Is Your Horse Curious?

Is your horse (or the horse you ride, lease, borrow, love) curious? A new study shows that horses who are interested in new things and want to explore them actually learn better!

“Exploratory behaviour was unreinforced in the novel object tests and likely reflects the animal’s intrinsic motivation (i.e. curiosity), suggesting that this trait is favourable for learning performance.”

Coming up with ways to foster your horse’s curiosity could improve his whole outlook on life, including his interest in training.

“[these results] raise questions in relation to fostering of curiosity in animals and the impact that such manipulation may have on cognitive abilities.”

How can you foster your horse’s curiosity? I like to allow my horse to investigate things. When she looks worried about something, we stop and wait. Research shows that after about 13 seconds of observing something ‘scary’, horses become more willing to explore it. So we wait a bit, then I ask her to go a little closer. Soon she’s getting closer herself, sniffing or moving the object herself.

How do you enable your horse to be curious?

Christensen, J; Ahrendt, L; Malmkvist, J; and Nicol, C. (2021) Exploratory behaviour towards novel objects is associated with enhanced learning in young horses. Scientific Reports, 11:1428. Open access! Read the full article here:

Training Exercise: Slow Down!

You’ll see it in sales ads: forward horse, requires experienced rider.

Read: this horse has a tendency to go faster than you’d like and doesn’t slow down if you want to.

This isn’t a safe problem to have with a horse, and it can be scary too.

Here is a simple training exercise to begin installing better brakes on a more-go-than-whoa horse.

Set Up

You’ll want a safe, enclosed area to work in. This exercise can be done ridden or on the ground, depending on the horse’s and handler’s ability levels. For a horse that bolts, the smaller the area, the better. Always wear a helmet, appropriate shoes, and gloves.


You will walk the horse forward exactly six steps of the forelegs and then stop. No more, no less. Not five, not five and a half, six. Right front leg is one, left front leg is two, and so on.

This will take some planning ahead on your part. You will begin cuing for a stop as step number four is in the air. If you are on the ground, walking backwards can be helpful so you can see the front legs.

Step four: light stop pressure begins. Always start with light pressure.

Step five: pressure increases smoothly and steadily to a point that motivates the horse to stop.

Step six: release pressure completely.

Aim for three improved repetitions before working on something else or finishing the session.


Horse keeps walking after step six: It is likely for the first few repetitions that the forward horse will continue walking through the pressure past the sixth step. Continue to increase pressure until the stop is achieved and release immediately. Next time, make sure your pressure gets up to the effective level faster during the fifth step so you can release on the sixth.

Horse takes five steps: You can use less pressure. Try maintaining the same light pressure you started with on the fourth step instead of increasing pressure. Play with the amount of pressure needed to reach exactly six steps.

Horse walks again immediately after stopping: Make sure you aren’t releasing pressure too early. Apply pressure to stop again if he moves before you cue. Also make sure you aren’t expecting the horse to stay immobile for too long. When just starting the exercise, one to two seconds is long enough. Then have him take six steps forward again. As he gets better at stopping, you can increase the time you expect him to wait.

But I want the horse to stop when I say whoa/lean back/use other classical cue: Classically conditioned cues like voice or seat cues are wonderful. Every horse should learn them. But if the horse does not respond to light pressure, teaching a reliable classically conditioned cue is not possible. In a stressful or different situation, the cue will fade. I always teach response to light pressure first. Then it is very easy to add a voice or seat cue that is reliable.

Tonight—Live Training Case Study

Tonight at 7 pm MST I’ll be going live to dissect the case study of an 11 year old jumping lesson horse.

Everyone at the barn was surprised when the previously well-mannered horse began running around the jumps instead of going over!

We’ll practically use the 10 First Principles of Horse Training to figure out how to resolve the problem, from first steps right through to jumping again.

It’ll be fun—and it’ll be short, so don’t be late! Join me on Facebook @clairetyhorsemanship.

The Kinematics of Collection


Collection done well is beautiful and powerful. But what is collection? What physically happens in the horse’s body to create a collected gait? 

The most common answers about what collection is come from the FEI rulebook. Collection is supposed to involve a shortening of the stride with a maintenance of energy in movement, increased flexion of the joints of the hindquarters, resulting in a lowering of the horse’s croup, and hind limbs that step farther forward under the horse, all of which are said to cause a weight shift from the front legs to the back legs.

Some of these claims are supported by studies of elite horse and rider movement in the collected gaits, but others are not. So what actually happens when a horse collects?

Shortening of the Stride

In examining collection of the walk (Clayton, 1995), trot (Clayton, 1994a), and canter (Clayton, 1994b), Clayton found that as collection increased, stride length decreased. The frequency of strides also decreased in walk and trot, but not as much. The stride length of piaffe is smaller than that of passage, and passage is smaller than that of the collected trot.

