In The Snow, Wind and Rain

Before I brought my horses home, I would tell my boarding stable operator to blanket my horses when the highs for the day were 40 or less. I felt I was being compassionate. If I was chilled, they would be, right?

But after I brought them home, the next winter I was able to read them well enough to try them without blankets and look for behaviors (running, crabbiness and shivering) suggesting they were cold and feel reasonably confident of detecting it. Day after day I watched the temps slipping further and further below my old level and the horses were fine. They ate more (about 150%) and had occasional short bouts showing cold symptoms, and then their hair would catch up within a day or so.

One time I put a windbreaker sheet on my reining horse and found it disarranged in the morning – as I unfastened it he reached over and yanked it off. I tried to put one on our ex-ranch horse and he tore it off twice before I could fasten it. These were behaviors they had never performed before.

I kept waiting, but it wasn’t until -7 (F) that they showed cold behaviors. That was the low for the winter. so I was never able to find out if they would have adapted. But it’s possible.

As for the idea of wetness – yes, if it gets through the coat, they can get cold. But a normal coat can carry surprising snow load or a surprising exposure to rain before the liquid touches the skin. You can tell, because the snow doesn’t melt. Resistance to rain is harder to see, but is certainly improved by not bathing your horse – of course, brushing is important – and can be improved by feeding horses higher fat diets like rice bran that support the skin and hair oils they need to be water repellent.

Horses need shelter in some circumstances, ideally outside with at least some freedom of movement. Yet when they have this, they often seem to stand inexplicably out in rain and snow. Of course, the reason they do this is that the weather doesn’t bother them any more than it would bother us if we were dipped in water-resistant fleece. When it bothers them, they go in.

Never blanket? Well, probably not. If you don’t have shelter, you may sometimes need to windbreaker / rain blanket. Have shelter but you’re getting horizontal sleet in 30MPH winds for a day or two? Might want to bring horses in or blanket with the windbreaker / rain blanket. But while the extensive blanketing does not permanently reduce hair coat, it is true that exposed areas will grow more and longer hair than blanketed areas, so early blanketing can affect the possibility of the horse being unblanketed later in the winter.

Now, of course, I look back on my old blanketing guidelines and shake my head at how misguided I was. Horses weigh a thousand pounds or more. Their volume to surface area is so different from ours, that for them shedding heat is more problematic than retaining it. Their coats are like a windbreaker over fleece with a significant water resistance, and the ability to retain so much heat that the temperature at the surface is below freezing and a scant fraction of an inch below that is over 70 degrees, rising to the 90s of body temperature in an even shorter further distance. Horses can stand in the snow and be covered with the stuff and it’s not melting on their fur. That’s very alien to us… bareskinned monkey descendants from the tropics trying to live in difficult and cold places, trying to retain heat in our tiny bodies.

But do remember that you need restraint to give horses the chance to grow out their hair. Pre-winter weather fluctuations can lead to temperature drops that are too fast for their adaptation to keep up. But if you blanket at that time, you damage the opportunity for the weather to signal the horses’ follicles to grow more and better hair. The weather will rebound to average and the horses’ coat will catch up and they will be ready for the real cold to come.

Horses are not people and we do them a typical disservice by judging how they feel about cold through projecting how we feel about the temperature. Remember to think of horses as horses, watch, test and learn, don’t rush to action – and you can help them live as natural and right a life as possible – which will make their minds tough, happy and relaxed.

Who’s Confidence?

Riders often worry about why they are not confident in their riding. Sometimes confidence can be traced to a bad experience -falling off the horse, being kicked or bitten, having a horse rear up or behave in a frightening way.Other times, it’s not so specific, but may come from events elsewhere in their life becoming unstable, an awareness of the size and power of the horse, or even a sense that the person is just not fully in control – perhaps the end result of many little events rather than something large.

It’s natural to look to ourselves for the problem and the cure in this situation, but one perfectly valid cause lies in the horse itself.

Many of the horses I’ve had to train only poorly carry a single speed, or offer odd little behaviors to normal requests, such as a crow hop when asked to trot or canter. Others find a straight line – either a real one or a crisply executed circle – to be a big challenge. And there are innumerable horses who walk off upon being mounted, who stop reluctantly, who don’t want to turn or who turn the wrong direction.

Sometimes this is from the horse’s background – poor or incomplete training, an OTTB not transitioned to being a recreational horse, a green rider with a green horse, or even a boarding situation that generates tension and anxiety through poor ground handling, irregular or insufficient feedings / watering, or lack of social contact or turnout.

Less confident riders often do not directly confront this. They love their horse and they don’t want to look for faults or failures in their companion. But failing to see the horse for what it is in this situation leads to a spiral of increased lack of control, increased anxiety, and a further deterioration of the horse’s training.

