Last Call: Language Course

I have posted some excerpts here from my latest writing project, the horse language course, over the last couple of months. Those posts were well-received, so I can’t imagine any of you readers of my articles not finding the course helpful… so why not sign up? The end of tomorrow is the deadline, as the course starts on January 1.

To qualify for this first discounted intake, you have to be willing to do a few things for me:

1. Give me feedback. When something doesn’t make sense, doesn’t work, even if you just notice a typo, send me an email. I want to fix any issues, big or little.

3. Keep track of how much time you spend working on the course each week. My current estimate is 4-8 hours per week, with 6 weeks of material and 8 weeks to complete it in. I need help to see if those expectations need adjusting for the next intake.

2. Write a review at the end of the course, either emailing it to me or posting it on my Facebook page.

If you think you can do those three things, send me an email through the form below to claim your spot. I’ll email back to confirm if there is room. Then you can send an eTransfer. When I receive the payment in full ($150+GST only for the first intake, then it will be $200+GST), you will receive confirmation from me and will get the welcome email with your password to the course automatically on January 1.

Looking forward to seeing you inside!

The Art of Shaping

Being able to shape a behaviour is imperative for any trainer. Without the ability to read our minds, animals can’t offer us a perfect, exactly correct behaviour on the first try, especially when the training progresses to complicated movements. Instead, the trainer has a picture in mind of the end behaviour and progressively rewards behaviours closer and closer to the end goal. This is called ‘successive approximation’.

Artists use this too, and an analogy from art may make the art of shaping easier to understand.

The End Goal

When an artist begins work, there is a goal. This goal may be a photograph they are trying to emulate, or a picture in their head.

The trainer must also have a goal as specific as a photograph, down to the last detail. Where is the horse’s focus, where are the feet, what exactly starts the behaviour and what exactly stops it?

The Basic Attempt

The artist starts with a rough sketch. It is in the right direction, it has many of the characteristics of the photo, but is also very different. Only a few details are present, and only faintly. There is a lot of work to be done.

The trainer sees the horse begin to understand the basic concept and rewards the horse’s tries.


In art, this stage is the one where I notice mistakes in the original pencil sketch. After putting it away for a day or two, I see things that don’t look quite right or aren’t proportional. I fix these as I move on to adding bolder outlines of the key areas.

In training, obedience is the level that breaks most often when something goes wrong in training. This is the level to come back to and refine from.


Each medium is different, but in art with coloured pencils you start with a base layer of the lightest colour to be found and progressively darken and shade from there.

In training, rhythm is the base layer, required for balance and cadence and willingness in any trained response.


I don’t get the correct shade right away, and have to keep layering colours to produce the desired tone. Sometimes I have to go back to the base layer and add more in certain areas, sometimes using creativity when I am not getting quite the effect I want. There are often unexpected colours in a sketch. This one uses some blue and green!

This goes for training as well, when training rhythm in a movement, straightness is required to maintain it. When training straightness, rhythm is required to maintain it. Creative exercises help to progress this area of training.


Most places on the drawing are finished, or nearly so. Some refinement remains on the outline or key parts to make sure they stand out properly, and look just the way I want them.

Contact in training refines the last portions of the horse’s posture that have not yet fallen into place. Very often they are already partially present due to the previous correct training.


The drawing is complete. The last details are in place. The colour is true—and because the artist had a clear goal (photo) in the first place, the drawing is actually nicer than the original. The lighting is better, and there is no noisy background.

Shaping a behaviour slowly over time may actually give you a better result than you had pictured!

And that drawing of course is of Tesla, my beautiful mare.

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.

Does Soft-talking Improve Training Outcomes?

Horse people talk to their horses. We praise them, cajole them, complain to them, tell them our cares and worries, and sometimes even shout at them. Many of us believe our tone of voice, if not the words, affect our horse’s behaviour. Heleski et al conducted a study in 2014 to find out to what extent soothing voice cues versus harsh ones assist in training.

Their hypothesis was that a soothing cue as the horse progressed through a potentially frightening task would improve the speed with which the horse was able to complete it calmly, while a harsh cue provided as the horse progressed would slow down the learning process and increase arousal.

Over 100 horses from different stables through Europe and the United States had five trials to cross a tarpaulin spread on the ground. The horses were randomly assigned to harsh voice treatment (quit it!) and soothing voice treatment (good horse). The handler led the horse towards the tarp using pressure and release on the halter, adding the vocal cue appropriate to the horse’s random assignment for each correct step towards the tarp. If the first crossing attempt took longer than ten minutes, the horse was considered to have failed. The goal was for horses to cross calmly within five trials. The time taken to cross each time, the horse’s heart rate, and its general behaviour were observed and recorded.

Interestingly, their findings were opposite to their hypotheses. There was no significant difference between harsh voice and soothing voice treatment groups in the percentage of horses that failed the learning task, in the groups’ average heart rates, or in the total time each group required to cross calmly. The maximum heart rate of the soothing voice group was actually higher than that of the harsh voice group.

There were no significant correlations with the horses’ ages when taken as an average. However, when 3-4 year old horses were compared with those 20 years or more, the older ones had much less latency to cross.

In the end, the harsh voice treatment group actually completed the learning task significantly faster than the soothing voice group. The researchers hypothesized that these unexpected results may show that tone of voice is either not distinguishable to the horse, or is not as salient to the horse as pressure cues, and may have ended up being perceived as ‘background noise’. They also suggested that handlers who were more familiar to the horses might have produced different results.

