Whether I take the high road or the low road, I’m looking forward to arriving across the Irish Sea in time to meet some lovely Scottish horse trainers on Sunday 5th July, 2015!

Dr Dorothy Heffernan has invited me over to do a day of teaching just outside  Glasgow. As far as I know the lesson slots are all taken, but there will be the possibility of spectating and there will definitely be time for questions and answers and some good discussion over a tea/ coffee and hopefully some cake ;-), so if you’d like to join us you’d be very welcome.

The lessons will be tailored to suit each individual horse and handler combination, and I believe we have a nice range in terms of levels of experience and the kinds of issues they’d like to address, so I’m sure it will be an interesting and informative day. As with all my lessons, I’ll be drawing on my background in Psychology, my interest in classical riding, the Alexander Technique and the development of feel, and my experience training with marker signals and appetitives (rewards), together with my work as an equine behaviourist, in order to help each pair work through any issues they may be facing and at the same time develop emotional and physical balance.

For more information on joining us, please contact myself ( or Dorothy (

I’m looking forward to seeing some of you there!



My favourite thing out of all the many varied aspects of my job is working with foals. They are filled with curiosity, like little sponges ready to absorb life experience. My job is to teach them all the skills they need in order to be pleasant, manageable and safe adult horses, yet still retain that joyful openness and confident curiosity.

One of my regular clients has a newborn colt foal. She has already started laying some great foundations with him, but she has kindly invited me to come and have a little play with him myself and at the same time teach the rest of you a little about how best to handle foals, in terms of both ethics and effectiveness.

This workshop will take place near Keady, Co. Armagh, Northern Ireland, on Saturday 27th June, from 10.30am to 3pm. Cost for the day will be £30, we will make this workshop as interactive and fun as possible, and if appropriate you will be able to assist with training. You will get a little booklet on foal handling to take home. There will be an emphasis on training with rewards and gentleness, but you will also be shown how to establish safe boundaries. Places are limited, and a deposit of £10 will be required to secure your place.  In order to book, please call me on 07773 157428 or email :-).


How not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

So the bathwater is scummy, soapy, dirty, we don’t want it any more. The baby is gorgeous and full of potential, we definitely want to keep and nurture that. How easy is it to throw the baby out with the bathwater?

For me, as a horse trainer, the bathwater is all the practices that I see that are detrimental to the horse’s psychological and physical wellbeing.

The baby is the stuff that is beneficial, or simply neutral in terms of the horse’s wellbeing. The baby might even be the things that matter to the humans wellbeing, as long as those are also compatible with the horse’s overall wellbeing.

Let me explain that more clearly. If you’ve read the other posts on my blog you probably already have a bit of an idea about my ethos. If you haven’t, here’s a little resume.

Having studied psychology, I am aware of the emotional impact that the different approaches to training can and do have on the horse.

I can see that in circumstances where the quantity or intensity of use of aversive stimuli to create responses heavily outweighs the appetitive experiences that the horse may have, we end up with a less than happy horse, one whose wellbeing has been impacted upon in a detrimental way.

For example, creating obedience to the aids by using fear or pain or the threat of it, such as bit, whips, spurs, strong leg aids or an assistant on the ground with a lunge whip or schooling whip. Or introducing new experiences in a way that is overly stressful, for example by using flooding.

In my job, consulting on horse behaviour and training, I often am called upon to pick up the pieces with horses that have had their emotional balance tipped too far into fight/ flight on a routine basis. My role is to help that horse find emotional equilibrium, to promote their psychological wellbeing, to balance that with their physical wellbeing and the needs of their owners.

Sometimes this task is more straightforward than others. The needs, desires and attitudes of the owner always have a huge impact on what we do and how we do it. Protecting the best interests of the horse can be a challenge, helping the owners to understand their role in that an even greater one.

When I am working with individual clients, I always aim to be as supportive as I am able through this process. I help them to identify the baby, and the bathwater, with clarity, so that they only discard what isn’t required, or is detrimental.

But it is the perception of the horseworld as a whole that has prompted me to write this post. I have realised that, unwittingly, I have not been clear enough about how we can get rid of the bathwater yet still keep the baby. All this talk about liberty work, training with appetitives, tackless (not tactless!) riding…. I’ve realised that, rather than inspiring people, it can serve to exclude the very ones I hope to inspire.

On a personal level, I do not believe it is necessary, or even appropriate, to eliminate all aversive stimuli from the horse’s life and retain only appetitive stimuli. Certainly not if we intend to be in the same space with them, or connected via ropes and reins. My language has always been ‘minimise aversives’ and ‘maximise appetitives’.

However, while I have a very clear picture in my head of how this looks, having trained this way for many years, I appreciate that it may be hard to visualise if you haven’t experienced it.

