Horse training: Why the science is flawed

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More than 25 years ago, Wayne Bryden, a professor at Sydney University, gave me a book on the science of learning theory. In it I first read about habituation. I could never work out how habituation fitted with my approach to horse training. It made no sense to me then and it makes no sense to me today. After 30 years I’ve finally put into words why I believe there is no such thing as habituation in relation to training horses. 

A horse learns to accept a rider on his back for the first time.
A horse learns to accept a rider on his back for the first time.

Pressure and relief forms the basis of horse training. Pressure is something aversive that the horse wants to get rid of. The horse finds relief when pressure is removed.

Here are some examples:

  • A rider puts his leg on – pressure – the horse moves forward and the rider immediately takes his leg off – relief. The horse learns to get rid of the rider’s leg by moving forward.
  • A rider pulls on the bit – pressure – and when the horse slows, the rider gives – relief. The horse removes the pressure of the bit by slowing.
  • A handler asks a horse to step over a log but the horse stops. The handler taps the horse’s rump and pulls on the lead rope – pressure. When the horse steps over the log, the handler stops tapping and pulling – relief. The horse relieves the pressure by stepping over the log.

In each of these examples the horse learns to relieve pressure. In scientific terms, the subtraction or relief of pressure is referred to as ‘negative’ ie, pressure is taken away. The removal of pressure at the appropriate time reinforces a behaviour, or makes it more likely to happen again. Hence the term ‘negative reinforcement’.

When a trainer uses negative reinforcement consistently, the horse learns to relax because there’s always a simple way to relieve pressure.

Good trainers also use ‘shaping’ to teach horses. Take the example of teaching a horse to spin. The trainer starts by teaching the horse to stop his inside back leg and take one step around. When this is established, the trainer asks the horse to take two steps around. The next lesson may be three steps and over weeks and months the steps are gradually increased until the horse steps around full circle and spins.

The targeted behaviour – the spin – is ‘shaped’ in small increments. One step becomes two, two steps become three, three become four and so on. Shaping and negative reinforcement form the basis of most horse training.

It’s proposed by many scientists and horse trainers that a completely separate process – habituation – can also be used to train horses. The scientific definition of habituation is: The waning of a response to a repeated stimulus as a result of frequent exposure (not fatigue).

In other words, expose a horse repeatedly to something he’s afraid of and he’ll get ‘used to it.’

All over the internet, and in every horse magazine you pick up, there are people supposedly ‘habituating’ horses. Their idea is to repeatedly flap flags, tarps, ropes or something else at a horse and he’ll become ‘habituated’, ‘desensitised’ or ‘used to it.’

There are more than a few problems with this theory.

In every situation, horses try to find a way to relieve pressure; they always look for the easy way. To flap something continuously means that the horse is under constant pressure with no relief and no escape. The rules have changed – the horse has no way to relieve the pressure. Whether the horse moves, stands, kicks or rears the trainer just keeps flapping in the belief that the horse will ‘get used to it.’

The trainer is thinking one thing and the horse is thinking something totally different. The trainer thinks, “It’s OK, I’m habituating him; I’m desensitising him; he’ll get used to it.” The horse thinks “How can I get out of this terrifying situation? How can I stop this person flapping things? What do I have to do to make him stop?”

In the wild, a horse won’t subject himself to a frightening situation. He immediately runs away if something frightens him. He can relieve pressure any time he chooses by running away.

Here’s a quote from a paper titled Punishment in horse-training and the concept of ethical equitation by Paul McGreevey BVSc, PhD, MRCVS, MACVSc (Animal welfare) and Andrew N. McLean, BSc, PhD.

“…..gaining control over aversive stimuli is of vital importance to animals. When such control is thwarted, the animal’s well-being is threatened and neurosis may develop. Hence, extra care must be taken when training animals using aversive stimuli because of animals’ imperative to achieve control over such stimuli. Solomon (1964) showed that maladaptive behaviour arises when:

  1. There are sustained raised levels of arousal;
  2. The aversive stimulus is unpredictable;
  3. The aversive stimulus is uncontrollable; and
  4. The aversive stimulus is inescapable. 

Numerous studies attest the problems that emerge when these conditions arise…”


The four points noted by Solomon occur every time a horse is exposed to frequent and repeated stimuli without any way to relieve the pressure. eg, When a horse is saddled for the first time and let go to buck; when a dummy is tied to a bucking horse; when a trainer repeatedly flaps a flag, tarp, rope or other paraphernalia at a horse. In all these situations there are aversive stimuli that horses find unpredictable, uncontrollable and inescapable. As noted by Solomon, ‘problems will arise’ when these approaches are used.

Negative reinforcement and shaping can be used to overcome a horse’s fears and to introduce everything to every horse without frightening them. A different process, if indeed one exists, isn’t needed. There’s never a need to intentionally expose any horse to frightening stimuli under any circumstance.

Take the example of mounting an unridden horse bareback for the first time. The trainer first lays his arm over the horse’s back. The horse is worried by this pressure and wants to get rid of the arm from his back. When the horse stands for a few seconds, the trainer removes his arm and steps away and the pressure is relieved.

Next, the trainer jumps up and lies across the horse’s back. Again the horse is worried and wants to remove the trainer from his back. If the horse moves a few steps, the trainer maintains his position.

Immediately the horse stands, the trainer dismounts. The horse has a way of removing pressure – a rider – from his back. Stand still and the rider dismounts.

On the next approach the trainer lies across the horse and moves his leg and knee to the top of the horse’s back before dismounting. The horse knows how to relieve the pressure – stand and wait for the trainer to dismount. This is negative reinforcement at work.

training-barrelThe trainer is also shaping the horse’s behaviour. First, the horse learns to stand when the trainer lays his arm over the horse’s back. Next step in the shaping process is for the horse to stand when the trainer lies over the horse’s back. Next, the trainer moves his leg and knee to the top of the horse’s back.

