Plain spoken truth

Mind over Methods By Emma Kurrels

When working with people interested in equine behaviour one complaint heard consistently is “I am confused with all the different ‘methods’ and conflicting advice”.

Owners and students depend on ‘experts’ to show them the way, but to where?

Since the dawning of today’s ‘Natural Horsemanship’, I have spoken to many people both amateur and professional. One fact is apparent, the choice of training ‘method’ tends to be based on emotional appeal as opposed to facts.

Owners, students and audiences have responded in droves to liberating words such as bonding, choice, listening and partnership. The desire for the ability to ‘speak’ horse to ‘be’ horse has been overwhelming. But there is a serious problem which demands the following question to be answered:

If, as we are lead to believe by many trainers, their ‘methods’ mean our equine behaviour and training industry today is so much better than ever before, then why are the numbers of horses with behavioural problems increasing?

According to the Blue Cross “During 1991 more than 50 per cent of horses were signed over to the charity because of their owners financial or personal problems. Today almost ALL horses are admitted to the charity because of behavioural problems”.

So What Has Gone Wrong?

The psychological appeal of today’s training ‘speak’ is delicious. It is far more appealing than the traditional “kick him” and “whip him”. However, taking a step back from the eruption of training ‘methods’ further questions are also being asked such as: “Apart from the vocabulary of trainers and geometry of schooling environments has anything really changed?”

Terms such as ‘Join Up’, ‘Clicker Training’ or ‘Seven Games’ certainly allow people to identify with trainers and their particular styles and ‘methods’. However, beyond the visual and psychological appeal, what else helps someone choose a ‘method’ that is best for them and their horse?

The names of training methods alone do not say very much, so ultimately owners and students depend on a trainer to explain the how’s and why’s of their ‘method’. Here it seems is where much of the confusion starts.

Correct information from trainers of the workings of their methods is crucial for people to be able to make informed decisions. When one hears statements like “By communicating with the horse in his own language you establish trust and respect,” it becomes apparent that a lot of information that ‘backs up’ those methods is based on the personal interpretation of the trainers, rather than fact.

Constant use of the word ‘reward’, when describing the release of pressure, has also caused confusion for those genuinely trying to understand the basics of working with behaviour. It not only gives the wrong impression, it creates a powerful but false ‘feel good factor’, causing people to overlook the fact that pressure was used to achieve a result.

In an industry full of extremes, students and owners are vulnerable. Many do not know when a trainer is saying one thing but doing another. They are easily led into believing using any form of pressure is acceptable when, for example, it is described as “Passive Leadership”.

Is this really important? Based on the overwhelming amount of confusion over ‘methods’, questionable knowledge and experience of today’s equine ‘behaviour trainers’ and the appalling growing number of horses with behavioural problems, I would have to say it is.

So Where Do We Go From Here?

I believe Marc Bekoff in Minding Animals points the way when he writes: “We need to reconcile common sense with “science sense.”

Trainers and teachers need to explain and demonstrate at least the very basics of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement and punishment and their impact on equine learning.

Reinforcements underpin what and how our horses learn from us. They are the primary means by which we shape equine learning and behaviour.

Reinforcements provide the framework for all ‘methods’. Being able to identify them keeps our perception in context when working with equine behaviour and training. For example: negative reinforcement (otherwise known as pressure and release) used by trainers in the form of increasing and decreasing pressure via body posturing will elicit many predictable equine behavioural responses. This form of negative reinforcement (often renamed by ‘horse whisperers’ as ‘advance and retreat’ or ‘aggressive and passive’) can cause horses to display submissive behaviour. The ability of a trainer to provoke equine submission often encourages people to believe the trainer can literally speak the “language equus”, when in fact the horse is responding to negative reinforcement.

Different reinforcements are interwoven in everything we do with equines; yet many trainers including riding instructors fail to integrate this area of knowledge in their teaching.

Some trainers have even been known to refer to the subject of reinforcements as irrelevant scientific jargon, encouraging widespread belief that such information is unrelated to the ‘art’ of training and handling equines. This coupled with the fact some academics do not recognise how their own subject translates into real life helps to keep everything in a state of chaos.

This situation is not necessarily the fault of individuals. Rather the education system of an industry that fails in real terms to combine learning theory with practical application. Such naivety needs to be addressed and provides a strong case for a ‘Code of Practice’ when working with equine behaviour and training. Not only to ensure equine welfare, but to protect and support students and owners.

