Better Relationship, Easier Handling: Effect of Training Method

A recent study investigated whether the human-horse bond could be considered ‘attachment’ by the scientific definition of the term. This involves security and comfort being derived from the relationship.

The relationship and attachment of dogs and cats to humans has been studied much more than that of horses, but this preliminary study with 12 horses is the starting place for more research in future.


The twelve horses were assessed before the training began in an arena with four novel objects and two unfamiliar humans. This assessed their fear responses to new situations and whether they found the presence of unfamiliar humans to be reassuring.

The horses were then trained over a period of ten days for fifteen minutes by the same trainer in ten simple tasks including stepping forward, stopping, standing still, and moving either the shoulders or the hips sideways. One group of horses was trained this using only negative reinforcement (the removal of pressure to reinforce the correct response). The other two groups were trained with combined reinforcement, which is negative reinforcement combined with positive reinforcement (the addition of something pleasant as a reward for a correct response). One combined reinforcement group had food rewards, and the other had wither scratching as a reward.

A post training test was conducted with four new novel objects and two people near the objects. One of these people was unfamiliar, and the other was the horses’ trainer so that it could be assessed if the horse showed attachment behaviours towards the familiar person. The researchers also wanted to see if the method of training used affected the horses’ responses to novel objects.

Lastly, a handling test was conducted consisting of five challenging and potentially fear inducing situations that the horse was led through by an unfamiliar handler or by the trainer to investigate effect of training method and familiarity of the human on the horses’ reactions.


The researchers were unable to find a difference between horse behaviour toward the trainer versus behaviour toward the stranger between the pre- and post-tests. Horses that were willing to investigate the novel objects in the pre- test did so also in the post-test. Their heart rates, however, were significantly lower in the post-test, indicative either of the horse getting used to the testing scenario, or perhaps showing an effect of correct training in producing relaxation, which has been demonstrated in other studies. During the handling test, there was no difference in measured behaviours when being handled by the trainer versus the stranger.

There is not enough evidence from this study to conclude that scientific attachment occurs between horses and humans, but the reasons for this may be several.

  • There were few training sessions. Horses may take longer to form an attachment than other species.
  • The horses were lesson horses. They were therefore frequently handled by many humans and may have generalized to consider all humans as positive.
  • This was a pilot study. There were only 12 horses used, which is a good start but further research is required.


Hartmann, E; Rehn, T; Christensen, JW; Nielsen, PP; and McGreevy, P. (2021) From the Horse’s Perspective: Investigating Attachment Behaviour and the Effect of Training Method on Fear Reactions and Ease of Handling—A Pilot Study. Animals 11: 457. Open Access:

Is Your Horse Curious?

Is your horse (or the horse you ride, lease, borrow, love) curious? A new study shows that horses who are interested in new things and want to explore them actually learn better!

“Exploratory behaviour was unreinforced in the novel object tests and likely reflects the animal’s intrinsic motivation (i.e. curiosity), suggesting that this trait is favourable for learning performance.”

Coming up with ways to foster your horse’s curiosity could improve his whole outlook on life, including his interest in training.

“[these results] raise questions in relation to fostering of curiosity in animals and the impact that such manipulation may have on cognitive abilities.”

How can you foster your horse’s curiosity? I like to allow my horse to investigate things. When she looks worried about something, we stop and wait. Research shows that after about 13 seconds of observing something ‘scary’, horses become more willing to explore it. So we wait a bit, then I ask her to go a little closer. Soon she’s getting closer herself, sniffing or moving the object herself.

How do you enable your horse to be curious?

Christensen, J; Ahrendt, L; Malmkvist, J; and Nicol, C. (2021) Exploratory behaviour towards novel objects is associated with enhanced learning in young horses. Scientific Reports, 11:1428. Open access! Read the full article here:

The Kinematics of Collection


Collection done well is beautiful and powerful. But what is collection? What physically happens in the horse’s body to create a collected gait? 

The most common answers about what collection is come from the FEI rulebook. Collection is supposed to involve a shortening of the stride with a maintenance of energy in movement, increased flexion of the joints of the hindquarters, resulting in a lowering of the horse’s croup, and hind limbs that step farther forward under the horse, all of which are said to cause a weight shift from the front legs to the back legs.

