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.

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.

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

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.

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: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0015446

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.

Building a Relationship with Horses

Horses are a blessing. Their patient presence has made a difference to countless lives. The therapeutic benefits for children and adults working with horses is undeniable, and the rewards of having a positive relationship with this lovely animal is worth the hard work it takes to build it.

Exactly how to build a strong and successful relationship with horses is a subject of debate. Some insist the horse must learn to show us ‘respect,’ while others say that the horse must be able to ‘trust’ us. The ideas behind these sentiments are valid, but it is hard to say objectively whether horses can respect, or trust, as we define and experience it.

What we do know is that horses don’t get to choose whether or not to be trained, how they are trained, or who trains them. This means it is our responsibility to build a relationship and a program that is best for the horse.

Every Interaction Counts

It is important to understand that any time we spend with horses is time spent training. Positive interactions help to strengthen the relationship and ‘negative’ encounters, that produce anxiety or fear, erode it. Thankfully, there are ways to build positive experiences for better training and better relationships.

Look at the Horse’s Whole Life

Frustration in one area of life affects other areas too. If a horse is managed in a way that produces frustration, like being in an inappropriate social group, or having insufficient time spent eating each day, training sessions are likely to also become frustrating for the horse. This is why making sure the horse’s environment is managed as naturally as possible is helpful for relationship building.

Using Learning Theory

Horses learn through the processes as described in learning theory. Making sure that every interaction aligns with the principles of learning theory will mean the horse learns faster and with less frustration as he understands what is being taught and what responses are expected of him.

For example, horses learn well from classical conditioning, allowing them to predict what will happen next. This is how horses learn to recognize their owners’ vehicles. When the owner consistently drives up, then feeds the horse, the horse builds a chain of positive associations and soon recognizes the sound of the car. In this way horses can learn, through good training, to respond to subtle cues consistently. This gives the appearance of trust and respect as they respond calmly, even in new situations.

Teaching New Behaviour

Positive and negative reinforcement, or, ‘addition’ and ‘subtraction’ reinforcement, are also part of learning theory. In positive, or ‘addition’, reinforcement something the horse enjoys is added to reward a correct response. In negative, or ‘subtraction’, reinforcement something the horse doesn’t enjoy, such as pressure from a leg aid, is removed or ‘subtracted’ to reward a correct response. Horse training is often based on negative reinforcement as most people use pressure cues from legs and reins. As long as pressure is removed at the right moment, horses can learn very well this way. Using positive and negative reinforcement in combination can speed up learning as well as improve your relationship with your horse.


In order to build a better relationship with horses, the horse has to get something out of it too. With proper care, interactions that are predictable and easy to understand, and rewards that motivate the horse, a strong relationship is possible. It is hard to define respect and trust from the horse’s point of view, but when a horse is attentive to the handler and becomes responsive to subtle cues, you can be sure there is a good relationship forming.

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.


Follow the Leader


In the natural horsemanship training technique of round penning, popularized by Monty Roberts’ Join-Up method, a horse is put at liberty in a round yard with a trainer who moves the horse around and allows it to rest if it displays certain behaviour deemed to be submissive. The goal in round penning is for the horse to follow the trainer (Kydd et al, 2017), which is seen as evidence that the horse has trust and respect for the trainer as its leader (Fenner et al, 2019). The emphasis of round pen techniques is on the human becoming the horse’s leader.

Round pen trainers claim it is: natural because it is based on horses’ interactions with other horses; effective because the trainer mimics a dominant horse’s body language; achieves submission of the horse, along with trust and respect; and ethological (Henshall and McGreevy, 2014). This article explores these claims.

Herd Interaction

Many trainers credit observing horse interactions in both free-ranging and domestic herds with the development of their round pen techniques (Henshall and McGreevy, 2014). However, in a round penning session, there is a focus on agonistic (aggressive or threatening) behaviour as the trainer moves the horse, whereas studies have concluded that horses are more likely to show avoidance than aggression where given the option. There is a higher rate of agonistic interactions between domestic horses than feral herds, probably because domestic horses do not choose their own herd. Observing these encounters may have influenced this impression of equine interaction.

