Alison Averis

HERE are some things I have been told by fellow owners and riders who have observed me re-training my little cob Peter, a pony who has an over-reactive fear response as a result of bad early experiences with people:

  • ‘Don’t let him get away with that!’
  • ‘You’re being too soft with him!’
  • ‘He needs to have more respect!’
  • ‘He needs to be a little bit afraid of you!’
  • ‘Get after him – make him do it!’
  • ‘That’s naughty – give him a smack for that!’

And here are a few of the comments I’ve had from non-horsy passers-by when they have seen me riding or leading him about in a bitless bridle and I have explained about his previous mistreatment and what I am doing to restore his faith in humanity:

  • ‘Oh, it’s lovely to hear that.’
  • ‘He’s so lucky to have you as an owner.’
  • ‘How could anyone treat such a beautiful pony like that?’
  • ‘Look at his lovely kind eyes.’

Who are the real horse lovers here? And where does it come from, this idea that horses are supposed to be unquestioningly submissive and obedient, and that any hint of them having their own opinions is labelled as being cheeky, or naughty, or disrespectful, or trying to see what they can get away with? It seems as if it must be passed down the generations of horse owners by word of mouth, since non-horsy people don’t seem to respond to equine behaviour with the same judgements or conclusions.

Evidence or ideology?

I think the underlying point is that very little horse training is actually based on ethical, evidence-based principles and that ideological and traditional methods still predominate. You can tell this is so when you question a trainer and get an irate response – they can’t really defend what they do, so they get angry and, if you mention your misgivings in print or on-line, threaten to sue you.

It’s obviously difficult to get people to follow the evidence and change their minds if they are emotionally and financially committed to a particular method. If they make their living from it and have a reputation for being good at it, one can hardly blame them for ignoring any evidence that suggests that they are wrong. I – and most equitation scientists – would admire them profoundly if they were to admit that they were mistaken and change their ways, but their existing customers and followers, the source of their income and fame, would be less likely to be impressed, adding to the problem.

‘Don’t frighten the horses’

There’s a famous equestrian quote, generally attributed to the actress Mrs Patrick Campbell: ‘My dear, I don’t care what they do, as long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses’. She lived from 1865 to 1940; an era in which almost everyone would have seen at first hand the effect of a frightened horse in the street. However, sometimes it seems as if the entire history of equitation is based on frightening the horses. Xenophon was complaining about it 2400 years ago, but his efforts were in vain. ‘Do what I say or I will hurt or frighten you’ is the language of much of our training, whether by the traditional rider using bits, whips, spurs, tight nosebands and various gadgets to enforce obedience, the natural horsemanship trainer with a thin rope headcollar to intensify head pressure, or even the equitation scientist escalating the aversive signal until it becomes sufficiently motivating to result in action.

So much of riding seems to be about generating a flight response in the horse and then directing and controlling it. Racing and jumping in their various forms are obvious manifestations of this. Elite dressage could be regarded as conflict behaviours raised to an art form. Even apparently benign hacking, schooling and showing activities are a lesser form of the same thing, if the horse is moving away from a painful stimulus rather than towards a desired outcome.

Horses are so behaviourally flexible that just about all training methods work. This means that owners and riders are free to choose what best fits their philosophy and perception of the horse-human relationship. Few people see anything unethical in their chosen methodology. However, once you start recognising the systematic use of equine fear responses in equitation you see it everywhere, from the child beating her mount round the local cross-country course to the jockey thrashing a racehorse with nothing left to give. It is illustrated in the market for severe bits, restrictive nosebands, whips and spurs, and the training aids that enforce particular behaviours. In a catalogue issued by a well-known supplier of horsy goods I counted twenty-six nosebands other than plain cavessons (including five crank nosebands designed to be done up extra-tightly), seven martingales, thirty-four bits advertised as offering more control than a snaffle, fifteen types of spur, twenty types of whip and thirteen ‘training aids’ ranging from pressure-exerting headcollars and reins to full-body bondage outfits.

Horses are a control freak’s dream come true. Not only can you whack them and kick them and pull them around, you can yell at them and smite them with whips and nobody will tell you to stop it. Horses won’t scream in pain or yell back at you or attack you, but will respond with explosive extravagant behaviours that, assuming you can sit on them, will get you even more admiration from uneducated spectators. In general, riders who can sit on a bucking, rearing, spooking horse are far more admired than those who don’t elicit those behaviours in the first place. It’s because of this that ‘bravery’ and ‘nerve’ have become desirable attributes for riders. Nobody seems to question that they are necessary only because we have trained horses to behave dangerously.

Conflict behaviours raised to an art form:
The Duke of Wellington and Copenhagen, Princes Street, Edinburgh

Motivation and reward

Why do horses move when left to themselves? It’s not just to move away from something they find unpleasant. They move to get somewhere, to gain access to food, water or other horses. They move to explore new territory. They move because movement is intrinsically rewarding.

I think too few of us use these motivations and these rewards to devise training methods where there’s something in it for the horses and not just for us, partly because there’s so little encouragement to do so. If you want to buy equipment for clicker training you have to go to the dog department of a pet shop, not a tack shop. If you do something out of the mainstream, other owners come along and shout at you.

It is possible to train horses to do all sorts of things without evoking a fear response. There are now many trainers and behavioural consultants working in this way. Articles in ‘Equine Behaviour’, the magazine of the Equine Behaviour Forum, show that even a person relatively new to horses and a horse relatively new to humans can do it. It’s harder, obviously, to re-train a horse that has already learned to associate people with being afraid, but it can be done. It’s worth doing. Frightened horses are unpredictable and dangerous, and a welfare problem. It’s not for nothing that one of the training principles laid out by the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) is ‘avoid fear reactions’; in other words don’t frighten the horses.

Dr Alison Averis is the editor of Equine Behaviour, the magazine of the Equine Behaviour Forum, written almost entirely by its members. Founded in 1978, the EBF is a highly-regarded, international, voluntary, non-profit organisation, acting as a forum for the exchange of opinions which aims to advance the sympathetic management of equines by promoting a better understanding of their minds. The EBF’s membership comprises professional and amateur horse people, scientists, non-scientists, experts and novices, all of whom have a deep interest in equine behaviour and psychology, and the humane management and training of equines. It has an interactive website at and is on Facebook.

Author: The Editor

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