Some of these claims are supported by studies of elite horse and rider movement in the collected gaits, but others are not. So what actually happens when a horse collects?

Shortening of the Stride

In examining collection of the walk (Clayton, 1995), trot (Clayton, 1994a), and canter (Clayton, 1994b), Clayton found that as collection increased, stride length decreased. The frequency of strides also decreased in walk and trot, but not as much. The stride length of piaffe is smaller than that of passage, and passage is smaller than that of the collected trot.

Flexion in the Joints of the Hindquarters

Increased flexion of the joints in the hind limbs, resulting in an almost crouching posture, has been found in some studies (Rhodin et al, 2018) and not found in others (Clayton, 1994a). It is likely that this factor of collection depends greatly on the degree of collection, with the greatest degree (piaffe) displaying the most flexion of the hindlimb joints. 

It is said that this increased flexion causes the horse to lower the croup relative to the withers, so the back is sloped down and back. However, studies have not seen this happen in either the collected walk or trot (Rhodin et al, 2018), though again in a higher degree of collection such as the piaffe, lowering of the croup can occur.

Interestingly, an increased posterior tilt of the horse’s pelvis at the lumbosacral junction does occur in the collected walk and trot, which lowers the dock (Rhodin et al, 2018). This could create the impression of a lowered croup for an observer.

Protraction of the Hind Limbs

Protraction is the reaching forward of the limb, and retraction is the pushing out behind. Increased protraction as an element of collection may be part myth. The horse does not actually step the hind leg any farther underneath the body, towards the forelimbs, than in a free gait. However, there is another effect of collection that may give the appearance of increased protraction of the hind limbs.

In the collected gaits, the horse down not retract the hindlimb as far as he would in a free or extended gait. This means the hind limb pushes off sooner relative to how far the limb has traveled, it does not stretch out behind the horse when pushing off for swing phase. The average protraction of the limb from start to finish of stance phase, then, does increase, but it is because of decreased retraction, not increased protraction.

Weight Shift to the Hind Limbs

Ground Reaction Force (GRF) is measured to determine whether the above biomechanical effects of collection actually cause the hind limbs to bear more weight than they would in a free gait.

There have been very few studies regarding this, however it seems that there is indeed some small shift of weight, also on a sliding scale with the degree of collection. From collected trot to passage, Clayton et al (2017) found that within a diagonal pair of legs, the hind leg bore proportionally more weight. In the collected trot, the forelimb of a pair bore about 58% of the weight, which was reduced to about 55% in the passage.

Three ways were found whereby a horse could shift weight into the hindlimb: I.) having the hindlimb in a diagonal pair contact the ground prior to the front limb, II.) adjusting how far forward and back each limb moves in swing and stance phases respectively, and III.) increasing muscular effort through the hindlimb to create more vertical movement.

Conclusion: What is Collection?

Collection involves a change in how the horse moves himself. It can be hard for the observer to see exactly what is going on in a collected gait, however. The major discrepancies between common equestrian thought and evidence from studies include: no actual increase in protraction of the hindlimbs, though average protraction is increased through less retraction; the suspension phase of collected gaits does not increase in duration, contrary to popular belief; and finally, the horse’s croup does not lower, rather a posterior tilt of the horse’s pelvis could create this impression by lowering the dock.

The commonly cited weight shift from forehand to the haunches does in fact occur, partially (but not to a great extent) aided by an elevation of the horse’s poll. The stride length of the collected gaits is also much shorter than that of the free gaits.

Understanding what actually occurs in the horse’s body during collection is helpful for riders to influence their horse’s movement, knowing more accurately what changes they want the horse to make.

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Byström, A. (2019) The movement pattern of horse and rider in different degrees of collection. Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala. ISBN: 978-91-7760-383-2

Clayton, H. (1994a).Comparison of the stride kinematics of the collected, working, medium and extended trot in horses. Equine Veterinary Journal 26, 230-234.

Clayton, H. (1994b) Comparison of the collected, working, medium and extended canters. Equine Veterinary Journal Suppl 17, 16-19.

Clayton, H. (1995) Comparison of the stride kinematics of the collected, medium, and extended walks in horses. American Journal of Veterinary Research 56, 849-852.

