What’s in a Training Method?

I used to think that dabbling in this method or that style would make me a really good rider and trainer.

What it made me was really confused.

Have you noticed the really good trainers and riders have a style all their own? Everyone then does interviews and articles, and watches them carefully, trying to copy them and create the same results. But it doesn’t work that way.

The many distinctive methods we see all around the world derive from what makes sense to the person who started it. All methods work on the exact same principles, or they wouldn’t work. Each horse and each trainer are individuals, and different words and phrases make sense to different people, so we get different ways of explaining things and different ways of creating behaviour.

That is why you can’t just watch someone and copy them. The great trainer has spent years filtering. They’ve worked out a system for processing all the opinions and styles that come their way, and choosing what they understand and what the horses they work with understand. So, you say, that’s what I need to do. Read and watch everything and filter it down to what works for me and my particular horse.

If only it were that simple. You’d need about 20 lifetimes to even scratch the surface of all the methods and ideas that are out there. That’s exactly why I got so confused. And that is exactly why I was so drawn to equitation science.

Equitation science is a filter. A system for evaluating what is going to work and what isn’t so you don’t have to try it all and end up just as confused as your horse has become due to your dabbling. There is always more to learn, and you can always learn something from everybody (even if it’s what not to do). But having a way to process all the information is a necessity, or you end up mired down in it all, unable to see your way clearly forward.

From years of research, there are certain things we know horses in general learn well from, and things that in general are best avoided because they are either ineffective or inhumane. Why not use that great body of knowledge acquired in previous generations to evaluate what is likely to work and what is likely not to before going and experimenting on your horse?

Now that I have been steeped in the equitation science world for a few years, patterns are starting to emerge. Each time I take in a training horse, I notice these patterns and can start to make predictions about what the horse might do next, and what my next training steps will be, and whether to just ignore a behaviour or work on it actively. Equitation science accelerated my ability to do this while I’m still relatively young. I don’t have to have lived 9 lives and gained all the experience myself. Andrew McLean and the other scientists who pioneered equitation science have done that before me.

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.

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.

The Horse that Couldn’t Lunge

I put together a before and after video of a young horse who had trouble learning to be lunged. Normally when a horse understands the basic go, stop, and turn commands, lunging is easy right from the first time. Not for Violet… she needed a creative solution that the principles of equitation science suggested. Watch the video to see the transformation!

(Facebook didn’t like the music I used in the video, but I do have the right to it!)

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

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.

Spooking and Anxiety

It often happens in a show situation. You and your horse are out of your comfort zones, when suddenly the flowerpot in the corner takes on menacing proportions. What can you do?

Well, not much, unless you have given yourself the tools you need before you get in that situation. Now’s a good time to train those tools. Then you can deal with the gremlins in the corner of your own arena, too.

Training Tools

To be able to effectively communicate with your horse while he is anxious about something he has seen or heard, your horse needs to know a few things so well that they happen almost automatically.

  • Go. He should go forward from either a light squeeze of your legs or from two light whip taps. Having either at your disposal in a scary situation is very helpful.
  • Stop. He should stop reliably from light rein pressure to the point that you can stop him in three steps from the trot.
  • Turn. Think about it: a shy or spook is jut a turn that you didn’t ask for. It doesn’t really matter what caused it. Being able to turn back onto your line without the horse just bending the neck and carrying on his line is essential. Train two light whip taps on the shoulders for reinforcing your rein cues.

If those three responses are installed, you’ll be able to address the scary object problem in any situation.

Approaching the Scary Object

Give your horse as much rein as is safe to move his head around so he can focus on the area or object that has caused fright. Tell him to go towards it. This is why it is important to have a light and well trained go response. Your horse is likely to rear if ‘go’ is not light.

Before he wants to stop himself, ask him to stop. Continue approaching the object in this manner, a couple steps at a time, until you feel he will no longer go straight if you ask him to go. In this spot, step back and forwards. You will find that his attention is taken with the object, and go and stop will be heavy. Continue backing and going just a couple steps each with clear releases of pressure for correct responses until go and stop are light again. You will now be able to approach closer.