I love my horses. They changed my life and I now have a ranch where I board horses, train horses and instruct students. But I also very carefully shape and keep my horses sharp. I don’t hesitate to correct my horses when they aren’t living up to their best behavior. This means I can put riders who are not confident on these horses and they can help that rider become more confident because the horse will be quiet, predictable, obedient, rhythmic and straight, These are the characteristics every rider should insist on from their horse, and that are especially critical for the less confident rider.

Making your horse into a companion who can give confidence rather than take it away starts from the moment you pick them up in the paddock or stall and doesn’t end until they are fully released back to horsey business. There’s no room for “just chatting” or or other distractions until and unless your horse is very well behaved and self-carries all those good behaviors with only the most minor of corrections; and even then, making any distraction a high priority in the aisle or on horseback is not a good idea.

So, to be a more confident rider, you need to start to take charge of your experience and your horse from the moment you get out of your car, putting yourself in the mindset of what behavior you expect, what you will reward and what you will correct. If you don’t know these things, it will be harder for you when you reach your horse, because there will be so much to think about and react to.

When you pick up your horse, assess its mental state. Is it relaxed, head low, walking rhythmically and easily, or is it tense, head held high, eyes a bit wide – or somewhere in between? If your horse is relaxed, your focus will be on sustaining that state throughout the session (and if your horse is relaxed in your session, you’ll be relaxed, too).If your horse is tense, your focus will be on relaxing the horse. This doesn’t mean treats. It means a gentle stroking touch, staying away from the horse’s face with your hands, brushing their coat more softly, maybe even working on cueing the horse to lower its head (a position that generates its own relaxation for the horse).

Do not tolerate the horse barging past you in or out of the stall or paddock. Don’t slap him or get angry, just make him do it again, step by step, stopping him frequently.  If you don’t feel you have that level of control, work on this with your horse every day until you do. You can even do this instead of riding. It’s that important. Few things are more damaging to your confidence than nearly being run over by your horse before you even start riding.

When you walk with your horse, expect the horse to walk to one side of you, at your pace and no faster – and consciously make your own pace slower than your normal “out in the world” pace. If the horse speeds up or slows down, correct with pressure from the lead rope.

Don’t give in to the belief that nose chains or mouth chains are going to solve problems with this behavior. Additional pain NEVER makes a horse more relaxed and comfortable, which means that, at best, it just stores up tension for a later release. The horse needs to want to walk with you and to match your pace, and it will if you correct it gently and whenever it’s not with your speed and direction. If the horse rushes, stop and back it up with your body language. If it doesn’t back up from that, gradually increase pressure on the lead rope. NEVER release pressure once you start to use it until the horse does what you want or you will teach it to ignore your pressures. This means being ready to stand there exerting pressure forever if you need to (it’s never forever, though it can be a long time).

If the horse balks and won’t lead forward, increase the tension on the lead rope. Hold the tension until the horse takes one step forward. If the horse is balking and you are holding the pressure, there will be a moment just before they give in where they feel like they are pulling back harder and harder – don’t be deceived, the horse is about to give in. Release pressure as soon as they do. In the worst case, pull the tension to one side and as soon as you get one step (this unbalances the horse and they almost always step forward from it), release the pressure for a moment and then walk forward again.

Don’t be distracted in the aisle. I’ve seen people with a horse beside them, having a conversation with someone and the horse is pushing or pulling at them, and they are not noticing or correcting this disorganized and uncontrolled behavior. I’ve even asked them about this and they are often surprised, taking this poorly trained behavior for granted as normal.

As you tack up your horse, relaxed or tense, consciously slow your movements. Not only is this good for you, but it is less worrisome for the horse. Brush softly, pick up feet slowly and lightly. If the horse wanders forward, backward or to the side, correct this with lead rope or hand pressures.

Also, please don’t “reward” your horse by slapping on its neck. Lots of people do this, and I’ve never understood it. No human takes it as affection to be slapped on the neck and horses don’t either. Stroke them softly or scratch their shoulder where the shoulder and neck join (shown by experiment to actually reduce horse heart rates) and you will keep your horse relaxed.

The reason I harp on all this is that everything in your session is driven by how well this goes. If your horse is relaxed and obedient here, it will be more relaxed and obedient in the arena. If your horse is tense and disorganized here, that will not likely improve later.

