Ever get the feeling your horse can read your thoughts? Well, he might not be far off. A new study at the University of Sussex is showing that horses are at least capable of detecting the difference between certain facial expressions in humans.

 “We have known for a long time that horses are a socially sophisticated species, but this is the first time we have seen that they can distinguish between positive and negative human facial expressions,” said study co-author Amy Smith, BSc (Hons.), MSc, a doctoral student in the Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research Group at Sussex.

By “socially sophisticated,” the researchers mean that horses live in social groups with a complex communication system that includes the ability to recognize subtle expressions among themselves. Previous research has already shown that horses have a vast range of facial expressions, and that, combined with their body language, vocal expressions, and odors, makes them sensitive to each other’s communication. However, researchers had not yet shown that horses were also sensitive to the facial expressions of other species—specifically, humans—until now.

In their study, Smith and her fellow researchers studied the reactions of 28 riding school horses to photographs of two unfamiliar men, making either angry faces or happy faces. The angry faces caused the horses to look more with their left eye—which has been shown to be related to perceiving negative stimuli. They also had a faster increase in heart rate and showed more behaviors related to stress.

“The reaction to the angry facial expressions was particularly clear,” Smith said.

The horses reacted less to the happy faces, according to the researchers. This might be because as prey animals, the species has evolved to be particularly aware of danger. While they might have an innate ability to recognize negative emotions in humans, it’s also possible that they’ve developed the capacity to recognize the facial expressions associated with anger during their experience with humans. In any case, the researchers said, the important thing is that the horses are capable of distinguishing the emotional expressions in humans, and that they can cause them to react.

“What’s interesting is that accurate assessment of a negative emotion is possible across the species barrier despite the dramatic difference in facial morphology between horses and humans,” added co-author Karen McComb, BSc (Hons.), PhD.

“Emotional awareness is likely to be very important in highly social species like horses—and our ongoing research is examining the relationship between a range of emotional skills and social behavior,” she said.


That big Western saddle in your tack room might have a reputation for evening out the pressure over the horse’s back compared to the English saddles. But according to a new study by Swiss researchers, that’s just an old rider’s tale. Research by Katja Geser-von Peinen, DVM, of the Vetsuisse Faculty in Zurich, and her colleagues checked the distribution of forces in 10 horses ridden under their usual Western saddles. They found that forces in the first third of the saddle were twice as high as in the rear third. What’s more, depending on the gait, those forces could go up to three times the actual weight of the rider in that front third! Previous studies on well-fitting, standard-tree English saddles showed better overall pressure distribution, she said. “People often choose a western saddle to improve weight distribution and relieve pressure on the horse’s back, but they’re relying on subjective experiences and statements and not actual research,” Geser von-Peinen said.


As researchers hone in on what makes a dominant horse, one group has discovered a strong link with body condition. According to researchers at the University of Bristol and the WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition, the well-fed horse is more likely to be at the top of his herd in an outdoor, domestic setting. In fact, dominant horses are even at a greater risk of being obese. The scientists ranked dominance and evaluated body condition in 194 horses in 42 English herds. They found that as dominance rank increased, so did body score. And dominance rank was nearly 12 times higher in obese individuals compared to non-obese ones! Their results were not influenced by age or sex of the horses. “Special attention should be directed towards correctly managing the intake of more dominant animals within a domestic herd, to prevent obesity in these higher risk animals,” the research team stated. Giles, Sarah L. et al. “Dominance Rank Is Associated with Body Condition in Outdoor-Living Domestic Horses (Equus Caballus).” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 166 (2015): 71–79. PMC. Web. 9 July 2015.


The “ideal” horse might not be so “ideal” in terms of ability and welfare. According to Australian researchers, equestrians have an image of the ideal horse that sometimes conflicts with what’s best for the horse. Through an online survey with silhouettes of different horse shapes that focused on various body parts, more than 1200 riders and handlers selected their preferred equine images. The research team found that while these respondents chose neutral shapes for most body parts, they tended to like head and neck images that aren’t necessarily compatible with good equitation. Most of the respondents liked a thick neck, stated Paul McGreevy, Ph.D., of the University of Sydney. But a thick neck in horses is often related to obesity, which is inconsistent with good health and sports performance. The thick neck preference could be related to cultural bias created through artistic images of crested-neck war horses and royal horses throughout history, he said. It might even be related to humans’ ancient history of hunting horses and thereby preferring a meatier look….