Clayton, H; Schamhardt, H; and Hobbs, S. (2017) Ground reaction forces of elite dressage horses in collected trot and passage. The Veterinary Journal 221, 30-33.

Does the Vet Like Seeing Your Horse?

Having the vet out for your horse isn’t an ideal scenario. Your horse is hurt, you’re stressed, it’s expensive, and now it’s going to take twice as long because the horse just won’t cooperate. Here’s how you can make the situation better for your horse, your vet, and yourself the next time your horse needs help.

The Problem

A recent study found that 95% of equine vets work with difficult horses at least monthly (Pearson et al, 2020). The kinds of dangerous behaviours they encounter, in order of prevalence, include: bargy or pushy horses; horses that won’t stand still or are needle-shy; head-shy or clipper-shy horses; horses that kick with a hind foot; horses that pull away; and horses that refuse to load. 81% of the vets surveyed had sustained at least one and up to thirty horse behaviour-related injuries in the past five years.

Whose Job is It?

Your vet is the professional, but that doesn’t mean they are going to train your horse to accept veterinary intervention. They need to get their job done, preferably without injury to themselves or further injury to the horse. The vets’ go-to method of getting the job done in this study was chemical restraint, with 99% of the vets placing it at the top of their list of useful restraint methods. Physical restraint came next, with everything from nose and neck twitches to bits, bridles, and holding up a leg (Pearson et al, 2020). Physical restraint can cause undue stress or injury to the horse, sometimes making the intervention even harder next time (McGreevy et al, 2018), and chemical restraint (sedation) can be expensive.

Unfortunately, methods of behaviour modification such as positive and negative reinforcement and overshadowing that encourage the horse to engage in the process and leave the horse more relaxed and better behaved for the next intervention (McLean, 2008), fell to the bottom of the list (Pearson et al, 2020). Only 7 and 8% of the vets considered negative reinforcement or overshadowing respectively to be very or fairly useful, and 50% considered negative reinforcement to be unhelpful or even useless! 67% had never heard of or did not understand overshadowing.

Clearly, if your vet is to find your horse a pleasure to work with rather than the cause of yet another injury, there is some work to do. It starts with how horses learn.

Your Part of The Solution

A horse is said to be under ‘stimulus control’ when the handler’s cues are responded to consistently, regardless of what is happening in the environment (McGreevy, 2010). Impossible, you say. Horses are horses. Stimulus control in a familiar environment is certainly possible, however, and with further training in different contexts, it becomes easier to control the horse even in a new or frightening situation, because the training is more consolidated. If, on the other hand, there is no training and the horse simply follows the handler if he feels like it, there is no base to fall back on when it is needed, such as in an emergency situation.

Applying learning theory to your horse’s ground training (and ridden training too) will create a horse that can calmly and promptly respond to light pressure cues, preventing some of the most common behaviours that veterinarians come up against, particularly barging, not standing, kicking, pulling away, and refusing to load.

The other common difficult behaviours are linked to a stimulus, like a needle, the clippers, or a trailer and are often found only in a veterinary context. These are the behaviours where overshadowing and combined reinforcement are most useful, provided the handler and veterinarian know how to apply them. Becoming familiar yourself with how your horse learns will set you up to be able to train him consistently so the foundation is there when you need it.

Your Vet’s Part of the Solution

There was an association seen in the study between the vet’s years of experience and the prevalence of unwanted behaviour he met with. More than half of the unwanted behaviours reduced in frequency based on the vet’s increasing experience. There are a few potential reasons for this.

First, more experienced vets have learned the hard way which handling methods tend to work safely and which do not (Pearson et al, 2020). These vets essentially learn about learning theory on the job. A second reason may be an increased willingness to turn to restraint methods earlier in the visit. Finally, vets consistently experiencing dangerous behaviours from their patients may leave the equine sector.

Gaining experience comes from being willing to learn. Once you’ve done your part in training your horse and learning about how you can help your horse learn and behave using learning theory, share with your vet. Although 79% of the surveyed vets thought they had a decent understanding of learning theory, only 10% were able to answer 5 out of the 6 test questions correctly. 46% reported receiving no training in learning theory (Pearson et al, 2020).

