Enjoyment Behaviours

[The following is a short excerpt from Week 2 of my new horse language course. In the course, week 2 includes 5 pages of summarized research, one journal article reading and three optional ones, two videos, and an assignment.]

I love getting enjoyment signals from a horse that I am working with, and I try to hunt for moments that the horse will enjoy, learning from each horse what they prefer individually. Positive affective states (roughly equivalent to optimism) have been shown to improve learning from training sessions, so actively looking for ways to improve my horse’s mood is good training practice.

We’ll start at the head and work through the body.


Ears are a great indicator of the horse’s state of mind. Both ears must be relaxed to indicate full pleasure or enjoyment, if one is still hyper focused and stiff I keep working to find more relaxation. A relaxed ear position can be flopped slightly to the side (but a horse with ears stiffly flopped over like a donkey can indicate pain) or gently swivelling. 

The eyes shouldn’t have ‘worry wrinkles’ above them in the relaxed horse in a positive affective state. They may half close, but take care to consider the rest of the signals as half closed eyes can also indicate pain.

The nostril and lips are relaxed, not pinched into an angular shape.

When physical touch is particularly pleasurable, the horse will lean into it, move the body to put your hand in the right spot, and the upper lip begins to twitch and wiggle back and forth.


A neck position below the withers is the most calming position, as heart rate is lowered when the head is below wither level and pleasure hormones are released. During a pleasant grooming session, the horse may bulge his neck towards you to have you scratch harder, or bend his neck away to get a slightly different angle. 

Often for a hard-to-reach spot on my horse’s side, she will swing her neck around and indicate where she needs a scratch with a jerk of the nose. While I couldn’t find any research relevant to gesturing behaviour in horses yet, when I pay attention to where she might be trying to reach or perhaps point to, I often hit on a spot she really enjoys.


Relaxed muscle tone and a comfortable stance usually indicate calmness. Standing with one leg twisted or oddly positioned can be a fear/frozen stance or indicator of pain. It can take some practice to distinguish a ‘frozen’ horse that isn’t moving because it is avoiding a fear-inducing stimulus from a horse that is simply relaxed, which is why taking the entire body into account is important. Both the relaxed and the frozen horse may have a hind foot rested.


During movement, the tail should swing softly from side to side, creating an ‘s’ curve through its length, particularly visible at trot. Thrashing or switching the tail is the opposite of what we look for in calming signals, rather the tail will be held softly up or relaxed down, not clamped, nor pulled up and to one side (although this can be normal for some breeds, it is also an indication of pain).


Next time you are with your horse, watch for some of these behaviours. Spend a moment wondering what your horse is telling you while you handle or groom him, and try to hunt for some relaxing bonding time. When you notice a behaviour, good or bad, pause and think before reacting. See if you notice any of the behaviours that might indicate pain or discomfort and practice being attentive to your horse’s requests and cues.

Do you want to learn how to interpret your horse’s behaviour more accurately to forward your training efforts? I’m launching a six week online course in January 2023 to teach just that. Submit the RSVP below to be first to know when registration opens in December.

Can We Be Horses?

Many natural horsemanship training methodologies suggest the handler interacts with the horse as if he were, himself, a horse. This is typically said to involve body language, trying to mimic how the ‘alpha mare’ would interact with an insubordinate horse.

Recent research looks at the equine ethogram (a list of defined behaviours that horses display) to determine if it is possible for humans to interact with horses as other horses would, and if horses interact with humans as they would with horses. This article is based on the 2009 review article by McGreevy, Oddie, Burton, and McLean: The horse–human dyad: Can we align horse training and handling activities with the equid social ethogram? Published by The Veterinary Journal v 181, pp 12-18.


At first glance, it seems that many of the behaviours horses display towards each other in their social groups are also displayed towards humans and vice versa. Humans approach horses and touch them, with scratching around the withers being more relevant than patting or slapping. Humans move horses around with chasing pressure, and horses have been known to chase a human. Mutual grooming can be undertaken between a horse and a human. We push horses over in the tie stall, and horses sometimes push us. Leading a horse with no rein pressure looks similar to horses trekking together (traveling single file). Young horses can display snapping to humans. The list goes on, but the closer we get to the barn, the fewer the similarities become. By the time we are picking the horse’s feet and saddling up, the similarities are quickly vanishing.


The most well known natural horsemanship training technique, round penning, is an excellent example of the limitations of trying to behave like a horse, and of interpreting the horse’s responses as if they were responding to another horse. Studies have shown that the behaviours typically understood to demonstrate ‘respect’ in the round pen (licking lips, head lowering, approaching the human) are context-specific. That means they are only shown towards the human in the round pen training setting, not during other interactions. Studies have also demonstrated that the effects of round penning may be achieved with a remote-controlled car instead of a human, showing that negative reinforcement and not respect may be at the root of round pen behaviour. (Remember, negative reinforcement doesn’t mean bad, it means something–like pressure–is taken away to reinforce behaviour.)

Thinking about horse behaviour as if we are horses can also lead to us expecting the horse to know what we want, and describing them in terms of ‘willingness to please’. Both of these are dangerous ways of thinking, as they ascribe more mental capacity to the horse than it actually has, and the implications of these two assumptions lie in their opposites: if the horse doesn’t do as we wanted right away, we assume he is being wilfully naughty, doesn’t respect us, and perhaps even wants to spite us. These assumptions can lead to punitive training methods, lowering training uptake and reducing welfare.


Similarities exist between horse-horse interactions and human-horse interactions, but these become disjointed the closer the human gets to riding, and fall apart completely when the horse is mounted to be ridden. If the foundation of the horse’s training on the ground relies on attempting to be a herd member, there will be no training to rely on once the trainer wants to get on, as the horse cannot possibly see a rider as being a member of its herd—there are no longer any social analogues.

Basing training on learning theory, while still taking into account the horse’s behaviour, and learning to interpret behavioural signals accurately instead of trying to interpret them as a horse, seems to be a more logical and effective training strategy.

Do you want to learn how to interpret your horse’s behaviour more accurately to forward your training efforts? I’m launching a six week online course in January 2023 to teach just that. Submit the RSVP below to be first to know when registration opens in December.

Does Soft-talking Improve Training Outcomes?

Horse people talk to their horses. We praise them, cajole them, complain to them, tell them our cares and worries, and sometimes even shout at them. Many of us believe our tone of voice, if not the words, affect our horse’s behaviour. Heleski et al conducted a study in 2014 to find out to what extent soothing voice cues versus harsh ones assist in training.

Their hypothesis was that a soothing cue as the horse progressed through a potentially frightening task would improve the speed with which the horse was able to complete it calmly, while a harsh cue provided as the horse progressed would slow down the learning process and increase arousal.

Over 100 horses from different stables through Europe and the United States had five trials to cross a tarpaulin spread on the ground. The horses were randomly assigned to harsh voice treatment (quit it!) and soothing voice treatment (good horse). The handler led the horse towards the tarp using pressure and release on the halter, adding the vocal cue appropriate to the horse’s random assignment for each correct step towards the tarp. If the first crossing attempt took longer than ten minutes, the horse was considered to have failed. The goal was for horses to cross calmly within five trials. The time taken to cross each time, the horse’s heart rate, and its general behaviour were observed and recorded.

Interestingly, their findings were opposite to their hypotheses. There was no significant difference between harsh voice and soothing voice treatment groups in the percentage of horses that failed the learning task, in the groups’ average heart rates, or in the total time each group required to cross calmly. The maximum heart rate of the soothing voice group was actually higher than that of the harsh voice group.

There were no significant correlations with the horses’ ages when taken as an average. However, when 3-4 year old horses were compared with those 20 years or more, the older ones had much less latency to cross.

In the end, the harsh voice treatment group actually completed the learning task significantly faster than the soothing voice group. The researchers hypothesized that these unexpected results may show that tone of voice is either not distinguishable to the horse, or is not as salient to the horse as pressure cues, and may have ended up being perceived as ‘background noise’. They also suggested that handlers who were more familiar to the horses might have produced different results.

This suggests that while a soothing voice is likely not inherently calming to a horse in a novel situation, yelling at a horse for unwanted behaviour is equally ineffective. It is, however, theoretically possible with classical conditioning to teach a horse the difference between soothing voice and harsh voice. A soothing voice may additionally help the handler to remain calm, and correlations between horse and handler heart rates have been previously shown.