Respondents also preferred a smaller, dished head, the study authors stated. But a smaller skull can be related to a brain shape that’s associated with excitability and reactivity, which can be dangerous for the rider and incompatible with certain sports disciplines.

The good news is that 93% of the respondents showed a preference for a natural head carriage rather than a hyperflexed position, they added. Current equine marketing often uses photos that show thick-necked, small-headed horses in hyperflexed position, but apparently the equestrian world is only influenced by the first two of these.


Caspar GL, Dhand NK, McGreevy PD. (2015) Human Preferences for Conformation. Attributes and Head-And-Neck Positions in Horses. PLoS ONE 10(6): e0131880. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0131880


Want to have a good relationship with your horse? Want to train him right? Want to stay safe on the ground and in the saddle? First things first: train yourself. Riders and handlers should all educate themselves in equine learning and apply that knowledge to their horse-human relationship. And ideally, that education should happen through specific training classes by equitation science professionals, according to the Italian equine learning research trio Paolo Baragli, Ph.D., Barbara Padalino, Ph.D., and Angelo Telatin, Ph.D. In their recent review on equine learning research, they looked at the different ways horses learn through training—mainly associative and non-associative learning. Associative learning is the process by which horses learn to associate a certain stimulus, or cue, with a specific action they can do to receive a reward, such as the removal of pressure or a bit of food. Non-associative learning is general habituation to certain things in their surroundings, like saddle pads and bits, or even plastic tarps and umbrellas. When horses get used to these things without fear reactions, they’ve had non-associative learning.

But poor knowledge of these learning processes can lead to disaster, they say. If we use too much pressure or have poor timing on pressure release, horses can have associative learning between a stimulus and pain or confusion—which can lead to unwanted behavior like kicking, bucking, rearing, biting, etc. As for non-associative learning, horses can become habituated to things we don’t want them to, like bit pressure.

To become better horsemen, we must learn more about the processes of how horses learn, according to these top equitation researchers. “This will lead to positive effects for all sports and activities in which the horse is employed (and) reduce the possibility of injuries for humans involved in the equestrian industry…,” they stated. Read their full, practical review (Ann Ist Super Sanita. 2015;51(1):40-51) online for free.

Cribbing Excuses and Stressful Whinnies

Cribbing ExcuseHere’s what Swiss researchers have to say about crib-biters: Let them eat wood! According to recent research, crib-biters not only have higher stress levels when they can’t crib, but they also have learning impairment. If you’re teaching your cribber a new trick, they might find it stressful or frustrating. So if they lean over to that wood fence to suck some wind, more power to them, says Sabrina Briefer-Freymond, Ph.D., of the Agroscope national research institute in Avenches. “Crib-biting horses appear more stressed than non-crib-biters during simple task learning, and crib-biting seems to help alleviate that added stress,” she says.

Stressful Whinnies Good feelings are contagious. Unfortunately, so are bad feelings. Among horses, those feelings can be spread through whinnies alone. According to Elodie Briefer, Ph.D., of Agroscope in Avenches, Switzerland, horses recognise the emotion in whinnies and will share that feeling. In her study of 18 horses, she played recordings of familiar and unfamiliar horses whinnying. Some of those whinnies came from stressed horses (recorded during a separation), and others came from happy horses (recorded when separated horses got back together). When the horses hear the stress in the familiar voice recordings, they acted stressed, with increased movement, heart rate, and whinnies themselves. “Negative whinnies can create negative emotions throughout an entire yard,” Briefer says.


