How to train a horse – 15 steps according to science
07 Mar 2018
Humans have trained horses for thousands of years. Many methods of keeping and handling horses have been inherited from tradition and not necessarily from science. The equestrian community is gradually opening up to more modern theories backed by science.
Approaching horse training from a scientific perspective allows for the most efficient way of training whilst maximising animal welfare and enhancing handler safety. Below are 15 key steps to training your horse according to science.
Step 1 – Make sure you understand ‘learning theory’ and use it appropriately
Learning theory is a summary term for what is known about how horses learn and respond to stimuli from a psychological, physiological and behavioural perspective.
As one of the most commonly trained domestic animals, understanding how horses learn and how their relationship with humans and other equines impacts their ability to learn has implications for welfare, husbandry, training and management (12).
Training methods that do not align with the horse’s natural learning abilities reduce the likelihood of optimal performance and increase the frequency of problem behaviours (13).
Poor performance and problem behaviours that the result from the use of inappropriate training practices may contribute significantly to the current levels of wastage in the horse industry (13).
Equitation science is an emerging field, part of which aims to explain and understand horses’ behaviours and reactions. Reducing the “unpredictability” of horse-human interactions will make equestrian a safer sport (14).
The emotion “fear” promotes the fitness of wild animals. In a domestic environment, exaggerated fear can cause several problems for both horse welfare and human safety. Therefore knowledge about fear in horses helps humans to prevent or handle potential fear inducing situations (24). The optimal use of learning theory should be established as a fundamental principle in equestrian education (1).
The main processes involved in learning theory for horses are habituation, shaping, operant conditioning and classical conditioning (1). We will discuss these processes in more detail in the steps that follow.
The bottom line: Understanding how your horse learns will enable you to train in the most efficient and kindest way possible.
Step 2 – Make sure you understand classical conditioning
Classical conditioning is where an involuntary behaviour occurs consistently in reaction to a seemingly neutral stimuli. The process is also called pavlovian or respondent conditioning.
An involuntary behaviour is a response that happens without conscious thought or decision on the horse’s behalf. Fox example, this can include: feelings of fear, pain, pleasure or comfort, drooling, tensing muscles etc.
One of the best known examples of classical conditioning is “Pavlov’s dogs”. The scientist Ivan Pavlov conducted an experiment with a groups of dogs whereby he rang a bell every time before he fed them. Eventually, after several repetitions of this exercise, the dogs would salivate at the sound of bell, even if there was no food in sight (47).
The range of responses which can be classically conditioned to new stimuli include emotional responses. Animals tend to avoid pain and impending pain generates a fear response. When an animal becomes classically conditioned to an aversive stimuli this is called fear conditioning (60). For instance, a horse who shows fearful behaviour at the sight of a whip. Pain can also become classically conditioned and this can lead to chronic pain or unsoundness even when the underlying health issue is resolved (61).
In everyday interactions with domestic horses, things can often become unintentionally classically conditioned. For instance, your horse sees the float and feels fear because he associates it with a confined space, solitary confinement, strange places etc. The horse cannot help that he feels fear, this is an involuntary response.
The bottom line: Be mindful that could be creating positive or negative emotions in every situation with your horse and this could lead to unintended classical conditioning. For example, a horse becoming hard to catch because he associates you with hard work and feels negative emotions.
Step 3 – Make sure you understand Operant Conditioning
The vast majority of equine training is based on operant conditioning. In operant conditioning an animal’s behaviours are shaped by learned consequences. Operant conditioning includes four means by which animals can learn: negative reinforcement, positive reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment.
In horse training, positive and negative reinforcement are mainly used. The trainer encourages a behaviour by consistently using a positive or negative reinforcer as a consequence. Positive reinforcement is the addition of a stimulus, such as a food reward, to indicate the desired action. Negative reinforcement is the removal of aversive stimuli when the correct behaviour is performed, such as pressure (21).
