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Using food to train your horse is just bribery!

Posted by Hillydale Equine Training and Sales on July 11, 2013 at 8:55 PM Comments comments (0)

If I had a dollar for every time I heard or read this statement I’d have post and rail fencing and possibly an indoor arena!  Many trainers whom I personally admire and respect confidently assert that using food to modify horse behaviour is simply bribery.  It’s a commonly expressed view of many guru natural horsemanship trainers. Back Brannaman[1], Pat Parelli[2] and Clinton Anderson[3] have all stated that horses trained with food don’t "respect" their trainers. In fact Pat Parelli has written in his seminal work Natural Horse Man Ship[2] that food rewards don’t work for horses at all.

So are they right- is food a bribe and are training outcomes rewarded with food less durable, reliable or genuine?

In a word-no.  These views aren’t supported by the findings of a number of studies of equine learning and cognition and they demonstrate a significant misunderstanding of how horses(and the majority of animals) actually learn. 

Like all animals, horses are highly motivated to get accessto food.  In fact many of their key behaviours are geared to finding, collecting and digesting food.  Depending on the environment in which they live, horses will employ a variety of strategies to access food, from pawing through snow to reach the grass underneath, harvesting berries from trees or opening gates to get into feed sheds.  These behaviours have to be learned and if they result in food they will be remembered and repeated.  This is known as “reinforcement”-whereby a behaviour is strengthened or repeated because it results in a good outcome-for example food! There are other forms of reinforcement which rely on the removal of something unpleasant such as pressure.  More about that below.

Calling food rewards bribery reflects more about our beliefs about what horses “owe” us than horse cognition.  It demonstrates that we believe horses should do what we request of them- such as enter a float or stand still to be mounted simply because it’s a human who is doing the asking and that human is owed obedience.  It assumes that horses “know”what they should be doing and that they can be corruptly influenced to do it.   In human society, bribes are paid to people who should be providing a service but won’t unless they’re paid that something extra. Bribes are paid to policemen to look the other way, to public servants to speed things up and to politicians to pull strings to gain advantages not available to ordinary people.

By calling food rewards a bribe, we’re making another assumption, that when horses are compliant it’s because they “want” to respond as we wish, they are “willing” or it’s our skill as a trainer that has gotten such a large animal submissive to our will. Yet in fact, it’s just that we’ve used a different kind of reward- the removal of pressure.  Training techniques that don’t use food usually rely on the application of an unpleasant pressure to the horse’s body, the removal of which is rewarding.  This is known as negative reinforcement because the removal of something (pressure) is rewarding (reinforcing).  Pressure-release is the most common form of negative reinforcement and it underpins almost all human-horse interactions and by far the majority of training systems, techniques and approaches.  Whatever the label attached to the training method or philosophy, the use of pressure and its removal will be its basis.  But the reason the release of the pressure is rewarding is because the pressure itself is unpleasant.  So to give our horses the reward of release we first have to do something that makes them feel uncomfortable and may even cause them pain.  Yet we don’t call the release of pressure a bribe.

Horses are not moral beings- they don’t have insight in to their or our behaviour and they don’t “choose” not to comply with our reasonable requests- they simply behave in ways that maximise good outcomes and minimise or avoid bad outcomes.  Two common good outcomes for horses are escaping/avoiding pressure and receiving food.  They are two sides of the same coin and they both involve rewards.  It’s just that one requires something unpleasant to happen first to create the reward and the other doesn’t.

What does the science say?

Studies comparing food rewards (positive reinforcement) with pressure-release (negative reinforcement) have demonstrated that horses trained with food reinforcement are more likely to voluntarily interact with their handlers, show more interest in people in general and appear more willing to engage in training interactions than horses trained with pressure- release [4-6].  Australian trainer Georgia Bruce has used food reward training to teach her horses to perform piaffe at liberty and undersaddle, paint pictures using a paint brush, lie down, rear, play soccer and performflying changes to list just a few[7].   Food reward training has also been found to be more effective in gentling abused horses than a pressure-release technique[4].

Horses can even be trained to load onto a float or trailer using food rewards, without any pressure-release at all.  One study compared using target training (where the horses were food rewarded for following a target) to get difficult loaders onto a float, with a standard pressure-release method.  Although there was no difference in the time taken or the number of horses who finally loaded, the food rewarded horses had significantly lower heart rates and performed significantly less fearful behaviours than the pressure-release trained horses[5]. For a good step by step description of using target training for float loading see the current issue (July 2013) of Horses and People magazine.

 Food reward training is the primary method used to train marine mammals such as killer whales, seals and dolphins and it is increasingly used in captive animal handling to train animals as diverse as tigers, chimps,rhinos and otters to submit to routine husbandry and vet procedures.   It  hasalso been used to train young elephants to be ridden without the use of chains or restraints.  Trainers of these animals never refer to food as bribery.

There are some horse trainers who believe that horses should only be trained using food rewards, however unless we never use any kind ofequipment on our horses it’s pretty much impossible to avoid using some form of negative reinforcement (pressure- release). Used inccorectly, food reward training can result in some unwanted behaviour such as mugging which can become a problem if not addressed.    Noted equine behaviour scientists, Dr Andrew McClean and Professor Paul McGreevy have observed that by far the majority of unwanted and dangerous horse behaviour such as bucking, rearing, baulking, kicking and bolting result from incorrectly applied negative reinforcement.  They also note that because negative reinforcement relies on the deliberate application of an unpleasant sensation just so we can remove it to create the reward, that the potential welfare impacts of getting it wrong can be catastrophic for the horse [8]. On the whole, mistakes made in food reward training simply mean you dole out more food than planned which is unlike to compromise the horse's welfare and it would be extremely rare to end up being bucked off or the horse trial rearing or bolting if you get your cues mixed up when using food rewards.

There are training situations where food rewards are of limited value because the horse isn’t motivated to eat.  We often see this when horses are fearful or anxious.  In those situations the horse’s focus is on survival, which in evolutionary terms has been achieved by fleeing whatever is scary in the environment.  Most horses, given a choice between eating and running away from a lion will choose the running.  Substitute a float for a lion and result can be the same.  In those instances,pressure-release techniques can be the most efficient means of achieving a training outcome.  However, often times the reason the horse is frightened is because we haven’t taken the time to familiarise it with the stimulus or situation or because it is confused about the task.  In these situations providing food rewards can assist to calm the horse down by creating a pleasant association between the scary situation and a good outcome- food.  I frequently use a combination of pressure-release and food rewards when training nervous horses to load and then stay on floats.  Most horses quickly come to associate the float with getting food and they become so focussed on learning how to get the food that they in effect forget about the float- a process called habituation.  I’ve often seen the behavioural signs of fear- snorting, high head carriage, rolled eyes, etc quickly disappear once the pattern between my cue, behaviour and food reward becomes clear to the horse.  The same result can also occur when pressure-release is used correctly and I’ve often used pressure-release without food rewards to train horses to load.  In my personal experience I've found that the food reward trained horses calm down more quickly and "volunteer" to enter the float more readily.

Novice food reward trainers often comment on the huge improvement in their horse’s motivation and willingness to try new behaviours compared to before they started using food rewards.  This is unsurprising- a tasty treat is all upside and doesn’t rely on creating an unpleasant sensationt that has to be terminated to create the reward.

There is and always will be a place for pressure-release in horse handling and training and I am a daily user of pressure-release techniques as well as food rewards.  But its time horse trainers opened their minds to what science and trainers of other animals have known for nearly forty years-food rewards are highly motivating and result in excellent training outcomes.  As a reward, food doesn't involve making the animal uncomfortable first and its potential to cause harm or set back training is minimal compared to pressure based techniques.

If food rewards aren’t a bribe then what are they?  I like to think of them as wages.


1.         Brannaman, B., The Faraway Horses-The Adventures and Wisdom of One of America's Most Renowned Horsemen, 2001, Guilford, CT: Lyons Press.

2.         Parelli, P., Natural Horse.Man.Ship, 1993, Fort Worth, TX: Western Horseman.

3.         Anderson, C. and M. Kaitcer, Lessons Well Learned: Why my method words for any horse, 2010,Wollombi, NSW: Exisle Publishing.

4.         Innes, L. and S. McBride, Negative versus positive reinforcement: an evaluation of training strategies for rehabilitated horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 2008. 112(3/4): p. 357-368.

5.         Ferguson, D.L. and J. Rosales-Ruiz, Loading the problem loader: The effects of target training and shaping on trailer-loading behavior of horses. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 2001. 34(4): p. 409-423.

6.         Sankey, C., et al., Positive interactions lead to lasting positive memories in horses, Equus caballus.Animal Behaviour, 2010. 79(4): p.869-875.

7.         Bruce, G., How to Click with your Horse; Clicker Training for Groundwork, Riding and Problem Solving, 2011, Port Douglas, QLD: Click with Horses.