The thing is, I believe we can still do all the ‘normal’ things we do with horses: dressage, jumping, cross country etc and still throw out the bathwater. The events themselves aren’t the bathwater, it’s the way they are trained (and in some cases scored and judged) and the attitudes we hold that need to be poured down the sink.

There is so much of value in traditional horsemanship, and in the ideals of correctly preparing a horse in terms of physical fitness and physical balance. This stuff, and more, is not the bathwater, this is the baby, and we don’t need to throw it away.

The key is in developing the emotional balance of the horse. When I work with a naive horse, one that is at the start of their training, and has had limited dealings with humans, I find it relatively easy to build their confidence. I also find that it can be quite acceptable, not to say safe, to use aversive stimuli in a mild, structured way, without damaging the emotional equilibrium of the horse. These horses don’t have ‘baggage’ relating to pressure or equipment.

On the other side of the coin, a horse that has already experienced a large number of aversive stimuli and who has been exposed to new stimuli and situations in a frightening way, has already developed issues with pressure and with certain equipment by the time I get to them. In these cases, in order to redress the balance, I have to work with very minimal aversives and use appetitives in order to build up confidence and relaxation.

In terms of our bathwater analogy, I guess in the second case, the baby needs a lot more scrubbing, a lot more soap, and the bathwater has more scum by the time we are done. There is more to throw out.

I’ve always been hesitant about how I discuss the use of aversives in training, because I have believed that in many cases people take any kind of suggestion that some aversive stimuli might be acceptable as a carte blanche to beat up and frighten horses. So in my efforts to avoid that, I think that perhaps I’ve given the impression that I sway too far in the other direction. It’s hard to get a point like this across clearly in writing. After all, I find that few people truly recognise a happy horse. In the horseworld we have become so immune to signs of tension, pain suffering in horses that what is viewed as ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ is described as happy. So how do I get people to look for emotional balance in their horse when they think they already have it? Too much focus on equipment or the way it is used just isn’t the answer. We need to learn to become better at reading and feeling for our horses. We need to better know how to recognise the signs of tension, discomfort, pain or suffering that can creep in when training upsets emotional equilibrium.

Each horse must be treated as an individual, the training must be tailored to suit each case.

It’s not about the bit, the whip, the tack, the hands, the seat…. It’s about how they are used with each individual horse. It’s about how the horse feels. It’s about finding emotional balance.

There are plenty of examples of ‘liberty’ riding out there in which the horses have been trained purely with aversive stimuli. There are also some examples of horses fully conventionally tacked that have been trained mainly with appetitive stimuli….. It’s not the equipment that tells the tale, it’s the mental wellbeing of the horse.

Perhaps it’s time I stopped riding Rosie tackless and showed people that she can be just as happy saddled, bridled, bitted, plaited, and competing…..

Perhaps then people will begin to see through the bathwater and focus on the baby.


Would you like to learn more about how horses (and other species!) learn?

Would you like a career working with behaviour problems in animals?

I’m delighted to say that I will be contributing to the teaching on a new, entirely online, Masters in Clinical Animal Behaviour. The course is run by the University of Waikato, New Zealand, but being an online course, it will be available to students all over the globe. I’ll be delivering lectures on equine behaviour and welfare and equine behaviour case studies. And no, I’ll not be moving to New Zealand (nice though that would be!), I’ll be lecturing from the comfort of my own home!

I think it is absolutely fantastic that a course at this level is being delivered entirely on line, and I’m very excited about being a part of it. For more information, visit

I have also been working on a few other qualification related projects that may be of interest so watch this space!!

By Dr Helen Spence


My GSD and our cat have learned to play together.... They both find it highly reinforcing and will seek out opportunities for play sessions. Learning is a complex process, but it is also an intrinsic part of daily existence.

Over the last fifteen to twenty years my views on the application of learning theory to horse training have evolved considerably. I first formally studied learning theory in the first year of my Psychology degree nearly twenty (!) years ago. Prior to that, having an interest in dog and horse training, I had been reading about it in an informal way for years, and applying it to the animals in my care. For example, teaching my pet dog to sit, lie down and recall for a food reward or praise. Or, when I was 16, I had a mare (the kind, gentle Sammy) who had had a bad accident jumping and had developed a tendency to rush her fences. Using a very gentle, quiet approach, I taught her firstly to walk over poles on the ground in hand, with plenty of praise, then built up in gradual stages to jumping on the lunge and then to me being able to calmly ride her over poles and small fences. In explicit, formal terms at that stage I knew nothing about learning theory, but informally, implicitly, I understood it pretty well. In fact, when I first studied it in my degree, it was taught in such a dry, theoretical manner, that I didn’t immediately make the jump to recognising how it applied to animals. When I did, which was when I was working full time with horses, having just graduated, I’d say I still understood how to apply it to what I was already doing at a pretty shallow level. And it wasn’t until I began teaching it as part of the undergraduate lab classes that I taught when I was starting my PhD a few years later that I would say I really began to understand it at a deeper level.

