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Sticktraining and ‘Natural’ Philosophies

‘Fred, the Almighty Sniffing Pony’

Almighty Sniffing Pony

‘Hoof Extension’

Extension of My Hoof

Many claim the whip is just an extension of the arm for communication.. Well, in a fair relationship, the communication should be going both ways, right?

“The thing is an aversive is an aversive – it works by dint of being something the horse will work to avoid by it’s definition. It may be used very lightly and so only be very, very mildly annoying. It may be used harshly enough to be torture. It may also be used with very precise skill so that it’s clear or so clumsily as to be meaningless, confusing and terrifying. Either way it’s an aversive. It also requires the aversive to *at least* be annoying enough the horse is willing to work to avoid it in some way, which is well past the point they’re first aware of the stimulus. (How many of us have seen horses aware of each leg of a tiny fly on it’s skin or seem to ‘work off a thought’ or ‘work off intent’ after all?) It also is not something WE as humans get to dictate how it is experienced – that is defined solely by the learner and moreover by the learner in the moment.

If you want to use a whip (or crop, carrot stick, any traditional ‘pressure and release’ implement) in a way that is horse friendly and also promotes great LIGHTNESS and enthusiasm from the start simply teach the concept as an anti-target wand with clicker. Many dog and other species trainers are familiar with target training – where the animal learns to go to, touch or otherwise engage with a target by moving closer to get marked and reinforced… this is just the opposite, instead of moving closer, the aim of the game is to move away or off it. That way it’s simply a cue, taught to be a ‘go/move away from it’ opportunity signal and there is no threat as there is no aversive, however mild, with it. ‘Pressure’ never escalates and certainly never punishes or harms as if the cue doesn’t result in a good response you have to actually look at WHY and fix your training error – did the horse not understand, are they not capable, were you not clear, was the concept not well broken down enough in some way, do you have issues with your distance/duration/distractions/latency etc? It is and remains simply an opportunity to engage in a game that’s fun and rewarding.” – thanks to Amanda, topcommenter on this post on Facebook.

‘All that glitters is not gold.’

Flying Douchebag

One of the best examples of how tackless does not necessarily mean liberty. Even before I started doing positive reinforcement training, I always thought this just looked wrong. These aren’t horses ‘just being horses’. These are horses knowing the consequences for not cooperating.

‘Join Up’

Join Up

The word ‘natural’ is just as misused as the word ‘liberty’.

‘No Brain Idiot’

No Brain Idiot

There are more than four types of horses. There no science to back up these horse personalities. If you really want to understand how your horse thinks and learns, read up on basic psychology and learning theory. ‘Don’t Shoot the Dog’ is a good book to get a basic understanding about operant conditioning (B. F. Skinner). If you really want to science it up, read ‘Affective Neuroscience’ by Jaak Panksepp.



Again, Liberty is being terribly misused. The horse is conditioned to stay away from the sticks. Sticks are just as controlling as ropes and reins, if you work hard enough to get your horse responsive to the aids. Even if you’ve faded out your sticks/bridle/ropes, your horse will still be conditioned to believe you can pull them back out at any time.

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Fear is an emotion, not a behaviour

You Can’t Reinforce Fear

Fear is an emotion, not a behaviour. It is subject to classical conditioning (the way we form associations between different things) rather than operant conditioning (how we learn by the consequences of our behaviour). To be operantly conditioned a behaviour has to be something the animal chooses to do voluntarily rather than involuntarily. For example, a person, a dog, a horse cannot choose not to be afraid. That feeling is an involuntary and automatic response to a feared thing or situation. Everyone who has ever feared anything knows that we cannot control how we feel in that moment. Anyone who has ever been a nervous rider can relate to that. A classically conditioned response is controlled by the things that come before it – the things that trigger that feeling (known as the antecedents). An operant response is reinforced or weakened by what comes after it – its consequences.

You Can't Reinforce Fear

As trainers we can choose to control or act on the environment in order to reduce the fear the animal is experiencing. For example we can use words/actions/gestures that in the past have been associated with safety/calm/pleasure. We can use them in an emergency situation to calm and reassure as best we can, and we can use them in a longer term plan as counter-conditioning. Counter-conditioning is a form of classical conditioning that involves following a very very low strength version of the feared thing with something very desirable – like following the far off sound of clippers being turned on, with a handful of carrot to a horse that is afraid of the clippers.

If you are worried that it is possible to positively reinforce fear, ask yourself this. When your horse is fearful or worried and heads to you for comfort, does you comforting them with a stroke or food make them more afraid? Does not comforting them make them less afraid? If comforting them reinforces fear, they will become more afraid as a result of our soothing them than they would if we didn’t do anything at all. Practically, we can see how that works – and if it doesn’t, and our horse becomes more afraid, we might need to look at how they view us, rather than worry about whether comforting them is strengthening their fear response.

A typical example where we’re told not to comfort our horses is spooking or shying. People who do not understand how any of this works might tell you “Don’t pat or stroke them on the neck and go there, there, it will make them more likely to spook”. It won’t.

Ditch From Hell

I came across this “funny” viral video on my newsfeed a couple of times, showing a horse making a theatrical jump over a ditch after being kicked in the sides while the reins kept him from looking at the thing that was scaring him.