This suggests that while a soothing voice is likely not inherently calming to a horse in a novel situation, yelling at a horse for unwanted behaviour is equally ineffective. It is, however, theoretically possible with classical conditioning to teach a horse the difference between soothing voice and harsh voice. A soothing voice may additionally help the handler to remain calm, and correlations between horse and handler heart rates have been previously shown.

So, keep talking to your horse. Just realize that he is not taking in everything you are saying, and how you are saying it. Instead, make sure your training is clear so you get the responses you want.

Heleski, C; Wickens, C; Minero, M; Dalla Costa, E; Wu, C; Czeszak, E; and Köenig von Borstel, U. (2015) Do soothing vocal cues enhance horses’ ability to learn a frightening task? Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, 10(1):41-47.

Horse Emotions

Introduction and Definition of Terms

When a horse is worried about something, he doesn’t pay much attention to you. That’s when his ‘arousal’ level is high.

A horse can also be optimistic or pessimistic—he can expect a new experience to be positive or negative. That’s his ‘emotional state’.

His level of arousal and emotional state taken together are his ‘affective state’ and dictate the quality of work he is capable of and what kind of reinforcement will be most effective for training at that moment.

Being able to read a horse’s affective state and respond appropriately in the moment could make the difference between raising his arousal level further until he can no longer interact with you and making significant progress towards your goal, whether that goal is quality time with him or higher steps in piaffe.

How Arousal is Created

We don’t yet know exactly what levels of arousal are ideal for training new behaviours. However, common sense and practical experience agree that if the horse is not aroused enough (if he is asleep), or if he is too aroused (if he fears for his life), there will be little useful interaction between horse and human.

Determining what level of arousal will be best for the intended activity with a horse could greatly benefit the interaction. For a therapy session, a very relaxed horse with a low level of arousal is preferred. For resolving a behaviour problem, a higher level of arousal will be needed so the horse is motivated to trial new responses and find the correct one. For shaping a trained behaviour, medium arousal will be best, so the horse can think about what is being asked.

How Negative Affective States are Created

We know more about negative affective states than positive because animal welfare criteria used to be based on the absence of negatives rather than the presence of positives. Positive experiences were finally introduced in the 2020 Five Domains Model.

When a horse’s expectations of the outcome of certain behaviours or events are not met, the difference between expectations and actual outcome creates frustration. Frustration in any or all of the four physical domains (Nutrition, Physical Environment, Health, and Behavioural Interactions) will create a negative state in the fifth Mental domain. This negative state can contribute to aggressive behaviour and, if frustration continues, will create a long term negative outlook. The use of punishment in training can also contribute to a negative state.

How Positive Affective States are Created

Use of the principles of equitation science in training has been shown to help avoid negative affective states during training. For welfare, however, it is not enough to avoid the negative. Working actively to help create a positive experience for the horse will contribute to positive affect and relationship.

In a study by Freymond et al, horses trained with addition reinforcement (where something pleasant is given to the horse to reinforce correct behaviour) were found to have more positive emotional states than those trained with subtraction reinforcement (where something

unpleasant is taken away to reinforce correct behaviour). Interestingly though, after the training session the subtraction-reinforced horses experienced a more positive overall emotional state than the addition-reinforced horses had. This suggests that trainers and owners employing combined reinforcement (use of both addition and subtraction reinforcement) may be able to positively influence their horse’s mood.


Awareness of how a horse is currently feeling is a great asset to any horse person. This knowledge makes it easier to predict what the horse will do in any given situation, enhancing safety and even making it possible to change plans to create a positive experience for the horse.

Keeping the lowest level of arousal required for the activity is essential to good training, positive welfare, and good relationship. Not everything in the human-horse relationship is going to contribute to a positive emotional state (for example, horses are unlikely to ask for a vaccination!), but even the negatives can be countered in other ways to develop an overall positive affective state in a horse.


Creighton, E. (2007) Equine learning behaviour: limits of ability and ability limits of trainers. Behav. Process. 76, 43–44.

Freymond SB; Briefer EF; Zollinger A; Gindrat-von Allmen Y; Wyss C; and Bachmann I. (2014) Behaviour of horses in a judgment bias test associated with positive or negative reinforcement. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 158, 34–45.

Mellor, DJ; Beausoleil, NJ; Littlewood, KE; McLean, AN; McGreevy, PD; Jones, B; and Wilkins, C. (2020) The 2020 Five Domains Model: Including Human-Animal Interactions in Assessments of Animal Welfare. Animals 10, 1870. Open access: 2076-2615/10/10/1870

Olczak, K., Nowicki, J., and Klocek, C. (2016) Motivation, stress, and learning–critical characteristics that influence the horses’ value and training method–a review. Ann. Anim. Sci. 16, 641–652.

Starling, MJ; Branson, N; Cody, D; and McGreevy, PD. (2013) Conceptualising the Impact of Arousal and Affective State on Training Outcomes of Operant Conditioning. Animals 3. Open access:

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Can horse training outcomes be predictable?

A primary aim of horse training is to create a predictable animal that is useful and enjoyable to be around. However, when a unique person trains a unique horse, it is almost oxymoronic to suppose that the outcome of the training could be predictable. When the trainer understands and makes use of the ten first principles of equitation science, however, training can have more effective and predictable outcomes, with less stress and confusion for the horse in the process.

The ten first principles explain how horses learn so trainers can avoid any training techniques that are questionable or detrimental and use to full advantage the tenets of learning theory. Because the principles show how training works, it becomes obvious to the trainer why some methods do not work and others do. This creates a more streamlined training process with less trial and error on the trainer’s part so the horse can be guided through learning with clear and consistent methods.

