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Shit’s unnatural, yo!

"Horses don't give each others treats!"

Article by Fairhorsemanship

One of the arguments I often hear against the use of positive reinforcement in horse training is that it is unnatural “Horses don’t give each other treats!” I hear. Until the recent growth in popularity of “natural horsemanship” this argument wasn’t very popular because after all, nothing equestrians do to horses is natural. Horses may not exactly be giving each other peppermint sweets but they don’t ride on each other back either. The entire argument can very much be dismissed straightaway simply by listing the extensive catalogue of unnatural behaviours, management and training procedures used by equestrians. However for this article I want to do something a little bit different, by pointing out in what ways a training using food rewards can be far more natural than any other, more mainstream, self proclaimed natural ones.

1. Most horse to horse interactions are affiliatives.

Humane, science-based horse training and natural horsemanship both claim to derive their training strategies from observations of natural behaviour of free-roaming horses. Yet the first believe in the use of positive reinforcement and the other doesn’t. How is this possible?

High-profile practitioners of natural horsemanship have based their training on two things: personal observations of agonistic behaviours in horses (and rushed deductions.) and misinterpretation or cherry picking of scientific data such as Schelderupp-Ebbe ‘pecking order’ or Konrad Lorenz’s book on aggression both of which were contradicted later on when animals were studied in their natural environment rather than in captivity.

Not only does natural horsemanship focuses on outdated (eg. pecking order) or misinterpreted (eg. dominance) concepts but in it’s mislead focus it lost most of the picture: While antagonistic interactions do exist between horses, they aren’t the norm. Therefore a training based on the use of aversives (negative reinforcement and positive punishments) does not reflect how horses naturally interact between each others. Yes horses may pins their ears at each other, kick and bite but those behaviours are nowhere as prevalent as resting and grassing together, nursing, playing, grooming etc.

So of course adopting training and management techniques, which promote affiliative interactions, is far more natural than a programme, which instructs horse owners to mimic antagonistic behaviours such as chasing.

2. Leadership

Leardership is another poorly understood concept in animal behaviour. Initially it was thoughts that a single individual (known as the lead mare) decided of the group movements but newer studies found that this isn’t the case. Instead any herd members can initiate group movement. In female horses, movement is simply initiated by departure. The lead horse doesn’t threaten, chase others or force them to follow and horses with the most “friends” are also more likely to be followed than the more dominant horses. Therefore procedures such as ‘join-up’ which tell horse owners to first chase their animal to get them to follow them aren’t derived from natural behaviour but purely from human misinterpretation.

3. Drive

Horses will move away from threats such as another horse, a puma, a whip or it’s rider legs. But moving AWAY from something does not make up most of his time budget. What does however is moving TOWARD something, seeking appetitive resources such as water, shelter, food or companionship. Horses naturally spend 16 to 18hours of their day seeking and consuming food. Going to a target (seeking) and getting a food reward (consuming) isn’t something completely unnatural for a horse. (see picture)

4. Horses learn through positive reinforcement just as much as through negative reinforcement.

How we train horses is not a human invention. The ropes and pens may be but the laws of learning are the same in the wild as they are in the barn. They are part of nature, just like gravity, believing in them or not don’t stop them from affecting you. Horses are born with the capacity to learn through several processes one of which is known as operant conditioning and along with classical conditioning is one of the most used learning processes in the equestrian world.

  • At the barn: The rider pulls on the reins (aversive stimuli), the horse stops, the rider let go of the tension on the rein. The horse is learning through negative reinforcement.
  • In the wild: A horses pins his ears (aversive stimuli), the other horse moves away, the horse stops threatening him. The horse is learning through negative reinforcement.
  • At the barn: A horse approaches a human and is given a carrot (appetitive stimuli). The horse is learning through positive reinforcement.
  • In the wild: A horse approaches another horse and they engage into a mutual grooming session (appetitive stimuli). The horse is learning through positive reinforcement.

Both types of reinforcement are natural but of course something being natural doesn’t necessary make it ethical. And when there is no need to apply aversive stimulus to obtain a desired behaviour (because positive reinforcement works just as well) one must beg the question… why?


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Don’t worry, I’ll click when he stops!

So what do positive reinforcement trainers (more commonly referred to as clicker trainers) do if your horse is about to run into traffic? Let them cause a huge accident because stopping them isn’t positive reinforcement?

The short answer to this is that in the moment, if an emergency situation arises and all else fails, of course we’re going to do whatever’s needed to keep everyone safe – even if that means something like pulling hard on the halter or waving a rope in front of the horse; things we never do in training or in the course of everyday life.