So, take your horse’s part. Instead of allowing potentially damaging physical restraint like an ear twitch for an injection, ask if you could use a page from learning theory’s book instead. Explain the method you’d like to use, and demonstrate your part if possible to show the horse can do it and you can handle it safely. 

Being an advocate for proper understanding and use of the horse’s learning processes can only help to create a positive experience for you, your vet, and your horse.


McGreevy, P and McLean, A. (2010) Equitation Science, Wiley- Blackwell, Oxon. 

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. (2008) Overshadowing: A Silver Lining to a Dark Cloud in Horse Training. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 11:3, 236-248.

Pearson, G; Reardon, R; Keen, J; and Waran, N. (2020) Difficult horses—prevalence, approaches to management of and understanding of how they develop by equine veterinarians. Equine Veterinary Education. Open access: doi: 10.1111/eve.13354

Effective Rewards

Behaviour that is reinforced is likely to be repeated. This is how horses are trained. There are two kinds of reinforcers, primary reinforcers and secondary reinforcers.

Primary reinforcers are valuable to the horse of themselves. Secondary reinforcers are rewarding only when they are consistently paired with a primary reinforcer. Let’s look at some examples.

Primary ReinforcersSecondary Reinforcers
Release of pressureThe ‘Click’ in clicker training
FoodVocal rewards (good boy)

Another commonly used method of reinforcing behaviour is petting or scratching the horse, often near the withers. This has been reported to lower the horse’s heart rate, and many horses appear to enjoy the scratch, closing their eyes, wiggling their lips, and extending their necks.

Is tactile reinforcement primary or secondary?

A 2010 study using 20 horses trained them to stand still at a vocal command for increasing duration up to a minute. Half were rewarded for correct responses with food and half were rewarded with vigorous wither scratching. The researchers tested the horses’ relationship to humans before and after the training, examining latency to approach a stationary person and how long the horse stayed close to them. They also looked at the horses’ ability to perform the learned behaviour after the training was over.

Interestingly, they found that the wither scratch group did not learn as well as the food reward group. They were unable to stand still for as long, and did not learn as fast. The food reward group also approached a stationary human faster after training and stayed closer for longer than the tactile reward group, though both groups had started out scoring the same for approach latency and time in proximity on the relationship tests.

The researchers suggested that tactile rewards may have been given too much credit, and that carefully used food rewards are more efficient in terms of both horse learning and relationship building.

Some horses really enjoy touch, but all of them seem to enjoy food! Learning how to use food well in training seems like a logical choice from the results of this study.

The study, The Way to a Man’s Heart is Through His Stomach: What About Horses? by Sankey, C; Henry, S; Górecka-Bruzda, A; Richard-Yris, M-A; and Hausberger, M was published by PLoS ONE in November 2010, Volume 5, Issue 11, and can be found for free online here:

Trust? Or Safety?

Safety is very important to horses. While the most common horse training methods employ food or the release of pressure as a reward, it has recently been argued that safety is valuable enough to horses to be used by trainers as a resource during training to reduce fearfulness and increase learning uptake.

The goal of horse training is to reduce the expression of behaviour we don’t want and to draw out behaviour we do want, so that it is eventually offered on cue. Many behaviours that horses offer that we don’t like stem from fear. When a behaviour originating from fear is punished to make it less likely to occur again, negative emotions are likely to result, reducing effectiveness of training. Therefore, it is critical to understand fear responses in order to make better training decisions.

Fear responses are highly selected for because they promote survival. Fear is a kind of stress, and affects the animal’s behaviour in ways designed to make it easier to escape the situation. When fear is excessive or chronic, however, the physical cost of responding to the fear can affect health and behaviour. Animals may also react fearfully to things that do not pose an actual risk.

When a horse successfully escapes a fear-inducing stimulus (be that a plastic bag, a bush, or a rider), the behaviour that succeeded can be learned in a single trial, has the effect of reducing fear caused by the stimulus, and is resistant to being untrained. This suggests that the reduction in fear associated with performing an escape behaviour is highly reinforcing. Escape behaviour is in contrast to avoidance behaviour, where the animal receives warning about a fear-inducing stimulus and has the opportunity to avoid the stimulus by performing a behaviour.