Recently, some researchers in the field of equitation science have claimed that the use of the terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ are misleading for everyday use. They have suggested that these labels should be re-labelled as ‘addition’ or ‘subtraction’ reinforcement/punishment. They believe that these terms would be easier for horse owners to understand and would make horse owners more receptive to the ideas of learning theory (1).
Punishment is not to be confused with reinforcement. Positive punishment is when something additional that is aversive is added after an undesired behaviour. For instance, if you whip a horse after he does something wrong, that is positive punishment. Negative punishment is when something is taken away after an undesired behaviour: if you withhold your child’s pocket money for a week that is negative punishment.
Punishment is not always an effective tool for training animals because it is hard for them to understand what they have done wrong, especially in regards to negative punishment. Punishment can generate negative emotions and fear which may stop the animal from “thinking clearly” (62). Generally, reinforcement is a more effective training tool.
The bottom line: While negative reinforcement training has historically been used to train horses positive reinforcement training is increasing in popularity. Both are useful tools if used appropriately. Reinforcement is not to be confused with punishment.
Step 4 – Make sure to use negative reinforcement correctly
Negative reinforcement is a form of operant conditioning. It relies on the use and timely release of pressure to train horses. It does not mean negative as in “bad” it means negative as in “subtraction.” Ie. Subtraction of pressure (1).
One study demonstrated that horses learn to respond to pressure very quickly and in a way that will stop the pressure as soon as possible. The same study also concluded that horses become lighter to aids with proper negative reinforcement training (20).
On the other hand, if too much pressure is applied than this can cause stress which inhibits learning (18). Further, doing negative reinforcement incorrectly can inadvertently punish the desired behaviour. Delays in the release of pressure can make a desirable response less likely and thus punish the horse (5). Punishment, even if accidental, makes a response less likely in the future, therefore having the opposite training effect to that intended in the situation.
Some studies suggest that negative reinforcement triggers negative emotions. However, other studies have found that horses trained with negative reinforcement were more optimistic than those trained with positive reinforcement (15). Training young horses to load onto a trailer was equally effective and stressful whether positive or negative reinforcement was used (21).
The bottom line: Negative reinforcement is an effective tool when training horses that has been used for centuries. Make sure not to apply pressure in such a manner as to cause stress, and reward the slightest try.
Step 5 – Incorporate some positive reinforcement into your training toolbox
Positive reinforcement is the addition of a reward when a horse performs the correct behaviour. Clicker training is a form of positive reinforcement training sometimes used in horses and other animals, where the sound of the clicker is used as bridging signal to mark the exact moment the correct behaviour was performed. The horse comes to associate the bridging signal with the immediate follow up of a treat, such as a food reward or scratch.
One study found that riders who used a higher proportion of rewarding responses overall, even towards inappropriate behaviour scenarios, had horses with fewer behavioural problems. These riders used reassuring responses to calm their horse. The researchers behind this study suggest that these riders may have had greater success because responding to their horse’s emotional state as opposed to just responding to their horses’ behaviour (4).
Another study found that a positively reinforced experimental group of horses produced a faster training result compared to negatively reinforced experimental group and expressed a lower stress response. The study concluded that positive reinforcement could provide a preferable training solution when training horses in potentially stressing situations (16).
Positive reinforcement has been shown to be a successful method to train hoof handling and trailer loading (19).
Horses trained to go onto a trailer using positive reinforcement showed more exploratory behaviour than those trained using negative reinforcement. These behaviours included sniffing, touching and exploring throughout the training process (21).
The bottom line: Positive reinforcement is becoming more popular, and when used correctly it is a useful, effective tool to have as part of your training toolbox.
Step 6 – Combining positive and negative reinforcement
Now that we have discussed positive and negative reinforcement, you might wonder what happens if you combine the two. For example, you tug on your horse’s lead rope (aversive stimulus), he takes a step forward, so you click and feed him a carrot. Will your horse learn quicker than if you just tug and release pressure or if you don’t tug at all but click and treat every time your horse steps forward?
