Lauren Fraser is an experienced horsewoman, who has worked with horses professionally since 2006. She is qualified to help you solve your horse's behavior or training problem, using techniques both you and your horse will feel good about. Find Science-based horse behavior and training articles your horse would want you to read.
"You have to let the horse see objects with both eyes. The information transmitted from the eyes to the brain isn’t shared from side-to-side."
It is a long-held belief that if you show a horse an object so that he can see it only with one eye, and then show it to him so that he can only see it with the other eye he won’t be able to recognize it as an object he has seen previously. It is stated that the horse lacks the ability to transfer visual information seen with one eye from one side of the brain to the other.
How Horses See
False. Let’s bust this myth once and for all. The horse does have the ability to see an object with only one eye, and then be able to recognize it with the other. In 1999, researchers devised an experiment to disprove this belief. They covered one eye of a number of horses, and then taught the horses to select a certain shape by pushing it with their nose in order to receive a food reward. Once the horses had learned to select the desired shape, the eye covers were switched, and the horses successfully selected the desired shape while viewing it with the previously covered eye only.
The Human Role In The Spread Of Misinformation
As always, learning is a two-way street, and the human’s learning can play a role in perpetuating this myth. Here’s a scenario to help you understand how this myth can be perpetuated:
You are trail riding your horse, and you pass a large rock on the right-hand side of the trail. As you pass it, your horse briefly glances at it, and keeps walking. On the return ride, you come back down the same trail, but the boulder is now on your left; your horse snorts and spooks upon seeing it.
It’s easy to see why such a scenario may support the belief that the information between eyes and brain is not shared; the horse didn’t spook when first seeing the rock with one eye, but spooked when seeing it with the other eye. But fear not, there is an explanation for why this occurs: researchers have shown that horses have difficulty recognizing objects they have seen previously when those objects are rotated, and are seen from a different angle. Horses cannot consistently recognize rotated objects they have seen previously, which is essentially what the rock on the trail is when approached from a different direction.
Perhaps this is an evolutionary advantage, as retaining awareness of different looking objects in the environment may increase the horse’s chances for survival. Regardless of the reason, remember to be patient with your horse should he spook at something he has seen previously. From his perspective it may appear to be an entirely new object, and as such, startling is a perfectly normal response when seeing it. PS - If you missed another myth-busting blog in this series, you should know that horses lack the ability to ‘pretend to spook’; if your horse spooks , it is because something genuinely startled or frightened him.
Most animals have a ‘comfort zone’ – a psychological state in which they they feel safe, calm, and in control during certain life events. Depending on the animal, this could be in a pasture, surrounded by the rest of the herd, on a sunny day. Or it could be alone in the dark, Netflix binging on ‘The Walking Dead’. The size of an animal’s comfort zone depends on a number of factors, such as previous life experiences, genetics, and resiliency.
The tricky thing about comfort zones is that the more time an animal spends there, the smaller it may get. For the person whose comfort zone includes only their daily career (research, alone at a desk) and evenings watching Netflix, being asked to give a spontaneous presentation at 8 am on a Monday to 40 colleagues will likely result in serious psychological discomfort. If the person feigns a sudden flu to avoid speaking and feeling uncomfortable, their comfort zone may shrink.
A horse’s comfort zone can expand. It can also shrink if they never experience anything that causes them to feel the slightest bit uncomfortable. Unfortunately, many horses are put in such situations. This can occur due to owner ignorance about comfort zones, or during training if a trainer believes any discomfort to be bad. Either way, the horse’s ability to cope in life may decrease.
Why You Must Expand Your Horse’s Comfort Zone
The great thing about comfort zones is that they aren’t set in stone. You can expand your horse’s comfort zone – or your own for that matter – in ways that build trust between you and your horse. And you must.
I feel strongly that if you are responsible for a horse, you are also responsible for developing their resiliency, expanding their comfort zone, and enriching their life. Even if you believe yourself to be that horse’s forever home, situations change, and a horse with a small comfort zone and low resiliency has a hard time coping when thrust into new environments and situations. While providing your horse with full-time access to the 3 F’s of friends, forage and freedom is a great start, it isn’t enough. You have a responsibility to your horse to expand their comfort zone, and provide mental and physical stimulation that is otherwise limited by confinement.
How To Expand Your Horse’s Comfort Zone
It’s good to think about expanding comfort zones by imagining a bulls-eye.
At its center is the comfort zone. It may be small, as shown here, or it may be large. No matter its size, outside of the comfort zone are a few more zones you need to be aware of: Appropriate Learning Zone (green); Caution Zone (yellow); Manure Has Hit The Fan Zone (red).