8.        McGreevy, P. and A. McLean, Equitation Science, 2010, Chichester, UK: Wiley Blackwell. 314.



Trail riding solo-not so simple for the horse

Posted by Hillydale Equine Training and Sales on June 1, 2013 at 6:25 AM Comments comments (0)

I was talking to a mother of a child who had recently come off in a bad fall while riding their new pony out on a solo trail.  The pony, normally very quiet and dependable, with years of pony club experience had shied and spun, causing its rider to come off, breaking her arm in the process.  The pony had come home without its rider and the alarm was raised.  Thankfully the accident occurred not too far from home and child was taken to hospital soon afterwards and she is now back in the saddle.  The mother was expressing her surprise at the apparent change in the pony's behaviour, from extremely unflappable to nervous and aroused.   This surprise is completely understandable, after all, as we get to know our horses in a variety of situations, we can get a good feel for how they are likely to respond to those situations.  

On the surface, solo trail riding can seem like a fairly innocuous activity, especially compared to taking a horse to a show or even pony club with its mounted games and other exciting goings on.  However, these, and most of the things we do with our horses differ from solo trail riding in one very key aspect- the solo bit!

In free ranging or wild situations, the only time horses are on their own are when they are sick or giving birth and immediately after foaling.  Otherwise they always live in a group situation, even stallions who have lost their mare band will join batchelor groups of colts and older stallions.

When undertaking activities such as moving from a grazing patch to a water source, or from one feeding ground to another, even when one horse initiates the activity and can even be said to be "leading" the group, there are always other horses close beside and behind to provide backup eyes and ears for danger surveillance.

So being alone, especially far from home is a very unnatural situation for a horse and one which, if it was in a wild context could be very danagerous for it.  With no herd mates to provide the back-up eyes and ears, its up to the single horse to be extra vigilent in checking for danger.  And often its rider wants it to enter areas or trails which it has never seen before and therefore has no experience of whether or not there really is danger lurking behind the next bend in the road.

 But hang on, the horse isn't alone, hasn't it got a rider on its back?  True, but the rider is positioned behind its sensory organs (ears, eyes, nostrils), so as far as the horse is concerned, its still on its own as far as having to be on the lookout for trouble.  The fact that horses will remain anxious and vigilent when ridden on their own, even if they are normally quiet to handle on the ground suggests that they don't take comfort from or really rely on their rider to share in the surveillance duties.  Again this isn't surprising- there is no analogy for being ridden in horse to horse interactions and thus it highly likely that horses don't even equate the human on their back with the human who gives them food and handles them on the ground.

How many times have we  been unable to ride a horse past something that is scaring them, only to dismount and find they will walk past it quite calmly once we are either beside or in front of them.  I once conducted a non-scientific experiment with a nervous mare I was solo trail riding with some friends who were on foot.  When I rode the mare out in front of the two friends, she was very vigilent, high head carriage, snorting, shying and so on.  When one or both of the friends walked ahead of us she relaxed, I could drop the reins and she pottered along with her head low.  When they dropped back she was immediately vigilent again.  When the friends were in front she was happy to follow directly behind them, stopping when they did, changing direction when they did and breaking into trot when they jogged.  It was clear that my presence on her back gave her no reassurance compared to the direct companionship of the people on the ground.

Many horses settle after a few solo rides as they learn that they aren't going to be exposed to life threatening experiences, but likewise many horses remain vigilent and anxious when taken out on their own, even when ridden on familiar tracks.  Rather than getting annoyed when the idyllic ride we've planned turns into something much less relaxing we should remember that just like us, horses don't enjoy or desire being in a state of anxiety or fearfullness.  If they are behaving anxiously it means that they are anxious. The situation may seem perfectly safe to us, but if they are snorting, shying, calling out, trying to turn back for home, its clear that the situation doesn't seem safe as far as they are concerned.

While the actual riding activities we undertake when trail riding are usually simple and seemingly undemanding, we shouldn't underestimate the challenge going solo presents to our horses.  Ensuring that the brakes work very well, that our horses respond calmly and immediately for go, stop and turn before solo trail riding is a must for your and the horse's safety.  Starting out with shorter rides with minimal additional challenges such as creek crossings, passing obviously scary things such as pigs, industrial sites and choosing routes which minimise exposure to traffic, barking dogs and even rubbish bins can reduce the chance of your horse getting a big fright on the first few rides. 

Calling out is completely normal and to be expected as is jogging on the way home to get there all the quicker.  I ignore the former and practice faster and slower walk, with transitions to halt if that doesn't slow the speed.  I offer a loose rein as much as possible but always delete the unwanted faster steps.  Always release the rein pressure the second the slower step is offered.  Its often the case that once the horse has habituated to going out on its own that the jogging reduces or ceases because the horse knows from experience that it will be reunited with its mates. 

Like many, I love going on solo trail rides on a quiet horse that's happy to plod along without a care in the world, and I am always grateful to find a horse that copes with the strangeness of being on its own, in an unfamiliar place without getting anxious because I know its almost as unnatural as doing it with a rider on its back.

Do you see what I see?

Posted by Hillydale Equine Training and Sales on April 3, 2013 at 5:55 AM Comments comments (0)

I've got a friend's horse in for some regular riding which he hasn't got time to give her at the moment and she can be a bit iof a handful.  When she is calm and relaxed she is like a labrador-easy going, a bit ploddy and happy to take things as they come  Luckily she is like this most of the time.  However, when she is not relaxed she can be explosive.  And unfortunately the swtich from labrador to petrol tanker can happen in a split second.  Its been interesting to gain an understanding of the kinds of things that ignite her anxiety, and they are mostly due to visual stimuli. 

The sight of the cows moving through the trees 400metres away is always worth a sudden stop and llama impersonation even if think nothing's there.   She always gives me advance warning that my OH and the dogs are coming down from the house for a visit long before I've noticed them.  The reeds blowing in the wind are definitely cause for strong alarm and the distant glimpses of the mares in the back paddock a good 600metres away always have to be checked out.  In each case she will stop and throw her head up, listen intently and stand rigidly ready for flight.  At those moments I am always acutely aware that I am not in complete control of the situation or what she might do next. 

Her reactions clearly demonstrate how differently horses perceive visual stimuli compared to us.  They are much better at picking up movement that's in the distance and the reason they then thrown their heads up is so they can get an accurate read on the source of the movement.  Horses have what is known as a visual streak, a narrow horizonal zone in the centre of their vision which they use for focussing on detail. Basically their reading glasses.  In order to see things in the distance they need to raise their heads to line the visual streak up with the thing they are trying to focus on.  Either side of the visual streak isn't very good for fine detail perception but its very good for perceiving light and shadow which is ideal for spotting movement.  Rather handy if there is a lion slinking through the grass or a pack of wolves on the move.

When we ride horses in a dressage outline or frame their visual streaks are focussed on what is close to the ground which substantially reduces their ability to focus on stimuli that are further afield.  This position also limits how much they can see directly in front of them.  This can be helpful to us if we want to reduce the impact of potentially fear inducing or distracting stimuli and many trainers advocate the head down position, vertical flexion or breaking at the poll as a sign of the horse having the appropriate focus on the rider rather than the environment.  However we need to be sensitive to the fact that the horse's vision is restricted when its nose is behind or level with the vertical and its ability to survey for potential threats is likewise restricted.  Forcefully preventing a horse from putting its head up to check for stimuli that are frightening can increase the sense of threat to which the horse may respond by trialling big escape responses or fighting the bit. 

I've found with my friend's mare that letting her have a good look and waiting until she lowers her head voluntarily, hopefully with a bit of a sigh and a lick and chew which are likely signalling a small relaxation after the release of adrenaline that accompanied the anxiety about whatever she's been looking at, is the most effective means of avoiding a big explosion and getting on with the next task.   I am usually happy to give her as long as she needs, however I do make sure that she remains still or on my line and at my speed while she is looking so she doesn't get an opportunity to trial running away.   Sometimes it can get annoying on days when she seems very distracted, especially when its windy, but I am reminded that she can see a lot more than I can and in her world the stimuli she's seeing has a significance for her that drives her reactions.  Training is about ensuring that even in these kinds of situations the horse is still able to perceive and respond correctly to my cues despite her emotional arousal or the distractions in the distance.  But even if I can't see it, she can and I need to be sensitive to her superior sight (and hearing) when I ride her.

That's so random- why randomness is not good for horses

Posted by Hillydale Equine Training and Sales on February 22, 2013 at 7:50 PM Comments comments (0)

A (much) younger friend of mine was telling me about a friend of hers who has just gotten married to a long time boyfriend who'd sworn he'd never get married.  "That's so random!" she told me. "Pardon" I replied, "Random, I am not sure I understand".  "Yeah, so totally random," she repeated.  Being a bit over the hill it took me a while but I got it eventually.  Surprising is what she meant, rather than random.  I'm starting this post with this anecdote to explain what I don't mean when I use the word random.  Random events are events that happen by chance, out of sequence and are unexpected.  They are usually surprising, but not all surprising events are random, like my friend's friend's engagement.  Given they'd been going out for 10 years, their getting married was not a random event.

