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.


Mounting Trouble

Your foot’s in the stirrup and you have to hop alongside your already moving horse for a few steps before you can swing aboard.

Or worse, he pulls you right off the mounting block and you have to stop him, get the block, reposition everything, try again… five times.

What causes Mounting Problems?

Your horse could be associating being mounted with pain. Watch out for other behaviour signs that could indicate pain like throwing up the head, dropping the back, pinning the ears, sticking out the tongue, and switching the tail. If any of these are present, consult your vet before attempting retraining.

If you usually mount with a block, your horse has probably learned that walking off prevents being mounted, if only temporarily. This is what is rewarding the behaviour. This can be retrained.

If you usually mount and cue your horse to move off immediately, sometimes faster than a walk, your horse will learn through classical conditioning that being mounted is consistently followed by the cue to go, and the mounting itself becomes the cue. This can also be retrained, but will require changing that habit.

Retraining the horse to stand for mounting

Get a dressage whip to extend your arm. I use a dressage whip because it is thin and flexible and just long enough to be useful but not so long as to get in my way.

Make sure your horse has no reaction to being rubbed by the whip, especially on the hindquarters.

Using a series of light taps on your horse’s thigh, teach him to step away from the taps with that leg by quitting the taps as soon as he moves the leg away, crossing it underneath himself in front of the other one. Reward one step, and only accept at the most two steps. You don’t want him to start running sideways!

Teach this on both sides.

Now move your cue up to the side of his hip. When the cue was further down at first it was more obvious to the horse what was needed. He will readily trial the step-away response for the new cue.

Once this is acquired on both sides, find a sturdy mounting block that has some room for you to move around on it without falling off. Park your horse with his head near your hip. Reach over his back with the whip and tap on your ‘move over’ spot.

Because you have changed the context of the response and are now on the other side of him, he may try moving towards the pressure. Keep tapping through any wrong answers until he hits on the correct one again and steps towards you, away from the whip taps.


When this is reliable, you can add a voice cue such as ‘Over’ before tapping him and soon your horse will park himself beside the block for mounting!

Another useful exercise to teach for solving mounting problems is ‘Park’, especially if you prefer to mount from the ground. See this article for instructions.

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. 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.

Out in the Cold


As the weather gets colder and we start to put on layers and stay inside, it is easy to assume that our horses would prefer to be inside a heated building, in the comfort of a deep bedded stall. Sometimes we keep horses inside for our own convenience—they can’t get dirty, don’t take as long to catch, or can cool down before being put outside—but sometimes it is done from the honest conviction that the horse would prefer it that way.

Many people know about the evidence to the contrary, that horses tend to develop abnormal behaviour when kept inside, such as cribbing, weaving, stall walking, and aggression. However, we’ve also heard that providing the horse with a toy or two and a hay net makes his life in the box stall a pampered one.

These are well-intentioned attempts to make the box nicer for the horse, but their effect is quite limited. Here are the facts about what these ‘enrichments’ actually do for the horse. I end with practical suggestions for housing that more closely suits the horse’s needs.


We all want our horses to have a good life. That’s why we buy them treats and new brushes and fit their saddles and get blankets—and, all to often, bring them inside for the winter. Wanting them to have a good life is equivalent to wanting them to have good welfare. Welfare refers to quality of life—how easily a creature is able to adapt to its environment (Waran, 2002). If it is difficult or entirely impossible to completely adapt to the environment, the animal has poor welfare. If it can adapt and fit in, there is good welfare.

When horses show stereotypical behaviour (repetitive, abnormal behaviours like cribbing), aggression towards humans, behaviours caused by stress, or lack of engagement in the environment, these are attempts by the horse to cope with an environment that it doesn’t easily fit into. The presence of these four criteria can be used to assess welfare, and were used by Ruet et al (2019) in their study of housing horses in boxes.

