When I met a deeply traumatised horse as a child I never imagined the impact she’d have on my life. Ultimately Molly was a lifelong friend and proved to be the most influential teacher. When I had to prepare to say goodbye to my soulmate too soon I realised I needed to share our story, and how she shaped who I am.
As a horse mad 13 year old there weren’t many horses I thought I couldn’t ride. When a family friend asked me to hack out a tricky pony while she rode her horse I didn’t bat an eyelid. I arrived and met Molly, a little black appaloosa mare. She was pacing wildly in the stable, run up and sweaty with a distant, wide eyed stare. It took two people to hold her while I was flung aboard and off we went, her feet barely touching the floor the entire time. After a while we were asked if we wanted to take Molly to our own yard for training as her owner struggled to handle her. Very conventional then in our methods I remember thinking how a bit of lunging and regular work would set her right. How wrong I was.
On the day we collected her she had come over the stable door, cut open her face and took four hours to load. Once home the true extent of Molly’s trauma became apparent. In the field she would constantly stare into the distance as if waiting for something terrible. To handle she was dangerous, knocking people over in blind panic, rearing constantly and unable to stand still for even a moment. Once I had tried to put her rug on in the field and had come upon so much difficulty that it reduced me to tears. But despite her troubles I became extremely attached to the beautiful black mare, so when we were told she was for sale we bought her.
Watching her canter across the fields one sunny afternoon I remember being astounded at how magnificent and beautiful she was, and was completely in awe that such a horse could be ‘mine’. However, Molly continued to be terrified and almost impossible to handle. Very quickly I had ran out of ideas and confidence, and wondered whether it was wise to have ever got involved. At my wits end I contemplated my options. Selling her was out of the question as it would inevitably see her passed from dealer to dealer, a pattern she had already lived many times over. I considered having her put to sleep but couldn’t justify going through with it. So Molly was resigned to the fields while my mum handled her, and I became less and less involved.
A year or so later we were introduced to a system of natural horsemanship by a lady who discovered it after having difficulties herself. She had heard about Molly and believed it was just the thing to sort her out. The next time she was at the yard we tried some together, and for the first time since I had got Molly I felt that I could handle her safely. ‘This is the answer’ I thought, and with that we enrolled into the system. Diligently we worked through the groundwork steps, submitted assignments and spent thousands of pounds hosting annual clinics. We enjoyed a lot of success as a result and achieved things I would have never thought possible when I met her. I started volunteering for a falconry centre and learnt to fly birds of prey from Molly whilst riding. We often took her to falconry and horsemanship demonstrations across the county, camping overnight and performing in the day. One of my proudest moments during this time was when Molly was chosen to use at a wedding. She was adorned with flowers and looked magnificent as she plodded down the castle driveway carrying the bride, and was perfect the entire day.
In the beginning the natural horsemanship system seemed to hold all the answers, but after years of studying it more and more questions came up. We often found ourselves exerting more force than we felt comfortable with and many of the lessons seemed extremely stressful, both for the horse and trainer. During our third and last clinic I was instructed to ride Molly around a barrel in an open field. We only had one rein and a rope halter as was the norm, and were working on canter circles which Molly found very difficult. Again and again Molly would bolt when asked for canter and set off across the field galloping towards the fence. When I tried to turn her using my one rein she would brace her neck against me, and on approaching the fence change direction so quick that I’d lose my balance. It was a wonder I stayed on at all. Off we went again, galloping flat out in the opposite direction. When I finally gained enough control to get her back to the barrel I’d be instructed to try the exercise again. Once more she’d brace and bolt and we’d set off on a terrifying repetition. There had been other questionable exercises and teachings in the system, but this one was the last I ever engaged in. It was meant to be kind and enjoyable, yet my horse and I were left traumatised and emotionally exhausted after every session. I left the system and Molly returned to the field. Once again I was without any tools or direction.
There had been talk for a long time amongst some horse professionals about natural horsemanship not being especially kind or ethical. Obviously when it was our only conceivable option we dismissed these claims valiantly in a classic case of cognitive dissonance. However with each concerning incident and unanswered question we gradually became more open to the idea that they could actually be right. After abandoning the system and feeling lost once more I slowly started to explore alternative options, and became involved with equine behaviourist Lindsy Murray. She worked with myself and Molly in an entirely new way. First she dealt with the severe anxiety that I’d developed in the years of struggling, and talked about Molly’s behavioural and emotional needs. I was taught very simple, positive exercises that allowed my horse and I to remain within our comfort zones. Gone was the need for emotionally charged battles and traumatic training sessions. What’s more, we both started to enjoy the sessions. It wasn’t a fight anymore, my mind was completely blown.
The peacefulness and calm of this new approach and enthusiasm it created in Molly was incredible. In all the years of working with her I’d never made the progress that we made in the first few weeks. I threw myself into studying equine behaviour and positive reinforcement training, going on to complete the equine behaviour qualification at The Natural Animal Centre. The more I learnt the more things started to make sense; I understood her behaviour and how I could start to help her. Uncomfortably I also learnt the truth behind the strategies I had used in the past (something I explain more here), and wept at the unconscious cruelty I had committed. In time I started a bachelor’s degree in Animal Behaviour, driven by the desire to learn as much as possible about this fascinating field that had helped my horse.
Molly and the rest of her herd moved to a beautiful expanse of hillside in the peak district to live a more natural life. This would eventually become The Pott Shrigley Project and give rise to The Positive Herd Project, which promises to help many more horses and people in its ongoing work. Over the years Molly proved to be my greatest teacher and most honest critic. If something was not right she would let me know, and I learnt to listen to her. Developing this two way communication allowed me to refine the way I interacted with horses, ensuring it was always in their best interest. Working in this mutually beneficial way created a deep and trusting relationship between me and Molly. While at Pott Shrigley we would often go for rides out alone to the top of the hill. I’d attach reins to my head collar and slip on bareback, then Molly would plod up the hill to the gate without any prompts. When out we would alternate periods of exploring with grazing and resting, both enjoying it in equal measure. These peaceful rides were a far cry from the traumatic and stressful experiences we endured years earlier, and a very precious memory.
Molly continued to live happily with her friends as The Positive Herd Project was developed, a project she’d had a major role in creating. She became known as Molly the legend as a testament to her overall importance. One day in 2017 on a routine check of the horses I noticed that Molly’s eye had become swollen and glassy. She had uveitis, and despite the best efforts to save the eye it had to be removed. For a horse so scared and troubled Molly adjusted to life with one eye remarkably well. Once healed she continued enjoying retirement as her calm, relaxed and happy self.
Just over a year later, in October 2018 I noticed to my horror that her remaining eye had gone the same way. For four weeks we battled to save her eye, administering multiple eye drops daily. Even at this dark time Molly still had a lesson for us. Initially she found the eye drops very stressful which made us doubt whether we could treat her at all, but once I started training it positively she responded immediately. In the middle of the night we shared precious moments training her to have her sore eye touched and examined. Tragically the eye showed little improvement for all our efforts and it became apparent that she wasn’t going to get better. She’d done so well adapting to losing one eye but I was not going to make her live in complete darkness. She had already endured too much stress for one life. It came time to make the most difficult decision, and on 12 November 2018 I said a heartbreaking goodbye to my soulmate.