This approach makes a lot of sense, as consistent and clear communication leads to fewer misunderstandings, resulting in less confusion for the horse. Confusion causes flight and defence behaviours in the horse as it tries to escape the conflicting situation, so the ability of a trainer to avoid fear and conflict results in humane, effective training. Sensitive communication with the horse through a willingness to observe the horse’s state of mind can even create a better relationship between the horse and its trainer, and ultimately between the horse and any people who interact with it in the future.

The trainer with a working knowledge of equitation science is skilled in predicting what behaviour a horse may offer next. This ability is achieved by observing and interpreting the body language, posture, or demeanour of the horse, and then adapting the techniques being used so that the horse remains in a trainable mental state. A horse that is too stressed cannot learn well, and neither can a horse that is so relaxed it is almost asleep. Any person who has intentionally honed their equine observation skills will be able to tailor their training to the horse’s mental state if they choose to, but learning the principles of equitation science is likely to lessen the time necessary to learn this important skill.

Horses are very routine oriented. When the outcome they expect from a certain behaviour or event is not met, frustration occurs. Constant frustration through inconsistency can create a long-term negative mood which may lead to aggression. The use of punishment in training is a major contributor to frustration, as punishment only tells the horse what not to do and does not redirect their behaviour in a positive way. When a horse is in a negative mental state, he is getting ready to protect himself, whereas in a positive state he is engaged with the trainer and makes fewer mistakes.

Without a proper understanding of how horses learn, training results may vary. If a trainer misunderstands how to apply negative reinforcement (also known as subtraction reinforcement, where an aversive is removed to reinforce behaviour) conflict behaviours may emerge, and with practice these behaviours become trained responses, perhaps rendering the horse dangerous. Without the proper understanding of a horse’s cognitive ability, horse behaviour can easily be misinterpreted, causing the trainer to apply a training technique inappropriate for the situation, starting a cycle of decreased welfare and ineffective training.

Poorly trained basic responses, such as stop, go, and turn, have been shown to go hand in hand with fear and conflict behaviours. Therefore, training (or retraining) these basic responses in accordance with equitation science principles will mitigate fear and conflict in the horse, resulting in the desired training outcome: a useful and enjoyable animal that also receives some benefit from its interactions with people.

Does Equitation Science Provide the Predicted Benefits to Horses and Horse Handlers? A Review


Since the inception of equitation science, there have been many predictions by researchers that this discipline will produce multiple benefits to horses and the humans interacting with them. These predictions fall into five broad categories: Welfare, Safety, Training, Economics, and Relationship. Each of the categories are closely related, and so each of these claims also depend on and support one another. After more than ten years of research in these areas, many of these predictions of the benefits of equitation science remain founded on anecdotal evidence and logic, though some evidence has been garnered from research. The subject of horse welfare has been the most studied in relation to equitation science, consistently showing expected welfare benefits of equitation science. Relationship and economics are the least studied with respect to elucidating the benefits of employing equitation science principles, while the benefits of the most immediately applicable categories of safety and training have received little support from the literature. A review of the equitation science literature, and an evaluation of the claims made, has been undertaken to determine whether the predicted benefits have materialized in practice as well as to identify opportunities for further research that will demonstrate more conclusively the benefits claimed by equitation science practitioners.

Keywords: equitation science, welfare, safety, training, economics, relationship


Measuring interactions between horses and their handlers and riders has been recently popularized by the maturing discipline of equitation science (McGreevy, 2007). Equitation science is based on learning theory and seeks to measure interactions between horses and humans with the goal of determining what practices are useful for improving these interactions (McGreevy and McLean, 2010). It is not, therefore, a horse training method. These human-horse interactions are the subject of a review by Hausberger et al (2008) who suggest that relationships are built upon previous interactions, with an overall positive interaction building a positive step for the relationship, and an overall negative interaction doing the opposite. They posit that understanding learning rules would help to facilitate positive interactions. Having a relationship with a horse tends to produce an interest in the horse’s welfare, which Baragli et al (2015) evaluate in terms of equine learning. The ability of horses to learn affects their usefulness in the horse industry’s economy (Murphy and Arkins, 2007; Olczak et al, 2016) and the safety of the horse and handler during all interactions (Waran et al, 2002).

Since the inception of equitation science, many predictions have been made by researchers that this discipline will produce benefits to horses and the humans interacting with them. These predictions fall into five broad categories: Welfare, Safety, Training, Economics, and Relationship. Much of the support for these claims comes from the researchers’ logical deductions from their study findings and their own experience. After more than ten years of such studies and predictions, it is reasonable to begin investigating whether or not equitation science is fulfilling the roles expected of it. If equitation science indeed improves welfare, the appalling behavioural wastage rate of horses could be reduced. If equitation science improves safety, the unacceptable injury rate to riders could be diminished. If equitation science improves training, horses could be more easily and effectively trained, leading to improved usefulness and better economics. Finally, if equitation science improves human-horse relationships, all other categories could be positively affected. This review examines the equitation science literature regarding the claims made about the benefits of using the principles set forth. The purpose of this review is to determine whether these benefits are being realized in practice, as well as to identify opportunities for further research to elucidate whether or not equitation science has conferred a net benefit on the horse industry.