So, keep talking to your horse. Just realize that he is not taking in everything you are saying, and how you are saying it. Instead, make sure your training is clear so you get the responses you want.

Heleski, C; Wickens, C; Minero, M; Dalla Costa, E; Wu, C; Czeszak, E; and Köenig von Borstel, U. (2015) Do soothing vocal cues enhance horses’ ability to learn a frightening task? Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, 10(1):41-47.

Horse Emotions

Introduction and Definition of Terms

When a horse is worried about something, he doesn’t pay much attention to you. That’s when his ‘arousal’ level is high.

A horse can also be optimistic or pessimistic—he can expect a new experience to be positive or negative. That’s his ‘emotional state’.

His level of arousal and emotional state taken together are his ‘affective state’ and dictate the quality of work he is capable of and what kind of reinforcement will be most effective for training at that moment.

Being able to read a horse’s affective state and respond appropriately in the moment could make the difference between raising his arousal level further until he can no longer interact with you and making significant progress towards your goal, whether that goal is quality time with him or higher steps in piaffe.

How Arousal is Created

We don’t yet know exactly what levels of arousal are ideal for training new behaviours. However, common sense and practical experience agree that if the horse is not aroused enough (if he is asleep), or if he is too aroused (if he fears for his life), there will be little useful interaction between horse and human.

Determining what level of arousal will be best for the intended activity with a horse could greatly benefit the interaction. For a therapy session, a very relaxed horse with a low level of arousal is preferred. For resolving a behaviour problem, a higher level of arousal will be needed so the horse is motivated to trial new responses and find the correct one. For shaping a trained behaviour, medium arousal will be best, so the horse can think about what is being asked.

How Negative Affective States are Created

We know more about negative affective states than positive because animal welfare criteria used to be based on the absence of negatives rather than the presence of positives. Positive experiences were finally introduced in the 2020 Five Domains Model.

When a horse’s expectations of the outcome of certain behaviours or events are not met, the difference between expectations and actual outcome creates frustration. Frustration in any or all of the four physical domains (Nutrition, Physical Environment, Health, and Behavioural Interactions) will create a negative state in the fifth Mental domain. This negative state can contribute to aggressive behaviour and, if frustration continues, will create a long term negative outlook. The use of punishment in training can also contribute to a negative state.

How Positive Affective States are Created

Use of the principles of equitation science in training has been shown to help avoid negative affective states during training. For welfare, however, it is not enough to avoid the negative. Working actively to help create a positive experience for the horse will contribute to positive affect and relationship.

In a study by Freymond et al, horses trained with addition reinforcement (where something pleasant is given to the horse to reinforce correct behaviour) were found to have more positive emotional states than those trained with subtraction reinforcement (where something

unpleasant is taken away to reinforce correct behaviour). Interestingly though, after the training session the subtraction-reinforced horses experienced a more positive overall emotional state than the addition-reinforced horses had. This suggests that trainers and owners employing combined reinforcement (use of both addition and subtraction reinforcement) may be able to positively influence their horse’s mood.


Awareness of how a horse is currently feeling is a great asset to any horse person. This knowledge makes it easier to predict what the horse will do in any given situation, enhancing safety and even making it possible to change plans to create a positive experience for the horse.

Keeping the lowest level of arousal required for the activity is essential to good training, positive welfare, and good relationship. Not everything in the human-horse relationship is going to contribute to a positive emotional state (for example, horses are unlikely to ask for a vaccination!), but even the negatives can be countered in other ways to develop an overall positive affective state in a horse.


Creighton, E. (2007) Equine learning behaviour: limits of ability and ability limits of trainers. Behav. Process. 76, 43–44.

Freymond SB; Briefer EF; Zollinger A; Gindrat-von Allmen Y; Wyss C; and Bachmann I. (2014) Behaviour of horses in a judgment bias test associated with positive or negative reinforcement. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 158, 34–45.

Mellor, DJ; Beausoleil, NJ; Littlewood, KE; McLean, AN; McGreevy, PD; Jones, B; and Wilkins, C. (2020) The 2020 Five Domains Model: Including Human-Animal Interactions in Assessments of Animal Welfare. Animals 10, 1870. Open access: https://www.mdpi.com/ 2076-2615/10/10/1870

Olczak, K., Nowicki, J., and Klocek, C. (2016) Motivation, stress, and learning–critical characteristics that influence the horses’ value and training method–a review. Ann. Anim. Sci. 16, 641–652.

Starling, MJ; Branson, N; Cody, D; and McGreevy, PD. (2013) Conceptualising the Impact of Arousal and Affective State on Training Outcomes of Operant Conditioning. Animals 3. Open access: https://www.mdpi.com/2076-2615/3/2/300/pdf

page2image49469824 page2image49470016 page2image49470976

Can horse training outcomes be predictable?

A primary aim of horse training is to create a predictable animal that is useful and enjoyable to be around. However, when a unique person trains a unique horse, it is almost oxymoronic to suppose that the outcome of the training could be predictable. When the trainer understands and makes use of the ten first principles of equitation science, however, training can have more effective and predictable outcomes, with less stress and confusion for the horse in the process.

The ten first principles explain how horses learn so trainers can avoid any training techniques that are questionable or detrimental and use to full advantage the tenets of learning theory. Because the principles show how training works, it becomes obvious to the trainer why some methods do not work and others do. This creates a more streamlined training process with less trial and error on the trainer’s part so the horse can be guided through learning with clear and consistent methods.

This approach makes a lot of sense, as consistent and clear communication leads to fewer misunderstandings, resulting in less confusion for the horse. Confusion causes flight and defence behaviours in the horse as it tries to escape the conflicting situation, so the ability of a trainer to avoid fear and conflict results in humane, effective training. Sensitive communication with the horse through a willingness to observe the horse’s state of mind can even create a better relationship between the horse and its trainer, and ultimately between the horse and any people who interact with it in the future.

The trainer with a working knowledge of equitation science is skilled in predicting what behaviour a horse may offer next. This ability is achieved by observing and interpreting the body language, posture, or demeanour of the horse, and then adapting the techniques being used so that the horse remains in a trainable mental state. A horse that is too stressed cannot learn well, and neither can a horse that is so relaxed it is almost asleep. Any person who has intentionally honed their equine observation skills will be able to tailor their training to the horse’s mental state if they choose to, but learning the principles of equitation science is likely to lessen the time necessary to learn this important skill.

Horses are very routine oriented. When the outcome they expect from a certain behaviour or event is not met, frustration occurs. Constant frustration through inconsistency can create a long-term negative mood which may lead to aggression. The use of punishment in training is a major contributor to frustration, as punishment only tells the horse what not to do and does not redirect their behaviour in a positive way. When a horse is in a negative mental state, he is getting ready to protect himself, whereas in a positive state he is engaged with the trainer and makes fewer mistakes.

Without a proper understanding of how horses learn, training results may vary. If a trainer misunderstands how to apply negative reinforcement (also known as subtraction reinforcement, where an aversive is removed to reinforce behaviour) conflict behaviours may emerge, and with practice these behaviours become trained responses, perhaps rendering the horse dangerous. Without the proper understanding of a horse’s cognitive ability, horse behaviour can easily be misinterpreted, causing the trainer to apply a training technique inappropriate for the situation, starting a cycle of decreased welfare and ineffective training.

Poorly trained basic responses, such as stop, go, and turn, have been shown to go hand in hand with fear and conflict behaviours. Therefore, training (or retraining) these basic responses in accordance with equitation science principles will mitigate fear and conflict in the horse, resulting in the desired training outcome: a useful and enjoyable animal that also receives some benefit from its interactions with people.

Does Equitation Science Provide the Predicted Benefits to Horses and Horse Handlers? A Review


Since the inception of equitation science, there have been many predictions by researchers that this discipline will produce multiple benefits to horses and the humans interacting with them. These predictions fall into five broad categories: Welfare, Safety, Training, Economics, and Relationship. Each of the categories are closely related, and so each of these claims also depend on and support one another. After more than ten years of research in these areas, many of these predictions of the benefits of equitation science remain founded on anecdotal evidence and logic, though some evidence has been garnered from research. The subject of horse welfare has been the most studied in relation to equitation science, consistently showing expected welfare benefits of equitation science. Relationship and economics are the least studied with respect to elucidating the benefits of employing equitation science principles, while the benefits of the most immediately applicable categories of safety and training have received little support from the literature. A review of the equitation science literature, and an evaluation of the claims made, has been undertaken to determine whether the predicted benefits have materialized in practice as well as to identify opportunities for further research that will demonstrate more conclusively the benefits claimed by equitation science practitioners.