Firstly, well regarded canine, marine animal and equine trainer Karen Pryor coined the term ‘poison cue.’ Pryor observed that when positive and negative reinforcers were combined to elicit a behaviour, dogs did not perform the behaviour as consistently and displayed less positive body language, indicating a mixed emotional state. Pryor also noted that dogs tended to take longer to learn a behaviour that they were taught using a combination of positive and negative reinforcement rather than positive or negative reinforcement alone. (42)
A study at the University of North Texas agreed with Pryor’s hypotheses. In the study, dogs were trained with either positive reinforcement or a combination of positive and negative reinforcement. The results concluded that positive reinforcement used independently produced faster, more predictable training outcomes than training that combined positive and negative reinforcement. Further, the dogs trained purely with positive reinforcement displayed happier body language (41)
So why doesn’t combining positive and negative reinforcement work? One hypothesis is that accidental punishment sometimes occurs if the aversive stimuli is not removed in a timely manner. Thus, even though the animal ultimately gets a treat, any positive emotions are outweighed by the fear of being punished.
Contrarily, monkeys trained with a combination of negative and positive reinforcement were more successful than those trained with positive reinforcement alone. The training methods did not seem to adversely affect the relationship with the trainer (17).
No such studies have been done with horses, more research needs to be done in this area. There is also a lot of debate about what actually constitutes an ‘aversive stimuli’ and this will vary depending on an animal’s experiences.
The bottom line: The science is still out on mixing positive and negative reinforcement training. If you experiment with this, make sure you are tuned in to your horse’s emotions.
Step 7 – Understand Habituation
While a wild horse needs to spook at some things in his environment in order to survive, it is not ideal to spook at things that won’t and never will cause harm, for instance, a tree stump. It is simply not energy efficient for a wild horse to go around spooking at every harmless object in his environment. The process by which a horse learns to distinguish what is dangerous is and what is not is called habituation.
Habituation means that the horse will come to learn that a stimulus is irrelevant, and therefore will reduce and eventually lose his flight response. While this process happens naturally, it can also be taught intentionally through training (24).
Another part of the process of habituation is generalisation. For example, once a horse is used to umbrellas opening, then perhaps he starts to think that big, suddenly moving, flappy objects are no longer scary and he starts to categorise these objects under “non-dangerous.” This is called generalisation.
The ability of horses to habituate to frightening stimuli greatly increases safety in the horse-human relationship (22). Horses are by nature scared of unfamiliar objects and situations but may be habituated to perform complex behavioural tasks in new environments (3). For instance, loading on a horse trailer.
In one survey of horse owners, 20% of those interviewed experienced loading problems. Horses that were experienced loaders, loaded more rapidly with less variation. Horses that were rarely trailered showed a higher heart rate inside the trailer compared to outside. Rarely trailered horses showed signs of habituation after 3 loading events (3).
Compared to controls, test horses reacted significantly less towards objects which were previously part of a bigger object which they had been habituated to, indicating object recognition. These results demonstrate that it is possible to increase object generalisation in horses by habituating them to a range of colours and shapes at the same time (22).
Another study found a significant reduction in response (behavioural response and heart rate) with increasing object numbers indicating that horses generalise between similarly coloured objects of varying shape. The study concluded that a high degree of object similarity eg. identical colouring, appears to be crucial for horses to be able to generalise objects (23).
The bottom line: It is useful to habituate your horse to situations he may find scary and uncomfortable, such as trailer loading. It is also useful to habituate your horse to objects he might spook at, such as cars and dogs, this will make him calmer and safer to ride.
Step 8 – Remain calm
It turns out, that horses are very good at reading humans. Being prey animals, they are sensitive to the body language and emotional states of those around them. Therefore if your sympathetic nervous system is activated and your heart is racing, your horse will pick up on that. It is important to practise keeping yourself calm. Activities such as breathing exercises and meditation may help.
One study found that horses could recognise an angry human face and responded negatively to it. On presentation of an angry face, horses’ heart rates increased and they also presented a left gaze bias which is associated with the processing of negative stimuli (32). Does your horse try to keep you in a particular eye?