“Tactfully ridden” .. “Trust issue” .. “Lol”

Trust must be one of the most misused words in the equestrian world. The word you’re probably looking for is ‘force’ or ‘intimidation’.

Ditch From Hell


Pig Phobia

Check out the Fairhorsemanship article about dealing with fear, anxiety and phobias in horses here.

Pig Phobia


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Pink, star shaped, sparkly riding crop

Violence isn’t the answer

..unless the victim doesn’t speak up of course. And when he does, we make him shut up with even more violence. And this is what kids are taught. Not cool.

We’re all horse lovers until we become equestrians: Kids are desensitized to using force and punishment on animals, and slowly learn to mute that little voice that tells them it isn’t okay.

After that has happened and the kid has grown up, it is pretty much too late because by now.. that person gets reinforced every time a horse responds to aversive pressure.

If others try to make this person listen to that little voice again, she starts kicking and screaming due to that oh so powerful cognitive dissonance. And because deep down, she knows she’s wrong.

Click here to read an article on this by Hippologic

Charlie Bit Me

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Sh*t runs downhill, FEI

Shit runs downhill, so if our esteemed dressage rider and show jumpers are accepted with such bad practices, what can we expect for private horse owners?

‘Breathtaking View’

Breathtaking View (Rollkur)

‘Blood is cruel, unless..’

FEI rules

‘No blood, no problem.’

No Blood No Problem

‘The Pony Club Kick’

Pony Club Kick (Forced & Bound)

‘That Will Shut You Up’

That Will Shut You Up

‘Totilas VS Undercover’

Totilas VS Undercover

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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..

Personal Space Invasion 2

..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..

Personal Space Invasion 3

..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.”

Personal Space Invasion 4

Click here to read the full article by Horse Charming

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Twitches: is a release of endorphins always a good thing?

Now, before you start yelling at me: I am sure you were quite happy with the twitch in that emergency you had with your horse once. It might be necessary as an ABSOLUTE last resort. I’m just pretty sure most people don’t know that you’re supposed to look for alternatives before you head for that last resort. Let’s be honest, people seem to just twitch for anything the horse might resist, without even thinking they might be able to train. Clipping, mane pulling (yes, just substitute one pain for another), shoeing, mane plaiting…

When it comes to twitching horses, it seems little is known, a lot of assumed and common sense is ignored altogether. The most probable theory is that the pressure on one of the most sensitive parts of the horse causes the horse to release endorphins.

Twitch Addiction

Endorphins get released in numerous situations. Exercise, sex, eating spicey food, eating comfort food, eating ginseng, love, having a laugh, sunbathing, smiling, sudden rushes of adrenaline and -oh!- severe pain. Now, unless you feed curry to your horse right before using a twitch, I’d say pain is what causes the release of endorphins. Not right away, mind you! It takes several moments for the numbness to kick in. Think of stubbing your pinky toe. It has to hurt before the painkillers start working. “The twitch is believed to work through the mediation of beta-endorphins, but there is little doubt that it works because it involves pain (webster 1994). The heart rate of horses when twitched undergoes a transient increase (Morris, 1988) before returning to baseline values. ”

We asked a pain expert what she thought. Here is what she said:

“My thoughts are that subjecting an animal to targeted acute pain will promote the release of a bunch of chemicals/ neurotransmitters. This would be very distracting as it is so aversive, and the animal would protectively immobilise itself in order to avoid more intense pain/ damage (a bit like an animal in a trap). Theoretically these pain chemicals could spread through the body & affect the “pain gate” & would help reduce pain in other areas of the body.”

Most studies seemed to measure the stress the horse was experiencing by looking for stress indicators on the outside , but a study with donkeys and another study with several stallions and geldings (horses) revealed cortisol levels were increasing (more than endorphins!). The animal is in a state of behavioural suppression.

Head shyness and fleeing reactions to seeing a twitch a second time also indicate a negative association with the tool. Stereotypies also release endorphins, so should we just keep horses locked up in solitary, barren environment? It helps reduce suffering but there must be suffering to start with. Animals (and humans) develop tolerance to opiods including morphine, so need increasingly high doses to have an effect. And horses with stereotypies tend to release endorphins by performing the behaviours.. and twitches are less effective with them. So we can tentatively conclude that horses develop tolerance to their own endogenous opiods, needing more in order to get the same effect… so over time, a twitch will become less effective if used regularly. It is also often advised to not use twitches for longer than 12-15 minutes since, in many cases, the effectiveness of the twitch tends to wane after this period, possibly because of neurotransmitter depletion at the level of synapses in the opioid pathways. In addition, there are reports of horses suddenly striking with their forelegs during twitching.

Sources on twitching

-The effectiveness of the twitch in donkeys
– Responses of cortisol and prolactin to sexual excitement and stress in stallions and geldings.
– Preliminary studies on the use of plasma β-endorphin in horses as an indicator of stress and pain

– Equitation Science – Paul McGreevy,Andrew McLean *
– The Encyclopedia of Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare
– The Horse: With a Treatise on Draught (1831)

* Fed up Fred does not support, promote or endorse Equitation Science training techniques

How does a Twitch Work
Twitching: Looking at what causes a release of endorphins
The Twitch or You’re Going to do WHAT to my Horse?

Sources on pain