Correct any sideways shoulder movements with your whip taps on the shoulder and repeat the forward-backwards procedure until it is light again. This process is called overshadowing. You are training your cues to be more powerful than (or to overshadow) the scary thing.

Investigating the Scary Object

The average time it takes a horse to begin to want to investigate something it startled at is 13 seconds. If you can keep your horse facing the thing for that long, he will likely begin to show inquisitive behaviour. If he offers to go closer to sniff, let him and reward him.

Once he is done sniffing, repeat the forward and backward overshadowing procedure until the responses are light again. Correct any sideways shoulder movements that you didn’t ask for with shoulder taps, but don’t force him to walk sideways towards the scary thing.

Leaving and Returning

Leave the scary object before your horse tells you he wants to. Right after he has sniffed and you’ve made sure stop and go still work is a good time to walk away.

Circle back in a fairly large circle. You are going to walk past it now. Don’t try to get too close to it yet. I also prefer not to insist on a straight line yet. Walk a wiggly line around your circle. If it is a right circle, turn one step to the left, go straight a couple strides, turn two steps to the right, straight a couple strides and so on to complete the circle. In this way you will ask your horse to step one step towards the scary object and as soon as he does, you will ask him to step away again.

When turning one step towards the object is easy and light, ask for two. Try a straight line past it, correcting any random shoulder movements with the reins and/or whip taps.

If you stop near the object, don’t stop for long and give scratches or a small food treat near it and then continue.

When Time is Tight

In a show setting you don’t have time for all of that. But if you have done this many times at home with different scary things, that experience will transfer to the new situation. If you and your horse have done this before, your command of go, stop, and turn should be good enough that you can ask your horse to go towards the object with slowing and going faster instead of stopping, and by keeping his shoulders very steady between the reins, correcting any random steps.

Training a better ‘turn’ is the single most effective way of reducing shying and spooking—so never fear, you won’t have to take ages in the warmup ring or pause your dressage test to do some training. With some practice of this, you’ll be able to feel the tiniest un-cued step and correct it before it turns into a shy or anxious response.


Horses explore things on their own in a round-about way. We can take advantage of this through wiggly lines and gradually getting closer. They also habituate to new things fairly easily through overshadowing because they can only pay priority attention to one thing at a time. It is either you or the object. We can take advantage of this to help systematically reduce fear and anxiety by diverting attention to your cues instead.

Catching the Wary Horse

The hard-to-catch horse can make you reticent to ride because it takes so long just to bring him in. Because running away is a fear behaviour and is rewarded because the horse can go faster than you can, it is learned quickly and can be hard to get rid of. See if your horse fits into any of these categories.

  1. The Wary: Hasn’t been handled much, or has had a couple bad experiences and not many nice ones with humans. If approached too fast he is likely to split.
  2. The Learned: Having practiced running away for years, he knows all the tricks. He gets the treats and still gets away, lets you pat him then spins and runs, and is master of using obstacles or other horses in his escape.
  3. The Insecure: Once caught, this one is just fine. But somehow the catching is a roadblock he can’t get past.

The following training ideas will help each type, but some will be more effective than others in different cases. For all, start in a moderately sized, safe enclosure. You don’t want it so small that the horse feels trapped, nor so large that you get tired out! Also think about what the horse gets once he is caught. Does he receive clear training that matches how he learns? Clear training reduces anxiety and improves his experience of being in with you, making him more likely to allow himself to be caught.

Technique 1: Approach and Retreat

This technique is helpful for all catching problems. It will just be significantly harder to apply to The Learned horse, because the body language he will give you will be very subtle.

Begin with no halter and no aspiration of riding today. You are going to very precisely reward the behaviour you want (standing still) so your horse doesn’t leave and feel the reward of distance between you.

Start walking slowly towards the horse. Pay careful attention for any of these signs:

  • flicking the ear farthest from you back
  • looking away from you
  • shifting the weight away from you

When you notice any of these, stop walking immediately. If the horse stays where he is, step back a step or two to release any pressure. The signs are listed from least obvious to most obvious. If you stop moving when you notice an ear movement, your horse probably won’t leave. If you don’t notice the signs until his head is away and his weight is shifting, you’ve probably lost him.