Neglecting to bridge the gap between fact and ‘hands on’ experience is, I believe irresponsible. Without a balanced, unbiased education, many people become misguided in their understanding, contributing to their inability to become truly accomplished at working with equine behaviour.

Clicker trainers promote the use of positive reinforcement, but some do not mention they also use negative reinforcement which gives the wrong impression to people trying to learn. Without a grounded understanding, students can go on to use excessive or prolonged negative reinforcement which undermines the benefits of positive reinforcement.

Alexandra Kurland in her book Clicker Training for your Horse says “the tap of the whip will not be seen as a source of pain or fear, but as an easily understood signal for movement.” Although for some horses this will be true, such general statements do not protect the horse from human error or encourage the reader to take into account the individual nature or past experience of individual equines.

Positive Reinforcement

This is anything an individual will actively and freely work for. By removing fear or consequences of mistakes positive reinforcement increases the motivation to ‘try’ and to explore options. Undesirable behaviours should be ignored.

Unless the equine is unrestrained and totally free to do as it chooses the trainer will in one form or other be using negative reinforcement (such as ‘the tap of the whip’) to create or manipulate the behaviour they want to reward. A trainer is only working with pure positive reinforcement when they shape behaviour freely offered (free shaping).

A clicker trainer will use a bridging signal (‘the click’) to mark desirable behaviour and then reward. However, clicker training is not the only way to use positive reinforcement. For example, if you are standing at a fence and a horse walks up to you and you give it something it enjoys, such as a scratch; you have positively reinforced the horse for coming to you. Positive reinforcement must not be confused with bribery, which is offering a reward, such as food, to create behaviour.

ALL methods apart from Free Shaping involve varying degrees of negative reinforcement.

This is regardless of who the trainer is or what the method is called.

Negative Reinforcement

This is anything an individual will work to avoid. Unfortunately, the word negative leads some to believe negative reinforcement is a bad thing. Perhaps this is why many trainers do not use the term because of its potentially detrimental psychological impact on students, clients audiences etc.

Paul McGreevy in his book “Equine Behaviour” says, “Many trainers claim not to use negative reinforcement but are instead confused by a term that may have negative connotations”. Whatever the reason, misrepresentation or omission of crucial information is misleading. Moreover, it can be dangerous and therefore is unacceptable professional practice.

Negative reinforcement is classically defined as the cessation (stopping) of a negative stimulus. Riders use it all the time. They squeeze with their legs – the horse moves forward- the rider stops squeezing. Some ‘methods’ use a twirling rope in front of the horse to cause it to step back. As the horse steps back, the trainer stops twirling. In these examples it is the stopping of the negative leg and rope pressure /stimulus that allows the horse to learn what is required of it. Stopping a negative stimulus is NOT a reward.

Correctly used, negative reinforcement offers constructive, clear learning opportunities for the horse. On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being low levels of pressure and 10 being extreme), an accomplished trainer will always be working at the lower end of the scale, using the least amount of pressure possible. This ensures adrenaline and subsequently stress levels stay down optimising learning. A good rider for example, uses gentle pressure when squeezing with the legs. At the other end of the scale riders thump the horse on the side, flap reins and or rock in the saddle to achieve the same end.

The example of the twirling rope could be considered at the top end of the scale when in general stepping back can be taught (depending on the individual horse) with much lower levels of pressure. For example: moving into their space, a hand on their chest and or gentle pressure put on a line under the nose towards the chest.

Negative reinforcement offers productive and quiet learning opportunities but its benefits and success depend greatly on the scale of pressure being used and the accurate timing of the release of the pressure.

We sometimes see a behaviour being created (e.g. getting the horse to step back using the twirling rope) followed by a click and reward. Although it is becoming common, such excessive levels of negative reinforcement, combined with positive reinforcement does not in my opinion constitute good clicker training practice. As I mentioned before it can negate the benefits of positive reinforcement.


This is a contentious subject, yet some people swear by it. How many times have we heard statements like “My farrier whacked him with the rasp and he has never kicked out again?” Others will avoid punishment at all costs. But how many of us know when we are using it?