These trainers also say they’ve observed a fixed social order, maintained through agonistic behaviour, where an older mare leads the herd and makes the decisions (Henshall and McGreevy, 2014). This is a very simplistic view of herd hierarchy, as evidenced by the multitude of studies that disagree with one another about horses’ social hierarchy (Henshall and McGreevy, 2014). Some have observed a linear hierarchy, where one horse is at the top and one is at the bottom and all the others are in order in-between. Some observe a triangular hierarchy, where each horse is above and below other horses. Further, while one horse may consistently eat or drink first, any horse can initiate movement or change the activity of the herd. In bachelor bands, which are not mentioned by developers of round pen methods, there is no mare to be the leader, yet activity comparable to harem bands still takes place, along with the same avoidance of aggressive contact (Kydd et al, 2017).

In fact, affiliative (friendly) interactions are more frequently seen in horse herds than agonistic behaviour. Proximity to other horses and mutual grooming have been shown to be important in maintaining the integrity of a herd. The most common affiliative behaviour shown to horses in round pen techniques is rubbing the forehead, which is not seen in horses grooming each other, and prevents the horse from reciprocating, which could limit the relevance of the reward (Kydd et al, 2017).

Body Language

Body language is said to be extremely important in round penning, because this is how horses communicate. However, Henshall et al (2012) showed by training a horse to follow a radio controlled car in a round pen that a trainer’s use of body language has less effect on the outcome of the training than claimed. Rather, negative reinforcement (removal of pressure for a desired response) is more likely to be responsible for the horse learning to follow the trainer.

The four factors of body language which are said to facilitate the horse’s response to its trainer are the use of chasing, the direction of the trainer’s gaze, the trainer’s posture, and their speed of approach.

In horse-horse interactions, chasing is rare and is short-lived. It stops once the chased horse is far enough away, rather than continuing until signs of submission (or exhaustion) are shown, as in the round pen. In a round pen, the horse cannot get farther away from the chasing, and fear responses associated with the thwarted attempt to escape could be mistaken by the trainer for disrespect and be punished (Fenner et al, 2019).

The direction of the trainer’s gaze is said to be important, but round pen trainers are not agreed on whether looking directly at the horse sends it away or draws it towards the trainer (Henshall and McGreevy, 2014). In studies on the effect of gaze, looking directly at the horse or away from it made no difference in the likelihood of the horse to approach the handler. It was also found that horses could be trained to recognize the direction of a human’s gaze and respond by either approaching or leaving.

Similar results were found with posture. An upright, more aggressive posture versus a rounded, submissive posture had no effect on horses’ likelihood of approaching a handler (Henshall and McGreevy, 2014).

The only agreement, then, between ethological research and round pen training techniques is the speed of the trainer’s approach. A slow, circuitous approach to both naive and trained horses was significantly less likely to result in flight than a faster, direct approach (Henshall and McGreevy, 2014).


In the round pen, the trainer releases pressure for behaviours he thinks are ‘submissive’, such as lowering the head and licking and chewing. Therefore, it seems like round penning is based on the learning theory principle of negative reinforcement rather than on equine interaction. In negative reinforcement, pressure is removed for the desired response.

When unfamiliar horse dyads were placed in a round pen and their behaviour towards one another observed (Henshall and McGreevy, 2014), avoidance was the most common response. Licking and chewing was not observed being directed at another horse, but was only performed when facing away from the other horse. Chasing was rare, and following not observed.

Licking and chewing is commonly interpreted as either the horse being submissive or thinking about what it is learning. If this were so, we would expect to see licking and chewing displayed as a signal to other horses to avoid agonistic encounters, but this does not happen (Henshall and McGreevy, 2014). An alternative explanation is that the horse is undergoing a shift from its sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic, resulting from a reduction of stress (Henshall and McGreevy, 2014). This occurs, for example, when the trainer stops chasing the horse. Stress inhibits learning and reduces motivation, although studies have not yet shown what threshold of stress begins to be detrimental. It is known that some level of arousal is needed for learning to occur, so keeping stress levels to a minimum would be a good practice for maximum learning.


Many natural horsemanship trainers claim that their method is based in ethology, however not one of them mentions the work of an ethologist to support this claim (Henshall and McGreevy, 2014). It seems that if a horse responds to a trainer as it would to another horse the method is labelled ethological. This means that humans must act like horses to be successful in training.

