Archives for posts with tag: clicker


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.


Have you ever wondered how you could put a little more sparkle into your tests?
Perhaps you feel your horse needs you to continually nag and niggle at them to put more effort in?
Or maybe you find you are treading a fine line between impulsion and explosion?
Maybe you’d just like to feel that you both have a smile on your face as you school!

To discover how to make dressage more rewarding, for both you and your horse, sign up for this workshop with Dr Helen Spence. From getting a square halt every time, through to developing lateral work in hand and beginning piaffe and passage, this will be of interest to dressage riders of all levels. Discover just how important relaxation is to the scales of training.

Helen will talk about how simple issues like management styles and feeding can impact on behaviour. More importantly, she will explain and demonstrate just how important it is to train in a way that the horse finds truly rewarding. This will include, but not be limited to, an introduction to training with a clicker and food (known by some as clicker training!).

This workshop will be hosted by Claire Sedgeman at her yard near Dromore, on Saturday 12th September from 10am to 5pm. Cost for the day is £40 and places are limited so please book early! To book your space please contact Helen by email or phone 07773 157428.

Dr Helen Spence has a degree in Psychology and a PhD in the field of horse behaviour and welfare. She has been in business since 2003 as an equine behaviour and training consultant and over that time has taught workshops for everyone from happy hackers to professional trainers, has lectured in horse behaviour to postgraduate level, and is recognised as an expert in the field.


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!

I was going through a box of old files during a clear out the other day and was delighted to discover two papers that I thought had been lost forever. One was my original doctoral research proposal on ‘The welfare implications of bit use in the domestic horse’ from 2001. Following a pilot study, I changed direction and ended up doing my PhD on ‘The influence of owner personality and attitudes on the behaviour and temperament of the domestic horse’, which I completed in 2005. However, I have retained my interest in bitless riding, and  so I was even more delighted to find the notes from a talk I gave in (I think) 2002 or 2003 as part of the ‘Equine Insights’ Symposium at The Unicorn Trust in Stow on the Wold, the title of which was ‘A Bit Unnecessary’. I found it fascinating re-reading it, and seeing how my ideas have developed and grown in the intervening 11 years. I was surprised to find that many of the points that I made are particularly relevant at the moment, given the current debate about the use of bits in competition horses, so I have decided to share it verbatim with you here. As you can see my writing style has changed somewhat over the years, I guess that’s what a PhD does for you (LOL) ;-).


A Bit Unnecessary

By Helen Toner 2002/2003

I sat down in front of my laptop in order to prepare this talk and I thought “What on earth am I doing?! I can’t talk to these people about bits, what do I know?”. Well, then I realised that that is not what is important. What is important is raising awareness of certain issues in order that people start to talk about them.

This has happened recently as horse owners have begun to discuss stabling horses and whether or not this is a good thing to do. The same thing has happened with shoeing and ways of feeding, new training methods etc.

So, I do not pretend to be an expert at all, I am simply here to share a bit of what I think and feel in the hope that you might all begin to wonder how you think and feel.

Last week I came across a quote from Jung that I thought was very appropriate to the stage that I am at: “Enlightenment is not about imagining figures of light, but of making the darkness conscious.”

What does that mean to ME? For me, enlightenment is a path, a way, it is not a destination or end point. In order to start out on this path I have to address the darkness within me and around me by bringing it to consciousness. This works on many levels and I don’t pretend to understand, but I do feel that it has helped me to think about this talk:

For me this talk is about making the darkness conscious, about addressing an issue that is in many ways considered taboo. I have raised it again and again with people to meet with resistance- why?

Why do we use bits?

  • History- we’ve always used them
  • Control- turn and stop the horse



In his book, Bitting in Theory and Practice, Elwyn Hartley Edwards states that there is evidence for the use of bits in Mesopotamia as early as 2003 BC. The early bits were considered quite barbaric in modern terms, many examples in museums show sharp barbs on the mouthpieces and long shanks for increased leverage, indicating that they relied on using painful stimuli in order to control the horse in situations such as battle and hunting.

Hartley Edwards also says “the nomadic steppe horsemen of central Asia were the exception to the general rule, always riding in light simple bits, although they rode by instinct, without bothering their heads too much about the science of the thing”.

So the basis of this argument is that we’ve always used bits in one form or another since people started to ride horses, why stop now?


Another common argument is that bits are the only way that we can possibly control the horse, by inflicting painful negative reinforcement (Note from author: I have to intercede at this point and say that I ought to have used the term ‘aversive stimuli’ rather than negative reinforcement- you see, I have learned something in the past 11 years!) until they do what we wish (I admit that the degree of pain will vary according to the skill of the rider) and also through punishment for doing things that we do not like.

People often say “but in the heat of the moment, when my horse is excited, I can hardly hold him, even in his bit”.