Horses are more sensitive to speed of approach than human body posture (65). Working with a nervous horse? Slow your movements right down.
Self-perceived personality traits in the rider are correlated with their perceptions of their horse’s temperament, and, as a consequence, were likely to affect the quality of the horse–rider relationship. (31). Therefore your horse’s temperament is in part a reflection of you.
Can horse’s pick up on your heart rate? Participants in a study were told that an umbrella would be opened as they rode, or led, the horse past the assistant. The umbrella was not actually opened, but nevertheless there was an increase in heart rate for both the person leading or riding and the horse being led or ridden (35). In another study, horse’s ridden by different riders past scary objects had different heart rates according to which rider they had (64).
The bottom line: Stay calm when you are with your horse. Have the temperament you would like your horse to have. Practicing mindfulness and breathing exercises may help.
Step 9 – Be consistent
Consistency builds trusts. If you’re consistent, your horse knows what to expect from you and he knows when he’s done something right. Horses evaluate human beings on daily relationship experiences, so it is important to be consistent with your horse from day to day (6).
Consistency in the horse’s reaction to the aids can only come from the consistency in the way in which the rider gives the aids. Unsteady hand position can cause discomfort to the horse, potentially leading to conflict behaviours such as head tossing or tail swishing (33).
A study on rein tension in riders riding a model horse found that rein tension when applying the ‘slow down’ cue was on average greater on the left rein then on the right rein. There was a large variation in rein tension between riders and also within riders. Inconsistency of rein tension could be confusing for horses and an issue for horse welfare. (26)
What happens if you give conflicting cues? One study found that responses were random when conflicting visual and vocal cues were presented simultaneously. (25)
The bottom line: Be consistent with your cues, with your rewards and with your release of pressure.
Step 10 – Adjust training according to the emotional state of the horse
Animals do not learn well when they’re stressed, so when working with your horse, it is important to remain under his emotional threshold and not overwhelm him with more stimulation or pressure than he can handle (63). This will only elicit negative behaviours which could lead to unintentional classical conditioning.
One study found that riders who used a higher proportion of rewarding responses overall, even toward inappropriate behaviors, had horses with fewer behavioral problems under saddle. These respondents reported using reassuring responses to calm their horse and may have had greater success because they responding to their horses’ emotional state than just responding to their outward behavior (4).
Separation anxiety is where horses become anxious at being separated from their herd mates. When you take your horse away from his friends to work him, he may show signs of separation anxiety. Signs of separation anxiety include increased heart rate, running around, calling-out, defecation and restlessness (29, 8 ). If your horse is showing signs of separation anxiety he is probably stressed and will not learn as well. Try breaking things down into smaller steps such as gradually working him further and further away from his friends.
In one study horses under took three activities, grooming, exposure to a waving plastic bag and food anticipation. Photos were taken of the horses’ facial expressions during each of these activities, without being able to see the activity. Human participants were then asked to look at the photos and judge the horse’s mood. The participants consistently recognised the moods as calm and relaxed for grooming, frightened and nervous for the plastic bag treatment and impatient and angry for the food anticipation task. This study shows that horses do have different emotional response to each of these tasks and that experienced horse handlers were able to consistently read each of these emotions (28).
Is your horse trying to keep you or a particular object in a certain eye? Horses preferentially favour their right eyes for looking at novel objects and have a slight tendency to use their left eyes when looking at something negative. This is most likely because the left brain hemisphere is used in assessing novelty (as in other vertebrate species) and the right brain hemisphere is used in processing negative emotional responses (30). If your horse is looking at something through his left eye, consider taking things back a step or introducing some clicker training to generate positive emotions.
Yawning can be a sign of emotional stress, yawning doesn’t necessarily mean your horse is tired or bored (57).
The bottom line: You will proceed the quickest with your horse if you perceive his mental and emotional state. This will enable you to feel the prime point and which to extend the training and reduce the likelihood of you underwhelming or overwhelming your horse.