To me, this is a journey that all trainers go on. Most begin training before they are taught about learning theory. They learn, on the job, an implicit understanding of how to motivate their chosen species. There’s a great deal of trial and error involved for both animal and trainer. Good trainers are those that are good at learning from their errors. In fact, they may not even be particularly consciously aware of what they do and don’t do, they quickly reach the stage of ‘unconscious competence’- they know how to do it, but couldn’t necessarily easily teach someone else to do what they do, because it is so ‘natural’ to them. I guess to a degree this is the stage I was at as a teenager. I could get good results from horses and dogs, but I couldn’t necessarily articulate what needed doing, or why, I just ‘knew’.

Then, as an enthusiastic new graduate, I began to understand the mechanics of both operant and classical conditioning, but I was still missing the key factor, which was the emotional state of the animal. So, even though I was a proponent of the use of appetitives in training, I failed to fully appreciate the impact of aversive stimuli. I guess at the time I was probably experiencing a reasonable degree of cognitive dissonance, given that I was working full time on a conventional yard, teaching, schooling and working my way through my BHS exams. The framework for horse training that I was used to and had been brought up with was based primarily on the use of aversive stimuli, with minimal appetitives. I knew I wasn’t comfortable with it, and my newly acquired theoretical understanding was helping to explain the reasons behind that discomfort. But I was still struggling to work out the alternative possibilities- with no clear route mapped out for me, I felt like I didn’t really fit in. I was still reconciling my practical experience with the theory. It took the arrival, a year later, of my highly sensitive and neurotic mare, Geri, to really drive that point home.

Over the following years, I felt like I really began to understand learning theory in an applied way. I could see the relationship between emotional state and behaviour, and understand how that motivated and shaped behaviour. I also could see how easily associations could form. Most importantly, I could articulate and explain what I was doing in practical and theoretical terms, so I could help others to understand their horses behaviour. However I think the most significant thing I realised at that time was the practical importance of classical conditioning, and how, although our conscious focus might be on operant conditioning, the nature of classical conditioning meant that it was an intrinsic part of each training interaction.

As I said, this is a journey that so many trainers who have studied learning theory in an academic way will recognise. For me, the more I taught learning theory, on all levels, from horse owners to postgraduate students, the more I could see how it applied to everyday life. Not in a reductionist, simplistic way, but as an interactive part of the bigger picture.

It seems to me that the biggest mistake that any one can make is to focus on how we can use an understanding of learning theory to help us manipulate behaviour, particularly when that focus is on operant conditioning and neglects classical conditioning. All that seems to happen at that level is that people get hung up about ‘which quadrant’ of operant conditioning they are training with. They argue about reinforcement versus punishment, and the pros and cons of each, without recognising that the bigger picture is about the emotional balance of the individual. Yes, training can be manipulative. I guess by definition training is manipulation of behaviour. But it doesn’t have to be manipulative in a ‘using’, ‘devious’ kind of way. It could, and should, be communication, a two way thing. But the point I want to make is that we should be using our understanding of learning theory to help us be better observers, to help us better understand why we do what we do. The thing is, whether we understand the theory or not, we are all doing it! We are all, always, creating and changing behaviour through our own behaviour. Because, just like gravity, learning is always there.

So our choice is: Be aware of learning theory and use that awareness to help us understand how and why we act as we do, and also at times knowingly use that to deliberately change behaviour OR be ignorant of learning theory, but still carry on learning and influencing learning. Either way, behaviour gets influenced and changed, but in the case of ignorance, particularly if it is combined with an inability to recognise the emotional state of the animal, there is potential for ‘accidental’ damage or stress. Ignorance also means it is harder to understand why things might be happening and most importantly makes it difficult to predict what might happen next.

We cannot afford to be too simplistic when we talk about learning. Just like gravity, it is always there whether we like it or not. This makes it impossible to be completely in control or manipulative…. There are too many factors at play.

In summary, I believe it is important for horse trainers to understand operant conditioning and classical conditioning.
I believe it is important to recognise the significance of classical conditioning.

I believe it is essential to be able to recognise the emotional state of the animal we are working with.

Finally I believe we should focus more on observing and predicting behaviour and less on manipulating behaviour.

Training needs to be a two way conversation, not a lecture.

We need to understand that learning is much more complex than just talking about how behaviour is reinforced or punished by stimuli that we control.

We need to realise that there are many factors beyond our control that shape the individual. If we get too hung up on the simple, mechanical, view, then the complex, living, breathing, organic being that is the horse will leave us for dust.


You’ve maybe already read my last post about the idea that often when people describe their horse as taking the…. The horse is in fact simply performing escape or avoidance behaviour in response to a stimulus that they find aversive.

But what about horses that consistently, persistently, quietly and without much fuss, walk all over the top of their owners, both literally and metaphorically? Surely they must be taking the….?!  After all they aren’t in a fight or flight state, are they?