The long (and much better) answer is that we have many ways to reduce the chances of having to do those aversive things, even in an emergency; as shown in the cartoon.

dont worry

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A Horse’s Basic Needs: The 6 F’s

It is our duty to keep our horses happy and healthy. In order to achieve this, we need to meet the horses’ behavioral and physiological needs. These needs vary from things horses seek from their everyday environment to the experiences they have with humans. We have to consider the horse’s physical, mental and emotional well-being at all times, or the horse’s welfare will be compromised.

basic needs2.jpg

The horse’s digestive system is designed to eat small quantities of high fibre roughage almost continuously, night and day. For this reason, a horse should have different kinds of forage available to eat at all times. Browsing and eating (from plants growing overhead as well as on the ground) also provides a social and enriching activity for a big part of the day. In a natural setting, horses would spend up to 16 hours a day foraging.

If it is up to the horses, they will spend most of their day moving and covering great distances foraging, exploring and searching for resources. The space we set up for them to live in should be big enough for the horse to be able to use all gaits.

Company of their own kind is vital for horses to develop social skills and attain a feeling of relatedness and safety. Their well-being depends on having direct physical contact for play and grooming. REM sleep is only possible when the horse can lie flat and many will only do this with a friend to keep a look out. They need to interact with friends (horses they know well and like!) on a daily basis. Ideally, the horse will live in an established and consistent herd made up of males and females of different ages.

Every individual animal has an instinctive drive to survive. When they think they are in danger, they will feel stressed and will immediately search for a way to feel safe again, usually by putting some distance between themselves and anything feared. The space we set up for them needs to be big enough for them to move away from other feared animals, loud noises and commotion and free of pollution of air or water, and the fencing we use to keep them from dangers should be secure. When a horse is ill or wounded, we need to get them treated immediately. They also need to be kept safe from humans. We need to strive for ways to keep and train them that are free from force, coercion, fear and stress.

Just like forage, a horse should have fresh and clean water available to them at all times. All horses appreciate some man-made or natural shelter to provide relief from the sun and heat and flies and protection from the wind and rain. Where flies are extreme and horses suffer from fly-borne infections or allergies, extra protection may be required to ensure their comfort.

The importance of play is often underestimated, not just in animals. A young horse kept alone or with old infirm horses will often be deprived of play and this can often lead to frustration, boredom, stress, and will negatively affect creativity, industriousness and speed of learning. It is vital to provide a horse with friends to play with and toys that will enrich their life and challenge their senses. Balls, branches, other species like goats or sheep, creative ways of providing forage and other feeds, smells, the list goes on. Variety is the spice of life for horses too. Horses habituate quickly to novel things – so be on the look-out for new and novel enrichment ideas.

Sources (I’ll keep adding as I find interesting stuff)

What Every Horse Needs, Period

Infographic by Fairhorsemanship

Infographic by Equine Behaviour (South Africa)

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Myths about “trick training”

There are quite some misconceptions about clicker training, trick training and positive reinforcement training. Let’s divide the trick myths into 4 parts:

1. “He is just doing it for the treats.”
If that is true, we would have to look at the horse like it is a rat in a box. In that case, an aversively trained horse (‘Natural’ Horsemanship or traditional methods) is only doing it because of the threats. 

2. “Positive Reinforcement = Bribing.”
If that is true, then Negative Reinforcement = Blackmail. Bribing, however, doesn’t begin to describe what positive reinforcement really is and does. Bribing often comes before the behaviour, and a reward (the reinforcer in this case) comes after the behaviour.

3. “Working with treats is just for tricks.”
ALL behaviours are ‘tricks’ to the horse. If you can negatively reinforce it, you can also positively reinforce it. Positive reinforcement based methods are just a lot younger compared to negative reinforcement based methods so we have less to show for in the eyes of skeptical people (right now!).

4. “If it has been trained with treats, it’s not ‘REAL’ (a trick)”
R- based methods are much older and it is relatively more easy to micromanage with R- (right now), but just because you can micromanage it (a little more, a little less) with pressure-release doesn’t make it more real, natural or artsy.

trickmyth 1 just doing it for the treats

Most people seem to think that trick training, clicker training and positive reinforcement are exactly the same, so let me give you a short and sweet explanation about these and other related terms.


