Archives for the month of: September, 2014

Newly backed thoroughbred mare Lucy waits patiently for her treat

Thirty years ago, dog training relied heavily on the use of aversive stimuli such as choke chains. Nowadays, training involves toys, food and praise, motivating dogs to perform through joy rather than fear. Around the same time, the cane and all forms of corporal punishment were banned in schools, and nowadays young children learn predominantly through play and rewards. Dogs and humans are not unique in how they experience emotions and how they learn.
Regardless of the species, a good trainer can make effective and ethical use of rewards to motivate excellent performance, without having to rely heavily on aversive stimuli. This includes horses!

Forget everything you’ve been told about it not being possible to train horses with food. With a good understanding of learning theory and equine ethology, you can tailor the training to suit the needs of your individual horse, and you really can train your horse to do anything!

More importantly, our growing understanding of neuroscience and welfare indicates not only that we can train horses this way, but that we should. To better understand why, attend this fascinating two day workshop with Dr Helen Spence.

This workshop will be of interest whether you are a competitive rider or a happy hacker. The tools you will learn can be used to help the spookiest horse grow in confidence, the laziest horse become more enthusiastic, and with skillful use can help develop technique to the highest level in both jumping and dressage.

Over the two days you will learn about :

Learning theory, emotion and motivation and how they apply to horses

How to identify aversive and appetitive stimuli and the impact they have on the horse

Horse behaviour and communication including the finer details of body language

The use of marker signals such as a clicker

How to create and shape behaviour from start to finish

Putting responses on cue

An introduction to fears and phobias and how best to deal with them (explaining habituation, flooding and systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning)

A tried and tested format for teaching foundation behaviours

The workshop is being hosted by Nicky Mummery in Mountmellick, Co. Laois. Cost for the two days is €100. For a more detailed programme and to book your place, please contact Nicky by email or Helen or ring Helen on +447773 157428 or ring Nicky on +353876232754

The workshop will be presented by Dr Helen Spence. A leading expert in equine behaviour and training, Helen has a psychology degree and a PhD on the influence of owner personality and attitudes on the behaviour and temperament of the domestic horse. In business since 2003 as an equine behaviour and training consultant, she has specialised in reward based training since 1999. Over the past decade she has taught learning theory and horse behaviour to everyone from happy hackers to veterinary surgeons, including a stint teaching psychology at Queen’s University Belfast. For a number of years she taught the equine component of the MSc in Companion Animal Behaviour Counselling at Southampton University, one of the best respected courses of it’s type, and she currently contributes to the animal behaviour training delivered to the veterinary students at Liverpool University. Helen has been described as a bit of a ‘rare breed’- someone with academic qualifications and teaching experience who has extensive practical knowledge and works day in, day out, with horses and their owners/ trainers in the real world. For further information about Helen and her work, visit


Caffrey during our first training session in July 2014

Beginning Friday 19th September at 10.30am, cost £5 per person.

Over the coming weeks I’m delighted to say Lorraine Hutchinson has kindly invited me to continue my training sessions with the gorgeous Caffrey. Caffrey was rescued by Lorraine some four years ago, very thin and weak and badly traumatised. Lorraine nursed him back to health and with love and kindness has brought him to the point that they can halter and lead him. Now he’s ready to continue his education and learn that he can trust more than just a select few people. During the summer I did two short sessions with Caffrey, establishing a relationship with him and starting to build a foundation and now I’m looking forward to building on that over the coming weeks. I’m going to be working with him once a week and these sessions will be open for you to come along and spectate. During this time I hope to show just how to change fear into trust, avoidance into confidence and curiosity, how to create relaxation while still having an attentive, polite, interested horse.

You will be interested in/ enjoy these sessions if you want to know more about starting young horses/ rehabilitating traumatised horses. You will also find them a good demonstration of how food can be effectively used in horse training, and how a marker signal such as a clicker can be a useful tool. No matter what your level of experience, you should learn something useful. Throughout the sessions I will be explaining what I am doing and why, pointing out the subtleties of body language and communication, discussing learning theory and equine ethology, welfare, safety issues and the ethics of training.

