Speaking The Language, Part 12

A series by SUSAN McBANE explaining equestrian and scientific terminology in relation to equine behaviour and psychology, and its effects on horses and training

(THIS series is based on a glossary of equestrian and scientific terms presented at the First International Equitation Science Symposium, 2005. The glossary description is given in quotation marks, followed by Susan’s discussion.)


‘Refuse to move forward, usually because of the presence of an aversive object or obstacle (as in jumping). See “Napping” `.


‘When a horse fails to respond appropriately to the rider’s signals, as in refusing to go forward, running sideways, spinning or running backwards. This conflict behaviour could also result in attempts at rearing.’

MANY of the ‘naughty’ movements performed by horses are traceable, according to scientific research into equine behaviour, to confusion in the horse’s mind; this results in anxiety, maybe actual fear and ultimately in some sort of natural, defensive behaviour. Sometimes they are triggered by a frightening situation or object in the horse’s surroundings.

As always, we need to consider not only how to prevent these behaviours but also, most importantly, why the horse is performing them. Confusion is certainly a cause but also the horse may simply not like the look of what is ahead, or not want to go in the manner the rider is asking for because he can’t do it or he knows it will be unpleasant or difficult, or he might remember something frightening or painful that happened last time he obeyed.

We must always consider that the horse is in pain or feels unwell and knows he is not up to doing what we are asking. Perhaps he is not fit or strong enough, or is physically or mentally tired. His feet might hurt. His tack could be uncomfortable or causing pain, or his rider could be incompetent. He may just not get on with or trust his rider.

Accurate judgement of horses and the situations they are in is an essential ability in a rider or trainer. Some seem to have a natural ability to ‘read’ horses and sense how they are feeling and, therefore, assess their behaviour, or likely behaviour. Other people are not blessed in this way, although with sensitivity and experience they can often develop this skill.


Horses form habits very easily and napping can certainly become a habit. Two repetitions of any behaviour set the horse on the road to a habit, five repetitions make it a habit. Therefore, we need to make habits of the good things the horse does but eliminate the bad ones. Habits can be overcome by asking the horse to do something else whilst he is performing the undesirable movement. Napping can often be overcome by asking the horse to move his forehand sideways, then asking for forward movement maybe in a slightly different direction.

The traditional remedy for napping of having a lead from another horse or person to give the horse confidence and a good experience is recommended, but many riders are either too proud to accept such help or stubbornly insist that the horse ‘has to learn’ to obey his rider, even when the horse clearly doesn’t trust him or her. Some will not even dismount and lead.

A good way of getting past an awkward place or object in an emergency is to shoulder-in past it, flexing the horse away from it and riding on. However, in equitation science the reins are used, one at a time, to keep the horse’s head facing forwards, and the legs to encourage him to approach. Ultimately the horse learns that he has nowhere to go but forward.

Temperament comes into conflict behaviour as well, sensitive horses being more prone to defensiveness than more phlegmatic ones. An experiment done with police horses showed, interestingly, that some horses who played up when faced with potentially frightening situations or objects did not actually have a raised heart rate (indicating fear) but some who seemed unafraid and kept going forward did have a faster than normal heart rate.


‘Conflict behaviour’ is a term describing anything a horse does to defend himself when in conflict with what is happening to him or around him. It includes general spookiness (indicating anxiety or fear) or more specific actions. Napping including running backwards is one of them, as are shying, spinning, bucking, bolting and rearing. He cannot be blamed for this as survival is naturally key. Unless the situation is truly terrifying, which sends any animal or human into a blind panic, the remedy or preventative measure at the root of baulking or napping is gradually, correctly and fully to train the horse to respond reliably to our aids for ‘go’, ‘stop/slow/step back’, ‘sideways’ (forehand and hindquarters) and ‘stand still until told to move’ (called ‘park’ by equitation scientists). Meticulous training in obedience to aids can save your lives. See Basic Training below.

Confusion may be caused by applying opposing aids at the same moment, such as asking simultaneously for ‘go’ with the legs/spurs/whip and ‘stop’ with the bit, or even with the seat movement, also not stopping the aid as soon as the horse responds. These are widespread within modern equitation. It is well known from reliable scientific research into equine learning processes that horses find it really hard to tolerate this kind of riding. A horse may object in some way, as described above, or eventually descend into a condition called ‘learned helplessness’ in which he has learned that however he tries to escape his confusion, pain, distress or fear he is helpless to do so, and tolerates it, becoming dull and robot-like.

An example of a principle widely taught which involves conflicting opposing aids is ‘driving a horse up to the bit’ or ‘into the hand’: the legs create energy to be contained and distributed by the hand, but the horse sees it as being told to go and stop at the same time. ‘Ride forward to halt’ is similar. The legs send the horse forward but the bit tells him to stop, resulting in stiff, poor halts, the rider’s usual response to which is to pull even harder. An even worse example is seen in horses whose riders take an unrelenting, heavy, painful bit contact, using legs/spurs at the same time to create ‘energy’, ‘forward movement’ or extravagant action.

The basic ‘either/or’ way of giving aids applies in equitation science and correct classical riding, in which the phrase used is ‘legs without hands and hands without legs’.


Two fundamental principles of equitation science are (1) to use one aid/cue/signal for one movement and (2) to train your horse so that you have control of his feet. The horse must be stimulated to move by you, not by his environment. If he moves to go and eat grass, for instance, he is not under ‘rider/aid stimulus’ but ‘environmental stimulus’. If he spooks and does not immediately come back under your control when you apply the stop aid, he is not under your stimulus/control but that of his environment. If he naps and does not move forward immediately when you ask, he is not under your control but that of his environment.