As you tack up, look to see if your tack or the tacking up process makes the horse more tense. Does cinching make your horse grind its teeth? Does it avoid taking the bit with a high head? Go slower, go evenly, don’t pull hard, pull softly, ask the horse to take the bit. If the horse pulls its head up, work with halter and lead rope to get him to put his head down. Think about your bit. Even a snaffle is a hard bit. A tom thumb is potentially very painful. Twisted wire, gag, correction, spoon and double bits are just torture devices and never help a horse relax and enjoy their work, nor does the pain and discomfort they create make the horse behave better. Nosebands, chains, headbands, jaw straps, tie downs and martingales are all just uncomfortable, tension producing devices and actually do nothing to improve the horse’s performance that you can’t get from a better training approach. Get simple. For direct reined / English horses, a mullen mouth bit is the softest and most stable bit., I have eliminated head tossing and anxious behavior in several horses by transitioning them to this bit, because it just sits there and doesn’t move unless I move it. For Western horses, a mild ported grazing bit with a fairly thick mouthpiece, shanks no longer than three inches and a leather curb strap on its loosest setting is the best. And a single strap bridle with an ear loop is easy and fast to get on, facilitating the process of bridling and helping the horse want to take the bit.

All tacked up? Walking into the arena is just like walking anywhere else, so don’t let the horse do anything you wouldn’t let them do in the aisle.

Many less confident riders believe that they need to lunge their horse before riding to “blow off steam”. This is a sign that this horse is not disciplined, but it does not ever make the horse more disciplined. Avoid doing this. You can’t reinforce control or correct poor behavior from fifteen feet away. You need to be next to or on the horse. And teaching the horse to gallop around on the lunge line like a crazy thing just degrades its training and self-control, which will make you less confident. Work on the lead rope with go forward, back up, move hips, move shoulders and sidepass in preference to lunging.

When you mount up, you need to expect that the horse is not going anywhere. Misbehavior here does more than anything else to damage your confidence. But if you’ve been letting this happen, you will have to reinforce the horse not moving again and again by using the reins to stop the horse the moment it tries to move. It will probably push this way or that rather than stop at first. Just hold your ground, increase the pressure and then release the moment the horse stops moving. Be ready to reinforce the stop again because horses with this habit are sure (because you’ve told them so) that you want them to just walk off. Get obedience on this as quickly as possible, even if it means mounting, getting the horse to stop, dismounting and starting over again.

Faults on your part that contribute to the horse walking off include too much leg pressure and leaning forward. You want the horse to stand even when you fidget or adjust position, but it won’t at first. At first, you have to just sit still and try to lengthen the time after mounting where the horse stands. Target at least 30 seconds.

This is good for you also, because it gives you a chance to organize body, reins and thoughts.

Don’t warm up by mindlessly walking the rail. You and your horse need to be active and use this period to actively build your confidence that your horse is responsive and will do as you ask when you ask for it.

As soon as you start to ride, you need to work on obedience. Stop, start, turn – NOW, not later. One stride after asking, the horse should be doing what you want. Think of “ask”, “tell” and “command” (thanks, Julie Goodnight) as levels of pressure you use for each request. At each level, if the horse does not obey, go to the next level and increase (and hold) the pressure until the horse complies. Releasing the pressure without obedience teaches the horse to ignore your “ask”. Using “tell” pressures when “ask” doesn’t work helps the horse understand that obeying at “ask” is a good idea, and increases its confidence in your consistency.

Next is rhythm, which is to say that the horse maintains a consistent speed in each gait. You need to be sensitive to speeding up and slowing down. If you pay close attention, you can sense when the horse is about  to speed up or slow down and have extra rein or leg pressure ready to correct. To do this right you have to pick a “default speed” you want for each gait and correct the horse when it violates that rule by using the lightest pressure that works. The instability of speed does a lot to decrease a rider’s confidence at a subliminal level. The horse just feels unreliable, somehow. Fix this and you fix a lot of what worries you. Work at the walk and get this right before going to the trot, and get it right at the trot before going to the canter.

Most important in your session is straightness. It’s a good idea to make straightness the core of your warm up because it lets you reinforce obedience and rhythm as well as the straightness itself.


A horse who is straight will have full control over its legs and will self-carry a straight line or an even circle without correction and with very light aids. Pick a beam in your arena and ride a straight line from that beam to its counterpart at the other side of the arena. When the horse starts to swerve or bulge or otherwise deviate from the line, correct course, ideally with seat or legs, but with reins if needed. Serpentines are another great exercise, because the horse has to come back to the straight line after a nice, even half circle. And of course, a horse can be “straight” on a circle by simply doing an even circle in response to even pressure.


Straightness is based on training and many horses are not straight. I have spent entire sessions on straight lines and serpentines just to build straightness and left feeling happy with the improvement. What this does is to give you confidence in your horse and in your control over your horse.

When a horse does what you ask within one stride of the request, maintains an even speed at every gait, and does nice straight lines and clean even curves, this is a horse that will inspire confidence in the arena. Even more, the horse itself will have more self-confidence and self-control and this will make the horse more relaxed – which will make you more relaxed and confident.