It is easy to see how saddles illustrate this. A horse can never adapt its back to a poorly fitting saddle, and is likely to show aggression when it is put on and stress related behaviours when being ridden, so the saddle compromises its welfare. For a well-fitting saddle, however, the horse is adapted already, and its welfare is improved.

The same comparison may be made for any situation. Let’s see how it applies to box stalls.

Enriching the Box

The goal of enrichment is to make animals in an unnatural environment more likely to display the natural behaviours they would engage in in a natural environment. Bulens et al (2013) note that the most effective enrichment is providing something for the horse to eat, as 50-70% of their time is spent eating normally. In their study they used a bottle filled with sand and suspending from the ceiling, and a rope similarly suspended for the horse to play with. They found that the enriching effects of these objects were similar to other studies that looked at commercially available horse toys. Any beneficial effect was quite limited because they did not allow the horse to increase normal behaviour (locomotion, and interaction with other horses).

Ruet et al (2019) examined 12 factors in the lives of stabled horses: sex, age, time spent in the box, whether there was a window into the next stall, the bedding type, how much feed was given, how much concentrated feed was given, what discipline the horse was used in, the level of performance, the number of competitions, hours spent working per week, and lunging or walking time per week. Only three of these factors exhibited a positive change in the horse’s behaviour: straw bedding seemed to reduce aggression towards humans, a box with a window also reduced aggression, and less concentrated feed reduced repetitive abnormal behaviours, especially cribbing.

In short, enrichments weren’t as enriching as originally thought.

The Effect of Turn Out

Unresponsiveness to the environment, no longer showing interest in events or happenings around it, increases the more time the horse spends inside. This is shown by a withdrawn posture, where the head is level with the back, the ears do not move much, and the horse just does nothing (Ruet et al, 2019). While there is a place for horses to rest in a posture similar to this, this refers to an abnormal amount of time spent in this posture.

Horses that show stressed behaviours in the box, like pacing, calling out, or holding an alert posture for long periods are most likely to begin to slip into unresponsiveness, suggesting that these behaviours may be comparable to anxiety and depression (Ruet et al, 2019).

These behaviours are all reduced or non-existent when horses are studied at pasture with social interaction and space to move freely; to prevent this downward slide into poor welfare, avoid keeping a horse inside (Mills and Clarke, 2002).

Surviving Stall Rest

Horses that receive some turnout display the four indicators less often, showing an improvement in welfare, or at least a reduction in the deterioration of welfare caused by living inside (Ruet et al, 2019).

However, sometimes it is absolutely necessary to keep a horse confined inside, such as in stall rest. In this situation, using anything that may help the horse cope is advisable (Mills and Clarke, 2002). Allowing contact with another horse, providing a variety of food and a constant supply of fibre, keeping the lights on, and anything to keep the horse interested in the environment through sounds and sights can all help to reduce the negative welfare implications of forced stall rest.

We Live in Canada

What about when it is cold? The thermoneutral zone of horses, where there is no increased effort to maintain internal body temperature, is between -15 and 10 degrees Celsius in still air, and between 5 and 25 degrees Celsius under more normal environmental conditions (Morgan, 1998). Below 5 degrees the horse’s metabolism must increase to maintain internal temperature (Morgan, 1998). Providing continuous access to food to support the increase in metabolism along with adequate shelter is sufficient for the horse to maintain its internal temperature and body condition score over winter without compromising welfare (Mejdell and Bøe, 2005).


Horses were designed to live outside and express normal behaviour, to move freely in groups of other horses, to eat for most of the day, to avoid fear and distress, and to be able to avoid unpleasant or painful situations. While these ‘five freedoms’ have been criticized by some, they are still a good general guide (Mills and Clarke, 2002). The four factors used in Ruet et al’s (2019) study are also not all-encompassing and other factors and indicators should also be studied.

If your horse is quiet in the box, is he ‘good to stable’ or is he withdrawing from his environment?

