The 'Natural' horse Start
(from an article by Tim keeley first published in 'The Arabian Horse magazine' The Worldwide Publication for the Arabian Horse Enthusiast March 2013
All in the mind;
When we set out to start the training of a horse, we seek to
begin a two way communication process which should last a lifetime. We must
teach the horse to understand what we are trying to ask him and he must be in
the frame of mind to learn. If we have a basic understanding of the science
behind how horses learn, the whole process will be a lot easier for both
partners in this dialogue.
Before any training
program can hope to modify a horse’s behaviour a basic understanding must first
be gained of how horses behave and learn in their own social groups. Understanding
this can speed up any training program tremendously. Not only this, but most
unwanted behaviours that horses display arise from the lack of opportunity
given to horses to learn from their own social group. Many horses arrive in the
arena with a breathtaking lack of the knowledge that we may call “ground rules”
or the basic rules of how to interact with humans and their own species in the
‘respectful’ and positive way which allows
them to learn. Complicating this even further it is the unfortunate fact that much of the contact
that these socially inept animals have had with humans has made matters worse,
either through brutal treatment or far more commonly through ignorance leading
to the inadvertent teaching of undesirable behaviour. The following would be a
rank order of how easy a horse would learn and therefore how easy it would be
raised in a large social group of other horses, used to humans, with plenty of
expert contact and intervention by humans at crucial stages in its first two
raised in a large social group of other horses with no human contact.
raised alone or for a limited period with Dam only or one or two other horses
with lots of inexperienced human contact. (hardest)
To advance a horse’s training it is necessary to first
understand where it is now and take it from there slowly and progressively to
where you want it to be. This is considered below in four sections.
a perfect horse world –
how horses learn
from each other – Social learning.
2.In a near perfect horse world – how to accommodate horse socialbehaviour in domesticated
horses– Social learning.
and why things go wrong.
for success – training techniques referenced to learning theory, to include;
- Habituation, Systematic
Desensitisation, and Flooding
- Operant Conditioning – Negative
Reinforcement, Avoidance learning, Extinction, Shaping and positive punishment
1. In a perfect horse world – social learning
All known present day populations of Equus caballus are feral rather than wild, so in order to describe
naturally occurring behaviour it is necessary to focus on existing free-ranging
and semi free-ranging groups and draw conclusions from there.
- The horse is a social animal living in extended family groups in which a dominant
stallion is accompanied by several mares plus their various offspring up to
three years of age. This groupmay, depending on the population and range area, be part of a greater
herd comprised of a number of both harem and bachelor groups.
- Bachelor groups consist of colts and stallions
from three years upwards.
- The horse is not found alone except when sick or injured or close
- Through membership of the group each individual is connected to the
others in a network of co-operative relationships that provides for social
contact, safety and rearing of young.
- It is through this family
upbringing that the young horse acquires functional patterns of behaviour that
are most likely to produce a stable, well-mannered, co-operative, affectionate,
communicative individual that is open, curious and quick to learn.
- Neither gender can remain in the family group due to the need to avoid
inbreeding. In the wild, colts of between 2 and 2.5 years age would be driven
out of the group and would join a ‘bachelor’ group of immature colts and young
stallions. Such an environment will allow the opportunity for the all-important
play behaviour that is a central feature of the development of young male
horses. Fillies of this age group would be driven on to the margins of the
group by the herd mares, from where they would either join an adjacent group or
be captured by the highest status member of a bachelor group.
- Behaviours or memes (an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from individual to
individual within a culture)are passed on within the
group (social learning).
society is more complex than previously allowed – and the management of domestically kept horses
should acknowledge this reality.