Step 11 – The truth about leaders and dominance
We can observe a herd hierarchy in horses, but do horses apply this same hierarchy to humans?
Some horsemanship methods involve working a horse at liberty in a round pen with the intention of gaining the horse’s respect by getting the horse to see the human as the ‘leader’ (2). However, some studies suggest that it is unlikely that this horse–horse social status translates to horse-human relationships (2, 46, 27).
Horses’ responses to round pen training are more likely to be explained by negative reinforcement training than by dominance (2, 46, 27). For instance, a handler applies pressure to make the horse move around the round yard and when the horse turns in the human releases the pressure. The horse learns to face the handler at all times and follow them around. This is a result of negative reinforcement and sometimes punishment. The horse has learnt that the place of least pressure is facing the handler.
The bottom line: Applying and releasing pressure on a horse in a round pen most likely makes him turn in to you because of operant conditioning, not because the horse sees you as a leader. Your horse does not need to see you as a leader to respond to you, he just needs clear, consistent reinforcement, be that positive or negative.
Step 12- Realise that shortcuts won’t pay off in the long run
There is a plethora of equipment available to horse riders. From bits and nosebands to whips and spurs. What is the effect of such equipment on training outcomes?
One study found that the use of artificial training aids was associated with an increased risk of behavioural problems. Contrarily, spending more time with the horse outside of training situations, for example in low pressure situations such as grazing or grooming, was associated with a reduced risk of behavioural problems when ridden (10).
Poorly implemented negative reinforcement methods or methods relying on equipment which apply aversive pressure with no release may make the horse anxious, sometimes so much so that the horse is motivated to escape from the handler. If the horse does manage to escape, this then reinforces whatever the horse did to enable him to escape, bolting, bucking, rearing etc. This is the exact opposite effect to what the equipment was supposed to do in the first place (35).
Inappropriate “tools” and inappropriate use of “riding aids” such as hard bits, badly adjusted or unfitted saddles, lead to undesirable reactions and the repetition of the association between riding and pain can certainly contribute to a poor human–horse relationship (36). Classical conditioning will mean that horse horse comes to associate the rider with negative feelings and as a result may become hard to catch, tack up or mount or may display other problem behaviours such as an unwillingness to enter the arena.
A study on horses wearing tight nosebands found that horses undergo a physiological stress response and may suffer compromised blood flow to the muzzle. Therefore the use of nosebands that cause any constriction of jaw movement are not in the best interests of horse welfare (37).
Devices, such as restrictive nosebands, that may apply pressure but cannot be released by the rider as part of training do not align with negative reinforcement principles and merit particular attention from a horse performance and welfare perceptive (33).
The bottom line: Tools which cloak your horse’s true behaviour will make your horse stressed and therefore less able to learn. Such tools also present a welfare issue.
Step 13 – Keep your horse in a group
Naturally, wild horses live in herds. However, in the modern day domestic environment some horses are kept in individual stables or paddocks with no contact with other horses. The environment a horse is kept in can affect his overall stress levels and therefore his ability to learn. Horses are highly motivated for social contact and interaction with other equines. Social isolation is a significant stress factor. (29)
In one study, group housed horses youngsters progressed in training more quickly than singly housed horses (7). Another study found that separating young horses from their group and individual stabling creates stress (8).
Housing horses in stables that allowed them to have social interaction can make them easier to handle (38).
Eye temperature (a measure of stress) has been found to be significantly lower in horses housed in groups housed compared to horses housed alone. Incorporating social contact into stabling design improves equine welfare (38).
Some horses owners worry that keeping their horse in a group may lead to a higher risk of injury. Individually separated feeding places have been found to decrease aggressive behaviour during at feed time. Aggressive behaviour also decreases with increasing duration of hay availability. Therefore it is a good idea to make sure that group housed horses have forage available 24/7 (39).