If your horse chews any exposed wood, is he ‘trying to annoy you’ or expressing that his normal behaviours are being frustrated?

If your horse is vigilant and pacing in his box, is he ‘full of beans’ or on the road through anxiety to depression?

If your horse shows aggression towards you, is he being ‘naughty’ or coping with a suboptimal environment by letting the frustration out—towards you?

If you have the option, are you going to keep your horse inside and compromise his welfare, or let him be a horse as much as possible?


Bulens, A; Van Beirendonck, S; Van Thielen, J; and Driessen, B. (2013) The enriching effect of non-commercial items in stabled horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 143:46–51 

Mejdell, CM and Bøe, KE. (2005) Responses to climatic variables of horses housed outdoors under Nordic winter conditions. Can. J. Anim. Sci. 85: 307–308.

Mills, DS and Clarke, A. (2002) Housing, Management, and Welfare. In: The Welfare of Horses: Waran, N (editor) Springer: Dordrecht, The Netherlands.

Morgan, K. (1998) Thermoneutral Zone and Critical Temperatures of Horses. J. therm. Biol. 23:1 pp. 59-61

Ruet, A; Lemarchand, J; Parias, C; Mach, N; Moisan, M-P; Foury, A; Briant, C; and Lansade, L. (2019) Housing Horses in Individual Boxes Is a Challenge with Regard to Welfare. Animals 9:621

Waran, N. (2002) Preface. In: The Welfare of Horses: Waran, N (editor) Springer: Dordrecht, The Netherlands.

Are Horses Intelligent?

Before you say, ‘of course!’…


It is important to define words that can mean different things to different people. The word of interest here is ‘intelligence’. What is intelligence?

Jacques Lautrey (2004) has proposed this definition: “Intelligence is… the capacity of an organism—or of an artificial system—to modify itself to adapt its behaviour to the constraints of its environment… But this cognitive ability to adapt does not qualify as intelligence unless it is generalizable to a fairly high degree, that is, if it appears in different situations….”

Comparing Intelligence

While no scientist will agree with another on a definition, there seems to be a general consensus that every species is ‘intelligent’ in a certain way. There are many forms of intelligence. While the number and type of these forms is also debated, one scientist (Howard Gardner, 1985) proposed eight types, and observed that each species of animal had strengths and weaknesses in each of the eight types. Rats are spatially intelligent, for example, and birds are musically intelligent (Leblanc, 2013).

For this reason, comparing levels of intelligence between species (i.e. between horses and humans) is essentially meaningless. Comparing one horse’s strengths to another horse’s, or to the general horse population, is more meaningful than comparing a horse’s strengths with a human’s strengths to determine comparative intelligence (Leblanc, 2013).

Intelligence and Cognition

Now, the way we use the word ‘intelligence’ in everyday life really doesn’t make this matter any simpler. Depending on the context we use it in, it could mean many different things, from the ability to learn to possessing the power of reason. In scientific literature, ‘intelligence’ is typically used of behaviour that is begun by an innate response, such as an instinct, and allows the creature to make specific adaptations in response to specific problems (Vauclair, 1996). In contrast, they may use the word ‘cognition’ to describe the way an animal learns and processes information, allowing a creature to adapt to unpredictable changes in its environment. The distinction is subtle, but fairly important.

So, when an animal is able to adapt a response that it has learned already (as opposed to an instinctive response) to a new situation, and when the newly adapted response can itself be generalized to suit other new situations, the animal has cognitive ability (Leblanc, 2013).

Both intelligent responses and cognitive responses are observed in horses. When we speak of these mental abilities in relation to trained responses, however, cognition is the more accurate ability to measure.

A Helpful Way to Think about Intelligence

We may consider a horse to be intelligent if he learns a new concept easily (and by extension not intelligent if they do not learn quickly). However, training is influenced by at least eight massive variables: learning ability, the human’s knowledge and skill, the horse’s temperament, conformation, history, and health, and the training environment (McGreevy and McLean, 2010). It is more helpful, then, to think of controlling these variables rather than appealing to the horse’s intelligence.