Flexion in the Joints of the Hindquarters

Increased flexion of the joints in the hind limbs, resulting in an almost crouching posture, has been found in some studies (Rhodin et al, 2018) and not found in others (Clayton, 1994a). It is likely that this factor of collection depends greatly on the degree of collection, with the greatest degree (piaffe) displaying the most flexion of the hindlimb joints. 

It is said that this increased flexion causes the horse to lower the croup relative to the withers, so the back is sloped down and back. However, studies have not seen this happen in either the collected walk or trot (Rhodin et al, 2018), though again in a higher degree of collection such as the piaffe, lowering of the croup can occur.

Interestingly, an increased posterior tilt of the horse’s pelvis at the lumbosacral junction does occur in the collected walk and trot, which lowers the dock (Rhodin et al, 2018). This could create the impression of a lowered croup for an observer.

Protraction of the Hind Limbs

Protraction is the reaching forward of the limb, and retraction is the pushing out behind. Increased protraction as an element of collection may be part myth. The horse does not actually step the hind leg any farther underneath the body, towards the forelimbs, than in a free gait. However, there is another effect of collection that may give the appearance of increased protraction of the hind limbs.

In the collected gaits, the horse down not retract the hindlimb as far as he would in a free or extended gait. This means the hind limb pushes off sooner relative to how far the limb has traveled, it does not stretch out behind the horse when pushing off for swing phase. The average protraction of the limb from start to finish of stance phase, then, does increase, but it is because of decreased retraction, not increased protraction.

Weight Shift to the Hind Limbs

Ground Reaction Force (GRF) is measured to determine whether the above biomechanical effects of collection actually cause the hind limbs to bear more weight than they would in a free gait.

There have been very few studies regarding this, however it seems that there is indeed some small shift of weight, also on a sliding scale with the degree of collection. From collected trot to passage, Clayton et al (2017) found that within a diagonal pair of legs, the hind leg bore proportionally more weight. In the collected trot, the forelimb of a pair bore about 58% of the weight, which was reduced to about 55% in the passage.

Three ways were found whereby a horse could shift weight into the hindlimb: I.) having the hindlimb in a diagonal pair contact the ground prior to the front limb, II.) adjusting how far forward and back each limb moves in swing and stance phases respectively, and III.) increasing muscular effort through the hindlimb to create more vertical movement.

Conclusion: What is Collection?

Collection involves a change in how the horse moves himself. It can be hard for the observer to see exactly what is going on in a collected gait, however. The major discrepancies between common equestrian thought and evidence from studies include: no actual increase in protraction of the hindlimbs, though average protraction is increased through less retraction; the suspension phase of collected gaits does not increase in duration, contrary to popular belief; and finally, the horse’s croup does not lower, rather a posterior tilt of the horse’s pelvis could create this impression by lowering the dock.

The commonly cited weight shift from forehand to the haunches does in fact occur, partially (but not to a great extent) aided by an elevation of the horse’s poll. The stride length of the collected gaits is also much shorter than that of the free gaits.

Understanding what actually occurs in the horse’s body during collection is helpful for riders to influence their horse’s movement, knowing more accurately what changes they want the horse to make.

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Byström, A. (2019) The movement pattern of horse and rider in different degrees of collection. Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala. ISBN: 978-91-7760-383-2

Clayton, H. (1994a).Comparison of the stride kinematics of the collected, working, medium and extended trot in horses. Equine Veterinary Journal 26, 230-234.

Clayton, H. (1994b) Comparison of the collected, working, medium and extended canters. Equine Veterinary Journal Suppl 17, 16-19.

Clayton, H. (1995) Comparison of the stride kinematics of the collected, medium, and extended walks in horses. American Journal of Veterinary Research 56, 849-852.

Clayton, H; Schamhardt, H; and Hobbs, S. (2017) Ground reaction forces of elite dressage horses in collected trot and passage. The Veterinary Journal 221, 30-33.

Does the Vet Like Seeing Your Horse?

Having the vet out for your horse isn’t an ideal scenario. Your horse is hurt, you’re stressed, it’s expensive, and now it’s going to take twice as long because the horse just won’t cooperate. Here’s how you can make the situation better for your horse, your vet, and yourself the next time your horse needs help.

The Problem

A recent study found that 95% of equine vets work with difficult horses at least monthly (Pearson et al, 2020). The kinds of dangerous behaviours they encounter, in order of prevalence, include: bargy or pushy horses; horses that won’t stand still or are needle-shy; head-shy or clipper-shy horses; horses that kick with a hind foot; horses that pull away; and horses that refuse to load. 81% of the vets surveyed had sustained at least one and up to thirty horse behaviour-related injuries in the past five years.