Molly really was life changing, not the horse I would have chosen but definitely the one I needed. She shaped every aspect of who I had become during my journey with her. Consequently I’d learnt an entirely new way of interacting with animals, had embarked on a career and built my life around helping other horses and people. She’s taught me to be a more compassionate, caring and empathetic individual. It was a heart breaking goodbye much too soon and I am not sure who I’ll be without her. We owe it to her to continue striving forward with this mission to help others. Just like we did for Molly and she did for me.
Molly the legend is one of the most precious and incredible horses I’ve had the privilege of knowing. I will never forget her; my beautiful, magnificent Molly Moon.
In the world of horse training just about everyone has heard about ‘left or right brained’ horses. The popular natural horsemanship teachings of Parelli describe ‘horsenalities’, with left-brained individuals being dominant, brave and confident, whereas right-brained horses are submissive, fearful and reactive (Parelli Natural Horsemanship, 2007). It is also common practise for some trainers to teach a behaviour on one side and then repeat the teachings on the opposite side under the assumption that information does not pass from one side to the other.
There is an ever growing body of research investigating how both sides of the brain differ and function in many species. Scientists are beginning to understand how each side may be specialised and therefore create side biases for certain behaviours. The same is true for horses, but does this reflect popular teaching? Do horses have side preferences, and can they transfer learning from one side to the other? I’ve reviewed the current scientific literature to explore these questions in more depth.
Let’s start with a basic understanding of the brain’s structure, shall we?
The brain is an incredibly complicated organ, but can be split into basic sections. The most recognisable feature is the cerebrum (see below); the prominent, cauliflower shaped mass seen clearly in most mammals. It makes up the 'thinking brain', processing the senses, voluntary movements and complex cognition. Underneath this structure is the limbic system which is responsible for emotional behaviour, memory, reward, reproduction and feeding. The most primitive part of the brain includes the cerebellum which controls balance, coordination and fine movements, and the brain stem which deals with unconscious functions such as swallowing, breathing, digestion and heartbeat. The cerebrum is separated into two opposing hemispheres, connected by a think bundle of neurons known as the corpus callosum (Carter, 1998; Mills & Nankervis; 2009; Kiley-Worthington, 2007).
Most senses are processed by the opposing hemisphere. Vison, hearing and touch detected on one side will be dealt with on the other side of the brain, whereas smell is processed on the same side (Carlson, 1979). In people each hemisphere is specialised to some extent for different functions, with the left usually dominant for language and the right for spatial awareness and emotional processing (Burnett et al., 1982; Gregory et al., 1980; Pujol et al., 1999). The extent to which a person uses each hemisphere for certain tasks is also linked to handedness (Burnett et al., 1982) and writing posture (Levy & Reid, 1976).
Originally the specialisation of hemispheres for different tasks was believed to be a solely human trait. However, there is increasing scientific evidence that it occurs in many animal species (Vallortigara et al., 1999). This includes fish (Bisazza et al., 1998), reptiles (Deckel, 1999), birds (Rogers, 1997, Güntürkün et al., 2000) as well as mammals (Glick & Ross, 1981, Cowell et al., 1997).
Overall for the majority of species the findings suggest that the right hemisphere is dominant for spatial ability and responding to novelty (Vallortigara et al.,1999). It is also important in emotional processing, particularly that involving fear, threatening situations and initiating the fight or flight response (Robins & Phillips, 2012). In contrast the left hemisphere is dominant for cognitive processes involving decisions, discrimination, categorising, previous learning or object manipulation (Vallortigara et al.,1999).
Best Foot Forward
Horses are no exception when it comes to asymmetry. While galloping 90% of racehorses take a right lead stride pattern and land with their left hind leg first. This left leg preference is consistent across breeds and different countries. Individual horses also appear to have a preferred leg, and will only change when forced by injury, fatigue or changing direction (Williams & Norris, 2007). During grazing domestic horses are much more likely to place the left front leg before the right. The strength of this preference was found to increase with age, suggesting it’s influenced by environmental factors (McGreevy & Rogers, 2005).
In feral horses individuals were found to have a preferred leg but this wasn’t the same leg across the population (Austin & Rogers, 2012). However, Przewalski horses showed no front leg preference at all (Austin & Rogers, 2014). These findings suggests that the leg bias in domestic horses is likely a result of training or handling rather than being a natural occurrence.
There is evidence that sensory information is processed asymmetrically in horses. They have been found to use opposite ears when listening to the calls of familiar or unfamiliar horses (Basile et al., 2009). Horses were also shown to preferentially use one nostril to assess different smells. Young horses preferred to use the right nostril to smell stallion faeces (McGreevy & Rogers, 2005). The right nostril was also used more to investigate an item with a negative emotional value than those with a neutral or positive association (De Boyer Des Roches et al., 2008). Smell is processed by the same hemisphere, supporting the right hemisphere’s role in processing emotive, novel and potentially threatening things.
Horses are an ideal species to study how the hemisphere’s process vision as information is processed almost completely by the opposite hemisphere. (Austin & Rogers, 2012). As found in many other species horses are more likely to use their left eye when viewing a potentially threatening object (Austin & Rogers, 2012, 2014; De Boyer Des Roches et al., 2008; Farmer et al, 2010). The emotional association also affects how the hemispheres are used. De Boyer Des Roches et al. (2008) found that horses viewed items with a negative emotional value more with their left eye. In contrast items with a positive association were viewed using both eyes, suggesting positive emotions may be processed by both sides of the brain. Horses preferentially use the left eye to view emotive novel objects (Austin & Rogers, 2014; Larose et al., 2006), for vigilance and for viewing known and unknown people (Farmer et al., 2010).
The strength of the side preference increases with high levels of aggression or reactivity. In feral populations left eye bias was stronger when the behaviour involved vigilance, reactivity or aggression (Austin & Rogers, 2012). This was true for previously handled and unhandled animals and so was unlikely to be as a result of human interference. An even stronger right-hemisphere preference was found in Przewalski horses during vigilance, attack and aggressive behaviour (Austin & Rogers, 2014). Overall these findings support right hemisphere dominance for modulating aggressive behaviour and responses to potential threats, as seen in other species.
Bridging the Gap
The evidence that horses have specialised hemispheres is pretty comprehensive, but how well do these hemispheres communicate? It is widely regarded that horses need to be taught something on both sides before it can be properly learnt. However, the physiology of a horse's brain does not support this. Compared to other species they have a substantial and well developed corpus callosum (Cozzi et al., 2014; Hangii, 1999) which transfers information between the hemispheres. In rats, rabbits, cats, dogs, horses and cows the corpus callosum was found to increase in size and number of cells as brain size increased (Olivares et al., 2001). Cell structure was very similar across species, and density actually decreased as brain size increased. Overall this suggests that the connectivity of horse's brains is comparable to that of other species for their size.
There is experimental evidence that the horse's hemispheres are indeed well connected. Horses had one eye covered and were taught to discriminate between a set of pictures to choose the correct one. Once they had learnt this task reliably the trained eye was covered and they were asked to repeat the exercise with the untrained eye. The horses were able to repeat the task very quickly using the untrained eye, even when the picture they had to select was changed (Hanggii, 1999).
