Archives for posts with tag: ethics


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.

Dr Helen Spence
March 2014


Rosie wears a shower curtain as a hat, at liberty, in the field.

I just discovered I’d prepared this post earlier this year and not got round to uploading it! So here it is :-).

In the last decade the equestrian community’s understanding of learning theory and training terminology has improved enormously. When I first started out as a professional trainer over a decade ago, I found that few people had heard of ‘flooding’ as a training technique, let alone understood what it was, despite the fact that at the time it was widely utilised by a wide variety of trainers.

Nowadays, however, most people are aware of the term, and, more importantly, aware that it should be a last resort rather than a favoured approach. However, I often find that, although people are aware of the theory, in practice they are not always so good at recognising flooding when it is actually happening. In this post I will discuss what flooding actually is, what psychologists think about it, and how to recognise it.

Species specific defense reactions (ssdr) are innate escape avoidance responses made to aversive stimuli- in horses, these include freeze, flight, fight or faint. Horses are innately neophobic, which means that they naturally find novel objects/ situations frightening. Given freedom of choice and space, most horses will flee, even if only for a short distance.

Panksepp has suggested that the freeze response occurs at a slightly lower level of fear, however in a confined space/ when movement is constricted by ropes or reins, horses may not demonstrate flight or even an attempt to flee. Why might this be?

Exposing a horse to a novel stimulus, whether in hand or under saddle, in most cases (subject to history) will lead to stimulation of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, the flight response: increase in heart rate, respiration rate, release of adrenaline, noradrenaline and corticosteroids in preparation for physical exertion and potential injury.

Given freedom of choice and adequate space the horse will flee to a safe distance and then recover to a parasympathetic state (‘rest and digest’)- think of a horse in a very large pasture, something startles them, they will spook and run, stop, turn, have a look, and once they are sure the threat is gone, they will return to grazing.

In some cases, once fear is gone, horses may exhibit curiosity in response to novelty. Panksepp would describe this as activation of the SEEKING circuitry, and the behaviour is characterized by interested approach. Please note that this occurs through choice and NOT under compulsion.

With repeated exposure to the novel stimulus, in this way, with sufficient respite between each exposure and no negative consequences, i.e. no pain or injury, the horse will ‘habituate’ and there will be a gradual diminishment of the flight response until it is not triggered at all. However, in some instances, the horse may instead become sensitised, and the ssdr may become stronger rather than weaker.

What happens if we attempt to make the horse ‘face his fear’? This often happens in the horseworld, whether intentional or not, because of our tendency to block their ability to perform the flight response.

For example, when out hacking, the horse freezes when they see a road sign. The normal response is to apply aversives in the form of pressure from the legs. This may in fact also be accompanied by increased pressure on the bit as the rider shortens the reins, anticipating a spook or a bolt.

If the horse continues to freeze, the aversives may be escalated, perhaps by increasing pressure from the legs, or with the addition of a smack from a whip or shouting from the rider (which the horse has learned to associate with another aversive stimulus such as the sting of the whip).

The horse is, in effect, caught between a rock and a hard place. If they turn away or back up, or even just stay where they are, they are experiencing increasingly aversive stimuli. But if they go forwards, they have to approach the frightening object, also an aversive stimulus. What does the horse do?

Inevitably, it comes down to which is more aversive- the object (the road sign in this instance) or the driving aids?

When riders are successful in ‘making’ horses approach in these situations, it is because the rider has managed to be the source of the more salient (more meaningful) aversive stimuli. With repetition, the horse learns that, when ridden, there is no point in executing the normal ssdr, escape avoidance doesn’t work.

This is what is known as learned helplessness. In future, even if the opportunity to escape is available, the horse will be unlikely to attempt to do so. It doesn’t mean that the horse is no longer frightened of the object, simply that they are more frightened of the rider and what the rider might do if they fail to pass.

Any scenario for dealing with a fear evoking stimulus in which the individual is exposed to it without the opportunity to escape is known as flooding.

Another example of flooding, frequently used in natural horsemanship training, and often incorrectly labeled as habituation or desensitisation, occurs when a horse is exposed to a novel stimulus while on line, or enclosed in an insufficient space such as a pen. The exposure to the stimulus triggers the flight response, but the horse is unable to run far enough away to settle and relax, due to the constraint of either the line or the pen. In addition, when on line, the horse runs into the pressure of the rope, and so experiences another aversive stimulus. This scenario is no different to that of the horse out on the hack. It may produce a horse that stands still and will appear to accept the novel stimulus (eg tarp, cracking whip, flag, stick and string or even a chainsaw) being moved around them and even touching them. However, careful examination of the body language will reveal a horse that is ‘tucked up’ (holding their breath) and carrying a lot of tension through the muscles, particularly obvious around the muzzle and eyes.

Emotions should always matter more than behaviour. Anyone can teach a horse to do something, but it takes skill and thoughtfulness to produce a horse that is genuinely relaxed and ‘happy’ with the process.

Flooding should be a tool of last resort, only to be brought out when there is no other option. It should not be used routinely for dealing with fears and phobias.

The best (and most ethical) way to do this is through a process known as systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning. More on that another time!

Here is a video that illustrates the final stages of a systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning process. Many thanks to my clients Janet and Sally for allowing me to show this footage.

For a great free app that illustrates body language, go to