All posts by jenni

Meet Swift

Last week I welcomed Blue Cross Swift to my little herd. She’ll be a temporary visitor as another step on her way to a happier and more secure future.

It all began a couple of weeks ago, the result of online collaboration helped along by social media. One of my colleagues, Lisa Ashton of EquiCoach works with Blue Cross, providing staff with training and coaching in applying modern, evidence based horse training methods. She’d been helping the team train Swift to be more positive towards people and to cooperate with handling using reward based techniques via clicker training. Lisa shared Swift’s story with her Facebook group, Coffee with Horse Lovers. The story was that Swift really needed a home where her new people would avoid pressure to coerce Swift and would use positive reinforcement to encourage her cooperation.

The story was given even more power by another colleague, also my long term friend and mutual support in the world of horses, Helen Spence at Helen Spence Horse Sense. Helen joined Swift’s story in November when she was hosted by Blue Cross for workshops exploring her ‘Golden Triangle’ of horse behaviour, exploring the interaction between emotions, behaviour and training, adding another layer to the work of the Blue Cross team and further underlying the importance of protecting and promoting Swift’s emotional life. Swift definitely needed a home with low human expectation, and space to grow. So the social media machine redoubled its efforts, I stepped in and Horse and Hound wrote all about it!

So last week Swift arrived, so ably handled by her lovely, dedicated groom, Ann who showed me how she had trained Swift so I can offer familiar signals to her even though the rest of me is clearly unfamiliar. We turned her out in one half of the field so she could see the others and them, her. Then later on I turned Penny in with her so she could begin to make a bond and feel safe.

Let the next chapter begin!

No More Heroes Any More

In the header photo I’m about 23 years old and I’m practicing a well known natural horsemanship method with my mare Penny who was about 4 or 5 years old at the time.

When I was in my early twenties I was very keen to learn more and improve my horsemanship, OK nothing much has changed in my basic motivation to learn! But back at that time, my eyes newly opened to more than one way of doing things, something which started in my late teens upon seeing my first major natural horsemanship demonstration, and primed by various articles in the equestrian press,  I had a few horsemanship heroes. By the time of my mid-twenties those gurus halos quickly tarnished and fell at awkward angles. There was a reason for this. I found my gurus and they became heroes because I was hungry to strike out on my own and learn and develop as much as I could. Seeking new ideas led me to find a variety of people with silver tongues ( or their marketing people had silvery tongues too!).  I was wowed by those who brought something new and dynamic to my world. However, since it was my desire to strike out and learn new things, I continued to learn even more things, and I learned things about my heroes’ actions that I didn’t like. Suddenly there were no heroes anymore.

This was not a dark place for me though, to be without heroes. Being still open to and actively seeking greater and deeper understanding of my subject, the horse and his relationship with us, I found something new and constructive to replace them. Peers. I went on to study animal behaviour and the human-animal relationship at the University of Southampton, and I joined a well established professional membership organisation, the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, first as a student member, then as a newly practicing provisional member. People I held in high esteem, such Gwen Bailey, the first animal behaviourist to be employed by a UK animal welfare charity, the Blue Cross, which I also worked for as a groom at the time of the photo above, were people who I could interact with and learn from. Rather than make untouchable, unreachable heroes out of them, their candid discussions on the online members’ forum quickly had me realising they were people like me, without the showman’s ego and focused on learning and helping, and self development. I found the same amongst my fellow students in Southampton, and in many other wonderful people involved in the science and application of equine (and other animal) behaviour since.

So what about my fallen heroes? Were they also not human and with some worth? Yes, in hindsight especially, since they are of course human beings too, and I have learned many useful lessons from them, and gained skills and understandings that I would not have otherwise. I now integrate those lessons with my deeper understanding of horses and people, to better effect than I ever had previously. I can combine and recombine techniques to suit an expanding variety of horses and their people, teaching people how to read and interact with their horses better, like some kind of equine interpreter come equestrian coach, with the benefits of the LIMA approach: Least Invasive, Minimally Aversive; in combination with knowing where to be, when to be and why to be better than I ever knew and understood before.

