Archives for posts with tag: Helen Spence

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.

Let’s get operating

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about operant (also known as instrumental) conditioning and it’s relevance to horse training. More specifically, about negative and positive reinforcement. Lots of discussion on how much of traditional horse training, European and American, and natural horsemanship is based predominantly on the use of negative reinforcement, and how those that use the ‘clicker’ focus on positive reinforcement. Lots of kneejerk reaction to the terms ‘negative’ and ‘positive’. Lots of confusion, because the end effect on behaviour is the same- reinforcement, or strengthening. Lots of articles written explaining what these terms mean, both in theory and in practice. Lots of division between trainers and justification for why they prefer one or the other as their focus in training.

A mechanistic approach

But for me, there is a big danger in focusing too much on operant conditioning. Yes, we most certainly need to understand it in order to train. BUT, focus too much on it, and training can become mechanical, treating the animal (or person) like a machine that is being programmed to follow instructions.

Why does that matter, you may ask? For many reasons (not least safety) we want our animals to be able to follow instructions. So do I…. But I don’t want to treat them like a machine. Like humans, there is growing scientific evidence that animals are sentient beings, that experience emotions just like ours.

We may not ever know what it is like ‘to be’ a horse, or a dog, or a fish, but the physiological evidence supports the idea that they can experience fear, joy, form attachments and grieve over losses. They share many of the same cognitive processes as we do. In fact, much of our understanding of human behaviour is based on animal studies. We are all animals!

A little detour through history

For a number of years now, I have been teaching my students and clients the importance of understanding classical (also known as Pavlovian, associative or respondent) conditioning. You may have heard the term ‘Pavlov’s dogs’ bandied about.

Pavlov was a Russian physiologist whose studies involved the collection of saliva from dogs. Like all good scientists, he was an observant man. He was aware that saliva production is a reflex action, not under conscious control. The reflex is triggered by the presentation of food. So in order to collect the saliva, the dogs were given food. Pavlov began to notice that the dogs started salivating BEFORE the food was produced, when the lab assistants appeared.

How could this be? It couldn’t just be because the dogs ‘knew’ that food was coming- salivation is a reflex, not under conscious control, that should only occur in response to one stimulus- food. Yet a new stimulus, lab assistants, was provoking the reflex response.

Pavlov had discovered that it is possible, through ‘association’ to pair  the stimuli, so that a new, previously neutral, stimuli could lead to the response.

But what does that matter to us?!

Salivation isn’t the only reflex we have. There are all kinds, relating to self preservation and survival, including observable external reflexes such as the eye blink (to protect the eye from injury), choking, the knee jerk, and more interestingly for us, internal reflexes such as endocrine responses, such as would happen in response to rewarding or aversive experiences.

So this means that emotions are subject to the same possibilities as salivation. Emotional responses can become associated with stimuli that wouldn’t normally elicit them.

Time for some examples

Let’s imagine two horses, Misty and Thunder, and their owners, Bob and Jean. Bob and Jean are new to horses, have never seen horse training and have no preconceived ideas. They are each given a whistle, a bucket of carrots, and a lunge whip.

Bob takes Misty off into the paddock. He has this idea that he’d like to make Misty move, so he blows the whistle, but nothing happens. He blows it again, and decides this time to try cracking the lunge whip straight after. After just a few repetitions, Misty is cantering away from him as soon as he blows the whistle, and he doesn’t need to crack the lungewhip.

Meanwhile, Jean has taken Thunder off to a different paddock. She blows the whistle, with the idea that she’d like Thunder to move. Nothing happens. So she blows the whistle and picks up the bucket of carrots. After just a few repetitions, Thunder  is cantering towards her as soon as she blows the whistle, before she can lift the carrots.

After a day or two, Bob finds he is having problems catching Misty, yet Thunder gallops to the gate as soon as he sees Jean coming.

In this example, the whistle is the neutral stimulus that initially means nothing to the horses. By ‘associating’ the whistle with either a stimulus that provokes the flight response (fear/ avoidance reflex) OR with a stimulus that provokes salivation and the positive affect (emotions) that accompany eating, the whistle has taken on the properties of those stimuli. So the whistle has the power to make one horse feel good while the other feels fearful.