Keywords: equitation science, welfare, safety, training, economics, relationship


Measuring interactions between horses and their handlers and riders has been recently popularized by the maturing discipline of equitation science (McGreevy, 2007). Equitation science is based on learning theory and seeks to measure interactions between horses and humans with the goal of determining what practices are useful for improving these interactions (McGreevy and McLean, 2010). It is not, therefore, a horse training method. These human-horse interactions are the subject of a review by Hausberger et al (2008) who suggest that relationships are built upon previous interactions, with an overall positive interaction building a positive step for the relationship, and an overall negative interaction doing the opposite. They posit that understanding learning rules would help to facilitate positive interactions. Having a relationship with a horse tends to produce an interest in the horse’s welfare, which Baragli et al (2015) evaluate in terms of equine learning. The ability of horses to learn affects their usefulness in the horse industry’s economy (Murphy and Arkins, 2007; Olczak et al, 2016) and the safety of the horse and handler during all interactions (Waran et al, 2002).

Since the inception of equitation science, many predictions have been made by researchers that this discipline will produce benefits to horses and the humans interacting with them. These predictions fall into five broad categories: Welfare, Safety, Training, Economics, and Relationship. Much of the support for these claims comes from the researchers’ logical deductions from their study findings and their own experience. After more than ten years of such studies and predictions, it is reasonable to begin investigating whether or not equitation science is fulfilling the roles expected of it. If equitation science indeed improves welfare, the appalling behavioural wastage rate of horses could be reduced. If equitation science improves safety, the unacceptable injury rate to riders could be diminished. If equitation science improves training, horses could be more easily and effectively trained, leading to improved usefulness and better economics. Finally, if equitation science improves human-horse relationships, all other categories could be positively affected. This review examines the equitation science literature regarding the claims made about the benefits of using the principles set forth. The purpose of this review is to determine whether these benefits are being realized in practice, as well as to identify opportunities for further research to elucidate whether or not equitation science has conferred a net benefit on the horse industry.


The most oft-cited claim in the literature discussing equitation science is improved equine welfare. According to Thompson and Haigh (2018), the very aim of equitation science is to improve welfare. Animal welfare is related to the quality of an individual’s life (Waran, 2002), and involves the animal’s caretaker making ethical, moral, and aesthetic decisions (Thompson and Haigh, 2018). It is proposed that when horse handlers understand and use the 10 first principles of equitation science (ISES, 2017), the limitations of the horse will be understood and its behaviour will be interpreted and responded to appropriately by the handler (Ladewig, 2007), resulting in improved welfare (Starling et al, 2016). Equitation science is also said to remove emotiveness from welfare debates (Goodwin et al, 2008), to create standardized methods of research (Pierard et al, 2015), and reduce wastage of horses to abattoirs for behavioural reasons (McGreevy and McLean, 2007; Warren-Smith and McGreevy, 2008; Doherty et al, 2017). Wastage is currently estimated at 6% for the racehorse population, and better foundation training is cited as a way to reduce this rate (Hayek et al, 2005). The concept of ethical equitation, proposed by Jones and McGreevy (2010), is based on an understanding of learning theory which underpins equitation science. All of these claims concerning the relationship between equitation science and welfare follow logically, and the relationship between normal equid behaviour and good welfare has been established (Waran et al, 2007).

The modified five domains model has been proposed as an accurate measure of equid welfare during common interventions (McGreevy et al, 2018). These five domains––nutrition, environment, health, behaviour, and mental state––are discussed below to demonstrate how equitation science is applied in each welfare domain. A weakness of this assessment tool is that it focusses on the absence of negative events, conditions, and affective states, but while these are often taken as an indication of positive affective states and excellent welfare (Hotzel et al, 2019) this may not necessarily be the case. A further refinement of the modified five domains model to include the presence of positive affective states (McGreevy et al 2018), positive events, and conditions may provide a more complete picture of a horse’s well-being during normal care and management.

Nutrition: Food or water deprivation is still practiced by some horse trainers as a means of punishing a horse or producing desired behaviour (McLean and McGreevy, 2010). Dehydration or hunger can reduce flight responses, causing a horse to become more compliant. However, nutritional deprivation is contraindicated by equitation science principles because there is unlikely to be any lasting training effect. These practices can also cause painful damage to internal organs, as cumulative food deprivation for 72 hours causes gastric ulceration (Murray and Grady, 2002) and the immune system is also negatively affected (Naylor and Kenyon, 1981).

Environment: Assessing the welfare impact of training, housing, and health interventions on the horse is said to be aided by a knowledge of equitation science, and should be the first step in deciding whether or not to apply a specific intervention to a horse (McGreevy et al, 2018). An appropriate environment is one the horse can adapt to, and which influences learning and behaviour positively (Heitor and Vicente, 2007; Sankey et al, 2010). When a horse is unable to adapt to the environment it is in, depressive behaviour can arise from its inability to perform natural behaviour (Baragli et al, 2015).

Health: Animal welfare includes behaviour medicine, in which veterinarians are expected to participate. Training and restraint methods that do not align with learning principles laid out in equitation science negatively affect welfare (Doherty et al, 2017). Good health and welfare are not affected only by disease (Derksen and Clayton, 2007) but other factors including environment and mental state, so it is predicted that veterinarians receiving training in equitation science will improve the welfare and health of their patients (Pierard et al, 2015).

Behaviour: Making learning theory (McCall, 2007), on which equitation science is based, and a knowledge of equine learning processes accessible to horse handlers is claimed to improve welfare (Heitor and Vicente, 2007; Warren-Smith and McGreevy, 2008) by helping people avoid training techniques that do not align with learning (McLean and McGreevy, 2010). These misaligned techniques can cause undesirable behaviour (Fenner et al, 2019a) including conflict and avoidance, which use of the principles of equitation science is said to mitigate (Warren-Smith and McGreevy, 2008; McLean and Christensen, 2017). Interventions that affect learning processes also affect safety and welfare (Fenner et al, 2019b). This is why Hartmann and co-workers (2019) studied the transference of leadership in horse herds to human-horse interactions. They conclude that welfare would be safeguarded through a better understanding of equine social behaviour instead of relying on the currently popular models of leadership and dominance.

The implications of improper training on horse welfare are shown by McLean (2005a) in correlations between poor trained responses and unwelcome behaviours. In-hand responses that were not immediate from a light cue often corresponded with similarly latent responses under saddle. He found that some latent responses were highly predictive of certain unwanted behaviours, for example, all 50 horses in the study with a sometimes incorrect deceleration response under saddle would also bolt. These correlations are also the subject of a review by Baragli et al (2015), who call for increased levels of competence in horse training based on learning theory.

Mental State: The importance of this final category is highlighted by the work of Mendl and Paul (2008) who conclude that understanding animals’ mental experiences is an asset to assessing welfare. According to these scientists, there are grounds to believe that horses may have an emotional memory whereby certain stimuli linked to a past event can trigger an emotional response. Because horse training relies on negative (removal) reinforcement and therefore aversive stimuli (McLean and Christensen, 2017) it is posited that horses trained to respond to light versions of these cues will experience improved welfare as they have perceived control over the amount of pressure used (Fenner et al, 2019b). It is known that horses value safety (McGreevy et al, 2014) and comfort, motivating them to find a way to remove fear or pain-inducing stimuli. When this motivation is constantly thwarted through poor timing of reward or misuse of cues to achieve a response other than the one trained, the horse may become overreactive or apathetic and welfare is affected (McLean, 2005b). Thus, when the principles of equitation science are applied correctly by the handler, improved mental state during training and riding is expected. Only one study has preliminary results demonstrating the correlation between science-based housing, handling, and care, and improved welfare. King et al (2019) cited zero foal injuries during early training while using the principles of equitation science, which is a sign of good welfare, as is the absence of fear and conflict behaviour through an ethologically aligned training program (ISES, 2017). However, welfare is multi-faceted and is difficult to measure accurately (McGreevy et al, 2018), and more data is needed to be able to confirm the welfare implications of certain training and management practices (McLean and McGreevy, 2010).


