I recently saw this image and I couldn’t resist sharing it with a few comments from the behaviour/ training viewpoint . 

Training with pressure/discomfort/pain works by tapping into natural escape or avoidance responses. One of the disadvantages, from a trainer’s perspective, is that sometimes these escape/ avoidance responses can backfire, for example, ‘evasions’ such as jaw crossing, putting the tongue over the bit, or more extreme forms of avoidance, as demonstrated in this image. 

If you insist on using aversive stimuli as training tools (any form of pressure is, by definition, an aversive stimulus, because it works by creating an avoidance response, that’s why the release IS a release), then you should be aware that, if your horse demonstrates the kind of behaviour seen in this image, they are simply trying to tell you that they do not enjoy experiencing those aversive stimuli, and will do their best to avoid them. Some horses will go so far as to avoid being caught. This is often the only opportunity that the horse gets to express how they feel, and to make choices. 

Next time you approach your horse with the bridle, pause a moment and observe their reaction. They may not throw their head in the air, but many horses will show much more subtle signs of discomfort, from turning the head slightly away, to just a momentary quietness, perhaps a swallow, or a tightening of the facial muscles. In my experience, the minority of horses will actively and happily choose to have the bridle on. Those that do, tend to be those who have the most calm, quiet, consistent, considerate, fair and gentle riders.

Once the equipment (in this case the bridle) used to apply the aversive stimuli is in place, the opportunity for many horses to feel they can express how they feel/ choose what to do is gone (learned helplessness). It takes skill to recognise whether a horse is ‘compliant’ because they are happy/ comfortable or because they have learned there is no point expressing themselves. The point BEFORE the bridle goes on (as discussed above) is often the easiest time to see the truth.

The few horses that do demonstrate ‘inappropriate’ (from the human perspective) avoidance responses while wearing tack/ ridden are labelled ‘bad’ or ‘dangerous’. 

The mistake that I see many horse people make is that they view the behaviour as a problem to be fixed, rather than understanding what it really is, which is a cry for help from the horse, an expression of their emotional state and an attempt to communicate that to the human.

The good news is, if we recognise this, we can take steps to address this, by making better use of appetitive stimuli in training in order to change how the horse feels, to help shift the emotional balance towards a happier state of mind.

The even better news is that, with appetitive stimuli and allowing choice and listening to what they have to say, not only can we teach horses to do everything that we’ve always taught them, but they will be happier and truly willing partners, which makes the whole experience more enjoyable for all concerned.

Once you’ve experienced the joy of working with a horse that has been trained this way, you will never look at mainstream horse training in the same way again, I can promise you.

Thank you to the artist!