Volg ons op Facebook

Negester KK Website banner 600x163px proef2

Horse Sense - A new way of working with horses

Written by  Nicolene Swanepoel
| in Veearts
| February 9, 2015

To most of us, working horses are nostalgic reminders of days gone by.  In the past, horses used to serve crucial roles.

Today they are providing recreation to a privileged few.  How has our interaction with these animals been affected, since our requirements of them have changed?

Beasts of burden: past and present

        For city people, it’s hard to remember that, as little as a century ago, horses were still an integral part of our everyday lives. In 1915 they were, admittedly, gradually being phased out as means of transport by automobiles, trains and other machines.  Their labour, though, was still essential in many sectors.  Farmers needed them to draw carts, pull ploughs, remove logs from forests; suburbs needed their services to remove waste; horses carried soldiers and equipment into battle.


        Horses in service had to be bomb-proof – the rider should have been able to get up and ride a safe and sound horse.  In order to make that possible, the horse was “broken in”.  Green, unsocialised horses were simply saddled, mounted and ridden, and if it balked it was forcefully controlled till it submitted. Foals were not handled until old enough to be useful. Horses worked because if they did not, they were punished. Such horses hated their work and could not wait to be rid of saddle and bridle in order to run away from the rider, towards their herd. The few riders who were fond of their mounts felt disappointed when their horses showed their heels in this ‘ungrateful’ manner.


        Some tried taking a gentler route – foals were handled more regularly, and a young horse was gradually introduced to a saddle and bridle. It might have been introduced first to lighter and then heavier weights on its back, until it was ready to carry the rider.  This seemed to pay off and horses became more tolerant of human interaction. Such positive feedback stimulated further efforts into finding less forceful ways of controlling horses.
        Today few people are reliant on these tolerant beasts of burden. Some, like the Amish people in the U.S.A., use horse carts in their strive to retain a simple life. Draft horses are sometimes seen in townships, fighting their way between taxis and cars, or plodding along on remote dusty roads. In rural areas with poor roads, like the old Transkei, many men still use mounts. In processions or riots we find horses under the seats of military and police riders, who use the bulk and power of the beasts to control the crowds. But in general, horses have moved from being omnipresent service providers, to being the pleasure hacks of a select few, as riding as a leisurely pastime and competitive sport is mostly  the domain of the “mink and manure” set, those who have the funds and opportunity to indulge.
        The riding horse is often only taken out of its stable or paddock in order to be ridden. Apart from this, there is little other interaction with the human.  In this sense, they are essentially still “working” animals, and are expected to earn their keep by performing optimally. As horses are expensive to keep, they need to be useful, and unsoundness or misbehaviour is not tolerated.  Those with ‘irresolvable’ problems are sold on, and on again. They might well end up abandoned or in abattoir queues.

New understanding of old natures


        For the last decade a sensible trend in horse training emerged:  humans are beginning to meet horses “on the ground”.  People are making an effort to view the world from an equine perspective. Intensive study of equine behaviour has become popular, not simply limited to the academician any more. What in the past were termed ‘stable vices’ is now understood to be stereotypic activities as a result of the frustration of an intelligent animal being unable to adapt to the severely limited environment they have been confined to.  The horse’s problem behaviour is being revealed not as their shortcomings, but our lack of understanding.
        More gentle and intelligent ways of approaching these essentially co-operative creatures are being developed. In order to do so, there are three prerequisites: firstly, we need to understand the horse’s limitations, abilities, and behaviour. Secondly, we need to find ways to communicate to the horse what it is we want, provided this requirement is physically and mentally possible for the horse. Lastly, to further improve learning we need to provide an incentive for the horse to want to do the task.  As with humans, horses are far more eager to perform for reward than to avoid punishment.  
         An argument is made that this gentler approach is due to the working horse having moved from the traditional domain of men (the soldier, policeman, jockey) into being the recreational mount of women. Certainly, as the service of horses is less crucial, their re-creational value, and in more and more cases, their value as treasured companion animal, is increasing, and the trends are towards softer approaches. The need to have an instant, reliable mount is being replaced with a desire to really understand the nature of these enigmatic creatures, and to work respectfully along with them, rather than forcing them to submit.  It is certainly delivering results.
Horses with behavioural problems have become challenges to be resolved, rather than just sending them off to be slaughtered, since horse champions like Monty Roberts, the famous “horse whisperer”, have stepped into the limelight.   Many of these “cowboys” have been converted from traditional hard-riding arenas like rodeos.