Whose Job is It?

Your vet is the professional, but that doesn’t mean they are going to train your horse to accept veterinary intervention. They need to get their job done, preferably without injury to themselves or further injury to the horse. The vets’ go-to method of getting the job done in this study was chemical restraint, with 99% of the vets placing it at the top of their list of useful restraint methods. Physical restraint came next, with everything from nose and neck twitches to bits, bridles, and holding up a leg (Pearson et al, 2020). Physical restraint can cause undue stress or injury to the horse, sometimes making the intervention even harder next time (McGreevy et al, 2018), and chemical restraint (sedation) can be expensive.

Unfortunately, methods of behaviour modification such as positive and negative reinforcement and overshadowing that encourage the horse to engage in the process and leave the horse more relaxed and better behaved for the next intervention (McLean, 2008), fell to the bottom of the list (Pearson et al, 2020). Only 7 and 8% of the vets considered negative reinforcement or overshadowing respectively to be very or fairly useful, and 50% considered negative reinforcement to be unhelpful or even useless! 67% had never heard of or did not understand overshadowing.

Clearly, if your vet is to find your horse a pleasure to work with rather than the cause of yet another injury, there is some work to do. It starts with how horses learn.

Your Part of The Solution

A horse is said to be under ‘stimulus control’ when the handler’s cues are responded to consistently, regardless of what is happening in the environment (McGreevy, 2010). Impossible, you say. Horses are horses. Stimulus control in a familiar environment is certainly possible, however, and with further training in different contexts, it becomes easier to control the horse even in a new or frightening situation, because the training is more consolidated. If, on the other hand, there is no training and the horse simply follows the handler if he feels like it, there is no base to fall back on when it is needed, such as in an emergency situation.

Applying learning theory to your horse’s ground training (and ridden training too) will create a horse that can calmly and promptly respond to light pressure cues, preventing some of the most common behaviours that veterinarians come up against, particularly barging, not standing, kicking, pulling away, and refusing to load.

The other common difficult behaviours are linked to a stimulus, like a needle, the clippers, or a trailer and are often found only in a veterinary context. These are the behaviours where overshadowing and combined reinforcement are most useful, provided the handler and veterinarian know how to apply them. Becoming familiar yourself with how your horse learns will set you up to be able to train him consistently so the foundation is there when you need it.

Your Vet’s Part of the Solution

There was an association seen in the study between the vet’s years of experience and the prevalence of unwanted behaviour he met with. More than half of the unwanted behaviours reduced in frequency based on the vet’s increasing experience. There are a few potential reasons for this.

First, more experienced vets have learned the hard way which handling methods tend to work safely and which do not (Pearson et al, 2020). These vets essentially learn about learning theory on the job. A second reason may be an increased willingness to turn to restraint methods earlier in the visit. Finally, vets consistently experiencing dangerous behaviours from their patients may leave the equine sector.

Gaining experience comes from being willing to learn. Once you’ve done your part in training your horse and learning about how you can help your horse learn and behave using learning theory, share with your vet. Although 79% of the surveyed vets thought they had a decent understanding of learning theory, only 10% were able to answer 5 out of the 6 test questions correctly. 46% reported receiving no training in learning theory (Pearson et al, 2020).

So, take your horse’s part. Instead of allowing potentially damaging physical restraint like an ear twitch for an injection, ask if you could use a page from learning theory’s book instead. Explain the method you’d like to use, and demonstrate your part if possible to show the horse can do it and you can handle it safely. 

Being an advocate for proper understanding and use of the horse’s learning processes can only help to create a positive experience for you, your vet, and your horse.


McGreevy, P and McLean, A. (2010) Equitation Science, Wiley- Blackwell, Oxon. 

McGreevy, P., Berger, J., de Brauwere, N., Doherty, O., Harrison, A., Fiedler, J., Jones, C., McDonnell, S., McLean, A., Nakonechny, L., Nicol, C., Preshaw, L., Thomson, P., Tzioumis, V., Webster, J., Wolfensohn, S., Yeates, J., Jones, B., 2018. Using the five domains model to assess the adverse impacts of husbandry, veterinary, and equitation interventions on horse welfare. Animals 8, 41.

McLean, A. (2008) Overshadowing: A Silver Lining to a Dark Cloud in Horse Training. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 11:3, 236-248.

Pearson, G; Reardon, R; Keen, J; and Waran, N. (2020) Difficult horses—prevalence, approaches to management of and understanding of how they develop by equine veterinarians. Equine Veterinary Education. Open access: doi: 10.1111/eve.13354

Effective Rewards

Behaviour that is reinforced is likely to be repeated. This is how horses are trained. There are two kinds of reinforcers, primary reinforcers and secondary reinforcers.