(Having your horse under your aid/stimulus control might sound unreasonable but it is not provided you are prepared to take the trouble and time to train him properly. This does not turn him into a zombie but into a calm, contented, obedient partner. From the ground, as a teacher, I can see the relief on the faces and in the demeanour of horses progressing through this training, as though all responsibility has been lifted from their shoulders and they can work co-operatively with a trustworthy rider.)

So far as (1) is concerned, an example of using an identical aid for two different movements is to pressure or ‘feel’ both sides of the bit in a backward movement towards the horse’s neck to (a) ask him to slow down, stop or rein back, which are the same type of movement using the same muscle groups, and (b) use the same aid to obtain a round posture of the head and neck. It is unreasonable to expect the equine brain to know which you want. The rounded posture will come as a result of correct muscle development produced by appropriate exercises during schooling, which will enable the horse to go in a reliable horizontal balance and to take more weight on his hindquarters when required. In order to balance himself freely in that posture, he naturally extends his neck and head (his balancing pole) up and out, counterbalancing the rearward shift of weight.

So far as (2) is concerned, in-hand or under saddle, your horse must only move when you ask him to. When horses have learned this, either through equitation science and equine learning theory, or correct classical training, it is amazing how much calmer and more confident they become. My clients who achieve it all comment on this. Previous conflict behaviours go out of the window, the horse ‘listens’ to his rider and performs much better.


As a starter, here is the equitation science way of teaching a horse to move back in hand – your starting point. With any method, the over-arching principle is to stop your aid/s the instant you get your response so that the horse knows he has made the appropriate response to that aid. This is called reinforcing his response because it strengthens the likelihood of its happening next time you do it.

Have your horse in a simple snaffle bridle, a controller halter or a normal head collar. Bring the reins over his head, or clip a lead rope to the jaw ring of the head collar and hold it about 15cm/6ins from the clip. Start in his stable or other small, safe enclosure. Stand on one side of his head, say the left, facing his tail, at almost arm’s length, holding the reins/rope in your left hand and a long, stiff schooling whip in your right. Spend a few moments rubbing the horse’s withers with your right hand and telling him he’s wonderful. Then, without speaking so he can concentrate on the pressure aids rather than the vocal ones for now, with his head in a natural position and without moving your feet, put pressure on the bit or noseband directly backwards towards the centre of the underside of his neck. If two seconds of this do not result in a backward step, keep up the contact and vibrate it with quick little pulls. If necessary, back it up by gently, quickly and clearly tapping the front of his left cannon with the whip.

Continue your aids without stopping (and without increasing the pressure, only the speed of the vibrations and taps) until you get your response, otherwise you will surely confuse the horse. Some trainers insist that the horse must lift the foot and put it down further back, so you get a small backward step. Some (including me) believe that you should ‘reward a try’ so it’s fine for now if he just lifts the foot and puts it down in the same spot, but not forward. When you get a response, which might take several seconds, you must stop your aid/s immediately so that the horse’s brain can connect what he has just done (stepped back) with the release (stopping) of the aid/s. Timing is crucial in this, as not releasing aids (known as negative reinforcement) is proven to be another major cause of confusion for the horse. Immediately rub him on the side of his withers as a pleasant consequence.

Repeat this about three to five times, then again on the other side. Much depends on how the horse reacts. Provided you tap and do not hit, are clear and correct, there is usually little trouble. To ask for ‘walk forward’, tap his side where your leg will go when riding and pull the reins/rope straight forward, pressuring the headpiece. Have plenty of little breaks just standing calmly. Continue in the same way, for 20 minutes say twice a day. Once your horse goes forward and back reliably and quickly to light aids, in at least five different sites on the yard, this work should be established and you can continue on the drive, a track, the arena or anywhere safe. Of course, the above is just the very beginning of this system and I recommend that you look further into it, buy the publications and seek out a suitable trainer (see sources below).

Classical riding operates on very much the same principles – clear, simple aids, get control of the feet and legs, and reward often and instantly. Whatever system you use, these are good principles on which to found your training. Napping and other conflict behaviours WILL reduce or disappear if your horse is trained in a non-confusing way to respond accurately and reliably, using a fair system that makes sense to his brain.

FURTHER INFORMATION: The Classical Riding Club (www.classicalriding.co.uk), the International Society for Equitation Science (www.equitationscience.com), the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre (www.aebc.org.au) and the Equine Behaviour Forum (www.equinebehaviourforum.org.uk), also follow up the links and publications on each site.

(The Equine Behaviour Forum published the full glossary in its magazine ‘Equine Behaviour’. For your copy, send a cheque for £3.50 payable to ‘Equine Behaviour Forum’ to the Editor, Dr Alison Averis, 6 Stonelaws Cottages, East Linton, East Lothian, EH40 3DX.)

SUSAN McBANE has an HNC in Equine Science and Management, is a Classical Riding Club listed trainer and Gold Award holder, co-founder of the Equine Behaviour Forum and a Practitioner Member of the International Society for Equitation Science. Author of 44 books, she is a co-publisher of ‘Tracking-up’ (see advert this issue). For lessons in and near Lancashire, ring 01254 705487 or email horses@susanmcbane.com

Author: The Editor

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