Winners and Losers

“Sing when you’re winning.”

“I get knocked down, but I get up again, ain’t nobody gonna keep me down.”

“The winner takes it all, the loser standing small”

“How come I feel like I win when I lose?”

Strictly speaking, the “winner and loser” effect is applied by the scientists who study natural behaviour to the effects of winning and losing in a fight to the tendency to engage in future fights. In nature these would usually be over resources that are scarce. Winners grow in confidence and losers shrink and step away from further threats.

I also think there’s a broader generalisation we can apply to some aspects of the horse-human interaction. Do you see horses that are confident and act like winners with their people, and others that look kind of hang dog, like they are losers? Meekly compliant in response to the smallest of threats and directions.

Recall the recent Italian research on heart coupling between a human and a horse. In this study, when the horse had choice his heart rate variability (variances in time between each heart beat) was similar to the human he was interacting with, but not when the human forced the interaction by doing something as seemingly benign as tying the horse up and grooming him!

So where does this tie in with my generalisations about the winner and loser effect? How does a horse get to feel like a winner with us? When he gets choice in what he does, when he finds that his behaviour works (or in other words, his behaviour finds relief from anything aversive that might be happening, or it finds some pleasant and rewarding outcome). In essence, the human reada the horse well, times cues carefulky, and makes it possible for the horse to be effective.

When does he feel like a loser? When he has no choice and when his preferred behaviour doesn’t work and he has to suppress his own motivations to comply with (often frequent) instructions (which are thinly veiled threats) from his human. The human makes more demands, is less likely to be aware and responsive to the horse’s emotional state, and doesn’t always enable the horse to be effective.

This reminds me of the concept of freedom and control is something that fascinates researcher and rider, Lynda Birke. That we are often drawn to horses because of their representation of freedom, but to share that experience of freedom, we are usually driven to control them. We may be want a horse who looks like a winner, but may turn them into a loser, deliberately or accidentally. Continue reading Winners and Losers

Life Lessons

Riding on the beach below, my powerful little sports horse held between my draw rein and my spur fixed over my Nike Air trainers and topped off with my fashionable chaps. It was the mid-Nineties and I was called out by a dog walker on my appallingly bad horsemanship, and I deserved it. I was an anxious and frustrated teen at times, and I felt rubbish and humiliated by the experience. Looking back at the same location roughly 20 years on and things are rosier. Just as I was a keen horse geek in the ’90s, I’m still one now, what motivates me most is to learn more about horses, and how to do best by them. When I know better I do better.

More about the draw rein incident. I didn’t actually own draw reins, or ride with them often. I did see other people do it, and I thought their horses looked good. I tried it myself, looping up my lunge line and fashioning it into a draw rein. I had my horse in front of my leg and his core engaged and his head in an appealing (to me) position. But the dog walker saw a different picture. He could see the torment written on my horse’s face that I couldn’t from my position in the saddle. Him being middle aged and middle class suburban Dalgety Bay type (Dalgety Bay being my suburban predominantly middle class home town) and I some obnoxious horse molesting teen, he had no trouble at all telling me off. I grunted teenage stuff and carried on until he left, then stopped riding like a ****.

I started to look at what were more acceptable ways of riding and interacting with horses. Which is not to say there haven’t been more blunders, me human, you horse and all that. But I’ve had some pretty good practice at humility as I’ve bettered myself for horses. And it’s ok to cock up as long as we learn better.


Loading… Because we want to

The point of training a horse to load is so that they want to. At least that’s my point of view. This means it’s not just training. It’s creating a succession of experiences that allows the horse to adjust to and enjoy loading in their own time and head. You can lead the horse onto the box and just go. And a calm and confident personality may well get used to it and never have any objection. If they are cool and logical enough to discover there is fun at the end of the journey then so much the better. But not every horse is a happy customer, they might be naturally timid and such experiences would make them sensitive to travelling and even phobic. Others may have a traumatic experience and experience fear every time they are presented with the box. 