Primary reinforcers are valuable to the horse of themselves. Secondary reinforcers are rewarding only when they are consistently paired with a primary reinforcer. Let’s look at some examples.

Primary ReinforcersSecondary Reinforcers
Release of pressureThe ‘Click’ in clicker training
FoodVocal rewards (good boy)

Another commonly used method of reinforcing behaviour is petting or scratching the horse, often near the withers. This has been reported to lower the horse’s heart rate, and many horses appear to enjoy the scratch, closing their eyes, wiggling their lips, and extending their necks.

Is tactile reinforcement primary or secondary?

A 2010 study using 20 horses trained them to stand still at a vocal command for increasing duration up to a minute. Half were rewarded for correct responses with food and half were rewarded with vigorous wither scratching. The researchers tested the horses’ relationship to humans before and after the training, examining latency to approach a stationary person and how long the horse stayed close to them. They also looked at the horses’ ability to perform the learned behaviour after the training was over.

Interestingly, they found that the wither scratch group did not learn as well as the food reward group. They were unable to stand still for as long, and did not learn as fast. The food reward group also approached a stationary human faster after training and stayed closer for longer than the tactile reward group, though both groups had started out scoring the same for approach latency and time in proximity on the relationship tests.

The researchers suggested that tactile rewards may have been given too much credit, and that carefully used food rewards are more efficient in terms of both horse learning and relationship building.

Some horses really enjoy touch, but all of them seem to enjoy food! Learning how to use food well in training seems like a logical choice from the results of this study.

The study, The Way to a Man’s Heart is Through His Stomach: What About Horses? by Sankey, C; Henry, S; Górecka-Bruzda, A; Richard-Yris, M-A; and Hausberger, M was published by PLoS ONE in November 2010, Volume 5, Issue 11, and can be found for free online here:

Trust? Or Safety?

Safety is very important to horses. While the most common horse training methods employ food or the release of pressure as a reward, it has recently been argued that safety is valuable enough to horses to be used by trainers as a resource during training to reduce fearfulness and increase learning uptake.

The goal of horse training is to reduce the expression of behaviour we don’t want and to draw out behaviour we do want, so that it is eventually offered on cue. Many behaviours that horses offer that we don’t like stem from fear. When a behaviour originating from fear is punished to make it less likely to occur again, negative emotions are likely to result, reducing effectiveness of training. Therefore, it is critical to understand fear responses in order to make better training decisions.

Fear responses are highly selected for because they promote survival. Fear is a kind of stress, and affects the animal’s behaviour in ways designed to make it easier to escape the situation. When fear is excessive or chronic, however, the physical cost of responding to the fear can affect health and behaviour. Animals may also react fearfully to things that do not pose an actual risk.

When a horse successfully escapes a fear-inducing stimulus (be that a plastic bag, a bush, or a rider), the behaviour that succeeded can be learned in a single trial, has the effect of reducing fear caused by the stimulus, and is resistant to being untrained. This suggests that the reduction in fear associated with performing an escape behaviour is highly reinforcing. Escape behaviour is in contrast to avoidance behaviour, where the animal receives warning about a fear-inducing stimulus and has the opportunity to avoid the stimulus by performing a behaviour.

In laboratory avoidance learning tests, when a ‘safety signal’ or neutral stimulus such as a light or a sound occurred when the animal had successfully avoided the fear-inducing stimulus, the test animals learned the avoidance behaviour much faster. The safety signal by itself reduced fear and held positive reinforcing properties. Once a stimulus becomes a safety signal, it rarely loses its meaning!

Other horses are probably the most common example of equine safety signals. Calm horses have the best effect, and silhouettes of relaxed or grazing horses have been shown to be recognized and greeted by horses. ‘Home’ is also likely to be a safety signal.

Reducing fearfulness should be a goal of horse training. It is possible that humans could also become a safety signal, depending on the horse’s previous experience of its handler specifically and people in general. The safety signal concept could be a better definition of the elusive notion of ‘trust’ in horse-human relationships.

If the horse’s trainer, handler, or owner can be perceived by the horse as a source of safety through consistent and careful training, learning could be enhanced and the risk of injury to horse and handler caused by a fear response could be greatly reduced.

McGreevy, P; Henshall, C; Starling, M; McLean, A; Boakes, R. (2014) The Importance of Safety Signals in Animal Handling and Training. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, 9:382-387.

Building a Relationship with Horses

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

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

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

Every Interaction Counts

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

Look at the Horse’s Whole Life

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

Using Learning Theory

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

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

Teaching New Behaviour

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


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