Master each of these things at each gait before going to the next higher gait, because each gait builds on the success of the gait below it. During your sessions, stop frequently and stop long – in fact, stop like this after every major maneuver – a straight line, a set of serpentines, a few circles. Stroke and pet your horse as a reward, don’t slap him.

There are many more things you can do to build on this foundation, but whether your horse is a trail horse, a reiner, a jumper or dressage horse, your horse cannot help you be comfortable or confident if this foundation is cracked.

Being done with riding is when you consolidate all these gains by creating a comfortable, attentive closure for the horse and its work. A horse who had a good session and is in a good frame of mind will often yawn as you untack it, stand with its head relaxed, and have a soft eye. Gently removing the tack, moving slowly, grooming with a soft brush and paying the most slow and careful attention when working near the horse’s head is how both of you can unwind together.Then, walk back with the same requirements you had walking in – slow pace, no rushing or slowing (e.g. good rhythm) and a willingness to go where you lead. Don’t just take the halter off. Walk the horse into the stall or paddock, position them, wait a moment, ask them to bring down their head with lead rope pressure and then slowly remove the halter. If you haven’t been doing this, you may find they rip their head out of the halter without waiting or “go giraffe” on you. Try to stop removing the halter when they start that motion and bring their head down and wait for them to stabilize before trying again.

Then walk away slowly, thinking about your session and all the things you did to help your horse be better and how well you did and what you want to improve next time.

If you want more information on how to be a more confident rider, visit

The Contract of Trust

“Trust” is a term often used in Natural Horsemanship, and is used to describe a relationship between a handler, rider or trainer and a horse. I worry a little about thinking about trust as if it were a contract between a person and a horse. I find it more helpful to think of it as a contract between an environment or a context and a horse.

If we think about trust as being entirely wrapped up in a relationship between a person and a horse, we have some problems with explaining situations where the handler / rider / trainer have always had positive outcomes but the horse is still wary, anxious or spooky.

I don’t think we’re even clear yet on whether or not horses realize that the person on the ground is the same as whatever produces the sensations they feel from the saddle. In addition, there are horses who appear to be willing to do things that a trainer asks them to do in a particular environment (e.g. the indoor arena) but not in another (the outdoor arena) – this is the “proof” stage of McLean’s scale of learning. And when a trainer approaches a horse they’ve never worked with who is anxious, the anxiety is projected onto the trainer despite a lack of experience with each other. You could argue they have no trust account, but equally you could argue that the horse doesn’t trust the environment of which the trainer is a feature.

The horse probably draws its assessment of safety and trust from many features of the environment. Do they more or less have the food they need when they need it, the water they need when they need it… are the features of the environment consistent in presence and behavior and do they react consistently to the behavior of the horse?

As the answers to more of these things are “no”, the more unsettled, irritable and anxious the horse is likely to be. This spills over into handling, riding and training – and definitely affects the readiness of the horse to learn. These  behaviors, though not in any way related to a specific person, can feel like an absence of trust between horse and human.

But trust is complex, high level concept if placed between rider and horse. Can horses even conceive of trust? Their own emotions appear to be mercurial and can segue rapidly from peacefully eating near each other to ear pinning, chasing and kick threats. In horse herds, members over time settle for mostly giving and receiving subtle body language but there still can be outbreaks of irritability that can escalate into unexpected antagonistic behavior. These sources of unpredictability suggest that horses do not look to create trust – as we know it – within their own social structure, much less with humanoid aliens like ourselves. But they do bond with certain other horses, even if not always treated well or consistently by them. And they may bond with us, but the complexity of what “bonding” means in this context, how it forms, and whether certain actions by the horse are indicative of a bond – these are all very hard to be sure of. The same is true of trust. So we need to be careful when we use these potentially anthropomorphic words.

And this is why it’s not enough to say “my horse trusts me, I’m doing a good job with our emotional bank account”  or “my horse is anxious, and doesn’t trust me enough – what can I do or what am I doing wrong?” – though that’s a good place to start and one we can control.

Sure, riders and trainers have a role in creating a consistent environment and thus can increase or decrease the horse’s level of anxiety. But they cannot ever be totally responsible for it, without owning every other factor in that environment. Barn owners, facilities, the equine social environment, feeding patterns, freedom of choice – all of these contribute to the end result – how secure a horse feels in its life and its work.

The Blender

Horses are often idealized as warm, welcoming creatures and the herd as a quiet, relaxed place. But the formation of a herd of domestic horses starts with everyone staking out their personal space and their ability to move other horses. Some horses expect more rapid obedience to subtle body language and actively chase other horses who don’t get it right away. The new horse attempting to integrate with the herd will often be driven away several times for not deferring to horses within the herd. Kick threats are common defensive posturings from the new guy, indicating that he can only be pushed so far.

