Speaking the Language – Part 30

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 published in ‘Equitation Science’ by Paul McGreevy and Andrew McLean, 2010, the standard book on the subject. The glossary definition is given in quotation marks, followed by Susan’s discussion.)

CONFLICT BEHAVIOUR: ‘A set of responses of varying duration that are usually characterised by hyper-reactivity and arise largely through confusion. In equitation, confusions that result in conflict behaviours may be caused by application of simultaneous opposing signals (such as go and stop/slow/step-back) such that the horse is unable to offer any learned responses sufficiently and is forced to endure discomfort from relentless rein and leg pressures. Attempts to flee the aversive situation result in hyper-reactivity. In addition, the desired response to one or both cues diminishes. Conflict behaviours may also result from one signal eliciting two or more responses independently, such as using the reins to achieve vertical flexion independently of the stop/slow/step-back response, or using a single rein to bend the neck of the horse independently of its previously conditioned turn response. Similarly, conflict behaviour may result from incorrect negative reinforcement, such as the reinforcement of inconsistent responses, incorrect responses, no removal of pressure or no shaping of responses. Often referred to as evasions and resistances.’

Hyper-reactivity/hyper-reactive behaviour: A state of arousal (excitement/fear) brought on by a situation that the horse perceives as a threat to his comfort or safety. ‘Stress hormones’ circulate in the horse’s body as part of his instinctive flight-or-fight response. The horse will be very tense with a raised heart rate and have a ‘hollow’ posture, with head up, eyes wide and nostrils flared, ready to gallop away. His leg movements will be rapid with short strides and, if restrained, he will ‘paddle’ and swing around as he tries to escape. He may shy, nap/run backwards, buck, rear or bolt. Because conflict behaviours relate to the horse’s safety, structures in his brain set off a chain of hormonal responses which gear up his body for flight (or fight if necessary) so that he can protect himself against whatever is distressing him. The horse has little or no control over this procedure but quickly learns these behaviours, and they can be very difficult to eradicate.

Negative reinforcement is the removal or subtraction (hence ‘negative’) of something unpleasant such as pressure from leg, whip or bit, to reward the correct response to an aid. The word ‘reinforcement’ is used because correct, well-timed negative reinforcement strengthens (reinforces) the likelihood of that response to that aid happening again.

Shaping is the progressive, step-by-step training of a horse towards a ‘goal’ behaviour set by the trainer, such as standing still, half-pass or loading into transport. Failure to progress the training in very small steps, each building on the previous one in a rational way, is likely to result in conflict behaviours due to the trainer rushing the process, and/or not making it clear to the horse.

Evasions and resistances, such as the behaviours mentioned above, are self-defensive actions taken by the horse to relieve his discomfort, pain or fear. Because of the predominance of domineering attitudes and training practices in much conventional and traditional equestrianism, such words were/are used to imply some kind of wickedness, laziness, stupidity, unwillingness, stubbornness and the like on the part of the horse. In fact, evasions and resistances are triggered by whatever we are asking, demanding or doing to the horse causing him, perhaps unknown to us, discomfort, pain or fear.

Probably the two most common causes of conflict behaviour are applying opposing aids at the same time and incorrect use of negative reinforcement, so let’s see what is involved.


Regular readers of my articles cannot but be aware of the futility and unfairness of giving conflicting aids such as ‘go’ with the legs’ and ‘stop’ or ‘slow down’ with the hands/bit at the same moment, yet this sort of thing is actually taught as ‘the thing to do’ almost everywhere where lessons are given. Of course, no animal, or human, can do two opposing things at the same time, so if we can’t do so how can we expect a horse to do it? And how dare we punish him when he fails to accomplish something impossible?

The problem is that somewhere in the dim and distant past of equestrianism, before the 1950s, anyway, which I imagine is the dim and distant past to most of Equi-Ads’ readers or, more likely, actually outside their experience, someone went a bit overboard (which seems to be a human failing) with the idea of keeping a pleasant, light contact on the bit and thought of keeping the horse on his job, or rather up to his bit, by almost constantly using their legs to make him maintain the contact.