The prediction of improved safety of horse and human is also commonly found in the equitation science literature (Hawson et al, 2010). This is an important claim, as the dangerous nature of equestrian sport is well documented. A review of equestrian injury rate studies showed that the number of serious injuries per contact hours range from 1 per 350 hours to 1 per 1000 hours (Sorli, 2000). In their own study of hospital admissions and mortality associated with equestrian activities, Sorli (2000) measured a rate of only 0.49 serious injuries per 1000 contact hours, potentially due to the limited geographic area studied. While one retrospective study reported that the injury rate lessened over the 20 year period between 1990–2010 and attributed this to improved safety standards (Hasler et al, 2011), others found no reduction within certain riding populations, particularly rural or ‘cowboy’ cultures (Newton and Nielsen, 2005).

The unpredictability of horses is cited by many authors as a major contributing factor in equestrian injury, with horse behaviour accounting for 25% (Hausberger et al, 2008) to 70% (Finch and Watt, 1996) of accidents. Despite this, most authors propose helmet use as a solution (Winkler et al, 2016) which, while effective in reducing the severity of trauma (Lim et al, 2003), does nothing to modify potentially dangerous horse behaviour. Alternatively, Thompson et al (2015) and O’Connor et al (2018) suggest that training the rider to understand horse behaviour will reduce the injury rate. None of these studies, however, were designed to determine if the suggested preventative measures were effective, as they focused on determining risk factors. In regards to unpredictable behaviour, Ladewig (2019) notes the importance of body language in equine communication and explains how accurate interpretation of body language through an understanding of equine ethology can be used to predict a horse’s intentions with enough time for the handler or rider react appropriately, preventing accident or injury. Zuckerman et al (2015) concur, adding that horses older than 15 years are safer. Nevertheless, based on the large percentage of behaviour related injuries, Hasler et al (2011) propose training riders in safe practices and proper handling, and providing education in horse behaviour as the way forward to reduce handler injury. This proposal is supported by the work of Mayberry et al (2007), who found that risk of injury decreased with level of experience and education about horses, and whose findings were corroborated by Gronqvist et al (2017). Zuckerman and coworkers (2015) also found that most injuries occurred in recreational settings, suggesting that the experience afforded by being a professional equestrian acts as a safeguard. Guyton et al (2013) cite a healthy relationship with the horse as being a preventative strategy, but note: “There is a prominent subjective element to the development of the horse and rider relationship.” The authors do not seem content with this element of subjectivity, and equitation scientists claim this subjective statement is not entirely true (Hausberger et al, 2008; Sankey et al, 2010; Dalla Costa, 2015).

Thompson et al (2015) argue that horses can be made more predictable, and point out that risk is typically viewed as being imposed by the horse on its rider, and that safety is only for humans. This is poignantly clear when Safe Work Australia (2014) listed unpredictable behaviour and poor training as the problem of the horse. Instead, Thompson et al (2015) note it is often the horse’s innate drive for safety that sparks unpredictable behaviour. Mendl and Paul (2008) agree that understanding what is important to horses would improve handler safety, and McGreevy and Murphy (2009) add that this will improve safety for the horse as well. O’Connor et al (2018) see the value of this approach in their study of horse riding injuries in Victoria, Australia, proposing that a refocus on injury prevention should include improvement in the predictability of horses, a goal that proper training using the principles of equitation science could accomplish (McGreevy, 2007).

Trigg et al (2015) posit that when owners assume they have a strong bond with their pet they may be more likely to become complacent regarding safety measures. With a horse owner this behaviour may manifest as a lack of helmet use when there is an assumption of mutual trust between owner and horse; in trainers the perceived bond could influence the method used, particularly if the trainer assumes the horse knows what is required of it. Gielen and Sleet (2003) agree that human behaviours that give rise to injury are preventable using behaviour science. Complacency that ultimately led to human injury has been documented. Newton and Nielsen (2005) studied rider injuries and found that 38% were preventable because they were caused by rider carelessness or inappropriate horse/rider combination. In 69% of the cases studied by Hasler et al (2011), unpredictable horse behaviour such as taking fright, bucking, refusing a jump, or having a nervous disposition were cited by injured participants as the cause of injury.

McGreevy and McLean (2007) state that adherence to the 10 principles of equitation science (ISES 2017) would improve safety, since all training is based on associative and non-associative learning and, therefore, a knowledge of ethology and learning theory as presented in the principles would improve consistency and predictability in the horse, allowing the trainer to predict its responses (Creighton, 2007). Starling et al (2016) agree, saying that by using equitation science to train horses in alignment with their cognitive and physical abilities human safety will be improved. They discuss how certain training methods that do not align in this way exacerbate unpredictable behaviour. The 10 principles are proposed as the safety solution, particularly those related to minimizing arousal levels and conflict, which is also corroborated by the work of Fenner et al (2019a) in regard to safety during round pen training.

With respect to training, Warren-Smith and McGreevy (2008) add that only 11.9% of riding instructors who responded to their survey were able to correctly explain the use of negative reinforcement in horse training, which is the primary training modality of horses (McCall, 1990). They and DeAraugo et al (2016) argue it is likely that injury rates would decrease with increased understanding of these learning processes amongst those who educate riders. Preshaw et al (2017) see the value of this education for those working in horse rescues, where horses are likely to be in distress and potentially more dangerous, and Baragli et al (2015) foresee the same benefit for owners, breeders, and veterinarians.

While Hawson et al (2010) also look for improved predictability from the use of equitation science, to date there is only one study that comes close to providing evidence of this prediction (King et al, 2019). The study shows a zero injury rate to the horses involved in equitation science-based training, but makes no mention of the injury rate for handlers. With respect to handler injuries, the preventative effect of equitation science is also assumed by Thompson and Haigh (2018), who note that confusion about equitation science in the horse community will hinder its uptake, inhibiting improvement in safety and welfare. McLean and Christensen (2017) point out that interest in ethical training practices that promote safety may be expanding, and now is a good time to establish principles that lessen the unpredictable behaviours of conflict and avoidance.


The ‘evidence-based enlightenment’ (McLean and McGreevy, 2010) of using equitation science is predicted to unify horse training (Goodwin et al, 2009), and create more effective training with better and more predictable outcomes. This arises through a clear understanding of equine learning processes, allowing the trainer to avoid techniques with questionable or detrimental effect while leveraging learning theory to best advantage (McLean and McGreevy, 2010). The principles should, in theory, explain the mechanics behind all training methods, explaining why some training tactics work and why others do not (Goodwin, 2007; Goodwin et al, 2009). Use of equitation science principles is predicted to speed up the training process (King et al, 2019) through application of clear and consistent methods. Preshaw et al (2017) cite a reduction in flight and defence behaviours from an understanding of these principles, which could influence the speed of learning.

Goodwin et al (2009) logically make the point that effective and humane training relies on knowledge, as knowledge of how to communicate consistently leads to fewer misunderstandings, and fewer misunderstandings results in less confusion for the horse (McGreevy, 2007). Effective training improves horse behaviour, creating a safer, more useful animal (Derksen and Clayton, 2007). Humane training involves the avoidance of fear (Preshaw et al, 2017; McGreevy et al, 2014) and conflict (Goodwin et al, 2009). Some training interactions, however, are necessarily aversive, for example, initial training can be stressful for a young horse (McGreevy et al, 2014). Hausberger et al (2008) propose that by using the principles of learning theory to create a better relationship through sensitive communication (Goodwin et al, 2009) these aversive interactions can be balanced with positive ones for an overall positive relationship.

It has also been suggested that the ability to predict horse behaviour may be a trait of those knowledgeable in equitation science (Doherty et al, 2017). Ladewig (2019) claims that these predictions may be made by observing horse body language, or perhaps ideomotoric responses, which he posits may be present in all mammals. Predictions of this sort would allow the trainer to preempt dangerous behaviour and modify techniques (Creighton, 2007) to ensure the horse remains within trainable arousal levels––levels which have yet to be defined (Olczak et al, 2016). Gronqvist et al (2017) note a difference in the ability of veterinary students to predict horse behaviour is correlated to their level of horse-related experience, where those with less experience struggle to foresee dangerous situations and respond accordingly. While they suggest that equitation science is not the only tool that offers these benefits, it may speed up acquisition of this skill.