The most oft-cited claim in the literature discussing equitation science is improved equine welfare. According to Thompson and Haigh (2018), the very aim of equitation science is to improve welfare. Animal welfare is related to the quality of an individual’s life (Waran, 2002), and involves the animal’s caretaker making ethical, moral, and aesthetic decisions (Thompson and Haigh, 2018). It is proposed that when horse handlers understand and use the 10 first principles of equitation science (ISES, 2017), the limitations of the horse will be understood and its behaviour will be interpreted and responded to appropriately by the handler (Ladewig, 2007), resulting in improved welfare (Starling et al, 2016). Equitation science is also said to remove emotiveness from welfare debates (Goodwin et al, 2008), to create standardized methods of research (Pierard et al, 2015), and reduce wastage of horses to abattoirs for behavioural reasons (McGreevy and McLean, 2007; Warren-Smith and McGreevy, 2008; Doherty et al, 2017). Wastage is currently estimated at 6% for the racehorse population, and better foundation training is cited as a way to reduce this rate (Hayek et al, 2005). The concept of ethical equitation, proposed by Jones and McGreevy (2010), is based on an understanding of learning theory which underpins equitation science. All of these claims concerning the relationship between equitation science and welfare follow logically, and the relationship between normal equid behaviour and good welfare has been established (Waran et al, 2007).

The modified five domains model has been proposed as an accurate measure of equid welfare during common interventions (McGreevy et al, 2018). These five domains––nutrition, environment, health, behaviour, and mental state––are discussed below to demonstrate how equitation science is applied in each welfare domain. A weakness of this assessment tool is that it focusses on the absence of negative events, conditions, and affective states, but while these are often taken as an indication of positive affective states and excellent welfare (Hotzel et al, 2019) this may not necessarily be the case. A further refinement of the modified five domains model to include the presence of positive affective states (McGreevy et al 2018), positive events, and conditions may provide a more complete picture of a horse’s well-being during normal care and management.

Nutrition: Food or water deprivation is still practiced by some horse trainers as a means of punishing a horse or producing desired behaviour (McLean and McGreevy, 2010). Dehydration or hunger can reduce flight responses, causing a horse to become more compliant. However, nutritional deprivation is contraindicated by equitation science principles because there is unlikely to be any lasting training effect. These practices can also cause painful damage to internal organs, as cumulative food deprivation for 72 hours causes gastric ulceration (Murray and Grady, 2002) and the immune system is also negatively affected (Naylor and Kenyon, 1981).

Environment: Assessing the welfare impact of training, housing, and health interventions on the horse is said to be aided by a knowledge of equitation science, and should be the first step in deciding whether or not to apply a specific intervention to a horse (McGreevy et al, 2018). An appropriate environment is one the horse can adapt to, and which influences learning and behaviour positively (Heitor and Vicente, 2007; Sankey et al, 2010). When a horse is unable to adapt to the environment it is in, depressive behaviour can arise from its inability to perform natural behaviour (Baragli et al, 2015).

Health: Animal welfare includes behaviour medicine, in which veterinarians are expected to participate. Training and restraint methods that do not align with learning principles laid out in equitation science negatively affect welfare (Doherty et al, 2017). Good health and welfare are not affected only by disease (Derksen and Clayton, 2007) but other factors including environment and mental state, so it is predicted that veterinarians receiving training in equitation science will improve the welfare and health of their patients (Pierard et al, 2015).

Behaviour: Making learning theory (McCall, 2007), on which equitation science is based, and a knowledge of equine learning processes accessible to horse handlers is claimed to improve welfare (Heitor and Vicente, 2007; Warren-Smith and McGreevy, 2008) by helping people avoid training techniques that do not align with learning (McLean and McGreevy, 2010). These misaligned techniques can cause undesirable behaviour (Fenner et al, 2019a) including conflict and avoidance, which use of the principles of equitation science is said to mitigate (Warren-Smith and McGreevy, 2008; McLean and Christensen, 2017). Interventions that affect learning processes also affect safety and welfare (Fenner et al, 2019b). This is why Hartmann and co-workers (2019) studied the transference of leadership in horse herds to human-horse interactions. They conclude that welfare would be safeguarded through a better understanding of equine social behaviour instead of relying on the currently popular models of leadership and dominance.

The implications of improper training on horse welfare are shown by McLean (2005a) in correlations between poor trained responses and unwelcome behaviours. In-hand responses that were not immediate from a light cue often corresponded with similarly latent responses under saddle. He found that some latent responses were highly predictive of certain unwanted behaviours, for example, all 50 horses in the study with a sometimes incorrect deceleration response under saddle would also bolt. These correlations are also the subject of a review by Baragli et al (2015), who call for increased levels of competence in horse training based on learning theory.

Mental State: The importance of this final category is highlighted by the work of Mendl and Paul (2008) who conclude that understanding animals’ mental experiences is an asset to assessing welfare. According to these scientists, there are grounds to believe that horses may have an emotional memory whereby certain stimuli linked to a past event can trigger an emotional response. Because horse training relies on negative (removal) reinforcement and therefore aversive stimuli (McLean and Christensen, 2017) it is posited that horses trained to respond to light versions of these cues will experience improved welfare as they have perceived control over the amount of pressure used (Fenner et al, 2019b). It is known that horses value safety (McGreevy et al, 2014) and comfort, motivating them to find a way to remove fear or pain-inducing stimuli. When this motivation is constantly thwarted through poor timing of reward or misuse of cues to achieve a response other than the one trained, the horse may become overreactive or apathetic and welfare is affected (McLean, 2005b). Thus, when the principles of equitation science are applied correctly by the handler, improved mental state during training and riding is expected. Only one study has preliminary results demonstrating the correlation between science-based housing, handling, and care, and improved welfare. King et al (2019) cited zero foal injuries during early training while using the principles of equitation science, which is a sign of good welfare, as is the absence of fear and conflict behaviour through an ethologically aligned training program (ISES, 2017). However, welfare is multi-faceted and is difficult to measure accurately (McGreevy et al, 2018), and more data is needed to be able to confirm the welfare implications of certain training and management practices (McLean and McGreevy, 2010).