The answer to this question is a pretty simple one. Horses will do exactly what we teach them to do. Perhaps you are more interested in protecting your toes than you are in paying attention to what your horse might be learning. The thing is, if you want horses to learn to move when and where you would like them to, and you’d like your horse to be self aware and ‘polite’, you have to train them! And to do that, you need to improve your own awareness of both yourself and them.

In this context, the horse is only behaving in a way that looks like they are ‘taking the….’ because they have learned that it is okay to do so, or never learned that it is not okay.

If the owner/ handler/ trainer who is being walked all over is given a crash course in how horses learn and taught to recognise what behaviour is being reinforced and how to change that, through a process involving a combination of what we call differential reinforcement and extinction, everyone is happy.

It is possible to do this with a focus on the use of appetitives, we don’t have to go down the road of escalating pressure to teach ‘manners’, thankfully, since much of the time, the people who are prone to being ‘walked over the top of’ tend to be people that lack confidence and would not be particularly keen on/ effective at using escalating pressure anyway.

So if you are told that your horse is ‘taking the….’ and ‘walking all over you’, perhaps it is time you learned how to politely, kindly and ethically teach them that it is worth their while not to!


I was doing a day of teaching on horse behaviour for the vet students at Liverpool University the other day and one of them asked this very excellent question: what do you say to people who just think their horse is taking the proverbial (insert noun of your choice here)?

The first thing to do is picture the scene. The horse has just done the very opposite of the thing the handler/ rider asked. Perhaps they threw their head up in the air rather than bringing it down low for the worming syringe. Or perhaps they swung around and pulled away from the trailer rather than walking calmly up the ramp. Maybe they napped rather than walking happily out of the yard away from the other horses. Or, horror of horrors, they barged out of the stable and over the top of the vet at vaccination time.

The truth of the matter is, the horse doesn’t do any of these things simply to annoy their handler, or gain the upper hand, they don’t do them because they are ‘dominant’ nor do they do them so they can have a quiet snigger with the other horses down the back of the hay shed later.

Sometimes anthropomorphism can be valid, when the evidence supports it, however in this context it is not appropriate to be placing human characteristics upon the horse. Let’s face it, horses are not plotting to overthrow the human race. They don’t want to rub our noses in it and ‘get us back’ for all the hard times we’ve given them.

So why might the horse be behaving as he or she does in these examples?

Throwing the head up in the air to escape the hideous tasting wormer, trying to run away from the dark rattly cavern that is the trailer, refusing to walk away from the safety of the herd and finally, taking the only way out in order to avoid the painful injection.

These are all,  quite simply, escape or avoidance responses, triggered by stimuli that predict the threat of pain or discomfort or potential injury. These stimuli act on the fight or flight response, which is a reflex response over which we mammals have no conscious control.

Bottom line? The horse is fearful. No matter how confident they might appear in their behaviour, the root cause of the behaviour is fear.

So why does being firm, confident, dominant or even bullying work so well in these situations, so that they seemingly submit, as if confirming that they were just sensing your weakness and having you on to begin with?

Think of it as a set of scales. On the one side is the thing you are attempting to do to the horse. The weight of it is a direct measure of how unpleasant the horse finds it. On the other side of the scales you have the pressure that you have to use in order to get the horse to perform the required task. How much it weighs down the scales is a direct measure of how unpleasant the horse finds it. In order for the horse to ‘submit’, the unpleasantness from the pressure must outweigh the unpleasantness of the task. As you can see, the horse is caught between a rock and a hard place.

If a horse has had prior experience of escalating pressure, they may capitulate quite quickly when they see that you are going to go down that road with them. All it might take is a change in your posture for them to change their behaviour… All because at some point in the past, someone has done that and followed it up with a level of pressure that they found highly aversive. The threat in itself is now sufficiently frightening for them to ‘behave’ in its presence. This is why a hesitant person might struggle with a horse whereas a more experienced trainer might step in and say ‘look, there’s no problem here, you’re the problem…. He’s just chancing his arm with you ‘.

This is one of the reasons why, when novice owners send their horses away to certain types of professional riders to have their ‘problems’ ironed out, they can come home again and seem ok for a short while then gradually deteriorate again, often ending up more ‘challenging’ than they ever were in the first place. They call the professional out again, he or she hops on the horse and says ‘look, no problem for me, it must be you ‘.

It is true that horses respond to nervousness in handlers by becoming more nervous themselves. However, this is no reason to teach people that they have to ‘bully’ horses in order to get results.

So what is the alternative? Once we know that the horse that is ‘taking the….’ is in fact fearful and experiencing conflict, we can start to address that emotion. We take the aversive task and we break it down into small steps, we associate it with positive experiences, and we can do this gently, without resorting to brute force and ignorance.

