Too young to back? Why a two year old needs to be left to mature

Enthusiasm and a desire to develop a strong bond with your horse can nudge you to embark on the process of backing your youngster without fully understanding the potential risks involved. Backing obviously has to happen at some point in the development of a riding horse, and it requires careful consideration and expertise. Below I briefly cover the risks associated with backing younger horses so you as an owner can make your own informed decisions.

Physical Immaturity and Skeletal Development:

One of the primary concerns when backing a horse below the age of four is their physical immaturity. At this stage, their skeletal system is still developing and will not be fully equipped to handle the weight and strain of a rider; immature bones and tendons are weaker than those of an adult horse. It is essential to prioritise your horse’s long-term health over short-term training goals. As the linked article below says, “The decision to train and ride our horse should be based on the equine skeletal development timing rather than its size and external appearance.”

Joint and Ligament Vulnerability:

The joints and ligaments of a youngster are particularly susceptible to damage during riding. Painful conditions result from excessive physical demands on immature joints and ligaments, with risks of acquired orthopaedic diseases such as osteochondrosis, physitis, and flexural deformities (Kidd, 2017). These conditions can cause lifelong lameness and compromise the horse’s overall soundness. Waiting until a horse reaches skeletal maturity reduces these risks.

Mental and Emotional Readiness:

Backing a young horse or pony too early can also have significant psychological consequences. While some horses may exhibit physical maturity, their mental and emotional development may still be in progress. The stress and pressure of training can lead to anxiety, fear, and behavioural issues (McBride and Mills, 2012). Waran et al. (2007) emphasised the importance of gradually introducing training and ensuring the horse’s mental readiness to cope with the demands of riding. Patience and a sympathetic approach to your horse’s overall well-being should be your guiding principles.


Backing a two-year-old comes with inherent risks that militate against backing such a young horse. As horse owners we must prioritise the long-term welfare of our animals by waiting until they reach skeletal maturity before embarking on backing. By doing so, we can minimise the potential for musculoskeletal issues, developmental orthopaedic diseases, and psychological stress.

Ultimately, the foundation of a successful partnership between horse and rider lies in patience, behaviourally-aware training methods, and a comprehensive understanding of the horse’s physical and emotional development.

Investing time and effort in these areas will ensure a healthy, sound, and willing equine partner for years to come.


Higgins, G., & Martin, S. (2015). Posture and Performance. Kenilworth Press Limited, in Equine Skeletal Development

Kidd, J. (2017). Flexural deformities Part 2: Acquired. In Practice, 39(4), 182-186.

McBride, S. D., & Mills, D. S. (2012). Psychological factors affecting equine performance. BMC veterinary research, 8(1), 1-11.

Waran, N. (Ed.). (2007). The welfare of horses (Vol. 1). Springer Science & Business Media.

How do I become a registered equine behaviourist?

The pathway to becoming an equine behaviourist in the UK requires you to:

  • obtain a set standard of knowledge and understanding that relates to equine behavioural science and practice; and
  • be assessed in your practical application of behavioural and consulting skills by a recognised organisation. 

In the UK the primary equine behaviourist role at present is clinical equine behaviourist where you would be registered by the Animal Behaviour and Training Council (ABTC) as an ABTC-CAB (Clinical Animal Behaviourist), specialising in equines.

What is the Animal Behaviour and Training Council?

The Animal Behaviour and Training Council sets the standards of knowledge, understanding and practical skills needed to be a Clinical Animal Behaviourist and as an equine practitioner you would be assessed against relevant equine behaviour standards. 

ABTC member organisations include behaviour practitioner organisations and it represents the training and behaviour sector to the public and to UK governments. 

Find out more about the ABTC here:

What is the set standard of knowledge and understanding?

The knowledge and understanding required is at level 6 in the UK qualification levels.  The ABTC sets 23 Performance Criteria (PCs) and 36 Knowledge and Understanding standards (K&Us) that you are required to demonstrate to a satisfactory standard.

The PCs and K&Us are described here:

How can I obtain the required level of knowledge and understanding?

You can obtain the required level of knowledge and understanding by completing any of the courses listed here:

Advanced Diploma Applied Animal Behaviour level 6 [DL] – Compass Education Ltd click here for link

BSc (Hons) Animal Behaviour and Welfare (Clinical) – Harper Adams University click here for link

MSc or PGDip Clinical Animal Behaviour – University of Edinburgh (PgDip is the minimum requirement and this is a distance learning course) click here for link

MSc or PGDip Clinical Animal Behaviour  – University of Lincoln (PgDip is the minimum requirement) click here for link

Accreditation of Prior Experience and Learning (APEL)

Alternatively, if you have not completed or cannot complete one of the above courses, you can also demonstrate the required level of knowledge and understanding by providing evidence of prior experience and learning and applying for this to be accredited.  This is known as Accreditation of Prior Experience and Learning (APEL), the accreditation process is carried out by the ABTC and you can find more information here:

Who will assess my knowledge, understanding and practical skills?

The first stage of this assessment is either by successfully achieving a level 6 qualification from the list above, or by successfully completing the APEL procedure assessed by the ABTC.

After this, you will be assessed by the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC).  You will need to submit three case studies of behaviour consultations that you have carried out, and one of them must include videos of your initial consultation plus a follow up.  You also need to provide videos of you training a horse, pony, donkey or mule, and of you coaching an owner or a handler in how to train a horse, pony, donkey or mule. 

Find out more about the APBC assessment process here:

There is another assessment route via the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour Accreditation Committee (ASAB Acc).  This route is currently on hold but you can read more about it here, as it may be running again by the time you are ready for assessment:

What professional membership organisations can I join?

For clinical equine behaviourists, the only membership bodies for ABTC-CABs within the ABTC are the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC) and the Fellowship of Animal Behaviour Clinicians (FABC). 

You can join either or both of these organisations at a level that is relevant to where you are on your pathway to ABTC-CAB and they will support you on that pathway. 

Find out more about the APBC here:

Find out more about FABC here:

Find the register of ABTC-CABs here: Select “equines” in the Species dropdown box and “Clinical Animal Behaviourist” in the ABTC Role dropdown box.

How do the behaviour practitioner organisations and the ABTC interact?

You need to be a member of a practitioner organisation (APBC and/or FABC) that is a member of the ABTC to be able to join the ABTC register of Clinical Animal Behaviourists (Equine specialist).  

You do not join the ABTC as an individual member, instead you join one of its member organisations (APBC and/or FABC) and that is how you would become a registered ABTC-CAB once you have successfully met all the assessment criteria.

Find out more

Contact me to find out more about the pathway to becoming a registered clinical equine behaviourist, or to discuss any aspect of equine behaviour or practitioner supervision, at

You can book a 30 minute general call with me here to find out more about the pathway to becoming a registered clinical equine behaviourist, or to ask me about my supervision and mentoring service where I can support you as you progress through the stages of the process:

Or if you have anything specific that you would like to discuss, explore or learn, I offer a one hour “Borrow My Brain” session, where you can ask me about any aspect of equine behaviour or consulting:

The Good Life

Social licence to operate.  Everyone’s talking about it.  Public approval to do the horse sports.  What is the public approving exactly?  Being nice to horses?  Recognising their sentience? Acknowledging their animal rights? What are their rights? How do people understand “sentience”? What difference does it make if an animal is sentient or not?  Emotions – everyone’s talking about animals having emotions these days…. Or is it everyone? Where are the echo chambers or the silos? How are they divided up?

And that’s the public approval.  What do the public know about horses?  Is it any different for those within the horse-owning, “horse-using” communities? What are they approving and how do they know?

“The Good Life” – that’s a term we’re hearing in so many academic multispecies, interspecies conversations.  What does it mean for a horse to have “A Good Life”?  What about the human element?  What’s their Good Life as one half of a horse-human dyad?  How do we evaluate an intersubjective Good Life for the horse and rider, horse and trainer, partnership?

It’s ripe for some qualitative research isn’t it, semi-structured interviews, thematic analysis, explore how meaning is made of the lifeworld, the lived experience…. But hang on, how do you interview a horse? So, therefore, for all the good intentions of finding out how horses experience their more, or less, “Good Life”, how exactly can we do that?  Rely on observations relating to standards and measures set by animal welfare science?  Yes, quantitative, scientific research and models can take us a long way in establishing criteria against which the in groups and out groups of horse sports can evaluate domains of welfare assessment that include mental state…

But I want to divert from the quantitative methods and find a way to truly get inside the lived experience of both the horse and their rider as they negotiate their individual and combined meaning-making when participating in equestrian activities. So that’s exactly what I’m doing in my PhD, and I’m delighted that Yogi Sharp, the Equine Documentalist, has invited me to share my findings so far, in his Winter Webinars series. Please join me on Sunday 5th March at 5pm UK time, at the link below.

Don’t forget to check out the other webinars in this series, and The Equine Documentalist’s other well-researched and interesting educational material.

Please share with your interested groups🙂

What’s in it for the horse?

All those equestrian activities that are currently the subject of social licence conversations, how can we even begin to know our horse’s side of the story? Or that of the partnership between horse and rider?

As an equine behaviour and welfare consultant, I’m observing horses all the time, working out how they’re coping with what their human wants them to do, finding ways to give them better mental and emotional balance.

As a psychotherapist, I’m exploring the rich lifeworlds of individuals as they navigate their ways around their existential, emotional and experiential scripts.

As an academic in my PhD research, I’m looking for ways to combine these perspectives so that I can contribute to interspecies definitions and understandings of what A Good Life is for the partnership of horse and human.

I’m delighted that Yogi Sharp, the Equine Documentalist, has invited me to share my findings so far, half way in to my PhD, in his Winter Webinars series. Please join me on Sunday 5th March at 5pm UK time where I will share my findings and reflections on these important and fascinating themes.

Don’t forget to check out the other webinars in this series, and The Equine Documentalist’s other well-researched and interesting educational material.

Please share with your interested groups🙂

Click on the link below to book your place.

Brand New Equine Training Instructor Diploma Course Has Started!

The NAC Equine Training Instructor Diploma course is OPEN!! (now do the Strictly “votes are open” dance) and we’ve had two brilliant introduction Zoom calls today (two, to take account of all the different time zones). Look away now if you don’t want to see an education provider gush about their own course.

Our students are many and varied and so keen and engaged, they will be a dream to work with on this course. They are from so many different equine, equestrian and training backgrounds that they are already a multi-disciplinary resource for each other. Some relatively new to training horses, others already well established in their chosen profession. That’s how accessible this distance learning course is.

The course is amazing:
Evolution, domestication, ethology, emotions – why do you need to know all that if you’re training a horse? Because that’s what you’re doing, training a HORSE. You need to know who and what the being in front of you is, their telos (yeah, look that one up👍), how they function, how they cope with challenges and solve problems, how they feel.

Is an individual horse even ready for training – ever thought of that?

Their relationship with their trainer – does that matter, or can anyone just get on and demand collection, or start waving a target stick and a load of treats around?

The learning theories, oh my days if you ever thought that training a horse only involves fiddling around with making them feel uncomfortable so they do what you wanted them to do, or rewarding with food, or timing the removal of an aversive stimulus, think again and again and again. This is where “you don’t know what you don’t know” really comes into its own. And “what could possibly go wrong?” A Lot, and if you’re planning to train a sentient being you need to know how to avoid that.

The human side – so now you can train a horse, but how do you pass on that knowledge to others? We’ve all had that trainer who wins everything but just can’t get it across in their lessons. You’re taught about coaching, communication, lesson planning, duty of care, running a business, all the legals…..

Where did I start? Oh, with how the domestic horse emerged. So, comprehensive or what?

There has never been an equine training course as well-researched, considerately put together or as inclusive as this. And having been an adult in the equestrian community for over 40 years I’ve seen most of them. Wherever you come from you are welcome and you will learn new knowledge that will help you to help your horses, other owners and their horses, and other trainers, whether that’s for your own interest, to expand your professional knowledge or to start a completely new career, at any age at all. If you’re a BHS coach, you will understand the horses you’ve been working with for years in ways you never knew. If you’re an eventer, a dressage rider, a show jumper, you will gain more clarity and insight into what has and hasn’t worked for you over all these years, that had never before crossed your mind. If you’re into endurance or happy hacking you’ll learn how to help your horse to understand what you’re asking of them and how to ride anywhere, safely and effectively. If you have horses you don’t ride and you want to know that they are safe, responsive and happy, you will learn all those things, how to recognise when things are going great for them, or when that’s not happening and how you can make it better.