Follow the Leader

Think you can pick out the leader of your herd? Think again. Odile Petit, Ph.D., of the University of Strasbourg has been studying several different kinds of groups of horses, and one thing seems clear: there is no set leader. “People have traditionally thought that one dominant horse decides when to set a herd in motion, but we now know that’s not the case,” she said. “Several individuals can initiate movement of the herd - with more or less success depending on the situation.” What determines the success? Quite simply, whether the others are up for following at that particular moment or not. But that success doesn’t have much to do with dominance, Petit tells us. Even a low-ranking horse can get the herd to move - provided it somehow chooses the right moment (everyone’s thirsty?) or has enough ‘friends’ to go along with them and get the troop in motion.

Mummy’s Boy / Girl

French researchers have confirmed that a foal’s strongest influence - including its relationship with humans - comes from its mother. According to Séverine Henry, PhD, of the University of Rennes, a dam’s influence is particularly important in the first month of life, when a foal spends 90% of its timeless than five yards from her. “Not having a good relationship with the mare is certainly an obstacle to a human developing a good relationship with her foal,” Henry said.

What’s her advice? Don’t interfere with the mare-foal bond by touching the foal in the early days. But do spend lots of time petting, hand-feeding, and gently talking to the dam. When the foal sees Mum happy and well treated with humans, they will be much more likely to establish a good relationship with humans, too.

Whip Debate

What’s in a whip? Pain, or encouragement? Authorities and scientists are about to beat each other with sticks over this issue. Australian equitation scientists have recently published a steaming review of the British Horseracing Authority’s (BHA) 2011 report, Responsible Regulation: A Review of the Use of the Whip in Horseracing. “On the one hand, they say (whipping is) pain-free; on the other, they say it works. But they don’t describe how it works,” says Paul McGreevy, BVSc, Ph.D., MRCVS, MACVS (Animal Welfare), Professor of Animal Behaviour and Animal Welfare Science at the University of Sydney. “And that doesn’t fit into any framework of learning theory that we can understand.”

Meanwhile, the BHA’s Robin Mounsey replies: “There is no veterinary evidence at all to suggest that horses' welfare is being compromised on account of weaknesses in our rules governing use of the whip.”

For McGreevy though, as riders are allowed to hit horses with whips at all, it’s intolerable cruelty. “Horse whipping is arguably the most public and visible form of violence to animals,” he says.


Whip Use in Horse Racing Debated | (n.d.). Retrieved from

Handedness and Posture

 Handedness and Riding

Handedness and Riding

Is it better to be left-handed or right-handed? According to recent research, the prize goes to the lefties. It turns out that rider handedness has a significant influence on riding position as well as performance, and that it can even affect accident rates. Katrina Merkies PhD of the University of Guelph (Canada) found that left-handed riders maintain better posture in movement compared to right-handed riders.

Meanwhile Uta König von Borstel PhD of Göttingen University (Germany) discovered that in her evaluation of nearly 700 riders, right-handed riders tended to have less success in competition and to compete at lower levels than left-handed riders. Righties were also twice as likely to injure their dominant hand. The gold medal, though, goes to neither lefties nor righties, but to the ambidextrous rider. Ambidextrous riders had, relatively speaking, the highest representation in high-level events and were more likely to place several times.

Still, don’t throw in the towel (or saddle pad) if you’re right-handed, the researcher say. Armed with this new knowledge, righties can be better aware of their mistakes and learn to correct them so that their equitation goals fall within their reach.

Would You Like a Rug?

 Equine rugging study

Equine rugging study

Oh, rugging. That ‘hot’ topic that gets owners practically threatening each other with their hoof picks. After all, who can really tell whether a horse wants one on or not? Well, we know who. The horse. And guess what? Now they can let us know. A group of study horses in Norway are the world’s first experimental group to communicate, through gestures, whether they’d like to have a rug on. And once they’ve made their choice, they get their wish. Cecilie M. Mejdell PhD, of the Norwegian Veterinary Institute, and her team taught the horses to recognise printed symbols on sheets of paper. The symbols indicated either “blanket on” or “blanket off.” The horses learned the significance of each symbol and indicated what they wanted.