It is not clear how innate vs. learned the personality of the horse is. The degree to which a horse will insist on priority on certain resources or the size of its personal space in various contexts is variable by horse and for a horse by situation, though there are clearly horses who, in a particular context, are more assertive than others. This is one measure of the individuality of horses, where different horses react differently in essentially the same situation (e.g. the presence of a specific other horse or the opportunity to control their priority on a resource).

Equine social arrangements are much more fluid than the typical picture of linear dominance held by many horse owners and trainers would suggest. In our herd, for instance, Lensman can drive Bella away from a hay box and Gunsmoke can drive Lensman away from a hay box, but Gunsmoke not only rarely moves Bella from a box but will often let her approach and eat out of the same box he is eating from. Lately, he has started to let Lensman do the same thing, indicating a sort of social learning is occurring.

The video on this post is from one of the more active periods of herd mixing as we started the process of integrating Keegan into the herd of Gunsmoke, Lensman and Bella. The majority of the time – not shown in this video, but shown in the image at the top of the post – the horses spent peacefully eating with each other. But twice in the two hours of the mixing session, something not perceptible to humans occurred, and the chasing and blocking commenced.

You can see different types of interactions from different horses.

  • The activity starts with Lensman purposefully walking toward Keegan and driving him a few steps away. Then he blocks Keegan from approaching the herd.
  • Gunsmoke walks casually toward Lensman, who reads the more subtle body language and starts to move
  • Keegan sees Lensman move and anticipates, so he starts to move off, but Lensman just gets a little more aggressive and starts to chase him.
  • Keegan kick-threats Lensman in defense.
  • Lensman backs off and is about to stop at the hay box, but Gunsmoke is right behind him or something else happens, and Lensman runs at Keegan again, snaking his head just a little as he forces Keegan back toward the fence behind the shelter.
  • Gunsmoke’s starts to chase Lensman, which keeps Lensman moving away, and Gunsmoke shifts from casually following Lensman to chasing Keegan. Behind the shelter he does a brief rear threat and Keegan runs off, which is enough for Gunsmoke, Gunsmoke walks toward the front of the paddock to go back to eating. Lensman is very close to being in his way, but Gunsmoke does not threaten or chase him; Lensman defers to Gunsmoke with a subtle motion, and then walks to his own hay box while Keegan looks on.
  • Keegan waits a little while and then decides to see if he can rejoin the herd, walking past Lensman. Lensman gives Keegan a look and Keegan stops, apparently uncertain.
  • Keegan thinks about eating some grass, but still feels unsure about what the rules are. His distance from Bella and Lensman and Lensman’s look seems to have made him think he is right at the edge of someone’s personal space and he doesn’t want to be chased. So though he starts to move toward the grass, he stops and continues to look on. He does it again while Bella is scratching her nose with her leg (or her leg with her nose 🙂 ). Then he tries a motion toward the vacant hay box but again thinks better of it.
  • Lensman notices Bella and decides to make her move away, even though she is just standing there, not contesting any resources, Maybe she looks at him too long or maybe her posture suggests she might move into his space.
  • Lensman’s intensity as shown by his ear position, follows a sort of “normal distribution curve” – low at the start, increasing in the middle, and then dropping as he gets closer. She starts to move away the moment he turns toward her, and this seems to be what prevents Lensman from escalating into chasing. It is a sign of the social development between these two horses in six months that this deference releases the tension. This is what Keegan has to find to be successful in the herd.
  • Keegan steps forward as if believing that the unsafe space boundary has consolidated around the three other horses, who are now much closer to each other, The social test is more interesting to him than the now available hay boxes and grass margin around the paddock – he could simply just go eat, but instead he advances to where he believes the edge of the safe zone may have moved.
  • Lensman wanders off and the focus of interaction is now a sort of “High Noon” between Keegan and Bella, with Bella standing next to – and implicitly controlling – the water.
  • Lensman wanders back toward the hay boxes and Keegan advances along the fence, responding to his learning by keeping what he appears to see as the safe distance between himself and Lensman. This is a much more subtle interaction than before and Lensman looks like he is going to ignore Keegan – until Keegan  reaches the smaller personal space of Bella and turns slightly to  avoid it, which cause him to look at Lensman and step away from the fence. This apparently crosses Lensman’s personal space, which makes Lensman turn toward him and start advancing.
  • This puts Keegan in a bad spot, pinned inside the intersecting personal spaces of Lensman, Bella and Gunsmoke with Lensman closing on him and no safe exit point that doesn’t cross one of those bubbles and put him at risk for being chased. You can see him trial a couple of directions and then issue a barely perceptible kick threat toward Lensman, which gives Lensman pause.
  • Unfortunately, all these shenanigans behind Gunsmoke annoys Gunsmoke and he decides to put an end to all this by a rollback into Keegan that turns into a couple of steps of chase which drives Bella one way for a couple of steps and Lensman the other. Unfortunately, Keegan slows down too fast, which collides him again with Gunsmoke’s personal space, and which drives Gunsmoke to chase him a just little more seriously for a few more steps.
  • There’s a kind of funny moment here, where Gunsmoke then circles to place Lensman between him and Keegan as if to say “how come you aren’t taking care of this?” and Lensman then turns on Keegan as if to say “what are you doing, making him come to me?”
  • Keegan slows and stops and turns back to see he is no longer being chased. Lensman goes to eat, Gunsmoke goes to drink, and Bella snoozes in the sun.