The prediction of improved safety of horse and human is also commonly found in the equitation science literature (Hawson et al, 2010). This is an important claim, as the dangerous nature of equestrian sport is well documented. A review of equestrian injury rate studies showed that the number of serious injuries per contact hours range from 1 per 350 hours to 1 per 1000 hours (Sorli, 2000). In their own study of hospital admissions and mortality associated with equestrian activities, Sorli (2000) measured a rate of only 0.49 serious injuries per 1000 contact hours, potentially due to the limited geographic area studied. While one retrospective study reported that the injury rate lessened over the 20 year period between 1990–2010 and attributed this to improved safety standards (Hasler et al, 2011), others found no reduction within certain riding populations, particularly rural or ‘cowboy’ cultures (Newton and Nielsen, 2005).

The unpredictability of horses is cited by many authors as a major contributing factor in equestrian injury, with horse behaviour accounting for 25% (Hausberger et al, 2008) to 70% (Finch and Watt, 1996) of accidents. Despite this, most authors propose helmet use as a solution (Winkler et al, 2016) which, while effective in reducing the severity of trauma (Lim et al, 2003), does nothing to modify potentially dangerous horse behaviour. Alternatively, Thompson et al (2015) and O’Connor et al (2018) suggest that training the rider to understand horse behaviour will reduce the injury rate. None of these studies, however, were designed to determine if the suggested preventative measures were effective, as they focused on determining risk factors. In regards to unpredictable behaviour, Ladewig (2019) notes the importance of body language in equine communication and explains how accurate interpretation of body language through an understanding of equine ethology can be used to predict a horse’s intentions with enough time for the handler or rider react appropriately, preventing accident or injury. Zuckerman et al (2015) concur, adding that horses older than 15 years are safer. Nevertheless, based on the large percentage of behaviour related injuries, Hasler et al (2011) propose training riders in safe practices and proper handling, and providing education in horse behaviour as the way forward to reduce handler injury. This proposal is supported by the work of Mayberry et al (2007), who found that risk of injury decreased with level of experience and education about horses, and whose findings were corroborated by Gronqvist et al (2017). Zuckerman and coworkers (2015) also found that most injuries occurred in recreational settings, suggesting that the experience afforded by being a professional equestrian acts as a safeguard. Guyton et al (2013) cite a healthy relationship with the horse as being a preventative strategy, but note: “There is a prominent subjective element to the development of the horse and rider relationship.” The authors do not seem content with this element of subjectivity, and equitation scientists claim this subjective statement is not entirely true (Hausberger et al, 2008; Sankey et al, 2010; Dalla Costa, 2015).

Thompson et al (2015) argue that horses can be made more predictable, and point out that risk is typically viewed as being imposed by the horse on its rider, and that safety is only for humans. This is poignantly clear when Safe Work Australia (2014) listed unpredictable behaviour and poor training as the problem of the horse. Instead, Thompson et al (2015) note it is often the horse’s innate drive for safety that sparks unpredictable behaviour. Mendl and Paul (2008) agree that understanding what is important to horses would improve handler safety, and McGreevy and Murphy (2009) add that this will improve safety for the horse as well. O’Connor et al (2018) see the value of this approach in their study of horse riding injuries in Victoria, Australia, proposing that a refocus on injury prevention should include improvement in the predictability of horses, a goal that proper training using the principles of equitation science could accomplish (McGreevy, 2007).

Trigg et al (2015) posit that when owners assume they have a strong bond with their pet they may be more likely to become complacent regarding safety measures. With a horse owner this behaviour may manifest as a lack of helmet use when there is an assumption of mutual trust between owner and horse; in trainers the perceived bond could influence the method used, particularly if the trainer assumes the horse knows what is required of it. Gielen and Sleet (2003) agree that human behaviours that give rise to injury are preventable using behaviour science. Complacency that ultimately led to human injury has been documented. Newton and Nielsen (2005) studied rider injuries and found that 38% were preventable because they were caused by rider carelessness or inappropriate horse/rider combination. In 69% of the cases studied by Hasler et al (2011), unpredictable horse behaviour such as taking fright, bucking, refusing a jump, or having a nervous disposition were cited by injured participants as the cause of injury.

McGreevy and McLean (2007) state that adherence to the 10 principles of equitation science (ISES 2017) would improve safety, since all training is based on associative and non-associative learning and, therefore, a knowledge of ethology and learning theory as presented in the principles would improve consistency and predictability in the horse, allowing the trainer to predict its responses (Creighton, 2007). Starling et al (2016) agree, saying that by using equitation science to train horses in alignment with their cognitive and physical abilities human safety will be improved. They discuss how certain training methods that do not align in this way exacerbate unpredictable behaviour. The 10 principles are proposed as the safety solution, particularly those related to minimizing arousal levels and conflict, which is also corroborated by the work of Fenner et al (2019a) in regard to safety during round pen training.

With respect to training, Warren-Smith and McGreevy (2008) add that only 11.9% of riding instructors who responded to their survey were able to correctly explain the use of negative reinforcement in horse training, which is the primary training modality of horses (McCall, 1990). They and DeAraugo et al (2016) argue it is likely that injury rates would decrease with increased understanding of these learning processes amongst those who educate riders. Preshaw et al (2017) see the value of this education for those working in horse rescues, where horses are likely to be in distress and potentially more dangerous, and Baragli et al (2015) foresee the same benefit for owners, breeders, and veterinarians.