An animal training method based on behavioral psychology that relies on marking desirable behavior with the use of a bridge (often a significant word like “Yes!” or a click with a clicker). The marker is called a bridging stimulus (bridge for short) because it bridges the time lag between when the behaviour occurs and it is possible to deliver a primary desirable reinforcer such as food.  Once a bridge is established, it is a very useful communicative tool to tell the animal when they’re doing the right thing.


Trick training is simply using clicker training to teach tricks to horses. It is seen as a discipline most people practice for fun, alongside their normal training. The term is also commonly used to describe a lesser form of training (“That isn’t [real]/[art], it’s just a trick..”)


Most  people consider tricks to be behaviors that have no practical purpose other than for entertainment. They tend to be things done for the amusement of people rather than for the benefit of the horse – although there can be beneficial side effects of teaching tricks when done well (they make rescue horses more appealing to adopters for example). They CAN in fact be fun to horses. This depends on how it was taught, how it is being reinforced, if and how much stress (physical, emotional or mental) it puts on the horse, etcetera.

Tricks are often seen as a lesser form of taught behaviours because they often don’t serve a practical purpose and don’t always seem to have a “dimmer switch” (asking a little more, a little less.), although this can be done through microshaping.

To a horse, all behaviours are the same. A horse can feel better or worse about certain behaviours asked because of the way they were taught for example, but the horse doesn’t categorize behaviours into husbandry, tricks, and gymnastic work like we do. Not saying horses aren’t smart! They can recognize the tiniest signs because they have consistently predicted the same thing in the past. This is why a horse might run off when he sees you coming with a bitted bridle, but happily comes up to you when you are carrying a brightly colored halter you use for trick training. They can recognize, associate and prefer things, but they don’t actively realize what are tricks, and what is work.


Using one or more types of aversive stimulus (aversive for short and often called pressure in ‘Natural’ Horsemanship terms or conventional aids in traditional, classical, western and all other forms of horse training) to cause the horse to perform a behaviour to escape or avoid the aversive, and then either marking the moment the horse performs the desired behaviour and giving a food treat, or just giving a food treat after the behaviour has been performed.

This however causes a lot of conflict and stress for the horse as well, often expressed through pinned ears, dropping or even erecting, swishing the tail, a tight face and hard eyes, and very excited movements. Another misleading term for ‘mixed training’ is ‘balanced training’, meaning the trainer has found a balance between the two reinforcing quadrants. Balance is a relative and often misused word; I could also state that I am balanced because I decided to punch 2 people in the face every day in stead of 4. Of course, punching no one is possible but there are people out there punching 4 or even more people every day! It’s all about finding balance. (People who talk like these like to call everyone else extremists)


This is a scientific term, not a method. If a behaviour is maintained or strengthened because it results in escape or avoidance of a stimulus, the behaviour is said to have been negatively reinforced – the negative word meaning subtraction or removal as in mathematics.  It is also true that behaviour is reinforced if it results in reduction in aversive strength even if the aversive is not totally turned off. The relief the horse then feels is reinforcing, but is not considered a reward. Negative reinforcement is applied worldwide in the form of pressure-release techniques and is the underlying principle for all ‘Natural’ Horsemanship and Traditional training methods.

Emotional Quadrants


This is also a scientific term, and not a method. If a behaviours increases in frequency or strength as a result of the addition of a stimulus as an immediate consequence, it is said to have been positively reinforced.


Made up and misleading term for mixed training. Some trainers claim that using an aversive stimulus (or a conditioned one) to produce behaviour and then marking and adding an appetitive stimulus such as food can result in a balanced “neutral” reinforcement. This is incorrect and not backed up by science. Horses either worked (more) to avoid or gain something. It is also worth adding that a person can become a conditioned aversive to a horse because the person has the potential to act in a way that the horse finds aversive, either because they or another person has done so in the past or because they have associated themselves with other tools they have used to make their own body language gestures or vocal signals aversive to the horse. And that this threat potential of the person can persist even when they are no longer holding such a tool.


This type of training is actually more of a lifestyle because it includes so much more than a training technique. It consists of methods, a mindset, and a lot of ethical and science based principles. Positive reinforcement trainers with this mindset, strive to put the feelings of the horse first over their own ego, pleasure and pride and you will tend to see them using positive reinforcement to train behaviours that are functional and empowering for the horse.

When it comes to priorities, this mindset leads people to focus on altering the environment in which the horse lives to influence his wellbeing and behaviour and on training behaviours that are useful for the stress-free management and longevity of the horse.

If you want to read more about +R misconceptions, here is another interesting article.