When Bella was being integrated with the herd back in March, Lensman, our cute little reining horse, raised as a family horse and very approachable and affectionate to humans, suddenly and surprisingly pinned his ears and drove Bella off into the corners of the paddock several times, making her stay there with ear threats and snaking his neck, and blocking her access to the rest of the paddock.Today, all three get along fine, though Lensman still occasionally verifies his power to make Bella move away.

Gunsmoke’s behavior in these situations tends to be very much as if he has a long fuse, is quickly explosive when he’s had enough, but doesn’t push for too long – as if substituting overwhelming force for duration of chase. He did this once shortly after we came here. A small herd of deer was at the bottom of the paddock and Lensman was near them, staring at these creatures he had never seen so close. Gunsmoke noticed this suddenly (yes, he was eating) and galloped down the paddock, scattering Lensman and the deer. Then he trotted back to his food in a very satisfied way, much like a person might wipe his hands together after a job well done.

Of course, we always worry that conflict in a restricted area can get out of hand, so when we start this, all the horse owners are here and all of the horses wear halters so they can be put on a lead rope quickly. But as much as possible we try to let them work out their social arrangements without interference. It takes time and restraint on our part to not interfere with the conflict, but fairly quickly everyone learns to get along.

You can see the complexity in this merely 2.5 minute interaction is very high.

You can see that this is a lot about the size of personal spaces and the degree to which a newcomer is allowed to penetrate each horse’s personal space. As a herd matures, personal space bubbles shrink, actions and responses become more subtle, permission can be asked and may be granted, and horses become more cohesive and less combative. Domestic herd interactions, though in confined areas with fewer horses, are somewhat different from their feral counterparts, but we can learn from the similarities and differences.

Horses are meant to live in herds and like people, need to learn to get along. The process is fascinating to watch and form theories about, but much more work needs to be done to really understand what’s happening, and how horses might see it.

One Pattern is Not Enough

The nearly unquestioning attitude that many people have toward trainers and methodologies is a serious obstacle to seeing horses as real living creatures who have an unplumbed complexity that we are forced to individually solve as we observe and work with them.

Science and ethology give us categories and concepts and patterns we may believe we can use to infer certain things about the interior life of horses – but creatures at this level of complexity remain individuals with their own tendencies, fears, joys and desires – simple though those must be. Plus, they have a social context that likewise reflects their individuality and the emergent behavior of individuals brought together, whether naturally or artificially. Given this, the challege of applying science done on feral horses to domesticated horses may be as hard (and potentially problematic) as using observations of stone age level tribesmen to infer the internal life of civilized humans, and especially a specific civilized human in a novel context.

Horses have sounds they make that seem very similar from horse to horse – the sigh, the snort, the “snork”… but what do they mean? We struggle to even identify our own emotions when they lead to non-verbal expressions and we have complete access to our own internal states. How much harder must it be to figure this out for non-communicative aliens like horses?

Sure, we can communicate with horses – when I block my horse from attempting to drive away a conspecific, I am communicating something. But to use the word “respect” in this context brings a lot of human baggage with it, baggage that includes explicit value systems, ability to visualize the future and retrieve explicit memories from the past and use those to drive considered future behavior – none of which we can be sure horses have at all, and which in fact we have some significant reasons to believe they do not have. So can we use these terms of art in training without generating dangerously high expectations of the cognitive and emotional capabilities of horses? Probably not.

To solve problems when training horses means to respect the scientific concepts available, limited though they are by the difficulty of experimentation, and to respect the individuality of the horse and its history, limited though our knowledge of that will be and as challenging and fragile as our ability to infer from observation will be. We must not be afraid to leverage hypotheses about internal states of the horse – and yet we must be prepared to change our minds about those inferences if they are falsified by other observations.

