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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;

the science behind‘Natural’ horsemanship


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 to train:

1.Horse 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 years. (easiest)

2.Horse raised in a large social group of other horses with no human contact.

3.Horse 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.

1.In 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.

3.When and why things go wrong.

4.Training for success – training techniques referenced to learning theory, to include;

  • Habituation, Systematic Desensitisation, and Flooding
  • Counter Conditioning
  • Sensitisation
  • 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 to death.
  • 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).
  • Horse 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 and vigour

2.Freedom from 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.

4. Training 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 responses.

The effect is temporary but the effect grows more permanent after several sessions.

1.Timing is all important.

2.Habituation is most effective if the response (usually fear) is thoroughly removed each session.

3.Horses 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

4.Habituation is the means by which horses learn to be touched/brushed, washed, saddled and ignore potentially scary stimuli –traffic, plastic bags etc.

Systematic desensitisation as opposed to flooding

Systematic desensitisation

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

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.
  • The handler/rider remains calm and unemotional at all times.
  • The handler/rider should have control over the horse,
  • Present the stimulus at a level that does not frighten the horse.
  • While the stimulus is being presented and before it stops, offer the horse a positive stimulus e.g. grooming, familiar and easy tasks etc.
  • Maintain the positive stimulus as long as the frightening stimulus is present, but stop the instant it ends.
  • Repeat the exercise at escalating levels of negative stimulus.

Operant Conditioning

This 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 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.


Negative reinforcement

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 negative reinforcement.)

  • Sensitisation

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 invisible.

  • Extinction

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.

  • Shaping

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.

  • Imprinting

Imprinting is the term used to describe any kind of phase-sensitive learning

(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.

This is 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!


Now just hop on. No saddle, no bridle and one rein.

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.


Accurate Patterns


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

or contact

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.

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