In nearly every school of equestrian thought that I know of, horses are taught in their earliest days of training (being ‘broken in’, ‘started’, ‘backed’ or, in Equitation Science (ES) terms, put through their Foundation Training) that pressure on their sides means ‘go forward’ and pressure on both sides of their mouths means ‘stop’. They are intelligent creatures and pick this up fairly smartly. They also work out that pressure on one side of the mouth (a pull on the rein, in our terms) means ‘turn this way’. So, the horse can go, stop and turn.

Pretty soon, he is asked to slow down by the identical aid which he thinks means ‘stop’, yet the pressure on his sides is also telling him to keep going. At this point, he must start to get a bit worried, but this is how it is from then on in most cases. If the rider keeps a light, hand-holding contact on the bit – just in touch with no unrelenting pressure as such – the horse can probably cope and start to look to the bit for guidance. However, if the contact amounts to pressure sufficient to pull back the corners of the horse’s mouth, this, obviously, is telling him to stop or slow down all the time. If he does so, the pressure on his sides increases and tells him not to do that but to go on. The rider might, indeed, be trying to keep the horse going ‘forward’ actively, or might be ‘riding him up to the contact’ because ‘that’s what we do’. Faulty ideas spread through any culture like wildfire if people perceive them as being easier, quicker or more effective than what they did previously, even if they don’t make sense.

You can see where this is all leading, and how it infiltrates a horse’s training until he accepts it as the norm and has to find some other way of deciding what the rider wants. It’s miraculous that so many of them manage to do this. However, apart from this being extremely unfair to the horse, it results in both the leg and bit aids ceasing to be light and immediately obeyed. The horse can become dull to the leg and heavy in hand, so the rider/trainer resorts to using spurs strongly (and not always smooth, blunt ones), heavy whip strokes, harsher bits, sawing and jabbing on the horse’s mouth, cranking up the noseband so he cannot ‘evade the bit’ by opening his mouth to relieve himself of the pain, and so on – almost anything that will make the horse obey.

Depending on his temperament, the horse might slog on and try to endure it, or he might understandably resort to conflict behaviours. The only people who might blame him for this are those who do not understand how horses learn, are not ‘thinking’ riders willing to educate themselves and keep up to date, and do not try to see things from the horse’s point of view.


From the negative reinforcement angle, it clearly does not exist in the above scenario. As a simple example of negative reinforcement, imagine riding along in walk on your horse with a light but present contact on the bit, your legs hanging down his sides touching but not pressuring them. You decide you want to trot so you give him a squeeze with your legs, making sure you do not increase your bit pressure, which would cancel out the squeeze if strong enough. You keep your contact the same, bearing in mind that, because of the horse’s naturally changed and stiller head carriage in trot, the reins will feel a little looser, so you might need to take them up to restore your light-but-present contact. As soon as the horse trots you stop squeezing (‘subtracting the aid’) and keep your legs in touch without actual pressure as you trot along. (You don’t stop your leg aid till he does trot, otherwise you will reward him for not trotting. Doing that is one example of faulty negative reinforcement.)

You have correctly applied negative reinforcement. Your horse has understood what you wanted and is trotting for you. The whole, simple process was easy, understandable and not unpleasant, therefore you have correctly reinforced (strengthened) the likelihood of his obeying your squeeze the next time you apply it. He will probably do so straight away, confident in his action. If he did find the squeeze a little unpleasant, your immediate removal of it as soon as he trotted has taught him what to do to stop the squeeze in future. You have reinforced the aid and the result.

(The reason for ceasing your aid and (see below) giving a reward immediately, within a second or two at most, is so that the horse can link or associate his action (in this case trotting) with your aid, and your pleasant reward. He needs to experience them very close together or his brain will not make the connection.)