For example, we use appetitives (food, scratches) to teach the horse to touch a target with their nose for a duration of twenty seconds. This is long enough for the vet to calmly and simply vaccinate the horse and, taught with care and patience, this technique can be effective for even the most needle shy horse. We can use a similar technique for worming, loading and dealing with separation anxiety.

These are all training issues. We need owners to take responsibility for that and kindly and effectively prepare their horses for these kinds of scenarios.

In real life, I appreciate that, just occasionally, there are times when aversive restraint methods have to be used because there is no alternative and the treatment required is essential and urgent. However, the vet should always inform the owner afterwards that this is a fear issue, and that the behaviour can be effectively modified with careful retraining. This training should be begun immediately in order to avoid the likelihood of the problem appearing again in an emergency situation.

So next time someone tells you your horse is just taking the….,  you can tell them not to be so silly, from the horse’s point of view there is a very good reason for not wanting to do whatever it is, generally for reasons to do with survival, and instead of bullying them in to it, you’re going to teach them that actually it’s not so unpleasant after all. It’s amazing how even just twenty minutes of retraining spread out over several sessions can make an enormous long term difference to behaviour. Time and patience now will truly save time in the long run. More importantly, a calm horse is generally much safer to be around than one that is in fight or flight mode.


By Dr Helen Spence

Over the years I have had some great discussions with my clients and colleagues about the value of method and mechanics over the importance of theoretical understanding and driving principles.

Both have merit, and good trainers will certain be able to apply effective method and mechanics to their work, but without an understanding of the underlying theory/ principles, they will become stuck from time to time when their method/ mechanics fail.

The beauty of understanding principles is that it actually allows creativity of approach. Following a method is like following a recipe, if you stick to the rules it ought to work. But perhaps your oven has a faulty thermostat or your scales aren’t very accurate. Or maybe you are missing some of the ingredients. If you carry on and follow the recipe exactly, the end results may not be as tasty as you’d hoped.

However, if you have an understanding of the theory of how various ingredients work and interact, and the effect of varying quantity and heat, with a creative approach you can tweak the recipe and make it work, even if you haven’t followed it to the letter. In fact, you may be able to take the recipe, shake it up and do something a little different that actually produces a better end result.

Someone watching you who is only comfortable with following the method may find it somewhat worrisome to see you ‘breaking the rules’ and ‘thinking outside the box’…. They will be sure that you are going horribly wrong and heading for disaster. However they only feel this because they don’t understand the principles: you have taken them out of their comfort zone.

The resulting cognitive dissonance might lead to them refusing to taste the food and therefore failing to recognise the value in what you’ve done. Or, perhaps they will take the brave step of trying it, recognise that it is, in fact, very tasty, and so open their minds to the possibility that if they learn more about the principles, they too could become creative bakers!

I experienced this cognitive dissonance from an observer at a demo a couple of years ago. They watched what I was doing,  and, instead of understanding the principles that we were talking about, focused on the fact that what I was doing looked very different to the way they’d been taught. The observer, a pleasant, well meaning fledgling trainer who followed a method, subsequently offered me some advice on where I was going wrong and very kindly offered to help me learn the method that they knew. Being a polite (and I think generally a reasonably nice) person, I said thank you very much, but perhaps they had missed the point that we had been illustrating at the demo? I suggested that they might like to come and see me train so we could have a chat about the various approaches and I could better explain/ demonstrate the theory behind it all. I was rather taken aback by the whole thing, but it was a useful, if uncomfortable, lesson for me at the time (on a variety of points, including being more careful about how information is conveyed) and a spur (Hmmm, did I say I can also be a rather contrary person?!) to keep doing what I was doing.

The method and mechanics of what you do are the cart. The driving principles and theory are the horse.

A well made cart will have the potential to travel smoothly and hold it’s structure under pressure. However, without the horse, it will never move.

One of my clients a number of years ago made the excellent point that method really helps new trainers, people who are just beginning to understand the basic principles of how we train horses. The method helps them to establish some of the basic points. On this I do agree with her. But I feel it is so so important to teach the principles, because without them, the fledgling trainer is stuck in a box and cannot progress.

Some trainers rely on this as a way of maintaining loyalty among their followers (consciously or unconsciously). It also maintains the status quo, since it means that no one ever knows the system as well as the leader, therefore no one can surpass the leader.

I believe that, as a trainer of trainers, to be the best that I can be, I need to share the knowledge I have about the theory, the principles, so that the trainers I train can develop their own understanding and creativity. In this way, they bring something extra to the mix, and have the potential to develop new and better ways of doing things.

These trainers will always have the potential to surpass me, and that is as it should be. If you like, I fulfil the role of the signpost or the light on the path, perhaps as the catalyst for the journey. But I don’t do the journey for them, and I don’t determine the final destination. If they wish, they can keep on peering over the next hill, round the next bend.

The benefit to the horses is that, with compassion and thoughtfulness, in combination with understanding theory and principles and how to put them into effective practice, we keep evolving the whole field of horse training.