Why do I believe that these are not good arguments?

Many horsemen will hurry to say that it is not the bit that causes the problem but the hand that holds it. I agree with this point absolutely: we are always seeking ways to make life easier for ourselves– saddles, gadgets, etc. Perhaps what we should question is our skill?

If we are unable to use a bit in such a way as to not cause pain or discomfort, then perhaps we should not use it at all?

How many of us can say that our hands are so light that we could ride on a contact made of cotton thread?


Latchford, a famous nineteenth century loriner said “there is a key to every horse’s mouth” but he also said that “of every twenty bits I make, nineteen are for men’s heads and not more than one really for the horse’s head”, suggesting that the bit is more important psychologically for the horseman to feel that he can control his horse, than the fact of whether he actually can.

Visiting today’s saddleries with their arrays of bits, and reading the problem pages of today’s magazines, it is easy to see that this in many ways is still the case.


Xenophon wrote “It is not the bit but its use that results in a horse showing its pleasure so that it yields to the hand, there is no need for harsh measures: he should be coaxed on so that he will go forward most cheerfully in his swift paces”.

Elwyn Hartley Edwards, in discussing the importance of the interdependency of mind, seat, hands, legs, trunk and body weight, states that the whole matter can be summarised by the following statement “The answer to the question ‘What bit should I use’ is three simple words: ‘learn to ride’”.

Why Not Bit?

One of the strongest cases that I have come across for not using bits has been presented by Dr Robert Cook in his article Pathophysiology of bit control in the horse, published in the March 1999 Journal of Equine Veterinary Science and available from his website. Cook says that “the use of one and often two bits, in traditional or normal horsemanship, constitute a welfare problem, a hazard to health, and a handicap to performance”.

Xenophon also spoke of the importance of the horse ‘pursuing’ the bit with the tongue, in order to stop the horse from pressing upwards with the tongue, and so tensing through the neck and jaw.

In 1987, Odberg said that “unfortunately, a number of horses appear to have to live with the chronic stress of not knowing what to do to avoid punishment, because the most frequent cause of bad behaviour is simply bad riding”.


There are many types and forms of bitless bridle available today. However, it is important at this point to think about pain and pressure.

Many of these brides work by exerting considerable pressure on the nose and head, and in the wrong hands can be even more barbaric than bits.

I think at this point I have to state my own feelings on the matter which are as follows:

There is no such thing as a kind bridle- we can have kind hands and a kind heart. In this way it is possible to train the horse to respond to light cues using positive reinforcement.

My own personal belief is that placing a lump of metal in horse’s mouth is invasive in the extreme and constitutes a welfare issue, no matter what the hands are that hold the reins.

If I were to ask you to be an athlete and perform with metal held in your mouth, even without reins attached, you would find it inhibited performance and caused you some distress.

People routinely accept placing bits in horses’ mouths without considering the fact of what they are doing.

I often say, why do you not just put a ring through his nose, or tie ropes to his ears instead?

In fact, you could even insert a metal bar up his nostril, sure you could teach him to respond to that


What youngster is born knowing what the bit means?

People are horrified…..

YET how is that different from placing metal in his mouth?


On my journey of enlightenment I hope someday to have the skill as a horsewoman and the strength of relationship with my equine partner and friend to be able to ride without saddle or bridle, simply there by permission and acceptance, with mutual trust and respect.

I hope I have set the wheels in motion- clicker training, listening to what my horses have to tell me.



We need to balance instinct vs science.

Finally, a point:

Who on earth thought it would be clever to attempt to stop a fleeing animal while sitting on his back, and therefore moving with him, by pulling on his mouth?



My 2014 self reads this talk, and I remember that day at the Unicorn Trust, the passion I felt, the honesty (and naivety) with which I spoke. If I was to do it again today, there would certainly be more that I could add, about the use of aversive stimuli and their role in sympathetic arousal, about the safety issues inherent in this type of approach to training, about individual differences, consciousness and the emotional lives of horses. I would probably present a more tempered, gentle argument. In the intervening years, I have developed my riding skills and I have worked with appetitives to gradually introduce naïve horses to bits and to train them in a very positive way how to respond to rein aids. I have found that, in those cases, the bit can be used in a very refined way. That doesn’t change my personal choice though, which would be to avoid using them, where possible. But one thing that does please me, when I remember how lonely I felt to even be questioning the use of bits, and pressure in training, is to realise just how many other people there now are out there, speaking their thoughts, and waking the horse world up to the habitual use of aversive stimuli, fear, pain and threat that lies at the heart of traditional horse training. More importantly for me, I feel blessed to be able to say that I have my beautiful mare Rosie, who I bred, who I have trained from scratch with the use of appetitives, and who I can ride in the field without saddle and bridle, without the need for pressure or the threat of pressure, either in the training or the execution.