If we want to expand a comfort zone we need to step into the Appropriate Learning Zone. This zone is where the learner may feel a little unconfident or unsure, but never – ever – overwhelmed. I’ll talk more about that in Part Two. The US Navy Seals have a great phrase that applies to expanding comfort zones:
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
For the Navy Seal, this may occur when enduring 20 hours of strenuous exercise after just 4 hours sleep. For our researcher, it could be giving an impromptu speech at 8 am. Either way, by feeling a little uncomfortable during a challenge, each individual is expanding their own Comfort Zone, at their own level.
Determining Your Horse’s Comfort Zone
And here’s where things get tricky when working with horses: the individual learner determines exactly when Comfort Zone has been left. The Navy Seal may feel comfortable giving an impromptu speech (and therefore not stretch their Comfort Zone at all), while the office worker may enter Manure Hit The Fan Zone if made to exercise like the Navy Seal. In both instances, we can get verbal feedback from the humans to determine if the challenge is appropriate or not. While we don’t have the luxury of such verbal feedback from our horses, we can observe and assess their body language to help us determine if the level of challenge is appropriate.
Up next in Part Two:
‘Just right’ discomfort: How to choose an appropriate level of discomfort when stretching comfort zones. Too much discomfort: What happens to your horse in Caution Zone, and why entering it should to be avoided during training. When bad training happens to good trainers: What to do if you accidentally set up a training session that puts your horse into Manure Hits The Fan Zone.
When horse behaviour consultants resolve fear-based behaviour problems in horses, they often do so by using counter-conditioning and systematic desensitization. Together, these two techniques can help horses overcome fears and phobias – without risk of making the horse’s problem worse or creating new issues.
Counter-conditioning means to change how the horse feels about something they have learned to fear or dislike
If a horse develops a fearful response to a stimulus (an event or thing), this fear can be changed by using counter-conditioning. This is done by repeatedly pairing the fear-inducing stimulus with something the horse finds very pleasant - usually tasty food. Done correctly, it results in the horse developing a positive emotional response to the previously feared or disliked stimulus.
Systematic desensitization means to progressively expose the horse to the stimulus, in small but increasing amounts that don’t trigger the fear. Done correctly, this results in the horse not being frightened when faced with maximum exposure to the stimulus.
For example, if a horse was afraid of plastic bags, you would start far enough away from the horse that the sight of a plastic bag folded in half in your hand didn’t elicit a fear response. Gradually you would get closer, carefully observing the horse to make sure you were progressing at a pace that didn’t trigger fear. We are looking for ‘attention without tension’ at each stage in the process: the horse notices the item but does not become anxious or fearful when they see it.
The ‘Peanut Butter and Chocolate’ of Behaviour Modification
Done together, counter-conditioning and systematic desensitization work well for helping horses overcome fear to a wide range of things. The stimulus is presented at a low enough ‘volume’ so that it doesn’t trigger fear or stress, and each presentation is also paired with the arrival of something the horse finds enjoyable. Very quickly, the appearance of the ‘scary’ thing begins to predict something good - the tasty treat!Lifelong Practice
While emotional responses to stimuli can be changed, the memories associated with that stimuli can never be erased. For example, a horse’s emotional response of fear when faced with an injection can be changed, but the memories of being afraid during previous injections cannot. Therefore, horses who have undergone behaviour modification work for anxiety or fears should be managed to avoid relapse, and their owners should regularly, and carefully, expose the horse to the previously feared stimulus, for the duration of the horse’s life.
To be successful at using counter-conditioning and systematic desensitization:
the practitioner should strive to keep the horse under threshold during training sessions (‘attention without tension’, no signs of anxiety or fear)
the pace of training and level of exposure must respect the individual horsefrequent, short sessions (e.g. 5 mins a day, 5 days a week) achieve better results than long or infrequent sessions
Methods to avoid when treating fear issues in horses
The use of ‘flooding’– exposing the horse to what they fear, at maximum intensity and without opportunity to escape – should be avoided. The use of flooding is not recommended by animal behavior professionals, due to its potential for physical injury to horse or human, and increased risk of behavioural injury to the horse. Flooding can quickly worsen existing learned fears, and create new behaviour problems in the horse.
A shaping plan puts to paper exactly what steps you will take to teach a horse a new, wanted behaviour. Taking a few minutes to write a shaping plan can help you achieve better results, faster. It can also help you trouble-shoot, should you run into any problems during training. As you can see in this clip, I usually write no more than ten steps when crafting a shaping plan. While this shaping plan addresses how to teach a horse to accept fly spray, you can use a shaping plan to teach your horse almost anything - from loading in the trailer to executing one-time flying lead changes.