2. In a near
perfect horse world – how to accommodate horse behaviour in domesticated horses
Brambell's Five Freedoms state
that domestic animals should have:
1.Freedom from hunger
and thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health
discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and
comfortable resting area
3.Freedom form pain,
injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
4.Freedom to express
normal behaviour by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company
of the horse's own kind
5.Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring
conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering
Although all the
above are obviously essential, in the context of this article freedom 4 is
particularly important as it prepares a horse to learn. Horses spend most of
their time not being ridden or worked by people. If they are allowed to spend
this time in large mixed herds they will continue to learn many of the lessons
which may require hours of training by humans. Mares and foals do best with
other mares of mixed ages together with either geldings or a stallion. Young
horses of either sex will also thrive in this environment with colts either
gelded before the age of 2 and left in the herd (as long as no stallion is
present) or separated to a herd of geldings or other colts. Stallions will
thrive in the company of other stallions or geldings as long as they are well
separated from mares or as a single stallion in a herd of mares (as long as the
inevitable progeny can be properly coped with)
Horses living in this environment
should be handled and interact with humans from day one preferably in the
company of other well humanised herd members/mother. If this occurs they will arrive at the arena
ready and happy to learn.
3. When and
why things go wrong
No major zoo would be permitted to keep a single horse in an acre
paddock but a horse owner may do so - even if the animal is bored, lonely,
depressed and showing clear stereotypic behaviour from environmental stress. This
method of management will help to turn them into resistant, surly, unfit,
overweight and generally uncooperative partners unable or reluctant to learn.
Behaviour is not the only problem; horses have evolved to move
almost constantly throughout the day searching for food, with just a few rest
breaks here and there. Take away that movement and you have a problem - while
they're super efficient at taking a lot of exercise they are highly inefficient
at standing around in small paddocks doing nothing. A simple remedy would be a
lot more exercise - and the company of other horses. This lack of exercise
issue also creates major concerns for rider safety. In order to happily, and
safely, carry a rider horses have to be fit in both mind and body, and you
don't get either of those without a lot of exercise.
for successful learning – a theoretical program of learning
represents inefficient strategy
Based on a model by
Steve Halfpenny - Silversand Natural Horsemanship
Habituation; Systematic Desensitisation and Flooding
In early learning most learning is habituation. Habituation
is an example of non-associative learning in which there is a progressive
reduction of response with repetition. A horse first responds to a stimulus,
but if it is neither rewarding nor harmful the animal reduces subsequent
The effect is temporary but
the effect grows more permanent after several sessions.
1.Timing is all important.
is most effective if the response (usually fear) is thoroughly removed each
habituate most rapidly to a new stimulus when they first rehabituate to a
familiar one. A successful session will run through several known stages before
introducing a new one
is the means by which horses learn to be touched/brushed, washed, saddled and
ignore potentially scary stimuli –traffic, plastic bags etc.
desensitisation as opposed to flooding
can be described as a
gradual approach to habituation with the initial stimuli being at a level well
below that which would stimulate a negative response. This is gradually raised
to a level justbelow the negative
response threshold when it is withdrawn before being gradually
reapplied at a slightly higher level – the “approach and retreat “method. The
required level of desensitisation/habituation is gradually arrived at.
involves applying or approaching with the
stimulus and maintaining it at a level that causes a small flight response,
until the horse stops reacting to it.
The horse is often desensitized to the saddle by flooding, because once the
saddle is on, no amount of bucking or running will remove it, so the horse
gives up and no longer reacts to it although some fear may always remain.
The former method is safer more humane and in the long run
more reliable as a learning strategy.
Counter conditioning means to re-teach the horse to have a pleasant
feeling and reaction toward something that he once feared or disliked. This is
done by associating the feared thing with something good so that it predicts
good things for the animal. Over many repetitions, the horse learns that
whenever that thing appears positive things happen. Eventually, the process
produces a neutral or positive emotional reaction to the sight of the previously
feared or disliked sound, event, place or object. One approach to introducing a
frightening stimulus is as follows;
- The stimulus
is presented to the horse in a familiar environment where he feels safe.
handler/rider remains calm and unemotional at all times.
handler/rider should have control over the horse,
the stimulus at a level that does not frighten the horse.
the stimulus is being presented and before it stops, offer the horse a positive
stimulus e.g. grooming, familiar and easy tasks etc.
the positive stimulus as long as the frightening stimulus is present, but
stop the instant it ends.
the exercise at escalating levels of negative stimulus.
is a form of learning during which a horse modifies the occurrence and form of its own behaviour due
to the association of the behaviour with a stimulus
– a so called “Aid” in horse
training. Operant conditioning is distinguished from
Classical conditioning in that operant
conditioning deals with the modification of voluntary behaviour.