Conversely, it has been suggested that horses are unable to transfer information about tactile cues from one side to another. Ahrendt et al. (2015) taught horses to move their hindquarters using escalating pressure. They found that a higher force was needed on the right side compared to the left, but there was no difference between first and second side tested. This means that the horses did not immediately transfer the learnt response from one side to the other.
There is very little information on horse brain structure, let alone the workings of the corpus callosum and interconnectivity of the hemispheres (Cozzi, et al., 2014). Currently evidence in the literature is conflicting, and there is a lot of scope to improve our understanding in this area. However, rather than horses being unable to transfer information between hemispheres, it may be that they are more able to transfer visual learning experiences than tactile ones. Regardless, the notion that the horse's brain cannot communicate laterally is incorrect.
Scientific understanding of laterality and how it affects the animal is constantly improving. Overall the right hemisphere appears specialised for spatial ability, fast responses and emotional processing. In comparison the left is involved in decision making, discrimination and cognitive processes based on learning. Negative emotions and responding to threats are processed by the right hemisphere, which is supported by many studies in horses.
Popular teachings suggest that ‘right brained’ horses are submissive, fearful and reactive. As the right hemisphere processes potentially threatening situations it is possible that more reactive horses use the right hemisphere more often. ‘Left brained horses’ are deemed dominant, brave and confident. From the research on laterality as a whole this claim is a lot less plausible. The hemispheres do not function independently though, in reality both have individual strengths but are used in conjunction. Although specialised the hemispheres communicate constantly via the corpus callosum. In horses the corpus callosum is as well developed and defined as expected for their size, and can be compared to that of a dog or cow. Evidence on transferring information between hemispheres is conflicting, but suggests that at least some types of learning are transferred effectively and quickly.
Conventional teachings may hold some truths, but overall they are a simplistic and inaccurate model of the complexities of the equine brain.
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Some citations have been removed from the article during editing but all references were consulted for this study.
I am currently collecting data for my masters thesis at Manchester Metropolitan University, looking at the visual laterality of horses and zebra. For more information on the complexity of laterality in horses see my blog post here.
Specifically, I want to investigate whether equids use one eye more than the other to scan their surroundings while stood in the head to tail position (below).
I am appealing for pictures of horses or zebra stood in this position to be sent to me and be included in the study. The equids should both be adult, be resting in the nose to tail position no greater than one body length apart. They may be mutually grooming or resting.
Please also include the following information:
If you have pictures of this behaviour and would like to contribute to the study please send the images via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or in a personal message through Facebook or Twitter. Images may also be put in comments on social media posts appealing for them. Please note due to the high number received I may not be able to respond to every message.
All images will only be used to generate data for the thesis project and will not be redistributed or published without prior consent. No personal details will be held, and all data will be deleted following completion of the study. For more information on how the images will be used please contact me directly.
A full write up of the findings will be published on this website next year.
Thank you very much in advance for your help!
I have not been able to spend a great deal of time with my horses recently. However, even in the short time I have spent with them I have been struck by how much of a bond we share. We haven’t had chance to do any training for a long time so they don’t expect anything of me. They are out at grass so I am no longer the bringer-of-food. Nevertheless they still routinely plod over to greet me, smell my hands and spend some time in my company. Some of them will even insist on following me around as I check the others.
It makes me feel incredibly grateful and proud that my horses enjoy spending time with me like this. They are trusting, relaxed and inquisitive. At times I take this for granted and forget that these horses haven’t always enjoyed my company. It is only after years of gently and consistently building trust and positive experiences with them that we have established this relationship. You can’t force your horse to enjoy being with you, it is something which grows naturally. It comes from a deeper understanding of their needs and emotions, and building a mutual communication based on this. However, there are things you can do, or avoid doing, which will strengthen the bond you share. So, I’ve put together my top 10 suggestions for creating a trusting and meaningful relationship with your horse!
1. Do Nothing.
The emphasis is always on what you DO with your horse, but not on what you don’t do. Sometimes the key is quiet times spent together doing nothing at all. Often we arrive, catch, brush, ride, feed, put back out and leave. This isn’t the best thing for building a positive relationship with your horse, because we become the precursor of the task. If this is not something your horse relishes, it is unsurprising that he might start to avoid you. By spending time in his company just hanging out he will soon realise that you don’t always arrive and expect something from him. In turn he will relax which allows for some real quality time together.
While you are spending all of this time just relaxing around the paddock in your horse’s presence, one thing you can do is watch his behaviour. In our usual hasty rush we miss really important and informative behaviours that give us an insights to our horse’s lives. If you watch them for a while you will notice subtle things like when and where they sleep and eat, whether they play and with who, who their favourite and least favourite herd members are. Notice how they interact with each other. Do they stand very close but barely touching? Do they mutually groom one horse more than the others? If there is any aggression when and where does it occur? Try keeping a diary of the things you notice and see if the patterns change over time. The more we watch and learn about our horses, the better we come to understanding their behaviour and motives. You are then in a more informed position to make decisions in your horse’s best interest. For example, if you notice he is very bonded to a particular individual you could ensure they stay together. In order to form a meaningful bond it is important to really understand your horse.
All relationships are built on respect, and that should be no different with your horse. I am not talking about groundwork and manners, I am talking about you respecting him as a species. We need to move away from viewing horses as commodities for our own pleasure, and realise them as individuals with their own needs. They need time to socialise, to wind down, and to just be a horse. Denying them the opportunity to express their natural behaviours creates a huge amount of stress. Chronic stress not only causes behavioural problems but also suppresses the immune system. It contributes to a multitude of health complaints and conditions, from ulcers to infection.
In order to reduce stress you need to provide your horse with the opportunity to act out his natural repertoire of behaviours in his everyday life. This includes being able to eat, socialise and move around as he has evolved to do. Aim to provide unlimited forage such as hay, and as much time to move around freely as possible. Keeping him permanently with other horses will allow him to form lasting social bonds and act out social behaviours. Even a little tweak to the way you manage your horse can have an enormous impact on his overall well being. The result will be a more relaxed, happier, healthier horse and the basis for a better relationship.
Much of the way we communicate with our horses is by telling them what to do. But how many times have you actually tried to listen to what they say? If we offer horses some autonomy and choice in our interactions it can have amazing results. Next time you are with your horse be very aware of their response to your movements and actions. If they flinch away from your touch or an object don’t just continue regardless, be aware of it. They are expressing their concern about the task at hand. If we ignore this discomfort and force them to endure something they find frightening this is known as flooding, and will have negative psychological and behavioural implications. However, if we recognise this fear and break down the task into incremental steps then we are building trust. When your horse learns that you are sensitive to his reactions and will adapt situations rather than force him into them, then you will have a very trusting and confident companion.
If you believe giving horses choice and responding accordingly to their behaviours causes dominance or naughtiness please see my other articles on these topics.
Building on your attention to two way communication, you can begin to experiment and find out what your horse likes, simply tolerates or actually despises. When spending time with your horse in an open space do something such as stroking for a short time, then stop and watch his response. Starting with gentle stroking at the withers is a good idea as this is where horses groom each other, so most will tolerate being touched here. If he walks off you know he’s not too keen! Many horses don’t actually enjoy being touched and so won’t find this rewarding. If this is the case allow them the freedom to leave, it has just highlighted an area which gradually needs resolving. If there’s no response then he’s probably not that bothered by what you are doing. However, if he enjoys it he will seek you out when you stop. This way you know you’re onto a winner!
