in circus, but I am a “do-it-yourself” type of person and I train my own trick horses. I’ve been searching for a training method that calls for voluntary participation from the horse. I wish it was as easy as asking the horse and hearing it straight from the horse’s mouth. To get as close as we can to such a scenario, we must turn to empirical studies to measure stress responses of the horse under different training methods. Looking at the psychology of the animal, researchers discovered that the horse is a very emotional being. Many domesticated horses we see today are “broken”. In fact, the term that is commonly used for typical training is “breaking”. Horses are so sensitive, yet one way to achieve 9 is to literally break the spirit of the horse. Through being unable to obtain a lifestyle they were designed for, horses learn hopelessness, often face punishment if they do not comply, and therefore readily obey to any demand. And here we find horses that work all day, stay in stalls all day, seem tired and robotic in movements, or fearful and skittish. We know these horses are “broken” based on the simple design of the horse. Horses are giant prey, herd, grazing animals and anthropomorphism has easily taken over the domesticated horses’ lifestyles for thousands of years.

My research brought me to a book found in my school library that was printed in 1771, it is The Art and History of Horsemanship by Richard Berenger. It is a translation of the manual, On Horsemanship,  that was written in 350 BC by Xenophon, a Greek war general and founding father of horsemanship. Drooling, I dove right into these books. I wanted to see what training looked like in the past and I wanted to study the evolution and progression. Everything in life has changed since 350BC; humans evolved which lead to expansion and the origin and evolution of technology. Now humans dominate the world and their potential is endless. They really would not have done so without horses, mostly utilized for battle and colonization. My goodness, would you believe that not much has changed in horse training?! Sadly, I was not shocked. I was actually astonished that Xenophon had a fairly light hand and appeared more sensible than most riders I know today. This methodology from 350BC remains as our framework for modern horsemanship. In fact, there is a German classical riding school called the Xenophon Society that aims for higher equine welfare. His training is widely and historically accepted. He produced ways to find 9. However, has anyone gone back and actually studied the psychological or physiological effects of his training on the equine? Well my researches lead me all the way to 2011! Not until recent years was Xenophon’s training put to scientific research by the International Society for Equitation Science, a nonprofit research based organization dedicated to using science to better equine welfare. ISES found that many of his training methods are based on false assumptions of equine cognition. In other words Xenophon “filled in the blank” on what he imagined was the horse’s ability to learn. When put into empirical studies, his ideas were inaccurate. So what exactly causes these false assumptions? And why haven’t these been addressed until just recently? A little curse called anthropomorphism.

Anthropomorphism is the act of applying human thoughts to animal behavior. We see a horse yawning; we think “oh, he’s so tired”, false. Horses yawn to release stress. Modern humans have an ongoing habit of anthropomorphism. Internet memes of animals in costumes explaining their hangovers fill up social media pages. Just because we as humans would feel more comfortable in a stall during the dark night does not mean that the horse will. They are a different species with different survival skills, genetic makeup, different brain and neuron connections, different diets, different instincts, and altogether different everything. We are just different, but projecting human emotions and thoughts is our easy way around the situation. Horses are so sensitive; they just comply with our demands. 9 can happen after the horse puts up a bit of a fight, gains hopelessness, and finally submits to a human built life, the end. If we only realized what we are actually doing when we do this. Then we can better understand that this is completely unnatural and the horse. Thousands of years later the horse still does not truly adapt to this lifestyle.