Further, we may consider a horse to be intelligent if he seems able to read our minds. However, this is really a product of the eight variables above, where the horse has learned to recognize subtle cues. This is usually a result of the horse’s adeptness at making associations and generalizing (McGreevy and McLean, 2010).

Finally, a horse may be considered intelligent if he has learned behaviour that thwarts his handler’s wishes. This again, however, if a product of the eight influences on training, and is more an indication of how these factors have affected the horse’s environment than a reflection of the horse’s level of intelligence (McGreevy and McLean, 2010).

What this Means

In our interactions with horses, it is counter-productive to our goal (and our morale) to wonder if the horse is more or less intelligent than we are. What we should be most concerned about, in order to really understand our horses and relate to them better, is comprehending the horse’s cognition, which includes learning processes, mental capacity, and information processing (Leblanc, 2013). Understanding how these processes differ from ours will enable us to treat the horse as a horse—leading to improved welfare for the horse and greater success for us.

Conwy Lloyd Morgan (1894) proposed this principle, known as Morgan’s canon, which makes a great deal of sense even now: “in no case may we interpret an action as the outcome of a higher psychical faculty, if it can be interpreted as the outcome of the exercise of one that stands lower in the psychological scale”.

In other words, if your horse knocked you over with his nose, it is probably more accurate to say that he learned to push in order to receive food than that he is trying to get back at you for forgetting to bring treats.


Gardner, H. (1985) Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Lautrey, J. (2004) Hauts potentiels et talents: La position actuelle du problème. Psychologie Française49:219-32

Leblanc, M. (2013) The Mind of the Horse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McGreevy, P and McLean, A. (2010) Equitation Science. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Morgan, CL (1894) Introduction to Comparative Psychology. London: Scott.

Vauclair, J. (1996) Animal Cognition: An Introduction to Modern Comparative Psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


He’s Headshy

‘He’s headshy.’ That one simple statement provokes a groan. But even horses that aren’t headshy can be incredibly evasive of the bridle.

So many owners have trouble doing the simple task of bridling their horse. Why can’t he just put his head down and open his mouth?

Even if you’ve never struggled with this, your horse probably does something you don’t like! Read on and see if you can put the principles I show to use with your horse.

Start Simple.

Start without the bridle. Chances are your horse has learned context specific behaviour; in other words, his head goes up when the bridle or your hand comes near, but not otherwise. Start handling his head without the bridle first. Make sure that you wear proper safety gear.

Horses learn what works for them. If he wants to get your hand off his head, whatever behaviour removes your hand fastest is the one he will learn. So be careful to only remove your hand when his head is still.

Progress Slowly.

One short session every two or three days (or every day if that is more convenient) is plenty. Horses learn faster with an interval of a day or two in-between training. Gradually expect your horse to keep his head still for longer. Then teach him to put his head down by removing pressure when he does.

Be Effective.

If you reward your horse randomly, he won’t know what you want. Same if you punish. Wait for the response you want, but also don’t wait too long. Find something that motivates your horse to try answers, and be quick to tell him when he hits the right answer.

Reach the Goal.

When you introduce the bridle again, your horse will go right back to its old behaviour. Don’t worry, that is normal. But now you have the tools to have him relax again while the bridle is on your arm. Go through every step you taught him before until he is relaxed again.

Then bring the bridle closer. As soon as he loses his head posture, stop there and work through it again. You’ll find he relaxed faster with each repetition. With simple steps, patience, and consistency, you’ll have that bridle on his head.

I help people whose horses aren’t behaving the way they want through training like this all the time. I offer lessons and training, but sometimes you just need a little article to set you on the right track.

Check out other helpful articles here.