The whistle in Jean and Thunder’s case, has been associated with an APPETITIVE stimulus. In Bob and Misty’s case it has been associated with an AVERSIVE stimulus. And by default,  the sight of Bob makes Misty feel fearful and avoidant, while the opposite is true for Jean and Thunder.

Operant Conditioning,  Appetitives and Aversives

In Operant conditioning, appetitives (let’s call them the ‘Goodies’) and aversives (let’s call them the ‘Baddies’) are used to reinforce or punish behaviour. Reinforcement is the increase in frequency or intensity of a response. Punishment is the decrease in frequency or intensity of a response. The four quadrants of operant conditioning are normally taught with the emphasis on whether or not it is positive or negative, reinforcement or punishment.

My argument is that we are better to teach with the emphasis on whether or not it involves AVERSIVES (baddies) or APPETITIVES (goodies), because, both from a scientific perspective and from my years of observations of horses in training situations, this is what REALLY matters to the horse.

Both positive and negative reinforcement result in an increase in the frequency or intensity of a response. From the perspective of behaviour, the end result is the same.

HOWEVER, positive reinforcement involves the horse experiencing a ‘goody’ (an appetitive stimulus).

While negative reinforcement involves the horse experiencing a ‘baddy’ (an aversive stimulus).

From an emotional perspective these are two very different experiences (as anyone who has ever played the training game at one of my clinics or talks will know!). Since the evidence suggests that horses have similar emotional responses to aversives and appetitives to us humans, then  we would do well to think carefully about this.

Let’s bring classical conditioning back into the equation

So we now know that horses have an emotional response to both appetitives and aversives. We also know that, through classical conditioning, these responses can become associated with all kinds of innocent stimuli!

For example, in a training paradigm that is based predominantly on the use of negative reinforcement IN OTHER WORDS AVERSIVES, it isn’t just the tools (e.g. the lunge whip, the reins, the schooling whip, the spurs, the legs) that are aversive. By association, saddle and bridle or even the presence of the trainer themselves has the potential to become a conditioned stimuli, i.e. one that, by association, provokes the same response.

So the trainer may, in essence, make the horse feel uncomfortable just by their presence.

Many trainers are lucky to avoid this, because they also are the source of appetitive experiences for their horses, such as feed, water, scratches, treats, turnout with friends.

Here’s the crux of the matter: your relationship with your horse is, in good part, determined by the balance of appetitives and aversives that you use with them on a daily basis. Like a set of scales, tip the balance too far one way, and the nature of the relationship can change from a happy one to an unhappy one. This is all because of classical conditioning.

It may seem like a rather simplistic way to view it, and I appreciate that there are other processes involved. But we cannot afford to dismiss this.

Why does it matter if my horse associates me with aversives more than appetitives?

It matters because, by their nature, aversives create avoidance. If you are too heavily associated with them, then your horse will want to avoid you. Horses avoid mainly by flight, but, if flight isn’t an option, fight can appear. Eventually, you may run the risk of learned helplessness and a ‘shut down’ horse. This is not the groundings of a safe, secure relationship.

In training,  we talk about ‘reinforcement history’. Reinforcement hostory refers to the weighting of goodies and baddies, I.e. aversives or appetitives associated with a stimulus or situation. Well, another word for reinforcement history could be ‘relationship’.

Whether you own the horse or not, whether you intend to keep them for life or sell them tomorrow, you have a responsibility, especially those of you working with youngsters.

You are creating that horse’s relationship with the human race as a whole. You can make it or break it. I always say my job, initially, when working with youngsters, is to help them fall in love with me. But my goal, is to help them fall in love with the human race.

A trusting, happy, gentle horse generally receives kinder treatment than one that is avoidant or defensive.

New evidence also suggests that the levels of fear, grief and distress experienced in childhood can have permanent damaging effects on the brain….. now that’s a whole other blog post!!