Operant behaviour "operates" on the environment and is maintained by
its consequences, while classical conditioning deals with the conditioning of reflex behaviours.
We are all familiar with “Pavlov’s Dogs” a
well known example of classical conditioning where the reflex reaction of dogs
to food i.e.to salivate was switched from the sight of food to the hearing of a
noise. In horse training reflex behaviours are less useful to us so we use
operant conditioning to produce a desired, yet more complex, voluntary behaviour
in response to a stimulus e.g. move laterally from leg pressure or give to our
hands. There are several approaches to operant conditioning;
- Negative Reinforcement (the basis of natural horsemanship)
Reinforcement is a consequence that causes a behaviour to occur with greater frequency.
occurs when a behaviour (response) is followed by the removal of an aversive stimulus
(aid), thereby increasing that behaviour’s frequency.
Learning which results from negative reinforcement can be termed Avoidance
learning i.e.a type of learning in which a certain behaviour results in the cessation of an
aversive stimulus. The horse is asked with application of a small amount of
pressure for a certain response, when this response is given the pressure is
immediately removed. The pressure is applied by rein or leg if riding or rope
if online. By shaping (see below) and with timing the response quickly becomes
better and better.
(it should be noted that positive
reinforcement is another approach to animal training where a desired behaviour
is followed by a reward e.g. food, use of a clicker etc. This method works well
with predatory animals (dogs, big cats) where food is a high value resource, but
is not used extensively by many ‘natural’ horse trainers. As an interesting
aside many think it is impossible to reward positively without at the same time
also rewarding negatively i.e. removing the aid, so it may be that at least
some of the gains from positive reinforcement are actually due to simultaneous
when negative reinforcement is
done with timing and expertise the response becomes faster and results from a
smaller and smaller application of an aversive stimulus (aid) – the aid becomes
is the lack of any
consequence following a behaviour. When a behaviour is inconsequential (i.e.
producing neither favourable nor unfavourable consequences) it will occur with
less frequency. When a previously reinforced behaviour is no longer reinforced
with either positive or negative reinforcement, it leads to a decline in that
behaviour. E.g. if a horse moves away online when not asked the handler moves
with it thus maintaining distance no reward or punishment results and the
behaviour soon disappears.
This is a form of operant conditioning in which the increasingly accurate
approximations of a desired response are reinforced, in this case negatively.
At first a small try/response is rewarded by
removing the stimulus but increasingly only closer and closer responses to the
final desired response are rewarded. E.g. movement of one foot back or even a
slight body movement back is first rewarded but later more and more backward
movement is required. Timing is all important here the final finished response
will only be good if small increments have been rewarded initially. The better
the timing of the “try” reward the better the final response and the quicker it
will be achieved.
- Positive punishment (correction)
Punishment is a consequence that causes a behaviour to occur with less frequency.
Positive punishmentoccurs when a behaviour (response) is followed
by a stimulus, such as a rapid rein/rope movement resulting in a decrease in
that behaviour. E.g. using a rope swish to regain the concentration of a
distracted horse, correct a non straight moving horse.
Imprinting is the term
used to describe any kind of phase-sensitive learning
occurring at a particular age or a particular life stage) that is rapid and
apparently independent of the consequences of behaviour. Imprinting is
hypothesized to have acritical period.
undertaken with a newborn foal often before it stands up. It will involve
complete desensitisation to all over body contact from humans – touching,
rubbing, being lifted up etc. Theoretically this will remove the need to repeat
much habituation to threatening stimuli later in life. In practice this is
extremely difficult to achieve often if done inexpertly it will result in
sensitisation. Much of what can be gained can easily be achieved later in life
without as much intrusive contact.
Applying the theory; the 'Natural' start
All horse starts are different. A horse is a unique
combination of genes and upbringing and because of this each start is unique.
With a horse brought up in the ‘near perfect’ way described above the start is
really just an un-dramatic continuation of his everyday dealings with people,
one day somebody sits on him – big deal. With a horse unused to the sort
handling described, the event is more life changing but should be equally
uneventful if the preparation has been put in. Below in outline is a horse
start using the three circle model pictured, and developed from an idea by
Steve Halfpenny of Silversand Natural Horsemanship. This is not a do it
yourself guide. Feel, timing and balance are required and these are only gained
with a few disasters along the way! Get some help from someone who has already
had these and avoid your own.