Starling et al (2013) propose that use of equitation science principles helps avoid negative affective states during training. When a horse’s expectations of the outcome of certain behaviours or events are not met, the difference between expected outcome and actual outcome produces frustration (Olczak et al, 2016). Negative moods can create aggression and long term negative affective states (Dalla Costa et al, 2015), and punishment can contribute to this state as well (Mills, 1998). In these states, the horse is monitoring a perceived threat and is ready to react to protect itself. In contrast, when in a positive affective state, induced in this study with Equine Appeasing Pheromone, horses showed increased attention and better recall of learned behaviours with fewer mistakes (Mengoli et al, 2014). Starling et al (2013) point out that awareness of affective and arousal states will increase effectiveness of training and assist in prediction of behaviour. In addition to increasing effectiveness of training (Ladewig, 2019), predicting behaviour is expected to reduce injury (Creighton, 2007; Hausberger et al, 2008; Ladewig, 2019). Finch and Watt (1996) also claim that predicting behaviour would improve safety, although their evidence is largely anecdotal.

The consequences of not understanding or utilizing the principles of equitation science during training, especially by equestrian coaches, is shown by Warren-Smith and McGreevy (2008). Consequences include misuse of negative reinforcement (McCall et al, 2003), which has been highly correlated with conflict behaviours by McLean (2005a), and increased behavioural wastage, where horses are sent to slaughter because of unsuitable behaviour. Starling et al (2016) add to this the import of understanding the limits of cognitive ability. Without this understanding behaviour is often misinterpreted, an inappropriate training technique is applied, the horse reacts to this inappropriate solution, and the cycle continues with lowered welfare, ineffective training, and increased safety risk. While the correlations between poorly trained basic responses and conflict or fear related behaviours are well documented (McLean, 2005a), and while it follows logically that retraining these basic responses would mitigate the conflict and fear behaviours, this has yet to be conclusively demonstrated in a controlled study.


In all human activity economics can be a motivating factor, and so the financial aspect of some equine industries has also been considered in equitation science research. Baragli et al (2015) claim that increased competence in horse training could reduce behavioural wastage, estimated at 10% in the United States, thereby reducing economic loss in the industry. Factors they identified as causing behaviour that could result in wastage were abnormal management, which creates abnormal behaviour, and incorrect use of negative reinforcement, which results in an unwanted response being trained. These are in accord with psychological rules (i.e. learning theory), which they assert must be applied in training to achieve economic benefit by creating safer, more useful animals.

Doherty et al (2017) say that if veterinarians were to better understand ethology and learning theory, horse performance could be optimized in addition to reducing wastage. Because the symptoms of pain are similar to those of confusion (Derksen and Clayton, 2007), appropriate conditioning, management, and training could be vital in determining what treatment options are most effective and least expensive. The usefulness of horses is determined in part by their behaviour and their ease of learning (Murphy and Arkins, 2007), so making learning theory accessible to horse handlers and owners is considered essential (McCall, 2007). Finally, King et al (2019) assert that foals trained by them using the principles of equitation science had a higher likelihood of being placed on the racetrack and later successfully transitioning to a different career after the track. Thus, applying the principles of equitation science should extend the useful lifespan of the horse and reduce the economic risk undertaken when raising a horse (Derksen and Clayton, 2007).


Relationships are formed through mutual perceptions of one another based on multiple encounters (Sankey et al, 2010) which influence mutual behaviour (Dalla Costa et al, 2015). Attachment can form in a relationship where there is proximity seeking, safety, a base for exploration, and the potential for separation anxiety (DeAraugo et al, 2014). Factors cited as influential in the formation of a strong positive human-horse relationship are: applying learning theory (Warren-Smith and McGreevy, 2008); matching horse and rider carefully (Weeks and Beck, 1996); previous experience; temperament (Hausberger et al, 2008); and training (Dalla Costa et al, 2015). All of these factors are spoken to by equitation science, and human enjoyment of a relationship with horses is also believed to be improved by use of equitation science (Derksen and Clayton, 2007). The attitude held by the caretaker will also affect a horse’s relationship with humans, with a positive attitude toward the horse positively affecting the horse (Dalla Costa et al, 2015), while appropriate conditioning, training, and management is proposed to improve the equine attitude as well (Derksen and Clayton, 2007).

It is proposed by some people in the horse industry that a human can use equine body language to be perceived by the horse as another horse with a higher social ranking, developing a dominance based relationship and earning respect (Fenner et al, 2019a). McGreevy et al (2009) examined this aspect of the human-horse relationship and found that the possibility of aligning interactions with the equid social ethogram is very limited, and similarities cease as soon as the horse is ridden. They propose instead that use of equitation science will build a positive relationship and a compliant horse.

When naive horses have positive experiences with humans, their subsequent positive behaviour towards humans has been demonstrated to be robust and to be generalized to unfamiliar humans (Sankey et al, 2010). Dalla Costa et al (2015) also report a correlation between good relationships with humans and positive equine welfare. Their study showed significant differences in the latency of voluntary approach to a human between horses kept in stables that were assessed by local authority to have excellent welfare versus those with sub-optimal welfare. These differences extended also to expressions of aggression towards humans and avoidance behaviour. Unfortunately, the study did not discuss what criteria were used to rate the stables as either ‘excellent’ or ‘sub-optimal’, so the factors affecting human-horse relationships could not be discussed. The longitudinal Equine Assessment and Research Questionnaire (E-BARQ) survey currently underway will measure management and training, and how these affect horse behaviour and welfare (Fenner et al, 2019c). The results of this study are eagerly anticipated because they are expected to elucidate best practices in management and training for optimal relationship.

Murphy and Arkins (2007) conclude that having better definitions for and use of learning processes would reveal horses’ intelligence, further developing and enhancing our appreciation and relationship. The preliminary results from DeAraugo et al (2014) build on this knowledge of human-horse attachment showing differences between level and kind of attachment and the training methods employed. Interestingly, respondents subscribing to behavioural methods of training tended to see their relationship with their horse in reverse of those in all other methodologies, viewing it as the trainer’s responsibility to support the horse rather than the other way around. Studying how this view affects the horse’s attachment to the trainer would be an informative next step.


After over ten years of predicting what benefits will come to students of equitation science and their horses, and much anecdotal evidence, it seems there may finally be enough equitation science practitioners to gather preliminary data and put some of these claims to the test. King et al (2019) and Dalla Costa et al (2015) have begun practical field tests, the preliminary results of which, when combined with previous claims and research, seem to lend support for some of the claims made by equitation science researchers. However, much of this support remains anecdotal (Finch and Watt, 1996; King et al, 2019) or intellectual in that the claims have been experienced first-hand by many practitioners in addition to making logical sense.

There is difficulty in selecting adequate test subjects for studies due to differences in the skill level of those applying learning theory (Starling et al, 2016). Yet, Dalla Costa et al (2015) have successfully conducted on-farm tests with consistent results, indicating that it may be possible to determine if differences exist in welfare, safety, training, economics, and relationships  between stables actively practicing equitation science and those that are not. While this is a sensitive topic, Dalla Costa et al (2015) were able to tactfully navigate the delicate subject of their study, providing much needed insight.

The topic of welfare has arguably been the most studied and is most conclusive regarding the positive benefits arising from the use of equitation science, though it could certainly use more study. Relationship and economics are the least studied with respect to the differences between employing and not employing equitation science principles. However, the most immediately applicable research would be in the safety and training categories. Whether or not adherence to equitation science principles actually acts as a safeguard is urgently needed information and, if demonstrated, could begin to accelerate the positive change we all wish to see, with governing bodies leading the change. Furthermore, if training is more efficient, more humane, safer, faster, and produces more reliable and competitive horses, it is likely that acceptance and incorporation of these findings amongst trainers and laypeople would increase. Thus the base of equitation science support can be built from the top down and from the bottom up. The benefits, if any, to relationships and economics will also naturally follow from such studies, as will benefits in welfare as these are intrinsically linked to all of the other categories.

Goodwin (2007) encourages more research into the measurable aspects of horse training. With the further refinement of technology such as pressure sensors that are available to measure interactions between horses and riders/handlers, Holmes and Jeffcott (2010) are confident answers can be found to specific questions. Measuring whether equitation science makes the difference it has been promoted to have, particularly in the training, welfare, and relationship categories where there is much public interest, are specific, measurable questions that will help to encourage positive change throughout the industry.