A study I came across involving anthropomorphism is a favorite of mine. Back in Berlin in the early twentieth century, clever Hans was believed to possess the abilities to solve complex mathematics, tell time, pick out colors, answer questions about European politics; just to name a few. He would tap his right hoof until he reached the right answer or nod his head. This sparked the interest of psychologist Pfungst. In 1911 he conducted a study that involved 13 people to observe Hans. The observers including professional psychologists, scientists, circus masters, zoo directors, veterinarians, animal trainers, and more. Hans stumped every single one of them! No one could figure out how he was performing such impressive acts of advanced human cognition. After strenuous experiments, Pfungst finally caught onto Han’s cues; a slight lean in from the person asking Hans the question caused him to start stomping, and a slight relaxation when approaching the correct number caused him to stop. This cue was so subtle it was nearly undetectable. So much so that once Pfungst caught onto his genius, he tried to change and cover his own cues during experimentation, yet he still could not fool Hans! Hans was smart. We all give him that. But he was clever in his classically conditioned way, not in ways in which humans perceived his abilities to be. Human abilities, and ones that are too complex for most people. This example is extreme, but real none the less. Anthropomorphism is inevitably part of our psychology, but reeducation and realization of these habits will put us in a better understanding of what relationships with horses actually look like.

Through this new understanding, I have been able to dig through research and information to piece together what I actually see within different training techniques. I have included my works cited; a list of studies in which readers can explore and find more information to fulfill their desire to answer those “why” questions. Throughout my blogs posts I will organize ways in which we first gain proper knowledge. Having an understanding of the animal we are dealing with plus an understanding of how humans tend to think will lay the foundation of our intelligence. It is then with wisdom that we will develop the technique in which we can now act on our new found intelligence. We will work towards an execution of efforts to make a difference in the physical lives and the physical world that exists in front of us. I hope this has opened some doors and minds. Now that we have answered some why questions, next I will dive into empirical research that shows us how horses learn and how humans can use that information to develop a training technique that coincides with equine cognition.

Works Cited

Berenger, Richard. The History and Art of Horsemanship. London, 1771.

Boot, Melanie, McGreevy, Paul D. “The X files: Xenophon re-rexamined through the lens of equitation science.” Journal of Veterinary Behavior, vol.8, 2013, pp.367-375.

Tyler, Tom. “If Horses Had Hands.” Society and Animals, vol. 11, no.3, 2013, pp.267-281.

Xenophon Society, 2012. “What does Xenophon Do?” Available at: Accessed 13 December 2016.

Xenophon, Circa 350 BC. “On Horsemanship, by Xenophon.” In: The Project Gutenberg E-Book. Translated by H.G. Dakyns, 1998. Available at: Accessed 12 December 2016.

Critical Thinking in the Equine Industry

For my initial blog post, I thought it would make sense to explain my story and why I am sharing it today.

If you’re anything like me, you got involved with horses perhaps at a younger age because you were fascinated by their grace, power, and beauty. As children we wondered what the magic must feel like when working with such a spirited animal. Once I entered the equine industry the things I saw and the things I learned were not that same as what I expected. The magic was gone and trainers were teaching little girls how to over power an animal into submission.

Now I know what some of you are thinking. You’re not going to like what I say. I understand that I am reaching readers already in the equine field and you may be hurt or angered by my opinions, but realize that I was once in your shoes. I entered the equine industry at a suburban busy lesson stable in the hunter/jumper world. The basis of that business was for financial income, therefore I witnessed horses go in and out of those doors depending on their cooperation levels and performance. I later entered college and joined the intercollegiate team. We would travel to other schools and would draw horses at random to compete on. These horses handled large amounts of unknown riders in a single weekend, moving in circles like little robotic soldiers. I started eventing and did discover some joy in the horse, but I also witnessed many injuries. I dove into natural horsemanship and found a lot of success and improvement. It incorporated different methods for different types of horses however, in the end I still noticed that the horse did not have the final say. After school, I traveled and worked in different exhibitions and circuses  performing cossack riding, bareback riding, dressage, liberty, etc. and noticed that even at liberty, the human ultimately had pressure influences. A horse could be across a stadium arena and yet they still felt the light pressure of the human influence. They knew to comply before they felt physical pressure. I am no angel. I rode with traditional pressure-release techniques for years and years but what kept me on my toes was the thought of “does my horse even enjoy this?”