Most of the early work with the horse will be about
gaining confidence in each other. Much of this is about slow progressive
habituatiuon and will involve groundwork online. Using ropes, bags, tarpaulins
and your own body. The horse should become desensitised enough that the world
around him and you is predictable and non frightening. Desensitised does not
mean dead, so this should not be overdone! This stage can be boring so it is
good to make it a job, maybe using some agility obstacles- scary but safe. As
confidence grows you can ocasionally now dip into circle two and, using the
principles of negative reinforcement, ask for a little yielding. Small stuff
first but eventually lateral flexion and the most important, getting the horse
to move specific feet when asked and with no bracing and no force. Never hold
or pull andwhen the horse has given,
give that rope back as if it is red hot!
Remember a deal has now been made with the horse, you will not pull or hold and
he will not get scared and will give his head and feet to you when asked
(mostly!). If this deal is not secure – in otherwords if one of the partners is
lacking confidence – then go back a stage and fill in the gaps. One rein and no
saddle focuses the mind and makes the rider far more thoughtful. To the
properly prepared horse getting on his back is really no big deal- just the same old groundwork but from an
unusual direction. Remember that for quite a few rides we are firmly in circle
one. Direction and speed need only be approximate the horse will really just carry
you round while you slowly and progressively add a few asks for yield with
either hand or legs –turn his ideas about speed and direction into yours. As
yielding gets easier we may move to a saddle and eventually two reins and a
bridle, all progressively with no holding or pulling and constantly negatively
reinforcing. Time is unimportant and all this could take weeks or months, or if
you are lucky, hours.
Circle two will become progressively more important,
but it is essential to constantly keep returning to circle one, as if you do
not have the horses confidence you have nothing. You can make a horse yield to
you with force, and I have done so far too often, but once you experience a
true and willing give from your horse – soft feel – you will want nothing else.
In the first few rides bending left and right will get better and moving front
and back feet will become easier, as long as the timing of the ask is correct
and the give back immediate. Remember as with confidence, yielding must be mutual,
he yields to pressure you immediately yield the ask back to him. As the days
progress all this can be done in walk, trot, canter and halt. I probably forgot
to mention the stop – best to teach this before you get on as this tends to
help out later! – this is just another yield and will continue to improve as
long as feel and timing are used in the application of the negative
reinforcement. The most important early yields are the legyield/twotrack,
lateral give to hands and the disengagement of the hindquarters. Once you have
the first two up and running you are beginning to have shoulder control and you
have the horse between the reins. Make all this work fun and a job to be done
add a few challenges and obstacles.
We all want this but it will not happen without the
other two circles. This should really just be a side effect of your confidence
and yielding work. Once you have got the horse to willingly move his feet where
you ask, you are not holding or pulling and the horse is soft and between your
reins then the accuracy of the pattern just depends on your feel timing and
balance in the ask – easy! Now enjoy the ride – both of you.
Tim Keeley of
Ruthin in the United Kingdom is a Zoologist, UKCC Western Riding coach, teacher, trainer
and visiting university lecturer in equine applied learning behaviour. With his
wife Janette he runs an Appaloosa and Quarter Horse breeding and showing
operation from their farm in the mountains of North Wales. As well as coaching
both English and Western riders, Tim starts, trains and shows his own and
client's horses in Western disciplines in the UK, USA and Europe. He has
several UK and European titles in Halter, Pleasure, Trail and Horsemanship and
is currently showing horses “Xtreme Paradise” European and UK Halter Grand
Champion and UK Champion and European Reserve Pleasure Champion, “CA Invite me
a Partner” ApHC UK junior Western Pleasure Champion and" CA Syzygy
Invitation" UK and European Champion in trail, pleasure and hunter in
hand (the horse featured in the horse start photos). Janette was 2009 ApHC International Non Pro champion showing her mare “Lets
Role Zip MMR”, and European Appaloosa Heritage Champion with "Constant
White Magic" For more information see