THIS is the first of a series of articles about normal and problem horse behaviours - understanding and resolving problems and achieving better outcomes from your training.

The behaviour, and in particular, misbehaviour of horses can be perplexing, expensive and at times dangerous. When all is going well, we do not feel the need to change anything or delve into the psychology of everyday behaviours, but when things go wrong, we are often faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges, or irritating and nuisance behaviours that can have various consequences for our enjoyment around horses, our safety and the safety of other people and animals, poorer training outcomes and interrupted goals.

One frequent outcome, when things go wrong, can be attributing human motives to the behaviour (‘he hates the farrier/vet/going into the trailer, he is being bold/cheeky/lazy’). Unfortunately, this can often result in taking the wrong approach in trying to address a problem, which doesn’t lead to a sustained good outcome. In addition, the welfare of the horse often decreases if higher levels of punishment/restraints/pressure are used to try to address the problem.

With regard to equine psychology, the most important body of knowledge owners/riders/trainers/any professionals working with horses and trying to understand problem behaviours is how horses learn. Within all of the research that has been carried out over many years, notably since the early studies of psychology, beginning in the late 19th century, how an animal learns (known as Learning Theory) stands out as some of the most useful information in trying to understand problem behaviours when they arise, and also how to treat them.


One of the most basic and fundamental types of learning, which is happening continually in all animals including humans is called habituation. This refers to horses simply getting used to things. We use this in starting young horses, putting on saddles and fitting bridles for the first time and allowing the horse to become accustomed to this tack. Done carefully, horses can habituate to a huge variety of unnatural situations and experiences, as can be seen in calm police horses used in crowd control in volatile situations in public places.

An important Russian scientist called Ivan Pavlov discovered, researched and documented how animals form strong associations with things that happen in close proximity to each other or at the same time. This type of learning (called classical conditioning) can be seen every time we rattle feed buckets, or bring a horse into a situation which has previously been a fearful one for them. The corresponding behaviour (interest in the bucket/tension and avoidance behaviours) will occur, even if nothing frightening happens, or feed is not due to be delivered at this time.

The third highly important type of learning, which forms the basis of most horse training and riding is where an animal comes to associate their behaviour with the results of that behaviour (called operant conditioning). The use of pressure - release in training is availing of this type of learning, where release of the pressure when the horse has performed the desired behaviour (such as slowing down or stopping in response to pressure on the lead rope or reins) results in the horse offering that behaviour again and again.

Source of pain

We are also using operant reinforcement when giving a reward. Patting, scratching, vocal praise and in some cases food rewards are frequently used rewards.

It is important however to question which of these the horse actually enjoys or finds rewarding. While food is obviously enjoyed by the horse, some other frequently used ‘rewards’ may not actually be perceived as such by the horse. We frequently pat horses on the neck to reward them for a behaviour we are happy with, but research has shown that this may not be of any value to the horse. In fact, it causes an increase in heart rate and in stride rate, whereas scratching a horse on the withers/base of the neck has been shown to reduce the heart rate.

This is an easy location to access for any handler or rider, resulting in a physiologic state of increased relaxation for that horse, so should be used in place of the vigorous pat on the neck.

The majority of problematic behaviours will have had some components of the above types of learning in their origin, particularly classical and operant conditioning. For example, the horse that bucks for the first time because of pain (such as from poor saddle fit/back pain) may quickly learn that bucking displaces the rider, resulting in reduced pressures or freedom.

As a result, the behaviour may continue to be performed, even after the source of pain has been identified and treated.

During the coming months we will explore equine psychology and the role of learning in the development and treatment of a variety of problematic behaviours, and also in improving training outcomes, whatever the discipline.