When we train and handle horses they however often behave in ways that are random- that is unexpectedly, out of sequence and in some cases, appear to happen by chance.  Here's some examples- we pull on the reins to cue slow down and the horse opens its mouth, or throws its head in the air, or slows and then quickens.  We cue walk to trot and the horse stalls, stops, or jumps into canter.  We're trotting along and the horse goes quicker for no reason, or slows then quickens, so wobbles left or right, or turns for home.  Or we ask for canter and get pigroot.  Or we are leading a horse and it walks into our space, walks much quicker than us, drags us off in another direction.  All of these are examples of random responses to cues.  Responses that we didn't expect and which shouldn't occur in a training situation because they are a sign that the horse is not under our stimulus control. 

On the surface, such unwanted responses may seem simply annoying, but at a deeper level they can actually be a sign of anxiety.

In horse training we primarily use what are known as aversive conditioning (training) techniques to gain control over our horse's behaviour.  The aversive cues we mostly use are pressure which we apply directly to the bodies of our horses, either with our bodies or via equipment.  The horse is motivated to respond to those pressures because they are uncomfortable and they want the pressures to go away.  The removal of the pressure is rewarding and the horse believes that the behaviour it performed before the pressure went away is what actually made the pressure go away.  In fact, in a training situation we control when the pressure is removed and in so doing can reward specific behaviour and gain control over the horse. This is known as the law of effect and was formulated by a US scientist, Edward Thorndike, way back in 1911.

Because the pressures we use to motivate responses are aversive, it is imperative that the horse quickly learns the exact response that allows it to escape the pressure.  If it is unsure about how to make the pressure go away, it will trial other responses.  If the pressure it is trying to escape is strong, and it can't quickly escape it by performing a response (like slowing/turning/jumping etc) it is likely to become anxious and fearful.   It has been well demonstrated in a myriad of studies that fear interferes with learning and memory retrieval.  If the horse has to try a variety of responses each time it experiences a pressure in order to test which one will get the release today, it is placed in a state of anxiety.  In experimental settings in rodents, those which had to choose between a number of responses to escape shock developed more ulcers and lost more weight than those which only had to choose the same response each time.

Many unwanted behaviours in horses arise because we have inadvertently trained them that there is more than one answer to a particular question, and in any given moment, the correct answer to pressure question one could be A, B or F.  The anxiety caused by not being able to predict which answer will lead to the pressure removal results in tension, lack of attention, attempts to escape the training situation (by being forward, not straight, or even bolting) and so on.  When we make sure that there is always only ever one answer to each question the horse gains control and predictability in its world.  It can control how much pressure it is exposed to by how quickly it responds with the correct answer and it can predict that when it performs the correct response it will get the release of pressure it is working for.  There is no randomness.  Horses which respond immediately to cues and are rewarded with immediate release will be quiet and calm, because there is no scary randomness to worry about. 

To achieve this we need to keep in mind the following:

  1. Train one cue for each response.  Use each cue for only one response.  The same cue should never be used to cue two different responses.  How is the horse to know which response is required otherwise?

  2. Reward only the target response for that cue.  If we don't reward (release) the horse is likely to try something else to make the pressure go away.  If we reward before the horse has completed the response then we are rewarding something other than the correct response.  Next time we apply that cue the horse won't know which response to give.

  3. Delete unwanted responses to a cue.  If we allow the horse to practice random responses its likely some of these will get rewarded and the horse will be confused about which response to give.  Next time it may try a range of responses that have worked in the past.

  4. Shape responses to cues.  Some of the behaviour we expect of horses in response to cues is actually made up chains of single actions.  In order to train these correctly we need to start with simplest component of the behaviour and get the horse responding reliably to the cue for that behaviour.  Over time with many repetitions we can start increasing the complexity, one small step at a time, so that eventually, our cue signals to the horse to perform the complete behaviour. 

If the extent to which the horse is exposed to aversive (pressure) cues is predictable and controllable because the horse only ever has to give a single response to each separate cue in order to achieve the reward of release of that cue it will become calm, relaxed and easy to work with.  To achieve this we must make sure that we are always consistent with our cues and rewards.  We need to be strict with ourselves and not get sloppy, indecisive or imprecise.  Random unpleasant events are unsettling for us and very unsettling for horses.  The less randomness in their worlds the safer they will feel.  And that makes things safer for us too.

The force at the heart of a relationship of love

Posted by Hillydale Equine Training and Sales on April 21, 2012 at 4:55 AM Comments comments (0)

This post was originally published on www.horseyard.com.au

The force at the heart of a relationship of love.


So we love our horses right?  We feed them the best, we rug them, tend to their injuries, care for them in old age.  They are our willing partners, our friends.  They look to us and we to them for companionship and a meaningful relationship.  They try hard for us, are willing to please.  They are quick learners, obliging, patient and forgiving.  At the heart of our relationship with our horses is love.  Right?


Maybe. While its  true that we love our horses, its not also true that our love means we do the best for them or that in loving them we don’t also harm them.  We all know of ponies fed too much hard feed who end up with painful laminitis, or horses kept continuously stabled to protect them from injuring themselves who develop stereotypical behaviours.  In the name of making our horses more “beautiful” we clip the hair that protects their ears and the whiskers that protect their noses from bumping into things like electric fences.  On cold spring mornings we worry about them feeling the chill and leave  the rugs on while we’re at work giving our horse no way to cool down once the sun has come up.  These are just some examples where our “love” can lead to outcomes that aren’t actually great for the horse and some cases may lead to or cause actual harm.


But more fundamental is the force at the heart of our relationship with our horses.  Its force that is unavoidable, necessary and largely invisible from our thinking about how we relate to our horses.  In our modern age of viewing horses as companion animals rather than simply tools for transport, warfare or farm work, we don’t like the idea that the relationship we have with our horse relies on force.  So we call it all kinds of other nicer sounding terms, such as leadership, respect, communication.  We talk about letting the horse choose to do what we want, we hate the brutality and violence of the “old” ways the new kinder methods are supposed to replace.  We want our horses to willingly engage with us to achieve shared goals in which they get the same sense of achievement and reward as we do.


But call it what you will, the chief way we gain control over our horses and modify their behaviour so they do what we want them to, is via force.  And no matter what soothing and comforting terms we may choose to call it, its perceived by the horse as force. So what am I talking about?


I am talking about the use of pressure and its removal to handle and train horses.  It is the foundation block on which every single horse training method relies.  Bit, no bit, saddle, no saddle, ridden or in hand, at liberty, whether western, “natural” or conventional, whether dressage, reining, campdrafting, eventing, trail riding, whether combined with food or not.  Its all the same. Fundamentally horses don’t like pressure on their bodies or their minds and they will work to remove it.  The removal of the pressure is rewarding.  They very quickly learn what behaviour makes the pressure go away and next time they experience that pressure, they will repeat the behaviour that made the pressure go away last time.  And in so doing, we gain control over their behaviour.


 Pressure can be directly applied to the body via equipment, tack, whips, our bodies.  Or it can applied indirectly, as in a round yard where we use the pressure of fear or exercise (join-up-), or the threat of actual pressure on the body (whips used in some liberty training) to motivate the horse to respond as we want.   In fact, horses are SO motivated to learn how to escape pressure- whether direct or indirect, that they in fact learn how to avoid it by learning cues that predict when its coming and responding to the cue before the actual pressure arrives.  In this way they learn how to not experience the pressure at all.  Its technical term is avoidance conditioning and good horse trainers teach their horses how avoid pressure.  In so doing they can train their horses to respond to the lightest, tiniest cues such as seat cues, voice cues, hand signals.  In these cases the hose’s responses seem magical, as though it is reading the mind of the trainer and delighting in performing whatever the trainer asks of it.  But underneath the magic, the force remains.

 The mechanism by which the horse has learned to perform the avoidance response still via pressure and its removal.  The trainer pairs the actual pressure with the voice, seat or gesture cue and the horse makes an association between the two.  Over time the horse learns it can avoid the actual pressure by responding to the seat, voice or gesture cue and thereby doesn’t have to feel the pressure at all.  Avoiding the pressure is in itself rewarding and motivating enough to allow us to gain control over our horses behaviour in hugely challenging environments such as at shows and exhibitions were we are wowed by amazing liberty work.   The imprint of the pressure used to train the original responses can often been seen in these demos in the pinned ears, head shaking or swishing tails of the horse as it complies with what seems like an invisible cue.  Its telling us that it remembers the unpleasant or painful pressure that was used to teach it the response in the first place and that the threat of the pressure is always there.