Most people only check in one location on the horse's body when determining the tightness of a girth or cinch - just above the horse's elbow. But horse's can have different conformation in this area. This can affect the perception of the girth or cinch's tightness, and result in a false reading as to its true tightness.
As seen in this clip, I advise checking the tightness of your girth in two locations: just above the horse's elbow, and where the girth contacts the sternum. Doing so will provide you with more accurate information as to the tightness of your girth or cinch, allowing you to make decisions that will enhance your horse's comfort and performance.
Almost every interaction we have with a horse affects their confidence. No matter our horse training goals, this confidence - in themselves and in us - should be a top priority.
Learning how to recognize and respond to a confidence threshold - a place where the horse might lose confidence if we proceed - is an important skill for trainers to have. How the trainer responds at these thresholds can affect the horse's confidence.
Horses may lose confidence when being taught how to trailer load. This may manifest as stopping forward motion, or displaying escape or avoidance behaviours. Using escalating pressure in those moments is a commonly taught approach, but unfortunately, it's an approach that can damage the horse's confidence in the trainer.
In my previous career I used such an approach. But since learning more about horse behaviour, how horses learn, and the effects of stress on learning and welfare, I use different training techniques now. One that I like to use in these instances places equal emphasis on achieving the goal of loading in the trailer and preserving the horse's confidence. The video at the top of this post is a few years old, but it shows an example of how such an approach can be used to good effect. As you can see, I stop approaching the trailer when I recognize that the horse has reached a confidence threshold. Can you see what he did that gave me a clue as to how he was feeling? We stay there together, and I watch the horse's behaviour for clues that any uncertainty he has felt has subsided. When it does, we turn and leave.
There are two important things to keep in mind here:
1. The 'confidence threshold' that I'm looking for here is a very subtle shift from the horse feeling 'I'm OK with this' to 'I'm not so sure about this'. Horses communicate quite clearly how they feel about what we are doing with them, and we need to pay attention to the small signs. It is not necessary to trigger a greater level of uncertainty than this in the horse in order to overcome trailer loading issues. To do so is counterproductive, and it puts us in a position where we may need to use escalating levels of pressure to control the horse, which increases their stress and decreases their confidence.
2. Leaving the trailer's vicinity when the horse has visibly relaxed builds both his confidence with the process, and me. This can be seen clearly in the second approach when we get much closer to the trailer, and the horse evens feels confident enough to become curious about the trailer. It is when he is displaying this curiosity that we once again turn and leave.
This approach - recognizing subtle thresholds and changes in behaviour, waiting for the uncertainty to subside, and retreating away from the source of potential stress back towards a place of comfort - is a good way to help horses build confidence during training, and in the trainer. It's a technique that I like to use for several issues, including approaching things that the horse may have a negative history with - like the trailer. As training progresses and the horse's confidence grows, I may add in other techniques, such as using positive reinforcement to teach the horse how to confidently enter the trailer. Having a variety of low-stress techniques in your training toolkit can help you be a better trainer, and I hope this is one you will try. Happy training!
Teaching your horse to willingly put the bit in their own mouth is easily done using positive reinforcement and shaping.
Positive reinforcement is something added to the horse's environment that makes a behaviour more likely to happen again in the future. In horse training, it is usually a small tidbit of tasty food, given immediately after a desired behaviour occurs. Shaping means to take a complex end goal behaviour, like having a horse put a bit in their own mouth, and breaking it down into smaller behaviours - or 'successive approximations' - that build towards that end goal. As you can see in this clip, when combined, the horse receives positive reinforcement every time he successfully completes a successive approximation towards the end goal. Effective trainers usually make a 'shaping plan', or a list of the behaviours that will build towards the end goal.
Once the horse is reliably performing a successive approximation, it is changed slightly, and reinforcement is given when the horse successfully completes the new successive approximation. For example, when this horse Calcite was reliably sticking his nose into the open bridle, the next successive approximation I aimed for him to do was to move his muzzle closer to the bit. When he did that, I indicated that’s exactly what I wanted by making a clucking nose and immediately giving him a treat. (One of the first lessons taught in this type of training is that a tongue cluck or other specific sound marker means ‘Yes! A treat is coming!’)
Just like us, horses learn from the consequences that follow a behaviour. If the consequences are desirable (like getting a treat) the behaviour is likely to be repeated in the future. This type of training says very clearly ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I wanted you to do!’ to the horse, and it eliminates the need for us to use punishment in training.