How do the researchers know these weren’t just random choices? Two things. First, there were many more preferences for blankets on colder, wetter days. And second, the thinner, saddle horses in the study requested blankets far more often than the stout, draft horses.

“The horses’ preferences were often very clear,” Mejdell says. The researchers plan to reveal details of their training techniques in the coming months.

Ranking Risks

 WEG Fish

WEG Fish

High rankings could be bad news for eventers going into a cross country course. According to researchers at Myerscough College (UK), horse/rider combinations ranked fourth to tenth going into the cross country phase (following the dressage phase) have half the risk of experiencing a horse fall as those in the top three spots. “Riders in a more competitive position upon commencement of the cross country may have a tendency to take more risks or ride in a faster or more intense manner,” says study co-author Heather Cameron-Whytock BSc (Hons).

Pressure Release



Elastic isn’t fantastic, at least when it comes to reins, say researchers at Duchy College (UK). Elastic inserts make it more difficult to reward horses because it can take up to three seconds for pressure to be fully released as the elastic slowly regains its shape. Fixed reins, on the other hand, allow riders to release pressure in less than one second, an acceptable time frame for a horse to associate an action with a reward. “It is really important to understand how fast we are releasing pressure, since pressure release is fundamental to what we riders do,” says Haley Randle PhD.

Making Holes

 Equine Pawing Study

Equine Pawing Study

While we might fuss at our horses for pawing in the stable, new research from Cornell University (USA) indicates that pawing might not necessarily be just a bad habit. Their study of 41 Standardbred racehorses revealed that 58% of the horses were seen pawing during a regular work week. What’s more, these animals were showing much more pawing in the afternoons, a few hours after their workouts, than in the mornings. And on Sundays, when they weren't exercised, there wasn't any significant difference in the amount of pawing between mornings and afternoons. So what’s causing the pawing? Pain or discomfort, possibly, according to study authors Christina L. Butler Ph.D. and Katherine Albro Houpt Ph.D.

“Horses may be pawing to create holes in which they can place their back legs to redistribute their weight or compensate for unevenness of flooring,” they stated.

Principled Training

 Horse misunderstanding

Horse misunderstanding

The best horsemen follow eight fundamental principles based on learning theory, says the International Society for Equitation Science.

Learning theory is the term given to the processes by which animals and humans learn. There are a variety of different theories but the one that is best applied to training animals is behavioural theory, a conceptual framework that lays out how behaviours are acquired, or learned, through conditioning.

Conditioning falls into two categories, classical and operant. In classical conditioning the horse learns a simple association between two events (think Pavlov’s dogs or a horse getting excited by the sound of the feed room door opening) and the behaviour becomes a reflex response to a certain stimulus. In operant conditioning the horse chooses behaviours that are reinforced either positively or negatively. The horse learns to make associations with repeated words or actions through negative reinforcement, in which something undesired or uncomfortable is removed such as leg or bit pressure, or positive reinforcement where something good is anticipated such as a treat which can be used in methods such as clicker training.

The process of ‘shaping’ is used to build on these responses and refine them in order to make a horse respond to the subtlest cue.

Despite over a hundred years of the study of animal behaviour (ethology) and the psychology surrounding the science of learning, the equine industry still has a way to go in promoting best practice in horse training. Unlike the canine industry, where knowledge is generally passed down with success from professionals to the general population, there are countless horses who are suffering from confused training methods and many riders frustrated as a result of misunderstanding.

Although there are probably many examples of poor dog training, the rudiments of how learning theory is applied to dogs is familiar to most owners who will understand the thinking behind teaching a dog to sit or stay. It would be a much better world for the domesticated horse if the same situation were true in the equine industry. If every rider understood the principles of teaching a horse to respond to their cues without confusion, fear or conflict, both parties would be so much better off.

In 2007, a group of equine professionals came together with the goal of facilitating research into the training of horses to enhance welfare and improve the horse / rider relationship. The International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) was founded in 2007 and now unites a multi disciplinary membership of academics, students and interested practitioners worldwide. It promotes eight fundamental principles of learning theory in equitation, with the ambition that every rider and horse owner base their training interactions around them.