Good trainers quickly move from escape learning (releasing the pressure when the horse responds correctly) to avoidance learning (where the horse avoids the pressure completely by responding to a cue which predicts the pressure is coming).  Where the horse is mostly performing avoidance responses it will be experiencing very little or only light pressures.  But underlying its responses is still the threat of pressure.  Without the pressure as the threat, there would be nothing to motivate the horse to keep responding.  Its why we revert back to a rein or leg cue when the horse doesn’t respond to the seat or voice cue.   We can talk all we like about how we should be using seat cues rather than rein cues to ride our horses but the fact is, without the pressure cues of rein or leg to back them up, our seat cues have very limited effectiveness.  Which is probably why so few riders ever completely dispense with tack altogether.  Most who ride without saddles or bridles still use a rope around the horse’s neck to apply an actual pressure when the voice or posture cue hasn’t been effective.


So when thinking about our horses and what happens when we handle and train them, and in particular, when our horses don’t do what we want and seem to take delight in disappointing or disrespecting us, or when they seem to comply out of sheer gratitude for the opportunity to please us, consider this, that at the heart of your horse’s responses to your cues is a desire to make that pressure go away.  Fundamental to our relationship with our horses is using something aversive and unpleasant to motivate them to respond and rewarding them by taking away that unpleasant experience.  Not much of choice for our willing partner is it?  From the horse’s perspective its; “Do I do what I want and put up with an annoying, or painful or uncomfortable pressure, or do I do what you want to be free of the pressure or the threat of pressure?   Unless the only thing we do with our horses is feed them and maybe give them a scratch on their itchy spots then this force is an unavoidable part of our relationship with our horses.  We should be honest about this fundamental fact and its strong potential for harming the welfare of our horses when incorrectly applied.    



Punishment and horses- does it work and should we use it?

Posted by Hillydale Equine Training and Sales on April 1, 2011 at 4:13 AM Comments comments (0)

Should you ever punish your horse?


We’ve either done it, or seen it done, a horse refuses a fence and gets a whack, a horse moves in too close to its handler and gets a slap on the nose, a horse bucks and gets some smacks with the whip, horse refuses to load onto a float and gets a leadrope aimed at their rump, horse kicks out at a child and gets a hiding from an angry parent, a horse dumps its rider so is put away without its usual ration of feed to teach it a lesson.  Is this ever justified and what in effect are we actually doing when we “punish” a horse in this way?  


Many people punish their horses for doing something “wrong” because they believe that the horse knows it did the wrong thing and therefore has to pay a price for making a wrong choice.  That is, suffer consequences in the same way that a child who lies about nicking a biscuit from the jar experiences unpleasant consequences such as getting a smack or being denied dessert.  Or they believe that the horse is dissing their human and needs to be shown who is the “real” boss.


The question is, do horses really see us as their leaders and so understand the consequences of doing the “wrong thing” in the same way that we do?  This is critical because if horses don’t make these kind of connections, when we punish them, what “lesson” have they really learnt?  


To answer this question we need to consider how animals learn from their environment and how we manipulate this for our own ends.  We will start with considering the concept of what we do when we train a horse and what our choices are when it goes “wrong”.


What is “training”?

When we train an animal what we are doing is putting something they already know how to do under our stimulus or cue control, that is, they do that something when and where and for how long we signal to them to do so.  For example, we don’t need to teach a young horse how to canter, it can do that within hours of birth, what we do is teach it to canter when signalled and to keep on cantering until we signal it to do something else.  


Broadly speaking then, when putting an animal’s behaviours under our stimulus control we have two goals, either to get the animal to do more of something or less of something.  In general, our training focus is on getting more of a behaviour and it is only when the animal does something we don’t appreciate that we attempt to train it do less of that behaviour.  For example, we want more of a calm transition from trot to canter and less of a pigroot when we apply the aid.  We consciously set up the conditions to ask for the canter transition but only deal with the pigroot if we need to.   The vast majority of our training is focussed on this first part of the equation, which means we practice the means to get more of the good stuff and only resort to stopping the bad stuff as a last resort.



 Punishers and reinforcers

So how do we get more of the good stuff and less of the bad?  By using punishers and reinforcers.  Huh? Hang on for a bit while I unpack this.  Something is either a punisher or reinforcer depending on what effect it has on the target behaviour.  A reinforcer will motivate the animal to do more of a behaviour and a punisher will motivate the animal to do less of a behaviour.  


 At its most basic, animals are motivated to do more of a behaviour that brings good consequences and less of behaviours that bring unpleasant consequences.  This makes sense for survival- behaviours that bring food, rest, companionship, protection from predators and the opportunity to mate are worth learning and then repeating. Behaviours that cause pain, add stress, make you more vulnerable to being eaten, less likely to eat yourself or prevent you from reproducing are not going to help you (or your genes)  survive so are not worth repeating.


So to get more of a particular behaviour we need to give the animal good consequences from it performing that behaviour and to get it to perform less of a behaviour we have to deliver bad consequences.  The effect that these consequences have on the target behaviour tells us whether we have reinforced (strengthened) or punished (reduced) it.


Thus, a reinforcer is anything that strengthens or makes a behaviour more likely.  There are two ways we can reinforce a behaviour, either positively (adding something like food, sex, liberty etc) or negatively,  (taking something away such as pressure).  In each case, the animal values the addition of something or the removal of something it finds unpleasant highly enough to repeat the behaviour that it believes led to that outcome.  It’s the law of effect, whatever behaviour immediately precedes the consequence that the animal values will be repeated.  


A punisher is the opposite of a reinforcer, it makes a behaviour weaker, that is it  suppresses a behaviour.  Just like reinforcement the law of effect applies- whatever behaviour preceded the punishing consequence is the behaviour that will be suppressed, that is the animal should be less likely to repeat that behaviour.  Just like reinforcement there are two types of punishment, positive punishment and negative punishment. Que?  


Positive punishment simply means adding something to the animal’s world to suppress a behaviour whereas negative punishment means removing something from the animal’s world to suppress a behaviour.


Here are some examples:


Positive punishment:

Horse goes to bite its handler and is smacked on the nose and doesn’t bite- the smack has been added to its world and the biting behaviour is suppressed or punished.


Negative Punishment:

The horse mugs you for treats, you withhold access to treats, so the horse stops trying to mug you- the treats have been withdrawn from the horse’s world, the mugging stops, so the withdrawal of the treats has punished the mugging behaviour.  


In horse training, we mostly rely on positive punishment, usually in the form of whip strikes, strong rein or leg aids, hitting with leadropes, shouting at or scaring the horse and so on.  We use negative punishment less because its much harder to link the consequences of removing something to the particular behaviour we are aiming to suppress.  In dogs trained with positive reinforcement (play or toys), negative punishment (withholding the toy or food reward if the dog responds incorrectly to a cue) is very effective in motivating them to try the correct response next time the cue is given.  


Causes and effects- measuring the success of your punishment

Whether something has actually reinforced or punished a behaviour can only be gauged by considering its effect on the behaviour. If as a result of the unpleasant stimulus you have applied to your horse, it stops performing the annoying behaviour, you have successfully punished your horse.  However, if for example, you repeatedly strike a horse for refusing a fence but it keeps on refusing your whip strike has not actually punished the refusing- the refusing hasn’t been suppressed.


The same is true of reinforcement, if you keep pulling on the reins but the horse doesn’t stop then your rein pull isn’t reinforcing- it has not strengthened the stopping behaviour.  


Back to punishment, for it to be effective, it has to suppress a behaviour which means the animal has to be able to make an association between its behaviour and the likely consequence. It has know which particular behaviour will result in the unpleasant consequence and then choose not to repeat it and thus avoid the unwanted experience.  The application of unpleasant or painful stimuli to a horse (or any animal) that doesn’t allow that animal to make the clear connection and thus modify its behaviour in the future so it avoids the unpleasant stimuli is not punishment, but it could be abuse.  


How effective is punishment as a training tool really?

Punishment is much harder to effectively deliver than reinforcement.  Here’s why:  

1.    In many of the situations in which punishment is delivered it is not clear to the animal which of its responses it should cease performing.  Take for example hitting a horse for refusing a fence- its it the stopping, the cantering up to the fence, or the change in its head position as it judges the height of the fence that caused it to be hit?  How would it know?  


What’s more likely to happen is that it makes an association between the fence, the surrounding context and getting a smack and becomes more fearful and thus either rushes at the fence and leaves a leg or starts refusing earlier as it tries to remove itself from the possibility of another whack.


 In the latter case it could be argued that what the whack has actually punished (suppressed) is the horse approaching the fence at all, rather than the coming to halt in right front of it.   How many of us have seen horses get eliminated by refusing the same fence three times in a row, with each refusal accompanied by a whack and the horse veering away from the fence earlier and earlier each time it is pointed at it?