The author would like to thank Dr. Mark Sandercock for his constructive comments and helpful suggestions during the preparation of this manuscript.

Authorship Statement

The idea for the paper, the research, and the writing, were conducted by Claire Sandercock.

Conflict of Interest Statement

No conflict of interest has been declared by the author.


Baragli, P., Padalino, B., Telatin, A., 2015. The role of associative and non-associative learning in the training of horses and implications for the welfare (a review). Ann. I. Super. Sanita 51, 40–51.

Creighton, E., 2007. Equine learning behaviour: limits of ability and ability limits of trainers. Behav. Process. 76, 43–44.

Dalla Costa, E., Dai, F., Murray, L., Guazzetti, S., Canali, E., Minero, M., 2015. A study on validity and reliability of on-farm tests to measure human-animal relationship in horses and donkeys. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 163, 110–121.

DeAraugo, J., McLean, A., McLaren, S., Caspar, G., McLean, M., McGreevy, P., 2014. Training methodologies differ with the attachment of humans to horses. J. Vet. Behav. 9, 235–241.

DeAraugo, J., McLaren, S., McManus, P., McGreevy, P., 2016. Improving the understanding of psychological factors contributing to horse-related accident and injury: context, loss of focus, cognitive errors and rigidity. Animals 6, 12.

Derksen, F., Clayton, H., 2007. Is equitation science important to veterinarians? Vet. J. 174, 452–453.

Doherty, O., McGreevy, P., Pearson, G., 2017. The importance of learning theory and equitation science to the veterinarian. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 190, 111–122.

Fenner, K., McLean, A., McGreevy, P., 2019a. Cutting to the chase: How round-pen, lunging and high-speed liberty work may compromise horse welfare. J. Vet. Behav. 29, 88–94.

Fenner, K., Freire, R., McLean, A., McGreevy, P., 2019b. Behavioral, demographic, and management influences on equine responses to negative reinforcement. J. Vet. Behav. 29, 11–17.

Fenner, K., Serpell, J., McLean, A., Wilson, B., McGreevy, P., 2019c. Building bridges between theory and practice: how the equine assessment and research questionnaire (E-BARQ) brings researchers and practitioners together. In: McDonnel, S., Padalino, B., Baragli, P. (Ed.), Proceedings of the 14th International Conference. ISES, p. 21.

Finch, C., Watt, G., 1996. Locking the Stable Door: Preventing Equestrian Injuries. Monash University Accident Research Centre, Clayton, Australia.

Gielen, A., Sleet, D., 2003. Application of behaviour change theories and methods to injury prevention. Epidemiol. Rev. 25, 65–76.

Goodwin, D., 2007. Equine learning behaviour: what we know, what we don’t and future research priorities. Behav. Process. 76, 17–19.

Goodwin, D., McGreevy, P., Heleski, C., Randle, H., Waran, N., 2008. Equitation science: the application of science in equitation. J. Appl. Anim. Welf. Sci. 11, 185–190.

Goodwin, D., McGreevy, P., Waran, N., McLean, A., 2009. How equitation science can elucidate and refine horsemanship techniques. Vet. J. 181, 5–11.

Gronqvist, G., Rogers, C., Gee, E., Martinez, A., Bolwell, C., 2017. Veterinary and equine science students’ interpretation of horse behaviour. Animals 7, 63.

Guyton, K., Houchen-Wise, E., Peck, E., Mayberry, J., 2013. Equestrian injury is costly, disabling, and frequently preventable: the imperative for improved safety awareness. Am. Surgeon 79, 76–83.

Hartmann, E., Christensen, J., McGreevy, P., 2019. Does leadership relate to social order in groups of horses and can it be transferred to human-horse interactions? J. Vet. Behav. 29, 153.

Hasler, R., Gyssler, L., Benneker, L., Martinolli, L., Schtzau, A., Zimmermann, H., Exadaktylos, A., 2011. Protective and risk factors in amateur equestrians and description of injury patterns: A retrospective data analysis and a case-control survey. J. Trauma Manag. Outcomes 5, 4.

Hausberger, M., Roche, H., Henry, S., Visser, E., 2008. A Review of the Human-Horse Relationship. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 109, 1–24.

Hawson, L., McLean, A., McGreevy, P., 2010. The roles of equine ethology and applied learning theory in horse-related human injuries. J. Vet. Behav. 5, 324-338.

Hayek, A., Jones, B., Evans, D., Thomson, P., McGreevy, P., 2005. Epidemiology of horses leaving the Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing industries. In: McGreevy, P., McLean, A., Warren-Smith, D., Waran, N. (Ed.), Proceedings of the 1st International Equitation Science Symposium, pp. 84-88.

Heitor, F., Vicente, L., 2007. Learning about horses: what is equine learning all about? Behav. Process. 76, 34-36.

Holmes, M., Jeffcott, L., 2010. Equitation science, rider effects, saddle and back problems in horses: can technology provide the answer? Vet. J. 184, 5-6.

Hötzel, M., Vieira, M., Leme, D., 2019. Exploring horse owners’ and caretakers’ perceptions of emotions and associated behaviors in horses. J. Vet. Behav. 29, 18-24.

ISES. (2017) Principles of Learning Theory in Equitation. Accessed on February 19, 2020 from https://equitationscience.com/about/ises-training-principles

Jones, B., McGreevy, P., 2010. Ethical equitation: applying a cost-benefit approach. J. Vet. Behav. 5, 196-202.

King, S., Wills, L., Randle, H., 2019. Early training of foals using the ISES training principles. J. Vet. Behav. 29, 140-146.

Ladewig, J., 2007. Clever Hans is still whinnying with us. Behavioural Processes 76, 20-21.

Ladewig, J., 2019. Body language: its importance for communication with horses. J. Vet. Behav. 29, 108-110.

Lim, J., Puttaswamy, V., Gizzi, M., Christie, L., Croker, W., Crowe, P., 2003. Pattern of equestrian injuries presenting to a Sydney teaching hospital. ANZ J. Surg. 73, 567-71.

Mayberry, J., Pearson, T., Wiger, K., Diggs, B., Mullins, R., 2007. Equestrian injury prevention efforts need more attention to novice riders. J. Traum., 62, 735-739.

McCall, C., 1990. A review of learning behaviour in horses and its application in horse training. J. Anim. Sci. 68, 75-81.

McCall, C., Salters, M., Johnson, K., Silverman, S., McElhenney, W., Lishak, R., 2003. Equine utilization of a previously learned visual stimulus to solve a novel task. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 82, 163–172.

McCall, C., 2007. Making equine learning research applicable to training procedures. Behav. Process. 76, 27-28.

McGreevy, P., 2007. The advent of equitation science. Vet. J. 174, 492-500.

McGreevy, P., McLean, A., 2007. Roles of learning theory and ethology in equitation. J. Vet. Behav. 2, 108-118.

McGreevy, P., Murphy, J., 2009. Equitation science offers new horizons in the understanding of equine performance and horse-human relationships. Vet. J. 181, 1-4.

McGreevy, P., Oddie, C., Burton, F., McLean, A., 2009. The horse–human dyad: can we align horse training and handling activities with the equid social ethogram? Vet. J. 181, 12-18.

McGreevy, P., McLean, A., 2010. Preface. In: McGreevy, P., McLean, A., 2010. Equitation Science, Wiley-Blackwell, United Kingdom, pp. vii–viii.

McGreevy, P., Henshall, C., Starling, M., McLean, A., Boakes, R., 2014. The importance of safety signals in animal handling and training. J. Vet. Behav. 9, 382–387.

McGreevy, P., Berger, J., de Brauwere, N., Doherty, O., Harrison, A., Fiedler, J., Jones, C., McDonnell, S., McLean, A., Nakonechny, L., Nicol, C., Preshaw, L., Thomson, P., Tzioumis, V., Webster, J., Wolfensohn, S., Yeates, J., Jones, B., 2018. Using the five domains model to assess the adverse impacts of husbandry, veterinary, and equitation interventions on horse welfare. Animals 8, 41.

McLean, A., 2005a. Behaviour problems in the domestic horse – associations with dysfunctions in negative reinforcement. Proceedings of the First International Congress of Equine Ethology. Nantes, France.

McLean, A., 2005b. The positive aspects of correct negative reinforcement. Anthrozoos 18, 245-254.