        Some of the new generation of ‘gurus’ accentuate the role of acting like a dominant horse in a herd.  Personally, as with dogs, I believe this theory to be over-subscribed and usually incorrectly applied; unfortunately sometimes with disastrous results.  Power struggles with a much stronger and larger animal often lead to humans getting injured.  We need to use our strongest asset, our intelligence, to win other animals over. Humans are not horses or dogs, and horses and dogs are intelligent enough to know that.  They are also intelligent enough to learn that, even while we are a different species, initially seen as a potential predator, they can come to trust us, provided we prove to them that we are trustworthy.
        Towards this goal, the well researched and scientific method of “positive reinforcement” is fast developing into the best way of training horses, or any other animal, including humans, for that matter. The need to use forceful instruments, like powerful bits and extreme leverage with complex reining systems, is becoming history.

Fight, flight or fused?

        Horses differ from dogs in that they are inclined to flight – animals that would have been prey to predators in nature.  Dogs are predators by nature, which is why the bond between them and humans evolved in a different manner – dogs hunted with humans; horses were hunted. So dogs will more naturally want to be with the hunter – at the human’s side, while horses will want to get away from them.


        Both horses and dogs are highly social species, but while dogs have been selected over thousands of years to be part of human social structures, and are in general eager to please humans, horses have not.  Horses find safety by sticking to their own kind and sensibly avoiding other animals that their instincts dictate might want to eat them, including two legged ones. Most horses instinctively do not want to be with humans, while most dogs do. So while there are many basic points in training that is valid for both species (and for humans as well, by the way), there are subtler behavioural differences that need to be understood if one wants to get the best results. But then, most people will not want a horse to be a giant household dog substitute, but still aim, ultimately, to have them as steeds.  
Yet, people are discovering how enriching it can be to develop a companion-animal type of relationship with horses, either as a foundation for successful equitation, or in itself, without wanting to end up on the back of the animal.

Whose fault is it anyway?

        With most so-called behaviour problems or “vices”, it is not the horse who is intentionally misbehaving, but us, the human, who is not able to understand the reason for the horse’s response.  Most likely we are asking it to do something that is against its nature.  A common example is the fear of becoming separated from the herd.  (In dogs, the so-called “separation anxiety” more commonly results from the dog being kept alone, or away from its trusted human company.)
        A horses’ strong social instinct binds it to other horses – it wants to be with its equine family. While in the past scant attention was given to the feelings of the horse when it was forced to separate from its friends, now it is understood that most horses feel traumatised if they are suddenly parted with their friends, some extremely so.  Unlike cats, they did not evolve to walk “by their lonesome”, but want to be safely enveloped in a herd.  More confident horses might not be too phased, but the less confident horse will spook and shy easily while out under saddle, and try its best to return to its mates as soon as it can.   When out riding this can lead to a constant struggle with the rider, sometimes resulting in unfortunate accidents.  This, and not stubbornness or disobedience, is the root of many a “spooky” horse.  This is not a wilful animal that needs to be dominated, as unfortunately many misguided trainers want us to believe. In fact, punishment will worsen the situation.  Instead, demonstrate to the horse that there is no reason to be fearful, to trust the rider, as it would its herd mates.  This also implies that one does not actually give it reason to fear us, for instance by hitting it, using extreme tack, or gouging it with spurs.