2.    In many cases the punishment is not contiguous with the behaviour being suppressed, that is there is too large a gap between the unwanted behaviour and the punishment so it is not clear to the horse which of its responses caused the addition of the unpleasant stimuli.


Taking the refusing horse, the horse refuses, the rider turns him back to the fence, gives him a whack and then asks him to jump the fence.  What behaviour is being suppressed?  The refusing, the turning, or the re-asked for jumping effort?   


Similarly, remounting a horse that’s just bucked you off and then giving it a few smacks is not punishment- the horse does not have mental abilities to make the association between its bucking behaviour and the pain it is now feeling from the whip. The gap between the buck and the smack is too long, and the fact that it will have done several things in between the buck and the smack (run away, had a shake, been mounted) means it cannot make the association.  The smacks will not be what suppresses future bucks.  What might be suppressed/punished is its standing still when mounted behaviour and next time a rider attempts to mount, it might not stand still but fidget or walk away, a form of fleeing, because last time it stood still to be mounted it got a hiding immediately after.


3.    Punishment doesn’t tell the animal what response it should give, it only suppresses the response that immediately came before the punishing stimuli. In effect it only tells it what not to do, not what it should do.  Our refusing horse isn’t being told what it should do by the whip strikes, so there is no reinforcement of the correct response to an obstacle- to jump over it.  Consequently the whip strike might make it less likely to refuse, but not necessarily more likely to jump cleanly and calmly which is after all what we are aiming for with a showjumper.


4.    Punishment can either be too weak or too strong.  If we take the rule that we judge the effectiveness of our reinforcement or punishment by analysing its effect, if a punishing stimulus is too weak and it doesn’t suppress the behaviour then it hasn’t punished anything and its likely our horse will simply habituate to it, that is, stop reacting to it whilst still experiencing its negative effects potentially leading to misdirected conflict behaviours. If the punishing stimulus is too strong the horse may attempt to completely flee the situation or react strongly to the punishment itself and thus not learn anything about what behaviour it needs to stop performing to avoid experiencing it in the future.  


5.    Punishment is often administered at full volume and without warning, giving the animal no time to change its behaviour before experiencing its full effect.  In negative reinforcement, we can start with a very light pressure and if it is not strong enough to motivate the animal to respond correctly, we can incrementally increase the pressure until it reaches a point whereby the animal chooses to respond because it wants to terminate the effects of that pressure.  Thus the animal is in control of its responses.


 A strong and sudden punishment, delivered out of the blue doesn’t give the animal that choice, with the consequence that it will react to the pain, but not make the association between the incorrect behaviour and how to avoid it in the future.


6.    Punishments often cause the animal pain and fear, and research in rats, dogs and cats has shown that fearful, stressed animals are less likely to trial novel responses to problems, that is, their fear interferes with their ability to learn and thus work out how to avoid getting punished in future.  So whacking your horse for refusing may make him less likely to attempt to jump again because of an association of fear/pain and the jump, or cause him to rush over the fence in a panic as a way of fleeing the whack he thinks is coming and so fail to learn how to manage the tricky striding between elements of a triple.  A horse which is yanked in the mouth for not performing a flying change on cue is going to be even less able to respond the cues next time because its focus is on avoiding the yank rather than performing the flying change.


7.    The animal may make an association between the person giving the punishment and the pain and discomfort and thus react fearfully next time they encounter that person or find themselves in a similar context.  This is called sensitisation, and it means that the horse will respond more quickly and often more strongly to a lower volume of the same stimulus- meaning it will be more reactive, more fearful, more likely to trial a strong flight response. If it associates you with the pain it may attempt to flee from you before you have even begun to apply the stimulus.



8.    If the punishing stimulus is strong enough to motivate the horse to trial a severe flight response- such as rearing and spinning, bucking etc and the horse succeeds in removing itself from that situation what has actually happened is that the strong flight response is negatively reinforced (eg, it removes the horse from the unpleasant stimulus which is rewarding for the horse).  It is then likely that its behaviour will quickly escalate from mild to strong in a short space of time when confronted with the same situation in the future because that’s what worked last time. These “lessons” can be learned in one go and can be very resistant to extinction.  


Horses which have been hit with a whip and become whip shy demonstrate these last two points, they react extremely strongly to any hint of a whip. We had a pony that attempted to attack a person who was holding its leadrope who also had a whip in their hand.  (The retreat of that person negatively reinforced the aggression).  We don’t know what behaviour its previous owner had attempted to suppress with the whip, but its reaction to being in the vicinity of one revealed it was highly sensitised to it. The whip and the human holding it had become a predictor of pain and fear for this pony to which it reacted precipitately and violently despite the whip being held a good metre away from his body at the time and the fact that individual who was holding him had never hit him with it.  


For punishment to be considered effective it has to result in a reduction of the unwanted behaviour so that the animal has learned what to do to avoid being punished in the future. If the behaviour yields rewards that are more valuable to the horse than avoiding the effects of the punishment it is still very likely to keep on with the unwanted behaviour in spite of the punishment.  We see this when we smack a horse for trying to sneak into a feed shed, pretty soon its back with its head through the door because the rewards of getting into the shed are greater than the pain from the smack.  If the punishing stimulus does not lead to a reduction in the unwanted behaviour then punishment has not occurred and it is likely that repeated application of the stimulus is simply abuse- applying pain or discomfort from which the animal has no means of or does not understand how to escape from.


So are there contexts in which it is effective to punish a horse?  Very few.  


Where the horse’s safety or the handler’s safety is at risk; where the benefit is obviously higher than the cost.  For example if you yell at and hit a horse that has gotten loose and is about to walk out onto a busy road and by doing so cause the horse to stop walking and turn back, you have punished the walking forward behaviour and in so prevented the horse from getting injured.  Likewise, if a horse goes to kick you or a child and you hit the horse and it doesn’t kick you have punished the kicking and prevented an injury. But what you haven’t necessarily done is trained the horse what it should do when it feels a child brushing its hind legs.   You can only judge your success if the horse doesn’t attempt to kick again.


More reinforcement, less punishment.

 In the case of the kicking, what is likely to be more useful for the long term is to train the horse to do less kicking by training it do more standing still and not reacting to sensations on its hind legs and then having that behaviour under your command.  In the case of the refusing horse, the key to training it to not refuse is not to focus on getting less refusing but on getting more of reliable go- that is by training a light, immediate and responsive go response to leg aids, coupled with good turn and slow responses as well as the appropriate fitness, so that when presented at a fence it finds a bit scary, the horse still responds correctly to the go aid and clears it.


The vast majority of horse behaviour problems can be solved by focussing on training the horse to offer the correct response and setting up the conditions whereby it is easy for the horse to do so. Relying on positive punishment of horses is fraught and its very hard to do it humanely.  As noted above with dogs, negative punishment can be an effective training tool, provided the relationship between the unwanted behaviour and the punishment is clear to the animal.  We use negative punishment a lot when clicker training our horses- rewards are withheld if the horse gives an incorrect response.  In this scenario the horse is in control of what happens to it- if it chooses the correct response it gets reinforced, if it chooses or trials an incorrect response it loses out on the food reinforcer but otherwise does not suffer any painful or aversive experiences.  Because its highly motivated to receive food it quickly stops offering behaviours that don’t lead to food.


If you use positive punishment, make sure that it is very clear to the horse which of its behaviours result in it experiencing the punishing stimulus.  


You can do this by:

•    only punishing one behaviour at a time,

•    delivering  the punishing stimulus either during or immediately after the unwanted behaviour- you have a 3 to 7 second gap, after which the horse will not know what behaviour caused the unpleasant consequence,

•    using the smallest amount of stimulus needed to cause the horse to stop the behaviour,

•    only applying the stimulus for a very brief period of time (3 seconds max) and removing the stimulus immediately the horse ceases the unwanted behaviour,

•    immediately stopping the stimulus if it does not result in a quick cessation of the unwanted behaviour- if you keep applying the stimulus and the horse doesn’t reduce the unwanted behaviour your stimulus is not punishing but abusive and you need to change what you are doing.   


If your punishment has not led to a reduction in the unwanted behaviour- for example the horse continues with the behaviour or starts it up again a short time later you may have to accept that you have missed this particular opportunity to punish that behaviour or that your approach is not successful and requires a change in focus from you.  


With many problem behaviours, reinforcing a horse for behaving in a way that is incompatible with the problem behaviour is far more effective than trying to punish the unwanted behaviour.  For example, reinforcing a head down response to a cue in a hard to bridle horse instead of punishing it for throwing its head up should quickly lead to the horse giving you more of the behaviour you want-lowered head and less of the behaviour you don’t want- head up, but you haven’t had to expose the horse to unpleasant stimuli to achieve your training goal.  