While Hawson et al (2010) also look for improved predictability from the use of equitation science, to date there is only one study that comes close to providing evidence of this prediction (King et al, 2019). The study shows a zero injury rate to the horses involved in equitation science-based training, but makes no mention of the injury rate for handlers. With respect to handler injuries, the preventative effect of equitation science is also assumed by Thompson and Haigh (2018), who note that confusion about equitation science in the horse community will hinder its uptake, inhibiting improvement in safety and welfare. McLean and Christensen (2017) point out that interest in ethical training practices that promote safety may be expanding, and now is a good time to establish principles that lessen the unpredictable behaviours of conflict and avoidance.


The ‘evidence-based enlightenment’ (McLean and McGreevy, 2010) of using equitation science is predicted to unify horse training (Goodwin et al, 2009), and create more effective training with better and more predictable outcomes. This arises through a clear understanding of equine learning processes, allowing the trainer to avoid techniques with questionable or detrimental effect while leveraging learning theory to best advantage (McLean and McGreevy, 2010). The principles should, in theory, explain the mechanics behind all training methods, explaining why some training tactics work and why others do not (Goodwin, 2007; Goodwin et al, 2009). Use of equitation science principles is predicted to speed up the training process (King et al, 2019) through application of clear and consistent methods. Preshaw et al (2017) cite a reduction in flight and defence behaviours from an understanding of these principles, which could influence the speed of learning.

Goodwin et al (2009) logically make the point that effective and humane training relies on knowledge, as knowledge of how to communicate consistently leads to fewer misunderstandings, and fewer misunderstandings results in less confusion for the horse (McGreevy, 2007). Effective training improves horse behaviour, creating a safer, more useful animal (Derksen and Clayton, 2007). Humane training involves the avoidance of fear (Preshaw et al, 2017; McGreevy et al, 2014) and conflict (Goodwin et al, 2009). Some training interactions, however, are necessarily aversive, for example, initial training can be stressful for a young horse (McGreevy et al, 2014). Hausberger et al (2008) propose that by using the principles of learning theory to create a better relationship through sensitive communication (Goodwin et al, 2009) these aversive interactions can be balanced with positive ones for an overall positive relationship.

It has also been suggested that the ability to predict horse behaviour may be a trait of those knowledgeable in equitation science (Doherty et al, 2017). Ladewig (2019) claims that these predictions may be made by observing horse body language, or perhaps ideomotoric responses, which he posits may be present in all mammals. Predictions of this sort would allow the trainer to preempt dangerous behaviour and modify techniques (Creighton, 2007) to ensure the horse remains within trainable arousal levels––levels which have yet to be defined (Olczak et al, 2016). Gronqvist et al (2017) note a difference in the ability of veterinary students to predict horse behaviour is correlated to their level of horse-related experience, where those with less experience struggle to foresee dangerous situations and respond accordingly. While they suggest that equitation science is not the only tool that offers these benefits, it may speed up acquisition of this skill.

Starling et al (2013) propose that use of equitation science principles helps avoid negative affective states during training. When a horse’s expectations of the outcome of certain behaviours or events are not met, the difference between expected outcome and actual outcome produces frustration (Olczak et al, 2016). Negative moods can create aggression and long term negative affective states (Dalla Costa et al, 2015), and punishment can contribute to this state as well (Mills, 1998). In these states, the horse is monitoring a perceived threat and is ready to react to protect itself. In contrast, when in a positive affective state, induced in this study with Equine Appeasing Pheromone, horses showed increased attention and better recall of learned behaviours with fewer mistakes (Mengoli et al, 2014). Starling et al (2013) point out that awareness of affective and arousal states will increase effectiveness of training and assist in prediction of behaviour. In addition to increasing effectiveness of training (Ladewig, 2019), predicting behaviour is expected to reduce injury (Creighton, 2007; Hausberger et al, 2008; Ladewig, 2019). Finch and Watt (1996) also claim that predicting behaviour would improve safety, although their evidence is largely anecdotal.

The consequences of not understanding or utilizing the principles of equitation science during training, especially by equestrian coaches, is shown by Warren-Smith and McGreevy (2008). Consequences include misuse of negative reinforcement (McCall et al, 2003), which has been highly correlated with conflict behaviours by McLean (2005a), and increased behavioural wastage, where horses are sent to slaughter because of unsuitable behaviour. Starling et al (2016) add to this the import of understanding the limits of cognitive ability. Without this understanding behaviour is often misinterpreted, an inappropriate training technique is applied, the horse reacts to this inappropriate solution, and the cycle continues with lowered welfare, ineffective training, and increased safety risk. While the correlations between poorly trained basic responses and conflict or fear related behaviours are well documented (McLean, 2005a), and while it follows logically that retraining these basic responses would mitigate the conflict and fear behaviours, this has yet to be conclusively demonstrated in a controlled study.


In all human activity economics can be a motivating factor, and so the financial aspect of some equine industries has also been considered in equitation science research. Baragli et al (2015) claim that increased competence in horse training could reduce behavioural wastage, estimated at 10% in the United States, thereby reducing economic loss in the industry. Factors they identified as causing behaviour that could result in wastage were abnormal management, which creates abnormal behaviour, and incorrect use of negative reinforcement, which results in an unwanted response being trained. These are in accord with psychological rules (i.e. learning theory), which they assert must be applied in training to achieve economic benefit by creating safer, more useful animals.