All animals, humans and horses included, would rather be told ‘Yes!’ and receive a desirable consequence when learning how to perform a new behaviour. It's important to remember that the horse doesn't know what our goal is during training. They are essentially guessing when they try out a new behaviour, to see if it is the one that will result in a desirable consequence. Being told 'No!' and receiving an undesirable consequence for ‘wrong’ behaviours when trying to learn a new behaviour is stressful. This stress usually results in the animal giving up trying to find out what behaviour results in a desirable consequence, for fear of receiving the undesirable consequence instead. This type of training can also damage the trust between trainer and animal learner, and should be avoided.
What's a start button, and why should it be part of your horse training?
A start button is a way for an animal to give consent to something that the trainer would like to do with the animal. It allows the animal to communicate to the trainer whether or not they are ‘ready’ for the event to happen.
The benefits of start buttons are twofold. While it might seem counter-intuitive, teaching an animal that they have some perceived control over what is done with them is both empowering and reinforcing. A pleasant side-effect is that this approach also results in the trainer meeting their training goal.
My Arabian gelding True had a learned fear of the saddle when I acquired him. Part of his retraining has involved using start buttons to teach him that he can give consent to participate in events that may be unpleasant, like being hosed or fly sprayed. Start buttons also work well in helping horses overcome learned fears of specific items.
True has two start buttons in this clip. The first is when he touches the saddle pad with his nose. The second is when he straightens his neck and allows me to pass down his body to saddle him. To begin, I wait for him to engage with me. You can see this happen at about the 0:05 mark. I then present the saddle pad to him, and he touches it with his nose. To put it into human language, this is essentially the signal that we have agreed means 'Lauren, you may begin the saddling process'. The second start button is at about the 0:20 mark. True and I have agreed that it means 'You may put the saddle on now'.
It's critical that I respect if True is ready for me to proceed, or if he's not. If he's not, I use that as valuable information about my training. Perhaps I'm advancing too quickly, or am not fully appreciating how he feels about what is happening. I see this information not as a failure, but as an opportunity to tweak my approach, or be more aware of his body language.
If you are new to using start buttons you may think that the animal will just choose never to participate in unpleasant events. But this isn't the case. While this training concept is relatively new to the horse world, it has been used very successfully for years with a wide range of other animals, including zoo animals, such as hippos, giraffes, lions, hyenas and more. If it can work for getting a full-grown lion to willingly give its tail for a blood draw, it can work for you horse too.
Good training involves progressively preparing a horse to calmly perform a behaviour, often in distracting environments such as show grounds, veterinary hospitals, off-site trails, clinics and group lessons. This takes concerted thought, effort, and time.
How bad do you want it?
You can't train a behaviour at the time that you need it.
While I agree with the spot-on sentiment of this quote, technically you can sometimes train a behaviour at the time that you need it. But how urgently you need (or want) the horse to perform that behaviour can negatively impact not only how you train, but how the horse feels about the training situation and you, the trainer.
I like to use flying lead changes as an example when explaining this concept to clients. If a person didn't train their horse to do a flying lead change at all, or only had them perform one or two at home, they likely wouldn't go to a major show and expect the horse to execute a flying lead change during a dressage test or reining pattern. Most people would agree that doing so would be putting an unrealistic expectation on the horse. Instead, most people progressively train changes at home, then go to a small, local schooling show to add in distractions and test their training, before going to a major show. Yet people routinely do the opposite with all sorts of other behaviours they wish their horse to calmly and reliably perform.
Failing to progressively train a horse prior to when a behavior is needed often leads to situations where forceful handling or excessive escalating pressure is used to accomplish the immediate goal: getting in the trailer, holding a leg up for the farrier, being clipped, receiving a vaccine, walking in-hand at a busy horse show. Unfortunately, this approach usually results in the creation of unwanted emotions in the horse, namely anxiety and fear. Once established, these emotions will be paired with future occurrences of the same situation. Such emotions can be challenging to change, and the memories associated with the situation can never be fully erased, making the emotions prone to reoccurring in the future.
What to do instead
To avoid this trap:
think about the behaviours you wish your horse to perform in the many situations he or she may be put in (and make sure those behaviours pass the 'Dead Horse Test')
teach your horse those behaviours at home, in a calm environmentwhen your horse is consistently and calmly performing those behaviours, progressively begin to add in distractions. Loading in the trailer, alone, at home is different for your horse than loading in the trailer, with a strange horse, at a hectic horse show. Make sure you train for both, and all the points in between!
If we want to be good horse trainers, we need to use our brains to train. We need to think about how we want our horse to perform and behave, and we need to create progressive training plans to achieve this. Doing this will help prevent situations where we accidentally instill emotions such as fear into training. As a pleasant side effect, this training approach also greatly enhances the trust our horses can have in us, even when life throws us a curve ball in real-world, emergency situations. Thanks to Fenzi Dog Sports Academy for the quote and inspiration.