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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.

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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.



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Personal Space Invasion 4/11

“Horses come towards us, into our imaginary personal space, with their head or feet or body for a number of reasons. This is often a real safety problem for owners, or for people who handle the horse for them.

Horses can come too close to people..

1) Because we are new and they are curious to investigate us. Horses investigate with their eyes and nose and mouth (and for things underfoot with their feet)..

Personal Space Invasion 1

..2) Because they want to initiate play..

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..3) Because we have on us something the horse wants (food) and his behaviour of coming towards us has been reinforced by the gain of that resource..

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..4) Because we have the means to provide something or do something for the horse that he wants us to do and he needs to be close to us for us to do that.”

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Click here to read the full article by Horse Charming