        A patient process of working with such a horse, first in the proximity of its mates, and gradually away from them will yield benefits.  Initially work on the ground, first near then next to the horse. Once the horse cottons on, slowly start working from the saddle.  Having a more experienced and confident mate next to it when out on a ride will help.  Once this horse has learnt that it can feel safe with its rider, you will be able to make headway when moving into less familiar territory.
        In general, reward and positive reinforcement for willing co-operation is accentuated, instead of punishment and dominance.  With these methods, horses learn to WANT to work with the human, and stay by their side, even without a halter.  

Teamwork rules!

        Knowledge of natural horse behaviour and how it can be moulded into compliancy must be combined with a sound insight and application of learning theory.  This will help the horse and human form a willing, motivated and cooperative team.
        There is also much more focus on working with the young foal as soon as possible after birth, socialising it with humans, and working extensively with it on the ground, before attempting to ride it, once it is mature enough.  In this manner, the foal learns that the human is also a part of its social network, it does not freak out when it is taken away for the first time from its mother, as it has built trust in and confidence in being with the human. This allows for a smooth transition to becoming a reliable steed once it reaches adulthood.
The traditional method of simply wanting to be able to mount the horse and ride off into battle is a thing of the past. Now not only the human but also the horse has a chance to truly enjoy the ride.

More information:

A local resource:

        We are fortunate that we have a master of positive reinforcement horsemanship available here in South Africa. Jenku Dietrichsen, while based in Gauteng, runs workshops around the country:


Clicker training:

        Clicker training basically is the development of a method of communication, it gives you a “tool” to help you tell your horse what it is you want him to do. It uses positive reinforcement only, never punishment or the controversial “dominance” techniques. It is intellectually stimulating for both animal and human.  There are people who complain that clicker training relies on “spoiling” the animal, but this is not true, if it is applied correctly.  Unfortunately there are many cowboys in this corral who do it incorrectly, and add fat to the fire of that rather unfortunate argument.
        Food (or another) reward is used, initially lavishly, but progressively more sparingly.  The horse learns to figure out what it needs to do to get this reward.   In this way the horse earns its food, instead of it just being given as a pasella. (For argument’s sake: how dominant and in control is it, to just give the horse its food? If you believe in this theory, are you not then being submissive to the horse? We all know how quickly a horse will turn its back on us once the food is in the manger, or the halter is off the head.) In this way you are using the food, part of its daily ration, to let the horse work for you.  It motivates and inspires.  But if used incorrectly, the horse will become mouthy and pushy – it’s up to you to be sharp enough not to let this happen – i.e. it is your mistake not the horse’s, or a shortcoming of the technique.
Make sure you learn the basics, first hand, from a recommended expert like Jenku Die-trichsen. If you cannot access a local horse clicker trainer, I recommend doing a basic course of clicker training with your dog, as there are more dog trainers than horse trainers in the field.  It is also more affordable and practical to train a dog than a horse, as it is easier to transport a dog to the classes.  Once you grasp the theory and can apply it correctly, you can move on to individual work with your own horse.  Learn more from good websites or books.

Some Clicker Training websites:

        There are many, which might be confusing. I recommend the following:

1. Karen Pryor is the grand dame of the clicker training world - check out the main page, see how it is done in dogs, and also for horses:

2. Shawna Karrash seems a bit ditzy at first, but keep watching her – she does it right, and teaches clearly!
        Start with the first link (3 successive videos) then go to her YouTube collection, at the end is her web page link. Please bear in mind that many of these videos are not edited so it may seem like they are taking a long time, but this is full training time. You can also learn from watching their mistakes. Few procedures are flawless, and ‘faults’ are great teachers of what not to do, or may lead to creative, new ways to respond.  Be sharp – concentrate on what is happening even while the instructor is not saying anything, as this is what it is about – we are using our brains.


3. Hannah Dawson is also good to follow:

4. Also have a look at dog clicker training – for instance the Dog Trust - Malta’s YouTube dog training videos, which can help you understand the basics, and show you how much fun the animal and the human is having.  Here is a link to the first one, search for session 2 , 3, etc. from there:

        There are gazillions of dog clicker training videos, with good reason.  If you can give the editor an indication whether you would like it, we might devote an article on this, some time.