Our rough itinerary for the next year or so…

Oct 2016 to Dec 2016

Stuart - Australia

Jane - UK

Feb 2017 to May 2017

Stuart - Australia

Jane - UK, then Aus for 5 weeks, then back to UK

May 2017 to Oct 2017

Stuart and Jane - UK

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What a simple way to improve balance, I now teach this method to all of my students, from beginners to advanced. Fiona, Toronto, Canada

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Horse training

This page has information about the following training concepts:

Habituation

Learning ability

Learning theory

Negative reinforcement

Punishment

Positive reinforcement

Learned helplessness

A last word about training


During all interactions with horses, it must be remembered that they are primarily ‘fright and flight’ animals. Everything about horses, the way they are built and the way they behave, has evolved to meet this primary instinct. Other animals, including many herbivores, have evolved to defend themselves and their young if challenged. Horses have evolved to run first and defend themselves only if they cannot run away or cannot run fast enough. This is where the powerful backwards kick comes in, they can defend themselves while fleeing if necessary.

Horses are primarily fright and flight animals. They will always run away from danger rather than face it given the choice.


To a large extent horse training involves teaching the horse to not react instinctively but to respond to cues instead.

Horse training has evolved over many centuries. Some people like to follow ‘traditional’ methods and some prefer ‘newer’ methods. Whatever style of horse training you prefer it is important that you understand exactly what you are doing and think about how you train from the horse’s perspective.

Habituation   Back to top

A large part of horse training is a combination of habituation (learning to become familiar with things) and learning to respond to cues (or ‘aids’ as they are usually called in the horse world). Even though horses are highly reactive and nervous (by necessity) they are very good at learning to accept familiar sights and sounds so that they can relax when in familiar and safe surroundings. This ability is a necessary behaviour for an animal that is naturally preyed upon; otherwise the animal would use too much energy being alert all of the time (even when there is no danger). This behaviour is part of the habituation process which horses respond well to (because it is already a part of their behavioural ‘make up’).

Good horse trainers use this process to train horses to ‘become familiar’ with all sorts of sights, sounds and experiences (stimuli). Think about police horses for example and what they learn to accept. Police horse trainers in particular use the process of habituation extensively when training.

Habituation, a good horse trainer knows how much ‘pressure’ to put on a horse, and when to remove that pressure.


Therefore a good trainer introduces a horse to ‘scary’ objects gradually and carefully. For example, they might ride a horse in an area that is near a road and get nearer to the traffic each day until the horse accepts traffic very close by. Teaching a horse in this way requires a lot of skill because if a trainer overestimates when a horse is ready to go to the next level of ‘scariness’ a horse can get frightened and panic. If the horse panics to the extent of running away (and the rider is not skilled enough to prevent this from happening) then the horse has actually learned that the best response is to run away (because running away took the horse away from the scary object), the opposite of what the trainer hoped to accomplish. For this reason it is important that people who train horses, and in fact have anything to do with horses, understand how easy it is to inadvertently teach a horse the wrong behaviours i.e. in this case to be more scared of things rather than ‘become familiar’ with them (habituated).

Horses can and do unintentionally habituate themselves to scary objects. For example, if a horse lives next to a busy road the horse will tend to habituate to the traffic over time (providing the horse has no previous bad experiences of traffic, otherwise the horse will simply get better at running away).

The free living ponies in The New Forest (UK) are totally habituated to traffic.


Habituation can work against a horse as well. For example, a horse that is thoroughly habituated to traffic would think nothing of walking down the middle of a busy road upon getting loose. In fact this happens when horses accidentally get out on to the roads and they are then a danger to themselves and people (due to the risk of collisions).

Horses are also able to generalise sights and sounds to some extent. The more they see and do the more they accept as ‘normal’. Once they have learned to accept (been habituated to) a car moving past them they will also accept other cars that may be a different colour or different shape (as long as they are not too different). However if while riding a horse in a forest you come across an abandoned car that is upside down on the track in front of you do not be surprised if your horse is frightened. The horse has noticed two differences, the car is in the wrong place (the horse is not used to seeing a car in this environment) and the car is the wrong shape (the horse does not reason that an upside down car is still a car).

A horse can be habituated to traffic but there are usually some traffic situations that even a horse that is ‘good in traffic’ may still react to.


Even very well trained horses will revert to instinctive behaviour in some circumstances depending on their individual behavioural characteristics and their level of training etc. A well behaved, well trained horse can still react instinctively from time to time if subjected to ‘too much, too soon’. For example, if a horse that is usually ‘good in traffic’ is subjected to a very large group of motorbikes suddenly passing close by at speed, the horse may still panic, because this level of ‘stimuli’ may be well beyond what the horse is currently familiar with (habituated to). Many horses can be trained to accept even this level of ‘pressure’, but while training, the increase in pressure needs to be very gradual.