You are also not making the common error of riding him up to a significant bit pressure. You are keeping your light but present contact via the bit on his tongue and lips. Therefore, when you want to apply a little more pressure on the bit to ask him to slow down, he will be able to feel it as a message from you. He will also be able to tell from your body and seat whether he is to keep trotting but slower or come down to walk.

You can reinforce his good deeds even better by getting him used to hearing ‘good boy’ or whatever you choose, in a pleased, identical tone immediately he obeys, followed within one second by a rub on the side of his withers. The ‘good boy’ tells him the rub is coming, and the rub itself is the main ‘gift’ for him, similar to mutual grooming in horses, which makes him feel good by lowering his heart rate and inducing relaxation. Pats and thumps, however, mean ‘get lost’ in horse language (like bites and kicks) so are not what you meant at all and not likely to reinforce the desired response in future, and delighted shrieks of ‘good boy’ are very unpleasant (horses being such quiet animals by nature) and can even be frightening. Conflict behaviours here we come.

The above is a very simple description of negative reinforcement but I hope it helps to perhaps clarify things.


Of course, conflict behaviours can be caused by any distressing situation the horse may find himself in. Anything at all that makes him uncomfortable, gives him pain or causes him fear will of course make him want to get out of the situation in any way he can. Horses are not stupid and they obviously understand when they cannot escape. If they can they will flee (the flight response) but if they can’t they will fight, and a panicking, frightened horse is extremely dangerous to himself and anyone nearby.

If poor riding and training and bad care and management are the norm, many horses, depending on their temperament, will cease to go into defence mode (which is what conflict behaviours indicate) and become resigned, dull, withdrawn and, more and more experts believe, depressed. This state is widely believed to show a ‘nice, quiet horse’ but in fact is the result of the horse having given up, having learned that he is powerless to change things. It is known as ‘learned helplessness’. If it happened to a human it would be regarded by our society as abuse. Unfortunately, not many people in the horse world regard it as abuse yet, other than behavioural experts, some vets., psychologists and the like, but it is, and it is very common.

Just a few of the situations which can cause conflict behaviours are: badly fitting and adjusted tack which can cause real pain, and the same goes for rugs and other items a horse may have to wear; bad riding which the horse cannot understand; being overfaced in his work such as by being worked too hard and too long, or being asked to perform movements or jump obstacles which he simply cannot manage; bad handling which, again, confuses and frightens horses, especially when the people involved start to get rough with the horse (‘punishment for being naughty’) whom they have caused to ‘misbehave’ and whom they probably now cannot control because the horse associates them with discomfort, pain and fear; and finally, conflict behaviours can surface simply because a horse does not feel content or even safe in his lifestyle, is in a permanent state of anxiety and very near the borderline of fleeing or fighting.


I have no choice but to lay the blame for the apparent increase in equine conflict behaviours on two changes in the horse world over the past few decades. One is the increasingly pervading attitude in the horse world of autocratic dominance over horses as opposed to seeking much more of a partnership. This is partly due to the second change which is the decreasing standards of riding and real horse knowledge and committed caring, compared with a few decades ago. It’s true that we have fewer good riding schools left because of our economy and the damaging effects on riding tuition brought about by our blame-and-claim culture which, in turn, has spawned the probably necessary rigours of health and safety requirements and expensive insurance. But all is not lost! There is a better way to go and you can find it by following up the contacts given in the next paragraph. They could well open up for you a completely new (and partially old) type of horse world which is more fulfilling for people and safer and happier for horses.

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

(The Equine Behaviour Forum published the full glossary in its magazine, ‘Equine Behaviour’. A hard copy costs £3.50 and a digital copy (include your email address) costs £2.50. Please make your cheque payable to ‘Equine Behaviour Forum’ and send it 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’ magazine (see advert this issue). For information on lessons, clinics and contact details, go to www.susanmcbane.com.

Author: The Editor

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