If your horse is extremely fearful or aggressive please don’t attempt this, first seek advice from a well-qualified and reputable behaviourist.
If your horse enjoys being touched you can spend a great amount of time finding the best itchy spots! A good scratch releases endorphins and pleasure chemicals into the brain, creating a positive association with you and strengthening your bond. This can really change the relationship between you and your horse from bad to good, providing they enjoy it and are choosing to participate. Give them a good massage up their mane and into their withers, aiming to get the tell-tale lip wiggle of satisfaction! It is a very simple and effective way to build a great relationship with your horse, after all it is how they interact with each other. If you are not comfortable with them trying to groom you back, simply stop scratching when they attempt it. They will soon learn that the best way to get a good scratch is to keep lips and teeth well away!
In order to be fully content horses, like any species, need some form of enrichment in their everyday lives. An interesting and stimulating environment alleviates boredom, increases ‘feel good’ chemicals in the brain and can even make your horse better at problem solving! In scientific experiments animals raised in enriched environments have consistently denser, more connected brains than those raised in bare environments. Be creative with your ideas, a ball on a rope will get boring quite quickly. Instead try providing edible branches, hiding treats around, scratching posts, access to rivers and ponds or flavouring hay with herbal tea. Think outside the box and experiment with different ideas that target all the senses. The more you can change the enrichment, the more effective it will be! And the more your horse will thank you for it!
8. Let Go.
It almost goes without saying, but if you want to improve your relationship with your horse you need to stop doing things he hates! A lot of what we do with horses is very unpleasant for them, verging on terrifying. However, if we truly want them to be happy and to have a better relationship with us we need to at least reduce the amount of negative experiences we put them through. No horse ever needed a high flying career to be happy, these are things that we do for our own gain. Whether it’s repeatedly drilling in that dressage test, travelling to every show of the season or flying after a hunt. The more the brain has negative experiences of stress, discomfort and fear, the more entrenched this pathway becomes. They develop a negative association with their work and also with you. If he’s having a really hard time coping then stop doing whatever it is. Allow him a break so that his body and mind can return to baseline, without constantly having the fight or flight response activated by stress. Then if it’s really something that you insist on doing together focus on reintroducing it gradually while making it as positive and stress free for him as possible. If you truly want a partnership then there needs to be something in it for both of you!
9. Be positive.
When teaching new things why not try teaching them using positive reinforcement? By using rewards rather than punishers to motivate the behaviour you are making the learning experience equally as enjoyable for both parties. This increases motivation and enthusiasm from the horse, and also boosts the rate of learning. You then have a horse who wants to get it right as much as you want him to! In the dog training world the idea of positive reinforcement is becoming widely accepted as the most humane and effective form of behaviour change. However, the horse world is still lagging behind and not using this incredibly effective tool as readily. If used correctly positive reinforcement is just as effective with horses and can have incredible results! Imagine if your horse looked forward to training sessions and participated because he wanted to and not because he had to. This time spent together then works to strengthen the bond between horse and trainer rather than weaken it. It doesn’t have to be everything you do. Even if you just taught a simple behaviour such as standing still or picking up feet using positive reinforcement, it would have a positive impact on the rest of your time together.
Finally, never stop learning! With horses there is always so much to learn, and the more you learn the more you realise you don’t know! Seek to learn as much as you can about every aspect of his life. Aim to understand his natural behaviour and how this is affected by common management practises. Be aware of his body language, and look for signs of stress, discomfort or fear. Introduce yourself to the world or positive reinforcement training by contacting a trainer or reading reputable books on the subject. If you encounter a problem always seek the advice of a qualified professional in the relevant field.
There is a lot of false information circulating with regards to the training, management and handling of horses. Always aim to be guided by your own moral code of ethics, and only listen to well qualified and reputable professionals. Tread with caution, listen to your gut and maintain an open mind.
Ultimately, understanding your horse allows you to better meet his needs, provide exceptional welfare and ensure he is happy and healthy. When you are able to offer him a fulfilled life and respond to him effectively and compassionately, surely then you are the person he would choose. Nothing can be better for a trusting relationship and deep bond than this!
Recently I have become quite distressed at the amount of posts I have seen online asking for public suggestions of what to do with their ‘horse from hell’. You will know the kind when you see them; ‘My child’s pony is a spoilt brat, constantly tries to get the better of her and is as naughty as possible. Spooks, bucks, bolts, does everything he can to deliberately scare her. Need someone to teach him a lesson.’ Or ‘My young horse is a little devil. He messes about constantly when he doesn’t want to do something, but can be nice as pie when getting his own way. He is rude and knows he can get away with it. Needs someone to teach him some manners.’
All of these posts list endless imaginative ways that the horse has deliberately plotted and deceitfully planned to outwit their owner. After reading them you would think that all horses were evil mastermind geniuses capable of overthrowing the human race if not kept in their place. What is more bothering though is the onslaught of heavy handed, ill-informed helpers who would be more than happy to come and aid in showing this horse a thing or two. My suggestions of seeking professional help to find the cause of the behaviour and retrain accordingly are lost in swathes of ‘use a stronger bit/ carry two whips/ try this person/ that person/ this method/ that gadget. My heart goes out to the horse in that instance, knowing what sort of retort he is in for, and through absolutely no fault of his own.
One of the major problems with this is the false belief that the horse is being deliberately naughty. The definition for ‘naughtiness’ in the dictionary is: badly behaved, disobedient, failure or refusal to obey rules or someone in authority. This of course depends on the subject knowing exactly what the rules are, and fully understanding the task at hand. They must also be able to perform it, and not hindered by fear, discomfort or pain. Finally they must be suitably motivated to carry out the task. The truth of the matter is that the majority of the horses probably do not understand exactly what is being asked of them, especially if the rider or handler is beginning to get angry, as this will send mixed signals. Essentially, they’re damned if they do, and they’re damned if they don’t - imagine a horse who starts to refuse a jump, and so the rider gives him a sharp smack with the whip before the jump. Very soon the horse starts to learn that the jump means pain, and will refuse it more, so the rider gets even angrier. The cycle continues, with the rider exclaiming what a lazy, naughty, manipulative little so and so the pony is, blissfully unaware that they are the entire problem.
Deception is another kettle of fish all together. In order to be deceptive the animal must be self-aware, in other words they must have ‘theory of mind’. This means that they are able to ‘consider the mental states, intentions and perspectives of others’, and understand how their behaviour will change the beliefs and therefore behaviour of the other (Kuczaj et al, 2001). Now, does that not sound a little too complex for a horse? Theory of mind is an advanced state of consciousness thought to only be possessed by humans and some primates, cetaceans and birds, however even this is disputed (Penn & Povinelli, 2007). Horses on the other hand do not have the cognitive capacity to be able to perform such complex tasks.
Insinuating that horses deliberately go against our own wishes for no other reason than to cause a problem for their owner or to get their own way is a completely reductionist and unjustifiable argument. This statement says more about the person’s lack of understanding than it does about the horse.