Another example is that most horses habituate to the sight of various sizes and shapes of dogs, from small ones to large ones. Dogs are a very common sight and most horses have seen and accept a variety of dogs. However the sight of a large and extra hairy rare breed, such as an Afghan Hound, can frighten a horse not familiar with that breed, because the standard dog shape is different in this case (the flowing hair blurs the shape of the dog). Horses are very observant and notice many things that you may think are irrelevant.

Horses can habituate to almost any sight, including ‘strange’ looking (and strange moving) animals such as kangaroos!


At the same time, once a horse is taught to respond reliably to cues a rider or handler can steer a horse through an otherwise tricky situation because the reliable response to the cue overrides the horse’s desire to panic. Hence the saying by some horse trainers that a well trained horse is always ‘quiet’, but a ‘quiet’ horse is not necessarily well trained. Or in other words, some horses may seem very quiet due to having a naturally good temperament but without proper training (so that the horse has reliable responses to cues) any horse will still panic if and when pushed out of its ‘comfort zone’.

Learning ability   

Horses have a very high learning ability and are able to learn certain tasks very quickly if trained properly. Not only does a horse learn quickly, but a horse will remember and respond to a cue indefinitely once the cue has been taught thoroughly (this of course includes ‘bad’ as well as ‘good’ responses). For example, a horse that has been thoroughly taught a certain ‘movement’ under saddle will still usually respond to the cue for that movement many years later even without practice in between.

It is now starting to be understood that horses do not necessarily need large numbers of repetitions once they have thoroughly learned certain tasks (yet many competition horses are ‘trained’ for hours at a time, practicing the same task over and over despite the fact that the horse can already perform the task well).

This is the sort of issue that the relatively new movement of Equitation Science investigates.

Horses have a very high learning ability and are able to learn certain tasks very quickly if trained properly.


If you are interacting with horses, be it riding or on the ground, you have the responsibility of learning about certain aspects of horse training. This is because every time you interact with a horse, you are consciously or unconsciously training the horse. If you do not understand what you are doing you may actually train the horse to behave incorrectly. In fact any professional horse trainer will tell you that after working on a particular horse’s ‘problem behaviour’, they also need to work with the owner and change their behaviour. The most successful horse trainers are in fact good people trainers!

Horses are very good at learning what profits them (and therefore is worth doing again) and what does not profit them (and therefore should be avoided in the future). This behaviour keeps them relatively safe in their natural environment as an animal that is (was) preyed on by predators.

Learning theory   

The above mentioned movement of Equitation Science examines how Learning Theory is best applied to horse training. Applying Learning Theory to your horse training regime reduces stress for horses and people. Learning Theory is not a training method in itself, it is a way of examining and explaining how horses learn and how this fits in with a particular training system. You can use this knowledge to examine your current training system and see if there are aspects of your training system that may be ambiguous to a horse. When you thoroughly understand how horses learn you can get the best from your chosen style of horse training.

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Negative reinforcement   

Most forms of horse training (and indeed domestic animal and captive animal training) use negative reinforcement. In a training context ‘reinforcement’ means that it increases the likelihood of that behaviour reoccurring. More recently many horse trainers are also using positive reinforcement. Most horse trainers, however they label their own training method, already use negative reinforcement, even if they do not use the scientific term to describe it. Many of them call it ‘pressure and release’ training or similar. However, many trainers confuse the term negative reinforcement with the term punishment, thinking that they are the same thing, but they are very different.

Think of negative reinforcement as the removal of something (such as lead rope pressure) and positive reinforcement as the addition of something (such as a scratch in a favourite place or a food reward). Punishment is also the addition of something (such as the creation of fear or pain) but it occurs at a different time (see below). In the following simple and common scenario, i.e. loading a horse into a trailer, you can see how the three approaches could be applied.

To load a horse into a trailer you put pressure on the lead rope until the horse steps forward (negative reinforcement). Once the horse steps forward the pressure on the lead rope is removed. Remember, if it helps, think of the term negative in the same way that it is used in mathematics, negative means to take away. If the horse has previously been thoroughly taught to lead (presuming the pressure is applied and removed at the correct time) the horse will load in to the trailer. Hence the saying among many horse trainers that if a horse will not load in to a trailer you do not have a loading problem, you have a leading problem!

A common example of negative reinforcement is when a rider removes their leg pressure as the horse moves forward.


If the horse will not move from pressure on the lead rope then you may need to apply gentle but regular taps with a stick to the body of the horse whilst maintaining the pressure on the lead rope. Again, as soon as the horse takes a step forward (even if it is not all the way into the trailer) the pressure (in this case the taps and the pressure on the lead rope) are removed. Negative reinforcement is being used because you take away the pressure when the horse responds correctly. Therefore negative reinforcement starts before the response (it creates the response) and stops when the horse responds correctly. Negative reinforcement says ‘yes’ to the horse.