And these are no empty claims. We’ve been assessed by the governing body that regulates animal training and behaviour courses in the UK and this course, the only course specifically for equine trainers, is recognised as providing the correct knowledge and understanding to train horses humanely and competently and to communicate effectively with owners and handlers. That same knowledge and understanding will meet the performance criteria required by any of the practitioner organisations who assess and register animal training instructors. We will be sending a whole new tranche of properly qualified and assessed equine training instructors out into the horse world for the very first time.

And here’s to many more🥂

Human-animal relationships in south-east Turkey, a behaviourist’s personal perspective

There has been a more widespread move towards keeping dogs as pets over the last ten years in some areas, interesting sociologically and behaviourally. Two signs of (relatively) greater affluence in a locality are more estate agents and the emergence of pet shops.

The introduction of trap-neuter-return (TNR) policies, animal welfare legislation and municipally-funded animal shelters have all had an effect too. When I first started coming to Dalyan 25 years ago there were more free roaming dogs and nearly all were hunting dog types because that was the only type of dog that was kept for a purpose; the unwanted or ineffective ones were turned out to fend for themselves. A common sight in those days was a man in shooting gear, gun slung around shoulder, on a scooter with a hound sat on the back or in the footwell. Strays were allowed to survive by begging at restaurant tables during the tourist season and then taken to the forest and shot or poisoned at the end of the season. Lack of neutering meant always a continuing supply of street dogs for the next season. As public perception changed this practice reduced, and now there is (in theory and mostly in practice) the option to take dogs off the street and into council-run shelters. Although the letter of the TNR policy is to return neutered animals to where they were found, that’s not always welcomed by the human community. On the other hand, there are groups of welfare-minded individuals who organise care of the community dogs by regular feeding, parasite control and other health care, and a live and let live approach is observable.

During this 25 years the ex-pat population is Dalyan has also grown, and it’s been interesting to witness the stage where there were still lots of dogs on the street (there are still some but fewer than before) and some of them were “rescued” (a whole other essay in itself) and taken to live in a house. You would then see them being taken for a walk on a lead, among the same group of street dogs that was once their “family”. Much unwanted (by the human) interaction ensued between the now pet dog and their former gang, to the distress of the new “owner”, and the street dogs would end up having things thrown at them and hit with sticks that the humans carried specifically for that purpose, to keep the other dogs away.

A specific example of how the human community cares for its dogs is the case of Rosie, a tough as old boots Dalyan community dog, you couldn’t touch her but if she liked you she’d approach you hopefully and your job then was to go and buy some food from the nearest shop and feed her. She had a medical condition that meant she carried her head at a jaunty angle. She had a boyfriend who took good care of her, sadly he was taken off the streets into a home, and Rosie was alone. She got through that loss, not without grief, and then some particular humans looked out for her, setting her up with a warm, sheltered area and providing daily food. She was a tough loner, she wouldn’t be tamed, she was as much a symbol of Dalyan as much as the tombs, the turtles or Iztuzu beach. She was found lying still in her warm bed one morning, she had died as she lived, free, independent and unbounded.

It’s also been interesting to watch breed preferences change over so many years. The hunting dog types changed to northern breeds for a period of time in the 2000s, then to golden retrievers which are still a common sight as a community dog. Across the years there has always been a ubiquitous short legged, long backed phenotype that has run alongside the breed or type differences.

There are fewer free roaming dogs now but there will always be some, they are part of Turkey’s identity; you will see water bowls everywhere outside businesses, and public information notices remind people about animal welfare laws (see photos).