 In all horse training, the most humane option when confronted with unwanted behaviours is to consider what is reinforcing or rewarding that behaviour (causing the horse to offer it) and then change what you are doing so its no longer worth the horse’s while to repeat the behaviours you don’t value and much more profitable for it to repeat the behaviours that you do value.  In this way your horse gives you more of the good stuff, less of the bad and avoids getting punished at all.  



Warm hearted science vs cold hard feel- what elephants can teach us about horse training.

Posted by Hillydale Equine Training and Sales on February 24, 2011 at 11:30 PM Comments comments (0)

So what does elephant training have to do with horses or science for that matter, and how could “feel” ever be cold or hard?

I was fortunate to attend the RPSCA’s annual scientific seminar recently and the topic of this year’s meeting was “All work and no play; Modifying the behaviour of animals”.  A variety of speakers presented the results of their research into the training of animals. The talks covered dogs, horses, elephants, sheep, cattle, Tasmanian devils and exotic animals like giant pandas, rhinos and chimpanzees.  The speakers worked at universities, commercial settings, wildlife parks, zoos or as private consultants and all held masters or PhD level qualifications.  As well as conducting original research into their areas of expertise, all were accomplished animal trainers in their own right- no ivory towers here; bruises aplenty and manure on the boots!

In spite of the range of species trained by the speakers, they spoke unanimously on the qualities that make a good animal trainer and these are, timing and consistency. “Feel” wasn’t really mentioned,  though there was a fair bit of discussion of anthropomorphism (attributing human characteristics to non human things) and the dangers it poses to good training outcomes and ultimately animal welfare.  Dr Paul McGreevy noted in his opening address that just because you love your horse doesn’t guarantee that you will safeguard its welfare and that many of things we do to our horses in the name of ‘love’ can actually cause harm.  

The other key point of agreement was that in “training” an animal, what we are  really doing is putting an aspect of their innate behaviour (sitting, jumping, rolling over, cantering etc) under our control so that they perform it each time they are cued by us.  When we train an animal we are conditioning (teaching) it to respond to our cues, even when what we ask it to do is contrary to what it would rather be doing (eg being ridden in a 20m circle instead of loafing under the trees with a belly full of grass).   We don’t teach a horse how to perform a flying change, it already knows how to do that, what we teach it is to perform a flying change when we ask it to.

 The keynote address was given Dr Andrew McLean on his work with elephant trainers in Nepal and India. Dr McLean is an internationally respected trainer of horses and has an enviable record of success in retraining problem horses world wide.  He has been awarded Australia’s first PhD in equine cognition, so is very well placed to put theory into practice.

Applying learning theory principles, and in partnership with an experienced elephant trainer from Australia Zoo, Laurie Pond and other trainers from the WWF, Dr McLean developed a reliable and humane system for training young Nepalese elephants to be ridden, despite having no prior experience with elephants before he started.  

Working with the Nepalese mahouts and elephant trainers, over four days, previously unridden and largely unhandled elephants were able to be mounted and controlled with light signals delivered by the bare toes of the mahouts.  This training was completed without the elephants being restrained or tied up and even though  they would regularly take themselves off for a break from the training, they always returned of their own volitation and recommenced the training when they were ready.

So what’s this got to do with horses? We’re getting there….

 Like the horse world, elephant training has a long tradition of several thousand years of accumulated knowledge.  And just like we do with our horses, mahouts have strong opinions about the character and motivations of their charges based on anthropomorphic notions of respect, arrogance, submission and that the animals know what is right and when they don’t do as required they are being deliberately disrespectful.  Just like with horses, the key to being able to ride and handle an elephant is to have its innate behaviours (locomotion) under the control of the rider.

The traditional method of elephant breaking is just that- breaking the animal until it submits and the methods used to achieve this vary from country to country, but all involve rendering the elephant immobile, weakening it by deprivation of food and subjecting it to various painful and aversive stimuli until it stops reacting.  Dr McLean showed some footage of some of these methods and they were very difficult to watch, though not dissimilar in technique, if not level of force, to those used on horses today (hobbles, sacking out, dropping to the ground, tying up for hours and hours, tying heads to tails etc).  The result of this treatment is that the elephant learns that no response it can make stops the pain and discomfort, so its stops trying.  It develops what is called learned helplessness, where it becomes dull and unresponsive.  

At this point, the elephant is deemed to be suitably "respectful" of its human handler and is mounted and taught via aversive stimuli, the commands for go, stop, back turn etc.   The problem with this training method, aside from its obviously deleterious effects on the elephant is that the safety of the mahouts is seriously compromised.  Many of the elephants will go on to display what is called latent hyper aggression, which is an expression of aggressive behaviour later on and out of context.  Something happens that triggers an aggressive response in the elephant and it will then turn on the mahout or other people in its vicinity.  It is actually reliving the pain and fear it experienced when being “broken in” and being free of the restraints this time, can express that fear and aggression, often with tragic results for the mahout and the elephant.  In India 8% of all mahouts are killed by their elephants each year and no doubt you will have seen footage on the news or youtube of domestic elephants running amok.  

So what’s this got to do with horses? A little more about the elephants, because this next bit is key!  Dr McLean applied the scientifically validated principles of learning theory to train the elephants, demonstrating that when applied correctly, the outcomes of the training are predicably reliable and for any species of animal that can be trained. No whispering, respect or leadership required.

The point about learning theory is it’s not a system or method, but a set of principles which describe how animals learn new behaviours or responses to cues, what will motivates them to change their behaviour or response and also explains what has gone wrong when outcomes don’t match expectations.  Learning theory can be applied to any animal, any training system or method.

To get the elephants’ behaviour under the control of the mahouts, Dr McLean used a combination of positive reinforcement (food rewards), negative reinforcement (pressure signals and their removal) and classical conditioning (making an association between two events because one event predicts that the other event will occur- eg verbal command predicts food reward, animal responds to verbal command to get food reward).  

After four days of applying these techniques and carefully shaping the responses from a small try to whole movements (eg, standing still, to being mounted, to moving at the right speed and direction) the elephants were calmly and obediently under the control of their riders and the cues the mahouts were using were very light (toe pressure from bare feet).  Now these are not small animals and they aren’t ridden with any kind of bridle, saddle or restraint.  The results from the first visit have now been replicated at several other training centres, the Nepalese government has mandated its use for all elephant training and it is now being adopted in India.  

So what’s this go to do with horses?  We’ve finally arrived!  We use exactly the same techniques when we train our horses and using them, we can get the same kind of results.  

When riding and handling horses we primarily use negative reinforcement, which isn’t bad, it’s simply a maths term, which means that something is removed or subtracted to reward or reinforce (make more likely) a behaviour.

 Let’s take using your legs to signal to the horse to go- you apply a pressure on their sides, the horse doesn’t like the pressure on its side and wants it to stop, it moves forward and you stop pressing.  The removal of the pressure is the reward, next time you apply the pressure the horse is likely to move forward because that’s the behaviour that made the pressure go away last time:

Pressure of legs on horse’s side= cue

Horse walks forward=response

Pressure removed =reinforcement (reward)

So long as that pressure does always go away, the horse’s world is predictable and you have his go forward behaviour under your control.  The pressure motivates the horse to respond, the release tells it what it needs to do to make the pressure go away. You haven’t taught the horse to walk or gained its respect, what you have taught the horse to do is to start walking when you signal it to.  Its walking is now under your control.   Whether it’s walking forward from leg cues, performing passage, cutting out a beast, clearing a fence, or leading onto a float the horse is responding to pressure cues by doing something in order to make that pressure go away.

 It really is that simple and whether it’s your seat, your reins, the leadrope, the bosal,  a whip it’s all the same principle at work.

 Positive reinforcement involves adding something, usually food, to reinforce or encourage a behaviour.  It works in exactly the same way as negative reinforcement except that something is added instead of being subtracted:

Hand signal=cue

Horse nods its head= response

Piece of carrot= reinforcement (reward)

The head nodding in response to the cue has been reinforced by the addition of the carrot. Next time the horse sees that cue, it is likely to nod its head again, because that’s what made the carrot appear last time.  Because food is a highly motivating reinforcer- eg they love it(!), horses trained with positive reinforcement will usually pick up new responses or behaviours very quickly because they really want that food!  

 Both of these methods of conditioning (training) actually put the animal in control of its responses- it learns what it needs to do to get the outcome it wants (either food or relief from a pressure).  When we get it wrong and don’t reward it for the correct response it gets confused and tries new ways of getting its reward and often those new behaviours are ones we don’t appreciate so we call them problem behaviours and blame the horse for getting it wrong or believe that the horse is being disrespectful of our leadership.