Happy training!


Choice is the best starting point......Photo by Joanne Gray

By Dr Helen Spence

What do you think is the best way to teach a horse to load?

There are two types of stimuli that motivate movement in horses. One is the motivation to move towards something. For example, to search out fresh grazing or water, to move to a comfortable resting place, to approach a friend for a mutual grooming session.

The other is the motivation to move away from something, for example the flight response triggered by a threatening noise, or lifting the head high to avoid bridling, or even just quietly walking away to avoid being caught.

Things that we are motivated to move towards make us feel good. Things that we are motivated to avoid tend to have the opposite effect.

From an ethological perspective, horseswill naturally be safest from attack by predators when they are in open spaces, with their herd, so that they can easily take evasive action if a threat or potential threat is spotted. They will not naturally seek out small, dark, confined spaces and they will certainly not naturally feel safe or comfortable in these kinds of spaces. This is something that is only learned through experience.

So when working with a naive horse, it is safest to assume that their instinctive, natural reaction to a trailer will be one of avoidance.

Competing motivations
That means that trainers are faced with a choice. Do they take advantage of the motivation to move towards something, or the motivation to move away? Breeders that teach the young foal that it is safe to load on a trailer by following mum or a friend that has already had positive loading and travelling experiences are making use of the motivation to move towards something.

Those that use a bucket of feed to reassure and encourage the young horse are also making use of that motivation to go towards something. At the same time they are associating the process of loading with a pleasurable experience, eating.

On the other hand, any use of pressure at all, whether it is pressure on a rope or driving pressure from a whip, stick, barrier or body language, is making use of the motivation to move away.

In both cases, we have competing motivations- the natural motivation to avoid the trailer is in competition with, in the first scenario, the motivation to approach the positive stimulus (the attachment figure or the food). Whereas in the second scenario, the motivation to avoid the trailer is in competition with the motivation to avoid the pressure.

Approach-Avoidance conflict
The first scenario can create an approach avoidance conflict. All we have to do here in order to resolve the conflict (or stress) is make the appetitive stimulus (the nice thing that the horse wants to approach) more powerful than the aversive stimulus (the trailer). More on that later.

Avoidance-avoidance conflict
The second scenario creates an avoidance avoidance conflict. In essence, the horse is caught between arock and a hard place. In order to motivate the horse to enter the trailer, they have to want to avoid the pressure more than they want to avoid the trailer. Since both are aversive stimuli,  i.e. things that are uncomfortable or unpleasant and that create a degree of sympathetic arousal (the fight or flight response), either way, whatever the horse chooses, they are in for a stressful time, and the training experience will not be a pleasurable one.

In order for the horse to choose to enter the trailer, the pressure must be significantly more aversive (unpleasant/ frightening) than the trailer. This approach does not change how the horse feels about the trailer, it simply teaches them that they must load onto it no matter what.

The main advantage of this approach (from the trainer’s perspective) is that, because there is no need to change the emotional state of the horse, the goal of loading the horse can be achieved very quickly, sometimes in a matter of minutes, and in most cases within an hour or two. This makes it very appealing to both trainers and owners.

Trainers using this approach will often school the horse to the pressure away from the trailer. During this process the horse learns that if they don’t yield to light pressure, the pressure will be escalated (I.e. made more aversive). This produces a horse that will yield to very light pressure, because the light pressure is, in essence, a threat of more to come. The trainer can then use this seemingly light pressure to teach the horse to load, despite the aversiveness of the trailer. If the horse chooses to load, it always means that the pressure (or threat of pressure) is more aversive than entering the trailer itself.

The downside of training with aversive stimuli
When working with aversive stimuli, there is no change in how the horse feels about the trailer during the training process, because both the trailer and the pressure are aversive stimuli that work on the flight response. So a horse being trained this way will remain in a state of sympathetic arousal throughout the process. The only way the emotions will change is with repetition of loading and travelling after the training, during which the horse,  provided nothing else unpleasant happens (such as a return to escalated pressure, or bad driving, or an unpleasant experience at the other end)  will ‘habituate’ to the process, in other words get used to it.

Ethical concerns
However, from an ethical perspective, is it acceptable to create an avoidance-avoidance conflict? This can only be assessed on a case by case basis, andwill depend on just how aversive the horse finds the trailer loading experience, and how aversive they find the pressure.

The thing is, aversive stimuli are every bit as effective at teaching loading as appetitive stimuli. In fact, they may appear more effective, given than they get a quicker result. In some cases food might not appear to work at all, but that is always because the trainer hasn’t broken the process down into small enough steps.

The question should not be whether the approach works or not – both approaches are highly effective in terms of achieving the end goal. The question is whether or not it is ‘right’ to use an approach that does not alleviate stress, and, most likely, creates more stress.