In laboratory avoidance learning tests, when a ‘safety signal’ or neutral stimulus such as a light or a sound occurred when the animal had successfully avoided the fear-inducing stimulus, the test animals learned the avoidance behaviour much faster. The safety signal by itself reduced fear and held positive reinforcing properties. Once a stimulus becomes a safety signal, it rarely loses its meaning!

Other horses are probably the most common example of equine safety signals. Calm horses have the best effect, and silhouettes of relaxed or grazing horses have been shown to be recognized and greeted by horses. ‘Home’ is also likely to be a safety signal.

Reducing fearfulness should be a goal of horse training. It is possible that humans could also become a safety signal, depending on the horse’s previous experience of its handler specifically and people in general. The safety signal concept could be a better definition of the elusive notion of ‘trust’ in horse-human relationships.

If the horse’s trainer, handler, or owner can be perceived by the horse as a source of safety through consistent and careful training, learning could be enhanced and the risk of injury to horse and handler caused by a fear response could be greatly reduced.

McGreevy, P; Henshall, C; Starling, M; McLean, A; Boakes, R. (2014) The Importance of Safety Signals in Animal Handling and Training. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, 9:382-387.

Teaching a Horse to Choose

A recent article looking for ways to improve research into the preferences of horses found that horses can be taught to communicate preferences to their handlers by using symbols. Mejdell et al (2016) used positive reinforcement training to teach 23 horses to choose whether or not to wear a blanket, and tested the efficacy of the training through weather challenges. They predicted that if the horses had correctly learned to discriminate the symbols they would vary their choices based on the weather.

Horses were trained over 14 days to understand the consequences of choosing the ‘blanket on’ symbol versus the ‘blanket off’ symbol both in their home box and outdoors. At first the horse was taught to touch a single board with their nose and were rewarded for this. Then the relevant symbol was shown to the horse (i.e. ‘blanket on’ symbol if no blanket was worn at the time of the training), the horse was rewarded for touching it, and the action was carried out. ‘Blanket on’ and ‘blanket off’ symbols were then presented together, and only the relevant choice was rewarded until no mistakes were made.

Finally a ‘no change’ symbol was added with the other relevant symbol. This was the beginning of introducing choice to the horse. Either choice was rewarded and carried out accordingly. A choice of ‘no change’ prompted the trainers to perform a sham handling of the horse as if putting on a blanket or taking one off to prevent horses from choosing ‘no change’ simply to avoid being touched. Random choices were then presented, with only the relevant choices being rewarded, and irrelevant ones being ignored until no mistakes were made. When horses passed this stage, they moved on to temperature challenge tests to ensure they understood the consequences of choosing different symbols.

For the temperature challenge, horses were rugged heavily indoors until they were obviously warm, then presented with the choices of ‘no change’ or ‘blanket off’ until they reliably chose the obvious answer (but all choices were still rewarded). The cold challenge was outdoors until mild signs of temperature discomfort were shown, then the ‘no change’ or ‘blanket on’ choices were given. After passing this stage, the horses were ready for preference testing.

On two warm, pleasant days and two cold, unpleasant days, the horses were taken from their paddock to the test area in a random state of blanketed or not blanketed. The symbols were varied in position and relative distance to each other. The horses’ responses were very consistent with the weather; all horses chose ‘blanket off’ on the warmer days when wearing one, or ‘no change’ when not. On the cold days, all but two horses chose ‘no change’ when wearing one or ‘blanket on’ when not.

The researchers concluded this kind of training is an effective way to study preferences in horses, and can be used in the field in place of less portable Y-maze testing that has been done previously to determine preference.

The article is open access and can be found with this reference:

Mejdell, C; Buvik, T; Jørgensen, G; Bøe, K. (2016) Horses can learn to use symbols to communicate their preferences. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 184 pp 66-73.

What does your horse want?

Horses have preferences, which they appear motivated to communicate with us when given the opportunity. Some horses enjoy firm brushing while others prefer limited grooming, and handlers well-versed in their body language can often determine what a horse is enjoying or wanting more of but it is often difficult to tell for sure. Researchers recently trained horses to use symbols to communicate their preferences about being blanketed or not in a much less ambiguous way!