Classical conditioning involves the animal making an association between two cues in which the first cue predicts the second one.  We use it in combination with either positive or negative reinforcement.  In positive reinforcement we might make a sound, a click,  then offer the horse some food.  Very, very quickly (normally about two goes!) the horse starts to expect the food each time it hears the click.   We have positively reinforced the clicker as a predictor of food.  Now when we want to let the horse know that a behaviour it has offered in response to a cue (such as a hand signal or voice command) is the right one, we can use the clicker(secondary reinforcer) to let it know that it got it right and that the food (primary reinforcer) is coming:

Hand signal=cue

Horse nods its head= response

Click= food is coming because you made the right response (secondary) reinforcer

Food= (primary) reinforcer

 By pairing the clicker (secondary reinforcer)  with the food (primary reinforcer) and then using the clicker to tell the horse it got it right we can get its behaviour responding to our cues even when it is working at a distance or we are riding it. The click allows us to mark the correct response without having to give the food reward straight away.

 We can use the same classical conditioning principle with negative reinforcement by pairing a low volume version of a stimulus- eg a light squeeze with our calves, with a high volume one (stronger squeeze):

Light squeeze with calves= soft cue

Horse doesn’t respond

Stronger squeeze with calves= stronger cue

Horse walks forward =response

Pressure removed = reinforcement

After a couple of repetitions...

Light squeeze with calves= soft cue that now predicts that the strong cue is coming

Horse moves forward=response

Pressure removed= reinforcement

Horse has avoided the strong cue by responding to the light cue.

This is exactly how the elephants were taught to respond to the pressure of the mahout’s toes. This pairing of the light cue to a stronger one allows us to train the horse to respond to light signals and thus we can largely avoid having to use strong cues at all.  Horses which are soft to ride or respond to subtle seat cues demonstrate classical conditioning in action.

So back to the elephants, instead of tying them up, subjecting them to beatings and using force and strength to control them, applied learning theory allowed the mahouts to use humane, gentle but consistent signals which were not harsh or punishing in their effect to gain complete control over the mobility and locomotion of 2 tonne elephants.  The ultimate result has been calmer elephants, calmer trainers and a much safer working environment for mahouts and elephants.  

As Paul McGreevy pointed out in his address, horses kill and injure more people in Australia than any other animal (except snakes and most people who are killed by snakes are tying to kill the snake at the time).  At the very least, from a safety perspective we owe it to ourselves to train our horses in ways that produce calm relaxed and obedient mounts, who don’t trial random hyperactivity (bucking, rearing, shying etc) or random aggression (biting, kicking) and who are not confused and in conflict because they are being subjected to pressures they can’t escape from (strong rein contact, using legs and rein aids simultaneously, strong punishments, harsh gadgets and bits, tight nosebands).  If a little learning theory can get control of an elephant without fear, force or intimidation, imagine what it can do for you and your horse.

There is a wealth of information about applying the very simple techniques of learning theory to horse training, a great place to start is www.aebc.com.au, the website of the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre which is run by Dr Andrew McLean, and Equitation Science, a comprehensive introduction to applying learning theory to horse training, written by Drs Paul McGreevy and Andrew Mclean.  And the beauty of it is, you won’t need to give up on your current methods, be they Parelli, Lyons, Monty Roberts, the German Training Scale, but you will be equipped to understand why they work and what’s going wrong when they don’t.  Whether its an elephant or a horse, learning theory gives us the tools to humanely gain control over our mounts so we stay safe and they stay relaxed.   Warm hearted science in action.

For video of Dr McLean's team in action in Nepal check out http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/2533487.ht



Should my horse respect me?

Posted by Hillydale Equine Training and Sales on January 10, 2011 at 11:00 PM Comments comments (1)

Firstly, welcome to the new members to the site, thanks for joining, I hope we can continue to provide relvent and thought-provoking information.

This latest post is one which I put up on a horse forum last year, been doing a lot of thinking about this issue lately so have reproduced the original post and of my repsonses to some of other posts it generated.  Very interested in getting feedback from others about this issue.

These two terms, respect and leader have been much used by natural horsemanship practitioners in the past twenty years, so much so that they are now commonplace and we use them to describe our horses and their interactions with us on a daily basis. So a horse that won't load onto a float is either not showing you enough respect and is usurping your rightul role as the leader in the relationship, or doesn't have enough faith to trust you as a leader.


But do horses really see us as leaders in their lives and do they even have a concept of respect or leadership towards humans anyway? Just because they may follow the dominant mare to water, does that mean they can translate that to their interactions with us and the myriad of things we expect them to do.


Can we really be sure that a horse can apply the body language, sights, smells etc of horse to horse relationships (which they are evolved to understand and respond to), to two legged humans who routinely expose them to situations that no other horse would ever expect of another horse (having a predator sit calmly on their backs).


By using such terms, are we in effect, in the name of being more "natural" or more humane, actually loading up our horses with anthropomorphic judgements that can still blame the horse when it doesn't do what we want.


The term respect implies a choice, that the horse is choosing to do or not do what we ask because it has a belief about our worthiness to make decisions for it. Respect also implies that the horse has the mental abilities to hold such a belief by a careful consideration of the options, and that horses which are not respectful have arrogantly chosen not to submit to our (obviously) resonable demands.


Similarly, in the human world, leaders are those who we consciously choose; through the ballot box (or sometimes coercion), usually consensus (eg our boss) to make decisions on our behalf. We make determinations on a whole host of factors as to whether we will follow the decisions made by our leaders or not. We can predict likely outomces by applying our knowledge of what happened in the past, we can analyse the positive and negative outcomes of past experiences and we can modify our thoughts and to an extent our emotions to take into account that information. In some contexts we will trust a leader even when it appears their decision will lead us into harm.


But is this what is going on in a horse's head when it follows you into a horse float even though it is obviously anxious about it? Or have you successfully trained the horse to move forward from poll pressure from the leadrope so completely that the horse continues to respond to that stimulus despite the evironment (the scary float) providing quite a strong counter pressure? Is the horse respectful or simply well trained? (What about the new horse you've just bought that obviously doesn't have any past experience of you personally, is obviously anxious about your float which it has never been on, yet still walks forward from lead pressure and onto the float?)

Response 1

You've made some interesting points X and I am in complete agreement about not using force or coercion to get a horse to do what we want it to. That said however, there is very little horse training, whether NHS, the Jeffery method, Parelli, Monty Roberts etc, that does not utilise a form of negative reinforcement (pressure release) as the basis of the training. Is that what is meant by the horse's language?


The obvious exception to negavtive reinforcement methods is clicker training which uses positive reinforcement (food rewards) to induce the desired behaviour.


Being animals which do find pressure on their bodies aversive does allow us humans to condition them to do amazing things in response to what can be incredibly light and subtle pressures and which in a really well trained horse are not in themselves aversive in the way they will be in a naive or young horse who usually trials a lot of responses before giving us the one we want.

My take on why my horses (whether reactive or plodders) lead well, keep a certain distance from me, walk quietly on and off the float and are (normally, though not always!) light and soft in hand, is not that they respect me, see me as their leader, or that I even speak their "language" in any meaningful sense.


I think its because I have hijacked their aversion to pressures on certain parts of their bodies and by reliably releasing those light pressures when they give a desired response they continue to behave in ways that are (mostly) predictable for them and me, which results in calmness and lightness. They have learned through trial and error what response makes the pressure go away. I am not in any way an intuitive or gifted trainer. All I know about training horses I have learnt from people far more talented and experienced than me and I still encounter behaviour problems that I find a puzzle.


In regards to speaking the horse's language I would appreciate more clarity about what is really meant by that. I don't have ears that can signal my intentions or opinions about my horses, I can't snake my head at them, and when I lower it it doesn't go very far, I can bare my teeth but I have no hinquarter to turn at them, nor tail to swish or hold high in play or fear. I can stamp my feet and rush agressively at them, and I can scratch them on places their herd mates do but I certainly can't whinny, rear or double barrel! My horses don't signal to me that they want me to move forward by putting pressure on the top of my head or my sides or that they want me to slow down by pressuring my mouth.


While I think the concept of using the horses' language is broadly useful in getting riders and trainers to consider things from the horse's point of view, rather than viewing them as performing robots and blaming them for everything that goes wrong, I think terms such as respect and leadership end up being a moral and value judgement that imply that horses have insights into their own behaviour and make concious choices not to do what is asked which can very often lead to us believing that it is the horse that is at fault anyway. The fact that the opposite of respectful is disrespectful, which implies a choice and deliberation to the horse's behaviour, rather than a failure of the trainer to install and reinforce the desired responses in the horse is a case in point.


Is a horse which constantly barges into the handler while being led arrogantly disrespecting their personal space, or has it been allowed to do so in the past and has never been taught to lead differently?


How would a horse know what distance constitutes personal space when being led, unless we teach it to them, given we get in very close to them when catching, grooming, saddling and bridling them.