One group of researchers found that severity of injuries in horses used to being kept in groups is overestimated. Most injuries recorded after mixing horses and after assessing horses again four weeks later were minor. Concerns about the risk of severe injuries associated with keeping horses in groups are probably overestimated. Equines can be successfully kept in groups of different sex and age composition without significant likelihood of serious injury. (40)
The bottom line: Horses are naturally herd animals and living in a herd is critical to their welfare. If your horse does not get social time with other horses then he is more likely to have raised baseline stress levels and be more difficult to train.
Step 14 – Maximise your horse’s access to forage and turnout
Another factor that has been shown to increase baseline stress levels in horses is the amount of access horses have to forage and/or turnout.
Too often, performance horses are fed diets too high in grain and not high enough in forage which can cause physical issues such as stomach ulcers or colic (44, 45). In some stabled horses, the lack of turnout time leads to a reduction in chewing time with consequent negative impacts on the digestive system and increased potential for development of stereotypic behaviours (43). High grain diets have also been linked to an increase in cribbing behaviours (59).
One study found that horses housed in restrictive stabling were more like to show stereotypic behaviours associated with motion such as weaving and box walking. Those denied ad libitum hay were more likely to display oral stereotypic behaviours such as wood-chewing and wind sucking (34).
Horses fed a low fibre diet were willing to press a panel multiple times to obtain hay, demonstrating a desire for high-fibre forage (66).
The presentation of multiple types of hay at once instead of just one type may reduce stereotypic weaving behaviour. One study suggests that providing multiple types of hay enriches the stabled horse’s environment, by offering variety and mimicking patch foraging behaviour (45). However, this is still not a replacement for turnout in an actual field.
If your horse is fat and you are worried about feeding him hay 24/7, slow feeders can be used to slow down a horse’s intake of hay and make it last longer. The use of slow feeders have been found to reduce stereotypic behaviours in one study (58).
Horses who are turned out after training move less distance and show less active behaviours such as trotting and cantering and more relaxed behaviours such as dosing and grazing than horses who were turned out before training (48). Thus, if you are really concerned that your horse may injure himself through being overly active during turnout, exercise him first. On the other hand, if your horse is quite hot to ride, turnout before you ride may help him burn off some steam.
The bottom line: Turning your horse out for the maximum time possible reduces the likelihood of stress related behaviours and health conditions that may affect your training.
Step 15 – Know how to spot signs of pain
If your horse is suffering from any form of pain that this may cause bad behaviour and unintentional classical conditioning. For instance, if your horse has a sore back from a poorly fitting saddle, he may come to associate riding with pain. Being able to spot signs of pain in your horse will help you be able to detect when something is amiss.
Signs of pain in horses include stiffly backward ears, prominent strained chewing muscles, high head carriage, twisting of the head and asymmetrical position of the bit (11, 9). Different horses may display different levels of pain depending on their ability to cope and personality (50).
It is important to get your saddle fitted regularly, as horse back shape changes with exercise (54). An ill fitting saddle causes weight to be distributed less evenly leading to pressure points (56). Symptoms of a poorly fitting saddle can include lameness and behavioural problems (55). One study on different kinds of tack found that dressage and working hunter saddles were associated with a reduced risk of ridden behavioural problems compared to general purpose saddles (10).
Be aware that such is the motivation that horses have for social interaction with other equines that anxiety associated with social isolation may confound the display and interpretation of behavior associated with pain (29).
Acupuncture has been used to successfully treat some types of pain in horses and improve ridden performance (49) as has massage (51). Massage may also potentially increase range of motion and stride length, reduce pain and stress responses, induce relaxation and aid in exercise recovery (52, 53).
The bottom line: You will not be able to effectively train your horse if he is experiencing pain. Be familiar with how to spot signs of pain in your horse. There are many different types and causes of pain and this will dictate the type of treatment you will need to seek.
In conclusion the less stress your horse has the better he will be able to learn. By understanding your horse’s emotional state, how he learns and how best to look after him to maximise his welfare you will be well on your way to having a calm, healthy, responsive horse and a satisfying partnership.