Just as a trainer shapes a horse’s behaviour when he teaches him to spin, the trainer shapes the horse’s behaviour to accept a rider. Each step is an extension of the previous one and the trainer always dismounts before the horse becomes frightened or confused.

Each advance of the trainer’s position is a step in the shaping process and each retreat is a relief of pressure (negative reinforcement). The two processes combine to produce the desired outcome. The trainer continues the advance (shaping) and retreat (negative reinforcement) until the horse accepts the trainer sitting on his back.

The trainer also shapes the amount of time he spends on the horse’s back. At first he sits only a few seconds before dismounting. Next, he sits for a few more seconds before he dismounts. Next approach, the time is again extended. And so, time is shaped, or extended on each approach.

The horse learns that the pressure doesn’t go on forever. He knows that if he keeps standing, the trainer will eventually dismount. Over a couple of lessons, the horse waits longer and longer for the trainer to dismount and eventually accepts the trainer on his back indefinitely.

The horse has not been ‘habituated’, ‘desensitised’ or become ‘used to’ a rider. The horse’s response did not wane as a result of ‘frequent exposure.’ Instead, the horse’s response waned because the trainer’s approach was always predictable and escapable. The horse learned how to remove the trainer from his back and it worked every time.

If the trainer dismounts without frightening the horse, one exposure is enough to introduce each new position. The horse will always accept the trainer in the same position on the next approach.

One exposure, negatively reinforced at the appropriate time, will teach the horse to accept the trainer in that position. It’s not ‘frequent exposure’ that makes the horse accept the trainer; it’s the fact that the trainer dismounts – relieves the pressure – at the appropriate time. The horse relaxes with the process because he’s found a way to relieve pressure and each advance of the trainer’s position is kept within the limits of what the horse can accept without being frightened.

Negative reinforcement and shaping are effective in all areas of horse training and can be used to introduce everything to every horse – saddle, girth, raincoat, stockwhip, lasso rope etc. or to catch a horse for the first time, handle his legs or load him into a trailer. Negative reinforcement and shaping can also be used to overcome a horse’s fear of spray bottles, clippers, needles etc. or anything else you may want to do.

If negative reinforcement and shaping are used in every training situation, there is never a need to push any horse to the point where he becomes frightened, confused and stressed.

I believe that habituation, as defined by science, does not exist in the context of horse training. And whether it exists or not, there is absolutely no excuse for flapping things at a frightened horse at any stage of his training.


neil-daviesNeil Davies began training horses full-time in 1977. Over the next 15 years, he started more than a thousand horses under saddle and trained thousands of so-called ‘problem’ horses. [read more]

He is the author of Fear-free Horse Training – every step of the way.

Visit Neil’s website at

Neil Davies

Neil Davies began training horses full-time in 1977. Over the next fifteen years, he started more than a thousand horses under saddle and trained thousands of so-called ‘problem’ horses. From $100 backyard ponies to thoroughbreds worth millions, Neil has seen it all. » Read Neil's profile

5 thoughts on “Horse training: Why the science is flawed

  • December 10, 2014 at 9:14 am

    What he means is that he doesn’t use it, and that it can be detrimental or ineffective. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist…there is a real problem with horse people thinking that science doesn’t apply to them, or magically that horses are the only animal in the world behavioral science doesnt apply to. What it usually means is that the reader hasn’t understood. Great that he gets results using negative reinforcement. Not understanding the full gamut of behavioural modification and how it affects the horse isn’t something to shout about.

    Habituation is happenning all the time in the horse’s environment I.e. it gets used to stuff.

    Horses actually habituate very quickly, because they also have extremely high flight reactions. You wouldn’t survive long if you ran off at every little thing; too much energy used. So highly reactive animals habituate quickly, slow to react animals are slow to habituate…

    • December 18, 2014 at 2:34 pm

      Precisely! This is exactly what I was thinking when I read the article.
      Dr Donald McMiken

  • December 17, 2014 at 4:38 am

    Davies said “Pressure and relief forms the basis of horse training.” Actually, it forms the basis of the way HE trains. More and more better educated trainers have positive reinforcement as the basis of their training. A horse can learn to stand still when someone sits on him/her because someone adds a reinforcer for doing so.

    Instead of continually looking to escape pressure (avoidance/escape training), a horse can choose to do a behavior because of an appetitive reinforcer. This is where we can start to see supersized efforts instead of the bare minimum to make the pressure go away.

    Saying habituation doesn’t exist is just showing his lack of understanding of the meaning. What Vivien wrote above explains it well.

    Also, what he describes is not ‘shaping’ but ‘successive approximation’. If he wants to talk science, he needs to educate himself better on the terms.

    • December 18, 2014 at 2:38 pm

      Yes indeed, I think you and Vivien have nailed it. Many horse people seem to think there is something magical in their ability and methods, but the truth is that they are mostly unaware of precisely what is going on in their horse interactions.

  • January 17, 2015 at 7:17 am

    First of all, i hope that my english will be readable. As a french, I don’t master english the way I should. 😉

    The big problem with this article is that the author doens’t understand the concept of habituation and the way it works at all. The examples he gives are not habituation procedures, which requires to start slow without causing a fear reaction. Then increase the level of the stimulus as the horse habituates to a level much higher than it would have been without habituation. And it is for one given stimulus. If the stimulus changes, you need to apply another procedure.
    Habituation is a very effective way to teach, absolutely non-violent. Of course, it is not the only way to teach, nor is it the best way for everything you have to teach.


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