More thoughts on gadgets

Posted by Hillydale Equine Training and Sales on November 21, 2010 at 6:28 PM Comments comments (0)

Hi there folks, thanks for commenting on my posts, its great to hear other perspectives. I enjoy having my ideas challenged, if only to make me think more deeply and do some more research into why I think my perspective is correct. Sometimes, usually from well argued and well informed points of view, I do change my mind. I am always trying to learn and develop my understanding of horses, how they learn and behave and how they are influenced by humans. As an aside and a topic for later posts, the latest book on the subject is Equitation Science by Drs Paul McGreey and Andrew McClean, have just finished reading it and can highly recommend it to anyone wanting to understand horses and what we do to them when we train them. There is an excellent chapter on what they call apparatus (gadgets) which explains very clearly which parts of a horse's body they operate on and explain how in many cases the claimed benefits are biomechanically dubious or outright erroneous.


What has always troubled me about the Pesoa, is unless it is very loosely attached, the horse receives pressures in its mouth from the locomotion of its hind legs, pressures which are completely unrelated to anything other than the horse's head carriage. Anyone spending any time with ridden horses knows that it is easy to get a horse to flex its cervical vertebrae and drop its nose behind the vertical to avoid mouth pain, whilst at the same time having a hollow back, stiff loins and trailing hindquarters. This gets rewarded in the show and dressage arenas a lot.


Yes aif, I haven't ever prepared a horse for CCI**** level or GP dressage, though in a past life I saw a lot of CCI**** horses in action in Adelaide, and most of the four star horses went around in snaffles, most with no martingales. Andrew Hoy rode Darian Powers around Sydney in a plain snaffle. Maybe all of these riders, behind the scenes, are using the contraptions that force horses into the desired outline but if that is what it takes to get to that level, and it can't be achieved through correct schooling, long term muscle development etc, then perhaps the sport can't be justified on animal welfare grounds. If the kinds of things we do to horses were done in public to dogs and cats there would be a justifiable outcry. Just because horses do learn to tolerate unrelenting mouth pressures via gadgets doesn't make it ethical to do it. And the fact that tens of thousands of perfectly healthy horses with behaviour problems end up in abattoirs demonstrates the high cost that those who can't handle the pressure pay.


Link to the Stacy Westfall demo on Youtube. Compared to a lot of reining demos which are characterised by gaping mouths, swishing tails and pinned ears, this trainer shows what can be done without a bit.



I personally train with a bit, though am experimenting more without and am in awe of riders who can execute higher movements without them- so yes you may be one of those more than mortal riders!


As to the footballers and the gadgets on the horses- there are some fundamental differences. The footballers choose to be there- the horses don't. The footballers can and do negotiate with their coaches, doctors etc as to the duration, timining and difficulty of the conditioning session and may remove themself from the session if it gets too painful or difficult- the horses can't- they rely entirely on the skill, experience and ethics of the trainer and when forced into a physical position by restraining gadgets, sharp bits etc are at high risk of physical and mental damage if worked beyond their capabilities or with no regard for the impacts of such devices. The footballers get paid big bucks and get a whole slew of other benefits, not all of them beneficial, the horses get made to work far harder, for far longer and get exposed to the risk of significant injury or death and are usually housed and managed in such as way as to be prevented from expressing even the most basic of social interactions with conspecfics. They don't get to go on team drinking sessions after an event...


Horses are our slaves, not our team mates, we sell on our horses, we don't sell on our team mates,(perhaps there's times we wish we could- they can get "traded" but that doesn't mean they get euthanised.  Horses can't resign from the job if they don't like the boss or the work, except by sustaining an injury or by developing conflict behaviours that are so dangerous to their human riders that they are removed from the sport, often by way of a knackery.


Given this, it us up to the humans, with all the brain power and the insight to train and use horses ethically and humanely, giving them the time to develop the muscular conditioning and mental skills to complete the tasks we set them. If that means relying on gadgets the apply unrelenting pressure, or pressure that can only be avoided by causing pain in other parts of the body (muscle pain from adopting an unnatural position to avoid mouth pain)  or by forcing them to do something that causes consistent pain, then perhaps some horses sports are no longer justifiable at all. 


I don't believe this is the case with eventing, though with modern dressage it may well be true. The fact that spurs and a curb bit are mandatory for higher level dressage says that the body governing the sport has little interest in allowing the those riders so inclined to choose not to use them. So how would we ever know what can be achieved at GP level in snaffle bridles? 


 The fact that is is perfectly legal to crank shut a GP horse's mouth with a noseband means the horse could be in agony but can't open its mouth to relieve the pressue.  How is that ethical or even beautiful?  It should be mandatory that nosebands are fitted loosely so judges can tell if the horse is truly "accepting the bit" or merely has its mouth wired shut. 


I have seen Georgia Bruce's horse do passage and piaffe at liberty and bitless under saddle so it is possible to get the outline and the movements without a bit, let alone a curb...



Also, from page 58 of the updated FEI Rules for Evening-


Every four years, Eventing in the Olympic Games will be organised under the patronage of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The Olympic Three Day Event is for Seniors. It will be conducted at the Four Star level in accordance with the “Special Regulations for Equestrian Events at the Olympic Games”.(my italics)



Thanks again for the comments.

Do you need a gadget?

Posted by Hillydale Equine Training and Sales on November 10, 2010 at 9:33 PM Comments comments (3)

I haven't been that complimentary about "natural" horsemanship in my previous entries, but I do believe the approach has, overall, had a very positive impact on the training of horses around the world. And its not that I don't think many of the approaches don't work, far from it, they do work.  My quarrel is not the efficacy, but rather the analysis of why they work.  But's that a subject for another post. 

One of the areas in which NHS has had a good influence is with the issue of gadgets.  Broadly speaking, they don't use them and the don't encourage riders to use them on their horses.  Sure they all use rope halters and the Parelli method makes frequent use of the ubiquitous carrot stick, but other than that you won't see them spruiking the latest contraption which claims to solve every horse behaviour problem in history.

Go to any saddlery store or open any horse magazine and the array of gadgets, mostly its bits that are on offer and growing in number every day is astounding.  In fact it often makes me wonder that any of us have managed to ride our horses successfully up to now. 

The bit sellers are the worst however, in trying to convince you that it is the piece of metal in the horse's mouth that is the key to every problem a horse has, and if you only change the bit, the problem will be solved.  One manufacturer has developed a whole "system" with levels which apparently target different areas of the horse's mouth, depending on their level of training and which if implemented will lead to 'clearer communication" between horse and rider.  Another manufactuer claims that their bit will lead to a "relaxed horse without mouthing issues". I am not entirely sure what a "mouthing issue" is, but if you use that bit you won't have them...

Leaving the bits behind, there are the lunging "aids".  The pessoa system, allows you to tie your horse's head to hits chest via its hind legs, and apparently by forcing it to run in this unnatural position you will correctly develop the muscles needed to do the same once you are on its back.  It i adjustable and the accompanying instructions do advise increasing the level of torture gradually so your horse gets used to it.   Used as directed there is no way for your horse to avoid getting belted in the mouth due to the movement of its hind legs except by hunching up and tucking its nose into its chest.  That's unless its at the advanced stage in which case its head will already be on its chest.  Try running around in a circle with your chin resting on your chest for five minutes and see how that feels.  Bet you start to feel sore all over your back...

There's side reins, drawreins, chambons, market harbouroughs, nose bands etc etc.  All designed to make your horse go "on the bit" with his aching mouth clamped shut so there is no way for him to avoid the agony. 

Watch Stacy Westfall complete her winning reining workout, involving sliding stops, roll backs (turn on the hindquarters), flat gallops, flying changes and the rest, without saddle, bridle or even neck rope and then tell me these gadgets are needed to get a relaxed and obedient horse.  Look at the best event riders, at the highest levels and most of their horses go round four star courses (Olympic level) in snaffle bridles and maybe a noseband and running martingale. 

A wise saying about gadgets, quoted by Andrew McClean in most of his books, is that gadgets should only be used by experienced trainers and experienced trainers don't need to use them.  Gadgets are used either because we are lazy and don't want to take the time to build up our horses slowly, both physically and mentally, or because we want a quick fix to a training or behaviour problem, and just like instant coffee, the gadget is the water and we get an instant repsonse.  Often however, not the one we want or the horse needs. 

So if you are having problems with your horse, its "hard" in the mouth, too forward, "lazy" off the leg, won't jump into water, bucks, rears, won't turn properly, rushes at fences XC or whatever, don't go out and buy a gadget, get a good trainer and find out what YOU are doing wrong.  If you are a mere mortal and not able to train a horse to be ridden without saddle or bridle ( and I count myself in this category) then all you need to break in and train a horse is a saddle that fits, a bridle with a snaffle bit that also fits, a halter and lead and my only gadget, a dressage whip.  Ride with light soft hands, release the contact every time he does what you ask for, never hang, let your horse develop the musculature to bring itself on the bit instead of forcing it and above all, be patient and you will save yourself big bucks by not wasting on money on gadgets that won't come close to fixing the root of the problem- the rider.