Punishment   

A definition of punishment in the above scenario would be that if the horse did not move forward, or the horse jumped sideways rather than moved forward when given the cue (pressure from the lead rope or taps to the body plus pressure on the lead rope), then the handler might hit the horse with the stick, yank on the lead rope or yell etc. Punishment occurs after the wrong response is given (even if the response is that the horse does nothing). Punishment says ‘no’ to the horse. But it does not tell the horse what is required. The horse only learns that certain situations should be avoided in the future.

The problem with punishment is that if the horse does not understand the cue or is already fearful then it makes the situation worse not better. Punishment usually occurs when the emotional level of the handler has increased to frustration or anger, which in turn increases the emotional level of the horse (pain, fear and confusion). Whereas negative reinforcement is applied without emotion, or in a logical sequence, in order to create the desired response.

Positive reinforcement   

If you were to use positive reinforcement in this scenario of loading a horse onto a trailer, you would scratch the horse in a favourite spot or give the horse a food reward after the horse has responded correctly (i.e. stepped forward, usually due to negative reinforcement being first applied). Again using the mathematics analogy, positive is adding something (the reward). Positive reinforcement is applied after the response. If you were to reward the horse before the correct response then this is not positive reinforcement. For example, if the horse refuses to move forward and you give him or her some food anyway. You could in fact call this bribery and it does not work because the horse will have been rewarded for the wrong behaviour (i.e. not moving forward). As with negative reinforcement the timing of positive reinforcement is crucial. Indeed it is a lack of good timing by a handler or rider that creates the wrong behaviour in a horse, because they are inadvertently rewarding the wrong behaviour.

Positive reinforcement (reward based training) is used to teach horses many things from tricks to improved work under saddle.


Dog trainers now use positive reinforcement extensively, and as mentioned before, many horse trainers are now adding this training tool to their repertoire of techniques. More research is required about this subject in order to fully understand its benefits and any possible shortcomings.

Negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement are very powerful training tools when applied correctly. However punishment that may involve the infliction of pain is not, as it does not communicate to the horse what you want him or her to do. As mentioned before, punishment says no rather than yes, and it can frighten the horse. Punishment can actually undo your training as the horse becomes afraid to try responses. A horse learns by trial and error, but if the horse becomes afraid to try then it becomes fearful and stressed. Eventually some horses give up trying and learned helplessness can be the result.

Learned helplessness   

Learned helplessness is where the subject (in this case the horse) becomes fearful of trying responses because in the past they have been punished for trying. When the horse cannot work out a way of not being punished they may decide to do nothing, because trying leads to punishment. Dull ‘switched off’ behaviour is the result. A horse in this state may even appear to not feel pain or any other stimuli, leading an uninformed handler or rider to label the horse as ‘lazy’ or ‘ignorant’ or as having other undesirable traits.

Learned helplessness in horses also occurs outside training, for example when a horse is kept alone. A horse kept alone has two possible responses, the horse can remain in a highly anxious state which uses up lots of physical and emotional energy, or can develop ‘learned helplessness’. This is an emotional state which uses up less energy but is still stressful. Because a horse gives no visible (to the inexperienced horse person anyway) or aural signs of stress it is assumed that the horse is ‘happy’ to be alone.

A last word about training   

By training a horse you replace many of the horse’s instinctive reactions (such as panicking about situations, being dangerous to ride etc.) with ‘learned responses’ (such as being calm in potentially scary situations and being good to ride etc.). In so many ways this results in a horse that is a pleasure to be around (and a less stressed horse). However always remember that a well trained horse will do what you ask, for as long as you ask (because the horse now has totally reliable responses to a set of given cues) so it is your responsibility to only ask the horse to do what is reasonable. An inexperienced horse rider/handler/owner, thinking that a horse is compliant simply because the horse ‘wants to please’ for example, can seriously overwork a horse without realising that the horse is trained to such a level that only sheer exhaustion would cause that horse to stop working.


This is only a very brief introduction to the subject of training. There are some exciting developments in the horse world on this subject. You owe it to your horse and yourself to learn about these. Training is a fascinating subject and what you learn about training will help you in many ways (not just with horses).


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Understanding horse behaviour is a very important part of caring for horses. It is very easy to convince yourself that your horse is content to do all of the things that you enjoy, but a much better approach is to understand that your horse has very different needs to you. Horses see the world quite differently to humans; they react to situations in a way that can seem illogical to us, but they do this because they have behaviours that have evolved over millions of years and ensured their survival. Horse behaviour is linked closely to their physiology and this is what makes a horse, a horse.

You can begin reading this book (for free!) right here on this website…

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