In these instances, systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning can be your friends, especially when you allow the horse to dictate the pace of their new learning and make it possible for them to explore. The first is to simply make it a lot easier to be near the box – just graze or eat a meal near it without making the horse feel afraid, or so if they are spooked they can return to eating. Over time the meal is enjoyed over progressive steps onto the rampand into the lorry. The counter conditioning part is the meal itself, the horse chews and enjoys emotions incompatible with fear, so the two events of desensitisation and counter conditioning run together, slowly. 

The images and film here demonstrate what that might look like.

Please note the vehicle is secured on blocks!

Right Turn Clyde!

This one is very closely related to a question that came into my inbox, so if you are reading this you know who you are 🙂

Ordinarily most riding horses learn to turn left or right through pressure and release (or negative reinforcement). Early on in breaking in the rider opens the rein in the desired direction, causing pressure to increase on the bridle. When the young horse makes the correct turn the pressure is released and the young horse learns to repeat the behaviour, and form a habit of turning in response to lighter aids that indicate the pressure will increase if they don’t turn. But, if the young horse, or even the older one, is in anyway emotionally aroused, unbalanced (due to their own lack of gymnastic ability, and/or their rider’s poor posture) or anticipating pain (present or past), then the usual order of events may fail to come about. The key to pressure and release or negative reinforcement is that the behaviour coinciding with the release is that which is reinforced and repeated! In a horse more motivated to regain balance, escape a greater fear, reach a greater reward, or escape from pain than to relieve some bridle pressure, then they may well run through the increased rein contact and get reinforced for a behaviour other than making the turn. That can very quickly become the habit, in response  to strong negative emotions triggered by the increased bridle pressure. The horse will also become alert to other warning signals in the environment that predict that strong bridle pressures will occur, and so can become wound up in advance, primed and ready to perform escape and avoidance behaviour.

The keys to rectifying such issues are to eliminate pain through veterinary examination and necessary treatment. It is often advantageous to use physiotherapy ( to help further reduce pain, to re-educate balance and movement, and have a positive impact in the musculoskeletal system. Making sure you have a good seat and balance will also help as in our frustration to get a response we can unbalance the horse and help maintain the problem.

It will of course, also help this to change the horse’s behavioural and emotional responses to the bridle and your aids; emotional state and arousal always impacts posture, and not always in desirable, healthy ways. One place to begin is with the horse in a calm state, and to practice using the aids in a way that enables the horse to respond softly and easily until this way of responding is more habitual. The next step might be to add an increase in challenge, something that causes more excitement to the horse such as a faster gait, a change of location, or inclusion on a jump. The idea is to introduce the challenge while the horse is calm and responsive, practise the new way of  responding in the presence of the challenge such as one turn over the jump and go back to schooling to maintain or regain calm before jumping again. This way the horse begins to learn that the jump (or other challenge to their emotional state) comes when they are calmer, and that they are returned to this quieter way of going before being challenged again. This helps to prevent the horse from over arousal and going over the threshold that drives them to more extreme escape and avoidance behaviour.

Using this approach helps with emotional management, but still uses pressure and release as the primary motivation for compliance with the rider’s aids. This can mean that there’s not a lot in it for the horse, and can leave them still feeling negative emotions, even if they are calmer ones. The addition of positive reinforcement (a reward such as scratching and/or titbit) can improve their motivation to perform and change their way of going to something that is more optimistic and less defensive. For steering and contact related issues, rewarding the horse when they are relaxed and in the channel of your aids is one approach, target training your horse and having an assistant call them to their target for a reward (even over a jump) can seriously increase their motivation to pay attention and respond to your signals provided they are called to the target as they (attempt) to respond to you. The net result of this is a new and optimistic association with the ridden situation, and experience of positive emotions helping to improve the performance and the horse and rider experience.



