Laddie: Horse Shy

As a five year old green-broke horse, Laddie’s only riding experience was alone on trails. When he was acquired for further training, the arena was a new experience and being ridden close to other horses was too. He shied at everything, and any time another horse came too close he would stop suddenly and run backwards, or shoot forwards. This anxiety made him tense and the rider often felt like he was about to buck until he got going.

Anxiety in a new situation is very normal. Controlling these reactions, however, is key to achieving relaxation and habituation (Principle 1). At first, when any correction of unwanted behaviour was made, no matter how mild, the anxiety increased and he seemed unable to trial new behaviour, showing a negative state of mind (Principle 4). Instead of starting directly with the shying and hyperactive behaviour, then, cues he already knew were used and his responses rewarded until he began to offer improved responses and show interest in figuring out what was required (Principle 3).

Then a new cue for ‘turn’ was installed using two light whip taps on the shoulder and transferred to the reins (Principle 7) so that any random turning, in a shy for example, could be corrected (Principle 6).

The ‘go’ cue was also re-installed, as sometimes it caused stopping or moving backwards instead of going forwards (Principle 9).

With these new cues, overshadowing was used (Principle 5) near areas of the arena that caused anxious responses until go and stop were light in those areas.

The number of horses in the arena was then increased and their proximity to Laddie was decreased using the same go, stop, and turn cues (Principle 8) until riding past another horse elicited no unasked change, and finally being ridden past produced no random movement either (Principle 10).

Laddie is now calmer about new situations, and is more willing to try new behaviour for a new cue, indicating a generally better state of mind (Principle 4).

Bailey: Aggressive Therapy Horse

This 22 year old mare had been used as a therapeutic riding horse for 5 years. During therapy sessions, she would not obey cues provided by the rider, requiring her handler to intervene. Her teeth would be grinding for the entire session, and periodically she would try to bite her handler, often resulting in an aggressive response from the handler. While being prepared for a lesson she would show signs of restlessness and aggression to the point where the Association wasn’t sure they could keep using her.

Aggression is always an alert to something being unclear or confusing in the horse’s training. The therapeutic association was right in questioning their continued use of her (Principle 1), but finding the cause would have been better. Responding with aggression typically makes the behaviour worse (Principle 2).

Bailey tended to grind her teeth when cued to stop, showing confusion about what the cue meant (Principle 9). The stop response was retrained, starting at obedience because she would slow a little bit when pressure was applied (Principle 8). Care was taken that there was no pressure when she was not being asked for something. The teeth grinding suddenly diminished, and the biting stopped entirely.

Next she was taught to ‘park’, an extension of the stop response. This was used in the tacking area, and when she realized that all that was required was standing still and not moving she quickly relaxed and even appeared to enjoy being groomed, wiggling her ears and lips when being brushed on the neck (Principle 5).

With the tension and conflict gone, she quickly became a favourite among the volunteers, and was able to continue serving as a therapy horse.

Hemi: Dirty Jumper

Although his behaviour had been growing steadily worse, no one expected this 11 year old Clydesdale- Thoroughbred lesson horse to begin running out at jumps. Students had reported his unpredictable shies, but this new behaviour began leaving them in the dirt. He gained a reputation of being ‘dirty’ when formerly everyone described him as a ‘teddy bear.’

The clue to this horse is his consistent behaviour. Shying and running out both demonstrate a loss of self-carriage of direction (Principle 10) when the shoulders suddenly turn without a cue, thus throwing riders (Principle 1).

Hemi was retrained to turn his shoulders from a rein cue using operant conditioning (Principle 6). To consolidate the new behaviour, he was ridden in areas where he was known to shy, and the retrained cue was applied during a mistake to bring his shoulders back to the rider’s line (Principle 10).

Upon approaching jumps again, Hemi lost rhythm immediately preceding an attempt to run around the jump, thus failing rhythm and straightness levels of the shaping scale (Principle 8). After training improved transitions within and between gaits, walking up to a low jump (underriding) was used to cause him to speed up just before a jump, producing a drawing effect on the approach and a clean effort over the jump.

Because running out was quite rewarding, the habit meant Hemi could not be returned to the lesson program immediately. However, with practice of the new behaviour by a rider using equitation science, he should successfully return to work.

5 Horse Principles

There are 5 things best to keep in mind when dealing with any horse, especially one with behaviour problems:


• Horses are large and unpredictable. They use fight, flight, or freeze to cope with stress or perceived danger. Safety of human and horse is paramount when training.


• Horses need social interaction with other equines and require foraging and freedom. We can be seen as a threat by horses.


• Horses’ brains are different from ours. They think, see, and hear differently than we do.


• Horses can feel. They can suffer, and they can be content. They can become attached to us or be afraid of us.


• Horses thrive on consistency. Our end goal should always be that the horse does what we want it to without having to be constantly reminded.


Want to know what each of these means for your relationship with your horse?

When you sign up for lessons, I teach these basic five things to keep in mind, as well as five training tools (see this post) so that you understand why you are doing what you do when you ride.

Or, sign your horse up for training and you can watch as many training sessions as you like as well as receive a lesson when you pick your horse up!

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This information was adapted from the International Society for Equitation Science’s (ISES) 10 First Principles of Training.

5 Training Tools

Here are 5 principles that show how your horse’s mind works. They are the rules for how he learns things. I use these to retrain every behaviour problem that I get. If you understand them too, you will be able to keep your horse well trained.

Horses have to get used to perceived threats in order to survive. They can’t always be running away, wasting energy. We can systematically use this to get horses used to things they tend to be scared of.


Horses learn by trial and error. When the result of a certain behaviour is something they want, they are likely to repeat it. When the result is something they don’t want, they are less likely to repeat it. Horses don’t learn well from punishment.


Horses easily make associations. When one event predictably happens before another, the horse strings them together in its mind. These can be good or bad associations.


Horses get progressively better with practice. If they practice something we don’t want and it is somehow rewarding, they will get better at that just as much as practicing behaviour that we like.


Horses need clear consistency. They rely on the cues we give them, intentionally or not. They must always be able to tell what we are asking of them.


By knowing these things about horses, I can ‘speak’ in a way they understand. You can, too.

When you take lessons with your horse, I go through how these training tools work. When you register your horse for training, you get access to me during training to learn how I teach him and a lesson to put it into practice!

Register Now

This information was adapted from the International Society for Equitation Science’s (ISES)10 First Principles of Training.