Doherty et al (2017) say that if veterinarians were to better understand ethology and learning theory, horse performance could be optimized in addition to reducing wastage. Because the symptoms of pain are similar to those of confusion (Derksen and Clayton, 2007), appropriate conditioning, management, and training could be vital in determining what treatment options are most effective and least expensive. The usefulness of horses is determined in part by their behaviour and their ease of learning (Murphy and Arkins, 2007), so making learning theory accessible to horse handlers and owners is considered essential (McCall, 2007). Finally, King et al (2019) assert that foals trained by them using the principles of equitation science had a higher likelihood of being placed on the racetrack and later successfully transitioning to a different career after the track. Thus, applying the principles of equitation science should extend the useful lifespan of the horse and reduce the economic risk undertaken when raising a horse (Derksen and Clayton, 2007).


Relationships are formed through mutual perceptions of one another based on multiple encounters (Sankey et al, 2010) which influence mutual behaviour (Dalla Costa et al, 2015). Attachment can form in a relationship where there is proximity seeking, safety, a base for exploration, and the potential for separation anxiety (DeAraugo et al, 2014). Factors cited as influential in the formation of a strong positive human-horse relationship are: applying learning theory (Warren-Smith and McGreevy, 2008); matching horse and rider carefully (Weeks and Beck, 1996); previous experience; temperament (Hausberger et al, 2008); and training (Dalla Costa et al, 2015). All of these factors are spoken to by equitation science, and human enjoyment of a relationship with horses is also believed to be improved by use of equitation science (Derksen and Clayton, 2007). The attitude held by the caretaker will also affect a horse’s relationship with humans, with a positive attitude toward the horse positively affecting the horse (Dalla Costa et al, 2015), while appropriate conditioning, training, and management is proposed to improve the equine attitude as well (Derksen and Clayton, 2007).

It is proposed by some people in the horse industry that a human can use equine body language to be perceived by the horse as another horse with a higher social ranking, developing a dominance based relationship and earning respect (Fenner et al, 2019a). McGreevy et al (2009) examined this aspect of the human-horse relationship and found that the possibility of aligning interactions with the equid social ethogram is very limited, and similarities cease as soon as the horse is ridden. They propose instead that use of equitation science will build a positive relationship and a compliant horse.

When naive horses have positive experiences with humans, their subsequent positive behaviour towards humans has been demonstrated to be robust and to be generalized to unfamiliar humans (Sankey et al, 2010). Dalla Costa et al (2015) also report a correlation between good relationships with humans and positive equine welfare. Their study showed significant differences in the latency of voluntary approach to a human between horses kept in stables that were assessed by local authority to have excellent welfare versus those with sub-optimal welfare. These differences extended also to expressions of aggression towards humans and avoidance behaviour. Unfortunately, the study did not discuss what criteria were used to rate the stables as either ‘excellent’ or ‘sub-optimal’, so the factors affecting human-horse relationships could not be discussed. The longitudinal Equine Assessment and Research Questionnaire (E-BARQ) survey currently underway will measure management and training, and how these affect horse behaviour and welfare (Fenner et al, 2019c). The results of this study are eagerly anticipated because they are expected to elucidate best practices in management and training for optimal relationship.

Murphy and Arkins (2007) conclude that having better definitions for and use of learning processes would reveal horses’ intelligence, further developing and enhancing our appreciation and relationship. The preliminary results from DeAraugo et al (2014) build on this knowledge of human-horse attachment showing differences between level and kind of attachment and the training methods employed. Interestingly, respondents subscribing to behavioural methods of training tended to see their relationship with their horse in reverse of those in all other methodologies, viewing it as the trainer’s responsibility to support the horse rather than the other way around. Studying how this view affects the horse’s attachment to the trainer would be an informative next step.


After over ten years of predicting what benefits will come to students of equitation science and their horses, and much anecdotal evidence, it seems there may finally be enough equitation science practitioners to gather preliminary data and put some of these claims to the test. King et al (2019) and Dalla Costa et al (2015) have begun practical field tests, the preliminary results of which, when combined with previous claims and research, seem to lend support for some of the claims made by equitation science researchers. However, much of this support remains anecdotal (Finch and Watt, 1996; King et al, 2019) or intellectual in that the claims have been experienced first-hand by many practitioners in addition to making logical sense.

There is difficulty in selecting adequate test subjects for studies due to differences in the skill level of those applying learning theory (Starling et al, 2016). Yet, Dalla Costa et al (2015) have successfully conducted on-farm tests with consistent results, indicating that it may be possible to determine if differences exist in welfare, safety, training, economics, and relationships  between stables actively practicing equitation science and those that are not. While this is a sensitive topic, Dalla Costa et al (2015) were able to tactfully navigate the delicate subject of their study, providing much needed insight.

The topic of welfare has arguably been the most studied and is most conclusive regarding the positive benefits arising from the use of equitation science, though it could certainly use more study. Relationship and economics are the least studied with respect to the differences between employing and not employing equitation science principles. However, the most immediately applicable research would be in the safety and training categories. Whether or not adherence to equitation science principles actually acts as a safeguard is urgently needed information and, if demonstrated, could begin to accelerate the positive change we all wish to see, with governing bodies leading the change. Furthermore, if training is more efficient, more humane, safer, faster, and produces more reliable and competitive horses, it is likely that acceptance and incorporation of these findings amongst trainers and laypeople would increase. Thus the base of equitation science support can be built from the top down and from the bottom up. The benefits, if any, to relationships and economics will also naturally follow from such studies, as will benefits in welfare as these are intrinsically linked to all of the other categories.

Goodwin (2007) encourages more research into the measurable aspects of horse training. With the further refinement of technology such as pressure sensors that are available to measure interactions between horses and riders/handlers, Holmes and Jeffcott (2010) are confident answers can be found to specific questions. Measuring whether equitation science makes the difference it has been promoted to have, particularly in the training, welfare, and relationship categories where there is much public interest, are specific, measurable questions that will help to encourage positive change throughout the industry.