Weaving, and related behaviours of head nodding/tossing, box walking and fence pacing are all about frustration, frustration because there is an obstacle blocking the path to the horse’s goal. That goal might be to get more room to exercise, many horses let rip with a kick and a buck after being cooped up. But it’s even more fun with friends. Many stables don’t allow for physical contact between neighbours, and almost as many only allow a limited view of others such as only when the horse pops their head over the door. Research demonstrates that such living conditions are indeed a source of chronic stress…/article/pii/S0031938415001146. Other research shows that horses choose to stay active and be out for longer when turned out in company. Since incidence and duration of weaving behaviour can be reduced by careful use of stable mirrors and/or windows to neighbouring stables and other surroundings ( ), the social aspect of this frustration related behaviour is highly significant to the horse – hardly surprising since they are social animals 😉 Mutually compatible group housing had the best effect on reducing stress in Yarnell’s research in the first link above.

Positive Loading

The perennial problem, the horse that won’t load, not for love nor money, or even a well-aimed lunge line.

Where there are problems there are solutions! Can you turn your horse’s loading problem into a successful learning experience that lasts both of you a lifetime?

With behaviour comes attitude. According to cognitive behaviour science, behaviour is part of attitude, along with thoughts and feelings. So if your horse’s behaviour states that he does not want to go in that box, chances are that he feels he does not want to go in that box, and that he thinks he does not want to go in that box. Whoa, that box must be bad!

So it must follow that to change his behaviour, his whole attitude has to change. He hates and/or fears the box. He needs to move from unwillingness and sensitivity, to feeling more upbeat about the whole thing. He needs to view the box with a smile! He can do that if he can find out that the box holds nothing but good outcomes for him. At a pace where he can also move on from his fears.

So, he’s not going to believe that in one hit. He hasn’t so far, and if things carry on as they are, chances are he’ll never make that change. Right now he is downright pessimistic about that box.

An intelligent approach could be to reduce his pessimism by not following through with all the things he dreads in relation to the box. Just let him discover that he can be near the box through his own free will. This won’t be giving up as through his own free will he’ll be able to be a calmer horse. Then he’ll be receptive to learning new, positive ideas and be able to come to a place where he can be an optimist. No one I know can readily find an optimistic thought when in the fits of despair, but most can from a less gloomy place.

But do horses really get moments of pessimism and optimism? There’s not a lot of concrete proof within the covers of the academic journals that’s for sure, but it’s growing: Psychological factors affecting equine performance. But horses can learn about good and bad outcomes, they can be negatively affected by pressures and they can look forward to pleasurable experiences when they know they will happen. These pressures and different quality outcomes all affect and change horse behaviour (and attitude!) in ways that anyone can influence once they know how.

Learning skills that can help you influence your horse’s behaviour is possible if that’s what you want to do. You can not only affect what your horse does, but how he does it – his whole attitude in fact! And you may find that you will be, as Billy Connolly puts it, “better for it”.

New skills might include learning how to find the ‘beginning’ for your particular horse. Not all horses start their retraining on the same page.

Another new skill might be reading the finest points of your horse’s attitude, such as when he changes from pessimist to optimist and vice versa.

And of course there is learning the knack of timing ‘reinforcement’ – outcomes of your horse’s behaviour that motivate him to do that same behaviour again and again. And there is knowing what kind of reinforcement to use and why. You might already know about pressure and release, or you may not, but what other forms of reinforcement do you know about?

Learning to retrain a problem loader or any problem behaviour really can be quite an adventure, with new, personal discoveries around each corner. And since it is your journey, you have it in you to have a well traveled one.

Way Beyond Method

It was over a decade ago, I was spending some time with my friends, Anne and Paul over at Cefn Mably Lusitano. My favourite hoof bloke, Peter Laidley was visiting, leading a hoof care clinic. We were all taking a closer look at how hooves function, so we can care for this vital part of equine anatomy more effectively. Not a set method or school of barehoof trimming, just how my horse’s feet work, and what is needed for them to be the best they can be – so was born what Peter called the “Jenni and Penny trim”. Other owners and their horses had something else, what they needed, not what me and Penny needed.