It is rarely all about the trailer
No matter which way the horse is taught to load, it is absolutely essential that after the training they have regular and consistently good travelling experiences so that they can habituate to the whole process, in other words, learn that it is a safe and comfortable thing to do.

In the case of horses that have developed a loading problem as a result of bad experiences, it is essential that the trainer is aware of the root cause of the problem and that this is what is addressed. This could for example be a seperation anxiety related issue, or a balance problem, it could be a traffic phobia, or related to what it is they are travelling to, or even a bad driving issue. There could be an underlying physical problem, such as  lameness or back pain, which is why a vet check is
essential before training commences.

Recognising signs of stress
I find that horse people are not alwaysas good as they should be at recognising when a horse is stressed. It is easy to see when they are stressed to the point of attempting to escape or fighting, and most can see that. However, that’s really too late. By that stage the horse is way over threshold. Before the horse ever reaches that point they have been whispering signs of discomfort, beginning with the tiniest of signs, a slight increase in tension around the base of the ears, the eyes, the muzzle, the tiniest elevation of posture, the tiniest freeze (which is simply a ‘quietness’), a slight tucking up or shallowness of breath. You have to really look carefully to see these things. Things that we don’t consider pressure can be perceived as pressure by the horse, and that’s what matters here.

The professional viewpoint
I have a psychology degree, and a PhD, I have lectured on horse behaviour and rehabilitation training to postgraduate level and have been in practice for over a decade offering advice on behaviour and training issues to horse owners of all levels from amateur through to professional. In my view, the only way to truly ethically work with a loading problem is at liberty (or at the very least on a completely slack rope) without any use of pressure, whether in the form of drive or via a rope. Rather than using aversive stimuli, I focus on appetitive stimuli, so that, instead of the horse remaining in a state of sympathetic arousal (fight or flight),  I can bring them to a parasympathetic state (rest and digest).

The advantage of using food
When you use food, you simply cannot take the horse too far over threshold, because a stressed horse will not eat. Nor will a target trained horse target. So it is a simple guage of emotional state for those that struggle with reading the finer detail of body language.

And there is one other wonderful gift that comes when you use food to teach a horse to load/ to rehabilitate a loading problem. You teach them to associate the previously aversive stimulus (the trailer) with something appetitive (the food). With time and repetitions, you literally rewire the brain,  and change the emotional response of the horse when they see the trailer. The trailer becomes associated with a parasympathetic state (rest and digest) instead of a sympathetic state (fight or flight). And with enough time,  the trailer and the loading process start to make them feel good.

I saw this beautifully illustrated the other day with one of my clients. Her horse has had a long standing loading issue which has taken a large number of sessions to date to address. The horse now loads easily at liberty. Something else had slightly stressed the horse, but, as she entered the yard where the trailer was, she visibly relaxed and was eager to approach and load. The counter conditioning has been so successful for her that the trailer has become a place that she likes to be. Not because it means she is safe from pressure that happens outside it, but because she actively enjoys the whole loading process. She has yet to have worked far enough through the rehab programme to be happy with travelling, but she is well on her way towards that. With careful steps appropriate to her emotional state and progress, she will eventually be as confident about travelling as she has now become about every other aspect of the Loading

Sometimes the handler has a loading problem
Something else that I’ve also found over the years is that people that own horses that have loading issues often feel quite stressed themselves when it comes to loading. The beauty of working with food and/ or targets is that you can stand back and teach the horse to ‘self load’, but without pressure. The focus on what the horse is getting right helps the owner to feel more positive and confident, and of course a calm horse is, generally speaking, a safe horse. I have helped a number of owners transform not just how their horse feels about loading, but how they feel about the whole process. That’s what I call job satisfaction!

The temptation of the quick fix
Please don’t be tempted to choose the quick fix offered by pressure based loading methods simply because it gets the problem fixed quicker. How the horse feels about loading and travelling has not changed, and at the end of the day, from an ethical perspective, that’s what really matters.

Are appetitives always slower?
sing the type of training that I advocate isn’t necessarily always a long slow process, in some cases issues are resolved within just a couple of sessions. But the number of training sessions required, and the speed with which the training steps are worked through, will be directly in proportion to the level of aversion that the trailer creates for the horse. Therefore, more severe problems will (and should) take more sessions and more repetitions to shift the emotional state of the horse to one of relaxation, acceptance and even eagerness. The end product will be a horse that is truly ‘happy’ with the loading and travelling process, rather than one that has simply learned to ‘behave’ or ‘comply’ regardless of the level of stress they might be feeling.

Think Carefully!
So please, the next time someone suggests that you use pressure, even mild pressure, to deal with your loading problem, think carefully about what you’ve read today, and consider instead contacting myself (or another trainer that uses the same methods and understands the importance of history and who recommends a vet check prior to rehabilitation training) and learning how to do it positively!