Because round pen training is often used to prepare a horse to be ridden, it is also questionable how relevant it is for the horse to learn that its trainer acts like a horse, as when the riding point is reached there is no similar horse-horse interaction, and no way the trainer can continue acting like a horse (Fowler et al, 2012).

The Results

If the goal of round penning is for the horse to recognize its trainer as the leader, a test of the efficacy of this approach would be to see if the horse displays the behaviours learned in the round pen in other contexts. Kreuger (2007) demonstrated that the behaviours generally considered to be signs of submission do not transfer from the round pen to a field. This shows it is context-specific behaviour and therefore unlikely to be due to dominance and submission and more likely to be a learned response to cues given by the trainer.

The logical conclusion of the stated outcomes of round pen training is ‘successful trainers are dominant leaders.’ This results in failures of training being seen as a lack of respect on the horse’s part, or as a result of the trainer not behaving like a leader. These thought patterns can increase risk of injury to the horse and trainer because the trainer can be tempted to chase more to achieve the desired outcomes, even though following is not correlated with the time spent chasing (Kydd et al, 2017). This way of thinking about round penning can also reduce the horse’s welfare, as a horse that is perceived as disrespectful is likely to be treated accordingly. Further, fear behaviour in the round pen, such as kicking, bucking, running, and attempting to escape can be perceived as disrespect and be punished, which only makes the horse more fearful (Fenner et al, 2019).

It seems, then, that the results gained from round penning can be attributed to the learning theory processes of habituation, and operant and classical conditioning rather than the trainer becoming a higher ranking member of the horse’s herd.


Round penning can produce training results in the horse, but it does not produce respect and trust, as claimed by natural horsemanship trainers. It also has the potential to cause harm. Horses trained in this way by amateurs are more likely to display conflict behaviours, and those trained by professionals show less ‘submissive’ behaviour (Kydd et al, 2017). This could be because professionals use less pressure to move the horse and pay more attention to the signals the horse is giving, thereby reducing the level of stress the horse experiences.

After a horse is trained using operant conditioning to accelerate and decelerate reliably, a round pen can be used safely because corrections for responses not under stimulus control can be made, thus not allowing the horse to practice flight or fear.

Round pen training is often advocated by laypeople as a fix-all for issues such as bucking, not leading, not being caught, and not standing still (Kydd et al, 2017). Some of these behaviours are linked to confusion in acceleration responses, while others are linked to deceleration, or to conflict (McLean, 2004). It is hard to see how a method that reinforces approaching a trainer should be effective in treating behaviours with such varied causes. Rather, round pen training should be viewed as a way to establish stimulus control in the horse.

When viewed this way, failures in training are due to failures in the application of learning theory, and the most successful trainers are the ones who understand how horses learn. This frees the trainer from having to act the part of a leader if that isn’t their personality, and returns the horse to its proper place, an innocent participant in the training process.


Henshall C and McGreevy P. (2014) The Role of Ethology in Round Pen Horse Training. Applied Animal Behaviour Science V. 155.

Henshall C, Padalino B, and McGreevy, P. (2012) The radio-controlled car as herd leader? A preliminary study of escape and avoidance learning in the round-pen. Proceedings of the 8th ISES conference, 92:p157

Krueger, K. (2007). Behaviour of horses in the roundpen technique. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 104, 162-170. 

Kydd E, Padalino B, Henshall C, McGreevy P. (2017) An analysis of equine round pen training videos posted online: Differences between amateur and professional trainers. PLoS ONE 12(9): e0184851. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal. pone.0184851

Fenner K, Mclean A, McGreevy P. (2019) Cutting to the chase: How round-pen, lunging and high-speed liberty work may compromise horse welfare. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 29 pp88-94. doi: 10.1016/j.jveb.2018.05.003. 

Fowler V, Kennedy M, Marlin D. (2012) A Comparison of the Monty Roberts technique with a Conventional UK Technique for Initial Training Riding Horses. Anthrozoös 25:3 pp 301-321. 

McLean A. (2004) Behaviour problems in the domestic horse—associations with dysfunctions in negative reinforcement. University of Melbourne and the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre.