Can you spot a stressed horse?

Last December I and my colleagues published a paper describing one of our research studies, in the peer-reviewed journal Animals.  As the Equine Behaviour and Training Association (EBTA) we investigated how horse owners, riders and trainers recognise signs of equine stress.

We found that equestrians often fail to recognise the behavioural signs that horses display when they experience pain and fear. Consequently, the distress remains unresolved, reducing the horse’s welfare and having potential safety implications for the handler.

Negative affect is characterised by feelings of psychological distress, such as nervousness, anxiety and fear.

We asked a number of equine behaviour experts to assess videos showing various types of horse riding and training and to comment on the affective states of the horses in the videos. Then we asked members of the horse-owning or horse-riding public to view the videos and answer a set of questions.

Our respondents successfully recognised behaviour consistent with negative affect in some instances; however videos featuring natural horsemanship and bridle-less riding were often wrongly interpreted to be positive experiences for the horses.

Despite recognising behaviours indicative of distress in some videos, a minority of respondents nevertheless said they would have been happy for their own horse to be treated in a similar way to the distressed horse, even when they themselves felt that that the horse in the video was undergoing a negative, stressful experience.

Participant age and experience had little effect on the results; however responses by people who had selected “clicker training” as their preferred equestrian activity were more closely aligned with those of the equine behaviourist experts, suggesting that clicker trainers might be more accurate in their recognition of equine distress than other members of the equestrian community.

Our hope is that this study will be useful in informing outreach activity for education and welfare organisations, through improved recognition, and subsequent reduction, of equine distress.

You can read an article about the study in the online magazine Horses and People, in the link below.  It includes a link to the full article in the Animals journal.
Horses and People article

The Equine Behaviour and Training Association is UK based and operates internationally.  It aims to:
Improve the knowledge and understanding of the physical and psychological well-being of equines
Promote awareness of human behaviour and its impact on equine behaviour
Bridge the gap between academic research and practical application
Protect equine welfare whilst maintaining safety and achieving goals

EBTA members include clinical equine behaviourists, behaviour analysts, horse owners and academics who have made a commitment to understanding equine behaviour and working with horses according to the principles of behavioural science and equine welfare science. We acknowledge our responsibility to the horse as a domestic species taken out of their natural environment and required to cope with a variety of ridden and management demands.

EBTA provides support to anyone wanting to learn more about equine behaviour, we conduct research projects in areas where we feel there is insufficient overlap between academia and the “typical horse-owner” and we liaise with media organisations in order to help improve communication about equine behaviour.

The EBTA website is free to use and includes a large database of information about equine behaviour, from introductory to professional level. New material is added regularly and you can receive updates via our newsletter or Facebook page.


Announcing two new horse training courses from Dr Helen Spence

Is this you?

🐴You want to train your horse in a kind, effective way.

🐴You have tried using “traditional” methods, natural horsemanship and/or clicker training but you and your horse have ended up confused and frustrated, sometimes just downright cross with each other!

🐴You have tried working with trainers who teach your chosen method and things seemed to go ok for a while but then.. back to the cross place!

Infuriating isn’t it!

So now here’s something that will work for you. Psychology PhD, registered behaviourist and super experienced horse trainer Helen Spence has put her training online!

Helen trains happy hackers, competition riders, BHS students, university undergraduates and postgraduates, and veterinary students in horse training and behaviour.

She has a thorough background in both the science and the application of training horses, and knows how to teach you to apply that knowledge and skills to your own horse, and to you yourself, as individuals.

Helen’s courses are amazing value, get them now by clicking on the link below.

Helen Spence Horse Training Courses

Are you a veterinary, behaviour or training practitioner looking for mentoring or supervision?


I offer mentoring for undergraduates, postgraduates, trainee behaviourists and those starting out as animal behaviourists.

I am fully qualified, insured and registered at the highest level with the Animal Behaviour and Training Council as a Clinical Animal Behaviourist, with 15 years experience as a behavioural practitioner running my own successful consultancy business.

I enjoy mentoring anybody who is new to behaviour practice and who seeks to develop their professional expertise, including provisional APBC members and anyone looking to become a Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourist (CCAB)behaviourists.  I take pride in having mentored a number of new behaviourists who are now achieving success in their own practices.

I can mentor you one to one within two hours’ travelling of Manchester, UK, and online via Skype, Zoom or phone.

If you are looking for a mentoring placement with an experienced and fully qualified clinical behaviourist, please email me to discuss your requirements at

Clinical Supervision

I offer clinical supervision and consultancy to organisations and professionals working in the fields of veterinary medicine, animal behaviour consultancy, and animal training.

I am fully qualified, insured and registered at the highest level with the Animal Behaviour and Training Council as a Clinical Animal Behaviourist and I practice as a psychotherapist under membership of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.  I have provided clinical supervision and consultancy in a wide variety of animal practitioner environments, including trauma specialists, animal behaviour organisations, established clinical behaviourists and professional horse and dog trainers.

I can supervise you one to one, or as a small group, within two hours’ travelling of Manchester, UK, and online via Skype, Zoom or phone.

If you are looking for clinical supervision or consultancy, please email me to discuss your requirements at

New book: The Horse: A natural history

the horse book2

I’m proud, delighted and very pleased with my new recently published book, co-authored with Catrin Rutland, Associate Professor of Anatomy and Developmental Genetics at Nottingham Trent University.

An evolutionary, anatomical, behavioural and anthrozoological overview aimed at equine professionals, enthusiastic amateurs and undergraduates, it’s an easily-readable and accessible book that has been academically peer reviewed by Princeton University. Published by QuartoKnows/Ivy Press, “Ivy Press specialises in producing books that take innovative approaches to the subjects that you want to read about. The books are written by experts in their fields and designed to the very highest standards. Ivy Press produces titles that will inspire you…. books that will inform you, books that will expand your mind, and books that will stimulate you, however much you already know. Its bestselling non-fiction list includes titles on natural history, general reference, popular science….”.

“The Horse: A Natural History looks not only at the horse in the human context, but also at its own story, and at the way horses live and have lived both alongside people and independently. An initial chapter on Evolution & Development takes the reader from the tiny prehistoric Eohippus to modern-day Equus. Subsequent chapters on Anatomy & Biology and Society & Behavior offer a succinct explanation of equine anatomy, and outline the current thinking on horse behavior, incorporating information taken from the most recent research. Chapter 4, Horses & People, studies the part the horse has played in human history. Finally, a visually stunning gallery of breeds offers wonderful photographs alongside individual breed profiles. This is an essential addition to every horse enthusiast’s library.”

Amazon link here:

Training – is it a choice?

Horse – health care treatment video

Some of you will know I’m not a fan of some of the purportedly “animal has choice” videos that are out there in the worlds of horse and dog training and management. I see many where the animal is being asked to do something frivolous, not beneficial to its wellbeing, and is clearly at/over threshold, aroused and/or finding the situation unpleasant, but stays around for the treats because they are so salient as species-specific biologically relevant stimuli.

Recently I watched a video (not the one linked here) where a horse being clipped stood like a little tin soldier whilst being “clicked and treated” (rewarded with food after the click of the marker signal); however an examination of the subtle signs of sympathetic arousal were indicators that the horse was in a negative emotional state, just as if he had been cross-tied to be clipped.

It’s ethically questionable to use a sufficiently salient positive stimulus operantly to coerce an animal into putting up with an aversive experience. The article linked below discusses this further with reference to humans. However, it is culturally normative for us to restrict other species both spatially and in terms of the opportunities we allow for the expression of behaviours on their natural ethogram. It comes to pass, therefore, that we need to engage in caregiving activities to maintain good physical and psychological health.

This video, link above, by horse trainer Melanie Watson is an example of good health care practice within a management and training paradigm that focuses on positive reinforcement and positive affect. The horse, Magic, is physically unrestrained and as Melanie observes, is sometimes at threshold because he does not find the washing a pleasant experience. His biological systems combine to express this externally by lifting his hind leg or swishing his tail. These are the early stage expressions of negative emotional state that have the potential to escalate into walking away (if free to do so) or fidgeting/biting/kicking (if physically restrained).