Training Principles of Learning Theory The following eight principles were originally defined in the peer reviewed paper by McGreevy and McLean in 2007 (The roles of learning theory and ethology in equitation,’ published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, Volume 2, 108-118). The application of the following eight principles is not restricted to any single method of horse training. There are many possible systems of optimal horse training that adhere to all of these principles.

1 Understand and use learning theory appropriately Learning theory explains positive and negative reinforcement and how they work in establishing habitual responses to light, clear signals. The terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ when applied to reinforcement are not value judgements (as in ‘good’ or ‘bad’) but arithmetical descriptions of whether the behaviour is reinforced by having something added or something taken away, such as pressure. For example, when the horse responds to a turn signal and the rein pressure is immediately released, negative reinforcement has been applied.

It is critical in the training context that the horse’s responses are correctly reinforced and that the animal is not subjected to continuous or relentless pressure. Prompt and correct reinforcement makes it more likely that the horse will respond in the same way in future. Learning theory explains how classical conditioning and habituation can be correctly used in horse training.

2 To avoid confusion, train signals that are easy to discriminate There are many responses required in horse training systems but only a limited number of areas on the horse’s body to which unique signals can be delivered. From the horse’s viewpoint overlapping signal sites can be very confusing, so it is essential that signals are applied consistently in areas that are as isolated and separate from one another as possible.

3 Train and shape responses one at a time It is a prerequisite for effective learning that responses are trained one at a time. To do this each response must be broken down into its smallest possible components and then put together in a process called ‘shaping.’

4 Train only one response per signal To avoid confusing the horse, it is essential that each signal elicits just one response. However, there is no problem with a particular response being elicited by more than one signal. Sometimes a response may be complex and consist of several trained elements. These should be shaped (or built up) progressively. For example, the ‘go forward’ response is expected to include an immediate reaction to a light signal, a consistent rhythm as the animal moves in a straight line and with a particular head carriage. Each of these components should be added progressively within the whole learned response to a ‘go forward’ signal.

5 For a habit to form effectively, a learned response must be an exact copy of the ones before For clarity, a complete sequence of responses must be offered by the horse within a consistent structure (e.g. transitions should be made within a defined number of footfalls). Habit formation applies to transitions in which the number of footfalls must be the same for each transition and this must be learned.

6 Train persistence of responses (self-carriage) It is a fundamental characteristic of ethical training systems that once each response is elicited, the animal should maintain the behaviour. The horse should not be subjected to continuing signals from leg or rein pressure.

7 Avoid and dissociate flight responses When animals experience fear, all characteristics of the environment at the time (including any humans present) may become associated with the fear. It is well known that fear responses do not fade as other responses do and that fearful animals tend not to trial new learned responses. It is essential to avoid causing fear during training.

8 Benchmark relaxation to ensure the absence of conflict Relaxation during training must be a top priority. When conflict behaviours are observed in the horse, the training method must be carefully examined and modified so that these behaviours are minimised and ultimately avoided. To recognise the importance of calmness in enabling effective learning and ethical training, any restraining equipment (such as nosebands) should be loose enough to allow conflict behaviours to be recognised and dealt with as they emerge.


1. Immediate release - soften the pressure of the signal the instant the horse responds appropriately. 2. Differentiation - signals must be clearly distinguishable from each other. 3. One step at a time (shaping) - train each response component of complex movements separately. 4. Repeat with consistency - the horse will automatically respond in the desired way if the behaviour is precisely targeted. 5. One response per signal - reinforce only one response for each separate signal. 6. Avoid fear - during all interactions, make sure that characteristics of the environment, including the humans, do not become associated with fear. 7. Train persistence - reward the horse for maintaining a behaviour by not applying pressure until the next signal is given. 8. Check for relaxation - strive for relaxation when training each response. Techniques and equipment must not be used to mask distress or undesirable behaviour.

Find out more about the International Society for Equitation Science visit