Labelling behaviours with human connotations is known as anthropomorphism, and it’s hugely damaging to our ability to understand horses. Describing a horse as lazy, bad mannered, rude or insinuating that he is deliberately undermining you are all perfect examples of this! First and foremost, this hugely over complicates horse behaviour and cognition to something far removed from what is actually occurring. As I have already discussed, horses are unable to speculate on another beings state of mind. They cannot form complex theories as to how their actions might change the beliefs and so behaviour of offers. They simply act in response to learnt experiences about what makes them feel better or worse. It is unreasonable for us to project human emotions onto our horses and expect that this is how they process the world.
Secondly, these negative labels also change the way that people respond to the behaviours. If someone believes that the horse is acting in that way because he is being ‘deliberately difficult’ or ‘trying to scare them’ then they will act emotively and defensively. They are more likely to be punishing and unforgiving of the horse’s behaviour, acting through anger and retaliation. These labels make allowances for heavy-handedness and justify taking negative emotional states out on the horse. After all, he knew what he was doing, right?
So, if the horse does understand what is required, and isn’t being naughty or deceitful, why exactly is he not performing the task? What you are essentially left with is a training error. Now, this is a much less comfortable notion than just blaming the horse for being a horror, but if progress is ever to be made, this is something that needs to be realised.
All of the undesirable behaviours that could possibly be listed are merely the horse’s futile attempts to communicate with the owner that something is massively wrong. The problem is that they have missed, silenced and ignored his efforts so long that now he is practically shouting them for attention. Rather than finally taking notice of this and fixing the problem, they instead try to find someone who can essentially shout even louder. The horse is not trying to scare or get the better of their owner, they are just trying to communicate. What the owner needs to do instead is pay attention and ask why.
First and foremost the issue of pain or discomfort needs to be completely erased before looking at any training solutions. Trying to get a horse to work who is in pain is just asking for problems later on, and is completely unfair on the horse in question. A large proportion of behavioural problems such as bucking, biting and bolting can be traced to present or remembered discomfort. Therefore before any training takes place the horse needs checking by a veterinarian, osteopath and equine dentist at the very least. All the tack must be checked to be well fitting and comfortable. Only when the trainer is completely certain that all of these aspects have been checked by a professional should they proceed.
If the horse is not in pain, or remembering previous pain, chances are that he is scared. Spooking, bolting, bucking and barging are all escape behaviours geared towards self-preservation. The presence of these behaviours suggest that the horse is finding one or many aspects of the situation absolutely terrifying. Even instances of aggression can usually be routed in a fear response. It is the trainer’s responsibility to look into this and try to identify the cause of his fear, rather than rationalise that he just doesn’t want to perform. If they analyse the situation carefully enough they may identify areas within the horse’s education where friction began to arise and was ignored. Did he start to act out of turn when the saddle was introduced? Did the bolting incidents start to happen when he was hacked out alone? Did he start bucking after a scary incident on the arena? This will highlight where the training problem occurred, and most likely was too fast or overwhelming for the horse to process.
Unfortunately most people respond to a ‘naughty horse’ by being tougher and exerting more discipline. However, since most of these behaviours are routed in fear, coming down on the horse with even more punishment only makes them more afraid, and the problem worse in the long term. It’s hardly surprising that whipping a scared horse does not make him less scared!
This horse was very fearful and would repeatedly spook and bolt. Despite this she was forced to stand in the area she found terrifying under the instruction of a professional, as she was believed to be naughty. Looking at her body language you can tell how tense and scared she is, so her response is hardly surprising.
So, rather than being naughty, the horse either does not understand what is required, has learnt to respond in the wrong way, is in discomfort or is afraid. None of these problems will be solved with an iron fist. The trainer must look at the behaviour with fresh eyes, and ask why it is occurring. They must not inhibit their own insight by answering this question with simplistic, anthropomorphic responses such as ‘he’s being naughty’ or ‘lazy’. If problem behaviours are continually misinterpreted as deliberate disobedience rather than a communication problem, the behavioural problem will only be accentuated. Since the problem lies solely with the trainer and training system it will never be truly resolved. By suppressing these evasive behaviours with more force, punishment and fear they are creating ticking time bombs. A terrified horse unable to express his discomfort, who will explode sooner or later as more pressure is put on, creating an extremely dangerous situation. What happens when he injures someone? He is blamed, and sold on, but the problem continues with the next horse and the next until the trainers looks at themselves.
The responsibility lies with the person, not the horse. Take a step back and seek advice from a professional who is well qualified in behaviour, to accurately identify and resolve the problem rather than covering it up.
For the horse’s sake, stop blaming them.
Kuczaj, S., Tranel, K., Trone, M. and Hill, H., (2001). Are animals capable of deception or empathy? Implications for animal consciousness and animal welfare. Animal Welfare, 10, pp.S161-S174.
Penn, D.C. and Povinelli, D.J., (2007). On the lack of evidence that non-human animals possess anything remotely resembling a ‘theory of mind’. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 362(1480), pp.731-744
On Tuesday I returned back from one of the greatest adventures and learning opportunities of my life. For the past two months I have been living in Africa, studying and conducting research as part of my Animal Behaviour degree with Manchester Metropolitan University. This fascinating journey began in Tanzania, travelling around many conservancies such as Tarangire, Ngorogoro Conservation Area and The Serengeti. Alongside The College of African Wildlife Management we studied the local wildlife, ecology and issues such as human wildlife conflict. For the last six weeks we worked in Ol Pejeta Conservancy and Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Kenya in association with Kenya Wildlife Service. The research project I was lucky enough to conduct was investigating the social structures and behaviour of the white rhino.
Rhino are in fact the closest living relative to equids, diverging from a common ancestor 55 million years ago (Rose et al, 2014). While black rhinoceros are mainly solitary and feed on browse, white rhinoceros have very similar behaviour to horses. They are highly social grazers who live in small herds. Both black and white rhino face immense pressure in the wild from poaching for their horn. In East Asia the horn is used in many traditional medicines, despite it being made of keratin, the same material as hair. Since 2007 the illegal ivory trade has trebled, increasing demand for horn significantly and decimating rhino populations across Africa. As a result of continued poaching the northern white rhino has now been declared extinct in the wild with only 3 individuals of the species existing in captivity. These precious individuals will live out the last of their days at Ol Pejeta Conservancy under 24 hour armed guard, and incredibly I had the immense privilege to include these animals in my study.
Despite being the most social rhino species, the social behaviour of white rhinos has received very little attention scientifically, with the last comprehensive paper published in 1975 (Owen-Smith). As the wild populations of southern whites faces such overwhelming pressure, long term conservation relies on captive populations to maintain genetic diversity. However, the captive population is failing. Only wild caught individuals breed in captivity, making this an unsustainable solution (Cinkova & Bicik, 2013). Nobody fully understands why captive white rhinos don’t breed, and various possible theories have been explored including behavioural reasons, hormonal, genetic or physical problems (Swaisgood, 2006). One possible theory is that the social structure of white rhinos is complex and not fully understood and so their social needs are not fully met in a captive setting. With this in mind this research project aimed to explore the social structures of white rhino and hopefully cast light on the present dilemma.
In total I spent approximately 65 hours formally observing both southern and northern white rhino in the conservancies. Myself and MMU research partner Ruth Spense identified each rhino individually and recorded their location and group size. I then recorded the identification of their nearest neighbour and any instances of affectionate or aggressive behaviour that occurred. Ruth has been recording the ratio of bites to steps taken while grazing, which gives an indication to grazing quality. The vegetation in areas where rhino were observed grazing was also measured so that comparisons between grazing quality and behaviour can be made.