Understanding loading course
In the New Year I’ll be running a short series of evening classes on how to methodically work through loading issues using these principles, so if you have a problem and you’d like to better understand what’s going on, watch this space! Or email me to register your interest.

Finally, this is what loading can (and should) look like:


I am often asked how I believe we can best support change in the horse world. The change I am referring to is the shift in paradigm from a training approach that focuses predominantly on the use of pressure and release (aversive stimuli),  to one that instead relies mainly (but not exclusively!) on rewards (appetitive stimuli).

Please note, before you read any further. Some individuals may feel uncomfortable with this, because it might feel manipulative. I believe that if you are working for the greatest and highest good, with a genuine interest in the best interests of all, then it is never manipulative. If, however, you use these principles for your own personal gain, and at the expense of others, then yes, that is manipulation. What we all need to remember is that we (knowingly or unknowingly) use appetitives and aversives every day in our interactions with people. Every time we criticise, we create discomfort and we shut people down. Eventually we teach them to avoid sharing experiences with us. On the other hand, every time we give support, acknowledgement and praise, we open them up and help them to become more creative, more willing to try new things.

So that said, just how can we support owners and trainers through the evidence based changes that we believe will improve the welfare and ‘happiness’ of their horses?

If we ourselves have fully committed to the new paradigm in our own work with horses, we can do a number of things.
Firstly, we can lead by example. This means that, in our own training, we can demonstrate just what the possibilities are for the horse-human relationship.

Secondly, we can take all the principles that we have learned that help us create behaviour change in horses, and apply them to the people that we meet.
This is what I call ‘Being the Change’ and is inspired by that wonderful Gandhi quote “We must be the change that we wish to see in the world”.

So what does that mean?

Be nice. If you are naturally, genuinely warm and approachable, people (and horses!) will feel much more comfortable around you.

Have integrity. You can’t fake it. People (and horses) are incredibly good at spotting emotional incongruence- in other words, people that say one thing, but are actually feeling something completely different.

Diana Cooper has a very useful way of helping people to tune into this. She says that everyone, no matter how good or bad, has an angel inside, and that we should talk to and see that inner angel in our interactions with them. Counsellors call this unconditional positive regard.

Avoid alienation. It’s so easy to use terminology that helps those ‘in’ the group feel involved, while those on the outside are left floundering and isolated because they have no idea what you mean. So talk in simple terms and use examples that everyone can understand and identify with. Unless of course you are directing your communication to a specific audience, who you know will understand the terms.

Use the principles of shaping behaviour. Recognise the smallest try, and be quick to generously (and genuinely!) reinforce it. (See this post on shaping

Avoid aversives where safe to do so. So if you can safely ignore behaviour that you don’t want, then that means you can use an appetitive (food, physical contact, social recognition, verbal praise… Choose what is most salient (meaningful) and appropriate for the individual in question!) to reinforce the behaviour that you do like.

Always be willing to answer questions, no matter how silly they might seem.

Beware of the guilt trap. Often people taking their first brave steps into this new training paradigm become paralysed by guilt as they realise just how many aversives they have unwittingly used with their horses.

I do my best to help people through this by pointing out just how empowering their new knowledge is, because they can use it to move forwards. There is no need to focus on what is wrong, when we can focus on what is right. How beautiful is that! People need us to repeatedly articulate that. Don’t forget, they have only just stepped away from a societal framework that focuses on mistakes and wrong doing. They need to know that it really is okay to ignore that, and it is even better to focus on what is right, and build from there.

Being different can be very isolating. In the beginning of any wave of change, those most likely to step forward and blaze the trail are the people that care more about being right than they do about being liked. The individuals that don’t really care about what people think of them. The chances are, if you are a professional working already within this new paradigm, that you are a trail blazer. And it is also likely that many of your early clients fall into this category. But as time goes on, you will find, like a ripple spreading out across the ocean, you will start to pick up new people, those who aren’t as comfortable about standing out from the crowd. So create a crowd for them!  Give them social support. Introduce them to a community of like minded people. Many years ago, I instigated ‘tea and buns’ nights for my clients. We just got together and chatted about what we were all doing. It helped them to realise that they were not alone, and gave them the courage to carry on, rather than feeling that they (and I!) were the only crazy folks working this way. Nowadays, through social media, and the many wonderful groups that are available to support those interested in appetitive based training, it is easy for people to access support and not feel alone. However, it really helps if people on your yard can see that what you are doing is practical and it works.

Learn to ‘turn the other cheek’ when you are criticised. Simply ignore it and carry on sharing and being the change with warmth and openness. You don’t have to throw what you are doing down other’s throats. Sooner or later they will see the light that you shine and it will help them to do the same (Marianne Williamson has a wonderful quote about that!).

Finally, help those that you are supporting through change to learn these principles for themselves. Remember, we don’t change people. People change themselves. All we can do is provide a supportive environment and let them get on with it!

Now go my friends, and Be The Change for the Horses.

With love
Helen Spence