I personally enjoy that it isn’t so simple to train horses as Roberts and Parelli and the like imply. Active listening, inferring, testing inferences, leveraging frameworks like McLean and McGreevey’s – these are all part of what makes horse training both challenging and rewarding. This position invites caution when training, of course. But excess caution is as risky as excess belief… when a horse that was throwing its head and grinding its teeth drops its head and walks with a quiet mouth and face, I do believe I don’t have to stand too far back from a conclusion – I think I can safely infer that removing a twisted wire snaffle from its training program was probably a contributor to its ability to enjoy its session with me. And I don’t have to think about dominance or respect to get there…. 🙂

Curious Horses

Horses are generally seen as “neophobes” (“neo” = new, “phobe” = fear).  As prey animals, they evolved to detect and respond to changes in a relatively stable environment – a motion out on the plain, a strange noise, an object where none had been before.

This has a pervasive effect on the life of horses integrating into human society. It permeates horse care, training and riding.

Despite their neophobia, horses do have a certain level of curiosity – enough at least in a state of nature to help them discover new things or places of benefit like food plants, water locations and shelter. The balance between neophobia and curiosity is probably generated by a combination of innate tendency, early life experience, ongoing success and confidence, and training by human handlers.

For trainers, curiosity is sometimes viewed negatively. The curious horse can be more easily distracted and may have a stronger tendency to be attracted to new things in the environment – potentially requiring more work to keep them on task. However, the curious horse is also more relaxed, more open to new experiences, and more willing to trial new behaviors when being trained – which can lead to faster learning rates.

Training and proper horse management can increase curiosity and intelligence in horses. Horses allowed to indulge their curiosity were found in a study to be faster learners in test situations, indicating a correlation between being allowed that type of freedom and ability to learn. So the first step in training away from neophobia and toward curiosity is simply allowing horses to “check things out”. Like everything else involving horse freedoms, this means you need to set times to let them do this, within limits imposed by current tasks and goals. It’s a good idea to decide that certain horse management activities (e.g. feeding, manure cleaning, movement between locations) can have opportunities for the horse to investigate things if they desire – this helps the horse develop an important sense of control over its handling. In addition, if a horse shows a fear or concern reaction (e.g. snorking, huffing, etc.) it should be gently asked to go closer to the object of fear and reinforced (for instance with wither scratching) for each step and for standing still near the scary object.

This same course of action is usable when riding. A sensitive rider during warm up and cool down can sense a horse’s interest or desire to go toward some feature of the environment and engage it to allow them to approach things of interest, while still discouraging departure from requested work during the mainstream part of the session. It is also a good idea to not just allow the horse to take you to the object when they first become interested, but simply to note the interest and then later find an opportunity to make it your idea to go over. This helps avoid reinforcing the horse taking its own initiative under saddle while still giving it pleasure and satisfaction in having its desires satisfied.

Enjoy and encourage the curiosity of horses, and  you will gain a better horse in exchange – happier, more relaxed, more intelligent, less reactive and more willing.

“Discouraging the horse”

Horse learning is a complex thing, and natural horsemanship trainers often simplify their description of the approach in order to distinguish natural horsemanship from “old school”. An example of that sort of simplification is suggesting that there is never a role for moderately strong negative experiences – that is, something actually uncomfortable, as opposed to the technical “negative reinforcement”, which is the application of pressure followed by the release that tells a horse they have correctly responded to that pressure.

I understand and agree that the vast majority of learning experiences for a horse need to be as positive as we can make them and the pressures we use can and should be very, very light. Like any other living being, a horse depends on an overall emotion of successful living (efficacy) to decide whether or not its behavior in general is beneficial or not. Too much negative experience for horse (or human) will lead to conflict behaviors and even potentially learned helplessness. At the same time, no learning creature, horse or human, spends every moment of its life comfortable – discomfort is often a key driver for learning.

We use negative reinforcement (pressure / release) rather than positive reinforcement because pressure suggests the correct action in a way that is both intimate and rapid,using a very simple grammar – move away from pressure applied in certain places in certain repeatable ways. We intentionally use the lightest pressures possible and release them as quickly as possible when something even approaching the correct response emerges, and converge on a more correct response as training progresses, but we do use pressure  – a very mild sensation in the fully trained horse, sometimes much more uncomfortable in the early phases of training – to signal that a change is needed. When the change is underway or complete, depending on the nature of the desired response, we release the pressure as a reward. This is not so different from how nature works – the horse escapes the discomfort of the bramble bush by pushing forward or backing up; hurls the predator from its back by bucking or rearing, finds grass to release the pressure of hunger, or finds water to release the pressure of thirst.

Correction is an important part of learning. Horses do not know what we want or what goals we have, and they go through all sorts of periods in their learning, including those where they inappropriately attempt to use things they are learning in the wrong context. A great example of this is when the horse is doing lead change work and the trainer is changing between leads in the center of the arena with some consistency. As context-sensitive learners, horses often connect the lead change with the location, rather than with the application of the aids (the operant or classical conditioned cue). This is because location is the ultimate light cue (“I am approaching the center of the arena, and I am likely to feel the pressure to change leads – why not just change leads before the pressure arrives?”) – and in nature, location often signals an appropriate behavior  – for instance, being wary near cliffs or rocks that might conceal predators.