During the observations I noticed that most rhino spend their time in very close, small groups. This normally consists of a mother and offspring, or a same sex pair. These close groups remain together all of the time and share a lot of affectionate behaviour. These smaller groups will also converge at periods each day to graze and sleep, and may number up to 7. Adult males spend time on their own or in pairs and move between larger groups. Many adult males may be present in a group at a time. Interestingly it is not always the same combination of individuals that come together each day, making the social composition fluid and flexible.
The vast majority of interactions between all individuals involve bond strengthening behaviour such as touching horns, face or bodies and maintaining close proximity. The rhinos are in fact highly affiliative, and will direct subtle affectionate behaviours towards their closest associations regularly. When individuals greet each other this is too is accompanied by gentle touches with their face and horn. Instances of aggression are incredibly rare and mild when they do occur. When aggression is present it appears to be in relation to competition for a mate or protecting offspring, much the same as documented in wild equids. In captive rhino the stressful provisions of food increases acts of aggression in line with resource holding potential (Cinkova & Bicik, 2013) also like their equine cousins. However due to the forage not being easily defendable in the natural setting no aggression in relation to food was observed. From my observations there is no evidence of a dominance hierarchy or any cohesion within the social behaviour of wild white rhino.
The results have not been statistically analysed, and more detail will undoubtedly come to light following this. Despite this a lot of information has arisen from the hours spent in the field. The social behaviour of white rhinos is remarkably similar to that of equids and is highly complex. Like horses they seem to have a pair bond, and their social behaviour relies predominantly on affiliative interactions. However, the rhino’s social organisation is complex, ever changing and flexible. In captivity perhaps denying the rhinoceros the ability to interchange is impacting their breeding success through limiting mate choice or creating stress from an unnatural social ethogram. Whatever the cause it is crucial that research begins to identify it to prevent the southern white rhino from meeting the same fate as the northern whites undoubtedly will.
Cinkova, I. & Bicik, V., (2013). Social and reproductive behaviour of critically endangered northern white rhinoceros in a zoological garden. Mammalian Biology, 78, pp.50–54.
Kenneth D. Rose et al. (2014). Early Eocene fossils suggest that the mammalian order Perissodactyla originated in India. Nature Communications 5, article number: 5570; doi: 10.1038/ncomms6570
Owen-Smith, R.N., (1973). The Behavioural Ecology of the White Rhinoceros. Dissertation Abstracts International, 34, pp.5256–5257.
Swaisgood, R.R., Dickman, D. M., White, A. M., (2006). A captive population in crisis: Testing hypotheses for reproductive failure in captive born southern-white rhinoceros females. Biological Conservation, 129, pp.468-476.
‘The kind and natural approach’
Several years ago in search of an ethical alternative to the harsh and seemingly senseless mainstream training techniques I began following a system of natural horsemanship. Much like the rest, the system used pressure and release, going to comfort and exercises such as desensitisation. It supposedly taught the horse to respect yourself as the dominant leader based on the natural interactions of horses within a herd. We were assured that it was kind, in the horse’s best interest and of course, natural.
Unfortunately, what often gets sold to the well-meaning horse lover is not always as gentle as it is made out to be. Whether deliberately or not the horseman will explain certain behavioural phenomenon using seemingly fabricated theories which fit the lessons he is trying to teach. The result of this is that horse lovers who think they are doing the best thing by their animals actually end up putting them through things that they might never have considered before. It is not just the horse who suffers, a great deal of emotional stress is also often experienced by the trainer.
Eventually I became disillusioned with the natural horsemanship system as I came to recognise these attributes, and so left in search of a more ethical alternative. In this article I want to explain some of the basic scientific mechanisms behind the magic, and help you to recognise when the explanation might not fit the situation. Once you understand the basic principles you are in a better position to make informed decisions about what is actually best for you and your horse!
‘He’s deliberately pushing the boundaries’
In order to maintain the façade that the system is as kind as it states to be, clever language and humour are often used to persuade the viewer. Passive and jovial comments remove the negative stigma from certain situations or stimuli, such as naming a whip a ‘carrot stick’ or ‘extended arm’. To complicate things further the whole process is viewed within an anthropomorphic and anthropocentric framework, meaning that human traits are used to explain equine behaviour and that the trainer is seen as being central to the behaviour displayed. This causes damaging misinterpretation of responses which are likely to be simply a fight or flight response based on the horses natural instincts. Instead it is often assumed that the horse does understand what is being asked and chooses to be deliberately deceitful, strong minded or naughty (McGreevy, 2012). Often trainers will explain that behaviours are due to the horse ‘not accepting you as the leader’, ‘being disrespectful’ or ‘having bad manners’. This warped perception leads to questionable actions taken upon the ‘naughty’ horse and creates ‘misunderstanding, conflict and reduced welfare for human and equine participants’ (McGreevy, 2009).
‘Going To Comfort’
To understand how any training method works is to first understand basic learning theory. For any animal to perform a behaviour there must be a motivation to do so, and this motivation can be classed as either a reinforcer or a punisher. Reinforcers make a behaviour more likely to be repeated, whereas punishers make it less likely to be repeated. They are classed as either positive or negative in the mathematical sense, by either adding or removing a stimuli.
Therefore, negative reinforcement works by removing something unpleasant. For example, the horse works to avoid the riders kicking legs and so walks faster, which results in the kicking stopping. Similarly positive reinforcement adds something pleasant, such as the horse receiving a treat for walking faster, which too makes the behaviour more likely. They both increase the likelihood of the horse walking faster. Positive punishment adds something unpleasant and reduces the likelihood of a behaviour. For example, if a horse starts pawing at the ground and so receives a smack with the whip it reduces the chance he will repeat it. Negative punishment takes away something pleasant, such as taking away a horse’s feed if he starts pawing the ground.
Something I hear often is that natural horsemanship methods use positive reinforcement by making the horse go to comfort. Essentially this means that the trainer stops applying pressure when the horse does the right thing, and now that we know the definitions of the reinforcers we know this is in fact negative reinforcement. I argue that there is no pleasure in not being hit, poked or prodded- at best perhaps relief. One way to consider this is with the schooling of a child. He is nagged and pressured by his mother until he finishes his maths homework, he is even threatened with being grounded if he doesn’t do it on time. How do you think this would effect the way he feels about maths homework, or maths in general? Do you think he enjoys the task of completing it? Now consider he is told that when he completes it that his mother will take him to the park, and if he does it before time he will get an extra special surprise. How do you think this will change his attitude? And just by changing the reinforcers used. My point is not that one is more effective than the other, I’m sure the boy got his homework done on time in both cases. It is that they create a different emotional, physiological and psychological response, and that if a natural horseman argues that ‘going to comfort’ results in enjoyment and enthusiasm I’m afraid he is greatly mistaken.
‘He follows me out of trust and respect’
Without understanding the reinforcers fully, certain results can seem ‘magical’ and warrant elaborate explanations, hence where the terms horse whispering has come from. Round pen training gets very quick, impressive looking results, therefore it is easy to believe that the horse follows the trainer out of trust and understanding. The miraculous transformation of an initially scared horse following the trainer around within minutes is explained by the fact the trainer has tapped into part of the horse’s language and is acting as the ‘alpha horse’.