So it is the same with horsemanship. There are lots of methods and schools of horsemanship, but good horsemanship is good horsemanship, and here’s why. Horses have the same basic biology (including psychology) in common, but they are all individuals. Good horsemanship recognises the individual, that individuals respond differently to the same stimuli, because each has slightly different biology, and each has their own life experience. This means some horses are more reactive, or more optimistic, or more fearful, or simply recover more quickly.

This doesn’t mean that the claims that one method works on all horses aren’t entirely untrue. For example proponents of equitation science, who consciously apply learning theory according to the International Society of Equitation Science’s principles, find that careful application of their most usual methods work. The horses learn the correct responses to simple stimuli, and learn to do so reliably. The operative word here is ‘careful’, the trainer must be aware of the horse’s emotional state, and how aroused they are, in order to choose what to do and how in order to have optimal effect. Quite simply being aware of how the horse is feeling, how alert they are and how reactive they are likely to be, while sensibly applying learning theory (whether the trainer is aware of these common, natural laws of learning or not), then the basis for good horsemanship is there.

That basis requires one to reach a certain level of competence that may be more easily reached for those who lack intuitive feel, and even for those who do, by learning more about horse behaviour – from sound, evidence-based sources. This is what I’m talking about with ‘way beyond method’. Learning the method without learning the reasons for how the method works (or doesn’t), or why and when to apply them (or not), only paints half the picture and increases the potential for failure, threat to animal welfare, and increased risk to the safety of all. Way beyond method is about knowing what individual horses are cognitively, emotionally and physically capable of – what actually constitutes natural behaviour, how the horse actually learns (that’s not just by rote), how the horse’s feelings affect what he learns, and crucially, how our actions influence all of the above. To be ready to be a good horseman means being open to new learning always. The biggest take-home message I have ever received about horses is that one should always be learning about them. I’ve sworn by it, and lived by it ever since I got that gift aged probably about 9 years old!

Going back to that tranquil afternoon of learning hoof, good horsemanship is about being able to create the ‘Jenni and Penny method’ (or ‘insert other names here method’). In fact it’s co-creation – we need to be open to our horse’s input too! There’s no ‘one true path’ but as we’re often reminded, ‘many roads to Rome’ so in the words of my friend, Rachel Beddingfield, “seek wide and deep” when you seek new learning to fill in that jigsaw and help better your horsemanship. I may also be able to help you in that. Soon I will be running training workshops at an exciting new project, Equate, where young people with additional educational needs will be able to gain skills for the world of work, and horse folk will be able to come to sessions dedicated to sharing horse behaviour and learning knowledge and building attendees skills.


I’ve been prompted to think a bit more about these. I don’t usually, because they are always there, right on the noses and other whiskered parts of my horses. I see them everyday so I don’t really, if you get my drift?

Whiskers are important sensory tools for horses, helping them feel their way as they bring their noses and mouth parts into close contact with edible and non-edible parts of their environment. Feeling what can be pushed vigorously aside or what can be pulled into the mouth by those tough, prehensile, finger-like lips of theirs. Also feeling for what ought to be avoided, brambles in the long grass perhaps?

So whiskers are really useful; an integral part to happy, functional horse lives. I like to think of them as being just like our finger tips. We use them in much the same way, to guide our grasping fingers towards or away from items as required. They stop us burning our hands, remind us to clean our touch screen devices, even enable to help us pick blackberries without squashing them or pricking ourselves. Blackberries?! Oh yes! My horses are keen on those too, and their leaves and soft shoots. Their whiskers help them in just the same way as our finger tips do in that seasonally delicious activity!

Whiskers video
Emily MacDonald has been thinking more about whiskers if you are curious.