In terms of behaviour, the most behaviourally aware vet I have ever dealt with has been here in Dalyan; when I first heard him discuss behaviour I thought he could give easily give an undergrad lecture on the subject. Behavioural awareness existed before it got packaged up as an applied academic subject, indeed all that the positivist science does is to test constructs or actions that already existed, and categorise them according to an accepted academic perspective. For as long as domestic animals have been used by humans, and therefore “trained” in some way, there has been behavioural awareness. The welfare effect of the application of that awareness may be positive or negative, but an animal’s behaviour can’t be systematically changed without the human element knowing that their actions will result in the animal doing, or not doing, something they want the animal to do. Understanding the theory behind it, as we do, may help or hinder according to circumstance.

I saw another example recently, which I’ve never seen in the UK, when I was riding with a group of Turkish people the other day. The lead horse spooked at something and would not move forward. You know the real conflicted dithering, back legs splaying, really fearful display? We know what we would have seen in 95% of these occasions in the UK – several repeated attempts of more leg before, possibly, someone deciding that another horse in front might help. Heaven forbid that the rider should dismount and actually reassuringly lead the horse! But that’s exactly what this rider did, she immediately jumped off, and not only that, took a carrot out of her pocket which had been brought along for this very purpose. This time, the horse was so scared that the carrot didn’t cut it, but a lead by another horse did, and then the carrot, given immediately upon walking past the scary thing (we’re still not sure what it was!), served to add an affectively positive element to the experience.

So I’d say definitely come to Turkey to develop a comparative understanding of animal behaviour and their agency; you’d need to come over an extended period of time, or repeatedly, to get a good ethnographic understanding. My experiences have certainly had a huge effect on how I understand dogs especially but also many aspects of horse behaviour by comparison (my Jordan work had a strong effect on this too). It’s given me a clearer insight into just how difficult pet dogs find it to live life as a pet dog, I’ve included this understanding in how I work with owners and one thread that runs through my feedback is that I’ve helped them to understand and empathise with their dog’s or their horse’s situation and the human-directed life they are expected to cope with, always to the benefit of the animal’s welfare, and consequential improvement in behaviour too.

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Born Feral?

Our new paper discusses how the term “feral” is constructed and understood. Link to open access article below.


This paper examines the use of the term “feral” as a form of control over other animals. The concept of this “power word” is explored within the context of what it means for those who find themselves labelled as such. As a prefix, “feral” is used by various interest groups to justify the treatment of subpopulations of species, particularly with regards to wildlife conservation. The “feral” label differentiates animals that are perceived as being out of place or out of control from those who are kept as companions or commodities. “Feral” is most often used to describe an unwelcome presence or noise, and can be contrasted to alternative words, such as “wild” or “free-living” that control how these presences are perceived by humans.

The right Behaviourist for the job

Already this morning I’ve taken six enquiries for help with dog behaviour, really desperate people, wits’ end, it’s all gone wrong for them with their beloved family member, they’re distressed, their lives are in turmoil. What will they do if they can’t live with their dog??

All of them have seen at least one “behaviourist”, most of them two or more, and the problem has just got worse. They don’t know they’ve not actually seen a behaviourist, they’ve seen someone who holds themselves out for sale as a behaviourist but in fact is nothing of the sort, doesn’t know what they don’t know, gives bits of advice that makes the dog worse. We’re talking serious cases of aggression and resource guarding; a few treats/squirty water/citronella spray/noisy discs/rattle can, a crate and a headcollar ain’t gonna fix those problems sunshine.

Most of them have already paid these unregistered, unqualified people more than they would have paid me to help them in a single behaviour programme, and my average fee is £847 so they’ve spent a lot of money to no good effect and now their behaviour budget is running low, just when they’ve found someone who actually can help them.

It’s the same with horses too; not so much other so-called behaviourists but usually a coach/trainer/instructor, a vet, a yard owner, an experienced friend has been asked to help before I get the desperation stakes call and again, when it’s a serious, complex problem with safety of horses and people at stake, more leg, a whip in each hand, sedation, waving plastic bags around on the end of schooling whips, changing the turnout routine, chasing them round a round pen, shaking a rope, clicker training, “controlling its flippin’ feet” (anyone want to add to this list?) Will Not Cut It.