McLean, A., Christensen, J., 2017. The application of learning theory in horse training. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 190, 18-27.

McLean, A., McGreevy, P., 2010. Horse-training techniques that may defy the principles of learning theory and compromise welfare. J. Vet. Behav. 5, 187-195.

Mendl, M., Paul, E., 2008. Do animals live in the present? Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 113, 357–382.

Mengoli, M., Pageat, P., Lafont-Lecuelle, C., Monneret, P., Giacalone, A., Sighieri, C., Cozzi, A., 2014. Influence of emotional balance during a learning and recall test in horses (Equus caballus). Behav. Process. 106, 141–50.

Mills, D., 1998. Applying learning theory to the management of the horse: the difference between getting it right and getting it wrong. Equine Clin. Behav. 27, 44–48.

Murphy, J., Arkins, S., 2007. Equine learning behaviour. Behav. Process. 76, 1–13.

Murray, M., Grady, T., 2002. The effect of a pectin-lecithin complex on prevention of gastric mucosal lesions induced by feed deprivation in ponies. Equine Vet. J. 34, 195–198.

Naylor, J., Kenyon, S., 1981. Effect of total calorific deprivation on host defence in the horse. Res. Vet. Sci. 31, 369-372.

Newton, A., Nielsen, A., 2005. A review of horse-related injuries in a rural Colorado hospital: implications for outreach education. J. Emerg. Nurs. 31, 442–446.

O’Connor, S., Hitchens, P., Fortington, L., 2018. Hospital-treated injuries from horse riding in Victoria, Australia: time to refocus on injury prevention? BMJ Open Sport Exerc. Med. 4, e000321.

Olczak, K., Nowicki, J., Klocek, C., 2016. Motivation, stress, and learning–critical characteristics that influence the horses’ value and training method–a review. Ann. Anim. Sci. 16, 641–652

Pierard, M., Hall, C., König von Borstel, U., Averis, A., Hawson, L., McLean, A., Nevison, C., Visser, K., McGreevy, P., 2015. Evolving protocols for research in equitation science. J. Vet. Behav. 10, 255–266.

Preshaw, L., Kirton, R., Randle, H., 2017. Application of learning theory in horse rescues in England and Wales. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 190, 82–89.

Safe Work Australia, 2014. Guide to Managing Risks when New and Inexperienced Persons Interact with Horses. ISBN 978-1-74361-481-5.

Sankey, C., Richard-Yris, M.-A., Leroy, H., Henry, S., Hausberger, M., 2010. Positive interactions lead to lasting positive memories in horses, Equus caballus. Anim. Behav. 79, 869–875.

Sorli, J., 2000. Equestrian injuries: a five year review of hospital admissions in British Columbia, Canada. Injury Prev. 6, 59-61.

Starling, M., Branson, N., Cody, D., McGreevy, P., 2013. Conceptualising the impact of arousal and affective state on training outcomes of operant conditioning. Animals 3, 300–317.

Starling, M., McLean, A., McGreevy, P., 2016. The contribution of equitation science to minimising horse-related risks to humans. Animals 6, 15.

Thompson, K., McGreevy, P., McManus, P., 2015. A critical review of horse-related risk: a research agenda for safer mounts, riders and equestrian cultures. Animals 5, 561–575.

Thompson, K., Haigh, L., 2018. Perceptions of equitation science revealed in an online forum: improving equine health and welfare by communicating science to equestrians and equestrians to scientists. J. Vet. Behav. 25, 1–8.

Trigg, J., Thompson, K., Smith, B., Bennett, P., 2015. Engaging pet owners in disaster risk and preparedness communications: simplifying complex human–animal relations with archetypes. Environ. Hazards 14, 236–251.

Waran, N., 2002. Preface. In: Waran, N. (Ed.), 2007. The Welfare of Horses, Springer, Auckland, New Zealand, pp. ix–x.

Waran, N., McGreevy, P., Casey, R., 2007. Training Methods and Horse Welfare. In: Waran, N. (Ed.), 2007. The Welfare of Horses, Springer, Auckland, New Zealand, pp. 151–180.

Warren-Smith, A., McGreevy, P., 2008. Equestrian coaches’ understanding and application of learning theory in horse training. Anthrozoos 21, 153–162.

Weeks, J., Beck, A., 1996. Equine agitation behaviors. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Equine Pract. 18, 23–24.

Winkler, E., Yue, J., Burke, J., Chan, A., Dhall, S., Berger, M., Manley, G., Tarapore, P., 2016. Adult sports-related traumatic brain injury in United States trauma centers. Neurosurg. Focus 40, E4.

Zuckerman, S., Morgan, C., Burks, S., Forbes, J., Chambless, L., Solomon, G., Sills, A., 2015. Functional and structural traumatic brain injury in equestrian sports: a review of the literature. World Neurosurg. 83, 1098–1113.

Implications of Cribbing—Not All Bad

Cribbing is a sterotypical behaviour, meaning it is repetitive, persistent, and abnormal. There are also other oral stereotypies, including windsucking and wood chewing.

A long time ago, cribbing used to be called a ‘vice’ and was regarded as a plague in the barn that could be ‘caught’ by other horses. We know now that this is not true.

Then it was hypothesized that poor or unnatural living conditions were the cause of cribbing and other oral stereotypies. This is not far from the mark.

Recent research however is showing that horses displaying oral stereotypical behaviour actually have a different neural phenotype when compared to ‘normal’ horses that affects how dopamine interacts with the basal ganglia of the brain. This situation is brought about by stressors during development.

Therefore, the genetics of the horse and the stressors the horse experiences combine to create the stereotypical behaviour.

The Negative Implications of Cribbing

Horses that crib destroy fencing and anything else they can get their teeth on. Stable managers have tried many creative solutions to prevent their barns from being eaten down. Leaving a designated spot that the horse is ‘allowed’ to crib may be beneficial, as it is the horse’s way of coping with the altered dopamine transmission in the brain.

Teeth suffer more wear and tear in the cribbing horse, but with adequate and potentially more frequent veterinary dental care, this drawback can be managed.

To anyone who doesn’t know the causes in the particular horse, the sight and sound of a cribbing horse can be distressing. Being able to explain the phenomenon with sensitivity to a layperson is a beneficial skill.

Managing Cribbing

Because cribbing arises from stressors, the moment someone notices a horse cribbing that doesn’t usually crib, taking a serious look at its environment and making some changes could eliminate the behaviour and improve the horse’s welfare.

Common stressors in horses include social isolation, insufficient time spent foraging, lack of necessary nutrients, and inconsistent handling.

Ensuring that stressors are reduced as much as possible may reduce the horse’s drive to find other ways to cope.

The Positive Implications of Cribbing

If your horse cribs habitually, there is no need to despair. There are also positive aspects of the neural phenotype responsible for the behaviour!

Horses that crib form stronger habits more quickly. They will move from Response-Outcome learning to Stimulus-Response learning more quickly than the typical ‘normal’ horse. This has implications for the effectiveness of classical conditioning, because regardless of the outcome of the behaviour, the stimulus or cue will continue to produce it. Therefore, even if a new rider continually loses balance and pulls on the horse’s mouth during a jumping effort, effectively punishing it, if the habit of jumping on cue is established the horse will continue to do so, regardless of the unintended punishment.

Cribbing horses are also less sensitive to delays between the response and the outcome. This means a reward for correct behaviour doesn’t have to come right away for them to still make the connection and learn or retain the behaviour. Therefore, even if a new rider delays the release of the reins until after the horse has already stopped, the horse will continue stopping on cue in spite of the delayed reward.


Is it any surprise, given all of these characteristics of the crib-biting horse that every lesson barn has one or two (or more) horses that crib? Being persistent in their habits means these horses aren’t untrained by all of the new riders they teach every day. They are less frustrated by inconsistent timing of rewards for proper behaviour, and aren’t put off by inadvertent punishment that comes from inexperience.

Horses that perform stereotypical behaviours have excellent perseverance. These strong habits can create excellent, reliable horses.


Parker, MO (2008) “Behavioural Correlates of the Equine Stereotypy Phenotype”, University of Southampton, School of Psychology, PhD Thesis

Expanding the Window of Tolerance

The aim of good training is to expand the horse’s ‘window of tolerance‘ so the normal, every day stressors don’t bother him so much and there is room for his nervous system to take in and process unexpected or new experiences.

