|Felicity George BSc MPhil SEBC PTC
Equine Behaviour Consultant
phone : 07884 030533
email : email@example.com
Understanding how horses learn
This is a huge subject, about which whole books have been written. A thorough
understanding of how horses learn enables us to be flexible, efficient and
effective in training them. This is not only satisfying for us, it is also good for the
horses welfare, as incorrect training can cause confusion and stress. An
understanding of how horses learn also enables us to identify patterns in the
development and performance of a behaviour problem that tell us whether it is a
learned behaviour or not. Being able to isolate what triggers a behaviour and
what is rewarding about the behaviour is the key to solving learned behaviour
problems. Often both triggers and rewards may be subtle.
For example, the case of a horse who would stop whenever possible when ridden to rub his
face against his leg. His owner had his bridle and his teeth checked and there seemed to be
no problem, but she was still concerned that he was in pain or irritated by his tack (or her
riding!). Observation and history of how the problem developed revealed that he was not
uncomfortable, but had simply learned that rubbing his head on his leg was a good way to
get a rest, and a sneaky mouthful of grass too while he was there!
Understanding equine social behaviour (natural and domestic)
Establishing a clear social structure, or hierarchy, is vital to horses for their
survival. This hierarchy determines who gets the best access to food, water, the
best spot to shelter in and so on, without them needing to waste energy and risk
injury by fighting it out all the time. Therefore they will not feel safe and relaxed
until it is settled. This is just one aspect of the relationships horses form with
each other. An understanding of these relationships and the ways in which
horses interact to form and maintain them, and also how this can translate to
their interactions and relationships with people is essential in solving behaviour
problems. Social behaviour and problems with your relationship with your horse
are root causes of many problems.
Applying and teaching safe, effective, positive and practical retraining
Whatever the problem, a good understanding of equine behaviour and learning
theory, together with a correct analysis of the problem, gives us great flexibility
in the solution we choose.
The solutions must be:
- safe to implement for you and your horse
- In no way contrary to the welfare of your horse
- effective and efficient
- appropriate for you and your horse, fitting in with your time, usual training
methods, facilities and so on
This is, if you like, the foundation of all solutions which will be proposed. The
actual methods that are employed could be anything that is compatible with this
Understanding the causes and good management of Stereotypic behaviour
(traditionally known as 'stable vices')
There is a huge amount of confusion and mis-information in this area, both
about the causes and the 'cures' of stereotypies such as wind-sucking, crib-
biting, weaving and box-walking. Felicity can advise on practical ways to reduce
the performance of these behaviours, as well as providing information about why
they occur and dispelling some common myths.
How to 'fix' a Behaviour problem :
There are many approaches to solving behavioural problems.
A common approach is simply trial and error - most riders will have seen or done
this at some time. When faced with a problem, we try a solution which has
worked with a different horse in the past, or that we have maybe read in a book
or magazine. However, even with common problems such as napping or
bucking, there are many possible underlying causes of the problem, which need
very different approaches; if two horses are bucking for different reasons, the
same 'cure' is unlikely to fix both. If the cause is fear or pain, for example, we
obviously need to treat it entirely differently from a case where it is a confident
learned behaviour. When we simply use trial and error, it can be frustrating if it
doesn't work, and hard to know whether to persist if the behaviour does not
improve rapidly, or even gets worse.
The approach that Felicity takes has the following benefits :
The diagnostic approach determines the root cause(s) of the problem,
understanding the behaviour as fully as possible before trying to change it, so
that appropriate solutions can be applied. This approach is very effective in
distinguishing between causes such as confident learned behaviour and
genuine fear or pain, which is essential for effective and humane treatment of
For example, a very 'bossy' mare who would barge, kick, nip and generally walk all Holistic
over her handlers would not load in a trailer. This problem had been treated for some
time as confident misbehaviour, but in fact she was genuinely frightened of going into
the trailer - this could easily overlooked because of her otherwise confident
behaviour, and needed to be addressed in order to solve the problem.
Her approach considers all the factors - although the problem behaviour may in
some cases have one simple root cause, sometimes there are several
influencing factors, some of which may not be immediately apparent and all of
which must be considered and treated to solve the problem.
Continuing the example above, the dominant behaviour of this mare had to be Tailored to suit each individual horse and owner
addressed as well as her fear of loading into a trailer.
Often there are a range of solutions to a problem, and factors such as your
time, availability of helpers, facilities, what you feel confident and comfortable
about doing with your horse, your usual routine and how you normally work with
your horse are all taken into account when proposing solutions.
Prioritising safety and welfare
She will prioritise your safety and the safety and welfare of your horse. Solutions
that could put you or your horse at risk during training, or be detrimental to your
horses welfare will not be advised. You will not be asked to do anything that you
don't feel safe, happy and confident about doing, and while the aim is to enable
you to work independently, as much support will be given as is required.
Solutions are all based on a sound and scientific understanding of equine
behaviour, but a wide range of practical techniques can be used providing that
they are compatible with the underlying principles. Understanding the underlying
principles of how horses learn and how they interact with each other and with us
gives great flexibility in the actual solutions applied, and there is no strict
adherence to one 'system' to achieve results. For example, once we know that a
reward is what causes a horse to learn, we can be very flexible about the nature
of the reward - it could be a small treat, or a rest from hard work, or a good
scratch on the withers for example - all will be effective provided that they are
genuinely rewarding to the horse.
A detailed report will be provided after every assessment, ensuring that you
have a good understanding of why your horse behaves as it does, and why the
proposed solution will work. Having your horse's behaviour fully explained, and
being shown how to fix it, rather than someone else coming in and fixing the
problem will give you more confidence with your horse, improve your
partnership, give you more knowledge to use to fix other problems in the future,
and help you avoid recurrence of the original problem.
Her professional approach means that client confidentiality is ensured, and that
she will not work outwith her area of expertise. For example, if root causes such
as pain or tack-related issues are suspected, advice about other professionals
who can best address these issues will be given (most commonly referral to a
vet, physiotherapist or qualified saddle fitter).
Finally, she has a kind, constructive, flexible and non-confrontational approach
(to people and horses alike!) that is entirely focused on helping each individual
horse and owner in whatever way is best for them.
Felicity does not use any special tools or 'gadgets', or propose any fixed training
system. Her ability to diagnose and solve behavioural problems is based on
knowledge and skills in the following areas :
Understanding Equine body language
This is vital as a diagnostic tool, for example to determine whether a horse is
tense (possibly frightened or in pain), or relaxed and confident when he is
'misbehaving'. Sometimes tension is obvious, but sometimes signs are
momentary and quite hard to spot. Interpreting movements such as head
tossing can be complex, as slightly different head movements express very
different states in the horse. Explaining to owners how they can see first signs of
tension, or predict their horses next actions from his body language can be of
great value in solving behavioural problems. For example, in the pictures below,
to the left, the horse is relaxed. In the picture to the right, he is showing slight
signs of tension (the lip is straighter than it was previously, the chin and nostrils
are slightly tighter). In this case, a farrier was lifting this horse's rather arthritic
hind leg. If tension can be seen and acted on this early, rather than waiting until
the horse feels the need for evasive or defensive actions, it is safer for both
horse and handler, kinder to the horse, and a much more effective point to start
retraining if the issue is fear or anxiety.