Respect and Your Horse

How you see respect

So much of the horse training world is built on respect. Your horse has to respect you, because if he doesn’t he will walk all over you, push through you, or not do what you tell him to. That is frustrating and even dangerous.

The concept of respect also puts a lot of pressure on you. How? Well, if your horse doesn’t respect you, it must be because of something you’ve done (or not done), right? That is stressful! Or maybe he’s just a bad horse. That’s even worse—I love horses and can’t stand discounting one as being ‘just bad’.

How your horse sees respect

This is going to sound strange.

Your horse doesn’t look at you and think, ‘I respect this person, I’ll do what she says,’ or even, ‘I don’t respect this person, I won’t do what she says.’

Yet, it is still true that sometimes your horse does what you say and sometimes he doesn’t. So, if this isn’t caused by respect, what causes it?

Your horse is acting on what he has learned. If he is rewarded in some way for performing a behaviour you like, he is going to do it again so he can feel that reward again. That behaviour worked for him, got him something he wanted.

In the same way, if he is rewarded for performing a behaviour you don’t like, he is also going to do it again. The reward is teaching him what he should do.

What this means for your relationship

Just—stand still!

Nothing starts a ride off badly like your horse pinning you against the wall of the tie stall or stepping on your foot—just because he is nervous and can’t seem to stand still and wait for you! This article explores why some horses dance around and how you can teach them to chill out.

What’s the Fuss?

You’ve asked your horse to stop, and you tied him up. What happens when he starts moving his feet again? He has failed the Rhythm level of the shaping scale by not continuing to do what you’ve told him to until you ask for something else. What does that mean? It means this is a training issue, not a respect or impatience issue.

Looking at the problem in these strictly objective terms helps to expose the solution. If he is moving without being asked, he just needs to be taught to not move until asked.

So, what we need to do is ‘shape’ the ‘stop’ response so it includes stopping (which we will assume he already does well) and staying stopped. Shaping is systematically rewarding behaviour that is closer and closer to what you want until the horse reaches the desired behaviour.

So, What do I do?

Check your horse’s stopping. To proceed with training Park, your horse will need to stop in two steps from light pressure on the lead rope.

* If you horse stops in two steps when you stop your feet, it doesn’t count. Why? If your cue for your horse to stop is when you stop your feet, his cue to move is therefore when you move your feet. That means he has permission to move while he is tied up because you are moving. Having a clear cue that shows the horse when it must stand still is necessary. Some cowboys drop the lead rope. I prefer using backwards pressure on the halter. Choose a cue and stick to it.

Ok, he stops well. Grab a dressage whip (it is long enough to be useful but not so long it is cumbersome). Make sure your horse doesn’t fear it. A whip is a cue, not a punishment. If he tries to run away, you will have to get him used to it being around before you can use it. When he is comfortable with you having it, teach him to step backwards when you tap the front of his legs lightly.

Holding your lead rope in one hand and the whip in the other, face your horse so you can see his feet. Step backwards, away from him, just one small step. Did he move? If he follows you, tap the front of the leg that moved until it goes back. Don’t get upset; he just made a small mistake, and you corrected it. Horses don’t learn well from punishment, so calm, quick correction is the best way to teach.

Try stepping away again. As he gets better you can be more creative with how you move. Can you get him to make a mistake? Run away, leap away, jog circles around him, veer off on an unexpected angle. Correct any mistakes and go back to the last level he was successful at to practice.

How Long will it Take?

If you spend 15 minutes on this every time you handle your horse, and if you are consistent and clear, your horse should be standing very nicely most of the time in a few weeks. Keep in mind that when you start going out of sight, you are changing the context of how he learned to stand still (previously you were always in his sight) and he might make more mistakes. If you go to a new area, he may also make more mistakes. Introduce new situations in small steps and give consistent correction. Don’t forget to practice when he is tied as well!

As always, if you’re trying to make headway and it isn’t working, you know who to call! Contact me for help.

5 Horse Principles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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