The author would like to thank Dr. Mark Sandercock for his constructive comments and helpful suggestions during the preparation of this manuscript.

Authorship Statement

The idea for the paper, the research, and the writing, were conducted by Claire Sandercock.

Conflict of Interest Statement

No conflict of interest has been declared by the author.


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Early Training of Foals

Foals are cute, high energy, and very trainable. The same principles apply to training older, naive horses as to training foals, but there are some special considerations to keep in mind because of the stage of development foals are in.

Using the International Society for Equitation Science’s (ISES) 10 Principles of Equitation Science in the training of foals has proven effective at producing horses that are safe and easy to handle. Because early training experiences have been demonstrated to affect a horse’s behaviour without any further handling for up to two years, the foal’s first experiences of training are critical.

This article is a brief breakdown of what foals should learn and how they can be taught.

Principle 1: Account for the Horse’s Ethology and Cognition

The naive, three-year-old horse can focus enough to learn for approximately 20-30 minutes at first, and this time is slowly extended through training. The foal, therefore, has a shorter attention span lasting only 10-15 minutes. Training can begin at the foal’s third week of life, and should not be conducted daily. Two to three days in a row with at least one rest day in between has been shown to be effective.

Training sessions should take place in a small enclosed area with the mare present. The mare can have a positive effect on how the foal perceives human contact, provided she has a positive relationship with people herself. Two handlers are required for foal training sessions: the mare’s handler keeps her close to the foal during the training session and can feed, groom, or stroke her while the foal’s handler conducts the training.

Being in a small enclosure with the mare makes it easier for the foal’s handler to ensure that the foal does not learn to run away from people or to move away from their touch or their presence. Each session should focus on one very basic and simple task, such as moving towards a light sideways and forward pull on the lead rope. When the task has been repeated successfully or nearly successfully three times in a row, the learning session is finished for that day.

Principle 2: Use Learning Theory Appropriately

The foal can quickly learn to go, stop, back up, and turn from light pressures on the halter and lead rope.

The foal can be taught to stand still for very short periods of time, and to be handled all over, including picking up feet.

The foal should learn that interactions with people are positive and enjoyable, so the foal’s handler must be consistent and a competent trainer. Through this consistent training, the foal will learn that people must be treated differently than the other foals it is growing up with.

Habituation to lightweight objects such as blankets can also be undertaken with a foal, once basic responses to halter pressures have been trained.

All of these things can be trained using the framework of stimulus (pressure or cue), response (behaviour), and reinforcement (reward). Rewards for proper behaviour can be the release of pressure and withers scratching.

Principle 3: Train Cues that are Easy to Tell Apart

Each of the above responses that the foal will learn needs a distinct cue so the foal does not become confused or stressed by cues for different responses that feel too similar.

Principle 4: Correct Use of Shaping

Shaping transforms a newly learned behaviour from an initial first attempt that may not be entirely correct to the final correctly trained behaviour. To do this, the handler must slowly and progressively increase expectations of the desired behaviour and reward for ever-improving responses.

Principle 5: Ask for Responses One at a Time

Horses can only attend to one stimulus at a time and can, therefore, become overwhelmed by simultaneous cues. Cueing for two responses will either confuse the horse or cause stress and potentially conflict behaviours such as rearing, biting, kicking, bolting, or bucking as the foal tries to escape the stressful situation. In training sessions, ensure that one response is completely finished before asking for the next one.

Principle 6: Train One Response per Signal

In early training it is helpful to reduce to a minimum the number of signals that the foal is taught, and to ensure that each signal only means one thing. Other signals can be added later on as needed, but the basic requirements of handling a foal are such that the cues and responses can remain quite simple until it is time for further training.

Principle 7: Form Habits

Keeping training consistent as to handler, cues, and environment allows the foal to more quickly absorb the training. Once each response is consolidated in this consistent context, a new environmental feature or different handler can be substituted one at a time to expand the breadth of training.

Principle 8: Train Self-Carriage

The foal should learn right away to continue offering the response last asked for until something else is requested. This is an important skill for all future training, so the horse does not have to be constantly signalled to keep going. Constant signalling will result in habituation to the cue, and the horse will eventually stop responding to that cue entirely.

At this point in training, the mare can be used to help the foal learn to continue walking by following his mother after receiving the go signal, and to stand still following a stop cue because the mare is stationary.

Principle 9: Avoid Flight Responses

Foals should not learn to play with people like they would play with another foal. It is cute while the foal is small, but he will not understand that he has grown and cannot leap up on a person when he is older. Foal play also includes practice of flight responses such as running, bucking, and rearing, and learning to perform these behaviours in the presence of people is not something to encourage.

A small area for initial training helps to prevent the expression of flight responses, and training methods should never seek to intentionally trigger a fear response.

Principle 10: Keep Arousal to a Minimum During Training

In order to learn, the foal should be as relaxed as possible, but not to the point of falling asleep. The handler should pay attention to signs of stress in the foal and be ready to take a break, allow the foal physical contact with its mother, or go back to easier, previously learned responses in order to reduce stress and promote learning.


Mini training sessions following these principles will set the foal up for positive future learning experiences. These early sessions are teaching the foal how to learn from and interact with people, which are crucial skills for every horse to know.


ISES. (2017) Principles of Learning Theory in Equitation. Accessed August 5, 2021 from (this article based on the 2017 version of the principles, as is the study by King et al.)

King, S., Wills, L., and Randle, H. (2019) Early training of foals using the ISES training principles. J. Vet. Behav. 29, 140-146.