However, it can too be explained by the effective administration of negative reinforcerment. When the horse turns away from the trainer he is sent away, chased around in a pen he cannot escape from. The horse finds this very frightening and stressful and will try to avoid. When the trainer sees signs that the horse is beginning to focus on him he will stop the advances, increasing the frequency of approach behaviour. The horse quickly realises that the only way he can avoid the feelings of fear created by being chased around the pen is to stick nearby the trainer. Rather than following out of trust and partnership the horse follows because he is too scared not to.
Interestingly the same results have also been replicated by using a remote control car. In 2012 a team of researchers lead by Cath Henshall, a Master of Animal Science at the University of Sydney, were able to train horses to follow and touch the inanimate object using similar methods. This disproves claims that the horse follows the trainer due to them being able to tap into the horses language. Henshall warns against the widespread use of this technique as “it uses fear to gain control of horses” (Phys.org, 2012).
The amount in which this behaviour occurs naturally is disputed. A study has found that when two un-introduced horses are placed in a round pen together they spend the vast majority of the time apart. The older horse does not chase the younger horse around in an attempt to get him to remain close (Warren-Smith & McGreevy, 2008). These methods have also been proven to be context specific, horses may perform the desired behaviour in the arena but not in the field (Krueger, 2007).
‘Be The Dominant Leader’
Another common misconception that has lead to so much confusion about how we handle and train horses is the dominance theory. It has long been believed that horses have a dominance hierarchy, much like primates, where if anyone crosses the dominant horse they would be reprimanded. In actual fact, this dominance theory in wild or feral equines does not exist, it is instead a man made concept. By observing domestic horses at feeding time it is easy to assume that there is a hierarchy based on aggression. However, in natural conditions resources are equally distributed which means there is no need to defend or argue over food. There is either enough grass for everyone or not much anywhere, compared to bucket feeds or haynets which can be defended easily and cause an increase in stress around feeding time (Kiley Worthington, 1987). For this reason, rather than being a display of dominance, this aggression is instead known as ‘resource holding potential’ and occurs in relation to each resource- some may value hay more than others, and some may be ‘dominant’ in relation to shade. It has also been proven that despite their ‘rank’ within domestic herds the horses are equally trainable, which challenges the assumption that ‘lead’ horses are more challenging than others (McGreevy, 2012).
Rather than following the ‘dominant’ bully in the herd, horses have been shown to follow the horses who perhaps have the best knowledge of where to find resources. She just goes and they follow, she does not herd, chase, kick or bite them if they don’t, they just follow because they want to. It has also been argued that instead of following a single ‘alpha mare’ the herd will follow many individuals depending on the circumstances. Over a 5 year period a herd of Zebra were observed, arguably the last truly wild equids. In all of this time no encounters of aggression were observed during the study (Simpson et al, 2011). Surely this would not have been the case is aggression was essential for the herd to function?
That is because it isn’t. Being highly social herd animals survival depends on herd cohesion. Unsurprisingly then it has been found that activities that promote group living have evolved to be more prominent than those that threaten it. This means that there is little conflict between individuals and affectionate ‘bond building’ behaviours are significantly more frequently observed in naturally living horses than are aggressive encounters (Kiley-Worthington, 1987).
If horses in a wild herd work to avoid confrontation as much as possible and have a system based on ‘followership’ rather than ‘leadership’ then why is so much emphasis put on the trainer to be the ‘dominant leader?’ Horses do not get herded by the most aggressive herd member, or bow down to their superiority and follow their every command, in fact they will actively avoid these individuals. Therefore the core teaching and underlying principle of natural horsemanship is highly flawed.
‘Fast Track Results’
One of the major selling points of these ‘miracle’ systems is their quick fix approach- have all your problems solved in a 2 hour session! However, there are very real concerns about any method that claims to change behaviour that rapidly. Repeated exposure to a scary stimuli from which the horse cannot escape is known as flooding. This is a common method used in order to get a horse to stop appearing scared of a stimuli, often called ‘desensitising’. In natural horsemanship this can be seen when the trainer holds a stick or plastic bag next to them until they stop trying to escape, or forces them to remain in proximity to a scary object such as a jump. A common lesson where flooding is exploited is backing. The horseman will put the saddle/ rider/ plastic bags etcetera onto a naïve or fearful horse and sends him around an enclosed area until he stops trying to escape. The horse learns that no amount of bucking, running or other attempts at avoidance will make the scary things go away, and so he eventually stops trying. Flooding has been deemed unethical due to the high levels of stress it creates and compared to other methods the likelihood of the fearful response returning is significantly increased (McGreevy, 2012).
Continual flooding results in a state called conditioned suppression, where the subject appears shut down and calm. Rather than not being scared of the object anymore they just stop responding and suppress the behaviour as an attempt to cope with the overwhelming situation of which they have no control. Conditioned suppression is in fact the objective of natural horsemanship, it’s what the training aims to achieve, and achieves very quickly due to the clever application of positive punishment and negative reinforcement. It’s the part where the horseman exclaims ‘look, does that look like a stressed horse to you!?’ and everyone laughs, unaware that the horse licking and chewing in the corner is in a state of highly compromised welfare. If flooding persists the horse will go into a state of learnt helplessness, a permanent shut down state where the horse has learnt that any response is futile. Seligman (1972) found that dogs who had learnt that they could not escape electric shocks simply lay down and whimpered when given the opportunity to escape them in the future. The dogs had learnt to be helpless and passively accept whatever punishment the experimenter subjected them to. This response has been likened to depression in humans. Is this the attitude to training that we want to create in our horses? Because this is what is happening.
‘Left brain, right brain’
With this unrelenting stressor the horse will be experiencing chronic stress as the stress response is continually activated. This results in raised levels of the stress hormone Cortisol, which has very damaging effects on the physiology. It results in the digestive system shutting down, raised heart rate, raised blood pressure and suppressing of the immune system, making the horse more susceptible to disease, illness and infection. The horse will be in a constant state of fight or flight in an attempt to survive the situation which they perceive to be life threatening. This makes him very reactive, unpredictable and potentially dangerous. With such a compromised neurological state the brain is barely able to learn anything new, and memories slow to form, so many repetitions of training must be done before it sticks.
By using these techniques the horse’s behavioural response has been suppressed but the same mental processes remain. As this is the case the old behaviour will often reappear, known as spontaneous recovery, as soon as stress levels are exasperated or the stimuli presented in a new setting. This gives way to the ‘left brain, right brain’ myth to explain complicated cognition, which has been completely disproved by scientists. Moreover, learning occurs physically in the brain. It is a muscle, and it needs time to change and adapt to new situations. Trying to undo years of learning and go against millions of years of evolution by forcing the horse into a terrifying situation that it cannot escape does not produce good learning. The brain simply cannot develop and change this quickly. By adhering to this quick fix hysteria and egotistical approach the horse’s physical and psychological well-being is highly compromised, and results will be superficial.