Just get an ABTC Registered Clinical Animal Behaviourist, people. ABTC Accredited? Not the same. (In fact, there isn’t even a standard for this published on the ABTC website, I’ve just noticed). ABTC Animal Trainer? Not the same. ABTC Animal Behaviour Instructor? Not the same. ABTC Animal Behaviour Technician? Not the same. Yes they are all great at what they do and yes, there are too many confusing categories, but for serious behaviour (not training) problems just go to the Clinical section, all the bells and whistles you need and it’s like getting the vet out, but for your animal’s mind. We are the animal equivalent of a clinical psychologist, unfortunately without (yet) the protected title, hence the issue I started this post with. We work as part of a vet-led team in the same way that your GP would refer you to a clinical psychologist or other professionally registered practitioner.

Is my animal doing something I don’t want them to do and I want them to stop? Behaviour person.

Do I want my animal to do something they don’t already know how to do? Trainer person.

I am less ranty in this video which says the same thing.

What is a differential diagnosis in equine behaviour cases?

In clinical behaviour the practitioner carries out a differential diagnosis to look at the possible explanations for the unwanted behaviour. When clinicians ask owners a long list of questions, they are narrowing down the list of possible explanations. These help them to identify the differential diagnoses, confirm the diagnosis and develop a relevant and effective treatment plan.

Step 1 of a differential diagnosis is to rule out general medical conditions that can cause behavioural signs. Clinical behaviourists are not experts in assessing horses for medical conditions and cannot legally or by their code of professional conduct operate outwith their area of competence; this is why they work in liaison with the referring vet, who can establish any medical disease or dysfunction before the behaviourist assesses for behavioural disorders.

During the course of a behaviour consultation the vet-led team, of which the behaviourist is a part, determines if a medical condition is causing unwanted behaviour or if problematic behaviour is contributing to a medical condition, in order to establish the right treatment plan for the individual patient.  In this context, a clear understanding of the relationship between pain and behaviour is essential among vets and paraprofessionals including behaviourists and physiotherapists.

Contact me at if you have any questions about behaviour consultations, what’s involved, how it works, how to book, how to get vet referral, the scientific evidence base, anything at all, I’m happy to give you more information.

What’s Changed Your Life?

My first equine behaviour course was the Equine Behaviour Qualification at the Natural Animal Centre (NAC), run by the amazing Heather and Ross Simpson, ahead of their time by about 20 years or more; I’m still seeing “new” ideas about behaviour and training now, that they taught on their courses in 2004 and earlier. That was the start of my career as an equine behaviourist, running it alongside my bumbling civil servant day job.

Then I realised that if I ever wanted to achieve my life’s dream of being a Clinical Animal Behaviourist, I’d have to go right back to the drawing board to get a degree in a subject that would let me be a provisional member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC). I chose Psychology. What did I find on that degree? That every module except cognitive covered material I’d already learned at the NAC. Including attachment theory, learning theory, neurobiology, theories of emotion, attention and memory. Quite amazing.

Then on to a Masters in Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare, where I specialised in equine behaviour which would not have been possible if I hadn’t already had the knowledge, understanding and skills I’d developed at the NAC. This course covered counselling and communication skills, yes, you’ve guessed it, already started at the NAC and continuing because by this time I’d started my training as a psychotherapist.

After all the knowledge bit, time to apply it as a provisional member of the APBC to work towards submitting my case studies to achieve full membership and the coveted professional title of Clinical Animal Behaviourist. On the way I successfully achieved Certified Horse Behaviour Consultant with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. My APBC case studies passed their rigorous assessment and I’d arrived at where I wanted to be, the culmination of a decision made back in the very early 1990s, when I first heard about the profession of Clinical Animal Behaviourist.

All this achieved because of what I learned on my most influential animal behaviour course with the NAC.

But the NAC influence didn’t stop there! I’ve now embarked on a PhD in horse-human relationships, looking at the concept of “The Good Life” and sustainability in sport and leisure horse riding.

I’ve always said the NAC changed my life and it’s true. It changed my horse’s life too; I learned to train him in a different, more easeful way and changed his management regime in ways that fit his “horseness” and gave him a better life.

Are you an NAC graduate? What memories do you have of working or studying there?

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