Laddie: Horse Shy

As a five year old green-broke horse, Laddie’s only riding experience was alone on trails. When he was acquired for further training, the arena was a new experience and being ridden close to other horses was too. He shied at everything, and any time another horse came too close he would stop suddenly and run backwards, or shoot forwards. This anxiety made him tense and the rider often felt like he was about to buck until he got going.

Anxiety in a new situation is very normal. Controlling these reactions, however, is key to achieving relaxation and habituation (Principle 1). At first, when any correction of unwanted behaviour was made, no matter how mild, the anxiety increased and he seemed unable to trial new behaviour, showing a negative state of mind (Principle 4). Instead of starting directly with the shying and hyperactive behaviour, then, cues he already knew were used and his responses rewarded until he began to offer improved responses and show interest in figuring out what was required (Principle 3).

Then a new cue for ‘turn’ was installed using two light whip taps on the shoulder and transferred to the reins (Principle 7) so that any random turning, in a shy for example, could be corrected (Principle 6).

The ‘go’ cue was also re-installed, as sometimes it caused stopping or moving backwards instead of going forwards (Principle 9).

With these new cues, overshadowing was used (Principle 5) near areas of the arena that caused anxious responses until go and stop were light in those areas.

The number of horses in the arena was then increased and their proximity to Laddie was decreased using the same go, stop, and turn cues (Principle 8) until riding past another horse elicited no unasked change, and finally being ridden past produced no random movement either (Principle 10).

Laddie is now calmer about new situations, and is more willing to try new behaviour for a new cue, indicating a generally better state of mind (Principle 4).

Bailey: Aggressive Therapy Horse

This 22 year old mare had been used as a therapeutic riding horse for 5 years. During therapy sessions, she would not obey cues provided by the rider, requiring her handler to intervene. Her teeth would be grinding for the entire session, and periodically she would try to bite her handler, often resulting in an aggressive response from the handler. While being prepared for a lesson she would show signs of restlessness and aggression to the point where the Association wasn’t sure they could keep using her.

Aggression is always an alert to something being unclear or confusing in the horse’s training. The therapeutic association was right in questioning their continued use of her (Principle 1), but finding the cause would have been better. Responding with aggression typically makes the behaviour worse (Principle 2).

Bailey tended to grind her teeth when cued to stop, showing confusion about what the cue meant (Principle 9). The stop response was retrained, starting at obedience because she would slow a little bit when pressure was applied (Principle 8). Care was taken that there was no pressure when she was not being asked for something. The teeth grinding suddenly diminished, and the biting stopped entirely.

Next she was taught to ‘park’, an extension of the stop response. This was used in the tacking area, and when she realized that all that was required was standing still and not moving she quickly relaxed and even appeared to enjoy being groomed, wiggling her ears and lips when being brushed on the neck (Principle 5).

With the tension and conflict gone, she quickly became a favourite among the volunteers, and was able to continue serving as a therapy horse.

Hemi: Dirty Jumper

Although his behaviour had been growing steadily worse, no one expected this 11 year old Clydesdale- Thoroughbred lesson horse to begin running out at jumps. Students had reported his unpredictable shies, but this new behaviour began leaving them in the dirt. He gained a reputation of being ‘dirty’ when formerly everyone described him as a ‘teddy bear.’

The clue to this horse is his consistent behaviour. Shying and running out both demonstrate a loss of self-carriage of direction (Principle 10) when the shoulders suddenly turn without a cue, thus throwing riders (Principle 1).

Hemi was retrained to turn his shoulders from a rein cue using operant conditioning (Principle 6). To consolidate the new behaviour, he was ridden in areas where he was known to shy, and the retrained cue was applied during a mistake to bring his shoulders back to the rider’s line (Principle 10).

Upon approaching jumps again, Hemi lost rhythm immediately preceding an attempt to run around the jump, thus failing rhythm and straightness levels of the shaping scale (Principle 8). After training improved transitions within and between gaits, walking up to a low jump (underriding) was used to cause him to speed up just before a jump, producing a drawing effect on the approach and a clean effort over the jump.

Because running out was quite rewarding, the habit meant Hemi could not be returned to the lesson program immediately. However, with practice of the new behaviour by a rider using equitation science, he should successfully return to work.

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.

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.