I have a psychology degree, a PhD on the influence of owner personality and attitude on the behaviour and temperament of the domestic horse, and many years of practical experience teaching and training. Visit for more information about me and my work :-).

Lately I’ve been having lots of discussion on this topic, so I felt that perhaps it might benefit from a blog post all of its very own!

So what exactly is an aversive? Well, the term more correctly should be aversive stimulus.

A stimulus is anything that stimulates (triggers) a response. For example, an object, noise or movement. The term aversive refers to the properties of the stimulus.

An aversive stimulus is unpleasant or painful, and the response that it naturally creates is an escape or avoidance response.

So what are escape or avoidance responses?

We are talking about reflex responses here, the aversive stimulus triggers the body’s self defense mechanism, in other words, at an endocrine level, the stress response.

This is arousal of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, more popularly known as fight or flight. So the threat of perceived or actual bodily harm created by the aversive stimulus triggers the body to release adrenaline, increasing the heart rate and respiration rate and preparing the muscles for activity.

The individual will then take action in order to either escape from or avoid the aversive stimulus. A mild stimulus will lead to a mild response, but as the stimulus increases in intensity, so will the response.

So aversive stimuli cause avoidance responses, which could be on a spectrum from a slight twitch through freeze, flight to fight.

And what is the affective (emotional) component of the aversive stimulus? In other words, how does the stimulus make the individual feel?

The basic emotion felt by an individual experiencing an aversive stimulus is fear. The intensity of fear will be directly related to the intensity of the stimulus, and so might range from mild discomfort through to full blown terror.

So, to summarise all that in simple, laymans terms:

An aversive stimulus causes an individual to feel frightened and to take action to avoid the stimulus, this could be through freezing, fleeing, or fighting. Fear and rage lie close together. Sometimes the response to a perceived threat could be fight.

The intensity of fear experienced will vary according to the intensity of the stimulus, and, perhaps more importantly, the perception of the individual. This perception will be coloured by the individual’s history, their personality, the stress levels at the time.

For example, if I were to stand too close to you, depending on your individual personality, sensitivity and prior experience, you might simply find it mildly irritating, enough to make you step back a little, or it may make you feel defensive and make you want to step towards me. Or you may find it threatening enough (frightening enough) to make you want to move quickly away or even leave the room/ call for help.

Here is a short list of just some of the stimuli that can be perceived as aversive by horses: physical pressure created by bits, legs, leadropes; driving pressure created by lungewhips or body language; pain caused by a bit, spurs or schooling whip; pain or discomfort due to ill fitting tack or poor riding;  fear of leaving the herd, to hack or travel in a trailer; veterinary treatment such as vaccinations or dental treatment. How many of these does your horse experience on a daily basis? Is there anything you can do to shift the balance for your horse?

The most important thing any horse trainer can do is to identify aversive stimuli when they are present (whether by accident or design), and recognise the impact they are having on the horse’s emotional wellbeing. It is a simple fact that the vast majority of horse training worldwide utilises aversive stimuli, the extent varying with the individual trainer and horse.

Does this statement cause YOU some discomfort? Perhaps you’d like to read my post on cognitive dissonance Let’s not get too emotional about it ;-). I’m not suggesting that we must never knowingly use aversive stimuli. What I’m saying is that we must recognise them, understand them, and make good judgement about their appropriateness in any given moment for any given horse.

Take a look at and to understand better the wider impact that aversive stimuli can have on your relationship with your horse and, perhaps more important, your horse’s relationship with the world.

Still feeling uncomfortable? How about you start exploring the potential of building more appetitives into your training? This can be incredibly simple to do, and sometimes the smallest changes can make the biggest difference. For example, a dressage rider I have been working with recently wanted to improve her medium trot without getting harder on her horse. I suggested that as soon as he even thought of responding to her aids and giving her the first step or two of medium trot, she should verbally praise him, make a downwards transition, forwards to halt, and feed him a treat. Within just a few repetitions he was moving forward enthusiastically and she was able to stretch the number of medium steps she asked for before rewarding him. Just the tiniest shift in how she did things had a huge impact on his motivation. And the lovely thing for me is that she is now exploring how we can build more and more of this type of work into his training, including, but not limited to, the use of a clicker. From small acorns…. :-).