Something that Melanie has done, however, which wasn’t present in the other video I saw, is to have previously classically conditioned in her horse a positive emotional response to standing on the mat. This will have been achieved by many many repetitions in many different environmental contexts. This is what keeps Magic in place despite not loving the treatment he is receiving. The combination of the strong positive classical conditioning to the mat (think child + teddy at the dentist), plus the conditioned stimulus of the clicker and food rewards, and the psychological effects of selective attention, are sufficient for Magic to allow Melanie to continue washing him, yet he is still free to express any behavioural signs that he has reached a threshold where Melanie knows she may have to change what she’s doing, or give him a break. Their long interspecies relationship over time is part of this effect too.

I have also seen this method used by a colleague to trim the feet of an unhandleable pony, again using a previously classically conditioned “comfort” stimulus to elicit positive emotions.

Caregiver responses to equine emotions

horse-head-2775082_1920 (1)

This study (link below) reflects an important stage in human behaviour change. Participants reported beliefs that horses have complex emotions including fear, pain and joy; however they also reported that they act towards their horses in ways that will cause psychologically negative emotions, despite stating that they wanted their horses to have a good life and avoid negative feelings. For example some of them knew that keeping a horse in social isolation or causing fear would lead to negative emotions, but they accepted this as part of domestic equine life.
“Some management practices that may cause negative emotions to horses are so common in the equestrian environment that people do not perceive them as causes of affective, emotional, or welfare problems for horses.”
What this says is that captive, managed horses are being kept in ways that represent poor emotional and physical welfare as a matter of course. To have this recognised from a scientifically evidential perspective adds weight to the transition towards a new paradigm in equine management. On the Transtheoretical model of behaviour change (five stages of change) this is an early stage, inviting and initiating contemplation which may lead to greater recognition of, and motivation to provide, the constituents of equine wellbeing.

Bestial Boredom

“Generalist (species) traits do correlate positively with boredom-relevant traits including neophilia and innovation at the species level… Further suggestive evidence comes from captivity, where it seems to be particularly neophilic, generalist species… that proactively seek – even aversive – stimulation in barren environments.”

I came across this very interesting article while researching neophilia in horses. Full article pdf available on Researchgate.

UK dangerous dogs legislation fails to protect the public while harming animal welfare

My APBC clinical animal behaviourist colleague and erstwhile university lecturer David Ryan gave oral evidence in June to the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, as part of their inquiry into Dangerous Dogs: Breed Specific legislation. The report is published today and calls for a full-scale review of current dog control legislation and policy to better protect the public, recognising also the effect on dog welfare.
The report recommended better education about responsible dog ownership and staying safe around dogs, and crucially it highlighted the need to ensure that better education is not undermined by bad practices in private industry. The committee said the Government should investigate the impact of poor dog training practices, and it should consider *stricter regulations to ensure all trainers are properly accredited according to a standardised framework.*
The Committee recommended removal of the ban on transferring banned breeds to new owners. This ban was declared misguided, resulting as it did in the unnecessary destruction of good-tempered dogs that could have been safely re-homed.
The Committee also proposed an independent review into the factors behind dog aggression and attacks, and whether banned breeds pose an inherently greater threat. The robustness of the Government’s evidence base on Breed Specific Legislation was challenged, citing evidence that some legal breeds can pose just as great a risk to public safety as illegal breeds.
Any new dog control model should include early intervention and consistently robust sanctions, including mandatory dog awareness courses for owners involved in low to mid-level offences.
You can read the full report on David’s website:

Equine Behaviour in Mind

Applying behavioural science to the way we keep, work and care for horses. I’m very proud to have co-authored this book with a group of esteemed colleagues.

Intended for people who work with horses and for owners who want to learn more, Equine Behaviour in Mind provides ideas for practical ways that changes can be incorporated into daily interactions with horses. This book advocates a mindful approach to working with horses, encouraging the reader to think in a horse-centric way. Academic behavioural research is used to underpin understanding of horse behaviour and changes that can be made to positively improve horses’ lives. The aim is to provide both the theory behind behaviour-minded horse management and the practical application to enable impactful changes to be made. Real world examples and case studies are provided to highlight these points. Horse behaviour is discussed in a range of contexts, including breeding, training and competing. A behaviourally minded approach to teaching riding, to medical and dental check-ups, to rehabilitation and rescue, and to driving change for horse welfare in both developed and developing countries is also covered. Equine Behaviour in Mind will enable readers to think critically in an objective way about how they manage and work with their horses.