Archives for posts with tag: pressure

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:


So much of good horse training is about un-learning.

What do I mean by that?
In life, we learn that if pushing doesn’t work, you should push harder. If you can’t get to something quickly enough, run after it. If you’re pulling and it isn’t working, pull harder. In life, often if you give up on any of these attempts, you loose what you are trying to gain.

But is that really true? It may work with inanimate objects, but does it work with people? Does it work with any animal? Does it work with energy?

The truth (according to Sir Isaac Newton) is that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. I first learned this on an intellectual level in physics class in my early teens. I discovered the real truth of it during my Alexander Technique lessons with Colin Beattie and Gloria Pullan.

I remember the day Gloria taught me about the feel on the reins and how to make contact in a way that created acceptance, not resistance. The key was in self-awareness, my balance, and, more importantly, the softening that came from using my postural muscles to support myself in correct alignment, and not involving all the other muscles in my body. Before that, I’d been following the supposed truth that you had to pull harder than they did,  eventually they’d yield. Oh no, absolutely not, my friend.

Contact of any kind is like butter, it comes from a place of softness. But it also comes from a place of balance. When you are fully balanced, then the only force (if any) that you exert on anyone or anything is the force that you choose to use. The waters aren’t muddied by you throwing your bodyweight into it, intentionally or otherwise.

But it goes beyond physical balance. It is about emotional balance. Think of emotion as energy. Every action creates an equal and opposite reaction. You direct anger towards someone, their tendency is to direct an equal amount of anger straight back at you. Resistance.

During my Psychology degree, we touched a little bit upon counselling theory, including the work of Rogers. But it was in 2001 that Heather Simpson drew my attention to the importance of ‘unconditional positive regard’. And a friend, Dee Stanford, who was studying reiki, pointed out that this was in many ways what love and healing are all about. To quote Bono, “is it true that perfect love drives out all fear?”.

If we meet anger with unconditional positive regard, or perfect love, does it ever fail to dissipate?

In more recent years I got to know an amazing lady. Jacky Ingram was a yoga teacher and reiki master, and she shared with me so much about inner peace and tranquillity and how to bring the essence of unconditional positive regard to horsemanship.

Self awareness is a journey. Horse(wo)manship is a journey.
The journey begins with the first step- becoming consciously aware.

Those of you that read my blog regularly will know that I am an advocate of using appetitives in training. But this does not mean that I believe we must never use pressure. However, if we are going to use pressure in horse training, then at the very least, we should use it from a place of physical and emotional balance. With purity of intention and an awareness of leaving resistance out of the equation.

I think that the best books I have read on this are those written by Mark Rashid. But, like all life lessons, read what you like, until you experience it, you will never really know the truth.

This post is written with heartfelt  thanks to Colin Beattie and Gloria Pullan for the lessons they shared with me that transformed my understanding of ‘feel’ and the massive influence they had on my training, handling and riding. They helped change the course I was on, and I would recommend anyone involved with horses should have Alexander lessons. Thanks also to Colin for suggesting I explore Tai Chi.

Finally, this post is dedicated to the memory of a dear friend, the much loved and very much missed Jacky Ingram.

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.