Methods such as ‘Join up’ are based on the premise that “Horses in the wild punish each other by sending away”. This form of equine communication / behaviour is then artificially recreated in a restricted environment. Regarding ‘sending’ the horse away, Monty Roberts, in his book “The Man Who Listens To Horses” writes “You must maintain an aggressive mode: your eyes drilled on his eyes and your shoulder axis square with his head”. One of the aims is to elicit submissive behaviour from the horse, such as licking and chewing, and dropping the head. These signs are then described as the horse saying, “If we could have a meeting to renegotiate, I would let you be the chairman”. While such personal opinion may be appealing, unfortunately it offers no credible information on which to base genuine belief.
Therefore it is not unreasonable to question if ‘methods’ of this genre incorporate certain forms of punishment.

A good trainer will always draw attention to the equine perspective especially when teaching about ‘methods’ that exploit equine communication/behaviour. To remain unbiased questions must be asked, such as “Is isolating a horse, in an enclosure, purposely triggering it’s flight/fear response and insistent use of high levels of pressure (negative reinforcement) offering a genuine choice?” If the horse has no option ultimately but to submit to us, can we honestly believe the horse has freely elected to ‘bond’ with us, or chosen us as its “leader”? Do such ‘methods’ incorporate punishment in any shape or form?

In the case of the farrier with the rasp, there is no argument that punishment can be effective, it is scientifically proven and there are many, especially those from the ‘old school’ of thought, happy to repeat such anecdotal evidence. However, there is nothing that defies logic and common sense more than when:

  1. We have created the behaviour we end up punishing.
  2. We use it more than once for the same behaviour.

If a previously punished behaviour reoccurs then it stands to reason the punishment has not worked. This being the case, there is absolutely no justification to continue using punishment. Its pointless repetition is tantamount to abuse. Furthermore, irresponsible use of punishment can create chains of unwanted behaviours and bad associations.

Consider a typical show-jumping scenario. How many times have you seen a horse whipped on the way to a jump? Perhaps the rider thinks it is encouraging the horse on, perhaps it is a warning to the horse what will happen if it does not jump. Whatever excuse or misguided belief that rider has, the horse is being whipped. This scenario is a common misuse of punishment. The rider actively teaches the horse to make unpleasant and painful associations which can result in refusals. For some it does not stop there.

Having made the association with bad things happening in the ring, the same horse starts to refuse to go in. It may also associate punishment with show grounds in general. This can then lead to unpleasant associations with its trailer, resulting in a loading problem. Eventually the horse naps so badly it will not even leave its yard. The irony is that the rider, having trained a chain of unwanted behaviours, now unfairly labels the horse as the problem!

Problem Behaviour

When working with problem behaviour, it is unacceptable to assume the horse is at fault.

Look at the show-jumper. It is totally irresponsible and short-sighted to work with a loading or napping problem without diagnosing the cause first. It is unfair to the horse to override behaviour by using a pressure halter for example, as this will only be working with the symptoms (napping) and not the cause (the rider’s incorrect use of punishment). It is inexcusable to put in place corrective training programmes based on assumptions and preconceived ideas when it is the cause, not speculation that should determine the way forward. One seldom hears or sees trainers address diagnosis. I believe this has to change.


Lack of a balanced education creates and compounds problems for equines. By constantly speaking on their behalf the tendency is to stop listening to them. In such cases, words such as ‘partnership’ and ‘respect’ rapidly lose all meaning. However good they make everyone feel, words such as ‘choice’ and ‘bonding’ are pointless when contradicted with actions.

While it is appealing to believe certain ‘methods’ bring people closer to ‘speaking horse’ there still has to be a conscious, moral and academic rigour that questions the consequences of actions and beliefs.

Assumptions, contradictions, illusions and inconsistencies are detrimental to equine welfare. Therefore it is imperative for trainers, teachers and behavioural scientists to balance fact with everyday practical application so everyone across the spectrum of equine behaviour can learn in context.

A step in the right direction would be for academics and trainers to stop addressing reinforcements and communication as separate subjects. Instead we need to promote wider recognition that the two are inextricably linked on every level.

It is time to learn and correct mistakes. It is time to find the humility to accept there is a lot to learn, not just about equine behaviour but human behaviour. There is a need to get over a sense of self-importance and start working for the holistic welfare of all equines. Everyone, especially figureheads in our industry, must become more responsible, more preventative and ultimately accountable.