Find an ethical alternative
With all things considered it becomes clear that natural horsemanship is not in the horse’s best interest. It may look impressive and feed the trainers ego but at a huge expense to the equine participant. The foundations from which it teaches are disputed by ethologists, the pretense of the ‘alpha horse’, leadership and dominance are being gradually dispelled. From this misunderstanding comes training methods based on fear, suppression and force with the ultimate goal being that of emotional shut down of the animal. The high levels of stress which these training methods create poses physiological problems, making it more difficult to learn new behaviours and suppressing the immune system. And perhaps, the most disturbing fact of all is that more often than not, the person doing the damage is the person who loves and wants the best for their horse. They are told that this will improve their relationship with the horse when in fact the reality is completely the opposite; lack of trust, conditioned suppression, negative associations to training and increased fear of the trainer.
Surely when owners and trainers alike are able to recognise these mechanisms they are in a better position to make informed decisions regarding their horse’s welfare. For myself these methods are unacceptable as I strive for better understanding, better communication and a better relationship with the equines I work with. Rather than the procedures already described I propose that it is better practice to aim to reduce emotional stress in training where possible. When dealing with horses which display avoidance behaviours it is important to first consider the function of the behaviour rather than label it with simplistic, anthropomorphic terms such as ‘he’s being disrespectful’. It is more likely that he is fearful or does not understand what is required of him. From identifying the causality and function of the behaviour the trainer can then create a tailored behaviour modification program to change the emotional response. Methods such as habituation, where the horse is gradually exposed to a new stimuli without fear, or counter conditioning where the old response is replaced with a new response, are considered not only more ethical but more effective in modifying undesirable behaviour. The increased use of positive reinforcement within these programs also changes the horse’s attitude to training, increasing motivation and enthusiasm and creating rapid learning. When all of these steps have been taken successfully, that is when you will see a horse who truly wants to work with you. Moreover you will improve your relationship with your horse and gain a mutual understanding. Only then will your horse be truly happy and relaxed in his work.
This article only scratches the surface of some of the questionable practices that occur in natural horsemanship systems. I hope that by enlightening you to some of them you are now able to view the systems with open eyes. It hardly comes as a surprise that in order to achieve a happy, relaxed and enthusiastic horse you don’t need to hit, punish, suppress or terrify him. With proper application and consideration of modern research the desired result of true partnership can be achieved without such a high cost to the emotional well-being of horse and trainer alike.
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Edited by Laura Gibbons
Similar questions are often batted about in my head. Rather than taking so much time to make sure every aspect of training is just right, why don’t I just get on and make it happen? Theoretically, let’s imagine that the horse wasn’t comfortable with being ridden out alone on roads. Many would make it happen quite readily there and then, while I would come back to basics and steadily progress. I acknowledge that many approaches and trainers might offer a ‘quick fix’, yielding seemingly rapid results. In this case then why are my standards of what is and isn’t acceptable in terms of horse training so steadfast? Recently I have been considering in a lot of detail the reasons why I uphold such strong morals, beliefs and ethics when it comes to horse training, and in this very personal article I would like to explore and share them with you.
When I was growing up unfortunately our home life was extremely stressful and traumatic. We suffered years of domestic abuse at the hands of a man, the home was no longer a place where we felt safe but a place to be feared. Plagued with uncertainty and unpredictability life was frightening and there was nothing that we could do but endure what happened. There seemed to be no escape and no end.
Throughout this period going to see the horses became an escape, the yard was our sanctuary. In these hard times this oasis of calm and happiness was a lifeline and gave us something to hold onto. However, when you can identify with feelings of terror at the hands of another parallels began to emerge when we watched the way horses were handled, trained and treated. Like us, their life was unpredictable, terrifying and they had no control over it.
Quite often ugly patterns in abuse occur, the victim later becomes the abuser in a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy, continuing the suffering. It takes someone even stronger to break the cycle, to stand up and acknowledge that it is wrong and endeavour to not let it continue. Eventually life became much better for us and the horrors of the past became just bad memories. Due to this experience the way that we interacted with horses changed too, we vowed that they should never feel how we felt for someone else’s gain. Nothing should. And there began a lifelong journey to pursue kinder, more ethical methods of communicating with the animals that had been our saviours.
There are many people who believe that the human species are supreme to all other species; more intelligent and successful. Indeed we are the only species to build space craft or develop such diverse cultures. We have a highly developed cortex allowing us to articulate complex spoken language, problem solve and rationalise. However, we are not as well adapted to the varied habitats as the animals which inhabit them. We are no better at living in water than a fish, we are no better at running than a dog, at climbing than a squirrel. You see where I am coming from, we are not ‘better’, we simply evolved differently for a different niche. We do not have the incredibly developed senses of smell, sight and hearing that the horse possess, and in fact there’s a whole sound scape we cannot hear and colours we’re incapable of imagining. The human is blind to senses such as the electronic fields, echo-location and pheromones, we don’t have the added perception of whiskers or communicate on as many levels as other organisms.
Anthropocentrism is the belief that man is supreme to other species and that the world revolves around him. I believe that we are all equal, all perfectly adapted to the habitat that we evolved in. For this reason I do not believe that humans have the right to cause suffering of others for their own gain, be that other people or animals. Mammals are so remarkably similar to us that it would be reductionist to believe that they did not share a lot of basic emotions and feelings that we do. “All the arguments to prove man's superiority cannot shatter this hard fact: in suffering the animals are our equals” (Peter Singer). I believe everything should have the right to happiness, to a pain and fear free existence, to themselves. I feel privileged that I get to share my life with horses and do not view them as an object or possession or a right. When I watch them grazing in the field I think ‘I owe you this happiness’ for keeping them confined as my own, not ‘you owe me’.
The alternative of offering a ‘quick, fast fix’ and ‘rapid results’ for me is not an alternative at all. In order to get these results the process is usually harsh and motivated by fear or pain. Making it happen in this manner creates a huge amount of stress for the animal involved, it can’t happen any other way! Processes such as flooding, when the individual cannot escape a scary stimulus and so stops trying to, are often used. Think of it in this context: you are terrified of tarantulas but we want you to not be, fast! There is no way that your mind can make the necessary adjustments and learning to change ‘tarantulas are terrifying’ into ‘tarantulas are really nice’ in an hour, it’s not physically possible. So what we do is cover you in tarantulas and hold you down until you stop screaming and trying to escape, maybe even hit you for these futile attempts. You eventually stop screaming and thrashing around on the ground- are you less scared?
An alternative approach would be to gradually expose you to tarantulas, first a photograph, then one in a box across the room etcetera, giving you time and chance to adjust. Which method would you choose? It is the same with our horses.
This cause has become my life’s mission. Not only to help horses and give them the voice which they lack, but also to empower people. By educating people about more ethical and appropriate ways of keeping, managing and dealing with horses I am giving them an alternative to the unacceptable norm. In applying the latest scientific research and making this accessible I am providing the tools with which they can challenge the current practises and reasoning. By constantly developing the kindest and most effective reward based training methods I am advancing the way in which people communicate with their horses and making it a two way conversation. All of this information gives you the power to uphold and be true to your own morals, ethics and beliefs and not simply be bullied into old, outdated, abusive methods.
If you too believe that no animal should suffer at the hands of another, and that pain, force and fear no longer has any place in horse training then together we can forge a new path. We can be the voice that they lack, empower people with education and challenge unethical practices. Because no person has the right to make any other individual suffer for their own gain. No individual should feel like I did as a child.