Now here I am in my graduate studies, taking a look back in history wondering what the heck we were doing by hopping on a giant animal in the first place. No origin records can be found regarding the first horse and human encounter but there are training books dating back to 350 BC that state that the horse was first ridden for war purposes. The horse was a war vessel far before it was hooked up to a cart or a plow. Knowing what we know about a horse’s natural tendencies, this tells me that the horse most likely does not comply with urge to please us, especially in high stress environments such as a battle field; but that the horse possesses higher levels physical and emotional  sensitivity than humans do. Humans surely dove into any discipline they could with this known advantage.

So what does this mean for the future of the horse? If we can date riding and training back to 350 BC, we can easily say that this relationship will continue existing for quite a while into the future. The best thing we can do is to change the relationship and allow our horses to become our partners, not our soldiers, not our subordinates, and not our workers. Any horse that currently has a working job or a role in competition did not ask to be put into that position. If we can open up the dialog between horse and human we will be surprised that they will want to participate, but only if their emotional and physical sensitivity is taken into consideration.

What exactly does this mean? Well we need to look at the horse without humans in order to understand how they can possibly want to work with humans. Horses are prey, herd, grazing animals whom only need 3 hours of sleep per day. Unlike dogs, the horse does not want to please us, they do not need us. Turn your horse loose and he will find grazing fields, water, liberation and freedom. Stay with the human and they will find confinement, solidarity, and unnatural feeding strategies. Horses are comfortable out in the open, away from entrapment of predators with room to flee as their survival strategy. They are massive mammals with long skinny intestines. Therefore they are meant to be constantly grazing in order to live optimally. They also have social roles for survival dynamics. If the humans wants the horse’s participation why should the human completely alter the horse’s world? Then on top of that, they are told what to do and when to do it, or else they experience physical and emotional pressure until they submit. The simplest thing we can do is imagine being a horse and living like this. I know that personally, I would make a horrible riding horse. My spirit would be too strong to comply with this living arrangement.

But see what I just did there? I took a look into the perspective from the horse. In order to make the first step to redefine the relationship, one must step out of the human shoe and into the horse shoe. This journey, if you decide to take it, will not only teach you how to listen to your horse, but how to listen to others. It will most likely reshape how you see the world. Now I understand that trying to provide a natural and perfect environment can be difficult in such a human run world. There are times I perform and my horse needs to be stalled for much of the day, but if we can start thinking critically about the wants and needs of the animal, we can make the necessary adjustments and therefore watch the changes unfold.

This is just the start of sharing my journey with you. Through my posts I will introduce my 3 personal horses; each of which has an extremely different background, “job”, personality, body type, etc. I speak to each of my horses differently for they are individuals, like snow flakes, like people. They are not here to serve me and they owe me nothing. Yes, I house and feed them, but this is not a concept they can grasp nor did they ask for me. I chose them, as it usually goes in the industry. But since they had no choice in their future, I pledge to make their lives as fulfilling as I can. I will try my hardest to let them live as horses are meant to. I am allowed to say yes or no to them and they are allowed to say yes or no to me. Together we find activities and games we can play; that is when magic is created. No, it is not natural for horses and human to work together, prey animals and predators, but that does not mean it should to cease to exist. Humans just need to ask and listen to what the horse wants, unlock its play drive and its need for adventure. Give the horse a life like never before.

The journey will not be easy, but it will be eye-opening and intriguing. At first the horse will need time to take in the change, heal from emotional wounds, and take advantage of the freedom of “no”. If you stay true and committed, the horse will come back once the horse knows you respect them and are a diamond in the rough (as far as humans go). For me, I have always wanted my horses to be excited to see me and come running when I arrive. How can that possibly happen when all I exhort on them is force and pain? Now, together we are riding bridle-less through the fields, playing in puddles, and moving with spirit. They even have interest in my human desires like trick riding.  We are living the life I always dreamed of. I have nothing but gratitude for when given the choice, they choose to be here too.