It took all 23 horses used in the trial less than 14 training days to grasp the concept of bumping one symbol with their nose to have their blanket removed, another to have a blanket put on, and a third to remain as they were. This rapid uptake speaks well of the chosen positive reinforcement conditioning scheme the researchers used, and perhaps also of the horses’ motivation to make a choice for their own thermal comfort.

The researchers reported that once the horses began to understand that they could communicate their wishes, many horses even attempted to get the trainer’s attention from the paddock on a testing day and immediately chose blanket off. On removing it, it was found that the horse had become sweaty under the blanket, making the reason for the choice obvious.

On warm days, with temperatures around 20ºC, horses consistently chose to have their blanket removed if they wore one, or chose no change if they did not. On days where the weather was cold (~9ºC), wet, and/or windy, all but two of the horses chose blanket on if they did not have one, or no change if they did. This indicates that horses’ preferences are individual, with some horses having a higher tolerance for cold temperatures than others, with blanketing preferences to match. This was expected by the researchers, and confirms what we see in our horses every day.

For the owner looking for a challenging training project, teaching your horse to discriminate between symbols related to his management could take some guesswork out of the many choices we have to make for our horses. But for those owners who may not have the expertise yet to accomplish this, simply paying attention to your horse’s behaviour during routine handling can give insight into his preferences. Encouraging this communication by honouring it will help your horse to express himself more freely, building your relationship and mutual understanding!

The article is open access and can be found with this reference:

Mejdell, C; Buvik, T; Jørgensen, G; Bøe, K. (2016) Horses can learn to use symbols to communicate their preferences. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 184 pp 66-73.

Talking to your Horse

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 our words, affect our horses’ behaviour. Heleski et al conducted a study in 2015 to find out to what extent soothing voice cues versus harsh ones affect training.

How the Study was Conducted

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 appropriate vocal cue 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 exactly 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 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 shows 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.

Speaking Horse—How Body Language Affects Training

What is Body Language?

Body language is common in animals and is a way of showing intention. It is unconsciously created by thoughts of performing an action, which results in tiny muscle contractions that show a shadow of the intent. Humans can consciously affect their body language, but it is unlikely that animals are capable of this kind of deception.

Many natural horsemanship trainers read their horse’s body language with precision and react swiftly to what they see, effectively employing reinforcement in a timely manner to train the horse. The best trainers have impeccable timing and know their subject’s language as well as their own.

The Natural Explanation

How natural horsemen explain this phenomenon, however, becomes confusing. Are they talking back to the horse in the same language to achieve the training result? But they don’t have long ears or a tail, which horses use extensively in communication, and while posture could be used, cocking a hind leg just doesn’t look the same with our two-legged stance. Does the horse see such a trainer as a higher herd member and obey because of their communication techniques? Then no novice rider would be able to have control over their horse, because they are clueless about body language at first. What is really going on here?

The Research Explanation

When humans read horse body language and interpret it correctly, their safety improves as they are able to avoid dangerous situations, and their training improves as they reward or correct behaviours appropriately as soon as they are shown. These interactions follow the principles of equitation science and employ addition (positive) and subtraction (negative) reinforcement rather than showing characteristics of a conversation.

Horses also quickly learn what our body signals mean, typically through classical conditioning. They learn that one action (such as shifting the gaze) precedes another (such as being driven away from the trainer) and begin responding to the gaze to avoid the driving. Increased heart rate in a rider results in increased heart rate in their mount, probably for similar reasons.

However, the number of human to horse interactions with body language that directly matches horse to horse interactions are very few indeed, if an ethogram (a list of all the possible behaviours of a species) is examined.


What does this mean for training? It is extremely important for trainers to understand horse body language. This provides valuable information about the horse’s intent, even though it is doubtful that horses see humans as herd members, interpreting their body language as that of a horse. Instead of trying to communicate to the horse in ‘horse’, then, we should focus on helping them understand what our body language means by being consistent, timing our reinforcement well, and using the principles of equitation science.


Ladewig, Jan. (2019) Body Language: Its Importance for Communication with Horses. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour: 29, 108-110.

Ladewig, Jan. (2007) Clever Hans is still whinnying with us. Behavioural Processes: 76, 20-21.