But when the horse attempts to change leads based on location, it needs to be corrected – for instance by pushing it back onto the correct lead with a second lead change, or by an increase of pressure on the outside leg on approach to the center or a touch of the spur from the outside leg as the anticipatory muscle set up by the horse is felt by the rider or trainer.

Riders have to correct all the time. “No, don’t turn that direction”, “pay attention to me, not to the open door”, “move your hip over NOW”. It’s especially important during the “obedience” phase of learning to correct the horse when it is not reacting quickly enough and when it is not self-carrying a gait or maneuver. Stopping within the right number of strides, departing within the right number of strides. maintaining rate – all of these are the outcome of gradually reducing the frequency of correction in order to shape the desired behavior. Thus, corrections are a form of negative reinforcement, but the pressure to be released is the repetition of the correction and the time scale is minutes not moments.

Corrections should be as light as possible. But sometimes a horse is distracted, sometimes the mare you are riding is in heat, and when that happens, the strength of a correction needs to be raised above the threshold of the noise represented by the distraction. That can cause noticeable discomfort for the horse, and there is a point where the trainer has to make a judgement to find a positive thing to do and end the session because the corrections are just getting too loud and are still non-productive.

Sometimes the correction needs to be loud to discourage the horse as rapidly and completely as possible from offering a certain response. I call this “discouragement” rather than “correction” because it is about an instant application of a fairly large discomfort to signal that a certain behavior is unacceptable and, ideally to drive it almost immediately to extinction. These are things like the open handed slap on the neck of the horse when it attempts to bite, a yelling and threatening advance when the horse attempts to climb onto the trainer (this is not funny, though it sounds funny – it is very frightening, and yes, it happened to me once,  and never again), or an intense spur when the horse is attempting to scrape the rider’s legs off on the wall. Like a normal correction, this should be as light as possible, but it needs to be loud enough to immediately extinguish the behavior.

The volume of a discouragement is not easy to set up. For one thing, it’s often the case you are discouraging the horse in a moment of potentially dangerous extremity and there isn’t a lot of time to measure your response precisely. For another “over-discouraging” the horse can lead to an explosive hyperreactivity; but making the judgement between a discouragement that is too quiet and one that is too loud requires a sense of feel that is based on experience in general, experience with the specific horse and a sense of which way things are going when the horse is being discouraged – if the horse ceases the behavior – mission accomplished. If it is escalating with the application of the discouragement – wrong thing to do, stop now, try another way.

Horses loudly correct each other all the time – when a conspecific fails to move quickly enough off a desired resource (space, hay, water), for instance, pinning of ears, baring of teeth, snaking of neck, kick threats or actual kicks are used. Watching horses form a domestic herd, you can see emerging leaders “overreact” during the “obedience” phase of teaching their herd mates the way they are expected to behave as a result of an approach or a gesture.

Nature discourages horses from doing things that hurt –  like walking into pricker bushes or going down overly steep or loose slopes. Cuts, scrapes and injuries are painful, but they also quickly teach the horse to avoid certain locations or actions.

There is a place for this in training. We, as trainers, have an obligation to be aware of our role as surrogate nature to use discouragement in the right place, to quickly modulate to correction and then to leave the darn horse alone when the right behavior (or the reasonably right shapable behavior) is being offered, only using the lightest of aids and the most rapid possible release of pressure.

And then finally we have punishment. Punishment is an aggressive action by the trainer outside the “causal window” of the horse intellect (roughly ten seconds after the event). While our larger causal window allows us to understand the connection between an event ten months ago and a negative consequence now, that connection is impossible for the horse’s mind to assemble. A horse will not even understand a discomfort generated in response to an action that happened many seconds ago.

Punishment is a worse than useless action. It actively shuts down the horse by creating a fear relationship with the trainer or rider that disconnects the human from being a predictable vessel for learning and instead begins to push the human into the category of a threat. The trainer has now become unpredictably aggressive in the eyes of the horse.This can create all sorts of negative stress and conflict behaviors as the horse tries to make sense of what was predictable now becoming unpredictable – as would happen to you if your spouse suddenly and unpredictably hit you.

Categories like “correction”, “discouragement” and “punishment” have some overlap. It’s critical to try to keep the separating line as clear and bright as possible so that the horse can have the best and most successful possible learning experience. But remember that correction and discouragement have their place, and spend some time to determine where they should be used, why they are being used, and how you can quickly de-escalate to operant or classical negative reinforcement so that the work of training and learning can quickly return to its positive side.