By Dr. Jamie Rothenburger

The World Organization for Animal Health defines animal welfare as
“how an animal is coping with the conditions in which it lives. An animal is in good welfare if it is healthy, comfortable, well nourished, safe, and able to express innate behaviour, and if it is not suffering from unpleasant states such as pain, fear and distress.” Brideling_2

This definition provides for the basic husbandry that horse owners strive to achieve. Some horse training techniques used today result in pain, fear and distress in horses, which negatively impacts welfare. 

We have all seen the frustrated competitor punish their horse after a failed pattern long after the mistake was made. Most horse people I know want the alternative, a positive relationship with their horse, no matter if they are recreational riders or Olympic competitors. An enthusiastic horse that is easy to catch and willingly performs the desired behaviours in a graceful, free manner is the aspiration. 


There is very interesting research into horse behaviour and learning that supports the notion that horses are sentient beings, capable of thought, learning, and long-term memory. These developments call into question some traditional punishment-based training and instead foster interest in humane training techniques.

Just how intelligent are horses? According to one type of learning measurement, where animals learn to discriminate between cues (for example, the verbal cue red means touch the stop sign while yellow means touch the yield sign), horses were found to be just as capable as elephants, an animal species often cited as one of the most intelligent.   

There is evidence to suggest that horses kept in groups that provide social contact have improved learning ability. This benefit is most likely related to decreased overall stress and enhanced welfare, although learning can also occur from observation.   

The type of training method chosen has a long-term impact on how horses interact with people. The study that worked out this connection trained two groups of ponies to back up using either food rewards (positive reinforcement) or the wave of a whip (negative reinforcement). Changes in heart rate were measured. While all ponies learned to back up, the negative reinforcement group pinned their ears, tossed or turned their heads. Ponies trained with positive reinforcement had lower heart rates and no stress head movements. 

The ponies were individually turned loose in the arena with a stationary person and their interaction evaluated. The positive reinforcement ponies were significantly faster to approach the person and spent more time close by. Interestingly, this was repeated five months after the initial training sessions and the same trend was found. The use of aversive training methods in ponies affects their attitudes towards people in both the short and long-term. 

aRetrieve1Done properly, using food rewards in training has tremendous benefits. Clicker training pairs a distinct sound with a subsequent food reward, which allows for precise signaling to the horse that whatever they were doing at the time of the click was correct. Clicker training has been used in horses to teach a range of behaviours from basic good manners to complex dressage movements.    

Fundamental to all animal training is that several short training sessions are more effective than a single long session of total equal time. Another one is the Law of Primacy, which tells us that the behaviour first learned is learned the best. When embarking on any training activity with your horse, especially if you are trying positive reinforcement techniques (such as clicker training with food rewards), consciously choose the behaviour you train first as this has the great potential to become your horse’s default behaviour. Touching a target or backing, are both safe default behaviours in an eager 1000 lb learner. No matter the technique you choose, whenever you are with your horses, they are always learning and you are always training.      

When done incorrectly, punishment negatively impacts the welfare of horses. Not only can people fail to punish within a few seconds of behaviour, they also tend toaRetrieve2 escalate. Horses may respond to punishment with fear, avoidance and sometimes defense, which only compounds the problem. Fearful emotions created by punishment universally impair learning and can result in compromised safety. For example, in response to his horse whinnying at a stable mate, the handler takes 10 seconds to jerk on the lead rope and slap him on the shoulder. The horse has no idea what provoked the pain and only establishes its distrust of the person.

Animals, including horses are sentient beings. It is up to you to decide if this matters to you and how this affects your training. In an animal that can feel a single fly on its skin and precisely shake it off, are harsh aids really necessary or even humane? The individual welfare of a horse not only requires the provision of basic needs (food, water, and shelter), but also humane training techniques.

Search d1fairy on to view some great video clips on clicker training
Neat tricks and practical positive reinforcement training with rescue ponies at:
Alexandra Kirkland’s website: has a wealth of resources for clicker training.
For general animal training using positive reinforcement in multiple species, see:
Karen Pryor, the original clicker trainer:
Dr. Sophia Yen, Veterinary Behaviorist:

Dr. Jamie Rothenburger is a veterinarian, clicker trainer, horse owner, and Resident in Veterinary Pathology at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Saskatchewan. 


Upcoming Events

 Upcoming Events
Spruce Meadows 'National'

June 6-10, 2018





Industry Directory


Please Click Here to view our Industry Directory with links to equine sport groups, breed groups, facilities, calendars and publications in Alberta.


Contact Us
Office Address:

97 East Lake Ramp NE
Airdrie, AB
T4A 0C3
Phone: 403-420-5949
Fax: 403-948-2069