If your horse leaves, never mind. Both of you need to learn this new exercise. Pay attention to what happened just before he left and try to catch yourself and stop a little earlier next time. Just trail behind your horse, not catching up, until he stops and stop too. Then begin again.

If you succeed in keeping your horse still, he will probably turn his head back and look at you. This is your signal to begin approaching again. Go slow and watch for any signs, stopping immediately and retreating before he moves. Once you’ve done this a few times without a halter, try bringing one along and see if there is any difference in his behaviour. You may find, especially with The Learned horses, that you start again from the beginning—but that’s ok, it will go faster the second time around!

Remember, do not retreat if your horse does move. You do not want to reward moving any more than it is inherently rewarding. Just trail along until your horse stops. Do not chase him in any way with actions or words. Be patient.

Technique 2: Counter Conditioning

Most effective for The Wary and The Insecure, this approach used in conjunction with Approach and Retreat can make being caught a great thing. If being caught only ever leads to being taken away from buddies or into a stressful situation, not many horses will continue being good to catch. If, however, it means itchy places are scratched and food is received (as long as aggression is not an issue) and the training is clear, your horse’s opinion of catching may change.

When you get up to your horse by Approach and Retreat, start by visiting. Try to find itchy places and give them a good hard scratch. Starting by the withers is usually good if you’re not sure what your horse will like. The shoulder and chest are often enjoyed by horses too. If your horse shows signs of wanting to leave, leave first. Walk away a bit, and try again.

Bring some food with you (just in a hand, not in a big bucket; we’re not going for a bribe here, but a reward). If your horse lets you visit for a bit, offer a tidbit of food. For The Learned horses, this could be their cue to cut and run before getting haltered, so you can reward being haltered instead, or omit the food.

If your horse finds being alone stressful (most do), bring a buddy along or have a buddy waiting where you’ll be taking your horse. You won’t have to do this for always, it just helps to give your horse a new idea of what being caught means.

Technique 3: Train ‘Come Up’

Best for The Learned horse but helpful also for the other types, here is something to replace the unwanted behaviour of running away with.

When you have your horse caught, it would be a good idea to train something that will make it easier next time. You don’t even have to leave the enclosure you are in. If your horse is food-motivated, don’t hesitate to learn about clicker training and use that to reward your horse’s approach. Otherwise use your voice (same words, same tone, every time) combined with a good scratch in a favourite place. This pairs the word with the scratch, eventually making the word rewarding.

Make sure your horse understands how to step forward from pressure on the halter. Don’t start walking, just put pressure on the halter and see what happens. If he moves immediately, you can carry on to the next step. Otherwise train a couple steps forward from light pressure on the halter by releasing pressure for correct steps and using your voice/scratch for positive reinforcement.

Stand a couple steps from your horse now with the lead rope in your hand. Make the noise (whistle) or say the word (come up) that you want your horse to recognize and come to. During/just after this sound, pull on the lead rope. Click and treat when your horse steps towards you, or reinforce in some other way. Repeat this until your verbal cue elicits one or two steps forward without needing the lead rope. That’s good for a first session. In later sessions you can reward for three or more steps, stand farther away, stand in a different position, train in a different area, and keep teaching your horse that moving towards you is a great thing to do.


Getting rid of running behaviour takes patience because of how rewarding it can be for the horse. Don’t take it personally and keep working on it.

None of the techniques outlined here involve any chasing of the horse to make him realize that moving away from you is more work than coming to you. This may work in the short term because he’ll get tired eventually, and if you are skilled at releasing the chasing pressure when the horse shows signs of coming towards you he will learn eventually. However, because of how horses are wired to learn, any chasing can be very frightening and is likely to perpetuate your catching problems rather than solve them. The faster and farther he can go, the more rewarding it is. So I focus instead on going slow and rewarding him for what I want instead of chasing him for what I don’t want.