Horses are always moving between arousal states, from more aroused to less, and this often occurs within the window of tolerance so riders don’t often notice the process. But when these stimuli stack too high, they fill up the window and push the horse over the edge.

The rider’s reaction to that will either help to expand the window of tolerance, or push the horse farther above the threshold.

Growing the window can be done using three concepts: pendulation, titration, and self-regulation.


A pendulation is a swing or a cycle. It is returning to the point you started from. This tool to grow the window of tolerance requires patience. It takes time for the horse to return to a parasympathetic nervous state after being pushed up to or above the threshold of his window of tolerance and into a sympathetic state.

Adrenaline is the result of being pushed too far, and the half-life of adrenaline in the body is about 2.5 minutes. Allowing for a full pendulation of the horse’s nervous system then will take at least that long. Some wise old cowboys would call this ‘giving the horse some time to think’.

Trying to control the horse in a situation of high arousal can actually stack more stimuli up and push him over threshold. But this isn’t to say that you should leave your horse alone in a frightening situation. Backing off to where everyone was last comfortable, remaining calm, being reassuring, and waiting for signs of returning to a lower level of arousal is helpful. Being aware of stimulus stacking and trying to avoid stacking too high in the first place is even better. This takes time and practice.


Titration is a concept in where the balance is continuously adjusted by very tiny increments. In horse training, this is seen in progressing in a logical fashion through training, building in small steps through the training scale.

It can also be used when you start to see signs of stress responses in the horse. Consider what might be causing the response. Then use a tiny amount of that cause, not enough to make a response. Wait for pendulation and add a tiny bit more. In this way, the horse’s window of tolerance grows and expands through thoughtful training.


This part is for the rider or trainer and not so much for the horse. Horses are actually quite good at self-regulation within their window of tolerance, which is why stress responses often seem out of the blue to riders.

Taking a step back from training when you feel yourself becoming annoyed can help to give clarity to the situation before you and your horse get pushed about threshold. It is better to take the time to grow the window than to risk narrowing it by doing the same old things in the same old way.


Draaisma, Rachaël (2018) Communication Ladder: Recovery after Tension and Shock. In: Language Signs and Calming Signals of Horses, Taylor & Francis Group.

Thompson, Kirrilly. (2020) Growing your Horse’s Window of Tolerance. Horses and People, May-June.

The Window of Tolerance

When your horse jumps out of his skin because of the door in the arena that he sees every day, what is going on? Is he just being silly? Does he know better? If so, you’re justified in the frustration this situation produces. But frustration never trained a horse. Is there a more helpful way to look at this behaviour?

Behaviourally speaking there is a better explanation. Every horse has a ‘window of tolerance’. This window isn’t static, it can be expanded through training and it can also be narrowed by stress. Inside this window the horse can operate well. Each stimulus the horse is exposed to can fill up the window a bit, and as he responds to it or relaxes his level of arousal within the window goes up or down.

When this window is already almost full due to various small (or large) stressors like being alone, pain, a windy day, a sudden noise, or a new training concept, the arena door can become the tiny thing that pushes him out of his window of tolerance. This is called stimulus stacking.

Stimulus stacking means that by the time the arena door became the last straw, the horse had already done a lot of self-regulating of the previous stressors that were narrowing his window. It can seem like out-of-window behaviour comes out of the blue, but there are actually many signs of increasing stress that you may notice beforehand.

Signs that the horse is trying to self-regulate very mild stress include yawning, blinking, and shaking the head or body. More stress produces displacement behaviours like licking objects, pawing, rubbing the head and neck, and sniffing the ground but not eating. Finally stress signals appear, such as characteristics of the equine pain face, startling, and frequent pooping. Pushing through all of these signs takes you to the threshold of the window of tolerance and beyond.

What is beyond the window of tolerance? Fight, flight, or freeze. This is where the horse’s parasympathetic nervous system is engaged. He is now beyond learning from the situation or responding to your cues.

This is why staying within the window of tolerance gets the most training work done. It is also desirable to grow the window of tolerance so the horse becomes more resilient to daily stressors and able to easily handle larger ones. Reading the horse’s body language and responding accordingly will help the horse to regulate his responses to the world around him, resulting in more relaxing and safer interactions between him and you!

In training my clients’ horses, this is what I aim to do—remain within the window of tolerance and grow it to produce a calm and relaxed horse that can cope well with the many stressors that come with a relationship with people.


Draaisma, Rachaël (2018) Communication Ladder: Fight or Flight. In: Language Signs and Calming Signals of Horses, Taylor & Francis Group.

Thompson, Kirrily. (2020) The Window of Tolerance. Horses and People, March-April.

Training Foals

Handling Foals

When a foal is born, it is so tempting to get right in there. We want to help the mother, make sure the baby is well, and even start training it right away with the imprinting method popularized by Miller and Close (1991). Miller hypothesized that foals would be accepting of handling and new situations later in life if they were flooded at birth with things they will experience later. Flooding is a desensitizing method that works by overwhelming the animal’s defences until it gives up. Newer research is suggesting that, unless the foal needs immediate intervention to survive, letting mother and baby be alone together is actually the best course of action (Henry et al, 2009). The consequences of just one hour of neonatal handling are astounding.

Short Term Effects of Immediate Handling

In the study, nine foals were left alone with their dams immediately after birth and nine foals received about an hour of imprint training within ten minutes after foaling following the method described by RM Miller. After this one hour treatment, both groups were treated the same, being turned out in social groups and observed periodically.

Foals that received imprint training for an hour in their mother’s presence took longer to stand for the first time and nurse for the first time than foals left undisturbed with their mothers. The imprinted foals also showed trembling, fast breathing, and abnormal sucking. This included directing sucking behaviour at the air or the handler rather than the dam.

Mid Term Effects of Immediate Handling

At six months of age, differences were still observable between experimentally handled foals and those left alone after birth. The imprinted foals were more dependent on their mothers, staying closer on average, exploring less readily, interacting more with their mothers than with others in their social group, and even playing less. They were also less likely to approach an unfamiliar human. These results show that early handling affected the imprinted foals both socially and emotionally.

During weaning at seven months of age, both groups of weanlings showed the same level of whinnying for the first day. After the second day however, the weanlings that were not handled at birth were much calmer and were playing with their peers, while the imprinted weanlings continued in distress even four days after weaning, and also showed aggression towards their peers.

Long Term Effects of Immediate Handling

At one year of age, in social groups with other horses of the same age, differences between imprinted and unhandled horses were still visible. The imprinted horses spent less time in proximity to their peers, and also tended to be more aggressive with their peers.


Even one hour of interference with the earliest interactions between mare and foal has long lasting effects that are not yet fully known. If the effects of the early separation and human handling are still so strongly visible at one year of age, it is possible that the effects will continue through the horse’s life, though further research is needed to confirm this.

Imprinting foals seems to create social misfits in the herd that are insecurely attached to their dam, and have difficulty exchanging the maternal relationship for relationships with peers as normally happens. These differences occurred even though the lives of the imprinted foals after the one hour of handling was exactly the same as that of the control group foals.

Practical Suggestions

For the welfare and proper development of a foal into a healthy and socially well adjusted individual, mares and foals should be allowed to interact alone on their own time scale as much as possible for the critical first hours. This time is essential in forming an appropriate bond with the mother and with peers later in life, and also in fostering a positive relationship with humans.

Another study (Henry et al, 2005) has shown that if the mare has a healthy relationship with humans through calm, daily handling, the foal initiates more interactions with the handler at a young age, is more accepting of touch and novel situations, and at one year old is easy to approach and handle. The daily handling of the dam in this study was very simple, involving hand feeding and soft brushing for fifteen minutes per day on the first five days of the foal’s life. Their findings suggest that short, unobtrusive handling of the dam has a positive effect on the foal’s relationship with people that lasts just as long as the negative effects of imprint training. This could be a more ethical solution than imprinting is to the desire for foals to accept human contact and form a relationship with us.


Henry, S; Hemery, D; Richard-Yris, M-A; Hausberger, M. (2005) Human-mare relationships and behaviour of foals toward humans. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 93:341–362.

Henry, S; Richard-Yris, M-A; Tordjman, S; and Hausberger, M. (2009) Neonatal handling affects durably bonding and social development. PLoS ONE, 4:4.

Miller RM; Close, P. (1991) Imprint training of the newborn foal. Western Horseman, 1991